Editor’s note: TravelQ, a series that documents travel through the eyes of stylish queers, returns this week with a new feature by Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley, freelance photographers, writers, and content creators who co-own Authentic Asheville.
If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately you may have seen a lot of coverage on Tennessee’s “drag ban” law which criminalizes “adult cabaret performances” that take place in public or in front of minors. It was temporarily blocked by a federal judge but meanwhile, trans youth are also under attack in the state due to a new law that is set to take place July 1 which means that doctors will be prohibited from prescribing puberty blockers or hormones or providing other gender-affirming care to anyone under 18. Knowing all this, I have to admit, my wife and I were more than a little nervous to visit Tennessee. But once we were actually in the city (it’s only 2 hours from our home in Asheville, NC), we met a bunch of cool locals who helped us find some legit LGBTQ-owned and LGBTQ-friendly safe spaces. One thing we try to keep front and center when we’re creating these guides is to remember that no matter where we are, there is almost always someone holding things down and trying to make space for those of us in the queer community. And Knoxville is no exception. And that’s why, we feel strongly that we need to do our best to stay open to places rather than just writing off entire cities or states. I’m really glad that we took a risk and visited Knoxville because we found more than we were expecting and we’re excited to return to not only support the LGBTQ businesses we visited but also because we genuinely had a good time. Keep reading to see our favorite queer-friendly spots in Knoxville, TN.
Things to Do
Square Ramp | Jackson Ave.
Knoxville bills itself as “a-nature-loving-adventure-seeking-artsy-kinda-town” and it totally lives up to it. Within a few minutes of entering the city limits, we saw people out riding bikes, skateboarding, and kayaking on the river. This we kind of expected because we had read about Knoxville in some of the leading outdoor magazines but what we didn’t expect were all the cute little art shops, galleries, and museums that were there. One of our favorites was Square Ramp. It’s a pop-up shop off Jackson Avenue. Want to know when they’ll be popping up next? Head to the IG.
On game day at the University of Tennessee, you’ll see tons of people using the Greenway to get to campus. Most people will be dressed in bright orange and when the home team wins, it’ll feel like a parade. On non-game days, it’s used by commuters and those out for a walk or run with a beautiful view of the river. While the Neyland Greenway is 3 miles in length, you’ll have the option to link up with the James White Greenway, Kuwahee Greenway, Volunteer Landing, and Third Creek Greenway’s to extend your activity.
Knoxville Adventure Collective | 900 Volunteer Landing
Pull up on the Knoxville Adventure Collective to get in a leisurely paddle, an SUP lesson, a mountain bike rental, or even an e-bike tour. They’ve got all kinds of curated trips for you, regardless of your skill or ability level. We were super pumped to get out on the water and Jon, the owner, made it easy (and comfortable) for us. He had our two-person sit on top kayak ready for us at the dock as well as a couple beverages to keep us hydrated and he helped us get our little dog into the boat. Within a few minutes we were paddling upriver so we could float on back as the sun set just behind the bridge. 10/10 would recommend.
Sunsphere | 810 Clinch Avenue
As you approach Knoxville, one of the first things you’ll see, whether from the air or from the ground, is the giant golden ball that is the Sunsphere. And the cool part is that you can actually take an elevator ride up in it and see a 360 degree view of the city from the observation deck! On a clear day you can see not only the World’s Fair Park and downtown Knoxville but also the Tennessee River, the University of Tennessee, but also the Smoky Mountains.
French Fried Vintage | 7 Emory Place
We received a tip from a local that we should head on over to North Central Street to check out a little corner of Knoxville so we did just that and we were delighted to find French Fried Vintage. They were just about to close up shop for the day but we were able to visit for a little bit and learn about how they’re keeping Knoxville not only outfitted in the coolest unique vintage fashions, everything from to (in their own words) classy chic to funk freak and for every body no matter your size or shape. We spied some seriously reasonable prices (rad trucker hats for $5) and are eager to come back once they are open at their new space in in June at 7 Emory Place!
Oddities Hair Parlour | 1520 N Central St #103
As soon as we walked up to Oddities Hair Parlour, we knew we were in a safe space. The stickers on the door included Black Lives Matter, Trans Rights Are Human Rights, Refugees Welcome, and The Trans Agenda is an Average Life Expectancy. And sure enough, as soon as we were inside and started chatting with one of the owners, Kimi Strain, we felt at ease. Though we didn’t get our hair cut while visiting, we have no doubt you’ll be in good hands. The team at Oddities uses products that are not only cruelty-free in terms of animal testing but also ethically sourced, without any micro-plastics, pollutants, or toxins. Plus, there’s gender neutral pricing.
McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture | 1327 Circle Park Drive
We love a free museum and this one, on the campus of the U of T, did not disappoint. Their current featured exhibit celebrated the works of sculptor William Edmondson (1874-1951). Edmonson is considered one of the most important American folk artists of the 20th century and we were moved by his work which was also paired with portraits of the artist taken by photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe that helped give Edmondson’s work additional context.
Club XYZ | 1215 North Central St.
Voted Knoxville’s Best Gay Bar since 2010. It’s located north of downtown in Happy Holler historic district. You’ll know it by the big gay flag that juts out from the exterior. This is your go-to spot for each-night-of-the-week fun that includes things like Bingo, Drag Shows, Trivia, Dancing, and of course, karaoke. Bonus: many of the weeknight events are free.
We feel like we’ve been missing out since we’ve yet to experience Knox Pride Weekend or the other numerous events that they put on throughout the year. One thing we know is that we will be back if only to experience it! Knox Pride Fest Weekend has all manner of vendors, music, entertainment, and speakers as you might have imagined but in addition to their main event they also produce numerous other events throughout the year such as the Knox Pride Sunday Market which happens on the first Sunday of every month. Check out their website and Insta for more info on things like Bingo, Yoga, Affirming Resource Fairs, Life Skills Classes, Drag Brunch, ways to volunteer and so on.
Places to Eat and Drink
South Press | 3615 Chapman Highway
When we told friends we were headed to Knoxville to find LGBTQ-friendly spaces, almost everyone recommended we check out South Press. So the first thing we put into our GPS was South Press. And we are so glad we did because it is one of the coolest spots we’ve ever visited while on assignment for dapperQ. Not only does this sober space featuring tea and coffee have a cozy and intimate seating area with sofa, tables, a stage for music and other live events, but they also have Rainbow Library with LGBTQ+ books for all ages, tons of queer memorabilia and decorations, and a food pantry (its a partnership with Knox Pride.)
Printshop Beer Co. | 1532 Island Home Ave
Craft beers by the river you say? Free and easy vehicle parking? Ample bike parking? A food truck on-site? Umbrellas to block the sun? We’re in! The spot has a great outdoor patio where your dog is welcome, the staff is super friendly, and the beers are tasty! We both had a couple of IPA tasters (they offer 6.5 ounce samplers), 12 ounce pours, and, of course, pints.
Tanasi | Location Varies
We got lucky. By the time we arrived at Printshop for drinks we were hungry so we decided to give the food truck that was pumping out amazing smells a try. And it worked out better than fine. We orderd the Knoxville Hawt Chicken Sandwich which came on thick white bread, and the Brisket Carnitas which came on a Cuban roll with carmelized onion jam, house made pickles, and a slice of grilled white cheddar and lemme tell you, it hit the spot. Both came with fries, one order of which we upgraded to be garlic fries (garlic confit, Tennessee truffle, mountain herb, and parmesan). If you’re in town and you’re craving a big bite, check ’em out.
Landing House | 1147 Sevier Ave
The cute blue house with a firepit on the lawn and ample outdoor seating just so happens to be home to one of the best restaurants in Knoxville. The owners, Hao and Zach Land, have created a restaurant that feels like a home away from home. It’s overt in it’s display of LGBTQ-solidarity what with the gay flag hanging proudly above the entrance and a sign outside that says Welcome all ages, all colors, all genders, all types! All people are safe here! If you want a delicious Cambodian and/or Chinese dish in a comfortable atmosphere, this is your place.
Oliver Royale | 5 Market Square
We had brunch at Oliver Royale on Mother’s Day and if you’ve ever been to brunch anywhere on Mother’s Day then you know that it can be somewhat of a dizzying experience what with babies, small children, anxious adult children, an urgency to the staff, and a bit of frenzy to the experience with people waiting (hovering) for their turn to eat. Not so at Oliver Royale. We had an incredibly relaxed experience and the food was wonderful: elevated, local, fresh, nuanced, and layered with a mix of flavors. The biscuits alone are worth returning to, not to mention the spring green salad and the Oliver Breakfast with the best bacon in town. Oh, but the best part of all was that their dog-friendly patio meant we didn’t have to leave our four-legged family member in the hotel.
Best Place to Stay
Hyatt Place Knoxville | 530 S. Gay Street
Location is, of course, everything. And in the case of our hotel, it’s one of the main reasons why we recommend you stay here. It’s centrally located to many of the main attractions featured above, the rooms are super clean, the staff is friendly, it has valet parking and a self-parking garage nearby, and it’s pet friendly! Since adopting a rescue pup eight months ago, this is a must-have for us and we loved that our room was conveniently located on the second floor which made morning and night-time bathroom breaks a breeze.
And if you’re like us and wanting to fight anti-LGBTQ legislation, there are multiple ways and means to do so. You can write to your representatives, help get people registered to vote, donate, knock on doors, phone bank (yes, it’s still a thing!), attend rallies and protests, and speak up when you hear or see something. Some national resources include: Human Rights Campaign and The Trevor Project, and in the southeast, the Tennessee Equality Project and Campaign for Southern Equality.
Keep up with Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley of Authentic Asheville by following them on Instagram at @e.mcgrady, @carolineperdue, and @authenticasheville and check out the short film about them titled Who Is A Runner by Brooks Running in partnership with Camp4 Collective.
About the authors: Caroline and Erin are freelance web designers, photographers and writers for the travel blog Authentic Asheville. When they’re not on the road, they hang their hats in Asheville, North Carolina. Follow their adventures on Instagram at @e.mcgrady + @carolineperdue + @authenticasheville