Looking for things to do and places to go in Knoxville? Enjoy our Neighborhood Guide series where we share a part of town and cover food and drinks, nature and outdoors, arts and culture, attractions, and more.  

Look Up When You're Down(town) - Gay Street

A stroll down Knoxville’s historic downtown thoroughfare will not only raise your eyebrows, but also your expectations of what a walkable downtown can be. Many of the buildings here were built in the late 19th century and stand the test of time as attractive evidence of a vibrant destination.

Starting on the “100 Block” of Gay Street, visitors can’t miss the Emporium Center (1898) that anchors the corner at Jackson Avenue. Known as a First Friday hotspot, it houses artists’ studios, several arts and cultural organizations, and rotates art within five galleries monthly. The adjacent UT Downtown Gallery and Arrowmont Gallery similarly feature various exhibitions. Take art home from Jacks of Knoxville and Paris Woodhull Illustrations (pay attention to all the cute icons throughout this guide – those are her handiwork!), then sip an umbrella-clad cocktail in a tiki oasis at Tern Club or dine at Harvest: Land, Sea, & Vine before working back down Gay Street. You’ll probably be delightfully distracted by the independent Addison’s Bookstore, specializing in old and rare books for your reading pleasure.

Cross Summit Avenue and you’ll come to the Visit Knoxville Visitors Center – the best place for friendly advice, locally-made gifts, maps and brochures of our favorite city. Down Gay Street you’ll see the Century Building (1886) where The Humble Hog takes care of the BBQ seekers and Chivo Taqueria serves up tacos and tequila. Look closely at the side of this building and the one across the parking lot – where Mast General Store invites you step into yesteryear – and you’ll see evidence of the “Million Dollar Fire” that took place over a hundred years ago in 1897.

Your appetite for food, fun, and fascinating framework better be ready for this section of Gay Street! Nostalgic confectionery at Kilwins is wedged in between Mast and its neighbor Babalu, popular for tapas and cocktails in the historic J.C. Penney Building (1898, yep, constructed after that fire). Look down below the surface for a boutique “spirited bowling experience” underground at Maple Hall (and its Maple Room above). A bounce across the street brings a unique combo of ramen and arcade games with Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern, and within hides Harrogate’s Lounge, a funky arcade bar where you can challenge new friends to see who will reign as pinball wizard. Catch the game next door at Sky Box Sports Bar (Go Vols), hang out with some hookah at Mirage, or channel the Big Easy with a frozen daquiri at Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday shares the ground level of the beautiful Kress Building (1925) with Frothy Monkey, an all-day café with a spacious patio.

Back on the other side of Gay Street, you’ll find yourself transported to the turn of the century (that’s 1900, not 2000, thank you) when you order a sundae or malt at The Phoenix Pharmacy & Fountain or a doughnut at adjacent Status Dough. The Art Market Gallery, a cooperative representing over 60 artists, resides next door in the Cable Piano Building (1905). Go inside for the architectural details like stained glass, a metal mailbox, and grand staircase. The Woodruff’s Building (1904) now houses the Downtown Grill & Brewery complete with original flooring and original beer!  In 2024, the Hope Building (1897) will house Knoxville’s newest boutique property, Hotel Cleo, and Lilou, a new restaurant offering fine French cuisine.

Do a bit of shopping across the street in the Millers Building (1905-1935) at Bliss and Tori Mason Shoes before treating yourself to soft serve ice cream swirled by red and white gingham-garbed “dairy girls” at Cruze Farm. This is the part where you look up…you’ll see it when you get here…there go the eyebrows!

Cross Union Avenue and you’ll find yourself at the Embassy Suites (formerly the William F. Conley Building, 1974). Don’t just look up, but head up – 14 stories to the Radius Rooftop Lounge for a nearly 360° view of Knoxville and the Smokies. Inside, you’ll find K Brew, Ham ‘N Goodys, KoPita Authentic Mediterranean, Top Golf, and Wake Foot Sanctuary.

Across Krutch Park from the hotel, you’ll find the stunning Holston Building (1913) for a world of pan-Latin plates at Vida. Once inside, look down the marble staircase to find The Vault, a swanky cocktail lounge below ground in the former Holston Bank (1913). Across Clinch Ave., the East Tennessee History Center is a must-do to learn about the places and people that shaped this region – it was originally Tennessee’s first multipurpose federal building, serving as the U.S. Custom House and Post Office (1874).

Back on the other side of Gay Street, you’ll find a hot spot for sushi at Nama, the Regal Riviera, and The Spice & Tea Exchange. Look down and you’ll find Knox Box Karaoke – if you hit DiCarlo’s Pizza you’ve gone too far. Look down the alley for a beautiful mural, then look up at the Hyatt Place, formerly the historic Hotel Farragut (1917). Fun fact alert: the SEC was founded at this hotel (1932), and James Brown had a radio station (WJBE) broadcast from here in the 1970s! Head 10 stories up to have a cocktail atop their rooftop bar in the Five Thirty Lounge.

Keep going to admire the Celtic designed door at Clancy’s Tavern & Whiskey House, sitting in the shadow of the grand entertainment palace that is the Tennessee Theatre (1928) – no need to look up, you won’t miss the iconic theatre blade! You’ll pass Dazzo’s Pizzeria and Hello Tea House on your way to what is believed to be the oldest commercially active property in Knoxville – the Bijou Theatre. Built as The Lamar House in 1801, this historic gem has been everything from a hotel to a Civil War hospital to an adult movie house and more. Ponder it all over dinner at Bistro at the Bijou, and look up above the bar…you’ll see it when you get here…there go the eyebrows again!

We could spend all day gushing over Gay Street, but you might have to look up some of its fascinating history on your own. Come for a visit to experience the history, fun, and entertainment for yourself!


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