Before I moved to Knoxville, I’d only heard stories of regret about Gatlinburg from friends in sororities. But exploring Gatlinburg myself and enjoying a family Christmas in the town refreshed my perspective. So here are my tips for Knoxville newbies on how to enjoy and explore the famous city of Gatlinburg. Tips for exploring the main drag:
1. Know your bathrooms
In this bustling city, locate public restrooms as soon as you can. Make sure you know where the public restrooms are because some stores and restaurants don’t offer one. You can find public bathrooms at each of the three major, public parking areas. You’ll also find bathrooms down an alley across from the Ole Smoky Barrelhouse. This brings me to point two.
2. Go down alleys (with someone of course)
I not only found public bathrooms by accident as I explored an alley with friends, I also found one of my favorite places to eat in Gatlinburg. In the back of this alley off the main drag, we found a hearty, fair-priced dinner at Tom and Earl’s Back Alley Grill. We enjoyed a great, open-air atmosphere and a fresh meal while relaxing to live music. To avoid fast food and find unique meals, explore paths (and alleys) less taken in Gatlinburg.
3. Try the moonshine
Ole Smoky moonshine is no joke. Visit the Barrelhouse or the Holler and pay only $5 to try a variety of whiskeys and moonshines. You’ll feel the burn if you sample the mango habanero (not my favorite), but chase it down with the sweet pecan whiskey (definitely my favorite). And if there’s a flavor you don’t want to try, your bartender’s happy to skip over your sample cup. The best perk is after all those samples, you’ll find all the tourists a little less annoying.
4. Avoid another pancake house
I fell into this trap while in Gatlinburg and roped my parents into going to one of the pancake houses in town. In a tourist town, it turns out to be just average. Instead, enjoy eggs or oatmeal at home. But if you’re itching to fill your tummy with pancakes, Crockett’s Breakfast Camp gives you the hearty breakfast you crave. Try their decadent, jumbo cinnamon roll, too.
5. Check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
My aunt is a marine biologist with high expectations. She took her daughter to the aquarium during our family Christmas and returned with positive reviews, a great sign.
My aunt’s reviews, plus the fact that the Knoxville Zoo lacks an aquarium, is why you should visit. You’ll get lost in awe watching rainbow colored fish dodge and dart about exhibit tanks. Plus, the aquarium has penguins, sharks, turtles, stingrays and a coral reef exhibit, too.
6. Drive the back way
Skip taking I-40 from Knoxville over to 66 to avoid the chaos of Sevierville and its flow into Pigeon Forge. Instead, take Chapman Highway and amble down through Seymour. You’ll get a more scenic route than truck stops and billboards. You can catch some of my favorite mountain views from the crests of rolling hills in Seymour.
7. Explore the arts and crafts community
Whether you stop at Alewine pottery to browse colorful, hand-crafted ceramics or look through gifts and toys at Morning Mist Village, you’ll be amazed by local artists. I loved popping into shops along Glades Road during the holiday season because of the festive décor. Plus, many local artists and shop owners love to talk about their crafts and share their knowledge about the best local spots in Gatlinburg.
8. Tour the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
I mean, it may sound ridiculous, but for only $3, this extensive salt and pepper collection will amuse you. While it feels like you’re touring a giant thrift store, the salt and pepper museum features an impressive amount of more than 20,000 salt and pepper sets.
9. Dine at Whole Earth Grocery and Café
This inviting café sits off the main drag, but still on the Parkway. At Whole Earth Grocery and Café, you can find vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dining options that can be otherwise tricky to locate around town (remember all those chains we were talking about?).
10. Enjoy the view from Look Rock Observation Tower
So, you’ll have to go out of your way for this one, but Look Rock Observation Tower is worth it. The short hike starts steep, but gets easier, has asphalt paving and gives you an amazing view.
The drive from either Maryville or Gatlinburg is lovely, too. From the top of the tower, enjoy views of Clingman’s Dome and Gregory Bald along with the stunning, surrounding mountains.
So, Knoxville newcomers can certainly enjoy the Gatlinburg, whether you hit the shops on the main drag or decide to go off the beaten path. And don’t forget to enjoy all the hiking and natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. With Knoxville being just an hour away from the excitement of Gatlinburg and the Smokies, take advantage of the entertainment while you can.