There are plenty of reasons to visit Knoxville, whether it’s dropping a kid off at college or catching a ballgame featuring the hopefully reinvigorated football team at Neyland Stadium or the Lady Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena. Or you might want to break up the drive to the Gatlinburg/Sevierville/Pigeon Forge triangle with an overnight in the largest urban area in East Tennessee. No matter the reason for the trip, there is a lot more to Knoxville than just “The Strip” of Cumberland Avenue near the sporting venues. One area that probably escapes most visitors’ attention is the charming Market Square in the center of the city’s downtown district.
Established in 1854 as a place for regional farmers to sell their wares, Market Square has developed into a gathering spot for shoppers, diners and anyone looking for a good time as they stroll along the pedestrian mall. Some of the area’s most beloved chefs have established new restaurants around the Square to join old stalwarts and dive bars that have been favorites for decades. New lodging and boutique shopping opportunities have made Market Square a destination worth seeking out for a weekend stay. Here are some great places to discover:
Hotel options abound in the neighborhood, including some old reliables and a couple of relatively new upstart boutique properties. If you’re looking to earn or spend your frequent stay points, both the Crowne Plaza and Hilton Knoxville are solid choices. The former concentrates on upscale amenities such as complimentary high-speed wireless internet, hi-def flat screen televisions and an “aromatherapy relaxation kit” that’s placed on guests’ pillows each night. Plus it’s also pet-friendly, so you can bring your pup along. The Hilton isn’t quite as modern as the Crowne Plaza, but it does have a lovely lobby, several classes of luxury suites and a rooftop pool.
The larger chain hotels work hard to stay on top of their games because now they are competing with two new luxury boutique hotels in the form of The Oliver Hotel and The Tennessean Personal Luxury Hotel, both conveniently located just off Market Square.
The Oliver is a 28-room property in a renovated 1876 building that features luxurious guest rooms and suites with handcrafted furniture, walls covered with original local artwork and a dedication to the best in Southern hospitality. Despite the relative paucity of rooms, The Oliver doesn’t skimp on amenities or drinking and dining options with Oliver Royale, Tupelo Honey Cafe and the Peter Kern Library, a speakeasy-type watering hole with a secret alley entrance. (Although hotel guests can enter through the lobby like respectable folks.)
The Tennessean is located near the iconic Sunsphere, which, like the hotel building, was originally constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair. Eight-two guest rooms range from merely luxurious to over-the-top suites with optional butler and personal concierge services. There’s even a charging station for your Tesla to help you make it a little further down the road.
As comfortable as these hotels are, you’ll still want to get out of your room and explore Market Square. Every Wednesday and Saturday from May until November, the Square hosts a popular Farmer’s Market with local vendors offering produce, baked goods, eggs, honey, herbs, meats and artisan crafts. The atmosphere is convivial and family-friendly, with music and other live entertainment on the Square’s large stage.
Even when the crops have been harvested for the year, there are still plenty of events going on in Market Square. Holiday markets offer gift shopping opportunities, and an open-air ice rink is set up for skating day and night from Thanksgiving until early January. New Years on the Square is a big deal as well, with a midnight ball drop and music and entertainment all night long.
Market Square was set up as a shopping venue after all, so it makes sense that there are lots of stores and boutiques around the square for browsing and buying. Agora Knoxville features crafty gifts and home furnishings, while Earth to Old City focuses on home decor, bed and bath products, and clothes. Fizz is a fun and funky bohemian boutique for jewelry, clothing and accessories, and Bluetique specializes in style on a budget.
Union Ave Books is just a block off of Market Square and is the sort of bookstore that will remind you how much fun it was to just browse the aisles and skim through books made out of paper instead of pixels. Suitable for young readers to adults, Union Ave Books also hosts frequent readings by authors and hosts book club meetings. Even more old school is Mast General Store, a chain of mercantiles that harken back to the days of yore before stores became so specialized. At Mast, they sell a little bit of everything from toys to candy to souvenirs to outdoor gear. Who needs a mall anyway?
Even in a town full of all sorts of great dining options, the sheer density of them around Market Square is still surprising. The roster is led by J.C. Holdway, the latest venture of James Beard award-winning chef Joseph Lenn, who earned his reputation running the kitchen at the Barn at Blackberry Farm in nearby Walland, TN. As wonderful as his cuisine was at his previous gig, Lenn really flexes his creativity as he shows off his Southern heritage at J.C. Holdway.
The walls are decorated with paintings of some of his culinary heroes, and diners share the attractive space with ricks of hewn wood ready to fire up the oven where Lenn and his staff prepare soulful takes on classic Southern fare like shrimp & grits, North Carolina trout or a popular beef bone marrow plate.
The restaurant was previously a photo studio, so large windows allow plenty of light in by day and offer views of the bustling Market Square pedestrian traffic at night. The bar at J.C. Holdway has a world-class supply of rare whiskeys and an excellent craft cocktail list, so sit a spell and watch the world go by.
The people watching is even better at Emilia, where you can grab a window seat looking directly out at the Square. Chef Matt Gallaher is another Blackberry Farm alum, and he focuses on simple Italian fare from the Emilia-Romagna region made using seasonal ingredients. That part of Italy contains notable locales such as Bologna and Parma, so you know there are some fantastic authentic pasta and meat dishes on the menu. Be sure to save room for dessert from the “Dolci” section of the menu.
Gallaher also runs another restaurant just off Market Square at Knox Mason, his shrine to seasonal Southern cooking, which shines a spotlight of hyper-local ingredients such as Benton’s Bacon, Circle V Farm Eggs and Cruze Farm Buttermilk. Whether you’re looking for a full meal or just a selection of snacks from their clever small plates menu like country ham potato tots, Knox Mason combines down-home cooking with upscale techniques to create a special dining experience.
Hidden away in a tiny space around the corner from Market Square is Kaizen, a casual Asian restaurant with some really creative and well-executed cuisine. There’s nothing fancy about the decor with just a few tables and a short bar serving a tight list of craft beers and small plates of Japanese izakaya-style tapas. But chef/owner Jesse Newmister is a classically trained cook and brings all his talents to bear to create artful plates filled with layers of both nuanced and bold flavors.
Also decidedly casual is Preservation Pub, an intentionally “divey” bar with multiple levels of cold beer, live music and cozy spots for casual conversation. Knoxville prides itself on not being too fussy, even claiming the moniker of “Scruffy City.”
Preservation Pub is a perfect expression of this casual attitude and also boasts one of the coolest vending machines ever where you can buy a Moon Pie, potato chips, guitar strings or hand sanitizer.
While Scruffy City strives not to take itself too seriously, there is some serious fun to be had around Market Square, so head on over to K-town and check it out for a weekend.
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