Best Attractions and Things to Do around Knoxville
By Amber Nolan
Not only does Knoxville offer a number of attractions within the city limits, there are plenty of things to do in nearby Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains. From theme parks and camping, to train rides, museums, and other outdoor recreation, Knoxville has plenty of options for travelers.
In 1982, Knoxville was home to the World's Fair, and today the park still welcomes visitors. The signature icon is the Sunsphere, a sprawling viewing tower offering sweeping city views. Visitors can travel back in time to some of the Historic Homes of the area, or wander through the Museum of East Tennessee History.
Families can bring little ones to the Muse, a hands-on art and science center, or take them on a train ride aboard the Three Rivers Rambler. About 30 minutes away, Dollywood offers amusement park rides and water slides, while the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is perfect for a day trip or family picnic.
Sports fans can appreciate the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, and nature lovers can experience Ijams Nature Center - located within Knoxville's city limits. There's also Market Square for shopping, dining, and nightlife. The travel experts at 10Best.com have sorted through Knoxville's attractions and present this list of the 10 Best things to do.
Three Rivers Rambler
This train travels along the Tennessee River from Downtown Knoxville, past historical sites to the "Three Rivers Trestle" where the French Broad and Holston Rivers meet. The 90-minute ride generally runs on Saturdays since freight is hauled during the week. Around Halloween and Christmas, special theme train rides are offered. Book well in advance, particularly during Christmas when Santa comes on board! If the train isn't running when you're in town, another way to see the river is by taking the Star of Knoxville, a classic paddlewheeler that offers sightseeing cruises. Be sure to check the schedule to make sure there is a train running during your visit. (865-524-9411)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This is the most visited national park in the country, and one glimpse at it lets you know why. The park includes more than 520,000 acres, 735 miles of streams, and 800 miles of some of the most scenic hiking and biking trails in the world. The peaks reach over 6,000 feet, providing unforgettable scenic vistas and several visitor centers are scattered throughout the park. Located less than an hour from Knoxville, pack a picnic lunch and spend the day. Activities include fishing, horseback riding, camping, ranger-led programs, and wildlife viewing. Black bear, white-tailed deer, and elk are just a few animals that live in the park. (865-436-1200)
Fun in the Great Smokies awaits at this celebrated theme park co-owned by Dolly Parton. If you're lucky, you'll catch a live performance by the country music songstress! Rollercoasters, kiddie rides, craft shops, train rides, an interactive museum and plenty of restaurants and snack stalls make this a great family-friendly attraction. The water park features more than 23 rides, from plunge pools and white water rafting to body slides and lazy rivers. Located about 30 miles from Knoxville in Pigeon Forge, Dollywood makes an easy day trip. Cabins are available for those planning a longer getaway (but book in advance). (865-428-9488)
The Muse Knoxville
Formerly the Discovery Center, this kid-friendly museum is full of hands-on programs and learning experiences. With extremely affordable ticket prices (just $5 for adults and $4 for kids), families won't have to break the bank at this fun attraction. With nearly 4,000 square feet of space to roam, kids off all ages will find an exhibit that interests them. There's the building space to create cars, tiles, and structures, science exhibits like wind tunnels and microscopes, and "kid space," loaded with things to crawl on or climb into. Kids can even take an imaginary flight. The museum also features a planetarium. (865.594.1494)
Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
A thirty-foot tall basketball, which weighs more than 10 tons and sits on top of a glass staircase that resembles a basketball net, beckons visitors to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Located in downtown Knoxville, this 32,000-square-foot building features interactive, hands-on exhibits that trace the history of the sport from its beginning in 1892 to the creation of the WNBA. Individuals that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame include University of Tennessee and Olympic coach Pat Summitt, Olympic star Cheryl Miller, and Asian great Shin-Ja Park. The Hall of Fame features memorabilia such as uniforms, rulebooks, and trophies, as well as an interactive exhibit where you can test your fundamental basketball skills of shooting, passing, and dribbling. A gift shop is located on-site. (865-633-9000)
Museum of East Tennessee History
This museum traces the area's history, from its beginnings in the 1700s to the present. Guided tours feature a documentary and numerous hands-on exhibits. Enjoy displays devoted to the "Trail of Tears," Davy Crockett, Bonnie Kate Sevier, the Civil War, and the Underground Railroad. Located right on Gay Street, it can easily be combined with other attractions in the area. Although exhibits may change, the "Voices of the Land" tells the story of the people of East Tennessee and the history of the Knoxville World's Fair. Some 13,000 artifacts can be viewed including quilts, textiles, furniture art, and Civil War items. (865-215-8830)
Once a frontier town, Knoxville has a fascinating history that is on display at six unique houses. From log cabins to mansions, visitors can time travel through several eras. Listed on the list of National Historic Landmarks, Blount Mansion is the former home of William Blount, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. James White's Fort dates back to 1786, and was restored so the public can experience frontier lifestyle like cooking on hearth, blacksmithing, and spinning (on a wheel, not a bicycle). Other historic homes include the Ramsey House, Marble Springs, Mabry-Hazen House, and Crescent Bend. Just 30-minutes drive from each other, it is easy to visit all six in one day! (865-523-7263)
Ijams Nature Center
This sprawling nature center includes 3.5 miles of marked trails, rolling meadows, colorful gardens, and dramatic bluffs, all intersected by the Tennessee River. The main mission at this 275-acre park is to educate visitors about the environment, which they accomplish by offering free tours and workshops. The hands-on classes are as entertaining as they are educational. There is always some type of event or activity going on, including paddle boarding, yoga, animal programs, canoe rentals, and Peg's weekly breakfast. They also host some signature events like "Symphony in the Park," "River Rescue" clean-up effort, "Hike-a-Thon," and Halloween haunted lantern tours. (865-577-4717)
World's Fair Park
Knoxville was the host of the 1982 World's Fair that drew 11 million people, making it the last successful World's Fair. Decades later, the area where the fair was held is still a top draw for visitors. Attractions include The Candy Factory, a conglomeration of Victorian homes hosting arts and crafts shops, and Fort Kid, which is a large playground. The world-class Knoxville Museum of Art is also located here, as is the memorable symbol of the World's Fair, the 26-story Sunsphere. Take the elevator up for sweeping views of the city and the amphitheater below. It's a good choice for a first stop in the city to help visitors get their bearings. (865-523-4227, 800-727-8045)
Market Square District
With a history dating back to 1854, Market Square has been a hub for exchanging goods and for people to gather. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today the square features a blend of restaurants, bars, shopping areas, an outdoor theater, gardens, and pedestrian walkways. It is also the home of The Oliver Hotel, Knoxville's lodging gem. During the summer months, visitors can dine outdoors on outdoor patios and linger late over wine and cocktails. On weekends especially, live music performances from Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall draw a crowd. On Wednesdays and Saturdays a farmers market takes over much of the square.
About Amber Nolan
Originally from upstate New York, this restless traveler has a knack for befriending interesting characters. You can usually find her just about anywhere that has a hammock. Amber's favorite places are Iceland for its remoteness; Panama for its parties; and Peru for its history. Her work can be found on MSNBC.com, Frommers, and Sherman’s Travel, where she served as the Cruise Editor and Senior Producer. She is currently working on a comic novel about her shoestring travels as she hitchhikes on airplanes across the country in an effort to visit all 50 states. See Jethiking.com.
Read more about Amber Nolan here.