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Travel Talk – Knoxville offers variety close to home (Feb. 18, 2015 issue)

While many East Tennesseans enjoy going to Knoxville to watch UT Volunteer football and basketball games, you might only see the University of Tennessee campus. Admittedly, game day at Neyland Stadium is an adventure unto itself, but there’s more to Knoxville than just the university.
In fact, just past the edge of campus, you can see the Sun Sphere. The Sun Sphere was built for the World’s Fair in 1982 and is a 300 foot tower topped by a gold-colored sphere. You can take an elevator to the top for a view of the city. There’s also a pricey bar inside the sphere that is a great location for events and has a nice view. Below the Sun Sphere is the World’s Fair Park. During the summer, there is a man-made pond and fountains for the kids to play in. You can follow the trail from the park to a greenway that makes for a nice walk or run. This trail will take you by the Tennessee River and to the Volunteer Landing Park. Here, there are yet more fountains for kids to play in during the summer, river-front swings, and two restaurants. You can continue to follow the trail alongside the river.
When you leave the World’s Fair Park and go across the bridge away from campus, you’ll soon come to Market Square. Market Square is a fun area of town with good restaurants and a few stores. When the weather warms up, there’s a nice farmer’s market on Saturdays, and events most Friday evenings, such as Shakespeare in the Park. According to a tribute in one end of the square, Elvis was heard and signed by RCA records in this Square when he played his first record, “That’s all right, Mama.” One of the local favorite restaurants, the Tomato Head, is also in Market Square. The Tomato Head offers fresh food and has excellent salads and sandwiches.
Close to the Sun Sphere is another attraction, the Knoxville Museum of Art. Even though this is a minor museum, it’s free and worth a short stop. The Museum consists of three floors and approximately five small galleries but is unique for its East Tennessee art. On the third floor, half the floor is devoted to more traditional art from the area and the other half is devoted to modern art. Outside, there is a small garden and a small balcony. Both places have a nice view of the Sun Sphere.
One of Knoxville’s best is the Knoxville Zoo. This is a particularly good family outing. The zoo has over 900 animals, and 27 species that are considered endangered or threatened. You can see animals from all over the world including African lions and meerkats. During the summer, you might have time to feed the giraffes or ride an elephant. While it may be hard to decide what animals to visit, Knoxville takes great pride in its red pandas which is one of the endangered species at the zoo. More red pandas have been born at the Knoxville Zoo than any other zoo in the Western Hemisphere. There are also three rescued black bears that call the zoo home in an exhibit that simulates the Smoky Mountains. You can also find several hands-on exhibits for the kids, which allow the zoo’s younger visitors to meet the animals up-close.
More mature visitors to Knoxville might enjoy a night visit to the Old City. While it attracts some college students, most of the visitors to the Old City are older than the students who tend to visit the Strip (Cumberland Ave., close to campus). Because of its older architecture, this is a really unique area of Knoxville and can be fun, particularly for groups or to bar-hop. It has some unique pubs and is the best place to go if you want to dance. I do urge all visitors to be cautious in this area as it’s not the best part of town and you may encounter panhandlers. If you park nearby and go with a small group, you can ensure a safe and fun night in this unique area of town.
Whether you visit Knoxville as a tourist or as a sports fan, you may want to check out some of the city’s unique restaurants. As previously mentioned, Market Square has a number of excellent eateries, including Tomato Head. Náma is a delicious sushi and Japanese restaurant that is also located in the square. If you go for lunch on Saturday or Sunday, the sushi is half-price. If you’re looking for something close to the Zoo, try Chandler’s Deli for a good home-cooked feeling, Southern meal. If you go away from downtown, you might want to take a look at Dead End Barbecue or the Holy Land Market. Despite its quirky name, Dead End is a local favorite with its own twist on classic barbecue sides. The Holy Land Market and Deli is a good place for lunch and is half Middle Eastern market, half deli.
I do recommend visiting Knoxville for game day, though be ready to deal with the traffic. Just remember that Knoxville has more to offer than just the Vols. The Knoxville Zoo and World’s Fair Park are a particularly great spring or summer day outing, though the Zoo is open and active even in the cold. You will also find a number of delicious tucked away restaurants and bars all over town.