I was watching the bartender smoke my whiskey Old Fashioned, and the entire bar smelled like burning wood on a cold Appalachian day. On the bar top of the Drawing Room at The Tenneeseean, a new luxury hotel in Knoxville, TN, a large copper and glass box swirled with dusky smoke around an Old Fashioned glass filled with small batch whiskey from Tennessee.
As the drink was set in front of me, the bartender removed the cover from the glass with a flourish, and a seductive swirl of wood smoke danced up from the amber whiskey. The nose hinted at burning leaves or a roaring fireplace, but the Old Fashioned tastes like the whiskey tradition that makes Tennessee
A Smoked Old Fashioned is a must-have experience in Knoxville, one of many that is bringing the east
Tennessee city into the spotlight for travelers wanting a unique adventure.
Knoxville is becoming a tourist destination for those looking for experiences outside of Nashville or Asheville, NC. A recent renaissance has brought both the Market Square area and Old City area of Knoxville back to life with niche shops and public art while old dames like the Tennessee Theater and the Bijou have regained their glamour and beauty of old.
Knoxville was first settled in 1786 and became the first capital of Tennessee. The growth of the railroad brought success and money to Knoxville during the 1800s, but the Civil War left the city divided. Both Confederate and Union armies occupied and were supported in the city’s citizens, but the war tore apart families and neighbors alike.
Knoxville received global attention when it hosted the 1982 World’s Fair, which helped reinvigorate the stagnant economy, and since then, revitalization efforts by citizens, intrepid entrepreneurs and city leaders have resulted in bringing new life, culture and excitement into the Tennessee town.
Today, the city is home to a thriving and revitalized downtown culture, a growing craft brewing and winery trail, a vigorous art and performance tradition and a fierce outdoors adventure scene. Tucked just outside the Great Smokey Mountains, Knoxville’s natural landscape and urban wilderness are huge draws for outdoor lovers, but the history and attractions within Knoxville are creating a rhythm of extraordinary ventures.
When in Knoxville, here are five unique and luxurious experiences to help discover the Southern and soulful experience of East Tennessee.
Wander Market Square and Old City
“The downtown you see today isn’t the downtown that was here 20 years ago,” said Erin Donovan, communications director for Visit Knoxville. “We have two downtown distilleries that are on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, we have an urban winery which was the first urban winery in Tennessee and we are very well known here for our wines.”
Market Square is now home to a quirky mix of niche shops, dozens of hyper-local and farm-to-table eateries, arts exhibits and major retailers. The square itself boasts of a small urban park that displays public art along the bubbling stream and wooded paths.
On any given day, you can come across buskers on the square who perform with old, beat up violins or electric guitars, and Market Square also hosts concerts, festivals and a large farmer’s market. “We have a lot of amazing folks who really believe in the community and make it special,” said Donovan. When in Market Square, stop by Tomato Head for a bite. One of the original restaurants on the square, Tomato Head serves up healthy sandwiches and soups along with vegan options and remains a favorite amongst the locals.
Old City is a cobblestoned area of downtown Knoxville that was once known as “the Bowery,” a crime riddled and rowdy section of the city.
Today, thanks to extensive redevelopment efforts, Old City is home to unique shops, restaurants bars and a hopping live music scene. Old City is a bit of a walk from Market Square, but easy to find and explore.
Try a smoked Old Fashioned at The Tennesseean
The Tennesseean Hotel, situated right across from Knoxville’s Sunsphere (a towering remnant of the 1982 World’s Fair), is Knoxville’s newest and most luxurious hotel. An independent project, The Tennesseean was built to offer a high-end experience for travelers and businesses, but its bar is a lavish draw for visitors and locals alike.
In addition to dinner and a breakfast experience, The Drawing Room is famous for the Smoked Old Fashioned. Made with top-shelf Tennessee whiskey, the making of the Smoked Old Fashioned is a show in itself.
The Tennesseean Hotel was originally a government office building. The design and construction teams gave the building a completely refreshed look with a new white façade and tuxedo striping that extends from the exterior of the building into the lobby. The hotel also included large glass windows on the south side of the building and beautifully landscaped gardens wrapping around the base of the hotel, featuring unique martini glass-inspired sculptures.
“First of all, we want to emphasize that The Tennesssean Hotel is a personal luxury hotel, rather than just a place to stay,” said Innkeeper Nicholas G. Cazana.
“The training of the staff at The Tennesseean Hotel is so important, from their shined shoes to the crease in their pants to the designer uniforms tailor-made for each member of the team. In Knoxville, the pool of upscale hotel personnel is limited.”
At the Tennesseean Hotel, extreme attention to detail is given to create an extraordinary experience for guests, even down to the design of the hotel, Cazana said. “We truly wanted to capture the essence of East Tennessee through the local furniture and the elements of The Tennessee River that are carried throughout the hotel. We are also the only hotel in Knoxville with a personal butler, who is an internationally trained expert on making each guest feel like The Tennesseean is their home,” Cazana said.
The gem of the hotel is the Governor’s Suite, which boasts of 1,600 square feet of elegance. A stay in the Governor’s Suite features a butler that greets you at the door, a baby grand piano, a formal dining room and butler’s pantry and a stunning bedroom with a luxurious powder room and two full baths. Pricing ranges from $1,500 to $3,000 per night.
Explore the grand history of the Tennessee Theatre
The Tennessee Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was once hailed as “The South’s most beautiful theatre.” This theatre, which opened in October 1928, is designed by Chicago architects Graven and Mayger and is opulent with a Spanish-Moorish style. No detail was left untouched. The chandelier is adorned with Czechoslavakian crystals while the Grand Lobby boasts of Italian terrazzo tiles. The carpet and drapery throughout the massive theatre hints at Asian influence, but after the heyday of the Roaring 20s, the theatre fell into disrepair.
Today, The Tennessee Theatre has been brought back to its original glamour and jaw-dropping magnificence, thanks to a $25.5 million renovation and restoration project. “This theatre was built as a movie theater palace, and it was in its heyday the central heartbeat of this community,” said Becky Hancock, executive director of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation. “There were actually eight other theaters on Gay Street when this opened, but none were as grand or as opulent. It was built by the Paramount Studios, and it wasn’t uncommon in the 1920s for the movie studios to build these theaters around the country.”
Visitors today can tour the theatre or catch shows ranging from vintage films, plays, classical music and performances by today’s hottest musicians. While downtown, also check out the Knoxville Museum of Art, which celebrates the art and artists of East Tennessee, presents new art and new ideas, educates and serves a diverse community and enhances Knoxville’s quality of life and economic development.
The Bijou Theatre, the World’s Fair Sunsphere and the East Tennessee History Center are all worth a look as well. Bag up a lunch from Tomato Head or The French Market on Market Square and head to WDVX Blue Plate Special, a live performance radio show held at the WDVX studio on Gay Street. This show, which is open to the public at noon Monday through Friday, lets visitors enjoy the live music and radio program, which is broadcast through National Public Radio.
Drink Up Knoxville
Knoxville also has a thriving craft brewery and distillery culture, and beer lovers can try out the local flavors, but also visit The Pretentious Glass Company, which creates “formal wear for beer.” The Pretentious Glass Company is also one of the top sellers on Etsy and creates beer glasses that are shipped all over the world.
For a taste of the local brew, check out Alliance Brewing Co., a small, artisan brewery and taproom in South Knoxville; Crafty Bastard Brewery, which is known for its experimental brews using locally-sourced ingredients; and the Abridged Beer Company brewpub, which focuses on “creating the Abridged version by squeezing as much flavor as possible into highly drinkable, low-gravity, yet surprisingly expressive beers.”
For those looking for a stronger bite, Post Modern Distilling is a new spirits company in Knoxville specializing in producing artisan spirits based on the historic roots of the area. Knox Whiskey Works offers tours of its distillery beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and beginning at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. During the tour, you’ll learn about the basics of production, and the $10 admission allows for a tasting flight of all the liquors made there.
Conquer the outdoors
For visitors looking for a wild time, the outdoor activities in Knoxville are endless and range from mountain biking, hiking, paddleboard, water sports and off-road parks.
The Knoxville Urban Wilderness is a 1,000-acres forested preservation project under the Legacy Parks Foundation that offers more than 50 miles of multi-use trails, Civil War sites, 10 parks and the only Double Black Diamond mountain biking course in the southeast.
At the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, a canopy challenge course and zipline course gives you the chance to test your strength on high-canopy ropes challenges that aren’t for the faint of heart. The Windrock Park in neighboring Oliver Springs is an off-road and ATV lover’s playground with more than 72,000 acres for off-highway vehicle trails, biking trails and a 259-acre campground with RV sites and cabins.
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