Tennessee’s third-largest city is also one of its most cultural. Visitors to Knoxville are greeted by the city’s iconic Sunsphere. Constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair, the 266-foot structure features an observation deck on the fourth floor that gives visitors unobstructed 360-degree views of the city. A new highlight of the Sunsphere is Icon Ultra Lounge, a chic bar and restaurant offering live music and cuisine from around the globe.
Just a few steps away from the Sunsphere in World’s Fair Park is the Knoxville Museum of Art, a beautiful modern building housing an array of fine art and works related to the history of Tennessee. As impressive as the collection was, though, the highlight of my trip was my much-anticipated visit to the Knoxville Zoo.
A short drive from downtown, the Knoxville Zoo is one of the most visited attractions in the state, with over 400,000 guests last year. One of my favorite exhibits is the Red Panda Village. Since 1979, 93 cubs have been born here, more than any other zoo in the Western Hemisphere. Visitors can view the beautiful red pandas lounging in the trees up above from any one of three viewing areas.
The Grasslands Africa exhibition was a favorite as well. Home to the elephant, ostrich, zebra and giraffe exhibits. Grasslands Africa provides tons of great photo opportunities, including a giraffe-feeding experience that recently opened to zoo guests. Being eye-to-eye with the tallest land mammals in the world is quite an extraordinary experience, and getting the opportunity to hand-feed them is even more memorable.
After an eventful afternoon at the zoo, head to Cocoa Moon, a chic restaurant located on Market Square that feels like a trendy gay bar with great food. Cocoa Moon serves up a fusion of Asian and Latin flavors, offering everything from Ceviche to Sesame Chicken. Standouts include Teriyaki Chicken & Shrimp and the Seafood Fajita, a combination of grilled shrimp, scallops and squid served over a bed of seasoned rice. Cocoa Moon’s delicacies don’t stop at their food; the restaurant also serves up an array of delicious cocktails.
When in Knoxville, check in at the Oliver Hotel, a boutique property located on Market Square. The hotel features 28 elegantly appointed rooms featuring handcrafted furniture, original artwork, and luxurious room amenities, including walk-in showers. Originally built in 1876 as the Peter Kern Bakery, the building has hosted everything from the Kern’s candy counter and soda fountain to a drugstore, and dancing hall. The current owners purchased the building in 2011 and developed it into one of the hottest properties in town.
Staying at the Oliver Hotel has its perks. Located at the base of the hotel, overlooking Market Square is Tupelo Honey Café, an offshoot of the original Asheville, N.C., establishment. Diners are greeted by friendly staff serving hot, fluffy homemade biscuits with, of course, honey. Unique entrees worth trying include the Roast Beef Po’ Boy served with fried green tomatoes and cherry pepper aioli, as well as When Shrimp Met Taco, two soft flour tortillas, filled with flash-fried shrimp, julienned Swiss chard, house-made smoked jalapeno aioli and Sunshot Salsa.
The area in and around Market Square has emerged as the epicenter of Knoxville. This is where locals mingle with tourists and listen to live music, shop at small boutiques and art galleries and dine at a variety of restaurants. The square is also home to numerous festivals throughout the year, as well as other family-oriented events and a movie theater.
While on the square, stop by Latitude35 for its famous weekend brunch, but come hungry because the restaurant serves up down-home favorites, including Sweetwater Blue Ale Pancakes with blueberry butter and maple syrup, Bananas Foster French Toast made with rum syrup and banana cream, and Louisiana Eggs, served over lump crab cakes with Creole sauce and hollandaise. The venue is also a hotspot at night when its bar and dance floor flood with partygoers.
Just outside downtown lies an urban playground for nature buffs and those seeking to explore the outdoors. Ijams Nature Center is a tranquil oasis only minutes from urban hustle and bustle, but it makes visitors feel as if they are miles away. The Wildlife Sanctuary Trail System features almost four miles of hiking-only trails and seven more miles of multi-use trails. On these trails, one can see a sparkling quarry lake, unique rock formations, scenic overlooks and rugged terrain. The 275-acre park also offers bike, paddleboard and canoe rentals and is a great way to spend a beautiful morning or afternoon.
LGBT nightlife in Knoxville is enjoyable, but not necessarily convenient. The city’s gay bars and clubs are spread out, making bar-hopping a bit difficult and definitely unsafe if you choose to enjoy a few adult beverages. I recommend choosing one or two destinations per night. Favorite hotspots among the locals include Club XYZ, Club eXile, Sassy Ann’s and The Carousel II, a two-story complex boasting a sunken dance floor, huge performance stage and nightly entertainment.
Knoxville is a great weekend getaway, offering a variety of experiences. If you have never been, be sure to visit for Knoxville Pride on Saturday, June 22. For more information, go to www.knoxville.org.
OUT Destinations is part of OUTreach Public Relations, a company specializing in LGBT marketing that was founded by Joey Amato. For more information, please visit www.outreachpublicrelations.com.