Must-Visit Attractions in Knoxville, Tennessee

The Sunsphere amongst the Knoxville skyline
The Sunsphere amongst the Knoxville skyline | © CrackerClips Stock Media / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Leena Kollar
15 September 2020

Home to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville is known for its college-town vibe. But there’s more to explore in the city than just academic landmarks. Whether you’re traveling solo, with your family or for business, make sure you check out these Knoxville attractions.

Sunsphere

Historical Landmark
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World's fair park sunsphere Knoxville TN
© Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

Constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair, the Knoxville Sunsphere is a 266ft-high (81m) steel structure with a 75ft (23m) gold glass sphere. The fourth level has an observation deck that gives visitors a 360-degree view of downtown Knoxville, the Tennessee River and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Zoo Knoxville

Zoo
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Accredited by the National Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Zoo Knoxville opened in 1971. It was the first zoo in the world to hatch endangered northern spider tortoises and has birthed more red pandas than any other zoo. Along with lions, elephants and giant tortoises, you can also see giraffes, tigers, red wolves and black bears.

Mabry-Hazen House

Historical Landmark
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The Italianate-style Mabry-Hazen House – built in 1858 and home to three generations of the same family – takes you through 130 years of Knoxville history. You’ll find the museum, which houses more than 2,000 original artefacts and is on the National Register of Historic Places, atop Mabry’s Hill, overlooking downtown Knoxville.

Maple Hall

Historical Landmark
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Lying inside the historic JC Penney building is Maple Hall, an 11-lane bowling alley with a full-service bar, a live stage and a two-lane private VIP room. The facility can also host parties and private events. Upstairs, there’s a cocktail lounge equipped with life-size board games, a patio and a very well-stocked bar. So, grab a group of friends because this place makes for a good night out.

Crescent Bend House and Gardens

Historical Landmark
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In 1832, Drury Paine Armstrong built a family home on a farm just west of downtown Knoxville. He named the property Crescent Bend since it had a stunning view of a crescent bend of today’s Tennessee River. This home was likely a safe house on the Underground Railroad, as descendants of Armstrong’s say that a hidden trapdoor beneath the main staircase may have led to a room where runaway slaves took refuge. The property has five fountains, nine terraces and formal Italian gardens, while the inside of the house features 18th-century antique furniture.

Historic Ramsey House

Historical Landmark
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The Ramseys were one of the first families to settle in Knoxville and were very involved in the local community. In 1797, the city’s first builder, Thomas Hope, constructed the Historic Ramsey House using Tennessee pink marble and blue limestone. Today, it sits on more than 101 acres (41ha) and has been restored and furnished to reflect the period of the Ramsey family’s occupancy. You can learn about the history of the area and the family and, of course, admire the beautiful colors of the limestone.

Knoxville Museum of Art

Museum
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Artwork displayed at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee
© Emanuel Tanjala / Alamy Stock Photo

The Knoxville Museum of Art, designed by American architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, offers tours, workshops, outreach programs, artist residencies and more. In addition to its permanent exhibits, it hosts a range of temporary exhibitions from a wide variety of artists. In 2014, the museum unveiled a monumental glass installation – the largest figural glass installation in the world – by Knoxville artist Richard Jolley. The museum aims to serve the community and enhance the city’s quality of life, and it certainly achieves that.

Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum

Botanical Garden
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In East Knoxville, the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum was founded to preserve the Howell family’s history, who owned the property in the late 1700s. American Revolutionary War veteran David Howell planted an orchard, where he began selling fruits and vegetables to local families. He also started selling trees, seeds and small plants to westbound settlers. In addition to display gardens on the property, there are walking trails, historic horticulture and more than 2mi (3km) of stone walls to explore.

Market Square

Market
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The historic Market Square is a bustling downtown spot that attracts residents and out-of-towners. The pedestrianized square has restaurants, shops and entertainment, as well as annual festivities such as the Biscuit Festival and ongoing events such as First Friday. Along with outdoor concerts and movies, the square is also home to Shakespeare on the Square.

James White’s Fort

Historical Landmark
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The founder of Knoxville was James White, who named the city for President George Washington’s secretary of war, Henry Knox. He built the first log cabin in 1786, which was restored and opened to the public as James White’s Fort in 1970. Each year, more than 10,000 people visit the fort, which offers hands-on frontier living demonstrations, such as blacksmithing, spinning and open-hearth cooking. Ever fancied living off the land? Find out if you could manage it.

Muse Knoxville

Historical Landmark
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Created to provide educational opportunities for children and adults, the Muse Knoxville seeks to inspire and empower through science and art. The museum spaces and outdoor play areas include Live Smart: Stay Well! and Stem Station, as well as an outdoor playground within Chilhowee Park. Your little ones will have a fabulous time here, and you can dream of them becoming a doctor or an astronaut – that is if you aren’t too busy getting stuck in yourself.

Beck Cultural Exchange Center

Building
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The Beck Cultural Exchange Center is the primary repository of Black history and culture throughout East Tennessee. The museum’s historical archives include books written by African-American authors, and exhibits feature people and events that have played an important role in building up Knoxville’s African-American community. It’s an important place to visit.

Ijams Nature Center

Botanical Garden
Map View
Navitat Knoxville, a tree-based zipline adventure park in Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee
© Emanuel Tanjala / Alamy Stock Photo

The Ijams Nature Center was known as the Bird Sanctuary until the 1960s, developed by Knoxville bird expert Harry Ijams and the First Lady of Knoxville Garden Clubs, Alice Yoe Ijams. The center’s new name came about when the Knoxville Garden Club, Knox County Council of Garden Clubs and the City of Knoxville partnered up to protect the sanctuary. It has plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy, including hiking, biking and paddling.

Knoxville Chocolate Company

Market, American
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Husband and wife Brad and Joy Hamlett are the owners of Knoxville Chocolate Company, which sells chocolate bars with Tennessee designs, assorted chocolate boxes, Tennessee walking sticks and even chocolate popcorn. In Market Square, the company has been in business for more than 20 years. Your biggest problem will be deciding which flavor to carry home with you and which one to eat right then and there.

East Tennessee Historical Society

Museum
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The East Tennessee Historical Society, established in 1834, provides services such as lectures, family heritage programs and genealogy classes that introduce you to the history of East Tennessee. If you ever wanted to learn about your relatives, this is the place to do it. If you or your family are from the area, you can learn how to map out your family history and find out if you ever really did have that fifth cousin.

Marble Springs State Historic Site

Historical Landmark
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On the Marble Springs State Historic Site lies the 18th-century farm home of John Sevier, a Revolutionary War hero and Tennessee’s first governor. He called it Marble Springs because of the Tennessee pink marble and natural springs on the property. Here, you can explore historic structures – including a tavern, smokehouse and detached kitchen – meant to represent the life and time of Sevier. It’s a fascinating learning experience.

Three Rivers Rambler

Train Station
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Since 2000, the tourist train Three Rivers Rambler has been taking passengers from downtown Knoxville to the Tennessee River. You’ll ride on real historic train equipment and learn about the history of the US train system and why it was so important. With so many shops and cafes around the train depot, near the University of Tennessee campus, you can make a day of it.

Cherokee Caverns

Natural Feature
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Early Native Americans were the first to enter Cherokee Caverns, which began forming about 300m years ago. The caverns, rediscovered by a farmer named Robert Crudgington in 1854, are currently under the protection of volunteers who help raise money for maintenance, upgrades and preservation. The beauty in this Knoxville hidden treasure can sometimes be surprising. The rock, the airy feeling, the specific smell – it’s well worth visiting to experience it yourself.

Neyland Stadium

Stadium
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November 15, 2014:Tennessee Volunteers take the field before the NCAA Football game between the University of Tennessee Volunteers and the University of Kentucky Wildcats at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN
© Cal Sport Media / Alamy Stock Photo

General Robert R Neyland was the head football coach at the University of Tennessee from 1926 to 1952. Today, Neyland Stadium serves as the Tennessee Volunteers football team’s home and also hosts large conventions. Since its construction in 1921, it has undergone numerous expansions, making it the fifth-largest stadium in the United States.

Tennessee Theatre

Theatre
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Built in the 1920s, the Tennessee Theatre was once an old cinema, but today, it’s something that really shines – a restored theater with actors, lights and bows at the end. As it’s very popular and offers a varied run of plays, make sure you book your tickets online; otherwise, you might be disappointed at the door. One of the prettiest buildings in Knoxville, it’s worth visiting for its interiors alone.

Strong Alley (Graffiti Alley)

Architectural Landmark
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If you love street art, taking photos of it or simply fancy yourself to be an artsy type of person, Graffiti Alley is a must-visit. Numerous street murals of all kinds are found here. As it’s close to Market Square, it’s best to visit in the evening, as the twinkle lights strung around the area come on and bathe the art in a warm glow. Afterward, pop over to Market Square to grab some delicious grub.

Mead’s Quarry Lake

Natural Feature
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On a hot Tennessee day, chilling out in Mead’s Quarry Lake is just what the doctor ordered. Bring your towel and some snacks to hang out on the lakeshore, where you can enjoy the views and get back in touch with nature. Around 15 minutes by car from Knoxville, the lake is great for swimming and other watersports, and there are several hikes around the area if you really want to get away from it all.

Stock and Barrel

Bakery, Market, Restaurant, American, Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten-free, Wine, Beer, $$$
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A classic, all-American restaurant, Stock and Barrel is an ideal option for dinner after a hard day of sightseeing in Knoxville. For beer, a good cocktail and a place to talk through the day’s fun events and rest your tired feet, you can’t pick a better spot. The food here is excellent, and the menu has a wide variety, with the classic burger and the chicken waffle burger, which is almost too good to be true, being two favorites.

The Phoenix Pharmacy

Ice Cream Parlour, Ice Cream
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If you want to sit at a pharmacy counter and drink a classic American pharmacy soda, now’s your chance. With chrome stools, a mirrored counter and countless delicious things to order, you’ll feel like you’re back in the 1950s. Whether you order an egg cream, an ice-cream soda, a malted, a root beer or a milkshake, you’ll be drinking it from a cool, frosty glass. Take a selfie and pretend that you’re on the way to prom.

Additional reporting by Alice Johnston.

These recommendations were updated on September 15, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.