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A Drunken Mistake Took Us to Knoxville Instead of Nashville – But We Still Had a Great Time

Blame it on the blueberry soju.

It’s a wonderfully sweet and deceptively strong rice wine that Lee and I fell in love with during our two week visit to Seoul, Korea earlier this year. It tastes delightful, sweet and refreshing – but be warned, it will truly mess you up.

After a night of stuffing our faces with Korean barbeque and talking and laughing over beer and soju for hours, I fell asleep in a blissful drunken food coma dreaming of kimchi and mochi and stir-fried octopus tentacles.

And Lee stayed up and carried on drinking, sitting at his computer.

*Ping*

He got an email notification – an advertisement from Megabus. They were releasing their famous $1 bus tickets to a number of destinations in the Southern US. We were on our way to visit Lee’s brother in Virginia, and had talked about taking another side trip while we were there, so it was a perfect opportunity.

As soju-wasted Lee clicked through the options for cheap bus destinations, one caught his eye. A city in Tennessee, synonymous with the birthplace of country music. A classic American destination. Or so he thought… So he booked it. (After all, he is a huge Johnny Cash fan.)

It was a few hours later in the cold light of morning when he realised what he had done.

You see, although it may be easy to confuse them when you’ve had too many glasses of blueberry soju – Nashville and Knoxville are not the same place. Oops.

So, where the hell is Knoxville?

It turns out it’s a smaller city, also in Tennessee – which is known for not much else other than being slightly scruffy.

But oh well, we now had $1 bus tickets for a three day getaway there. Why not go check it out?

After I stopped laughing at Lee for his ridiculous drunken Knoxville/Nashville mix up, I embraced the idea of a trip to Knoxville.

It was somewhere that I had never even heard of, let alone considered going. I was curious to see what this city had to offer. Who knows? There could be a lot of great things to do in Knoxville?

Plus, Lee and I often end up in a lot of weird and random places and it usually turns out to be a lot of fun. So, why not?

Things to Do in Knoxville

things to do in knoxville

So, what did we do during our accidental vacation in Knoxville? Here are a few of the delights we discovered in this scruffy but friendly and welcoming little city.

The Sunsphere

810 Clinch Ave, Knoxville, TN 37902

things to do in knoxville

You can’t miss it – it’s the glittering golden disco-ball-on-a-stick right in the center of the city. The Sunsphere was built as a symbol of the 1982 World’s Fair and it glitters in the sun because it’s window panels are layered in 24 karat gold dust. It is one of the most recognisable buildings in the skyline and an absolute must when it comes to things to do in Knoxville.

Of course, you can go up into the shimmering gold ball of the Sunsphere and look around. The Observation Deck is open daily and is free to the public. You’ll find a gallery of Knoxville images up there, as well as a stunning 360 degree view of the city. There’s also an Italian restaurant on the 5th floor, if you are in the mood for a fancy dinner while you admire the view.

If you are big Simpsons fan, you might even recognize it from the March 1996 episode “Bart on the Road”, where Bart and friends travel to Knoxville to attend the World’s Fair, only to realise they are over a decade too late.

When Nelson throws a rock at the Sunsphere, it topples over and lands on their rental car, destroying it and stranding them in Knoxville. Apparently the writers of the show wanted Bart and friends to end up in a “funny and unlikely place” and Knoxville was where they chose. (Funny and unlikely indeed – I wonder how much soju was involved in their decision.)

Observation Deck Hours:

  • November 1 – March 31: 11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
  • April 1 – October 31: 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.

World’s Fair Park

525 Henley St, Knoxville, TN 37902

things to do in knoxville

Much of our time in Knoxville was spent walking and talking, something Lee and I love to do. The most beautiful part of the city to walk through was World’s Fair Park – miles and miles of green grass, flowers, waterfalls, fountains, sculptures and quiet spaces.

The park itself consists of three sections, a performance lawn, a lake area and a festival lawn. It runs right through the heart of the city and is accessible from anywhere in Knoxville. There is a great splash pad fountain for children to play in, a playground and an amphitheater that hosts concerts and plays. It is open from dawn until dusk and I certainly recommend taking a walk around this lovely greenspace.

Knoxville Chocolate Company

1060 Worlds Fair Park Dr, Knoxville, TN 37916

Well, you know I’m a huge chocoholic – so when I saw the Knoxville Chocolate Company I squealed with excitement. (I’m always seeking out the local chocolate wherever we go, like that time I went to a chocolate farm in Ecuador.)

The delicious, melt in your mouth chocolate at Knoxville Chocolate Company is all made fresh, daily in store. They make over 100 different types of chocolate and candies and they are packaged in beautiful wrappers that depict local landmarks.

My absolute favourite was the Sunsphere Bar, a delectable dark chocolate bar with sea salt. So rich, chocolatey and salty… I wish I had brought more home with me.

Market Square

Market Square, Knoxville, TN 37902

things to do in knoxville
By Brian Stansberry – Own work, CC BY 3.0

The main heart of the city is the pedestrian mall known as Market Square. It was established in 1854 as a marketplace for the farmers of the region and these days it is home to cute cafes, restaurants with outdoor patios, quirky little clothing shops and welcoming pubs. Lee and I strolled around Market Square a lot during our explorations of Knoxville, stopping to peruse the little shops around the square and dine at the restaurants.

things to do in knoxville
Having dinner and wine in Market Square.

The square also serves as a multi-purpose venue to host events, ranging from concerts to rallies to festivals to open-air productions of Shakespeare plays and other great cultural things to do in Knoxville. No matter when you visit, there is a good chance there will be a musician in the square performing anything from punk to bluegrass to folk to jazz. In the winter, it is home to an open-air ice skating rink.

The Old City

things to do in knoxville
By Brian Stansberry – Own work, CC BY 3.0

The Old City area of Knoxville used to be the rough and tumble vice-ridden centre of the city known as The Bowery (named after a similar neighbourhood in New York).

Although it’s known as the Old City, this part of town is not actually the oldest district in Knoxville. The neighbourhood wasn’t part of the city until the 1850s, when the building of the railroad encouraged the city to annex the area north of Vine Avenue. The railway brought Irish immigrants, who were the ones who established the first shops and saloons (can’t beat a good Irish pub.)

things to do in knoxville
Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon – By Brian Stansberry – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Unfortunately, by the early 1900s Central Street was filled with saloons, brothels, cocaine parlors, gambling dens and plenty of shady characters and there was a problem with crime, violence, public drunkenness and prostitution. An article in 1900 described the area as where you would find “nine tenths of the criminal element” of Knoxville.

This downtrodden area has since been rejuvenated with extensive redevelopment efforts in the 1970s and 80s. Most of the buildings were listed in the National Register of Historic Places and renovated to preserve their former glory.

These days it is a funky hipster neighbourhood, filled with independent boutiques, clubs, bars, shops and restaurants. It’s great entertainment and nightlife make it a very desirable place for Knoxville’s younger population to live.

Be sure to take a walk through Old City during your visit to admire the old buildings – they are incredibly well preserved remnants of the city’s early years.

The Pretentious Beer Co.

131 S Central St, Knoxville, TN 37902

things to do in knoxville
The Pretentious Beer Company

The name seems like a joke. Is this craft brewery really called “The Pretentious Beer Co.”?

Believe it or not, it is. It’s right next to the Pretentious Brunch Restaurant that charges $40 for avocado on toast with pomegranate seeds and the Pretentious Coffee Shop where the baristas make you guess which famous writer’s portrait they have made with your latte foam before you are allowed to drink it.

Just kidding. Those places don’t exist. (Well, not in Knoxville at least.)

But the Pretentious Beer Co. actually does.

And it’s name is more tongue in cheek and ironic, not pretentious in an annoying way. (Like the hipster bar I went to in Edinburgh with vintage movie theatre seats and random glass jars everywhere for no reason.)

This local craft beer bar is a chilled out place to try a range of really really tasty local beers – as well as sodas and kombucha. The beers are quite delicious. I tried a key lime pie flavoured beer that blew my mind. It actually had the creamy, sweet, tangy and refreshing palate to match the dessert, something I would never expect to enjoy in a beer.

You can try all sorts of weird beers here, like Milk Chai Stout, Sour Gose brewed with Himalayan salt, Grapefruit Radler, oak-aged Curmudgeon Old Ale and much more. The beers on tap are always changing, so pop in to see what they have.

Plus, next door you will find the Pretentious Glass Co., a glass blowing studio where they fashion artisanal glassware perfect for drinking your pretentious beer from. So, if you are sitting at the bar and you love the sexy curves of your glass, or the quirky moustache etched into the top (I’m not kidding) then you can take home a glass just like it.

Maple Hall (The Bowling Alley Bar)

414 S Gay St, Knoxville, TN 37902

I have fond memories of going bowling as a kid. It was always a thrill to lace up those stale-smelling loaner shoes, grip the cool, smooth bowling ball with your fingers and feel its heft as you sling it down the aisle. There’s nothing sweeter than the clatter of pins when you hit them at just the right angle.

But you know what’s even better than those nostalgic memories of bowling as a young person?

Bowling as a grown-up at Maple Hall in Knoxville. Because you get to enjoy all that, while drinking delicious beer and cocktails. It was one of my favourites of all the things to do in Knoxville we discovered. 

things to do in knoxville
Maple Hall Bowling

This boutique 11 lane bowling alley doesn’t feel like a Bowling Alley with Drinks, it feels more like a Very Cool Bar With Bowling Lanes. It’s cosy, comfortable and classy and the drinks are delicious.

I really can’t remember who won the most rounds that night, but I do remember the moment when we discovered how easy it was to change each other’s name on the electronic scoreboard. While Lee was winding up to take his turn, I would be typing in an embarrassing name for everyone to see. He would get his revenge during my turn. We must have gone through 20 different names that night, each getting progressively more offensive the more beers we drank.

Seriously, this place is awesome and if I lived in Knoxville I would have my birthday party there.

Preservation Pub

28 Market Square, Knoxville, TN 37902

things to do in knoxville
Preservation Pub

Lee and I aren’t into swanky and sophisticated bars – we like a good dive bar with a casual atmosphere. That’s why we loved Preservation Pub, a big booming old building in Market Square with live music on every night. The pub has three different levels, each with a slightly different vibe.

The first floor is loud and smoky and when we were there the Blue Eyed Bettys were singing some toe-tapping bluegrass tunes. Their melodic vocal harmonies and jangling banjo set the perfect tone for a casual drink.

The second floor is quieter and more chilled out, but we also loved the rooftop which overlooks the market Square. We met some friendly Tennessee locals there and ended up chatting until the early hours of the morning.

Oh, and the drinks here are ridiculously cheap for a bar in the US. We were there for over an hour and had a couple of beers each. When I got the bill it was only $12. I was confused for a moment and thought they might have forgotten to include some of our drinks – but that wasn’t the case. Our beers had only been $3 each. I tipped generously.

Knoxville is pretty cool.

Whether you end up there due to a drunken mistake while on the Megabus website, or you head there deliberately, Knoxville is worth a visit. It’s certainly not Nashville and I’m sure Nashville is a little bigger, shinier and more exciting. But this scruffy city certainly has its charms and there are a lot of awesome things to do in Knoxville. 

If you are looking for a great little weekend away in Tennessee, Knoxville is a lot of fun.

PS. Here is a list of great Knoxville resources for further reading when planning your trip.

About Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

11 comments

  1. I’m so glad you found our growing city and enjoyed so much about it. We like to think of ourselves as a little progressive spot in the south that is experiencing a renaissance of arts and culture while maintaining the differences that make us special. If anyone is considering a visit – or a move, as so many are doing – I’d invite you to check out http://www.insideofknoxville.com for daily articles about what is happening in this very special city. And Lee and Kelly, now that you found us, please don’t feel you have to get drunk to come back! 🙂

  2. When I took a job at Maple Hall, my friends and family responded with, “You’re working at a bowling alley? Are you OK?” I am more than OK. I couldn’t even begin to guess how many birthday/bachelor/bachelorette/team-building/wedding/holiday/graduation parties we’ve hosted for people in addition to our walk-in crowd. So glad you enjoyed it as so many others have. Y’all come back now, y’ hear?

  3. It was refreshing and wonderful to read an outside perspective of Knoxville from someone that had an open mind to exploring the city. I am born and raised in Tennessee and I grew up in the Nashville area, but moved to Knoxville for college and I have to say in the 12 years since first stepping foot in this city the amount of development that’s happened is astounding. 20 years ago downtown Knoxville was practically a ghost town, so seeing the Market Square flourishing and being declared one of America’s Great Public Spaces is a massive victory. I moved back to Nashville after college for about 5 years but ultimately found myself coming back to Knoxville because even though the growth here is slower, it is more tangible and the city is extremely proud and dedicated to making sure Knoxville remains fun, vibrant, and scruffy.
    Come back in a couple years to see how much it’s changed! Any other readers interested in visiting I definitely recommend December for Ice Skating in Market Square and Summer for one of the many festivals we have each year. Knoxville Pride still to this day remains the largest Pride in the state despite Nashville being a larger city. Alan’s blog above has a great article showcasing Knoxville’s Pride, among many other great activities to do in the city.

  4. Nice article. Two other events to look forward to in Knoxville in the Spring: Big Ears music festival (which got a nice write up in the WSJ, though it is behind the paywall. https://www.wsj.com/articles/genre-mixing-down-south-at-the-big-ears-festival-1490643268) closely followed by Rhythm N’ Blooms. In late Summer is the Rossini Festival which kicks off the upcoming opera season at the quite good Knoxville Opera. Also, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra is probably one of the best small town orchestras in the country.

    http://bigearsfestival.com/big-ears-returns-2018/

    http://www.rhythmnbloomsfest.com/

    http://www.knoxvilleopera.com/

    https://www.knoxvillesymphony.com/

  5. If you ever come back, you should check out the Knoxville Urban Wilderness and Ijams Nature Center. You only have to go about 3 miles outside of downtown Knoxville, and there are hiking and mountain bike trails on over 1,000 forested acres that butt up right against the river.

  6. I love your so accurate views of our community! Also, I laud all the above comments. Spot on. So cool that you got to see the Blue Eyed Bettys! Although not local, it does indicate the level of musicianship we love and appreciate here. (BTW, saw the Blue Eyed Bettys at the Ocracoke Music Festival, 2017, in early June, then later that month at the Knoxville Visitors Center where live music concerts are held M-Sat, noon-1PM (https://www.visitknoxville.com/plan-a-trip/visitors-center/). You just HAVE to come back!!

  7. Hadn’t ever heard of the Sunsphere before — reminds me a little of Seattle’s Space Needle. Market Square would be my favorite place to explore…and those chocolates — oh my!

  8. This sounds like so much fun I love to go places off the map I’ve been through Knoxville but never stopped I’d love to see the worlds fair information and do his stork places you mentioned sometimes the wrong turn turns out to be the right one

  9. For travelers, such mistakes are okay for we are on the lookout for new places anyway! As long as we have fun!

  10. That’s hilarious on the confusion of cities. At least you got to visit a new city. It sounds like you went without any expectations and were pleasantly surprised. The market and sunsphere seem like cool places to check out. I’ve actually never been to Knoxville, and now I know what to expect.

  11. Knoxville Chocolate Company…nom, nom, nom. I have only traveled thorugh Knoxville (stopping for lunch, of course) but I think it hilarious how you mixed up the places. Been there, done that. I set out for Greensboro once and ended up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Definitely a different kind of trip than what I was planning. At least yours was cheaper!

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