First settled in 1786, Knoxville was the first capital of Tennessee. The city struggled with geographic isolation throughout the early 19th century, though the railroad’s arrival in 1855 led to an economic boom. Today, the city serves as the perfect blend of southern hospitality and modern development while being nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains’ foothills. It has a quirky blend of art and music, science and nature, sports and history which can create an adventure of a lifetime. Listed below are the top ten tourist attractions in Knoxville to help you decide where to start.
10. Three Rivers Rambler
All aboard the Three Rivers Rambler steam train ride which is a fun, scenic tour with rural and historic area views. The journey begins downtown as it heads out towards the river, going past the County Building, under the Henley Street and Gay Street Bridges and travels past historical sites to the Three Rivers Trestle where the French Broad and Holston Rivers join to form the Tennessee River. The trip takes an average of 90 minutes and the admission prices for children 1-2 years old is $7.50, children 3-12 is $15.50, and adults is $26.50.
9. The Armstrong-Lockett House and W.P. Toms Memorial Gardens
The Armstrong-Lockett House built in 1834 as a residence for Drury P. Armstrong who was a merchant, farmer, and county official. It’s called the Armstrong-Lockett House for the first and last families to use it as a residence. This attraction is located just west of downtown Knoxville and was once the centerpiece of a 600 acre working farm. The historic home contains an exquisite collection of 18th century American and English furniture, decorative arts and a collection of English silver from circa 1640 to 1820. The grounds include five magnificent fountains, nine beautiful terraces, and manicured formal Italian gardens. Hours of operation are Wednesday through Friday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM and Saturday from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM.
8. Museum of East Tennessee History
Come explore and learn about the people, places, and events that have shaped the region through the award-winning exhibits housed at the museum. The East Tennessee Historical Society was established in 1834, only 38 years after the state was established, to record the development and settlement area history. The facility covers 300 years of life in the region, the East Tennessee Historical Society offices, and the Knox County Archives, with records dating to 1792. Some excellent artifacts include a string of original Cherokee beads given to missionary John Martin in 1757, Davy Crockett’s first rifle, and the key to the Lost State of Franklin courthouse, among many others. They are open seven days a week, Monday-Friday 9:00am-4:00pm, Saturday 10:00am-4:00pm and Sunday 1:00pm-4:00pm. Admission is $5.00 for adults, $4.00 for seniors, and free for children 16 and under. Admission is free for everyone each Sunday.
7. Market Square District
Market Square is a pedestrian mall that was Established in 1854 for regional farmers. Today, the square has developed into a multipurpose venue that accommodates events ranging from concerts to political rallies, and has long provided a popular gathering place for artists, street musicians, war veterans, and activists. It’ remains at the center of the city’s life and is host to an eclectic blend of culinary delights, has a variety of stores to suit your shopping needs and features two water play fountains for the kids. There’s a charming ambiance of tree-shaded spaces, restored historic structures, outside dining, and street musicians which makes this a perfect place to meet new acquaintances or gather old friends. Market Square is located in the center of downtown from Wall Avenue to Union Avenue.
6. Clarence Brown Theater
The Clarence Brown Theatre for the Performing Arts at the center of University of Tennessee was formally dedicated in November of 1970. It’s a 581-seat proscenium theater celebrating 45 years of professional theatre, and is one of the country’s oldest League of Resident Theatre (LORT) establishments. Offering a diverse season of plays and musicals, many of which feature nationally and internationally known guest artists, the theatre remains a superb performance venue and is one of only 12 academic LORT institutions in the nation which is why it’s on the top ten things to do in Knoxville. Included plays and events are A Christmas Carol, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Mr. Burns – A Post-Electric Play.
5. Knoxville Zoo
This is a 53-acre zoo located just east of downtown that welcomes over 400,000 human visitors each year. Attractions for children include the Clayton Family Kids Cove, which is based on an early 1900s Appalachian farm, and the Wee Play Zoo, a new indoor play area. Other areas include Black Bear Falls, a multi-level exhibit that brings visitors as close as they should get to a black bear, Grasslands Africa where visitors will find a giant, 30-foot tall Baobab tree equipped with misters and vines located between African elephants and giraffe, and you can feed the world’s tallest animal at the Williams Family Giraffe Encounter with $5 Giraffe snacks. Experience wildlife up close at the city’s largest attraction as you come face to face with more than 800 of the Earth’s most fascinating animals.
4. Star of Knoxville Riverboat
If you are visiting only for the weekend, this authentic Mississippi-style paddle wheeler is something you won’t want to miss. The passenger boat runs a little faster than 5 mph on the Tennessee River so each sailing spans a couple of hours. Seasoned captains pilot their ships through calm waters, pointing out spots of interest while passengers lounge in air-conditioned or heated interiors. The vessel is equipped with two bars, a dance floor, band stage, and is exquisitely decorated for the most elegant dinner and entertainment available. While cruising, you will enjoy one of the most breathtaking views in the city. Come for a Sunday brunch, a late-night party, a luncheon or plain-and-simple sightseeing.
3. Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum
The garden’s history began in 1786 when David W. Howell was granted the land in appreciation for serving the country in the Revolutionary War. Two generations later, under the care of Sampson Sylvanous Howell, S.S. Howell Nurseries was created. Three generations later, the nurseries became in danger of extinction until longtime patron, Jim McDonough worked with the reigning Howell, Jenny Jukes, to form the botanical gardens in 2001. Today, 229 years later, the gardens have become a magical place with round stone buildings, terraces, stone walls, paths, and rare and unusual trees. People come to the gardens to sit, look and relax, have romantic walks down the winding paths, or learn about the specimens through the guided tour.
2. The Muse Knoxville
This children’s museum dedicates itself to a single acronym: STEAM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. It has almost 4,000 square feet of exhibit and play-space so it features a lot of hands on activities and art to teach science. Exhibits include KidSpace for kids up to age 5 to explore with a large stage and dress up area, along with a variety of blocks, gears, magnets and sensory toys. Also included is BuildSpace which has a variety of construction materials and testing areas including Lego, Kapla, Geoboards, and Rollercoaster Wall. They also have activities for the physical sciences including Convex and Concave Mirrors, Wentzscope Microscopes, Laser Harp, Slap Organ, and Whisper Dishes. If that wasn’t enough, there is a planetarium with shows such as Knoxville Skies Star Tour, The Little Star That Could, and Cosmic Colors, among others.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that straddles the Great Smoky Mountains ridgeline. It is the border between Tennessee and North Carolina that runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park making it one of the best places to visit in Knoxville. From a roadside lookout or from a clearing in a trail, in every visible direction you can see the mountains march toward a vast horizon of wilderness. The Park includes over 500,000 acres with 150 maintained hiking trails totaling 800 miles, 10 campgrounds, mountain vistas, old growth forests, nature trails, trout streams, and 1,500 types of plants.
On any evening, throngs of residents and visitors can be seen at the sidewalk cafes, theaters, restaurants and night clubs along Gay Street and Market Square. This region boasts a pleasingly temperate climate, making it an appropriate destination during any season. Visiting during spring can be particularly satisfying for nature lovers, when the blooming Dogwood trees are a spectacular sight to behold and the weather is still on the cool side.