How to Play Tourist in Knoxville (Even If You're a Local)

Knoxville has many cultural gems just waiting to be discovered—even for longtime locals
Knoxville has many cultural gems just waiting to be discovered—even for longtime locals Knox County Government
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When you’re used to calling a city home, or when it’s always been home, it’s easy to overlook or take for granted some of the rich cultural offerings and history that surrounds you. But don’t fall into that trap. Instead, take a look through Knoxville with fresh eyes—like a tourist—by paying a visit (or revisiting) any number of these local attractions full of local history, outdoor exploration, and just plain fun. You just might be surprised what you discover and learn about your own backyard.

Go wide-eyed at the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Knoxville’s pinnacle institution of fine art is a regional gem. But sometimes the Knoxville Museum of Art might not get the local cred it deserves for showcasing some of the best artwork and exhibitions in East Tennessee. Its modern digs offer a stunning view of World’s Fair Park, situated on the edge of downtown in Fort Sanders. Since its founding in 1961, when it was originally called the Dulin Gallery of Art, its mission and focus and even its location have evolved over the years. Nowadays, the museum is focused on boosting exposure for some of the best art coming out of Appalachian, while also expanding depth and understanding with works from elsewhere in the country. Current exhibitions wrap up in April, including work by Knoxville-based artist Jered Sprecher, digital installments from the Thoma Collection in Chicago, and a permanent exhibition showcasing arts evolution in East Tennessee. In addition, be sure to check out Richard Jolley's spectacular exhibit "Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity", which is one of the world’s largest sculptures of glass and steel, a 3D masterpiece that was years in the making.

Check out Blount Mansion during a walk along the Tennessee River.

We know what you’re thinking—it’s just an old house, right? Ok, it is an old house, but Blount Mansion also happens to be a local landmark that has played a significant role in the founding of Tennessee as a state and the United States as a country. Plus, it’s right off Neyland Greenway in downtown Knoxville, making it a great stopover during a bike or stroll along the Tennessee River.

Home first to William Blount, a signer of the original U.S. Constitution, the mansion brims with history—much of Tennessee’s own constitution was drafted within its walls. It was home to many notable families through the 18th and 19th centuries before eventually being absorbed into the slums that used to line the river, a bit of history you can learn more about on engraved rocks along the greenway.

Have a cocktail in the Sunsphere.

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It’s a Knoxville icon you probably see each and every day on your commute to wherever, and especially when you head downtown or venture into the sprawling World’s Fair Park, where the Sunsphere is located. It adorns T-shirts, pops up on pretty much every Google search of the city, and was even featured on an episode of the Simpsons (if you’re looking for wigs, prepared to be disappointed). But when’s the last time you took the elevator to the top for panoramic views of the city, or to eat and drink at Primo Ristorante Italiano, a swanky bar and restaurant with a glass front overlooking the park? It’s a great place to catch the sunset while sipping a cocktail, to soak up the AC before a jaunt in the park or along the connecting greenways, or just to embrace your inner Knoxvillian and play tourist for a spell.

Learn about African American history at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

There are plenty of books, museums, and exhibitions about Europeans settling around Knoxville, but not near as many that highlight the African American influence that has played a pivotal role since the city’s founding. Located in East Knoxville just across from the disc golf course in Morningside Park, the Beck Cultural Exchange Center offers exhibits and insightful readings about that rich history and culture, with displays on heritage from Knoxville’s beginnings in 1791 to present day, and it has an expanding focus to serve as a repository for African American history throughout East Tennessee.

Take the grand tour for local tourists.

If you’re feeling ambitious, it’s possible to hit all these local icons in one single bike ride. Start at the Beck Center, taking the Morningside Greenway south to the Tennessee River. Hang a right onto the Neyland Greenway at water’s edge, stopping off at Blount Mansion next to the Gay Street Bridge. Continue on another mile or so, turning right into World’s Fair Park just before reaching the University of Tennessee campus. From there, climb the golden orb of the Sunsphere or contemplate some of the pieces in the Knoxville Museum of Art.

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