When families head to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Knoxville often gets bypassed. What they’ve been missing is a charming and warm small city filled with big city thrills and quite worthy of being a vacation destination itself. With the current cost of gas being high, Knoxville also makes for a convenient and cost-friendly solution for a great spring break from Cincinnati.
Downtown Knoxville is easy to walk around and offers up many family-friendly activities including: live theatres, a cinema, and shopping at Mast General Store-with their amazing candy selection where everyone’s eyes light up! The Market Square District is in the heart of downtown. Featuring historic buildings, this pedestrian only zone is packed with restaurants and shops to delight all ages. Business people at lunch, folks walking their dogs and downtown residents all converge on the square for a sampling of food and fare. Live music is featured during warm weather months and outdoor dining options are plentiful.
You’ll want to keep tackling the fun on a full stomach and Litton’s Market-Restaurant-Bakery is a great choice for a family. Since 1946, Litton’s has been serving up the best burgers in town as well as Blue Plate Lunch specials. Pies, cakes and the biggest side order of French fries we had ever seen await you. A kids menu is available.
Magpies Cakes-is there a sweeter way to start (or end) any day than with a delicious cupcake? Magpies takes baking to the next level, with a delightful selection using the finest ingredients. Try the mango, almond apricot, or the creamy caramel, which are just a sampling of the many flavors available. Drop in if you need a super sweet treat after a long day of sightseeing.
The Knoxville Zoo is a great choice for family fun with over 800 animals in natural habitats. Black bears, tigers, giraffes and elephants are among the residents and the zoo has gained international for its red panda breeding program. Since 1978, red pandas have been a big part of the Zoo and the first cubs were born in 1979. Since then, over ninety cubs have been born at the Knoxville Zoo, more than any other zoo in the Western Hemisphere. The red panda village is similar to an aviary and as you walk through it there almost seems to be no barriers between you and these delightful creatures. Make sure you look up; they are often playing and lounging above your head.
Kids Cove in the children’s play area is based on an early 1900s Appalachian farm. While kids of all ages enjoy the zoo, Kids Cove is aimed specifically at those 12 and under. Here you will find a play cabin, several climbing areas, three slides, a massive spider web, sandbox, water play area, and even a carousel. Animals in this section are those that were typically found on a farm of this era: goats, llamas, sheep and cows are all here to pet and brush.
The barn loft features animals typically found in an East Tennessee barn including: owls, snakes and mice. The Night Club features more species native to Tennessee, but because they come out at night, the exhibit simulates nighttime so the visitors can see them in habitats much like their natural environment. Skunks, raccoons, and even bats are very interesting creatures and this is a great chance to see what these “night shifters” do while we’re snoozing.
Another great indoor play zone is called Wee Play Zoo, kids can dress up and try their hand at different roles throughout the “zoo”, from selling tickets, working concession stands or preparing special diets for the animals in the commissary. Little animal enthusiasts can be veterinarians, researchers or conservationists. Pint-sized keepers can scoop, stack hay and meet animals that live at the “zoo”.
Other treats at the zoo include the Black Bear Falls, Chimp Ridge, camel rides and Meerkat Lookout.
Girls of all ages can celebrate at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Nowhere better epitomizes “girl power” like the Hall. Opened in 1999, it covers both the history and future of women’s basketball. Here you find more than 32,000 square feet of fun featuring hands-on interactive experiences; amazing opportunities to imagine you are in a game or taking advice from your coach at half time and the chance to learn many historical highlights from the game. Women’s basketball dates back to 1892 when Senda Berenson adapts the rules for women and introduces the game at Smith College.
Artifacts, photographs, medals, trophies, scrapbooks and uniforms from the past and present serve to bring the history of women’s basketball to life. The State Farm Tip-Off Theatre features the “Hoopful of Hope” video, covering the history of the game and featuring many all-time greats from the sport including players, coaches and teams from AAU, collegiate and professional organizations.
Other fun things you cannot miss: The Ring of Honor filled with jerseys, test your skills on three different courts, a timed dribbling course and a vertical leap challenge! And nobody can miss the 30-feet tall Baden Ball on the roof weighing in at ten tons.
East Tennessee has a rich history, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the World’s Fair of 1982. This history can be explored at a variety of destinations throughout the area.
Armstrong-Lockett House at Crescent Bend was built in 1834 and has an exquisite collection of 18th century American and English furniture, decorative arts and a rather amazing collection of silver. Beyond the house lies a three-acre terraced garden (in the Italian style) overlooking the Tennessee River. The name Crescent Bend comes from the bend in the river where the home is located.
Another home with historic connections is the Mabry-Hazen House. The home served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate troops and more than 1,600 Civil War soldiers are buried in the nearby Bethel Cemetery.
The East Tennessee History Center has a rich collection that tells the story of the area, from Native Americans and early setters, to country music stars that got their start in Knoxville, to Knoxville’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. World’s Fair memorabilia is on display here and you can also visit the site of the Fair itself nearby where there are great green spaces, water features, events and ride high up into the Sunsphere and visit the Observation Deck for great views.
Knoxville stands alone as a family-friendly travel destination that is rich in history and fun, and won’t break the bank.
If you go:
Knoxville is a 4 hour drive from Cincinnati traveling south on I-75.
Litton’s Market, Restaurant & Bakery, 2803 Essary Rd, 865-688-0429, www.littonsburgers.com
Magpies Bakery, 846 N. Central Street, 865-673-0471, www.magpiescakes.com
Armstrong-Lockett House at Crescent Bend, 2728 Kingston Pike, 865-544-3000
Mabry-Hazen House, 1711 Dandridge Ave, 865-522-8661, www.mabryhouse.com
Knoxville Visitor Center, 301 South Gay Street, 865-342-9143, www.knoxville.org
East Tennessee History Center, 601 South Gay Street, 865-215-8824, www.east-tennessee-history.org
Knoxville Zoo, 3500 Knoxville Zoo Dr., 865-637-5331, www.knoxville-zoo.org
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, 700 Hall of Fame Dr, 865-633-9000, www.wbhof.com
A variety of lodging options are available, both downtown and in surrounding areas. Please visit web sites for operating hours and admission costs.