Every week we'll be asking you to come with us to some of our favorite small towns and cities—and we'll show you the places, secret spots, and nooks we love.
You need a ride, baby? is a phrase that would make me turn the other way, fast, in New York. But it's Knoxville, Tennessee, and this is the question I am asked minutes after I land, by a taxi driver—a pert woman with pert hair, neon orange nails, and a blindingly pink top. Her demeanor fits right into her ensemble; she is effusive, energetic, eager, like she just reunited with a long-lost niece at a family reunion.
And she is infectious: I sit in the front instead of the back, I say please after I say to the Knoxville Hilton. When she decides to tell me she likes my haircut by actually reaching out to touch it, I do not recoil to preserve my very roomy, very native-New York personal space bubble.
In the first ten minutes of our ride, she tells me three stories of “city people” being swept off their feet by Southern hospitality. I realize that her brand of hospitality isn’t just real down here, it’s also a source of pride—and so I ask her everywhere I should go in the next two days. In response, she doesn’t just tell me where to go for breakfast, for barbecue, for the dying art of penny candy—she writes it all down on a map. This, combined with a slew of recommendations from our Home and Design editor Amanda Sims, who grew up in Knoxville, carries me through 48 hours with not a minute to spare.
Before I get out of her minivan, she adds to my list a discount shoe store, the name of which I’ve since forgotten—though I appreciate the tip, my brain involuntarily clouds when it hears "Cole Haan bargain shopping"—and offers her personal phone number should I need anything else. Welcome to Knoxville: Aside from that elusive shoe store, here are the places to hit when you go.
The great Knoxville Sunsphere (not a wig store); image courtesy of Knox County Government
The very first thing you should do:
- Head to Remedy on Jackson Ave for a pick-me-up: The cortados are excellent, the pastries are good, the seating is plentiful, and the wifi is free and fast.
For stocking up and quick food options:
- Walk to Just Ripe, a small market whose shelves are lined with cheeses, jams, and breads (I’ve been known to carry bread on my person, because you just never know), and where you can also get a quick sandwich, salad, or juice. On the day I was there, I was asked to taste test a biscuit with whipped cream and macerated strawberries, just because. I'm crossing my fingers you’re so lucky.
- Venture down to Market Square—this is downtown!—and swing by The Tomato Head for a sandwich. The local move? Get a beer—they have a great regional list—and sit outside to watch the town troubadours that tend to gather in warm weather.
- Amanda says: With curb appeal right out of an Edward Hopper painting, Litton’s has been around since the 40s and is worth the short drive past downtown for a burger, available with no frills or topped with a scoop of cold pimento cheese.
If it’s 2 P.M. and you need sugar:
- Go to Mast General Store. Make a beeline to the back left corner: That’s where all of the giant barrels of esoteric candy are. Go wild; buy by the pound. Don’t leave without a pack of candy cigarettes and an old-fashioned soda.
Amanda says: Putter through suburban West Knoxville to Ham 'n Goodys, famed for its almond-flavored “tea cakes,” which are soft cookies that look like muffin tops the size of your palm. (Looking for more sustenance than that? Their deli sandwiches don’t disappoint, either.)
You’re in Tennessee. You’re going to need to eat some biscuits:
- Wake up early to go to Pete’s Coffee Shop, a local favorite diner that’s been around since the mid-80s. If you heed your alarm, you get a big, pleather booth to yourself and the attention of the waitresses, who will keep you company and tell you everything you need to order. (Always ask, but know that Pete’s country breakfast, with grits instead of toast and a biscuit with gravy—pictured above—is a solid way to go.)
Our favorite dinner (and post-dinner) options:
- If you’re okay with adventuring past the city center, head to Pizza Palace Drive-In, a family-run establishment that’s been open since 1961. Whatever you do, make sure it includes a Greek salad: Owner Charlie Peroulas still makes the secret vinaigrette himself, every day.
- If you want to stay closer to your hotel, go to Knox Mason—the perfect place to sit at the bar with a date, your parents, or yourself for a nice meal where you can watch the chefs work in an open kitchen. Start with a Southside and the deviled eggs with Tennessee chow-chow—you can’t go wrong from there.
- Amanda says: After dinner, venture down Jackson Avenue, Knoxville’s newest up-and-coming neighborhood, to Barley’s Tap Room, a big brick beer hall at the end of the road. Local musicians play most nights, so bring friends to split a few made-from-scratch, blistered-crust pizza pies.
- Still going? Need fourth meal? You want The Knoxville Pearl, an eclectic, late-night cereal bar. We repeat: late-night cereal bar. Order the all-you-can-eat for $6.18, and fill your bowl with Cinnamon Toast Crunch while you hang on the couches in their grandmother’s basement-esque front room.
Downtown in Market Square; image courtesy of brookpeterson
You have a free afternoon. Here’s where Amanda wants you to go:
- First things first: Head to the farmers market—held on Saturdays in Market Square, starting at 9 A.M.—to pick up provisions for the day.
- Check out Blue Plate Special, a live performance radio show that happens at noon every Monday through Saturday at WDVX, the local bluegrass station, and is free to the public. If you can’t make it to the visitor’s center for a listen-in, tune your dial to 89.9 or 102.9 and stream it over the radio.
- The Sunsphere, the big, shining structure on the edge of town remaining from the 1982 World's Fair, might not be a wigshop, but Knoxville is always ready for a costume party at Big Don the Costumier, a getup shop in downtown’s Old City. Peruse the incredible selection of antique costumes from all eras to rent or buy—but call before you go, as the hours vary daily.
See all of our picks on the map below. Where do you love to go in Knoxville? Leave your suggestions for us in the comments!