Knoxville's not known for exposing its virtues to the casual visitor. The virtues people are most likely to mention in regard to the city mostly require a very dependable car, a good deal of time, and some specific knowledge about unmarked roads (the mountains, the lakes) or some patience for football-ticket scalpers (typically sold-out UT Vol games). There's the excellent Knoxville Zoo, of coursebut beyond that, how do you spend a weekend in Knoxville?
A while back, a young ecology professor moved here from up north. After several months here, he was unimpressed with Knoxville, which didn't seem to have anything to offer a young single man. It's the first impression of a great many people who move here or visit.
He began looking for other jobs. But after he'd been here for about a year, he complained to one friend who didn't agree.
"Give it some time," a friend said. "Knoxville has pockets of funk."
We're not sure the following are exactly the same pockets of funk the informant had in mind, but we agree that there are at least...
13 Things to Try Before You Give Up on Knoxville
Harold's Deli on a Saturday. Half New York-style delicatessen, half Southern diner, Harold's has stayed in business for 52 yearssame location, same proprietor, pretty much the same menuserving kosher food and not-always-kosher conversation. And it's near the Old City, which, regardless of what you might hear, is still a fun place to shopespecially for antiquesand to hear some bluegrass or jazz and eat a pizza. (Harold's, 131 S. Gay St.; Old City, Jackson and Central)
Ijams Nature Center. Want to go on a short hike with the kids and don't feel like driving all the way to the mountains? Bigger than ever, this decades-old nature park is surprisingly gorgeous considering it's hardly three miles from downtown, offering a diverse wildlife habitat and woody trails, some of which lead to docks overlooking a slough of the Tennessee River. The park hosts special events, including lectures, workshops, canoe trips up the river, and even outdoor theatrical productions. (Ijams Nature Center, 2915 Island Home Ave.)
Laurel Theatre on a Friday night. This tiny Victorian church in Fort Sanders seats only 200, but it has hosted some of the great folk singers of the world (e.g. Mike Seeger, Ralph Stanley, Iris DeMent). Your applause may also end up on the radio; for years, WUOT-FM has broadcast recent shows on its Live at the Laurel and Mountain Jubilee programs. (Laurel Theatre, 1538 Laurel Ave.)
The Alex Haley Statue. It was the largest statue of an African American in the world, and as far as we know, it still is. An homage to the author of Roots who spent most of his last decade in the Knoxville area, the bronze by renowned New York artist Tina Allen is made with a lap for kids to climb onto. (Entrance to Morningside Park, 1600 Dandridge Ave., at the east end of Summit Hill Drive)
A Tour of the Mabry-Hazen House. This house was built by the violently colorful Civil War-era businessman Joseph Mabry, who was killed in a downtown gunfight in 1882. Equally important, they've restored the peppery stories of the often eccentric Mabry family, who lived here for half the 19th century and most of the 20th. (1711 Dandridge Ave., near Alex Haley statue)
A Voyage on the Star of Knoxville. For years we were embarrassed by the stinky body of water that some Knoxvillians didn't even know was the Tennessee River. In ignoring the river for so long, at least we didn't ruin it. Longtime Knoxvillians are surprised by the beauty of the shores within their own city limits, on these voyages that usually go downstream as far as Sequoyah Hills (old Looney's Bend). If you'd like to try still another form of transportation, see if the Three Rivers Rambler train is running this month. (Star of Knoxville Wharf, Volunteer Landing)
Supper at King Tut's. The most eccentric restaurant in Knoxville, there's no place like this middle-eastern themed diner with disco overtures. In the heart of working-class Vestal, the restaurant features a variety of food specials and theme nights; try it on Wednesday, which is Mo's Egyptian Night. (King Tut's Grill, 4132 Martin Mill Pike)
An afternoon in Old Gray. Much larger than it looks from its Broadway entrance, this extravagant Victorian-era cemetery houses a wide variety of characters, including "Parson" W.G. Brownlow; Professor Ebenezer Alexander, who initiated America's involvement in the modern Olympics; McGhee Tyson, the ill-fated World War I aviator for whom the airport is named; playwright Tennessee Williams' father; feminist Lizzie Crozier French; composer Gustavus Knabe; and impressionist Catherine Wiley, plus half a dozen U.S. senators. Adjacent is the Civil War-era National Cemetery, one of the oldest national cemeteries in America, adorned with what's allegedly one of the tallest Union monuments in the South. (Old Gray Cemetery, 543 N. Broadway)
The Museum of East Tennessee History. Located in the marble 1872 Custom House, which is an exhibit in itself, this museum makes the most of its limited space with a wide array of colorful exhibits, among them Davy Crockett's rifle and one of Roy Acuff's fiddles, and is well worth the hour it takes to have a good look at it. (Museum of East Tennessee History, 600 Market Street)
A Saturday Afternoon in Fountain City. Its name makes it sound more distant than it is, but Fountain City (which was, by the way, never an actual city) is in Knoxville proper, only five miles out Broadway. It's as close to downtown as Bearden is. Originally a resort refuge from industrial Knoxville, for many it still is today. With basketball courts and picnic tables, the public park may be the most family-friendly place in town (that stream is the headwaters of First Creek, and the crevice where it comes out of the rocky slope is the "fountain" for which the "city" is named). When you get hungry, try a giant hamburger at Litton's, and maybe a sundae at the Creamery for dessert. They still catch big fish in the duck pond, a.k.a., Fountain City Lake, all that remains of the Victorian-era Fountainhead Hotel, which burned almost a century ago. And it's all arranged within easy walking distance, with the feel of a small town of its own. (North Broadway, around Hotel Ave.)
Sunday Afternoon on the Third Creek Bike Trail. This six-mile-long bike trail meanders back and forth along Third Creek, mostly through wooded areas. The trail includes an old masonry train trestle and the ruins of a waterwheel. It connects Sutherland Avenue, near Bearden, with Volunteer Landing by way of Tyson Park, the 80-year-old park near UT that features tennis courts, softball fields and an elaborate playground, where on Sunday afternoons you may even get to witness the Society for Creative Anachronism's medieval contests. And at the adjacent Fulton Bottoms Field, they play rugby, lacrosse, and other subversive sports. Thanks to underpasses, the bike trail takes you all the way to the marina at the east end of Volunteer Landing with only three street crossings. (Try it from Tyson Park, 2351 Kingston Pike)
Actors Co-op. The 2000 winner of our Best Theatrical Troupe poll, this talented, energetic, unpredictable, and still young thespian group has mounted some startling productions in unlikely places, ranging from fields to restaurants to old industrial dumps by the railroad tracks. Now that they've matured (some of the actors are pushing 30) they seem to have settled into a home in Homberg Place.
Or, if you prefer your guerrilla theater to be dependably fast and wacky, try Theatre Central, on Gay Street, Knoxville's most prolific theatrical troupe of the last 15 years or so. (Actors Co-op, 5213 Homberg Drive; Theatre Central, 141 S. Gay)
While you're there, spend An evening in Homberg Place. It's named for an old hat factory that was here decades ago, when this eddy was still part of Kingston Pike. Its weaknessthat it's invisibly out of the way of mainstream auto traffic and easily bypassedis also its strength. Walk along the backside, with nothing but the golf course to the south, and it can seem like a beach resort during the off season. Interesting restaurants come and go down here, but some of the stalwarts are Java, a good coffee shop with desserts, and, next door, Alex's Havana Cafe, Knoxville's only Cuban restaurant which, like Java, features outdoor seating. Bistro By the Tracks is also nearby, as is D'Jon's pizzeria. Upscale clothing shops are nearby, as well as one of the area's best art-supply stores. Homberg proves it's not just some yuppie real-estate development by keeping some of its prewar character, including an old church and Cherokee Porcelain, a small quonset-hut factory which quietly manufactures, among other things, enameled metal signs for the New York subway system.