Your family may be impossible to please, but no one can resist the charms of Knoxville, Tennessee.
What do you get when you combine the historic charms of Richmond, the warmth and quirk of Nashville, and the peacefulness of Savannah? A college town with a tremendous food scene, outdoors that inspire, and a not-to-be-overlooked proximity to the legendary Dollywood.
But most importantly, you get a breezy family destination that is neither daunting nor snooze-worthy. A picturesque Southern city dripping with Volunteer State beauty, Knoxville is the family-friendly destination that should be on your radar.
Something for Everyone
I hate when people describe a city as having “something for everyone,” and then the “somethings” end up being an indoor trampoline park, a river walk, and a brewery. (Knoxville has all three, naturally.) But the city truly hits the mark for a multigenerational group with varied interests. In my case, I was traveling with my future in-laws, my parents, and my 10-year-old brother. I knew that without proper planning, activities, and scheduled nap times, this rag-tag Country Jamboree could quickly turn into a Knoxvillian Nightmare. But I planned with intention and picked the city for a reason.
Within Knoxville’s roughly 104 square miles, there are plenty of unique things to do, ranging from honky-tonks, whiskey tasting (the city has three stops on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail), and the Sunsphere, an observatory structure built for the 1984 World’s Fair. There are also ample outdoor adventures to seek out, including Sequoyah Park, World’s Fair Park, and the aforementioned riverwalk on Volunteer Landing.
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INSIDER TIPAll of these activities can be enjoyed by bike or on foot, as Nashville is highly pedestrian-friendly. Got your steps in for the day? Hop on the city’s free trolly system, blessedly equipped with A/C and free Wi-Fi.
Crowd-Pleasing Drinking & Dining
Family trips can often go wayward when the only food options are chains and chicken fingers. That’s why we also loved the variety of eateries in town. Try only-in-Knoxville delicacies like Petro’s Chili and Chips or the must-visit Potchke, a vegan-friendly spin on Ukrainian Jewish Deli food. There’s also the higher-end Oliver Royale and The Brass Pearl, which both offer splurge-worthy brunch and dinner options.
You’ll avoid hanger and boredom-induced meltdowns with the one-two punch of Maple Hall, a sleek but family-friendly bowling alley/bar with indulgent pub grub. Cruze Farm Creamery is the go-to local spot for ice cream and feels like a step back in time to the Knoxville of days gone by.
For those adults lured to Knoxville by the promise of a taste of Tennessee whiskey, the city had some of our favorite sips along the state-spanning trail. But it’s Post Modern Spirits that reigns supreme. Those of us 21+ were in love with their unique gins, thoughtful and unexpected amari, and deliciously unique liqueurs like their chamomile version (perfect for a hot toddy).
Gremlin Gameyards, Fairy Villages, and Dollywood
It wouldn’t be a trip to Tennessee without Dolly. Whether your cocktail is named after her or her gleaming face is painted on an alleyway wall, she’s everywhere. Missing a pilgrimage to Dollywood is probably considered a misdemeanor in Tennessee state law. But it’s completely worth the hype. More twee and less soulless than Disney, with better and cheaper food, Dollywood is a must-see.
I can’t overemphasis the joy with which my father and father-in-law raced to get on-line for Lightening Rod, the world’s fastest wooden rollercoaster, or how we were all collectively thrilled by Dolly’s bald eagle sanctuary, or how huge the pulled pork sandwiches are. Dollywood is stacked with Great Smokey Mountain revelry and flair and is a perfect pit stop while visiting nearby Knoxville.
INSIDER TIPDollywood is located only an hour from Knoxville. We highly recommend shelling out the extra $20 for preferred parking, especially if visiting with a large group.
Another stop right outside of Knoxville is the fairytale-like Ancient Lore Village. I tossed it onto our itinerary almost on a lark, thinking it’d be mainly a moment of respite for my newly double-digit brother, but the entire family loved the gorgeously kept grounds, outdoorsy activities, and the kind and helpful staff. Ancient Lore Village feels like a cross between The Shire and Shrek’s swamp. A scenic and whimsical hamlet that also moonlights as a venue and hotel, the property had activities for all of us.
My brother learned axe throwing and archery from patient and knowledgeable staff members, and there were plenty of games and puzzles throughout the sprawling property for us to enjoy. There are various packages to choose from whether you’re visiting during the day or night, weekend or weekday, making it a perfect 15-minute jaunt from Knoxville that everyone can agree on.