Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains: A To-Do List for Travelers

The Smoky Mountains is the perfect destination for a fall family getaway. Explore these top attractions in Knoxville, TN and get expert tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville, Tennessee, has grown from a hardscrabble town into a vibrant city with a thriving creative scene, innovative food and drink options, and exceptional access to the state's natural beauty. Located less than 40 miles outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Knoxville also makes an excellent gateway for families seeking to capture the forest-cloaked mountains in their most brilliant fall colors.

Must-See Attractions

World's Fair Park
In the years since Knoxville hosted the 1982 World's Fair, World's Fair Parkhas blossomed into a popular attraction. Let your kids explore the 12,000-square-foot Fort Kid playground, visit quirky arts and crafts shops, or ride the elevator to the viewing platform of the 26-story Sunsphere. If you haven't tired of gawking at Knoxville from above, grab a table at the Sunsphere's Icon: Restaurant | Lounge, where you can enjoy dinner or appetizers with a sweeping view. Park entrance is free.

Ijams Nature Center
Tucked into Knoxville's Urban Wilderness, Ijams Nature Center transports visitors to a 300-acre natural playground. Terraced gardens and miles of marked trails await exploration. Little ones will love nosing around the whimsical Jo's Grove. Don’t miss strolling along the boardwalk overlooking the Tennessee River. Still craving adventure? Pop into a canoe and enjoy a paddle along Mead's Quarry Lake. Nature center entrance is free.

Market Square
The eclectic heart of Knoxville, Market Square pedestrian mall contains the city's trendiest restaurants and funkiest boutiques. Shop for quirky home goods at Bliss Home or graphic T-shirts at Räla, and then refuel with a burger and beverage at Downtown Grill & Brewery. Don't leave the square without visiting the twice-weekly Market Square Farmers' Market (Wednesdays and Saturdays) to buy locally-sourced and handmade goods, or get your groove on during one of the square's regular live music performances.

See It Like a Local

Old City
Once housing the region’s red-light district and greatest density of saloons, Knoxville's Old City neighborhood has morphed into one of the city's most interesting cultural enclaves. Wander along Jackson Avenue beside carefully preserved Victorian, Italianate and classical revival buildings, some of which have earned spots on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Home to the city's "creative corridor," Old City boasts galleries and live music venues like Barley's Taproom and Boyd's Jig & Reel. Head to OliBea and order the chicken biscuit breakfast sandwich, or sip a steaming cup of coffee at much-loved Old City Java.

The Blue Plate Special at WDVX
Free, live musical performances at the beloved WDVX studio inside the Knoxville Visitor Center offer an earful of music — from folk to funk, country to Celtic, and rockabilly to hillbilly — every Monday through Saturday at noon.

Plan a Day Trip

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Located just 37 miles outside of Knoxville, Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes an ideal daylong excursion for family vacationers and nature lovers. Begin with a winding drive along the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop, passing 18th- and 19th-century barns and a grist mill. Next, head to Clingmans Dome; at 6,643 feet, it's the highest peak in the Smokies and grants 360-degree views of the surrounding hills and valleys. Finally, cruise up Newfound Gap Road, a 33-mile stretch carved into the mountainside and marked by scenic overlooks. Shutterbugs, these are your Instagram-worthy spots.

Don’t leave without visiting one of the park's many waterfalls, accessible via paths marked at the side of roads. The 80-foot tall Laurel Falls and 90-foot Hen Wallow Falls are among the most popular, and they are particularly scenic amid the reds, golds, oranges and yellows of fall foliage.

Knoxville and Smoky Mountains
 
 
Boyd’s Jig & Reel is a registered trademark of Boyd Entertainment, LLC.
 
 

About the Author

Valerie Conners is a travel writer specializing in southeastern U.S. destinations. She’s contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, Travel Channel and Frommer's travel guides.