The first thing you should know about me is that I’m a Tennessean, born and bred. The second thing you should know is that all those things you hear about Southerners ring true—at least where I am concerned:

BBQ is a main food group, I drink bourbon (and, OK, sometimes moonshine) like it’s water, I say a lot of “y’alls” and “bless her hearts,” and my closet boasts an embarrassing collection of orange.

And my love for my state is never more evident than when I’m tasked with showing non-natives a glimpse at my home turf—like last week when I packed my Altima, loaded up my friends Katy and Jade and hit the road for three days, starting in Atlanta, Georgia. Final destination: Knoxville, Tennessee. 

Here’s what we did, saw, bought and—most importantly—ate.

Day 1

Breakfast at Ria’s Bluebird Cafe. Having burned the midnight oil in Atlanta the previous night, we made a lazy morning of it and departed from downtown just before 10am. I rarely pass up an opportunity for a decadent brunch and was pointed in the direction of Ria’s by a local, so before leaving the capital’s confines, we were already making a detour. When I saw the dive-like exterior and the Nutella-and-cream-cheese-stuffed French toast on the menu, I knew we’d made a wise decision. After fueling up, we drove the 119 miles north to Chattanooga, just over the Tennessee border.

Shopping in the North Shore. Chattanooga is one of the South’s most underrated gems, and I never pass up a chance to show fellow shopaholics just what I love so much about the indie shops and local boutiques along Frazier Avenue in the heart of the bohemian-meets-hipster North Shore neighborhood. Allow time to peruse the paper goods and local jewelers’ collections at Blue Skies before heading downstairs to Tangerinasto check out the one-off, handmade shabby chic pieces of furniture art. Those looking for designer trends for a song should drop by River City Apparel. Being a new homeowner, I’m also a fan of the Knitting Mill Antiquesjust down the way, but being as I had three girls and a whole lot of luggage filling every nook and cranny of my car, I knew we’d have no room for purchases of that size.

Snack time at Clumpies. I had raved about the homemade strawberry jalapeno drink from Pure Sodaworks but after discovering they were closed on Tuesdays, we opted for the next best thing: ice cream from quirky Clumpies. Being that the thermometer topped out at almost 100, I forewent my standard chocolate order in lieu of a summer-y concoction of creamsicle and key lime pie instead (yum).

Check into our hotel. We arrived in Knoxville midday, and I immediately was giddy when I saw that beautiful sign on I-40 welcoming us to the Marble City. In the eight years since I graduated from UT, Knoxville’s downtown has really blown up in terms of dining and retail. I couldn’t wait to see what else had opened since my last visit during football season. We had just enough time to take our bags to our hotel room before it was time to walk from the World’s Fair Park to Market Square for happy hour. (Another thing you need to know about me: I never miss happy hour.)

Drinks at Peter Kern Library. The relatively new speakeasy is tucked away behind a large, sliding door in the lobby of the boutique Oliver Hotel on Market Square. The craftsman style approach to mixology means that each drink is carefully concocted and well thought out—such as the Holden Caulfield, the bar’s take on an Old-Fashioned with homemade sweet and sour, amaretto liqueur, orange juice and a fiery touch of cinnamon whiskey—and the service is flawless and friendly and without attitude. (If you don’t come in via the hotel entrance, you can always enter by ringing the doorbell at the green-lit alley behind Union Avenue in true speakeasy fashion.)

Dinner at the Tomato Head. Generally, there’s only one answer any UT student or alum will give when you ask where’s the best place to grab dinner on Market Square. (And if they don’t point you straight for Tomato Head, you should not trust a single word they say.) I was happy to see that time has only been kind to my favorite spot as a college-kid-on-a-budget and that Tomato Head was every bit as delicious as I remember. Known for its vegetarian fare, Tomato Head’s menu is full of produce-heavy sandwiches, salads and pizzas. Personally, I always opt for the calzone, as it’s a fail-safe and hearty option, with a draft beer (local, of course) on the side. 

We contemplated a beer at one of my former haunts, Preservation Pub, but decided against it in favor of sleep. After a post-dinner stroll around Market Square where the live music was still blaring—a regular occurrence during balmy summer evenings—we returned to our rooms to rest up for another big day to come…