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Christmas in Knoxville: Most Festive Things to Do for the Holidays

Planning to spend Christmas in Knoxville this year? We can’t blame you!

As both a college town and a mountain town (it’s nestled at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, and home to the University of Tennessee), Knoxville takes the holidays seriously.

In fact, it’s tough to find a city that’s more festive!

From millions of twinkling lights to dozens of lively Christmas events, the city offers a unique blend of Southern charm and yuletide cheer. In addition, Knoxville has beautiful mountain scenery that makes things feel even more Christmas-y.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through all the ins and outs of spending Christmas in Knoxville. Grab a cozy beverage and settle in to learn how to make the most of this joyous season!

Also, before we jump in, this guide truly focuses on Christmas in Knoxville. However, if you’re visiting Knoxville during the winter months and looking for more things to do, also read our Winter in Knoxville guide!

Also, Knoxville is just a short drive from many small towns in Tennessee, so explore your options!

So, let’s dive into spending Christmas in Knoxville!

snow covered christmas tree in downtown knoxville tn
Credit: Downtown Knoxville

The Complete Guide to Spending Christmas in Knoxville

Whether you’re a local or visiting from out of town, it’s helpful to know what to expect before finalizing your holiday plans.

As East Tennesseans ourselves, we put together a bunch of tips and other good-to-know’s that will come in handy for planning your Christmas in Knoxville.

Knoxville Weather During Christmas

December weather typically brings temperatures between 30-50 degrees and is unfortunately one of the rainiest months of the season.

Snow doesn’t generally start to really stick until the new year, largely because it’s so wet in December. Even if it does snow over Christmas, it will likely be a very small amount.

Although the temps remain fairly mild, expect the occasional sub-freezing day. We recommend packing those winter essentials — such as a warm coat, toboggan, and gloves!

Knoxville Christmas Crowds

Especially during the holidays, Knoxville is full of crowds and tourists.

While the city is known for its friendly residents, the Christmas season draws thousands of visitors from near and far.

Expect lively crowds, especially in popular areas like Market Square and Gay Street.

Also, if the Vols make a college bowl game, December weekends are especially lively near the university and at any sports bar with TVs.

The good news is that the festive atmosphere is truly infectious. Being around fellow holiday enthusiasts really adds to Knoxville’s overall charm.

Navigating the city during this time can be a breeze… but sometimes, not so much.

Prepare and plan ahead for heavier traffic, especially on weekends and near major events like city parades. Parking fills up quickly, so consider using public transportation or Uber to remove that stress altogether.

Where to Stay in Knoxville for Christmas

Knoxville has dozens of fab hotels, but a few stand out as being the best hotels for the holidays.

  • The Tennessean: Aside from being ideally located next to World’s Fair Park, this hotel goes all-out for Christmas. Think a cocoa bar, free gift wrapping, and sugar cookies at check-in.
  • Hyatt Place Knoxville Downtown: A location convenient to everything, directly across from Krutch Park and the Tennessee Theatre.
  • The Oliver: One of the best hotels in Knoxville, it overlooks Market Square. Walk to almost anywhere!
downtown knoxville in winter with snow and trees covered in holiday lights like candy canes
Credit: Downtown Knoxville

Top Christmas Activities & Events in Knoxville

Knoxville hosts an annual Christmas in the City festival. Many of the individual events below are part of that festival, but there are also tons of other ways to enjoy Christmas in Knoxville.

1. Knoxville’s Holidays on Ice

Kick off your holiday celebrations literally with a glide around the outdoor rink at Market Square.

Holidays on Ice is one of the most popular traditions during Christmas in Knoxville. (It’s one of our favorite date ideas, too!)

The event transforms the heart of downtown into a winter wonderland, centered around a festive ice skating rink. Twinkling lights and holiday music add to the magic.

In addition, the rink hosts a handful of fun theme nights throughout the season. This year, there are disco skate parties, college nights, and “Decade Nights.”

The price of admission includes skate rentals and unlimited ice time.

Also, unique to Holidays on Ice, you can buy your ticket online and it’s valid all season. The rink opens the day after Thanksgiving and then closes on January 2nd.

2. Tour de Lights Bike Ride

Many people think this event alone makes Christmas in Knoxville superior over any other Tennessee city.

Tour de Lights involves cyclists decked out in festive lights and decorations (bikes included), parading through the city.

Not only does the ride offer a unique holiday lights tour, but it’s also a fun way to spread joy and cheer. Best of all, the ride is free and family-friendly.

The ride starts and ends at Mary Costa Plaza at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum. Afterward, hang around to enjoy Knoxville food trucks, a holiday vendor market, and an appearance by Santa.

Even if you’re not up for riding, you can join the Tour de Lights procession. Simply find a cozy spot along the route. We recommend sitting at one of Knoxville’s amazing breweries or coffee shops!

3. Fantasy of Trees

The main annual fundraiser for the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, Fantasy of Trees is a beloved Christmas tradition.

As its name implies, the event showcases a magical “forest” of decorated Christmas trees.

Over 350 trees spruce up the Knoxville Convention Center. In addition, there are often decorated doors, mock storefronts, and more.

Each tree has a unique theme, showcasing the creativity and holiday spirit of local Knoxville residents. Even local schools “adopt” trees to decorate them!

Attendees vote on individual trees with raffle tickets, and several items (trees and decor included) are also available for purchase.

There’s also a large holiday vendor marketplace, food vendors, a kids’ corner, live music and other entertainment, as well as Santa photo ops.

It’s a favorite tradition among many Knoxville families, but that’s not the best part as all proceeds support East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

4. Comcast Christmas at Chilhowee Park

Part of Christmas in the City, Christmas at Chilhowee transforms the park into a festive paradise.

During this FREE event, the main event is the tree lighting in the bandstand. However, it’s immediately followed by several other free activities.

The “Touch-a-Truck” event is popular, with dozens of construction vehicles, tractors, fire trucks, and police cars decorated for Christmas. Curious kiddos (and kids at heart) can see the trucks up close, and maybe even go inside a few!

Other activities at Christmas at Chilhowee include free hayrides around the park and free photos with Santa. Also, there are craft stations and some food vendors.

5. Peppermint Trail

Indulge your sweet tooth with a stroll along Knoxville’s Peppermint Trail.

This is arguably one of the most unique (not to mention tastiest) ways to celebrate Christmas in Knoxville!

From Thanksgiving weekend through early January, downtown businesses get festive by offering peppermint-themed treats and beverages.

For example, several coffee shops offer peppermint mochas while bars whip up minty cocktails.

Many restaurants in Knoxville also create special, limited-edition peppermint desserts!

Need some personal recommendations? We love the “Miracle” pop-up bar at Brother Wolf (order the Snowball Old-fashioned!). Also, Bernadette’s rooftop overlooks the skating rink at Market Square.

Check out all the businesses participating, then make your own route with your favorite stops. Some are favorites that locals know not to miss. Others, though, change up their peppermint offerings every year.

6. Holiday Markets

Is it just us, or is there something especially magical about holiday markets? Luckily, Christmas in Knoxville has several options!

The Nourish Knoxville Winter Market runs on Saturday afternoons throughout December. Every item at this open-air market is grown, raised, or created within 150 miles of Knoxville. This market is heavy on food items, so go hungry!

In addition, Old City Market runs on the second Sunday of each month. There is also a market on Small Business Saturday (the Saturday following Thanksgiving).

Not only do these markets serve as an excellent place to pick up some unique holiday gifts, but they also encourage you to get out and enjoy Knoxville’s mild winter weather.

Local tip: parking is free on weekends in downtown parking garages, unless there’s a large event nearby.

7. Holidays at the Tennessee Theatre

Immerse yourself in the magic of the season at the historic Tennessee Theatre.

Holidays at the Tennessee features special live holiday performances and movie screenings. And there may just be another fun surprise or two in store, also!

The lineup changes every year, but this year’s offerings include It’s a Wonderful Life and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (one of our favorites!). The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and Knoxville Symphony Orchestra both put on concerts, as well.

Also, look out for free concerts, theatre open house events, and everyone’s favorite, Cookies With Santa. Decorate cookies, make some crafts to bring home, and take a family photo with Santa. Children can even check the official naughty or nice list for their names!

8. Christmas at Ijams Nature Center

The Ijams Nature Center is part of the city’s impressive Urban Wilderness, but it also hosts some popular events during Christmas in Knoxville.

To kick off the season, there’s the annual Holiday Marketplace. 2023 is the 10th annual event, and it features local, homemade goodies, crafts, and other highly giftable items.

Don’t miss Pickin’ on Christmas, a bluegrass concert with a holiday twist. Whether you’re a local or visitor, this is a great opportunity to experience the Appalachian tradition of pickin’!

Finally, there’s also the Christmas Bird Count, now held over 100 years. It’s right before Christmas, and gets people involved in identifying and counting birds. You don’t have to know a thing about birding to participate, so make this a new holiday tradition!

9. Holiday Cruises on the Tennessee River

Celebrate Christmas in Knoxville on the river!

Every year, the Tennessee Riverboat Company offers its annual Saturday Holiday Cruises.

Take in scenic views of the city and holiday lights, while also enjoying a holiday buffet dinner. There’s music and live entertainment, too!

Cruises depart twice nightly on Saturdays in December. The first cruise leaves at 4:15, and the next one at 7:45 pm. Expect to be on the water for two hours (5-7:00 pm and 8-10:00 pm).

The buffet includes fancy dinner items such as beef tenderloin and carved ham. In addition, the boat has a full bar with cocktails, beer, and wine for purchase.

zoo knoxville zebra lanters for christmas in knoxville tn
Credit: Zoo Knoxville

10. Christmas at the Zoo

Zoo Knoxville is already a “wildly” popular destination, but even more so during Christmas. On weekends starting after Thanksgiving and throughout December, head to its special Visit With Santa event.

In addition to meeting with the Big Guy himself, the zoo plans plenty of other fun activities. There will be fun photo ops, holiday-themed goodies, and special animal encounters.

Visit With Santa is from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm Friday through Sunday. The experience is included in general zoo admission, and free for Zoo Knoxville members.

Also, the zoo is right next to Chilhowee Park. Turn it into a whole outing and stroll through the park to see the lights after your zoo trip!

Restaurants Open on Christmas in Knoxville

  • Corner 16: Both locations open 11:00 am to 7:00 pm on both Christmas Eve and Christmas
  • Copper Cellar: 11:00 am to 9:00 pm Christmas Eve and 10:00 am to 8:00 pm Christmas, serving a holiday buffet only
  • Bravo! Italian Cafe: 11:00 am to 8:00 pm on Christmas Eve and Christmas
  • Chesapeake’s Seafood House: Both locations open with split hours on Christmas Eve (brunch and dinner), and 11:00 am to 9:00 pm Christmas, serving a holiday buffet

Final Tips for the Perfect Christmas Vacation in Knoxville

As you wrap up planning your Christmas in Knoxville, we hope you have a memorable, magical holiday.

To have a seamless, enjoyable experience, remember to pack warm layers and plan ahead.

Also, explore beyond downtown — Knoxville is an amazing city with tons to offer in every corner!

We hope you enjoy your time spending Christmas in Knoxville!

Featured Image Credit: Downtown Knoxville