No doubt about it, Knoxville is one of the best places in the U.S. to raise a family. We have great schools, tons of activities, outdoor adventure, festivals, parks, and so much more to keep you and your littles active all year ’round.
But don’t let all that fun in Knoxville proper keep you from exploring the amazing surrounding areas. Just a hop, skip, and jump to the northwest of K-town is one of America’s best-kept secrets…literally. Oak Ridge, also known as “The Secret City,” was actually built from the ground up in 1942 as part of the highly classified Manhattan Project. Today, the city is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where some of the world’s most brilliant minds come to research and develop groundbreaking technologies. It’s also a pretty incredible place to raise a family!
Whether you live in Oak Ridge, Knoxville, or any of the surrounding areas, this beautiful community is worth a trip or ten to discover all the fun it has to offer.
This city was built for science, and they take that heritage very seriously! Your family adventure should include a trip to the AMSE for an unforgettable, hands-on exploration of atomic energy, nuclear fusion, radiation, natural energy resources, static electricity, robotics, and so much more! With permanent and rotating exhibits, every visit is an opportunity to learn something new. Keep your camera handy for the static electricity section — you’ll want a commemorative hair-on-end photo when your kid touches the iconic static ball!
While the AMSE is epic fun with grade-school kids, little tykes may be better suited for the Children’s Museum, another family favorite that never gets old. The mock space ship, life-sized model train, and a kid-sized “doll house” are just a few of the rooms my children love best. There are exhibits on plants, geology, energy, history, life skills, art, and just about anything your toddler or preschooler could be into. Admission is super affordable, so don’t feel like you have to do everything in one day; you can always come back for more, and believe me, you will want to. If you’re like me with super-active kiddos who need a chance to run off all the excitement of their museum exploration, you’ll also love that there’s a great playground and picnic shelter right outside. So bring some juice boxes and Lunchables and make a day of it!
I mentioned that Oak Ridge was built very quickly in 1942, and with that exquisitely planned city came exquisitely planned outdoor spaces to entertain the 75,000 people who suddenly moved there. That means that every few blocks, there is a new park (most with great playground structures). There are honestly too many to name, but you can check out the link above for a list and map. Our favorite is Cedar Hill Park — known to my kids as “the pirate park” because of the huge pirate ship built into the play structure. It has separate areas for toddlers and big kids, and there are accessible swings and activities for kids with special needs. There is also a ton of grass for running and playing ball, a basketball court on the far side, a great pavilion for groups, and it backs up to a greenbelt for a gorgeous walking trail and family-friendly exploring. We also love A.K. Bissell Park by the Oak Ridge Civic Center and Library, and don’t miss Melton Lake Park for gorgeous views while you play.
Speaking of the Oak Ridge Civic Center, this 39,000-square foot building sits on 41 acres of park, and it hosts some spectacular community events throughout the year. None are second to the Secret City Festival, held on the first weekend in June to celebrate the history and diversity of the city with activities for all ages. Kids can enjoy a petting zoo, inflatables, crafts, and a super cool traveling science fair. There are also tons of vendors and local artisans featuring everything from woodworking to jewelry to weaving and so much more. This is an event worth marking on your calendar!
If you’re looking for the action of a park but with climate control, take your big kids to the Paradox Teen Center and Skate Park on New York Avenue. Located in a small strip mall that originally housed the neighborhood grocery, pharmacy, and salon when the neighborhood was first developed in ’42 (cool history, remember??), Paradox really embraces the “community center” identity. This non-profit offers a safe hangout for kids with an awesome indoor skate park, game room, and dining area with snacks. They also host tons of community events, so keep an eye on their calendar for a Battle of the Bands, Movie Night, Lock-in, and more! (Don’t worry, they sell or rent all the equipment you need to enjoy the skate park safely and in style!)
You won’t need a calendar to remind you when it’s football time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This is a Friday Night Lights community that loves their local team! If you want the energy of going to a Vols game without the expensive ticket, take a trip to Blankenship Field on a Friday night, listen for the train whistle, and cheer on the Wildcats whether you live there or not. It’s a fun time for everyone!
If you’re starting to think Oak Ridge is all about science and sports, think again. This community has a thriving culture for the arts, including the celebrated Oak Ridge Playhouse. Though housed in this small town, the Oak Ridge Playhouse is known for putting on first-class theater productions for all ages. Their Junior Playhouse is also a great way for your kids to explore and develop their talent in theatre!
So. Much. Food.
With all there is to do in Oak Ridge, you’ll need to plan time to stop and enjoy the delicious local dining:
Start your day with a hearty breakfast at Jefferson Soda Fountain, a family diner operating since 1944! (In case you missed it, the city was built in 1942, so this is a true original!) Swing back by for lunch and dinner while you’re at it, because everything they cook is delicious!
Oak Ridge is also home to the best Mexican restaurant in the area, El Cantarito. Known to locals as simply “El Cant’s,” my husband and I will make the trip to Oak Ridge just for the salsa and their “all you can eat” special. We always run into someone we know there, because who doesn’t love El Cant’s?!
For a great burger and incredible desserts, don’t miss The Other One, a popular lunch destination for teens due to its proximity to the high school and teen-friendly prices. Don’t let the big kids intimidate you; you’ll find plenty of adults and families there for their lunch break, business meetings, or a casual date night. So hunker down in your booth and enjoy this local favorite with options your whole family will love!
Speaking of family, keep your eyes out for Mrs. Betty, whose cashew chicken served with love has won the hearts of Oak Ridge. She runs the Magic Wok in a little red trailer on Tyler Road, and the menu consists of two main choices: spicy or not spicy. Don’t let the simplicity turn you off; Mrs. Betty knows what she’s doing. If you’re feeling adventurous, she has a pepper bush out front where you can pick your own pepper to season your food, and her eggrolls are to die for. Most importantly, Mrs. Betty is known for investing in her customers, learning their stories, and sharing her craft to bless others. Although her restaurant was recently closed for renovation, the city is abuzz with word that she will be reopening late in 2017!
If you like eating food from local celebrities, run don’t walk to Big Ed’s Pizza. While the iconic Big Ed Neusel who founded the joint in 1970 has since passed away, his family continues to run the Oak Ridge staple in his honor. The pizza features premium ingredients and house-made toppings, from the dough down to the sausage, made with Big Ed’s own special blend of spices.
Last but certainly not least, top off your stay with an incredible meal and dessert from Razzleberry Ice Cream Lab and Cafe. Open for three meals a day, this place is more than just ice cream. With its signature pink pig decor, the experience is fun for the family, and the food is fantastic. Located in Historic Jackson Square, the restaurant is owned by Polish immigrants who love food and community, and you are sure to love them!
If you have never been to Oak Ridge, now is the time to make the most of this beautiful city full of history, adventure, and tons of family fun!
For more on the incredible history of Oak Ridge, check out these articles by former city historian Bill Wilcox, an American hero and my friend.