People walk their dogs every day at all hours in downtown Knoxville, and I love what this tells me about this navigable, livable, and fun downtown. While there is much to see and do outside of the downtown core, Knoxville’s downtown has it all—art, music and theater, business, shopping, great food and relaxation. Everyone I meet attests to how vital Knoxville has become and how it’s building ever more momentum.
For visitors, Knoxville’s downtown consists of Market Square, Gay Street, Old City, World’s Fair Park and the Riverfront. Here’s a guide to what to see and do in downtown Knoxville:
Market Square was originally built in 1853 as a real estate scheme and that investment has paid off—this is a true city gem. Market Square has become a prime public gathering spot; a place to live, work and play. Located between Union and Wall Avenue, explore up Market Street the side streets around the perimeter.
Here’s a sampling of Market Square area shops: Bliss and Bliss Home, Rococo Boutique, Union Avenue Books, Fizz, Reruns, Just Ripe, Tree & Vine, Art Market Gallery. At The Peanut Shop, you’ll find a sample can or jar of what appears to be every single product out for sample. We leave with some tins to share with the folks back home. All of these boutique shops offer wares you won’t find at home.
Knoxville has a strong musical tradition; especially for bluegrass, Americana, blues, mountain music, country music (classic and alternative), gospel, and folk music. There are opportunities each night to hear live music and we take advantage. The Square Room is one of Knoxville’s many music venues. It’s attached to Café 4, a popular full-menu restaurant that also has a great coffee bar and pastry case. (I take my morning coffee and bakery treat up to their cozy loft—their honey and walnut cream cheese is the best bagel spread I’ve ever eaten.)
Gay Street is downtown’s cultural heartbeat. Many of the buildings up and down this street are from the 1870’s and are still in use. At the Knoxville Visitor Center, request a copy of the Downtown Knoxville Walking Tour—it’s well done and highlights all those great 19th century buildings. They also have a superior gift and souvenir shop, and be sure to notice the colorful mural on the side of their building.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Tennessee Theatre is impressive in its splendor and hosts a busy schedule of classical music, Broadway productions, vintage films, dance, live theater, and performances by top musicians. Originally built in 1928 as a silent movie theatre, acoustics was not a primary concern, but much thought, effort and expense went into every other aspect of this grand theatre’s design. A Wurlitzer organ, originally priced at $50,000 was installed and today is one of the few remaining Wurlitzers still in its original location. Come for a concert to hear this organ in action.
Original crystal chandeliers remain as well. The$25.5 million dollar renovation and expansion in 2005 retained the theater historical integrity and Spanish-Moorish design, while expanding the stage and orchestra pit, installing modern acoustics and sound system and technology, and re-doing the restrooms, seating, and dressing rooms for performers. The moldings, soaring plaster ceilings, color scheme, and other design elements are truly lovely. This beautiful performing arts theater has earned its designation as Tennessee’s official state theater.
The Bijou Theatre, originally built in 1817 and first opened as a theater in 1909, has also been beautifully renovated and hosts live music.
WDVX radio station opens their doors for live, recorded concerts on a regular basis. The “Blue Plate Special” is a free lunchtime concert, Mondays through Saturday, and “Tennessee Shines” is their Monday evening concert series. Hosts Bob Deck and Paige Travis encourage the audience to make some appreciative noise, as they record concerts for broadcast later. When we visited, Over the Rhine, a talented and accomplished folk-jazz duo from Ohio, and local poet R. B. Morris, reading some of his mocking bird poems, entertained us.
You’ll find plenty to enjoy at the East Tennessee History Center (ETHC). The “Voices of the Land” exhibit showcases three centuries of Native Americans, frontiersmen, farmers and rebels of East Tennessee. Learn about East Tennessee’ struggle and experience with both Union and Confederate sides during the Civil War. There’s also excellent coverage of the Civil Rights movement and the early days of country music. We enjoyed a temporary exhibit that covered the Golden Age of TV, including old TV footage, and an early broadcast studio. We ended up spending a couple of hours here and we really could have stayed longer.
Finally, there’s shopping aplenty. Mast General Store, a city icon, has more than 500 old-fashioned candies. My palate has changed—but really!—how could I resist flying wafer saucers? Clothing, home wares, gifts—this is truly what a General Store is meant to be. A few other Gay Street shops include Art Market Gallery, the Parlor, and Coolato Gelato.
Just northwest of Gay Street, Old City is a vibrant neighborhood, with much to admire architecturally, and an increasing number of restaurants, shops and offices and live-work space for the creative set. As on Gay Street, the brick and stone construction and paving stone lined streets add authentic character.
The Underground, Crown and Goose and Boyd’s Jig & Reel are Old City all great locales for live music as well as terrific food. Blue Slip Winery is the city’s first urban winery, and all the wines are made from Tennessee grapes.
World’s Fair Park
Home of the 1982 World’s Fair, the city still reaps the benefits of this park. In summer, there are concerts and fairs. The Convention Center hosts events year-round. Most of the downtown hotels are in this area, including the recently renovated Holiday Inn. Take the elevator up to the Observation deck or stop at the Icon Lounge nightclub’s fifth floor views at the iconic Sunsphere. The Knoxville Museum of Art is also nearby.
At Bradley’s Chocolate Factory, you’ll find a wide variety of chocolates and other treats, as well as some home décor. Enjoy a Tennessee Walking Stick— a thick pretzel rod hand dipped in caramel, rolled in fresh pecans, and smothered in dark chocolate. Mondays through Fridays, you can peek into the kitchen and watch production.
Riverfront and the University of Tennessee
Walk along Volunteer Landing’s one mile promenade along the Tennessee River and explore the University of Tennessee’s 400 acre campus. In summer you’ll find concerts and festivals up and down the waterfront and the opportunity to take a riverboat cruise.
Of course, Tennessee has more to offer than Knoxville. The entire state of Tennessee is rich in beauty, culture and history. I’ve explored the state’s lush, green rolling hills, eaten hearty meals at family-owned diners and Cracker Barrels along the highways and by-ways, and explored small town fairs, music, and quaint community churches. I checked out county museums with Civil War history and the usual functional and bizarre memorabilia of bygone times. Nashville and Memphis gave me a taste of Tennessee glory, historically and culturally. However, this time around, downtown Knoxville proved to be a wonderful destination that I highly recommend! –by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT Contributor
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO SHOP:
• Market Square, Gay Street, Old City shops.
• Bradley’s Chocolate Factory, 1060 World’s Fair Park Drive, www.chocolatelovers.com
• Mast General Store, 402 S. Gay Street, www.mastgeneralstore.com
WHAT TO SEE AND DO:
• Knoxville Visitor Center, 301 S. Gay Street, www.knoxville.org/vendor/1097/knoxville-visitor-center/
• Tennessee Shines/Blue Plate Special Concerts, WDVX Radio (89.9 FM and 102.9 FM) at Knoxville Visitor’s Center, www.wdvx.com
• East Tennessee History Center, 601 S. Gay Street, www.easttnhistory.org
• Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, 700 Hall of Fame Drive, www.wbhof.com
• The Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay Street, www.knoxbijou.com
• Tennessee Theatre, 604 S. Gay Street, www.tennesseetheatre.com
Want to know more about Knoxville? Check out Nancy’s stories:
“A Food Lover’s Guide to Downtown Knoxville”