Knoxville is probably best-known as home to the University of Tennessee, but this vibrant town has way more to offer than college bars and tailgate parties. With a budding restaurant scene, a walkable downtown, and plenty of kid-friendly activities and attractions, Knoxville is a fantastic option for your next family vacation.
Choose from our list of Knoxville favorites and I can promise you a vacation your fam will never forget.
Regarded as one of the top zoos in the Southeast, Zoo Knoxville is a great place to spend a day in Knoxville with the family. From lions and wolves to rhinos and baboons, you’ll find them all at Knoxville’s zoo, including a brand new Tiger Forest, which is home to rare Malayan tigers.
If you have just one night to spend in Knoxville with your family and you have kids ages 8 and up, this is hands down the activity I’d most recommend. This is not your average ghost walk. Tour guide J-Adam Smith has created family-friendly tours that are equal parts local history, paranormal investigation, and science experiment. You’ll get to try out the same gear used by ghost hunters as you attempt to track down Knoxville’s most famous (and infamous!) ghosts. We had a total blast on our ghost tour, and it was an experience I know none of us will ever forget.
You really shouldn’t visit Knoxville without taking a (free!) elevator ride up to the top of the city’s iconic Sunsphere. Constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair, it has become the most-recognized visual symbol of Knoxville. Head up to the observation deck and read all about Knoxville’s World Fair history — then enjoy the view from those 24-karat gold-plated windows.
This children’s science and art museum is full of hands-on activities and exhibits designed to educate and entertain your kids. It’s also home to the city’s only public-access planetarium. Admission is just $7 per person; planetarium activities are an extra $2. What a deal!
Part of Knoxville’s vast Urban Wilderness, this 315-acre nature center offers 3.5 miles of trails, environmental education programs, canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals on Mead’s Quarry Lake, and Navitat Knoxville, a tree-based adventure park. Check out the Ijams schedule to see which family programs are offered during your visit or just stop by for a hike or summertime float.
Take a trip back in time aboard the Three Rivers Rambler, a coal-fired steam engine that runs from the heart of downtown Knoxville past several historical sites to the “Three Rivers Trestle,” where the French Broad and Holston Rivers come together to form the Tennessee River. Ninety minute runs are offered on weekends in season. There are also special Halloween and Christmas rides featuring special activities for the kids. Make your reservations in advance on the Three Rivers Rambler website. But hurry — the seats fill up fast!
If you’re going all out, Knoxville a great place to do it. It’s home to The Oliver Hotel, a luxury boutique property in Market Square that also contains two of Knoxville’s most popular restaurants, Oliver Royale and Tupelo Honey, as well as one of its coolest bars, the Peter Kern Library. You may never want to leave the building once you arrive, but the hotel’s complimentary bicycles just might change your mind.
For a more affordable and family-friendly option, check out downtown Knoxville’s Holiday Inn. Located right beside the Sunsphere, it includes an indoor pool, fitness center, and free Wi-Fi. It’s also within easy walking distance of the World’s Fair Park’s splash pad, the (free!) Knoxville Museum of Art, and Fort Kid, a 12,000-sqare-foot city playground featuring massive climbing structures.
This cozily hip burger joint in Market Square is likely to be packed with people — and when you taste the “locally-grown” craft burgers and the duck confit fries, you’ll understand why. We each chose a different burger from the long list of choices and while all were great, the bison and Black and Blue burgers were our favorites. As for the duck confit fries, honestly, I’d drive the four hours back to Knoxville just to taste them again.
Just a block and a half away from Market Square, you’ll find Kaizen, a laid-back Asian restaurant that’s now on my must-do list any time I’m in Knoxville. Here, you’ll find affordable tapas-style small plates of Asian-inspired delicacies, many of which are surprisingly kid-friendly. Everything we tried was amazing, from the mushroom fried rice to the octopus fritters. Our kids went crazy over Kaizen’s many varieties of steam buns — the chicken katsu, Tofu, and oyster buns were their favorites.
You might have to wait for a table at this cozy, light-filled restaurant in Knoxville’s historic Old City, but once you have brunch here, you’ll agree this restaurant is totally worth the wait. Menu items here are seasonal and built on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. On our visit, standouts were the lighter-than-air biscuits, flavorful sage sausage, the crispy squared potatoes, and, believe it or not, a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with collard greens. Even my kids loved it! My Abuelita mocha was also first-rate.
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a Parisian bistro when you enter this downtown restaurant, but that’s not why there’s a line of people at the counter. It’s the crepes that make this place truly special. Made with flour imported from France, you can choose from sweet or savory options. We had a few of both! We can recommend the Dutch ham and cheese crepe with an egg over easy on top and the Smores crepe for dessert. YUM.
There’s no better place to stop for a treat in downtown Knoxville than this authentic soda fountain inside the historic Phoenix building on Gay Street. Take my advice and order a Streetcar for the entire family. It’s The Phoenix’s flagship sundae and it is EPIC. The delectable menu also includes hand-spun shakes and artisan ice cream.
For families out there with divided loyalty between cake and yeast-made doughnuts, Knoxville has a perfect solution: Status Dough. Both varieties are made fresh at this Kingston Pike bakery each day and feature inventive flavors like Strawberries and Cream and Maple Bacon. If you only try one, though, make it the uber-popular Buttermilk Old Fashioned.
Located on Northshore Drive, this decades-old bakery is off the beaten path but I have to include it because we never, ever drive through Knoxville without a Ham’ n Goodys pit stop. Prepare to be shocked senseless by their lemon cookies and glazed almond tea cookies — I’ve never tasted anything like them. Their red velvet cake and strawberry cake are both the best I’ve had anywhere, ever, and if you’re lucky, you can buy them by the slice instead of having to splurge on an entire cake.
Market Square is the social hub of downtown Knoxville, and has been since the 1860s. Here, you’ll find some of the city’s best shopping, restaurants, hotels, and nightlife, as well as two water play fountains and seasonal special events like Movies on the Square, ice skating in winter, and a May-November farmer’s market on Wednesdays and Saturdays featuring local crafts, produce, baked goods and more. Be sure and check out the gorgeous Turkish lamps at Agora Knoxville!
From candy and toys to clothing, gifts, and Appalachian accessories, you’ll find something for everyone in your family at this ginormous general store. Mast is a perfect place for your kids to pick up inexpensive souvenirs on your vacation, and it’s always one of our favorite places to stop and shop.
Oh, girl. Enter this spacious downtown boutique and I can guarantee you won’t want to leave. I could have spent hours (not to mention serious dollars) browsing through the stylish-yet-affordable clothing, accessories, jewelry, and shoes here. In fact, I plan to the next time I’m in town!
If you’re looking for the ultimate unique-to-Knoxville souvenir, head to the Pretentious Glass Company in K-Town’s historic Old City neighborhood. Here, glassblowing expert Matthew Cummings sells his world-famous beer glasses. He’s one of Etsy’s top sellers for a reason! Afterward, head next door to Pretentious Beer Company and knock back a craft beer, soda, or kombucha (in one of Matthew’s hand-blown glasses, of course!) while watching a live glassblowing demonstration. This has got to be one of the most unique bars in the country.
To make sightseeing even easier, Knoxville has a free trolley service with three lines that will help you get around with ease. Downtown Knoxville also has several parking garages that offer free parking on nights and weekends. Street parking is free on Sundays.
Knoxville is just an hour away from Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and it’s only 45 minutes from Dollywood. With all Knoxville has to offer, it’s become an increasingly popular landing point for tourists wanting to visit these popular tourist destinations.
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