Jun 18, 201304:29 PMTravel
The Best of the World
Travel to Knoxville, Tenn.
Browse the nifty little boutiques lining Knoxville’s nifty little Market Square, and you’ll spot T-shirts emblazoned with a peculiar plea: “Keep Knoxville Scruffy.” Other American cities have touted their own unique vibe in this way (bumper stickers in Boulder, Colo., for example, have been known to admonish “Keep Boulder Weird”), but leave it to this unassuming East Tennessee burg to adopt as their unofficial slogan what was once a snooty dismissal.
Over three decades ago, Knoxville experienced what is looking like not so much a renewal as a re-invention, it was named, in a surprise to just about every American, as the site of the 1982 World’s Fair. One Wall Street Journal reporter in particular took offense at the decision, calling Knoxville “a scruffy little city.”
Long story short, Knox got the Fair, and 30 years later, its citizens still pay proud homage to their “scruffy” heritage. And yet, the tongue-in-cheek appeal is clearly all for naught. Knoxville today is a vibrant cultural and culinary mecca, filled with enough stellar opportunities for outdoor recreation, the city rivals even Boulder itself. Knoxville has become, quite clearly, anything but scruffy.
While the city sits square in the foothills of the sublime Great Smoky Mountains, outdoor enthusiasts need not step outside it to get their fill of fun in the Tennessee sun. Knox is chock-full of inviting trails, parks, green ways and blue ways, including World’s Fair Park, with not only acres of inviting lawn, but also the iconic Sunsphere, a 266-foot-tall structure topped with what resembles a giant, golden disco ball, the interior of which affords a 360-degree view of downtown.
But what is really turning the city into the place to stay and play is the year-old initiative, Outdoor Knoxville, which includes an interactive website (outdoorknoxville.com), three-day festival (Outdoor KnoxFest, which was held last month) and the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center, located in the Gateway Pavilion Building at Volunteer Landing. A recreational nexus offering local events and excursions, the Adventure Center also features boutiques boasting gear from brands like Patagonia and North Face. In addition, kayak, canoe, bike and stand-up paddleboard rentals are available at the Center from River Sports Outfitters (riversportsoutfitters.com, 856-696-2330), a three-decade-old Knox guide service.
After visiting the Sunsphere and paddling alongside downtown on the placid, peaceful Tennessee River – the put-in for canoes and kayaks is conveniently located just a stone’s throw from the Adventure Center – adventurers will want to explore the Ijams Nature Center (ijams.org, 865-577-4717), a 275-acre wildlife sanctuary and environmental learning center with 10 miles of hiking and biking trails. Among its most stunning areas are the recently reclaimed Ross Marble Quarry and Mead’s Quarry, which provide proof positive that industrial scars left on land can be healed with time and care.
As the city now provides visitors a bounty of outdoor leisure pursuits, so it does indoors with can’t-miss cultural opportunities including the Knoxville Museum of Art (knoxart.org, 865-525-6101). Located in World’s Fair Park, this free-to-enter gem’s permanent collection showcases the work of renowned artists hailing from around the world, as well as from within the region. East Tennessee painters, potters, photographers, weavers, woodworkers, sculptors and jewelry makers also get to strut their stuff at the glorious Art Market Gallery (artmarketgallery.net, 865-525-5265). A cooperative of 60 artists whose work is often whimsical and always wonderful, is located on Gay Street, in the heart of downtown.
Knoxville’s cultural delights don’t end with the visual arts. After all, the city sits in Tennessee, perhaps the greatest state in the nation for music. And while its sisters Nashville and Memphis may snag the lion’s share of the musical glory, Knoxville has plenty for which to be proud. Morelock Music (morelockmusic.com, 865-766-5192), just across Gay Street from the Art Market Gallery, not only sells gorgeously made traditional acoustic instruments such as guitars, banjos and fiddles, it also offers repairs, lessons and even live performances from within its inviting, funky interior.
Even more interesting a locale for shows is the Knoxville Visitors Center, from which the WDVX Blue Plate Special (wdvx.com, 865-544-1029) is aired live. Sandwiches and more can be purchased from the center’s lunch counter and enjoyed during the free, daily, noon-time Americana concerts. An absolutely unique experience, it is one of Knoxville’s great traditions – much like the magnificent Tennessee Theatre (tennesseetheatre.com, 865-684-1200).
Undisputedly one of the United States’ most glorious venues, the theatre was built in 1928 in the Spanish-Moorish style and restored to its full beauty in 2005. The $23 million renovation brought shine back to the Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers and Italian terrazzo floors and life back to the Wurlitzer organ. While Tennessee hosts shows across a variety of genres, it shines brightest during the transcendent Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s (knoxvillesymphony.com, 865-291-3310) performances.
No matter how great the recreational and cultural attractions, no city can be worth its salt today without a notable culinary scene, and here, too, Knoxville doesn’t disappoint. From the gourmet-infused southern comfort food of Café 4 (cafe4mc.com, 865-544-4144) to the simple but exquisite flavors of Bella Luna’s (bellalunaknox.com, 865-247-7405) modern Italian cuisine, Knox has evolved into a foodie’s paradise.
Each May, the city offers an added bonus for gourmands: the fourth annual International Biscuit Festival, which is held in May. Browse the “Biscuit Boulevard,” and taste dozens of delightfully divergent biscuit recipes, shop the “Biscuit Bazaar” for biscuit-themed products and attend the festival highlight, the Blackberry Farm Biscuit Brunch. Held outdoors in Krutch Park, this mouthwatering event is catered by chefs from East Tennessee’s famed Blackberry Farm, one of the most esteemed inns in the country.
Trails and parks, green ways and blue ways galore – and easy access to the information and equipment needed to get out and enjoy them. Cultural and culinary offerings as fine – and diverse – as any found within the bright lights of far bigger cities. No matter how wistful it may make its fans fond of the city’s old underdog status, it must be said, Knoxville is “scruffy” no more. Not even close.
For more information, visit knoxville.org or call (800) 727-8045.
Have a bit of extra time and fancy a short road trip down East Tennessee’s glorious byways? Make tracks toward Historic Rugby, located 70 miles from Knoxville. Founded in 1880 by British statesman, writer and social reformer Thomas Hughes as a class-free cooperative farming community, it has been called one of the most authentically preserved historic villages in America by the National Trust.
Nestled in the peaceful Tennessee Cumberlands, Rugby features exquisitely maintained Victorian buildings such as the Christ Church Episcopal, which boasts original stained glass, an 1849 rosewood organ and the Thomas Hughes Library, with 7,000 volumes of Victorian literature still gracing the shelves. Visitors will find a fine meal awaiting at the Harrow Road Café, and charming, historic lodging aplenty, including the Newbury House B&B, a lovely Mansard-style structure erected in 1880. For more information, call (423) 628-2441 or visit historicrugby.org.
For a peek into more recent history that forever changed the world, explore “America’s Secret City,” Oak Ridge, Tenn., just a half-hour’s drive from Knoxville. Built in 1942 under the most clandestine of conditions, Oak Ridge was one of three “Manhattan Project” sites that would give birth to the first atomic bomb. Explore the history and unravel the technology that ended the planet’s greatest conflict at the American Museum of Science and Energy (amse.org, 865-576-3200), then chew it all over while munching a pie at Oak Ridge landmark Big Ed’s Pizza (865-482-4885), named “one of America’s 51 great pizza parlors” by USA Today. For more information, call (865) 482-7821 or visit oakridgevisitor.com.