KNOXVILLE — Before a recent visit with my children, I'd scarcely spent any time in Knoxville since I was 11.
That year the city hosted the 1982 World's Fair, officially known as the Knoxville International Energy Exposition. Eleven million people came, including President Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore and Imelda Marcos, all of us helpless to resist the event's slogan, "You've got to be there!"
I have no recollection of any exhibits, though apparently some people saw the public debuts of both touch screens and canned Cherry Coke.
I have only the vague memory of standing in long lines and looking up at the Sunsphere, a 266-foot tower that The New York Times wrote "looks like a giant gold golf ball atop a blue steel tee."
I can't dispute that description, but that sort of worldlier-than-thou condescension toward this city of 183,000 is too easy, a traveler's cop-out.
Knoxville is its own thing: an urban, mountain, industrial, river, railroad, crossroads, college town, just to name a few of its most obvious traits. It's also worth experiencing — and on its own terms, particularly for families looking for a weekend getaway.
Walking the urban wilderness
My wife and I have 10-year-old triplet sons, and we've learned the hard way that all their surplus energy is going to find its way out regardless of the family itinerary.
Perhaps the best place to channel this energy in Knoxville is the Ijams Nature Center. Just three miles from downtown Knoxville, Ijams (pronounced EYE-yams) bills itself as an "urban forest" though the forest is thick enough that while you're hiking much of its 10 miles of trails, the park's urbanity feels like a legend.
Ijams offers canoe rentals, a rope challenge course and a river boardwalk, a section of wooden walkway attached to the rock face of a hill just above the Tennessee River. Our kids enjoyed Jo's Grove, a children's play area featuring odd little round huts made from twigs and branches. My wife and I enjoyed hearing the words, "I'm tired," and "Me, too," coming from the back of the van as we pulled out of the Ijams parking lot.
Riding the river
The Tennessee River flows right through downtown and originates in southeast Knoxville, where the French Broad River meets the Holston. You can get close to the city's waterways on the Star of Knoxville, a paddle-wheeler that offers lunch, dinner and sightseeing cruises.
We opted for the two-hour dinner cruise. The food was forgettable, but the evening ride was pleasant and afforded us the chance to see some of the city's nicest homes, many of which aren't visible from any public roadway since they're built with river-facing views. One fellow passenger pointed to a stately manor that looked as if it could have fit our house on its deck. "That's Butch Jones' house," he said.
"Who's that?" my wife asked.
"The University of Tennessee football coach," I said, suppressing a snarl. As someone who grew up in Lexington and graduated from UK, I confess I had to work through my disdain for Tennessee orange, an animosity borne of too many years seeing my alma mater's football team getting Rocky Topped. Fortunately, Knoxville was charming enough that I didn't have to work that hard. Mostly.
It helped that I reminded myself that Knoxville's arts and cultural scene has a rich heritage. Alex Haley had a farm just outside of town. Rock-star poet Nikki Giovanni named one of her poems and collections after the city, where she was born. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) graduated from Knoxville Catholic High.
There are plenty of theaters and live music venues in Knoxville, although if you're traveling with young children, the easiest (and cheapest) way to experience local artists and performers might be in downtown's Market Square.
There, you might come across an art fair, a summertime Shakespeare performance and any number of saxophonists, guitarists and singers who ply their trade for tips under the trees. You can take in the artsy ambience while dining in any one of the numerous Market Square restaurants that feature open-air seating. Finds among these include Soccer Taco, a sports bar that offers a satisfying Mexican menu and features décor and wide-screen TVs devoted to East Tennesseans who are ready for some futbol. People can tune in to games from Mexico, South America and Europe while munching on the nachos, which locals have voted the best in town. (I suppose they can watch the Vols there, too.)
Across the square is The Tomato Head, an Italian-ish bistro that makes its own tasty breads, dressings and desserts.
Windows on the Park is another restaurant worth trying. A few streets away from Market Square, Windows is part of the Holiday Inn World's Fair Park, which has recently undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation making it fancier than any hotel I associate with the name Holiday Inn.
Windows on the Park looks out on the restored World's Fair Park as well as the Knoxville Art Museum. The restaurant's new menu features a few items based on the cuisines of the 22 countries that officially participated in the World's Fair. The early offerings we sampled of this world's fare featured promising and ingenious hybrids of international cuisine done East Tennessee style, including Hoppin' John fritters served with cucumber and yogurt and done in the style of a Middle Eastern falafel.
Into the sun
After dinner, we walked over to the Sunsphere. The lines had been too long for me to actually make it up there in 1982, but on this evening, we walked right into the elevator and rode up for free.
Is it the highest height, the most spectacular view? No. Does it have to be?
What it offers is quite worthwhile. The buildings of Knoxville stand among the hills, and the sunset shadows they cast are a striking study in contrast and contour.
Slogans aside, you don't really have to be here, of course, but if you come with an open mind to this corner of the world, your visit will be much more than fair.