Last Updated on November 16, 2023
My husband watched from across the table as I tried to wrap my mind around the situation we found ourselves in. Sitting next to me was the former two-term mayor of Knoxville and a current U.S. Congressional Representative. What made this scene unreal was that this confident, articulate man was once the teenager who lived two houses down from us, cut our grass, and babysat our sons.
What the heck happened to that delightful adolescent and the town we once called home over the last three decades? They both grew up and are flourishing.
We lived in Knoxville during the 1980s. It’s where our children were born.
My husband worked at Oak Ridge National Lab and I produced and hosted a local TV talk show and served on several local committees. Kids, careers, and a delightful group of friends kept us constantly on the go.
Though the Smoky Mountains were an hour’s drive away, there really wasn’t a whole lot to do in Knoxville.
When we moved from Montreal to what seemed like a totally different planet, our realtor warned us not to bother going downtown in the evening or on weekends – the place was dead. Coming from a large city with a vibrant downtown area, we found it hard to believe, but downtown Knoxville proved deader than King Tut.
What we found during our first visit back in 2023 after many years was a stunning transformation of not only downtown Knoxville, but the entire city.
The Great Knoxville Transformation
When we left Knoxville for Atlanta in 1989, the city was much as we had found it in 1980. The people were friendly, the town went crazy during college football season – the University of Tennessee Volunteers – and life hummed along. All that – with the exception of college football mania – began to change during the following decade.
In the 1990s, Knoxville began the process of reinventing itself. With its reasonable cost of living, natural beauty, and welcoming vibe, the city attracted high-tech companies, including IBM, which opened a large facility in the area. As other businesses and industries followed suit, a period of rapid growth and positive energy ensued. Once a somewhat unremarkable university town, Knoxville became a vibrant destination for tourists seeking outdoor adventure and interesting things to do as well as a fantastic place to live.
Knoxville’s Downtown Delights
Formerly a ghost town, Knoxville’s downtown has undergone a remarkable renaissance. The city invested heavily in its revitalization, which has paid off in an explosion of restaurants, shops, cultural attractions, and a steady stream of events drawing locals and visitors to the area.
Part of Knoxville’s effort to make downtown a safe and welcoming place involves K-Town Connect, an ambassador program consisting of a team of friendly Knoxvillians clad in bright green ready and willing to help. They can give you directions if you’re lost, show you where to find parking, food, and/or entertainment, and send you on your way with a smile.
While in the downtown area, treat yourself to a stroll around Market Square, a vibrant public gathering place where folks like to grab a meal or snack from one of several restaurants, enjoy live music and events, or simply hang out and people-watch.
If you’re interested in delving into the history of the area, spend some quality time at the East Tennessee History Center. This enchanting building houses The East Tennessee Historical Society and Museum, the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, the Knox County Archives, and the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. The museum tells the story of three centuries of life in East Tennessee’s mountain and valley land through artifacts, images, and technology.
If you’re an art lover, don’t miss an opportunity to wander through the Knoxville Museum of Art. The museum’s collection includes more than 1,500 objects – works on paper, paintings, mixed media works and sculptures. The collection focuses primarily on the art history of East Tennessee from the mid-19th century to the present, as well as recent developments in international contemporary art. While there, walk the grounds and take in the selection of sculptures populating the museum’s gardens.
The Year the World Revolved Around Knoxville
As we headed for our scheduled visit to the Sunsphere, Knoxville’s tallest structure, we couldn’t help remembering the summer of 1982, the year of the Knoxville World’s Fair. It was called Energy Expo, and visitors came from far and wide to explore the exhibits, sample international foods, and enjoy the entertainment.
We were there almost every weekend, wheeling our baby around the grounds in his stroller and delighting in the sights and sounds. It was a window that opened on the world from May to October, but when it closed, it didn’t close completely.
During the World’s Fair, the 26-story Sunsphere dominated the Knoxville skyline – and still does – serving as the fair’s symbol. It also housed an observation deck and a full-service restaurant.
When the fair closed, so did the Sunsphere. The structure remained vacant or underutilized for most of its post-fair existence, but in 2007, the observation deck opened to the public once again.
When we stepped off the Sunsphere elevator, a stunning 360-degree view stretching from downtown to the Smoky Mountains, including World’s Fair Park, the Tennessee River, and the University of Tennessee campus greeted us. The restaurant was gone, but there was a 1982 World’s Fair timeline, a gallery of local images and memorabilia, and of course, a gift shop.
The Sunsphere and the Tennessee Amphitheater are the only structures left from that phenomenal World’s Fair moment in time. Still, a leisurely stroll around World’s Fair Park is a pleasurable experience. Look for the eight informational markers throughout the park to learn more about the famous Fair.
Outdoor Fun and Adventure
One of the biggest eye-openers as we took in the changes to Knoxville’s landscape was Urban Wilderness, an incredible 1,000-acre outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Located in South Knoxville, Urban Wilderness features more than 50 miles of hiking and biking trails to suit all levels of ability and endurance. Trails and greenways connect to five parks, a nature center, dramatic rock quarries, lakes, playgrounds, Civil War sites and other recreational amenities, and let’s not forget an enchanting 500-acre wildlife area.
Visiting Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness
• Ijams Nature Center is a 300-acre nature preserve with hiking trails, a nature center and stunning views of the Tennessee River.
• Mead’s Quarry is ideal for swimming and paddling. You can see it at the bottom of the stairs near the River Sports pavilion. Walk the rocky path and navigate the Imerys Trail to the keystone via the Ross Marble loop. If you prefer a flat paved trail, try the Will Skelton Greenway.
• Fort Dickerson is tailor-made for Civil War enthusiasts. A quarry lake and more than four miles of multi-use natural interactive trails includes three authentic replica cannons surrounding one of the best-preserved earthen forts from the Civil War era. Following your explorations, relax and enjoy a picnic at one of the two shelters at the end of your walk.
• High Ground Park commemorates the historic site of Fort Higley. The 39-acre park features an easy one-mile natural trail that winds through peaceful hardwood forests, wildflowers and native flowering bushes. The park also includes remnants of defensive emplacements – rifle trenches and a cannon redoubt.
• Baker Creek Preserve is a recreation area and one of the most popular Urban Wilderness trailheads. Families can enjoy exploring Gateway Park Greenway and Play Forest while bikers can challenge their skills at the bike park with options for all skill levels. With two paved pump tracks and a paved jump line, the bike park is a favorite among riders of all ages. Also, these trails are safe to ride when other trails are too wet.
Eat and Drink Knoxville
The memory is still clear after more than 40 years. It was a late June night. We had just landed in Knoxville for the first time for a house-hunting trip. As we drove along Kingston Pike, the road that runs through Knoxville, my husband read out signs. Almost all of them were fast food chains.
“Great,” I groaned, “we’re traveling down junk food alley.”
My first impression of Knoxville’s food options was harsh, but there was hope. Over the years, we found several family-owned restaurants to enjoy. If we wanted international fare, there was Chinese, Mexican, Italian, but not much else.
On our latest visit, however, we could choose from delightful Indian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Thai, Brazilian cuisine and more.
In the South, BBQ is as big as a rock star’s ego. Back in the day, Buddy’s was our go-to for BBQ with the best hushpuppies in town. Upon our return, we discovered there were several new options for excellent slow-smoked meats.
Our first stop was Dead End BBQ, a cheerful restaurant serving up excellent brisket nachos. The last stop on our way back to Greenville, SC where we call home now was Sweet P’s BBQ. Because the choices were overwhelming, we split a sampler with plenty of food for the two of us. Generous portions of three sides, one meat, and cornbread kept us full for hours.
Dinner at Schulz Brau, a castle-themed restaurant with a Biergarten, was both fun and tasty. This gastropub brews its beer and serves crispy, tender schnitzel the size of a dinner plate. Another dinner we enjoyed was at Babalu, a downtown Latin/Caribbean-style restaurant.
My husband opted for one jerk pork taco and one with grilled shrimp, along with a side of Mexican street corn. I dug into a cold black bean bowl with guacamole, cheese, tomato, and lettuce. Both meals were excellent, and what made the food even better was the toe-tapping live music by the Frog and Toad Dixieland Quartet, which kept us there way past our bedtime.
For breakfast, we indulged in one sweet and one savory crepe which we shared at the French Market Creperie, an authentic French-style creperie. This family-owned eatery serves up a wide variety of creative and scrumptious crepes.
On another morning, we began the day downtown at Pete’s Coffee Shop. This popular diner serves breakfast and lunch beginning at 6:00 am. Although the coffee was disappointing, my loaded Southwestern omelet and my husband’s Greek Breakfast Bowl more than made up for it.
It was a sad story in 1980. The best beer we could find was Michelob, and even Coors wouldn’t be available for several years. My British brother-in-law called our beer “gnat’s pee” and we couldn’t disagree.
We could purchase alcohol in Knoxville, but Knox County was dry. If we wanted to go on a bourbon distillery tour, we would have to drive 176 miles to the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, and wouldn’t even be able to sample the goods. That’s right. Moore County, where the whiskey is made, was dry too.
On our return to our old stomping grounds, we were delighted to learn that not only could we find good beer, Knoxville had an Ale Trail. In the downtown area we discovered Knox Brew Hub, serving exclusive beer options.
Ale Rae’s is a delightful gastropub serving great beer and over-the-top fries, accompanied by live music every night. North Knoxville boasts several breweries within walking distance of each other, which makes it a prime location for a pub crawl. Try Xul, Geezers, Crafty Bastard, Next Level, and Gypsy Circus, which produces amazing hard cider.
As if the beer bonanza isn’t enough, Knoxville offers three distilleries as part of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, Tennessee’s answer to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. You can visit PostModern Spirits, Knox Whiskey Works, Drop Zone Distilling, or all three.
Where to Stay in Knoxville
To keep up with the demand of being a business center and tourist destination, Knoxville offers numerous accommodation options. From cozy rentals to upscale hotels and everything in between, you can easily find places to fit your needs and budget.
We stayed at Four Points by Sheraton Knoxville Cumberland House Hotel in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders Historic District within easy walking distance from World’s Fair Park, the Knoxville Convention Center, and the University of Tennessee. Our room was clean and comfortable, and the hotel had a number of desirable amenities, but we didn’t spend much time there.
True, Knoxville wowed us with many delightful surprises, but that homey feeling never left us. The treehouse my husband built for our boys was gone, but the house we lived in for nearly nine years looked much the same as it did when we occupied it.
Strangers still smiled, waved, and started conversations with little provocation. Although our old favorite, Buddy’s BBQ, is now a regional chain, it’s still family-owned and the hushpuppies were every bit as tasty as when we first discovered them in 1980.
Coming home can be disappointing for those who expect everything to be the same as when they left. This approach seldom reaps positive results. In visiting Knoxville after so many years, we found we could replay cherished memories against the backdrop of a vibrant ever-changing city we still hold close to our hearts.