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Off the Beaten Path: Local’s Guide to Unique Things to Do in Knoxville

Are you looking for weird or unique things to do in Knoxville? Things way off the well-beaten tourist path?

In this East Tennessee town, Southern charm meets natural beauty and plenty of surprises. Yes, ‘Scruffy City’ is near the country’s most visited national park. It’s also home to a major university and countless iconic landmarks. But beyond that, there are tons of unique things to do in Knoxville.

Wall Mural in downtown Knoxville TN
Downtown Knoxville Wall Mural

If you’re tired of the typical tourist traps or a local on the lookout for offbeat and just plain weird things to do, you’re in for a treat.

This insider’s guide will introduce you to some of Knoxville’s best unconventional experiences, hidden gems, and unusual spots. Let’s get into it!

Most Unique Things to Do in Knoxville

1. Explore Old City

Street in Old City Knoxville with shops and restaurants and people walking down the street
A sunny day in Old City

Ditch the well-trodden path and head to edgy Old City, just north of downtown. This historic district spans just a few city blocks, but it serves up huge amounts of character.

The eclectic neighborhood was once home to the city’s red light district, a ton of saloons, the meatpacking district, and even homes. It’s the perfect spot to find some unique things to do in Knoxville!

Today, you’ll still find many of the best bars in Knoxville (at one time, it was known as Irish Town, if that tells you anything!). And some of the best coffee shops, breweries, indie music venues, and brunch spots.

The architecture is also incredible, making you feel like you stepped back in time.

2. Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

Urban Wilderness Map and locations in Knoxville TN
Credit: Visit Knoxville

Discover Scruffy City’s outdoorsy side by exploring Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness.

An incredible resource, especially for a major city, this 1,500-acre natural playground has hiking and biking trails, city parks, lakes, and a wildlife preserve — plenty of outdoor activities in Knoxville.

The scenic Ijams Nature Center is one of the better-known destinations within the Urban Wilderness, but it’s only the beginning of all there is to explore.

And, amazingly, it’s less than 10 minutes from downtown.

So next time you’re looking for an outdoor adventure, skip taking a day trip out of town. Instead, stay right here, enjoying some of the most unique things to do in Knoxville while you soak in its natural beauty.

3. Learn All About Glass-blowing (& Beer) at Pretentious Glass

Glass Blown Beer Taps at Pretentious Beer Company in Knoxville TN
Blown Glass Beer Tap Handles

Looking for a hands-on experience that’s both artistic and a bit boozy?

Nestled in the heart of Old City (we told you it’s unique!), this unconventional spot combines the art of glass-blowing with a modern twist – craft beer!

Pretentious Glass offers workshops where you can try your hand at creating your own glass masterpiece. Make a cocktail glass, ornament, or decorative paperweight of your own.

But the experience doesn’t end when you finish your glass project. The other half of Pretentious Glass is Pretentious Beer Co., one of our favorite Knoxville breweries.

After perfecting your glass creation, unwind in the cozy taproom with a great selection of local brews. It’s the perfect fusion of creativity and relaxation, making it one of the most offbeat activities in Knoxville.

4. Dogwood Arts Festival

entrance to the dogwood arts festival in knoxville tn
Credit: Dogwood Arts Festival

Every spring, Knoxville bursts with creativity and color during the Dogwood Arts Festival. This annual event celebrates the region’s unique combination of natural beauty and artistic spirit.

While blooming dogwood trees blanket the city in delicate shades of white and pink, you can also discover talented local artists.

Wander through Market Square, the hub of the festival. Artists line the streets with vibrant booths, offering everything from paintings to handmade crafts. There are also plenty of live performances, tasty foods, and interactive activities for all ages.

You can also explore over 90 miles of official Dogwood Trails throughout the city. They pass through neighborhoods, Knoxville parks, and by major landmarks.

5. Marvel at the World’s (Former) Largest Rubik’s Cube

Large Rubiks Cube in Knoxville TN
Credit: Downtown Knoxville

Knoxville has one very specific claim to fame, and it comes in the form of a colossal puzzle – the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube.

Well, it was, anyway, until late 2023, when a park in Dubai made a bigger one.

The Hungarian government gifted Knoxville the 10-foot-tall motorized structure for the World’s Fair in 1982.

Today, you can check it out inside the Knoxville Convention Center, right next to Market Square.

6. Go Swimming at Fort Dickerson Quarry

The quarry at Ijams Nature Center may be better known, and that’s exactly why we suggest swimming at Fort Dickerson Quarry.

Also known as Augusta Quarry, this swimming hole in South Knox is absolutely beautiful. Despite being right in the city, the natural setting and beaches make it seem like it’s miles away.

Because it is so accessible, Fort Dickerson Quarry gets quite busy on hot summer days. Still, it’s more of a locals’ hangout, so it’s (usually) far less busy than the Ijams Quarry and popular swimming holes in the Great Smokies.

In addition to swimming, you can enjoy other outdoor activities in Knoxville here, including rafting, paddleboarding, and walking the trails. History buffs, don’t miss the historic Civil War fort!

7. Muse Knoxville

Muse Museum exterior with colorful stairs and entrance in knoxville tn
Credit: Muse Knoxville

For an offbeat family adventure, spend a day at Muse Knoxville. This science museum isn’t your typical educational excursion.

For one thing, it’s smaller than you might expect. Don’t let that deter you, though — remember, good things often come in small packages!

Dive into quirky exhibits, like the Augmented Reality Sandbox and We BEElong. This isn’t just a museum; it’s an interactive journey where kids and adults can discover the wonders of science in unexpected ways.

Along those lines, why not plan your next Knoxville date night at Muse?

8. Celebrate Oktoberfest at an Authentic Biergarten

People sitting outside at the biergarten at Shulz Brau Brewing in Knoxville TN
Shulz Brau Biergarten

We already touched on Knoxville’s awesome brewery scene, but it has a pretty incredible (and unique!) beer garden, too.

Actually, make that biergartenSchulz Brau is authentically German. And it just so happens to look like a Medieval castle.

Year-round, you can catch live music, do a “shotski,” or sample genuine schnitzel here. In fairness, those are already unique things to do in Knoxville, but Schulz Brau takes it up a level come fall.

For two weeks every October, you can experience authentic Munich-style traditions during Knoxville Oktoberfest. Expect live polka music, Lederhosen costume contests, Running of the Weiners (dogs!), and lots of stein-hoisting and yelling Prost!

Then in the winter, Schulz Brau transforms into a magical, boozy wonderland. The brewery sets up igloos in the biergarten for indoor-outdoor dining, and serves winter classics like glühwein.

9. Catch a Tennessee Smokies Game

Tennessee Minor League Smokies Stadium in Knoxville TN
Credit: Minor League Baseball of Tennessee

Sports fans seeking an authentic East Tennessee experience should catch a Smokies game. Nestled in the Knoxville suburb of Kodak, this minor league baseball team has quite the local following.

The atmosphere at Smokies Stadium, AKA “America’s Friendliest Ballpark,” is electric, with passionate fans cheering on the home team. You’ll quickly realize that it’s not just about the game; it’s a chance to indulge in a bit of nostalgia.

There’s nothing quite like classic ballpark snacks and the camaraderie between fans, shared under the Southern sun! Plus, where else can you get $1 beers on Thirsty Thursday?!

If you can, go to a home game on a Friday or Saturday night in the summer. Then you’ll see the post-game fireworks show!

10. Experience Band Eat Band

Band Eat Band Pamphlet in Knoxville TN

Nashville may be the more famous city for live music but don’t be so quick to dismiss Knoxville. This city has an incredible, one-of-a-kind music scene, influenced by everything from country to the blues (a la Memphis) and Appalachian folk.

Every year, popular local venue Scruffy City hosts an even more popular battle of the bands-style contest. “Band Eat Band” usually starts in the fall and finishes in the spring, with weekly shows.

It’s a HUGE deal, with a $25,000 grand prize and major sponsors including local radio and news, George Dickel whiskey, and Nutrl vodka seltzers.

The audience votes count just as much as the judge’s, so don’t miss your chance to support your favorites!

11. Rhinestone Fest

Rhinestone Fest in Knoxville TN with vendors
Credit: Rhinestone Fest via Instagram

Did you know that Dolly Parton was born and raised in Sevier County, just outside Knoxville? That’s why it’s the home of her incredible theme park, Dollywood.

Rhinestone Fest, previously called Dolly Fest, is an annual celebration paying homage to the queen of country music herself. This unique event, easily one of the most off-beat things to do in Knoxville, brings fans together to revel in Dolly’s iconic spirit during a 3-day weekend in June.

Instead of one main event, the festival actually comprises several events held throughout Old City. You’ll find art contests, fun merch shops, live music and karaoke, and elaborate all-pink themed pop-up bars, all capturing the essence of Dolly Parton’s legacy.

Of course, there will also be LOTS of dazzling rhinestone outfits!

12. Big Ears Music Festival

Big Ears Festival Knoxville TN Music Lineup
2024 Lineup / Credit: Big Ears Festival via Facebook

While we’re on the topic of music festivals, Big Ears should be on your Knoxville bucket list if you’re into unique and eclectic.

The festival has been dubbed “the most open-minded music gathering in the country.” It features a tremendous range of artists and genres, including composers, hard rock, gospel, classical, pop, and so much more.

Nearly 200 performances take place downtown, and the venues are as diverse as the music itself. You might catch a show in an old church, an industrial warehouse, a nightclub, or a museum.

13. Board the Three Rivers Rambler

Three Rivers Rambler Train on a snowy day in Knoxville TN
Credit: Three Rivers Rambler

In some places, historic trains are major tourist attractions. Here, however, the Three Rivers Rambler is one of the more unique things to do in Knoxville.

The steam train departs from University Commons near the UT campus, taking passengers on a leisurely ride to where the Tennessee River begins. As the train winds its way through historic districts, a knowledgeable local guide shares interesting anecdotes about Knoxville’s past.

Don’t miss the Lantern Express Christmas trains, one of the best things to do in Knoxville during Christmas.

14. Eat at a Food Truck Park

Southside Garage Food Truck Park in Knoxville TN with food trucks parked outside
Credit: Southside Garage

Knoxvillians love food, plain and simple. The city has plenty of incredible fine dining restaurants, along with just about every imaginable type of cuisine.

However, nothing feels quite as local and authentic as eating from a food truck. Better yet, though, Knoxville has entire food truck parks!

There are a few to choose from throughout the city, each with its own distinct vibe. Whichever you choose, this is one of the most unique things to do in Knoxville, not to mention one of the tastiest.

  • South Side Garage: South Knox spot open seven days a week in the afternoons and evenings. Also home to the South Knox Bocce Club.
  • Hey Bear Cafe / The Cave: A somewhat unexpected location, this adorable boba tea cafe also hosts food trucks and live music almost every single day. Plus, there are often pop-ups with additional vendors.
  • Creekside Knox: Super unique, laid-back spot with multiple venues and up to five rotating food trucks. In addition to food trucks outside, check out The Back Alley (a traditional restaurant), Blondie’s beer bottle shop, or The Annex cocktail bar.

15. Go on a Walking Mural Tour Downtown

Dolly Parton Murale on a wall in downtown Knoxville TN
Beautiful Dolly Parton Mural in Knoxville

On top of its amazing food, craft beer, brunch, and live music scenes, Knoxville also has a rich arts culture. One of the best ways to experience it is to check out some of the city’s murals.

The vivid street art decorates alleys, walls, sidewalks, and even entire buildings throughout Knoxville. Most of them (nearly 20!) are downtown, featuring city scenes, Dolly Parton, animals, historical sites, and more.

You’ll see some of the murals on a walking tour of the city, but you can also download a printable map to be sure you see them all. The map is also available at the downtown visitor’s center.

16. Visit Knoxville’s Only Cat Cafe

Credit: Scruffy’s Cafe via Facebook

What could be more unique than enjoying some coffee and goodies in the company of roaming, adoptable cats? It definitely counts as weird things to do in Knoxville, and you’ll find it at Scruffy’s Cafe in Old North Knox (right near K Brew’s Broadway shop).

It’s Knoxville’s “first and only cat cafe,” and it offers more than you might think. Catch live music, open mic nights, and pop-up galleries, as well as cat adoption events.

To answer two common questions, the cafe and the Cat Lounge are in separate spaces. So don’t worry about cat hair getting into your food! Also, you can’t bring your own cat.

What weird and unique things have you done in Knoxville? Let us know in the comments below!