Locals call Knoxville “a big small town.” The city is the cultural hub of East Tennessee—and makes an excellent destination for a family trip, whether your crew is an active bunch who loves to explore the outdoors, is into history-rich trips, or simply needs a relaxing getaway. Getting around town is a cinch, locals are friendly and eager to show off their city, and you’ll find a wide array of choices for whatever suits your family’s fancy. Here’s how to plan an unforgettable trip with your family to Knoxville.
Be Ready to Eat
Food is a highlight of any itinerary to Knoxville, which has established itself as a burgeoning destination for creative, chef-inspired dining. Southern classics are a staple wherever you go, of course, but the food scene spans a wide array of cuisines, from vegetarian fare to fine dining to farm-to-table hotspots.
For breakfast, try the award-winning OliBea in the Old City for unique takes on brekkie favorites (try the signature Tennessee Benedict), or Pete’s Coffee Shop, a classic diner that’s been around since 1986. Options for lunch and dinner abound across the city: In neighborhoods including Market Square, Gay Street, and the Old City, you can choose from downhome authentic BBQ to global fare like Yassin’s Falafel House. Recently named as “America’s Nicest Place” by Reader’s Digest, Yassin’s was founded by a Syrian refugee who has created a friendly and welcoming space—and you can’t beat the gyros, shawarma, and other Mediterranean favorites.
After filling up, you’re ready to hit the town for a day of exploration. Knoxville is extremely walkable, with all major districts close to the city’s center. Little ones will love riding the free trolley, which runs on three routes around the city. If your crew is a bike-loving bunch, take advantage of the in-town Pace Bike rentals, the city’s bike share program that offers a convenient way to get around on two wheels.
Enjoy Outdoor Adventure
Knoxville is known for its famed Urban Wilderness, one of the country’s most unique urban green spaces with seemingly endless options for outdoor exploration. The space includes a nature center (more on that below), five city parks, and a 500-acre wildlife preserve. It’s also one of the region’s top mountain biking destinations, and you can explore more than 50 miles of trails (bring your own bikes, or rent one from a shop in town).
Part of the Urban Wilderness, the Ijams Nature Center, which has 1,000 forested acres on the city’s southern waterfront, has an excellent wildlife exhibit that’s as fun for adults as it is for little ones. The center combines educational initiatives with a fun area to let the kids run around and explore on their own. In addition, the center has more than 40 miles of multi-use trails, 10 parks, and four Civil War sites, as well as a 104-acre abandoned quarry.
Another recommended stop for outdoorsy types: the Outdoor Knoxville Center, which is perched on the Tennessee River and within easy walking distance from the Arts District in downtown. Rent stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, or bikes and explore Knoxville from (or alongside) this beautiful waterway, which is an especially fun way to see the city and cool off when the weather is warm.
The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is a must-see for botany buffs—or anyone in the family looking for a great Instagram backdrop. It’s just a 10-minute drive from downtown, yet feels far removed from the bustle of the city. You can visit Knoxville’s Secret Garden, which was designed to resemble the hidden getaway in the The Secret Garden, the beloved classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. She kicked off her writing career while living in Knoxville, and young fans of the book will love exploring the interpretation of her creation at the arboretum.
Museums and Historical Sites
Kids will enjoy exploring the exhibits—and will probably learn a thing or two!—at The Muse Knoxville, a hands-on science and art museum and play area specifically designed for young, curious minds. From exhibits on healthy eating to a planetarium, it’s a fun way to spend the day, and admission is only $8 a person, so it won’t bust the budget, even for a larger family.
History fans in the fam should be sure to check out James White’s Fort, which sits precisely where James White and his family founded Knoxville in 1786. The structure is an excellent recreation of an 18th-century fort, and it’s easy to see why White would have found the site suitable for a thriving city.
Another recommended spot for a look at local and regional history: the East Tennessee History Center, which is open daily and offers a variety of exhibits that illustrate why East Tennessee is such a distinct region. From the rich past of its residents to the secret Atomic programs in Oak Ridge during World War II, the center offers a fascinating look at Knoxville’s diversity and growth.
For art enthusiasts, a stop at the Knoxville Museum of Art, which hosts new exhibits of modern art as well as classics from regional artists, is a must-do. The museum is just a short walk from downtown into the World’s Fair Park, where Knoxville hosted the historic event in 1982. This is where you can see the iconic Sunsphere, Knoxville’s defining skyline feature against the backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Sounds of Knoxville
After a morning exploring Knoxville’s abundant outdoor scene or learning about the city’s history, you might consider stopping in at the Blue Plate Special. Hosted on Gay Street Monday through Thursday and Saturday at the Knoxville Visitor Center, and then at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria on Fridays, the shindig features bluegrass, Americana, and blues artists from noon to 1 pm. Barley’s is a one-of-a-kind place to grab local brews and great food—and you might see the next Avett Brothers or Old Crow Medicine Show, who all played the Blue Plate Special during their early days.
Whatever you do in Knoxville, you’ll find friendly locals and a wide variety of activities for everyone in the family, from museums and history to outdoor exploration to digging into the great dining scene. In fact, you probably won’t be able to fit it all into one visit—which means you’ll just have to come back.
Written by Charlie Morgan for Matcha in partnership with Visit Knoxville.