For a city of about 200,000 people (just over 465,000 county-wide), Knoxville offers a wide array of artistic and cultural adventures encompassing everything from sports to music, outdoor recreation, museums, theaters, and so much more. The area is literally brimming with so many layers of each of these focuses, showcasing a great deal of the city’s unique flavor and flair.
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame
One couldn’t start any exploration of Knoxville’s artistic and cultural scene without talking about the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, as basketball is very much ingrained into the cultural fabric of the city as well as across the state.
Most staunch basketball fans and sports historians know that Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, however they may not realize is that in 1892 a woman by the name of Senda Berenson adapted the rules for women (earning her the name “The Mother of Women’s Basketball), that same year introducing the game on a college campus. The first intercollegiate game was played in 1896 in California, and in the decades since the game’s development and following leagues, and teams (including Olympic medal winners) have been phenomenal successes in their own rights.
The museum’s mission is to “Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present, Promote the Future of Women's Basketball,” and they do that beautifully through a series of incredible galleries, interactive exhibits, artifacts, and memorabilia throughout the 35,000 square foot facility, the only one of its kind dedicated to all levels of women’s basketball.
One of the two perhaps most eye-catching aspects here is the 10-ton, 30-foot-tall basketball outside, the largest in the world. Next is the 17-foot bronze Eastman Statue situated in the Pat Summitt Rotunda—named after Pat Summit, one of the game’s most influential coaches and the pride of the state for her groundbreaking 25 seasons run as the head coach at the University of Tennessee. The three figures atop symbolize each of the three tenets of the Hall of Fame’s mission.
Exploration here includes the opening video in the Tipoff Theater, and gallery spaces and exhibits like the Ring of Honor, Olympic Games, Great Moments, Above the Rim, Sports Medicine, High School and College Basketball History, Locker Rooms Past and Present, Trail Blazers of the Game, the Winner’s Wall, and more, each delving into fascinating aspects of both the behind-the-scenes and on-camera characteristics of basketball history. Interactive aspects also include passing skills and dribbling course areas and photo stations with some of the most influential personalities of the game and leagues.
The Cradle of Country Music
Country music is another aspect that one might not immediately associate with Knoxville, yet it roots run very deep here, extending back to James Brown, Ashley Monroe, Roy Acuff, Elvis Presley, Clifford Curry, Dolly Parton, Walter "Brownie" McGhee, Hank Williams, Ava Barber, Milton Estes, Kenny Chesney … and not just singers but also musicians, producers, songwriters, and others involved in the music scene.
The free, downtown Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour elucidates the careers of many of these individuals as well as the places that played significant roles in their careers and marks on the Nashville landscape. Knoxville is also figured prominently in the ground-breaking, 16-part documentary Ken Burns’ Country Music Pathway, as one of the Tennessee cities that played a significant role in the genre’s development.
Want to enjoy more of the music that is so much of a part of the cultural and artistic landscapes here? Then tune into this Cradle of Country Music Spotify Playlist. And don’t forget - jazz, R&B, blues, and rock and roll have historic roots and modern-day influences and music enjoyment opportunities in Knoxville as well.
Going to the Theater
The Performing Arts in Knoxville is big, with numerous options from theaters, to performing arts companies, large-scale cultural entities, and more. You can find entities like the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (BTW, it’s the Southeast’s longest continually performing symphony orchestra), Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus, and Knoxville Opera Company, just to name a few.
In the theatrical realm there’s the Clarence Brown Theatre, located on the campus of the University of Tennessee and named after this 1910 alumnus and legendary filmmaker, as well as the Knoxville Children’s Theatre with productions geared toward children and families.
Two theaters situated along Gay Street downtown are historic entities in their own right.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and honored as the Official State Theatre of Tennessee, the Tennessee Theatre has been a Knoxville fixture since the early 1900s. It has gone through several iterations in its long history, today standing as a premier, multi-use performing arts venue—film, dance, Broadway productions, concerts…you name it, and you can enjoy it here. One of the biggest draws for visitors is to take in its grand Spanish-Moorish style interior, making it a place where people who don’t have time for a performance can simply come for a behind-the-scenes, deluxe tour.
The history of the iconic Bijou Theater—built in 1816 and still standing as the oldest commercial property in Knoxville—covers a wide swath of the city’s social and cultural landscape over the years. The first shots of the Civil War in Knoxville came from here when a Confederate sympathizer who didn't like someone who was walking outside fired a shot. It became Larmon Hospital during the conflict, treating both Union and Confederate soldiers. It operated as a car showroom, vaudeville house, and transient flophouse and brothel back in the day when this area was a Red-Light District.
The Bijou also served in an overlapping capacity as a theater for 100 years, and a hotel for 112 years with guests that included influential politicians, lawyers, and presidents until about the mid-1970s. And it was also the first “integrated but segregated” theater in Knoxville with a separate box office, entrance, and balcony for Blacks only, making it an important place for the African American community at the turn-of-the-century.
Today residents and visitors come here to enjoy a myriad of events including live bands, plays, comedy acts, theater performances, and more.
Thriving Black Culture – Past and Present
One of the steady backbones of the economic, cultural, political, sports, and education landscape in Knoxville has always been the African American community.
At the time that Knoxville was officially established in 1791, there were just under 200 enslaved blacks here, a small number compared to those living in Western Tennessee due to the topography and farm labor needed. Free blacks came in greater numbers after the Civil War, as well as post-reconstruction in the mid-late 1800s, where they really began to thrive including holding public offices and developing their own communities and businesses.
Race Riots marked the landscape here as well in 1919, and it took several decades for blacks to begin assuming their former positions of influence in business, churches, schools, government, and so forth, even though most of it took placed within their own segregated areas.
Tying the past, present, and future of black Knoxville together is one of the city’s greatest gems – The Beck Cultural Center. Established in 1975 it is named in honor of James Beck, Tennessee’s first black postal clerk, one of the organizers of the Knoxville branch of the NAACP, the first black athletic coach at Knoxville College, and an administrator of the semi-pro negro baseball team, the Knoxville Giants; and Ethel Beck, a tennis pro and also President of the Tennessee Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers.
Celebrated for their tremendous successes in numerous business enterprises, , the couple was also hailed for their establishment in 1919 of the Ethel Beck Home for Colored Orphans.
Since that time, the Center has been designated by the state as a primary repository of black history and culture in East Tennessee, serving as a hub where the spokes of a wheel converge as a valuable resource and cultural experience from many perspectives.
An international draw for its exhibits, archives, rotating art exhibitions, and meeting spaces, The Beck Cultural Center is in the midst of an expansion project to add the Delaney Museum at the Beck, the last remaining ancestral home of Beauford Delaney, one of the founding black families in Knoxville in the late 1800s.
Located in the city’s Morningside Park, Alex Haley Heritage Square features an amazing 13-foot-high bronze statue of this famous writer who lived out his remaining years here on a small farm in nearby Clinton, TN.
The Green McAdoo Cultural Center, named for U.S. Army veteran and member of the all Black 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment - Green McAdoo. Formerly Clinton High School, it was here that—like in Little Rock—12 students known as the “The Clinton 12” dared to step forward to attend the all-white school in the fight for equal rights. Their story and lawsuit—McSwain et al vs. Anderson County—was designated under the umbrella of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Whether a local or just passing through town, you can connect to part of today’s black community in Knoxville via The Bottom. The name stems from its forced position in the 1950s when a good portion of East Knoxville, the historic African American neighborhood and business hub, was virtually wiped out through urban renewal and the addition of a new highway. Here you can connect with various projects, programs, events, and more.
For more historic and fascinating aspects relating to black history, you can embark upon a self-guided tour using the Knoxville African American Heritage Guide.
The location and topography of east Tennessee lends itself beautifully toward a wealth of outdoor recreational activities that attract people from all around the world.
The biggest draw here is Knoxville’s position as one of the gateways to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which most people don’t realize is the most visited National Park in the country, as it is within a day-and-a-half drive of 60% of the U.S. population. For a fantastic overview of what to see, do, and experience here, check out the book Family Fun in the Smokies: A Family-Friendly Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, written by venerable writer Katy Koontz.
The book is recognized as the definitive family guide to the park, encompassing pre-trip planning, suggested itineraries, information on the plants and animals, historical background, and helpful descriptions of scenic drives, ranger programs, picnic areas, family-friendly hikes, camping, biking, horseback riding, fishing, and more.
From canoeing to traditional or hydro-biking, climbing, paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing and more, the Knoxville area has a trail, river, lake, or mountain where you can do your thing!
Whether you have your own equipment or need to rent some, one of the best places to get you on your way is at the Knoxville Adventure Collective.
Located the Neyland/James White Greenway along the banks of the Tennessee River, the Collective also provides trail and water maps for guided or self-guided exploration, ancillary gear, and special adventure opportunities like Full Moon Paddles, for example. The staff here are not only outdoor experts, they are staunch al fresco enthusiasts and a wealth of information about any kind of outdoor adventure that speaks to your skill level and desires.
The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum which is free and open to the public is an enchanting oasis in the middle of the city. Themed display gardens, stunning master gardener beds, beautiful historic structures, and inviting walking trails spanning the 47-acre property are just the beginning of the experience here.
Another one of the most popular places in the city is Ijams Nature Center. The Visitor Center features an array exhibits expounding upon the depth of nature found in the area and is where you can get maps for exploring some 300 acres of trails and other areas including marble quarries where you can hike, bike, paddle, swim, and rock climb.
The property also encompasses Navitat Knoxville, a both fun and challenging self-guided aerial adventure park. Offering skill levels for every member of the family, the adventure here takes you “from tree to tree to tree” through a series of challenge elements, each one offering spectacular, bird’s eye views of the surrounding landscape. For added excitement, tackle the challenge course on the weekends after dark during Navitat at Night under a blanket of stars and twinkling lights.
And last but certainly not least, if you like to talk to the animals, then be sure to visit Zoo Knoxville. In addition to the various habitats including river otters, gorillas, reptiles, lions and tigers, tortoises, aviaries, and red pandas, just to name a few, the Zoo property also offers special animal encounters, nighttime safaris, kids’ camps, behind-the-scenes tours, a carousel, splash park, and more.
As you can see, there is so much more the Knoxville than meets the eye. To learn more about this historic and charming city, check out the following links for more exciting Knoxville articles: