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Planning to visit the Volunteer State and looking for all the fun things to do in Knoxville, TN? You’ve come to the right place.
Let me tell you, Knoxville will surprise and delight you. It’s a mountain town not far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is full of incredible attractions (and a few hidden gems).
It’s an artsy place with a laid back vibe. On any visit to Knoxville, you’ll be blessed with outdoor adventure, good food, civil war history and warm hospitality.
We had a fun filled three days exploring the Knoxville area and felt we got to know the city really well. In this guide, we share the best Knoxville attractions to add to your itinerary, plus include some suggestions for where to eat and drink and places to stay in Knoxville with kids.
- Is Knoxville Worth Visiting?
- Getting Around Knoxville
- Things to Do in Knoxville
- 1. Explore the Historic Market Square
- 2. Eat and Shop at Knoxville Market Square Farmers' Market
- 3. Go Boutique Bowling at Maple Hall Bowling
- 4. Free Live Music at Knoxville Visitors Center
- 5. Watch a Vols Game at Neyland Stadium
- 6. Get Knoxville Views at The Sunsphere
- 7. Hiking at the Ijams Nature Center
- 8. Fly High with the Navitat High Ropes Course
- 9. Go Swimming and Kayaking at Mead's Quarry Lake
- 10. Stroll The Knoxville Riverfront
- 11. Visit the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
- 12. Visit the Mcclung Museum of Natural History and Culture
- 13. Catch the A Performance at one of Knoxville's Theaters
- 14. Picnic at Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum
- 15. Cruise on the Star of Knoxville Riverboat
- 16. Museum of East Tennessee History Center
- 17. William Blount Mansion
- Things to Do in Knoxville with Kids
- Where to Eat in Knoxville
- Where to Stay in Knoxville, TN
- Things to Do near Knoxville TN
- Before You Go
Is Knoxville Worth Visiting?
If you’re wondering whether Knoxville is worth visiting, the short answer is; yes!
For us, the inspiration to visit Knoxville started way back in 2006 whilst sitting in a bar in San Diego. We were chatting with two guys who had attended the University of Tennessee and they were doing an excellent job of entertaining us with stories of all the cool things to do in Knoxville.
To be honest, they didn’t have to convince us much and had us sold at tailgating and College Football – and being on the doorstep to The Smoky Mountains – if you know us well enough, that’s an easy sell.
One interesting fact we learned is that Knoxville is within a day’s driving distance from two-thirds of the population of the United States east of the Mississippi River, and Interstates I-40, I-75, and I-275 run through the city!
This means that it’s not only a great place to explore, but it’s a great place to base yourself to take day trips and cool getaways.
Eleven years and two kids later we finally made it to Knoxville, and they were right, it’s a fun and outdoorsy place to visit, and the locals certainly know how to embrace that and take advantage of where they live.
Be sure to include it in your Southern and East Coast road trip. It makes for a wonderful jumping-off spot.
Getting Around Knoxville
We arrived in Knoxville towards the end of our Tennessee road trip. We’d just spent a few days exploring all the fun things to do in Nashville with kids and attractions in Memphis, and were en route to the Smokies.
Since it has three major interstates running through the city, it’s not hard to miss, really. And if you don’t want to drive, The Mcghee Tyson Airport (Knoxville’s Airport) offers nonstop flights to 20 locations around the US. Search for flights here.
Getting around the city is pretty simple. In downtown Knoxville, you can walk to pretty much anywhere. It’s a small and compact district, and everything is within 15 minutes on foot, and is right next to the Old City which is really only a couple of streets.
There is also a free Knoxville Trolley that runs through downtown and to the University of Tennessee campus on Monday – Saturday if you don’t feel like walking. It has four color-coded routes and passes by hotels and Knoxville’s top attractions.
To get to the suburbs, there are buses and also bike rentals in the city. You’ll find plenty of bikes and they are relatively cheap to rent at $1 for every 15 minutes.
To get to the surrounding areas and the Smokies, you’ll need to hire a car. Bus routes don’t tend to reach these gorgeous nature spots, so you’re best option is to take a tour or drive yourself. You can find cars to rent using RentalCars.com, a car rental comparison site.
Things to Do in Knoxville
Now you know a bit about Knoxville and how to get around, it’s time to look at the top attractions. With or without kids, there is plenty of things to do in Knoxville!
1. Explore the Historic Market Square
A visit to Historic Market Square is one of the best Knoxville things to do.
It’s essentially the heart, or the hub of downtown with a great vibe and is the place to be for cafes, restaurants and live music on select nights.
There’s the odd busker in the square too – little Savannah was lucky enough to get a lesson on the violin and what can we say about the locals, they’re friendly folks around here. She loves her music so she enjoyed this moment.
Market Square is a cool destination at any time of day but really comes alive in the evening.
We witnessed some live music one night which provided for a family friendly atmosphere and was fun. People were kicked back in their camp chairs enjoying the tunes, and the nearby outdoor diners could join in too!
Looking for somewhere to eat in Market Square, Knoxville?
There’s no shortage of dining options around the square from casual to a bit fancier.
Our top two picks would have to be The Tomato Head and The Stock & Barrel (read our full list of places to eat and drink down below in our section under where to eat in Knoxville).
Every morning we’d hit up the Juice Bar for a healthy smoothie or acai bowl. Yeah, it’s a chain with locations around the country but they have an excellent selection of smoothies and juices.
And if you can’t find something to satisfy your needs in Market Square, there’s plenty of other options located around the corner and on nearby Gay St (main street Knoxville).
2. Eat and Shop at Knoxville Market Square Farmers’ Market
Almost everyone we talked to before visiting Knoxville suggested we had to visit the Knoxville Farmers Market, which came with high expectations.
If you’ve been following our travels over the years you’d know that we’ve been to our fair share of Farmer’s Markets and I have no hesitation in saying that the Knoxville Farmers Market is one of the best we’ve been to!
We love open-air markets with an emphasis on local produce and community, and at this market, everything is grown or made by the vendor in the East Tennessee region.
We always do our best to shop local when traveling and if we lived in Knoxville we’d definitely be here every Saturday!
There was such a great range of products on offer from delicious local food and coffee (grab a coffee from Wild Love), to artisan crafts and much more.
With a vibrant community atmosphere, it’s a nice way to kick off your weekend and a fabulous kid friendly Knoxville attraction!
- Hours: May – November, Wednesdays 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, Saturdays 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM
3. Go Boutique Bowling at Maple Hall Bowling
Being from Australia we’re not used to bowling alleys being all fancy and fun and so popular.
Back home bowling is a thing you’d do maybe once a year at most on a rainy day when you’ve run out of other ideas. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I went bowling.
So when we heard about Maple Hall it sounded like fun and the kids were especially excited.
On the few times we have been bowling they loved it and we were all intrigued with the location.
Maple Hall is located in the heart of Knoxville in the historic J.C. Penney building and is this super cool boutique bowling alley. It’s underground with a full-service bar, cozy lounge areas and even has a VIP room.
It’s more than just a bowling alley, it’s an experience and we had a great time as a family.
Kalyra was in fine bowling form, knocking down pins like she’s a regular, as was Mummy. And little Savannah had fun progressing from using the kiddy assist guidance thing (I don’t know what they’re called lol) to bowl all by herself.
Maple Hall is popular and lanes get filled on a first come first serve basis, so if you come here in peak hour expect a bit of a wait – you can always hang at the bar – or they’ll text or call you as soon as one opens up!
Definitely one of the best things to do in Knoxville with kids.
Families note that this is an all ages facility until 9:00 pm, then they become 21+ unless it is a child with a parent.
4. Free Live Music at Knoxville Visitors Center
Whenever we visit a new destination, we make an effort to drop into the visitors center to chat with the locals in the know and to pick up any free maps.
The folks working here always offer great insider tips into their hometowns and are passionate about sharing their advice.
The Knoxville Visitor Center is no different and well worth a visit.
And we also got to experience something special, the Knoxville Visitor’s Center has live music playing at midday from Monday to Saturday.
It’s called the Blue Plate Special. They were doing a live radio cross featuring an acoustic duo from Asheville who were entertaining the crowd – so cool!
Oh, and on the exterior wall to the center is a cool mural about Knoxville and of course taking a pic is compulsory.
Definitely something you want to do when you visit Knoxville.
5. Watch a Vols Game at Neyland Stadium
As you may have guessed, I’m a big College sports fan, and every local we spoke to in Knoxville raved about the University of Tennessee Football games that are played at famed Neyland Stadium.
They certainly LOVE their football around here, which is another reason this is my kind of town!
“You have to come back in the fall to a Vols game”, they said. “The whole town shuts down and the tailgating and atmosphere is off the charts”.
I have now penciled in a Vols game and would love to see a big rivalry game against either Florida or Georgia – off to check the schedule now!
For those who care, Peyton Manning played college here. As did Reggie White, two greats of the #NFL.
And in case you don’t know, Neyland Stadium is the 5th largest stadium in the US with a capacity of 102,000 and me being me I just had to find a way inside.
I’m not going to give away too much info on how we managed to make it inside, and we didn’t do anything illegal, but where there’s a will there’s a way and we were able to sneak in for a quick pic thanks to someone in the know!
If you want to do an organized tour of Neyland Stadium, check out more info here.
6. Get Knoxville Views at The Sunsphere
You can’t miss the Sunsphere in Knoxville. It’s the big orange sphere sticking out above the skyline and visiting is one of the free things to do in Knoxville TN.
The Sunsphere was constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair and served as the symbol to the Fair. And it was also home to a full-service restaurant and the Observation Deck, which used to cost $2.00 for the elevator ride up to visit.
After the Fair finished, the Sunsphere closed to the public and remained vacant for most of its life.
The Observation Deck on the 4th level re-opened in 2014 and offers a 360-degree view of World’s Fair Park, downtown, the Tennessee River, the University of Tennessee, and the Smoky Mountains.
Visiting the Observation Deck is FREE.
The World’s Fair Park is also a lovely place to picnic, stroll, and includes other Knoxville attractions like the Knoxville Museum of Art.
7. Hiking at the Ijams Nature Center
Getting outdoors in nature is what we love most, and located a mere three miles from downtown Knoxville Tn is the Ijams Nature Center!
Ijams features 10-miles of trails, rock formations, lakes and stunning overlooks and is a much-loved sanctuary away from the city by the locals and visitors.
We did a lovely short walk along the Tennessee River and next time we are back in town for a longer stay we’ll be up for exploring more hikes plus bike rides and paddles on the river.
There is loads of family fun to be had at the Ijams Nature Center. Keep reading to discover more family activities you can do here.
Pop into the Ijams Visitor Center for a trail map and to learn about all the activities on offer, including Navitat and Meads Quarry (see below).
8. Fly High with the Navitat High Ropes Course
The Navitat Canopy Experience was Kalyra’s favorite activity in Knoxville and if it was up to her we would have stayed there all day AND night.
I must admit, it was hard to leave and I loved it too!
We’ve done a few of these high ropes challenges amongst the tree canopy around the world and this one was definitely fun, and challenging. We only had time to complete 4 out of the 6 courses so there’s a good reason to come back for more!
Navitat is part of the Ijams Nature Center and each course consists of 10 to 12 challenges, and each course is designed with varying degree of difficulty from beginner to advanced.
If you get freaked out about heights like me, don’t worry, I felt incredibly safe and secure in their harnessing system which is the most intuitive and easy to use one I’ve experienced.
And if you are like Kalyra and want to stay all day AND night, during spring and summer Navitat at Night is offered every Friday and Saturday night!
Definitely one of the most fun things to do in Knoxville with kids especially!
9. Go Swimming and Kayaking at Mead’s Quarry Lake
If you’re planning a trip to Knoxville with kids, Meads Quarry is also not to be missed.
Of all the Knoxville TN attractions, Meads Quarry was my favorite.
Just down the road from Ijams Visitor Center is Mead’s Quarry where you can go canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
Unfortunately, board hire was closed on our day of visiting Mead’s Quarry, but Caz and the kids still jumped in for a swim, and regardless the scenery was beautiful.
And apparently, in the summer you can catch a glimpse of freshwater jellyfish in the lake!
10. Stroll The Knoxville Riverfront
The best time to walk, or if you’re up for it a run, along the Knoxville riverfront is at sunrise. Check out these images of the bridges reflecting on the Tennessee River Caz took during her morning sunrise run.
Otherwise, do as we did as a family and take a peaceful afternoon walk along the riverfront and end up at Calhoun’s for a drink and early dinner.
Along the way, you’ll get views of Neyland Stadium at the University and any watercraft enjoying the river – apparently on a Vols football game day they even tailgate along here and on the water.
It’s a simple, serene and free Knoxville TN things to do.
11. Visit the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame
We’ve all heard of men’s NBL players such as Coby Bryant and Michael Jordan, but there are some incredible female players who have been underrepresented in the sport.
You can find out all about the biggest names in women’s basketball from the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It opened in June 1999 and is the only museum dedicated to all levels of women’s basketball.
The Hall of Fame was added to the museum in 2019 and has so far honored 171 players.
12. Visit the Mcclung Museum of Natural History and Culture
Located on the campus of the University of Tennessee, the Mcclung Museum of National History is a museum that showcases exhibits on natural history, local history, archaeology, anthropology, and the decorative arts.
It was built in 1963 and has always been a place that fosters education, research, and ideas. The goal was to help visitors gain an understanding and appreciation of the earth and its people.
It also offers programmes for K–12 students and families interested in learning more about our natural history.
13. Catch the A Performance at one of Knoxville’s Theaters
One of the more unique things to do in Knoxville is to attend the theater. There are several places where you can get cultured in the evenings, including attending a Knoxville Opera, which runs for several nights in a year at their theater on Depot Ave.
You can also catch the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra a few nights a week at their theater on Gay Street.
And you will find Broadway productions, and performing arts at The Tennessee Theater, which is just as stunning as its performances. It was built in the early 19th century and the hall has been lovingly restored.
The theater has a little something for everyone; you can watch classic movies, watch musicals or drama productions.
14. Picnic at Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum
Another great place to spend time with the family is at the Botanical Garden and Arboretum. It’s a free park to explore and covers 47 acres. The space is made up of manicured gardens, trees & lawns, as well as some old walls and stone buildings.
It’s a great place to sit and have a picnic or eat some local produce bought from the Farmer’s Market you visited earlier.
15. Cruise on the Star of Knoxville Riverboat
The Star of Knoxville is an authentic paddlewheeler boat that was used by the United States Coast Guard. There are two decks, inside and outside, and the inside deck is fully enclosed and air conditioned in the summer, and heated in the winter. This makes it a fun activity all year round.
It also has two bars, a dance floor, and a band stage, and can be hired out for events. Though you can join regular evening cruises, party cruises, or our favorite, Blues Cruises, where you can enjoy music from blues musicians as you sight see from the deck.
16. Museum of East Tennessee History Center
Another important museum in Knoxville is the Museum of East Tennessee History Center, which is dedicated to preserving the past of Tennessee. You can learn about its important people, places and events that shaped the state.
The Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee exhibit is a particular favorite. It’s an interactive display that allows visitors to hear first-person accounts of life in the past Knoxville.
Top tip: The museum is open seven days a week, but it’s FREE on Sundays. Make sure to plan your visit for then.
17. William Blount Mansion
William Blount was the former Governor of the Southwest Territory, and he owned this lavish home. It was built in 1792, the year Knoxville was made a capitol.
The mansion’s nickname is actually “the house with many eyes” because it gives visitors an inside glimpse into his life, in the most visual and in-depth way.
It’s in some ways a museum and in other ways a lovingly preserved home, but it’s definitely worth visiting if you’re interested in learning about the former politics of the city.
Things to Do in Knoxville with Kids
Now lets look at some specific fun Knoxville attractions for kids!
18. Feed the Animals at Zoo Knoxville
Many of you suggested we check out the Knoxville Zoo whilst in town to see the wildlife, and our kids will never say no to feeding the giraffes.
It was great timing as well, as the Zoo was proudly showing off their cute baby gorillas!!! They are so funny and human-like, we could sit and watch them interact for hours.
And this Mumma was very protective of her little bubba.
We also got up close with a tiger and elephants, and there are also some fun play areas for the kids to enjoy too making it one of the most family-friendly attractions in Knoxville.
- Adults $19.95
- Children ages 4-12 $16.95
- Seniors ages 65+ $16.95
- Children under 4 FREE
Hours: Open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!
19. Experiment and Learn at The Muse Knoxville
Got younger kids? The Muse is located in the historic Chilhowee Park (close to the Zoo) and Savannah enjoyed herself at this center.
It offers hands on activities for the kids to play, learn, and discover with activities for kids of varying ages.
One cool thing at Muse is the planetarium, which has a variety of shows playing throughout the day on their dome projection system.
- Under 2: Free
- 2 to 64: $7
- 65 and up; Military ID and Teachers (with ID): Free
- 65 and up: Free
If you like your kid’s to have engaged learning experiences, then the Muse is one of the best things to do in Knoxville with kids.
Watch our Things to do in Knoxville with kids video
For other Knoxville attractions you may want to consider:
- Blount Mansion – first frame house built west of the Appalachians, Blount Mansion is one of the oldest houses in the Southern interior
- James White’s Fort – one of the most visited historical sites in Knoxville. It is a museum home highlighted by the original 1786 residence of James White the founder of Knoxville.
- Volunteer Landing – visit this waterfront park with fountains and a splash pad, which hosts regular events. Catch a festival or concert in the evening.
Where to Eat in Knoxville
There’s a lively culinary scene here with a diverse selection of restaurants in Knoxville, plus cafes, bars and brew pubs and you’d certainly need longer than the three days we had to eat your way around town.
Below are our recommended places to eat in Knoxville.
20. The Tomato Head
Located in Market Square, the Tomato Head has yummy and fresh pizzas with lots of toppings available (gluten free bases on offer), a nice range of sandwiches, salads, and sweets.
There’s a designated kids menu and overall good value for money with a nice casual atmosphere.
21. The Stock & Barrel
Several of you suggested we go eat at The Stock & Barrel for great burgers. Thank you for that, we ate lunch here and it was a great suggestion!
It offers amazing burgers and I thoroughly enjoyed my turkey burger and the duck confit fries were delish! If you go for dinner, might be a good idea to book ahead as this place isn’t huge and is popular!
Calhoun’s has several locations in Tennessee but we only experienced the one on the Tennessee River.
As mentioned we stopped in here for a drink and bite to eat after a walk along the riverfront and this place is all about location, location.
I mean the food was fine and all, nothing that memorable but you’re right on the water and we chose to sit outside and enjoy the fresh air.
Kids menu and gluten free menu available.
23. Pete’s Coffee Shop & Restaurant
If you love a classic American style diner serving up eggs, pancakes and omelettes consider Pete’s.
This place is a bit of an institution for breakfast in Knoxville and we love that it’s a family owned.
We even got to chat with Pete who was super friendly and took a particular interest in us as Aussies – turns out he watches a bit of Aussie TV and documentaries.
24. Balter Beerworks
Did you know there’s an Ale Trail in Knoxville? So if the craft beer scene is your thing, there are currently 10 breweries operating with more on the way.
Whilst our visit wasn’t focused on breweries, we do love a couple of beers and a bite to eat at a brew pub so again we have another reason to come back to Knox – hello Fall Football game!
We did get to one brewpub though, the Balter Beerworks which has a nice outdoor seating area and friendly staff – our waitress had just returned from living in Australia so we had lots to chat about.
The menu was quite extensive, we had the salmon and an open burger, and washed it all down nicely with a brew.
25. Cruze Farm Ice Cream
One for the kids, and big kids y’all going to love this Knoxville attraction.
The recently opened Cruze Farm on South Gay Street is a cool story and visually appealing shop that leverages off a family dairy farm in Knoxville – you’ll find their milk all around East Tennessee.
They milk Jersey cows and bottle their own whole pasteurized Jersey milk, as well as real churned buttermilk, light milk, and chocolate milk.
You may have seen their farm girls around town delivering milk to a market or possibly even milking cows. They’re hard to miss in their striking red and white dresses, inspired by their grandmother who wore a dress while she milked cows.
26. K Brew Cafe
How cool is this cafe in Knoxville!
Fancy a coffee whilst lazing in a hammock?
Even if you’re not a big coffee drinker, K Brew is a hit with the kids. You might have to remind them that they’re not on the swings at a playground, and if you come without kids why not kick back with a good book and your latte and imagine you’re on vacation!
Well played K Brew!
Where to Stay in Knoxville, TN
We stayed at the recently opened Tennessean Hotel, a personal luxury hotel with a prime central location downtown across the street from the Sunsphere and an easy 5-10 minute stroll to Market Square.
Just like with travel, it’s not always about the destination but the people you meet and the same goes for hotels, it’s not always about the facilities but the staff who work there.
From the valet guys who greeted us upon arrival, and every day of our stay, to the friendly and attentive front desk staff, our stay was made very pleasant, comfortable, and personable.
And, we were minutes’ drive from the best Knoxville has to offer.
Things to Do near Knoxville TN
Are you planning a full Tennessee trip? Then check out these other guides on things to do near Knoxville:
- 15 Awesome Things to Do in Nashville with Kids (adults love these too!)
- 11 Insanely Cool Things to Do in Memphis with Kids (or without)
- 6 Captivating Things to do in Franklin TN (Day Trip From Nashville)
- 8 Things to do in Lake Lure – the place for serenity
- A Cades Cove bike ride in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – we saw bears!
- Visiting Asheville (waterfalls, breweries + cost of travel)
- Top places to go in the North Carolina Mountains
- A Visit to the Biltmore Estate – America’s largest home
- 17 Fun things to do in Chattanooga with kids
Before You Go
So there you have it! Those are 26 fun things to do in Knoxville Tennessee with family. As you can see, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this awesome city.
We hope that you found this guide useful and that you have a great time exploring Knoxville.
Thanks to Visit Knoxville for hosting our stay.
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Do you have any tips on things to do in Knoxville Tennessee? Please share in the comments.