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As we start to dream of a post-pandemic life and future weekend trips in 2021, Southern cities are top of mind.
Unless the Vols are playing at Neyland Stadium, sometimes visitors to Knoxville forget what an interesting place to visit the area around the University of Tennessee campus is. Now, thanks to the addition of the hip, new Graduate Knoxville hotel, you’ve got a fine home base to plan your explorations up and down Cumberland Avenue and around campus without having to fight with football fans to get around. Here’s how to enjoy a fun weekend trip to K-town!
48 Hours in Knoxville, Tennessee
There’s no doubt you’re in the home of the Volunteers when you check in at the Graduate Knoxville, where even the front desk is designed to look like a member of the famous Vol Navy that tailgates on the river before fall football games. The walls are decorated with Marshall Ramsey cartoons depicting famous places and events around campus as well as notable alumni. The lobby is decorated with a delightfully eclectic mishmash of fun and funky furnishings, creating all sorts of nooks in which to socialize, or quietly thumb through one of the old college yearbooks scattered on tables around the space. The walls are festooned with enlarged versions of Sports Illustrated covers of yore, and a clever mural depicts a map of the state with the words “Football Time” spelled out with vintage clocks, echoing famed football announcer John Ward’s introduction to each game.
If you need to catch up on some emails, there are also quieter areas around the lobby, including a large communal table where you might even see a study group of university students gathering to work together on a project. The owner of the Graduate chain is a UT alum, and he graciously invites students to use the space whenever they need it.
While there’s no doubt that the Graduate Knoxville is associated with the university, once you get to your room, the hints are more subtle … maybe a painting of a coon hound on the wall or a checkerboard pattern in the carpet. The hotel offers 112 rooms evenly split between configurations with a king bed or two queens plus several suites, including a family suite with timber loft beds and a campsite/cabin vibe. Every room offers amenities like free Wi-Fi, HDTV and Malin+Goetz toiletries in the spacious bathrooms.
Once you’ve checked in, it’s time to reconnoiter the area around the hotel. An easy way to accomplish this is with a quick trip on the Knoxville Transit Authority (KAT)’s free trolley service with three lines that travel around the urban core on regular schedules and connect for easy transfers between routes. The closest stop for the university route (the Orange Line, naturally) is a couple of blocks from the hotel, and KAT offers a really helpful system where you can just text the bus stop number to a special number for an immediate reply of when the next trolley arrives. The Orange Line cuts right through the middle of campus before looping around downtown and the Market Street District, so you can stay on for the entire tour or hop on and off for some exploring.
For dinner on your first night, stay close to home with a dinner at Saloon 16, Graduate Knoxville’s restaurant and lounge that operates in partnership with legendary Vol quarterback Peyton Manning. Sixteen was Peyton’s jersey number, and he earned the nickname “The Sheriff” while playing in the NFL for his tendency to lay down the law in opponents’ stadiums. So the saloon vibe is appropriate for this fun restaurant, which is decorated from floor to ceiling with memorabilia from Peyton’s personal collection, a fact that made his momma very happy when he finally cleaned it all out of her basement.
The jukebox is filled with Peyton’s personal favorite musical selections, including six different versions of “Rocky Top,” and each booth is decorated with personal photos donated by the former football star. While it is definitely sports-themed, Saloon 16 is not just a sports bar. In fact, there are only three televisions in the bar area plus a large screen in the private lounge, which can be rented out for special events. A small stage hosts live music from local singer/songwriters on Thursday nights, and a spacious outdoor deck allows for al fresco drinking and dining.
Saloon 16 offers a full bar, although some of the cocktails are hard to identify on the menu because they’re named after Peyton’s friends and family. Don’t be afraid to ask your bartender or server for advice. The food menu skews toward upscale bar food, including several items that are unique to the area around UT’s campus. Cheese Bings are a mandatory order — deep-fried breaded cubes of cheddar and pepper jack cheese served with mustard and marinara dipping sauces. Rooster Sliders are small chicken sandwiches named after the offering at a nearby gas station, and the chicken wings are pretty spectacular as well.
For larger plates, Peyton would suggest you order his specialty, a hubcap-sized chicken parm sandwich that will make you glad there’s a refrigerator in your hotel room. They’re also quite proud of their burger and a messy sloppy joe sandwich. Prices are completely reasonable for a hotel restaurant, and you’ll have to work hard to leave hungry!
Walk off some of that meal with a stroll over to Fieldhouse Social, a restaurant and sports bar in the University Commons complex off of Cumberland Avenue at the edge of campus. The bar features more than 50 different beers, including local craft brews and nationally known brands. No matter where you stare in the cavernous bar area, you won’t have to miss a minute of the game on one of more than 30 televisions scattered about the restaurant. Most attention usually falls upon the massive 23-foot screen with an array of comfortable leather loungers arranged in front of the action. Don’t stay up too late watching television, though, because you’ve got a big day ahead of you tomorrow.
Kick off your Saturday morning with a specialty coffee drink from The Golden Roast — right next door to Graduate Knoxville. Serving gourmet coffees made from locally roasted beans for the peak of freshness, The Golden Roast also sells their ground coffees for you to take home. Grab a buttery croissant, an egg sandwich, a bagel, a muffin or a scone for sustenance, and head downtown for some retail therapy.
Take the trolley or enjoy a 20-minute walk downtown (and downhill!) to the historic Gay Street district, an important part of the city’s and state’s history since it was the site of the 1796 Constitutional Convention that officially established Tennessee as a state. It was also the first paved road in Knoxville, but now it’s home to fun shops, boutiques, bars and restaurants along Gay Street and the surrounding few blocks.
Although Union Avenue Books is currently only open by appointment, it’s worth a stop to experience a good old-fashioned bookstore with shelves lined with eclectic titles they’re happy to let you browse through if you schedule a 30-minute session in advance. Mast General Store maintains an old-timey vibe while offering the latest and greatest in outdoor gear, specialty food products, college wear and artisan gift items. The Art Market Gallery is a collective of more than 60 artists who showcase their paintings, photographs, prints, woodwork, fiber arts, jewelry and pottery in the large gallery. The collections change constantly, so it’s always worth stopping in to see what’s new.
If you’re in search of an outstanding view of downtown and a well-made drink, take the elevator to the top floor of the Embassy Suites to the Radius Rooftop Lounge. Sip a cocktail while enjoying sweeping vistas of the Tennessee River and Smoky Mountains in the distance. For lunch options, head back towards campus for several good choices. Gus’s Good Times Deli has been a student tradition for generations, serving hot deli sandwiches and spicy French fries at prices that won’t bust a budget. For a more refined mid-day meal, try Sunspot, a cozy eatery featuring an international menu of Southwestern, Caribbean and Latin-American cuisines. Their weekend brunch offers biscuit sandwiches, salads, sandwiches, tacos and clever spins on traditional brunch entrées. Sunspot is also a great spot for vegetarian dining, with dishes like avocado toast and a tofu grain bowl.
Stretch your legs with a walking tour of UT’s campus, whether as part of an organized group with a guide or on your own. Although the university is built to handle almost 30,000 students, the footprint is fairly compact and easily walkable. The UT Gardens are open to the public and have been designated as the official botanical gardens of the state of Tennessee. Something’s almost always in bloom, and it’s a lovely place to while away a little time.
The University of Tennessee campus showcases all sorts of impressive public art — much of it created by graduates from the art school. From the iconic Torchbearer Statue with its flame representing the light of truth, to statues of hound dogs commemorating the good dogs who played the part of the university mascot Smokey through the years, there are delightful finds around many corners during a walk across campus. Closer to town, there’s a clever mural called Weaving Rainbow Mountain painted across 43 steps to create an optical illusion of a boldly colored tapestry.
Neyland Stadium is the home of the Vols football team, and on major game days, its 102,455-person capacity would make it the seventh-largest city in the state, between Murfreesboro and Franklin. Tours of the stadium can also be scheduled in advance if you’d like to visit on a day when the Vols aren’t on the field.
While both the McClung Museum of Natural History and Clarence Brown Theatre are currently closed, they’re worth a visit when they reopen because they represent an important part of the university’s cultural history. The former houses permanent collections of archeology, geology, plants and animals, as well as rotating exhibitions. Even while it’s not open to visitors, you can marvel at the 2,400-pound, 24-foot-long bronze skeleton of an Edmontosaurus displayed in front of the building. The Clarence Brown Theatre has hosted theatrical performances since 1970, offering opportunities for student actors to trod the boards alongside visiting professional performers.
For dinner, experience a Knoxville tradition with a meal at Copper Cellar, a casual dining restaurant modeled after the famous Harry’s in Chicago. The original Copper Cellar is, of course, below street level and oozes a clubby ambiance of copper, leather and wood while they serve up platters of steaks, seafood and a very popular weekend prime rib special served au jus with sour cream horseradish sauce and your choice of side dish. The street-level grill at Copper Cellar is slightly more casual, with a lively piano bar and a menu that skews more toward upscale bar food, sandwiches and burgers.
If you’re looking for variety, jump in your car or take a rideshare to the north side of downtown, where you’ll find Central Filling Station, a food park that features a rotating roster of some of Knoxville’s most beloved food trucks plus craft beers and beverages. It’s a family-friendly venue, and dogs are invited too! Choose from as many as five different cuisine options and retire to a picnic table to enjoy your meal in a convivial environment.
For a nightcap, hit up Knox Brew Hub for the best in local and regional craft beers plus ciders, hard seltzers and kombuchas, or book a table at the Five Thirty Lounge atop the Hyatt for well-crafted cocktails ranging from tiki classics to the Knox City, their take on a Manhattan made with Rittenhouse Rye, Laird’s Applejack, Italian vermouth and Krupnik bitters.
You can sleep a little late on your final morning, especially if you plan to enjoy your last meal before hitting the road at Poindexter Coffee in the Graduate’s lobby. In addition to coffee drinks made with beans from Coffee Manufactory, Poindexter offers canned wine and cocktails plus a tight menu of breakfast sandwiches, smoothies, salads and more.
For one last look at downtown Knoxville, borrow one of the Graduate’s complimentary rental bikes for a quick spin around World’s Fair Park, the site of the 1982 World’s Fair Exposition where President Ronald Reagan officially opened the event during a visit in May of that year. The centerpiece Sunsphere still shines brightly in the middle of the park, standing 26 stories tall with its 24-carat, gold-coated panes of glass reflecting the sun’s rays onto the two-acre festival lawn below. When the Sunsphere officially reopens, visitors can take a free ride up the double elevators to the observation deck to see the park from above.
Smaller crowds and friendly residents enjoying their own city make non-football weekends an excellent time to visit Knoxville. Whether you’re a fan of the Vols or another team, you can’t help but be impressed by what’s going on at the university and the fun activities surrounding the campus.
Learn more about Knoxville, including additional accommodation options, things to do, places to eat and more, at visitknoxville.com.
All photography by Chris Chamberlain.
When you’re ready to hit the road and explore the South, check out our travel archives.