Get away to Knoxville

“Austin without the hype” lures with a bustling downtown


It’s been more than thirty years since Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair, and there’s only been one such expo in the United States since (New Orleans in 1984). Yet after its fifteen minutes of international fame, “Knoxpatch” settled back into its easygoing, unpretentious ways. You won’t find Tennessee’s third-largest city hosting a prime-time drama like ABC’s Nashville or launching an aggressive advertising campaign like upstart Chattanooga. Since 1982, K-town has been quietly turning its downtown warehouses into hipster bars and boutiques, repurposing its historic buildings, and cultivating its Appalachian roots. It was local before local was cool, and the national media, from the New York Times to Garden & Gun, have taken notice.

At its core, Knoxville is a university town, embracing the catchphrase “Austin without the hype” that originated with a San Francisco music critic. Just ask the 100,000 people (more than half of the city’s population) who drive—or boat—to Neyland Stadium when the University of Tennessee Volunteers take to the gridiron. The hallmarks of collegiate culture—youthfulness, irony, experimentation, indie everything—color Knoxville’s food, music, nightlife, and ambience.

The best place to savor the city’s vibrant spirit is downtown, so we checked into the Oliver Hotel, a twenty-eight-room inn located in a brick building with large arched windows originally built for the Peter Kern Bakery in 1876. Velvet chairs and tall upholstered headboards glam up its tight spaces, while handcrafted tables and prints by the beloved but recently defunct letterpress shop Yee-Haw Industries provide artsy warmth.

From the hotel, we could walk over to Market Square, a promenade and outdoor concert venue flanked by boutiques, coffee shops, wine bars, and restaurants—with nary a Starbucks in sight. The plaza has served continuously as an open-air marketplace since farmers gathered here in the mid-nineteenth century, and it still hosts weekly farmers markets as well as art walks, concerts, and the famous annual International Biscuit Festival in May. Exploring the area, we discovered finds like regional artisan wares at Rala, cute clothing and accessories at Bliss, and barrels of vintage-style candy at Mast General Store.

As the Lady Vols are an integral part of the city’s fabric, we visited the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, where we saw amusing artifacts like an eight-door Pontiac station wagon used to transport Moore’s All American Red Heads, a midcentury women’s pro team. Admission to the hall is only $7.95, and, as we soon found out, some of the best things in Knoxville are free. The WDVX Blue Plate Special, for example, is a gratis noontime concert held daily in the Knoxville Visitors Center. We saw the Knox County Jug Stompers, a young bluegrass group on banjo, harmonica, guitar, drums, and washtub bass (played by a barefoot April Hamilton). Another no-budget activity is riding the elevator up the Sunsphere, a gold disco-ball tower left over from the World’s Fair. We borrowed complimentary bikes from the Oliver and cycled there via the Greenway, a system of paved trails along the Tennessee River.

I appreciated the calories burned on said trails, given the temptations of Knoxville’s culinary scene. A pesto and sun-dried tomato pizza with an impossibly thick yet crisp crust proved that resident favorite the Tomato Head lives up to the hype, and we had our fill of fancied-up Southern dishes like spring succotash gnocchi with crème fraîche and cast-iron seared steak with Benton’s bacon at newcomer Knox Mason.

Nightlife options also abound downtown. The Bijou, the oldest purpose-built theater in the state, and the iconic Tennessee Theatre, a 1928 movie palace boasting an interior that rivals the Fox, are here, as are many cozy bars and nightclubs. We sipped specialty martinis at Sapphire (a modern gem housed in a former jewelry store), savored housemade beer cheese dip and locavore pub grub at the Public House, north of downtown, and eventually ended up back in the Oliver’s Peter Kern Library, a speakeasy hidden behind a nondescript door (though easily recognizable by the chatter of conversation and clinking of ice cubes). It makes sense that a city of academics would have a literary-themed bar—with a cocktail menu masquerading as a World Book encyclopedia and drinks named the Grendel and Mr. Darcy.

This article originally appeared in our July 2013 issue.

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  • Marlene Taylor

    It’s nice to have an outsider’s perspective of our “scruffy little city” — we Knoxvillians like to use that term given to us during the 1982 World’s Fair. We admit that we’ve been scruffy and it appears that we finally have turned our scruffiness into preservation. We debated for at least a decade whether to build a new convention center first or develop downtown into places where people would want to live, work, eat and find recreation. Finally, city leaders went with the convention center, which is quite attractive and filled with artworks relative to our area. Then, one by one, the cafes, apartments and lofts sprang forth from the neglected century-old buildings and before you knew it, people were everywhere. I personally was intrigued because I lived in the downtown area in 1989 and 1990. Come 5:00, the place was completely deserted. It was a great place to take a bike ride because hardly a moving car could be found. Now it swarms with happy activity. Thank you for the nice review.

  • Donnie Knoxville

    As a former Atlantan that has lived in Knoxville for several years now, I feel I am well-positioned to make some counterpoints here to your Atlanta readers.
    “Austin without the hype.” Ugh. More like Austin without the shows, shops, culture, restaurants, etc.
    It’s true, Knoxville is, on the whole, unpretentious. That was indeed a breath of fresh air coming from a place where putting on airs is the local pastime.
    Knoxville “hipsters?” Lol.
    Market Square is a nice place to be. There are a few other blocks in downtown that are semi-fixed-up. But for a lot of the buildings in downtown Knoxville, “historic” really means rundown and/or abandoned.
    I really don’t like calling Knoxville a university town. It’s a city with a university. Don’t come here expecting Athens.
    Knoxville’s riverfront is great, if you like industrial wastelands, abandoned buildings, and sewage plants. I don’t know if there is another city in America that has squandered such a prime feature.
    The Tomato Head, Bijou, and Tennessee Theatre are indeed all great.
    Going out for a drink in Knoxville? Hope you like rubes and douches. Best line of the article: “city of academics.” Lolololololololololol!!!1111one11!!11!!!!!!
    In closing, you people in Atlanta really should appreciate your city parks. Even your lowest-down, least-maintained park is better than the best one in Knoxville. Well, unless you’re looking for a pickle park. We have that over you guys big time. And a bonus here is cruising a pickle park is a good way to meet your county leaders!

  • Matty Ice

    Being a little over-dramatic, Donnie? Knoxville’s access to outdoors is one of the things I miss about living there. Other than a handful of places, there aren’t a ton of great restaurants, but outdoor recreation and live music are definitely not things they are lacking. Outside of piedmont, where are these amazing Atlanta parks? Most of the ones near the multiple parts of town that I have lived in commonly have garbage, syringes and swaths of poorly maintained grass, not to mentioned that there is always a decent chance of having your phone stolen.

    Having lived in both places, I will say that Knoxville is a great town to spend a night or two while exploring the smokey mountain national park, but nothing you cant do in a day or two max. Even though its slightly sprawled, you feel like you are in the country 10/15 minutes outside of the city. The easy access to the smokies allows for a day hike, then head to Knoxville for dinner at tupelo honey and sit on the second floor of preservation pub for live music after. pretty solid day in my book.

  • Brett

    Ugh Donnie! Been kicked out of the bars in Knoxville where the cool kids go? I have also lived in Atlanta. Little Five Points and it is a city with millions of residents so it isn’t a fair comparison. But I can say that Atlanta is always so far behind every other town. When punk rock died in Knoxville it went strong in Atlanta for another decade. And the hipster movement has pretty much already died here. That is why you don’t see them. It is tired. But it appears to still be going strong in Atlanta. And Downtown? In Atlanta they roll up the sidewalks at 7pm. it is a ghost town. In Knoxville it is packed every night. I actually like Atlanta but it is very different from Knoxville and after Donnie’s post I had to represent. Atlanta gets every big touring band. Knoxville gets every authentic blues, country, jazz and roots rock artist. We like the real deal. Also the LA Times reporter felt distressingly unhip walking into the XX show in Knoxville next to a bunch of twelve year olds. Even our pre-teens are more tuned in than the entertainment writer in LA who was so sure they were the first ones to be into them.

  • Brian

    I have lived in Knoxvegas for 37 years, downtown for 4. I plan to stay for the rest of my life. Donnie is right about a few things….the waterfront could use some tidying up but it’s still nowhere near as bad as he makes it. He’s also right that we could use a few more retail spots and absolutely do we still have a few more old buildings that need saving like the many we already have. However, his overall assessment paints a much more bleak place than it really is. No matter what night I walk from one side of downtown to the other for dinner….there are people out and it’s lively. It’s basically a flat downtown in a hilly town which makes walking not only easy but pleasant. It’s clean and safe….what town can say that about it’s downtown? I have many friends who move but come back, the cost of living here is irresistible and it’s just too easy to get by. It’s not perfect no. Yes we still have much to do. But it’s really a nice place to live and work and it’s good to see the rest of the country is starting to notice.