Knoxville has long held its title as a gateway for exploring the great outdoors of East Tennessee, but the bustling city along the river is more than just a stop off on your way to the Great Smoky Mountains. There are waterfront restaurants and live music, festivals and boutique shops, and of course, University of Tennessee game days that seem to bring the whole city to the streets— plus plenty of nightlife and fun once the sun sets.
It’s the perfect spot for a group of friends to gather for a quick getaway. Whether you’re celebrating a birthday, organizing a bachelor/bachelorette party, planning a trip to the national park, or simply looking for some relaxing time together, Knoxville offers plenty to do to keep the whole group happy. Here are a few of the best ways to explore the city with your friends.
Knoxville is a great launchpad for some of the best hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and whitewater rapids in the Cherokee National Forest. Thanks to the city’s Urban Wilderness, there’s a ton to discover without venturing far from town—or leaving Knoxville city limits at all.
Outdoor activities center around the Ijams Nature Center, a sprawling preserve in South Knoxville with an expansive network of trails, swimming holes, mining relics, and local history. During the summer, rent stand-up paddleboards or kayaks and float among the craggy cliffs of Mead’s Quarry, one of the region’s best swimming holes and a perfect spot for a large group of friends or family to waste away the day.
From Ijams, it’s easy to connect back to civilization downtown or get lost in the city’s woodlands. More than 50 miles of trails in the Urban Wilderness wind through South Knoxville, and they also connect to the city’s expansive system of paved greenway paths that join many in-town neighborhoods and downtown. The greenways are great for easy hikes with friends, biking around town, and hitting up some of the city’s best beer gardens on a “bike and brew” tour of local breweries.
Just outside of town, the House Mountain Natural Area is a favorite local day trip. A narrow footpath climbs to the summit ridgeline before the trail opens up to near panoramic views of the Cumberland and Smoky mountains in the distance. Along the peak are plenty of secluded outcrops, boulders, and overlooks to nestle up with a sweetie or hang out with friends.
Eat, Shop, Explore
While Knoxville’s one-of-a-kind trail system gets a lot of attention—and rightly so—the walkable city center is filled with hidden gems, like alleyway artwork and even a speakeasy. You’ll find an attractive downtown with dozens of decadent eateries, music venues, and clubs. An eclectic mix of boutique shops features everything from antiques and clothes to high-end dog gear and home goods. At the heart of it all sits Market Square, a pedestrian plaza filled with shops, bars, and restaurants. The city also has an impressive farmers market open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from May to November.
Catch a sunset from the rooftop bar at Preservation Pub before chomping into a juicy burger at Stock and Barrel and venturing over to the Peter Kern Library for a classic cocktail and refined speakeasy atmosphere. Scruffy City Hall has live music most nights of the week, and from Market Square, the rest of downtown, Old City, and the river walk are just a short stroll or a free trolley ride away.
Get Lost in the Crowd
Home of the University of Tennessee Volunteers, perhaps nothing brings out the spirit of Knoxville like football game day. If you’ve never been to a Vols game, you’re missing out on feeling the streets come alive or the roar of 100,000 shouting fans rattle the halls of Neyland Stadium. This town is pretty serious about its football, but that’s just one of the big events that make a good excuse for a weekend getaway. Concerts, arts festivals, and community get-togethers are never in short supply.
Pretty much any time of year you’ll likely find an art or music festival in town, or a parade to celebrate holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas. The Big Ears music festival has brought the city into an international spotlight for its very un-festival-like choices in music and experience—avant-garde sounds in unique venues that turn the center city into a phonic playground each spring.
Brewfest takes over World’s Fair Park each summer, pouring up some of the most refreshing beers this side of the Sunsphere, and Open Streets Knoxville puts on regular community gatherings to get people to rethink how they use and interact with urban corridors and roadways. Tour de Lights takes the idea of a holiday parade to a new level, inviting people to light up their bicycles and take a cool (because it’s December) tour through downtown and celebrate in Market Square. Really, there’s no shortage of festivals to choose from.
After dark, center your sights on the Old City for a fun night out. Fortunately, everything’s nearby, with a trolley available to get you around quickly. A safe bet is to start your night downtown, which features lots of great restaurants (more than 80, in fact), including everything from steakhouses (Lonesome Dove), seafood (Chesapeake’s), Mexican (Chivo Taqueria), sushi (Nama), and Southern fare (Myrtle’s Chicken & Beer), just to name a few. Head to Calhoun’s on the River for great food and views overlooking the Tennessee River.
Market Square and historic Gay Street light up after work hours, and a great deal of nightlife can be found in the Old City. Hotspots like Barley’s Taproom (live music and great food), Pilot Light (a small venue with cheap beers), and Southbound (DJs and dancing) all sit within a block of each other and free parking abounds. Newer spots like Kefi and Rebel Kitchen add to an already incredible dining scene.
Knoxville’s explosion of breweries has landed mostly in Old North Knoxville and Happy Holler, just north of downtown and the Old City, leaving a cluster of taprooms and bars within walking distance. If walking, head north along North Central Street a take a sip at Crafty Bastard (known for unique signature brews), the Bavarian beer garden at Schulz Brau, a bite and a pint at Central Flats & Taps, and ping pong and craft beers at Hops and Hollers.
So what are you waiting for? Take advantage of all that Knoxville has to offer and spend some time with your friends. A getaway to Knoxville is the perfect setting for trying something new with those you love the most.
Written by Clay Duda for RootsRated Media in partnership with Visit Knoxville.