Downtown Knoxville Walk, Knoxville

Downtown Knoxville Walk (Self Guided), Knoxville

Home to a number of historic and cultural attractions, Downtown Knoxville is perpetually busy with tourists. The latter flock here, among other reasons, to explore the World’s Fair Park, Market Square, Gay Street, the Convention Center and other places of interest. Take this self-guided walk to acquaint yourself in detail with the best sites that Downtown Knoxville has to offer!
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Downtown Knoxville Walk Map

Guide Name: Downtown Knoxville Walk
Guide Location: USA » Knoxville (See other walking tours in Knoxville)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.3 Km or 1.4 Miles
Author: Sandra
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Market Square
  • Tennessee Women's Suffrage Memorial
  • Gay Street
  • East Tennessee History Center
  • Tennessee Theater, Burwell Building
  • First Presbyterian Church and Its Cemetery
  • William Blount Mansion
  • Gay Street Bridge
  • Bijou Theatre
  • St. John's Cathedral
  • Knoxville Convention Center
  • Knoxville SunSphere
  • World's Fair Park
Market Square

1) Market Square (must see)

Established in 1854 as a market place for regional farmers, Market Square has developed over the years into a multipurpose venue that accommodates events, ranging from concerts to political rallies, and has long provided a popular gathering spot for artists, street musicians, war veterans, and activists. Currently, it is used year-round as a venue for special outdoor events, including a seasonal farmer's market, the "Sundown in the City" concert series, and community band concerts.

A local newspaper once dubbed the square "the most democratic place on earth" where "the rich and the poor, the white and the black, jostle each other in perfect equality." Along with the Market House, Market Square was home to Knoxville's City Hall from 1868 to 1924. The bell from the old Market House is displayed at the Union Avenue end of the square. Nearby is the Women's Suffrage Memorial, a statue created by sculptor Alan LeQuire to commemorate Tennessee's role in achieving Women' suffrage in the United States. An open-air ice skating rink is created in Market Square every winter.

In 1984, the square was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

***Country Music Walk***
Back in the day, if you're a country music fan, Market Square was also a place to go in Knoxville to listen to fiddlers and gospel singers performing on the street corner. A small store in the northeastern quarter of the square was a notable destination on the country music map, equally popular with the old and young, rich and poor, black and white. Opened by Sam Morrison, a Knoxville record merchant, this shop played hits before they made it on the radio. It was commonly regarded that, if something fared well at Morrison’s, it had the potential to succeed nationally. The place was dubbed a “musical crucible” in Jack Neely’s Market Square history, and was the best known spot in town to hear street buskers and live music, making it the most musically historic block.

The most notable artist ever promoted by Morrison was Elvis Presley. The legend has it that Morrison played Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama” on the store's loudspeakers out into the square. He sold copies by the hundreds to the people of all ages, including two copies to an RCA talent scout who came to the area in search of a country music star. And that's how the King was born!
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Tennessee Women's Suffrage Memorial

2) Tennessee Women's Suffrage Memorial

The life-size bronze sculpture of three women in downtown Knoxville's Market Square honors female campaigners for the state of Tennessee to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution to grant women the right to vote. Tennessee was the final state to ratify the amendment and have it added to the Constitution, and thus was the focus of considerable effort both from local women and those traveling from other states to assist them. The ratification vote was passed on August 18, 1920.

The memorial, created by Nashville artist Alan LeQuire, depicts leaders of the suffrage movement, namely: Elizabeth Avery Meriwether of Memphis, Lizzie Crozier French of Knoxville, and Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville. Funded with private donations, it was commissioned by the Suffrage Coalition and unveiled on 26 August, 2006 as part of a day of commemorations, which included a re-enactment of a suffrage march, with women in vintage clothes and replica sashes, carrying replica banners.

The base of the sculpture features text on the campaign and a number of quotations from the campaigners, including the following by Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch:

"All honor to women, the first disenfranchised class in history who unaided by any political party, won enfranchisement by its own effort alone, and achieved the victory without the shedding of a drop of human blood."
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Gay Street

3) Gay Street

Gay Street traverses the heart of Knoxville's downtown area. Since its development in the 1790s, the street has served as the city's principal financial and commercial thoroughfare, playing a primary role in its historical and cultural evolution. Part of Charles McClung's original 1791 plat of Knoxville, Gay Street was a focal point for the early political activity of both the city and the State of Tennessee.

By 1850, Gay Street had accommodated three-fourths of Knoxville's commercial activity, and in 1854 became the first paved road in the city. On the eve of the Civil War, Gay Street was the site of simultaneous Union and Confederate recruiting rallies. After the war, it saw extensive commercial development as railroad construction brought an industrial boom to Knoxville.

Today, Gay Street is a home to the largest office buildings and oldest commercial structures in Knoxville; several local buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
East Tennessee History Center

4) East Tennessee History Center (must see)

Located at the intersection of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue, the former Knoxville Post Office and Customs House, established in the 1870s, now accommodates the East Tennessee History Center. It houses the Historical Society, Historical Museum, the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection and the Knoxville County Archives. All foundations cooperate to preserve the history and heritage of the region. A non-profit organization, it is committed to collecting city artifacts, educating the public of the city’s history, keeping records of the region’s events, and developing publications, lectures, tours and other educational activities for its guests. You will also find the genealogy department of the Knoxville County Public Library here.

***Country Music Walk***
The Custom House also made history in the 1800s as a popular hangout of “Fiddlin’ Bob” Robert L. Taylor, a pension agent who used to entertain visitors with his tall tales, jokes and, most importantly, his masterly fiddle playing. A talented performer, he regularly took part at fiddling competitions in Market Square, and did so well that eventually his fiddling skills saw him become one of Tennessee’s most popular politicians. Using fiddle as a political tool, Taylor subsequently served as a state governor and a U.S. Senator. So much for fiddling...
Tennessee Theater, Burwell Building

5) Tennessee Theater, Burwell Building (must see)

The Tennessee Theatre is a 1920s-era movie palace, located within the Burwell Building in downtown Knoxville. The Burwell Building was built in 1907. At a height of 166 feet (51 m), it was Knoxville's tallest structure until 1912. The Tennessee Theater occupies an annex to the building that was added in 1928.

The theater first opened on October 1, 1928, and with nearly 2,000 seats in the auditorium, was billed as "Knoxville's Grand Entertainment Palace". Its interior was designed by Chicago architects Graven & Mayger in the Spanish-Moorish style, although the design incorporates elements from all parts of the world: Czechoslovakian crystals in the French-style chandeliers, Italian terrazzo flooring in the Grand Lobby, and Oriental influences in the carpet and drapery patterns. The theater was one of the first public buildings in Knoxville to have air conditioning. It also featured a beautiful Wurlitzer Organ. On April 1, 1982, the theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

***Country Music Walk***
Originally built as a “motion picture palace,” the Tennessee Theatre also served as a regular host of live music and weekend talent shows that gave country stars a chance to perform on its historic stage. Roy Acuff, dubbed the "King of Country Music", had his first public appearance here during a talent show, but admitted to have never won the first place since the competition was too stiff in Knoxville. Famous musicians across genres still grace the theater's stage today, making it one of the most significant standing country music landmarks in East Tennessee.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
First Presbyterian Church and Its Cemetery

6) First Presbyterian Church and Its Cemetery

The First Presbyterian congregation was organized by the Reverend Samuel Carrick in the 1790s, and the first church adjacent to the cemetery was erected in 1816. Shortly after the church's completion, disputes arose over several matters, such as the renting of pews and a doctrinal dispute between "Old Calvinists" and "Hopkinsians". As a result, a portion of the congregation split from First Presbyterian and founded Second Presbyterian Church circa 1818.

The present First Presbyterian Church, constructed in 1903, is a Neoclassical building with a Tiffany-style stained glass window.

The First Presbyterian's Graveyard is the oldest burial ground in Knoxville. Established in the 1790s, it contains the graves of some of Knoxville's most prominent early residents, including territorial governor and Constitutional Convention delegate William Blount and Knoxville founder James White.

In 1838, hundreds of Knoxvillians died when an unknown illness (possibly, malaria) swept through the town. Approximately one-tenth of the marked graves in the graveyard are dated "1838"— more than any other single year — and one tombstone mentions "the fever." The graveyard remained open to new burials until 1857, but the last burial took place here in 1879. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers (who occupied the town in 1861–1863) kept horses in the cemetery, and Union soldiers (who occupied it in 1863–1865) used the church as a hospital and barracks.

Humorist George Washington Harris (1814–1869), an ardent Presbyterian, served as an elder of the First Presbyterian Church during his years in Knoxville. Two of his children, Harriet (1838–1846) and George (1841–1842), are buried here.

In the 1870s, the graveyard had an indirect effect on the career of future newspaper publisher, Adolph Ochs. Then a young teenager working after hours as a "printer's devil" for the Knoxville Chronicle, Ochs feared walking past the graveyard at night, as many locals believed it was haunted. Rather than leave work after his shift (which ended close to midnight), Ochs stayed until daylight, spending the extra time learning the typesetting and printing trades.

In 1996, the graveyard was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
William Blount Mansion

7) William Blount Mansion

The Blount Mansion, also known as William Blount Mansion, is the former home of William Blount (1749–1800), the only territorial governor of the Southwest Territory (the Territory South of the Ohio River, created in 1790). Originally a North Carolina businessman and land speculator, Blount was appointed governor by President George Washington. A signer of the United States Constitution, he was also instrumental in the inauguration of Tennessee as the 16th state and later served as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee.

Blount lived on this property together with his family and 10 African-American slaves. Much of the Tennessee Constitution was drafted in Governor Blount's office at the mansion, from 1792 to 1796. Tennessee state historian John Trotwood Moore once called Blount Mansion "the most important historical spot in Tennessee."

Blount's reasons for building an elaborate frame house on the frontier were twofold. First, it would act as a de facto capitol of the Southwest Territory, and thus would need to command the respect of visiting delegations. Second, Blount wanted to fulfill a promise he made to his wife, Mary Grainger Blount, to build a home comparable to their lavish North Carolina home.

Constructed between 1792 and 1830, the graceful two-story house with a single bedroom upstairs is a wood-frame, hall-parlor home sheathed in wood siding, built with materials brought from North Carolina in an era when most homes in Tennessee were log cabins.

By 1925, the house had deteriorated and was on a brink of demolition. Fortunately, the purpose-established Blount Mansion Association, following a massive publicity campaign, managed to raise enough money to purchase the house in 1930. Committed to its preservation and a positive comprehension of national, regional and local history, the Association has since maintained the property as a museum and made numerous renovations to restore it to its late 18th-century appearance. In the 1960s, the mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark and in 1966 included in the National Register of Historic Places.

Operation Hours:
Tuesday through Friday from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, and Saturday from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Gay Street Bridge

8) Gay Street Bridge

A 1,512-foot (461 m) structure crossing the Tennessee River, linking downtown Knoxville to its southern part, the Gay Street Bridge is an impressive element of the city skyline. Completed in 1898, this is the oldest of four vehicle bridges in Knoxville. Its temporary pontoon prototype was built at this site during the American Civil War, around 1860.

A number of permanent bridges that appeared here later on suffered ill fate. The first one, supported by stone piers, built by Union General Ambrose E. Burnside, was washed away in a flood in March 1867. A replacement covered bridge, built by Knox County and opened on May 2, 1875, was blown down by a tornado shortly afterward. The county then sold the surviving piers and rights-of-way to G. W. Saulpaw, who built a wooden Howe truss bridge here in 1880. That bridge stood until 1898, when it was demolished upon the completion of the Gay Street Bridge.

The present arched, steel spandrel-braced (cantilevered) bridge features a concrete deck, and was designed by Charles E. Fowler. The latter boasted that he had hastily sketched the bridge's design—which was chosen over three other bids—on the back of an envelope during his train ride to Knoxville to meet with county officials. Construction of the bridge began in 1897. Due to the scarcity of construction materials during the Spanish–American War, Fowler was forced to modify his original design, and was constantly bickering with Knox County officials over who should pay the extra costs. Curiously, at the time, Knox County issued a statement proclaiming the bridge "for the use of all the world except Spain," in reference to the war which had been raging throughout the year.

The Gay Street Bridge opened to traffic on July 9, 1898. Originally, its deck contained trolley tracks and thus accelerated residential development in the Island Home Park area on the south side of the river, which had previously been isolated from downtown Knoxville. These tracks, however, were removed in 1950. Today, the deck consists of two vehicle lanes, each flanked by a pedestrian sidewalk.

Engineering journals, such as Engineering News and Bridge Engineering, have praised Gay Street Bridge for its combination of safety and aesthetics.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Bijou Theatre

9) Bijou Theatre

Built in 1909 as an addition to the Lamar House Hotel, the Bijou Theatre has at various times served as performance venue for traditional theater, vaudeville, a second-run movie house, a commencement stage for the city's African-American high school, and a pornographic movie theater. The Lamar House Hotel, in which the theater was constructed, was originally built in 1817, and modified in the 1850s.

The Lamar House Hotel was built by Irish immigrant Thomas Humes (1767–1816) and his descendants, and quickly developed into a gathering place for Knoxville's wealthy. During the Civil War, the Union Army used the hotel as a hospital for its war wounded. Following the war, the hotel became the center of Knoxville's Gilded Age extravagance, hosting lavish masquerade balls for the city's elite. In 1909, the rear wing of the building was replaced by the Bijou Theatre structure, entered through a new lobby cut through the hotel building from Gay Street.

Both, the building and the theater were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
St. John's Cathedral

10) St. John's Cathedral

Established in 1826 (35 years after the founding of Knoxville), St. John’s Church was one of the congregations represented at the Primary Convention when the Diocese of Tennessee was organized in Nashville in 1829. In May 1844, with 25 communicants, St. John’s became the first mission from Eastern Tennessee to be admitted to the Diocese of Tennessee.

In 1891, the original building was razed to make room for a larger facility, which was completed in 1892. The architect for the current building was J.W. Yost of Columbus, Ohio. The stone church is built in a Latin cross form, but the nave, transepts, and apse are minimal in size compared to the crossing, resulting in a large central space. The architectural style is Richardsonian Romanesque. Features include a slate roof, turrets, buttresses, and rose windows.

A devastating fire in the church in 1919 destroyed many of the original stained glass windows, but the building was promptly restored. In 1963, extensive renovation created the undercroft under the nave floor. In 1986, St. John’s was designated as the seat of the bishop for the newly created Diocese of East Tennessee.

Adjacent to St. John's Episcopal Cathedral is the church office. This two-story, brick, classical building was erected in 1857 by O. F. Hill to serve as both, home and office. The original porch had Tuscan columns and extended the full width of the house; it was eventually removed. The present porch is comparatively modest. The house faces the James Park House across Cumberland Avenue to the south.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Knoxville Convention Center

11) Knoxville Convention Center

Located on the site of the 1982 World's Fair, the Knoxville Convention Center was built in 2002. Containing a half million square feet of space on three floors and an underground loading dock, it possesses a 120,000 square foot exhibition hall, a meeting space consisting of fourteen rooms, a 27,300 square foot ballroom, a lecture hall, and 250,000 square feet of flexible space for service facilities. The contemporary Convention Center hosts weddings, conferences, meetings, commercial performances and many other large events.
Knoxville SunSphere

12) Knoxville SunSphere (must see)

The Sunsphere is an 81.07 m (266 ft) high hexagonal steel truss structure, topped with a 23 m (75 ft) gold-colored glass sphere that served as the symbol of the 1982 World's Fair. In its original design, the sphere portion was to have had a diameter of 86.5 feet (26.4 m) to represent symbolically the 865,000-mile (1,392,000 km) diameter sun. The tower's window glass panels are layered in 24-karat gold dust and cut to seven different shapes. It weighs 600 tons and features six double steel truss columns in supporting the seven-story sphere. The tower has a volume of 203,689 cubic feet (5,767.8 square meters) and a surface of 16,742 square feet (1,555.4 square meters).

The tower served as a restaurant and featured food items, such as the Sunburger and a rum and fruit juice cocktail, called the Sunburst. The Sunsphere has been used as a symbol for Knoxville, appearing in postcards and logos. Throughout much of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, it was left without tenants. In 2007, the Sunsphere began to see occupancy. Today, it houses offices and a public observation deck.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
World's Fair Park

13) World's Fair Park (must see)

World's Fair Park is a public park in downtown Knoxville. It sits on the former fairgrounds of the 1982 World's Fair hosted in Knoxville. Prior to the fair, the site was used as a railroad yard, and was converted into park space specially for the event. The two remaining structures from the exposition, the Sunsphere and the Tennessee Amphitheater, are now the park's key attractions. In 2018, they underwent major renovation updating the Sunsphere's elevators, replacing HVAC units, repairing windows, and repainting the exterior of both structures.

Other than these landmarks, the park features a festival and performance lawn and a small lake with a fountain. The 5-acre (2.0 ha) performance lawn is used for cultural and community events. The Knoxville Museum of Art, the Knoxville Convention Center, and the L&N STEM Academy, at the former Louisville and Nashville station, surround the area. To the west the park borders a building known as the Candy Factory, which formerly housed the South, Littlefield & Steere Company and its factory. During the fair, the Candy Factory building was used by administration. Recently, the building was renovated into office, gallery, and rehearsal space, and later into condominiums.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

Walking Tours in Knoxville, Tennessee

Create Your Own Walk in Knoxville

Create Your Own Walk in Knoxville

Creating your own self-guided walk in Knoxville is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Knoxville’s Historical Buildings

Knoxville’s Historical Buildings

The city of Knoxville is home to dozens of listed historic properties, vividly illustrating the community’s rich and sometimes turbulent past. These include James White's Fort, L&N Depot, Tennessee Theatre and many others. Take this self-guided tour of downtown Knoxville to check out some of the most prominent historic and architectural gems the city has to offer and hear the stories...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.2 Km or 1.4 Miles
Top Religious Sites in Knoxville

Top Religious Sites in Knoxville

Knoxville is home to over 450 churches of many religious denominations. Situated at the core of the Bible Belt, many of them are Protestant. The following tour highlights the city’s most impressive religious sites, including Knoxville’s oldest church and other historically significant ones.

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.0 Km or 1.9 Miles
Country Music Tour

Country Music Tour

The cultural hub of Tennessee’s, Knoxville is one of America’s most dynamic musical cities, renowned for its critical role in the development of what is now called country music. While the complete history of “country” is still unwritten, you may want to hear some of the stories of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and other big names associated with Knoxville. Take this self-guided walking...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.8 Km or 0.5 Miles
University of Tennessee Walk

University of Tennessee Walk

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, located in downtown’s west end, draws many visitors to the city. Founded in 1794 as William Blount College, nowadays it covers 550 acres, including over 200 buildings and a faculty of more than 1,400. Take the following tour to discover UTK’s best attractions.

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.1 Km or 1.9 Miles