Back to the Future in Knoxville, Tennessee

Neyland Stadium Credit: Visit Knoxville
Neyland Stadium Credit: Visit Knoxville

We Say Knoxville Has Been Upgraded to a Hip and Modern City

By Ginger Warder
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Once called “the scruffy city”, Knoxville today has a hip urban vibe filled with great live music, food, art galleries and eclectic boutiques.

Gay Street Credit: Bruce MacCamish
Gay Street Credit: Bruce MacCamish

On a recent trip to Knoxville, I felt like I had stepped into the DeLorean time machine with Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future.  I lived in the city many years ago and it’s where I began my career in broadcasting.

The historic WNOX radio station, as well as album rock stations like WKGN—which horrifying to all of us changed the format to disco— and WBIR’s Rock 104, was the station we all migrated to in order to escape Donna Summer and Anita Ward. Back then, downtown was derelict and even the historic jewel of Gay Street—the Tennessee Theatre— was closed. In fact, I can’t remember ever going downtown for any reason.

Market Square Credit: Bruce MacCamish
Market Square Credit: Bruce MacCamish

We hung out on “the strip” as it’s still called, the stretch of Cumberland Avenue that runs through the campus of the University of Tennessee (UT). We ate at the original Ruby Tuesday (the one that spawned a national chain) or grabbed a deli sandwich from Sam and Andy’s and for special occasions, we headed to the Copper Cellar for prime rib.

The Sunsphere at World's Fair Park Credit: Visit Knoxville
The Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park Credit: Visit Knoxville

All of those are gone now—replaced by apartment buildings— as is the Southern Grill in Fountain City where our crew from WBIR liked to grab biscuits and gravy for breakfast, although the WBIR building still houses the local television station.

From “Scruffy” to Sophisticated

In 1980, a front page feature in The Wall Street Journal criticized the decision to allow Knoxville to host the 1982 World’s Fair, calling it “a scruffy little city”. And while the fair put Knoxville on the map so to speak, it was many years later before the renaissance of its downtown began.

Knoxville Mural Credit: Ginger Warder
Knoxville Mural Credit: Ginger Warder

Filled with architecture from the early 20th century, downtown—especially Gay Street, Market Square and the Old City—are now hip enclaves with a small town vibe and big urban style. Cool condos and lofts, colorful murals, art galleries, eclectic boutiques and an array of locally owned restaurants now fill the area, attracting young local residents and entrepreneurs.

The glittering marquee of the historic Tennessee Theatre sparkles once again on South Gay Street. In fact, this section of Gay Street is filled with colorful and nostalgic neon, complementing the early 20th-century architecture and period-style street lamps.

The theatre—on the National Register of Historic Places and designated the Official State Theatre of Tennessee— hosts Broadway Shows, the local symphony, touring musical acts and many free community events.

Originally built by Paramount in 1928 as a grand movie palace, the ornate interior is impressive with Spanish-Moorish style architecture, Parisian chandeliers, Italian terrazzo flooring and Asian-inspired carpets and draperies.

The Tennessee Theatre Lobby Credit: Ginger Warder
The Tennessee Theatre Lobby. Ginger Warder photo.

I stayed at the Hyatt Place Downtown, just next door to the magnificent theatre and within walking distance of the most popular downtown attractions.

The Hyatt’s Five Thirty Lounge is a stunning rooftop space with both indoor glass-walled seating and an outdoor deck with firepits, both offering 360-degree views of the city and worth a pricey drink even if you don’t stay at the hotel.

In addition to its great location, amenities include a complimentary hot breakfast and coffee station in the lobby. It’s also pet friendly and directly across the street from the charming Krutch (pronounced krooch) Park which features art displays and historical statues—walk across the park and you’ll be adjacent to Market Square, filled with several dining options and local boutiques.

Knoxville’s Favorite Fall Color: Orange

And, no, I’m not referring to fall foliage, although it is beautiful in the nearby mountains at this time of year. Fall is University of Tennessee (UT) football season and the city turns orange in honor of the Vols. Yes, I have sung Rocky Top in Neyland Stadium, which is bordered by the Tennessee River.

And I have partied on one of many boats docked adjacent to the stadium—a group known as the Vol Navy—which is a unique Knoxville style of tailgating. Insider tip: if you’re planning a visit on a home football weekend, book your accommodations months in advance or as soon as the fall schedule is announced!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the late Pat Summit, the legendary women’s basketball coach at UT who helped legitimize women’s basketball through her 38-year stint as head coach of the Lady Vols, leading her teams to 22 Final Fours and named Naismith Coach of the Century.

She, along with other female basketball greats from all levels of play, is honored in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame fittingly headquartered here.

The Dolly Parton Mural Credit: Visit Knoxville
The Dolly Parton Mural Credit: Visit Knoxville

A Few Of My Favorite Things: Friendly People, Live Music, Local Artisans and Fun Cocktail Spots

I love a walkable city where I can explore at ground level and really be a part of the daily hustle and bustle.

If you’re doing a walking tour, pick up a mural map at the Knoxville Visitor Center to seek out the many creative and colorful murals in the alleys of downtown, including the one of Dolly Parton on Strong Alley between Market Square and Gay Street.


One of the Cesar Dogfood dogs: Rex
One of the Cesar Dogfood dogs: Rex

But even more than that, I love interacting with local residents and business owners—it’s always the people who make the place—and in the South, that means great conversations and a lot of good storytelling.

You know those cute Westies on the Cesar dog food commercials and packaging? I met their human mom while in Knoxville, who also happens to be the Executive Director of the Tennessee Distillers Guild.

After a fun chat about her famous pooches, Rex and Andi, I also learned that until 2009, distilling alcohol was prohibited in all but three counties.

Legislation, and the Guild’s continued advocacy, have seen that number grow to 30 today and created the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.

Shawn Williams Performs at The WDVX Blue Plate Special Credit: Ginger Warder
Shawn Williams Performs at The WDVX Blue Plate Special Credit: Ginger Warder

While Nashville is known as “Music City”, Knoxville is known as the “Cradle of Country Music” due to its career-launching live radio show, the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round on WNOX Radio, one of the 10 oldest stations in the U.S.

Bluegrass and country stars like Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, Chet Atkins, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters appeared on the live midday radio show, a tradition that has continued today with the WDVX Blue Plate Special noon broadcast from the Knoxville Visitor Center.

Catch great local and touring artists daily Monday-Thursday and Saturday—one of the best free things to do in downtown! And, Knoxville still supports live music with a variety of venues throughout the city if you want to catch one of the city’s talented local bands or songwriters.

Glittering Gay Street Credit: Bruce MacCamish
Glittering Gay Street. Bruce MacCamish photo.

If you’re looking for a unique souvenir to commemorate your visit, head a little further down Gay Street to the Arts District and check out Paris Woodhull Illustrations. Her artwork and quirky sense of humor grace everything from tea towels and t-shirts to jewelry—think Dolly Parton earrings— and highlight the creative spirt of the city.

In 2016, Etsy named Knoxville as its first “Maker City” due to the wealth of creative talent in the region. Art aficionados can also check out several local galleries in this area or participate in one of the First Friday Art Walks.

Post Modern Spirits Co-owner Stanton Webster Credit: GInger Warder
Post Modern Spirits Co-owner Stanton Webster. Ginger Warder photo.

If you’ve worked up a thirst during your wanderings, head to Post Modern Spirits, just off Gay Street on Jackson Avenue in the Old City neighborhood in the old railway freight depot.

An official stop on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, Post Modern is a locally owned craft distiller using flavors and colors from natural ingredients and botanicals and known for its innovative artisanal cocktails.

A "New Fashioned" craft cocktail at Post Modern Spirits Credit: Ginger Warder
A “New Fashioned” craft cocktail at Post Modern Spirits Credit: Ginger Warder

Co-owner, Stanton Webster, made us a “New Fashioned”, and also pointed out that they don’t just make whiskey, offering us tastings of their artisanal gin and vodka.

And ironically, although we hadn’t known each other decades ago when I lived in Knoxville, we discovered in chatting that we had several mutual friends.

If you’re looking for a place to have a nightcap, check out one of the “secret” speakeasy-style lounges—well, not so much secret as not immediately visible. Sitting underneath the restaurant, Vida, in the nether regions of a historic bank building,

The Vault has a cozy, subterranean vibe. The Peter Kern Library, located behind the lobby of the boutique Oliver Hotel, was once truly an insider secret, down an alley to a secret door and with a password required for entry.

This cozy hidden speakeasy with walls of books, a fireplace and one of the city’s talented mixologists will transport you to the days of Prohibition.

Food For Thought : Five Don’t Miss Knoxville Spots

Even the food in Knoxville has a story to tell. While you will find a few chain restaurants in downtown, there are several great locally owned spots offering farm-to-table cuisine and an array of ethnic choices, including vegetarian and vegan options. From coffee to ice cream, you won’t be disappointed if you eat like a local!

Yassin’s Falafel House

One of the most heartwarming stories is that of Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee who came to Knoxville in 2011 and began selling falafel sandwiches following the daily prayers at his mosque.

It was there he met his future business partner and they began offering catering services and selling sandwiches at a location on Walnut Street, officially opening a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in 2014. Outside of the restaurant, a rainbow-colored sign states: “Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all beliefs, all people, safe here at Yassin’s Falafel House.

In 2018, Yassin’s Falafel House was named the “Nicest Place in America” in a poll sponsored by Reader’s Digest, USA Today 10 Best and Good Morning America. Now with three locations, the restaurant has also won numerous culinary awards for “Best Middle Eastern Food” and Terou continues to be active in helping the community. This is love on a plate!

Cruze Ice Cream

Cruze Farm Diary Credit: Ginger Warder
Cruze Farm Dairy Credit: Ginger Warder

I have a serious soft spot for soft-serve ice cream—what was called frozen custard in my youth—so the neon ice cream cone over the Cruze Farm shop on Gay Street was calling my name.

The ingredients—hormone-free—come straight from the family farm, along with real churned buttermilk, whole milk and a variety of seasonal flavored milks. Try a twist cone with two different flavors for a luscious, lick-able dessert.


Directly across the street from Hyatt Place in a historic bank building, Vida’s Pan-Latin fare is as appealing as the restaurant’s ambience.

Although entrée selections are offered, servers encourage diners to eat “tapas style” with a range of small plates—albondigas, empanadas, ceviches, yuca fries—accompanied by craft cocktails from Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Oliver Royale

On the ground floor of one of the oldest buildings downtown on festive Market Square, the renovated 1876 space that was once the Peter Kern Bakery, the Oliver Royale exudes a cozy bistro vibe and features local, natural and sustainable farm-to-table fare from a bison ribeye and beef sashimi with foie gras to faroe salmon and North Carolina rainbow trout.

JC Holdway

Chef Joseph Lenn named his restaurant after his late uncle, a lifelong bachelor who was a regular at local restaurants he favored. Lenn worked for a decade at the beloved Southern culinary retreat, Blackberry Farm, where the glitterati and elite foodies think nothing of dropping a few hundred dollars on dinner or more than $1,500 to eat and stay overnight.

In 2013, he garnered the James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast. But when he moved to Knoxville to open his own restaurant, he wanted to make food that was more accessible and decided to use wood-fire techniques to emulate the old world ways of Appalachian cooking before gas and electricity.

Try the pork osso bucco, roasted chicken, wood-roasted bone marrow or grilled trout. Many food critics have said if you only eat one dinner in Knoxville, make it here.

Worth An Admission Ticket or An Uber

While the faux castle façade of Schulz Brau Brewing may be a bit on the kitschy side—and it’s in a neighborhood called Happy Holler—don’t let that fool you. I can testify to the authenticity of the German beer they brew.

Owned by a German family, everything that goes into their brews except the water is imported and the expansive Biergarten, as well as the beers, are the most authentic I’ve seen or tasted outside of Germany. And if you’re craving some German food—think schnitzel, giant pretzels and sauerbraten—this is the place to say “Prost”!

If you love to go vertical, the Sunsphere is one of the few remaining structures from the 1982 World’s Fair and it’s worth a visit for the expansive panoramic vista of the city.

Former mayor, Randy Tyree, greets visitors at the World's Fair Park Sunsphere Credit: Ginger Warder
Former mayor, Randy Tyree, greets visitors at the World’s Fair Park Sunsphere Credit: Ginger Warder

While I was taking in the view, I saw a familiar face walking toward us and it was former mayor, Randy Tyree, who was at the helm of the city for many years including that of the Fair. He is now an ambassador for the Sunsphere and what remains of World’s Fair Park, which is now used for special events like the Dogwood Arts Festival.

If you have a chance to attend a show at the magnificent Tennessee Theatre, grab it. If there’s nothing on while you’re visiting, check their website to see if any of their special behind-the-scenes tours are offered. Whether you’re a theater buff or a fan of great architecture, this is worth a splurge.

Directly across the street from the Tennessee Theatre  is the East Tennessee History Center, home to the region’s history museum. And, if you’re trying to trace your ancestors, there’s a wonderful genealogy library and resource center on one of the upper floors.

I’ve lived in New York, Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia and traveled to many of the most exciting cities in Europe, and while Knoxville may not be as large as any of those cities, avowed urbanites will not be disappointed in its fun and friendly downtown.

The friends I made years ago have remained friends, and many people that moved away eventually returned to live. One writer who had left to work at the New York Times and later moved back said Knoxville was like a comfortable couch and I could easily see myself returning to this “comfortable couch” one day.

Knoxville Sites of Interest:


The author’s trip was sponsored by Visit Knoxville, but the opinions are hers alone. 

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