Knoxville, Tennessee is the perfect place for a holiday weekend getaway!
As soon as we arrive in downtown Knoxville, fat flakes of snow begin drifting down from the sky as if on cue. It lends a decidedly festive feeling to this historic city, already festooned with Christmas lights, ribbons and greenery. We’ve decided to begin our holiday weekend getaway here with lunch at the packed Stock & Barrel, a cozy burger joint where the beef is sourced from a sixth-generation farmer in nearby Grainger County. Lunch can’t come soon enough — We’re all starved and my 10-year-old son has hit a wall. He rests his head on the table in despair, but is miraculously revived when the food arrives. Who wouldn’t be?
Our burgers are thick, juicy and divine. We can understand now why locals flock here to eat — The Bison Burger, loaded with crimini, shiitake and button mushrooms and topped with Boursin cheese, is a favorite, as is the Black and Blue, pictured above. But I’m equally thrilled by the duck confit fries…
Decadently fried in duck fat, the french fries are savory and magnificent, and they work like a magic charm to pull my son from his own personal pits of despair. I firmly believe now that if we only had more Duck Confit Fries in this world, it would indeed be a much better place.
We follow up lunch with a walk through Market Square. In the 1800s, local farmers and craftsmen came here to sell their wares. Today, lined with enticing shops and eateries, it continues to serve as the symbolic heart of downtown Knoxville.
We’ve saved room for dessert at The Phoenix Pharmacy and Soda Fountain. This working pharmacy and craft soda and sundae counter opened last year and has quickly become a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Chilled from the snowy weather, I ordered a delicious Hotty Toddy — ginger, lemon, hot apple cider and bourbon bitters. My daughter has a rootbeer float and proclaims it the best dessert she’s ever eaten — The Phoenix makes its own small-batch premium ice cream and uses Ghirardelli chocolate in its sundaes and floats, so I can totally understand her enthusiasm.
We all gamely tackle a Streetcar Sundae, the Phoenix’s flagship dessert –We don’t get very far since our mouths are much bigger than our stomachs, but the mouthfuls we do have are heavenly!
Knoxville once had horse-drawn streetcars, believe it or not, but while those days have long since passed, its free trolleys are everywhere downtown and can make a big difference if you’re sightseeing on a cold, rainy or snowy day. The trolley system has three different lines; check out the routes here or pick up one of the trolley maps available throughout the downtown area. For those who opt to drive, metered parking is free on Sundays and a number of city parking decks offer free parking on nights and weekends. You can see a full listing here.
After dessert, we check into our room at the Holiday Inn Knoxville Downtown, which gets an immediate and enthusiastic thumbs up from my kids due to its heated indoor pool. While Dennis and my daughter rest in the room, my son and I decide we’re up for a little more exploring — After all, Knoxville’s iconic Sunsphere is just steps away from our hotel’s entrance!
Chances are, when you think of Knoxville, you think of the Sunsphere. Built for the 1982 World’s Fair, it never fails to give me a shivery thrill whenever I see it in Knoxville’s skyline — My grandparents lived in Knoxville when I was growing up and I still remember when the Sunsphere was built and the excitement and energy the World’s Fair injected into this formerly sleepy city.
A few fun facts about the Sunsphere: It was built to represent the sun as a source of energy — Energy was the theme of the 1982 World’s Fair. The panes of glass have vinyl film with 24-karat gold dust laminated to them to give them their reflective gold color. While the bottom half of the sphere’s panes are laminated, the top half is tempered — That’s why the top half of the sphere is not as reflective. During the World’s Fair, a restaurant managed by Hardee’s was inside the Sunsphere, but fast food was not on the menu! It could seat up to 300 people at once.
You can take a quick elevator ride up to the Sunsphere’s observation deck for free! There, gaze down on the city and read about Knoxville from the interpretive panels located around the observation deck. For Gen X’ers in particular, this is a blast-from-the-past experience. The 1982 World’s Fair was the last successful World’s Fair in America and reading about it will bring back many fond 80s memories, from the Rubik’s Cube craze to the performers who appeared there, including Bob Hope, the Grand Kabuki from Japan, Red Skelton, and Johnny and June Carter Cash.
If you’re headed to the Sunsphere, you’ll definitely want to make time for the Knoxville Museum of Art, which is just a short walk away. This museum has free admission and gets raves from visitors, who love its paintings, exhibits, and interactive room for children.
After a little rest time at the hotel, we head back out to dinner. Wanting to try something we can’t find in our hometown of Nashville, we opt for Kaizen, a Japanese-style Izakaya a block and a half from Market Square, featuring small, tapas-style plates and a menu that changes frequently. The restaurant is small and very casual — It’s also jam packed with people on this Friday night. Luckily, Kaizen takes reservations! We walk in at 7:30 and our reserved table is waiting for us.
We take advantage of the tapas theme and try a little bit of everything. Kaizen has a fairly extensive selection of imaginative steamed buns and they are not to be missed. The fried oyster bun with marinated oyster, cilantro, scallion, citrus mayo and tamarind-chile syrup is incredible, as well as the thai sausage bun, which includes Chiang Mai sausage, peanut sauce, herbs, and pickled ginger. My kids love the milder chicken katsu buns and tofu buns — They both have seconds. We also love the takoyaki, which is a Japanese octopus fritter, and our mushroom fried rice is loaded with mushrooms and topped with a fried egg — It’s flavorful, savory, and the perfect antidote to the cold air outside. I won’t visit Knoxville again without a meal at Kaizen. Snaps and props and hearts and all the stars for this amazing little restaurant.
Full, warm, and happy, we totter off to bed — We have a full schedule planned for the next day and want to get plenty of rest.
Watch our Knoxville holiday weekend adventure!
We sleep in on Saturday morning, then make our way to Maker’s Donuts for breakfast. Sean Alsobrooks and his wife, Sara, opened this business in 2015 in the Downtown North neighborhood of Knoxville — Since then, they’ve been making delicious handcrafted donuts in flavors ranging from maple bacon to chocolate peppermint bark.
We try a half-dozen and argue over which one is best. My favorites are the devil’s food cake and blueberry bourbon, but every single one I try is delicious. I’m not always a fan of cake donuts, but these are moist and eggy and just right.
After breakfast, we head across the street to the historic Old Gray Cemetery. Established in 1851, the cemetery is the final resting place for many of Knoxville’s most notable early residents, including both Union and Confederate soldiers.
My favorite feature in the cemetery is this life-sized statue of a Confederate soldier that stands beside the headstone of two brothers who both fought in the Civil War. It’s a poignant reminder of the war that divided Knoxville and the entire nation.
We next head back to Market Square to test out the outdoor ice skating rink, which is open from the end of November until school starts back in January. My kids have never been ice skating and I haven’t tried it since I was a teen — It’s a small miracle we make it out onto the rink at all! Fortunately, this is the South and pretty much everyone on the ice is as clueless as we are. It’s strangely comforting to see that everyone else is flailing and stumbling as much as we are!
I don’t think my daughter ever lets go of the rail surrounding the rink — but my son quickly discovers that he likes ice skating. In fact, he doesn’t want to leave! Only the promise of souvenir shopping convinces him to move on to our next activity.
Market Square is home to a Holiday Market every Saturday in December. From 11 am until 5pm, food trucks, farmers, and artisans sell their wares from an endless array of tents. We wander through the tents and in and out of local shops and find plenty of Christmas presents for friends, relatives — and ourselves!
I become completely obsessed with these colorful lamps at Agora — I’m keeping my fingers crossed that one will magically appear under our Christmas tree in a couple of weeks.
And I could spend hours at Bliss & Tori Mason Shoes, a stylish boutique with gorgeous-yet-reasonable clothing, shoes, and accessories. I want everything in this store. EVERYTHING.
Meanwhile, my son reaches a state of nirvana when he finds an entire WALL of pranks and magic tricks at family favorite Mast General Store. Luckily, I have a little extra incentive to keep him moving…
An Elf on the Shelf scavenger hunt! Downtown Knoxville stores with an Elf logo outside all have an elf hidden somewhere inside. Find the elf and get a stamp in your North Pole Pass (available in all participating stores). Get 20 stamps and you’ll be eligible to win grand prizes of downtown merchandise and gift cards!
We notice kids all over downtown Knoxville hunting for elves as we’re shopping — It’s a great holiday activity and especially fitting since the author of the popular Elf on the Shelf book went to college at the University of Tennessee here in Knoxville.
After a full day of shopping, we head to the highly-regarded French Market Creperie. The line for crepes and other delectable French goodies is long, but it moves fast, and when steaming hot crepes are delivered to our table, we all agree they were worth the wait.
We order a crispy Dutch ham and cheese crepe and a roast beef and swiss crepe, along with a smores crepe and a salted caramel crepe for dessert. All are delicious — and definitely a little messy! Keep that in mind if you have smaller kids.
After lunch, it’s back to the hotel to rest — We’ve got a big night ahead of us.
We’re signed up for an evening of ghost hunting with J- Adam Smith, owner and operator of Haunted Knoxville Ghost Tours. We’ve done haunted ghost tours in the past — I love them because they mix education with entertainment. J-Adam’s tours, though, are a little different. He’s a trained paranormal investigator and his tours include both tales of Knoxville’s dark past and a chance to track spirits with his ghost hunting equipment. I’m intrigued.
J-Adam takes us first to the Historic Southern Railway Station and shows us his equipment and explains how paranormal investigators use their equipment to track energy and temperature change. He makes it into a mini-science lesson for the kids, and makes ghost hunting seem fascinating rather than frightening. We visit the baggage room and basement to test out our equipment and get some questionable readings on our gear — but it’s not until we take a walk through the ancient train cars behind the station that things really get interesting.
We walk carefully through several cars, peering into dining compartments and private bunks. All is quiet until I get to one particular room containing two bunks. The temperature gauge I’m holding flashes red, indicating a sudden temperature change of five degrees or more — It’s the only time this gauge will go off all night. We enter the room and my son’s EMF detector lights up, picking up on random energy in the room. J-Adam puts another energy reader on the bunk and my husband, Dennis, starts asking questions in the Spirit Box, a device ghost hunters use to contact spirits through radio frequency.
“What is your name?” he says into the speaker.
“Jim,” a voice crackles from the box.
“Are you a man?”
“Yes,” we hear through the static. At the same time we hear this answer, both J-Adam’s meter and my son’s meter light up like crazy, even though both devices are are simply lying on the bed. Even stranger, my daughter’s flashlight, which I happen to be watching since it’s the only light in the room, turns off by itself. She hasn’t moved in any way and I literally see it turn off at that same moment that we hear the word ‘Yes.’ I’m not really into the paranormal or spirits at all, but I can’t explain this situation — and I am loving it!
We ask ‘Jim’ a few more questions — (He’s happy we were there; he has unfinished business) before moving on to the Customs House in downtown Knoxville and the oldest cemetery in Nashville. J-Adam tells us lots of interesting stories about Knoxville’s history and we put our paranormal investigating skills to the test a few more times. The kids are literally having the time of their lives and an EMF detector is now at the top of my son’s Christmas wish list!
I highly recommend a Haunted Knoxville Ghost Tour to families visiting Knoxville with older kids (I’d say ages nine and up). J-Adam does a great job of allowing room to believe — or not believe– in ghosts, and to understand how paranormal investigation works. It makes for a great combination of science and history- with a little bit of spooky on the side.
We’re starving afterward and eager to try a local favorite, Litton’s Market and Restaurant. Located in North Knoxville, it’s known for having one of the city’s best burgers as well as delicious cakes and pies. We are not disappointed — The burgers are expertly prepared and the strawberry cake we have for dessert is outstanding.
Before heading back to Nashville Sunday morning, we make time for a visit to Old City, a neighborhood just a few blocks away from downtown. Once home to dozens of saloons and brothels in the early 1900s, the district is now home to several charming bars, restaurants, and shops — including OliBea, one of Knoxville’s hottest brunch spots.
Once again, it’s worth waiting for a table here — The locally-sourced menu is filled with delicious offerings like duck eggs, sage sausage, freshly baked bread, and squared organic potatoes. OliBea’s biscuit just might be the best I’ve ever eaten (and I’m from the South, y’all, so I know my biscuits!), the grilled cheese was stuffed with collard greens and strangely… perfect, and those squared potatoes were crispy and crazy good. We seriously loved everything we ate here, and I’m pretty sure angels sang when I took the first sip of my Abuelita Mocha. OliBea is another restaurant I don’t think I’ll be able to skip any time I’m in Knoxville.
If you have to wait for a table at OliBea, you’re in luck — The Pretentious Glass Company is right next door. Specializing in beer mugs and glasses, all made by hand, this business is a top seller worldwide on Etsy. Things are going so well that the owner has opened the Pretentious Beer Company next door, a brewery featuring craft beers served in Pretentious glasses, glass blowing demonstrations, and bar snacks from OliBea.
At this point, our time here is up — We’ve got to return home to Nashville… but we’d love to stay longer. After all, we still have so much to explore! There’s a Christmas-themed train ride! A trendy boutique hotel! A popular zoo! An Urban Wilderness with 50 miles of trails!
We’ll just have to come back.
Thanks to Visit Knoxville for hosting us on our weekend getaway!