The famed Market Square in downtown Knoxville, TN. Photo by Tricia Bateman.Tricia Bateman
Winner: Market Square
Just hang around at the south end, near the old bell, and listen. Newcomers stop and marvel out loud at the place, as if trying to comprehend it before wading in. They try to take pictures, but it usually doesn’t work. It’s a spectacle you have to behold, even if it’s just an ordinary Wednesday evening. There are other cities with market squares, but Knoxville’s is unusual in several regards, including its oblong shape and pedestrians-only ethic; its combination of brick Victorian commercial buildings and lush trees, residences, and patios; and its occasional magician or guy playing something, maybe a cello, maybe a saw. And for those who want history, no acre or two in East Tennessee offers more, from Civil War to civil rights, from music to literature. It’s been here for 161 years now, serving basically the same function, and you don’t have to be a historian to feel the resonance. One of the few things James Agee and Cormac McCarthy have in common is that they both described Market Square in major novels. Elizabeth Gilbert even finished Eat, Pray, Love while she was living on the Square. There was a time when Knoxville itself attracted few tourists who weren’t on their way to see something else, but today Market Square proves itself a draw for travelers who come all the way to East Tennessee and are content to stay in town. (Jack Neely)

Runners Up: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Ijams Nature Center, Knoxville Zoo

T.J. Smith, 26, and Alyssa Birmingham, 25, of Knoxville, walk their pups along the River Trail at Ijams Nature Center on Weds., Sept. 30, 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.Clay Duda

Winner: Ijams Nature Center
Ijams is still Knoxville’s unique refuge after more than a century, a combination of artist-ornithologist Harry Ijams’ Edwardian-era bird sanctuary and recently added acreage that includes massive industrial quarry sites so weathered they look like Mayan ruins discovered in the jungle. Across its 300 acres are some trails you can take your grandmother on a digestive stroll after Sunday dinner. For other trails, you’d better take a GPS device, a canteen, and a Sherpa or two. Ijams itself is amazing, but the second-most astonishing thing about it may be that it’s only 3 miles from downtown. It’s not just trails, of course. Ijams includes a small but very interesting museum emphasizing endangered and extinct species—if you’ve ever seen a passenger pigeon or an ivory-billed woodpecker in your life, there’s a good chance it was at Ijams—as well as an outdoor gallery of wildlife. Ijams also offers perfectly civilized lawns that are amenable to picnics, weddings, and symphony concerts. (J.N.)

Top Bike or Walking Trails Runners Up: House Mountain, South Knox Trails/Urban Wilderness, Third Creek Greenway
Top Free Stuff to Do Runners Up: Knoxville Museum of Art, Market Square, Market Square Farmers Market
Top Park for a Picnic Runners Up: Concord Park, Fountain City Park, World’s Fair Park
Top Secret About Knoxville Runners Up: Peter Kern Library, QED Comedy Laboratory, Urban Wilderness

Winner: Concord Dog Park
Nestled on a peninsula on Fort Loudoun Lake, the four-acre Concord Dog Park offers room to roam for many a four-legged fluff ball. At one end is a swimming area, complete with jumping dock, that gives way to the Concord Marina, and on the other is a separately fenced small dog area to keep the little tykes from getting trampled. The pet park also has paved, ADA-rated walking trails, and leashed-up there are plenty of other hikes, walking paths, and waterfronts to wear out a pooch in the greater Concord Park. Grrrr, bark, woof. Good dog. (Clay Duda)

Runners Up: Downtown Dog Park, Tommy Schumpert Dog Park, Victor Ashe Park

Winner: Rossini Festival
As unlikely as it may seem, an opera festival changed Knoxville. The Rossini Festival, ostensibly our tribute to 19th-century Italian opera, was a roaring popular success from its overture, 13 years ago. Even in a driving rain, Rossini is a bigger draw than most festivals of more obvious appeal. It features lots of live music, and that’s part of it, but then again, it’s not rock or country music, and at the white-hot center of it are always tenors and sopranos and basses singing operatic arias, usually in languages other than English. And tens of thousands come every year. We can’t claim to know why Rossini captured our imagination or tapped into our secret reserves of festivity, but somehow it did, and raised the bar for all other festivals. Now there are so many spring festivals to keep up with, we have a hard time putting out a garden. (J.N.)

Runners Up: Big Ears, Dogwood Arts Festival, Rhythm N’ Blooms

Winner: The Sunsphere
Well, the National Parks Service, which is the nation’s arbiter of what passes for “historic,” won’t even consider the Sunsphere as potentially historic until 2032, when it’s 50 years old, and a lot of us will be dead. But our readers have decided it’s historic, and who are we to argue. Maybe it is. It reflected its golden glow on Ronald Reagan, when he arrived one morning in May to open the fair, and Jimmy Carter, when he came here for a tour of the fair grounds one afternoon a few months later. Bob Hope, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Imelda Marcos had a good look at it. Noted aesthetes have denounced it. It was featured prominently in the intro to the 1983 Miss Universe Pageant. Its exaggerated demise was worthy of a guffaw in a 1990s episode of The Simpsons. People have gotten married in the thing. (J.N.)

Runners Up: James White Fort, Market Square, Tennessee Theatre

Joel Seeber, 19, and Cierra Simpson, 20, of Clinton, take in expanse of Mead’s Quarry on the fringes of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness on Weds., Sept. 30, 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.Clay Duda
Winner: Urban Wilderness
It’s perhaps ironic that the urban wilderness wins in the “new thing” category, because it’s been here all along, although often out of sight or inaccessible in private hands. Thanks to efforts by nonprofit Legacy Parks, the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, the city and the county, these islands of green have been connected by trails, including 42-miles of paths along the South Loop, that feature everything from river views to old quarries and hilly forests. Encompassing city park land as well as parts of Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area and Ijams Nature Center, the urban wilderness has become hugely popular with trail runners, birders and mountain bikers. It’s so big that you can return again and again to explore a new section, and its closest point is just 3 miles from downtown. Plus it’s free. Its presence has fired up South Waterfront development, and now there are a growing number of places to stop for a pint on your way home (including right on the Ijams property in the warmer months). (Heather Duncan)

Runners Up: Knoxville Mercury, QED Comedy Laboratory, Retropolitan Craft Fair

Winner: Knox Heritage
The Knoxville Mercury and its governing body, the Knoxville History Project, owe quite a bit to preservation group Knox Heritage—it provided us with a huge amount of help in preserving independent journalism in Knoxville. But beyond our own particular needs, it has served Knoxville since 1974 as the first line of defense in keeping our architectural history intact. For many years, its preservationist instinct seemed like a niche interest, but the rest of Knoxville has finally caught up to KH, and now the city’s heritage is something that most people here recognize as a valuable asset to be protected and refurbished. Without Knox Heritage, many of the buildings we now prize as integral to Knoxville’s renewal would no longer exist. By preserving our past, Knox Heritage has helped set Knoxville’s future. (Coury Turczyn)

Runners Up: AYSO Region 124, Knoxville Area Rescue Mission, Legacy Parks Foundation

Winner: Knoxville Zoo
The zoo is probably a bigger draw for families than ever this year, as we watch how our close cousins the Gorillas raise their own families. (My favorite day was when the moms lay down with their feet up against the wall with the babies snoozing on their chests, and the dad came over and got in the exact same pose between them.) The Knoxville Zoo has an impressive array of species, even compared with larger zoos in bigger cities, and it has upgraded their habitats significantly in recent years so animals like elephants and giraffes are more enjoyable to watch (and probably happier, too). But zoos these days have a lot more than animals for kids: an indoor toddler area with slides and safari/veterinarian play areas, an outdoor climb and slide area for older kids, a giant sandbox, a train, a carousel… and in summer, there’s an impressive splash pad. And on the way out, the gift shop is the best place to buy a nice stuffed animal in Knoxville. (H.D.)

Runners Up: Ijams Nature Center, Fort Kid, Market Square

Winner: J.C. Penney Building
It’s not quite done yet, but the readers’ choice is likely influenced by the fact that for years it looked like it would never amount to anything at all. Easily the most challenging historic renovation of the century, the building known since the 1930s as the J.C. Penney Building—Mr. James Cash Penney visited it annually, during his life—is actually composed of a couple of buildings, mostly serving as wholesale houses for several decades before that famous department-store chain arrived. The late 1890s buildings were subject of an almost ruinous “modernization” effort in the early ’60s, and when the faux-modern façade came down, the dismay at the shaved-off ornamentation and concrete-blocked-in windows was palpable. And there it sat, for years, as if it were proof that some buildings just couldn’t respond to the preservationist tide, as one proposal after another proved it wasn’t up to the challenge. But with a big push by a partnership between two downtown juggernauts, Hatcher-Hill and Dewhirst Properties has nearly completed the project, which will be mostly residential—with the interesting addition of the first bowling alley downtown in about a century. (J.N.)

Runners Up: Historic Westwood, Tennessee Theatre, White Lily Flats

Throngs of people flock to Happy Holler during the annual Happy Hollerpalooza Street Fair on Sat., Sept. 26, 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.Clay Duda
Winner: Happy Holler
Well known by night for its signature watering holes and nightlife, and by day for its quirky shops and eateries, it’s hard to argue that Happy Holler is as underrated as Top Knox voters may have you believe. But it’s still developing its reputation as a destination and focal point for the increasingly vibrant and belovedly scruffy neighborhood of Historic Old North Knoxville. Rarely a month goes by that a once-vacant storefront isn’t filled anew with entrepreneurial spirit, and many long-neglected Victorian homes with paint seen peeling in the sun are now getting some much needed TLC. Mid Mod Collective (another Top Knox honoree) set up shop in the area early this year, groupthink Hive opened its doors to female entrepreneurs during the summer, and an explosion of microbreweries now operating or currently under construction means there will soon be 11 (!) within a mile or so of the Holler, not to mention the growing list of bars and restaurants. With so much momentum, it’s hard to see how this little enclave can stay under the radar that much longer. (C.D.)

Runners Up: Fourth and Gill, Fountain City, Parkridge

Winner: Tennessee River
At 652 miles long, the Tennessee certainly has length on its side, and it’s hard to compete with that geographical reality. However, this choice would have been very surprising 40 or 50 years ago, and that indicates that maybe, despite everything, we’re doing something right. There was a time in living memory when the Tennessee River, the defining principal of this 224-year-old city, was polluted, stinky, and really pretty gross. In a former era, a duck race would likely be won by a dead cow. Although paddling the Tennessee sometimes involves competing with giant asphalt barges, it is just in recent years a pleasant way to get from downtown to Ijams Nature Center and beyond. However, with all due respect to the fair winner, we might recommend that you try some of its tributaries first. (J.N.)

Runners Up: French Broad River, Holston River, Ijams & Mead’s Quarry