Celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1982 World’s Fair in May, plus hotel, dining, and entertainment recommendations

World’s Fair Park today in downtown Knoxville, TN.

“You’ve Got To Be There!”

If you lived in the southeast in 1982, that catch-phrase and jingle were inescapable on radio, television, and newspapers. Knoxville, Tennessee had – improbably – been chosen to host The World’s Fair. The Wall Street Journal deemed Knoxville a “scruffy little city” and questioned whether it was up to the task of hosting an event expected to attract millions of visitors from around the world.

A former railroad yard along the Tennessee River on the edge of downtown was transformed into a 70-acre fairground full of futuristic exhibition halls, water features, an amphitheater, gondola ride, and its unmissable centerpiece – a 266-foot-tall golden lollipop called the Sunsphere.

With a focus on technology and energy – the fair’s theme was “Energy Turns the World” – more than 11 million people poured into Knoxville for the seven-month run of the event. To see exhibits from China, Hungary, Brazil, Germany, and Japan meant standing in long lines for hours. The first computer touch screen and pay-at-the-pump technology was unveiled at the fair, along with Cherry Coke.

The 1982 World’s Fair brought 11 million people from around the globe to Knoxville.

Much like the Olympics did for Atlanta, the World’s Fair put an international spotlight on Knoxville and forever changed the city.

If you were one of the millions who visited in 1982, you won’t recognize the World’s Fair site now. Only the Sunsphere, amphitheater, and man-made lake remain with the rest transformed into a city park popular for festivals, concerts, and weekend picnics.

Knoxville will mark the 40th anniversary of the World’s Fair starting in May. The 1982 World’s Fair Anniversary Celebration kicks off Saturday, May 21, with international food offerings, technology exhibits, entertainment, history walks, and more.

In conjunction, the 16th Annual Children’s Festival of Reading will also be happening that day in the park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with authors, illustrators, storytellers, arts & crafts, toddler town, and more. Authors scheduled to appear include Newbery Award winner Erin Entrada Kelly, Tad Hills, Jeffrey Brown, and Atlanta’s own Laurel Snyder.

‘You Should Have Been There: The World’s Fair Exhibition” continues through Oct. 9 with artifacts, ephemera, and a timeline of the city-changing event at the East Tennessee History Center, 601 South Gay St. The exhibit is open daily ($8-$10 tickets), but if you’re there on a weekend, admission is free on Sundays. Find out more at visitknoxville.com.

Of course, Knoxville has much more to offer than memories of the World’s Fair. Just a three-hour-and-change drive from Atlanta, it’s an excellent weekend getaway anytime. You can stay in the city or drive less than an hour and be in the Great Smoky Mountains Park, Dollywood, and Gatlinburg.

The Oliver Hotel

Where to Stay

If you want to be downtown near all the action – and pamper yourself a little – The Oliver Hotel (theoliverhotel.com) at 407 Union Ave. is the perfect spot. Located inside a beautifully renovated 1876 building originally used as a bakery, the hotel has comfy king-sized beds and there are also suites overlooking Market Square (which has a plethora of great shops and restaurants) with separate living rooms and other high-end amenities and features. The Oliver is part of the same boutique hotel group that operates Hotel Clermont in Atlanta.

The hotel also has a great restaurant, Oliver Royale, serving up dinner and weekend brunch with a menu of American fare, while the ground floor Tupelo Honey Café serves up modern Southern for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

And if you stay at The Oliver, you can park your car and leave it for the weekend. There are three trolley routes that serve the downtown and University of Tennessee area and can drop you at or near all the points of interest. Even better: the trolley is free. 

The Bijou Theatre

Music & Shows

Live music is on the streets, the square and stages of famous historic sites like the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre. You’ll find performances taking place at these venues and a variety of locations all over town. 

Celebrating its 10th Anniversary season of Broadway shows, the Tennessee Theatre (tennesseetheatre.com) in Knoxville showcases six shows and a total of 32 performances from December to July. Upcoming shows include “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” (April 8-10), “Hairspray” (June 3-5), and “Anastasia” (July 15-17).

The Bijou (knoxbijou.com) has upcoming concerts from Henry Rollins (April 11), Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer (April 26), Rodney Crowell (May 17), drag star Alyssa Edwards (May 26) Ricky Scaggs (May 27), and Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters (June 7). 

Knox Whiskey Works in Old City

Eating & Drinking in Old City

Stroll over to the Old City district at the intersection of Central and Jackson avenues and you’ll find plenty of fun restaurants and breweries.

You’ll definitely want to check out Pretentious Glass & Beer (pretentiousglassco.com) at 133 South Central, which is possibly the only brewery in the world that makes its own glassware.

If you’re looking for breakfast or lunch, stop at Olibea (olibeaoldcity.com) at 211 South Central for a menu of Southern staples and Mexican specialties.

Over on Jackson Avenue, the distillers at PostModern Spirits (postmodernspirits.com) offer torus and have a tasting room for their straight malt whiskey, gin, and liqueurs at 205 West Jackson.

Knox Whiskey Works (knoxwhiskeworks.com) at 516 West Jackson also offers tours and a tasting room for its varieties of vodka, gin, and whiskey. 

The view from River Bluff Wildlife Area.

Urban Hikes

Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness (outdoorknoxville.com) is a spectacular series of connected outdoor areas where you can hike, bike, climb, paddle, or just wander in the woods – all within the heart of the city.

Over 50 miles of trails and greenways connect you to a beautiful nature center, pristine lakes, historic sites, dramatic quarries, adventure playgrounds, five city parks, and a 500-acre wildlife area. The view of downtown and the Tennessee River is particularly gorgeous at the River Bluff Wildlife Area. 

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.