Knoxville is more than just a college town; it’s a bastion of the arts, a multifaceted destination that encapsulates more than just football and the great outdoors. From Market Square to the Knoxville Ale Trail, there’s plenty to do in East Tennessee’s cultural hub, so the next time you’re passing through, make sure to plan your visit accordingly.
Knoxville has long been mecca for the artsy, thanks to a pair of downtown icons, the Tennessee Theatre and Bijou Theatre, bringing both Broadway productions and a mix of indie and mainstream acts to town.
With its roots buried deep in the heartland music of country, bluegrass and Americana, the WDVX Blue Plate Special at the downtown Knoxville Visitor Center is a free performance in an intimate setting that’s broadcast live on 102.9 FM at noon every day but Sunday .
Preservation Pub on Market Square also has live music nightly, in addition to a spacious rooftop bar and an excellent selection of locally sourced beers on tap. In summer months, the downtown is anchored by the Concerts on the Square series, which features weekly jazz and blues offerings in a bring-your-own-seating-style concert from May through late August.
With 11 thriving breweries, Knoxville is home to some of the most venerated brands in the Tennessee craft brew scene. Balter Beerworks has a gorgeous open floor plan and a delicious, Mexican-inspired food menu to accompany its in-house drafts.
Operating out of a converted radiator shop, Crafty Bastard serves up seasonal varieties and the occasional sour beer while playing host to a rotating cast of food trucks such as Cubish, a fusion of Cuban and Irish street fare.
While it’s always preferable to visit the brewery directly, don’t miss the opportunity to sample a plethora of varieties from across the city and state at local taprooms like Hops & Hollers or Pretentious Beer Co., where the bar doubles as a retail outlet for Matthew Cummings Studios, a boutique glassblowing shop that elevates the pint.
Southern cuisine has a certain stigma attached to it, one of battered and, often, fried monotony. But Knoxville’s chefs are out to break stereotypes. At the forefront of the food movement is Matt Gallaher, who first opened his farm-to-table concept Knox Mason in 2013 and later followed with Emilia in 2016, which highlights seasonal Italian fare with an abundance of pastas made fresh daily.
James Beard Award winner and fellow Blackberry Farm alum Joseph Lenn arrived shortly after with J.C. Holdway, a celebration of explosive flavors packed into small, shareable plates that he serves out of a former photography studio that has been tastefully remodeled.
On a sweeter note, several women have created their own food empires, like entrepreneur Colleen Cruze Bhatti, whose eponymous Cruze Farm not only supplies chefs with fresh dairy products on the regular, but whose summer ice-cream parlor pop-up on Gay Street was such a smash hit, she opened a permanent location in South Knoxville. She is also opening a “pizza barn” with husband Manjit, which, naturally, utilizes their farm’s own cheese.
Not much more than a decade ago, South Gay Street was lined with abandoned warehouses that had seen better days. But today this bustling stretch of downtown has been revived and is where the artists convene. With galleries of all sizes adding to the colorful fabric of historic Knoxville, check out spots such as Art Market Gallery, which houses the original works — from oil and watercolor to wood and sculptures — of more than 60 local artists.
The First Friday Artwalk each month is the perfect time to set out by foot (or free trolley) and pop into myriad galleries, see new exhibits and meet the brains behind the masterpieces. Looking for art in a more traditional museum setting? Knoxville’s got plenty, from the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture to the Knoxville Museum of Art.