A Day Discovering Downtown Johnson City, TN

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I had so much fun spending a few days in Eastern Tennessee on a tour hosted by Johnson City CVB. Like so many of our friends, heading to the mountains means visiting the Asheville, NC, area a few hours away. Little did I know that so much more existed just minutes beyond Asheville in the mountains of East Tennessee. Hiking, rafting, museums, amazing restaurants, historic, vibrant downtowns… this is a whole new area to discover! 

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Let’s walk through a day in downtown Johnson City, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. There’s actually a mountain with hiking trails within the city limits of Johnson City, but that is for another day. 

Johnson City, founded in the 1850s, is both historic and vibrant, perfect for families, solo travelers, and late-night partiers. Downtown Johnson City is rich in local shops, open spaces, wonderful dining, and award-winning breweries and distilleries. 

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Johnson City has a college campus bordering its downtown, so there is no shortage of coffee shops in the area. So grab a cup of coffee, lace up your shoes and let’s get moving. A walk through Founders Park sculpture garden seems like a great start to the day. Parking can be found at the pavilion of Windsor and Main streets. 

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Trails meander through this linear park surrounded by downtown buildings, Yee-Haw Brewing company, and the mountains. Water flowing through the center of Founder’s adds a calming background sound, as do the birds in the many trees. Meander and enjoy over twenty sculptures, sit on the bench with a book or sketchpad or walk faster along the winding paths – any choice is a great start to a day.

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A One-Of-A-Kind Offering

Good for you for researching your trip in advance. You scheduled a class at CakeBuds, home of Food Network cake competitions winners Angela and Timmy. I had a blast at the cookie decorating class and learned so much. My favorite cookie – anything pretty with royal icing, although often expensive and disappointing if it comes in a plastic bag – I can now make, thanks to Angela.     

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The cookie class was 1-1/2 hours long and included decorating a dozen delicious cookies that they made in advance. We decorated with royal, buttercream and fondant icings. Angela shared tips and available products that could make our cookies special, ideas to use up leftover icing, and recipes to use at home. We were all so proud of our decorated cookies.  CakeBuds also offers cake decorating classes. Book their popular classes early, as they often sell out. 

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Even if you do not attend a class here, come to CakeBuds for a treat (like handmade pop tarts or macaroons – yum!) before discovering shops in downtown Johnson City. 

Food and Fun

Lunch! White Duck Taco is in an old Railroad Depot adjoining the Yee-Haw Brewing Taproom. It has a fun patio and a huge assortment of tacos – just look at these! Tacos on the menu included Banh Mi Tofu, Black Bean, Jerk Chicken, Lump Crab, Steak & Cheese, Lamb Gyro, and Thai Peanut Chicken. The watermelon with mint side dish looked wonderful. 

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Play time! Johnson City is rich in downtown parks, open spaces and murals. You could keep shopping or rent a bike from Local Motion to discover the Tweetsie Trail. I would spend my time with my camera, discovering Kings Common Park and the downtown architecture and murals. 

Families or people with a strong inner child (me!) would love the adventure play area beside King Commons Park. It is well signed, creative, and full of hands-on, low-tech activities, like making music, climbing a rocky outcrop, sledding down a hill, or hopping from stump to stump. 

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Whew! Maybe now is a good time to check into the Carnegie Hotel, a AAA Four Diamond Hotel less than a mile from downtown. It feels so luxurious with antique details, but it is only about 20 years old.  Shower and change clothes, take a nap, take pleasure in a treatment at the Austin Springs Spa & Salon in the hotel to revive, or buy bubble bath at the spa gift shop and enjoy a soak in your spacious bathroom – you still have much more to enjoy downtown. 

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An Impressive Ending

Downtown Johnson City is rich in murals and historic architecture. I suggest you wander the area around Frieberg’s before your reservation for an authentic German dinner. If you are lucky, there may be an upstairs table by a window where you can look out onto Main Street while you dine. 

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I ordered the Huehnchen Schnitzel with Bavarian Potato Salad and Rotkohl (Red Cabbage). It was truly delicious. But honestly, I would have been just as happy with the appetizer – soft pretzels and oh-so-flavorful mini brats served on a bed of kraut.

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After dinner, stop by the “Passion Flowers” sculpture, created by Jeff Reed & Jennifer Madden in King Commons Park. These three giant flowers are impressive in daylight, but dramatic at night as the 150 LED filaments change colors. Notice the Johnson City sign in its full nighttime glory and all the historic Johnson City events in the paving beneath these flowers. This sculpture was dedicated at Johnson City’s 150th Sesquicentennial Celebration Grand Finale on December 1st, 2019. Passion Flowers are the Tennessee state wildflower.  

Johnson City nightlife is full of options and live music. Check the calendar for Fridays After 5 free outdoor summer concerts in King Commons if you are visiting during the warmer months.

I visited an old-fashioned speakeasy. The Windsor is pretty bland from the parking lot, with no signage. Go inside and it looks a bit like a downtown bodega – until the hostess opens up the ‘Pepsi machine’ to let you into the dimly lit speakeasy, complete with sofas and chairs creating conversation areas and a bar. We walked through the gravel courtyard, where I browsed the classic and seasonal craft cocktails menu. How could I resist trying a drink that includes butterfly-pea-infused Beefeater and lavender honey syrup?

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A Day Well Spent

Now, aren’t you glad you checked into a lovely hotel so close to downtown Johnson City? Get some sleep because tomorrow you may be white water rafting, biking, hiking part of the Appalachian Trail, touring a museum or two, or discovering another town in East Tennessee. There are so many options.

This article was written by Connie Cottingham of Love Notes From the Garden.

Bio: Connie is a travel writer specializing in public gardens and pedestrian spaces, as well as a landscape architect and a garden writer. This Southern girl has gardened in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia. ‘Love Notes from the Garden’, her weekly garden plants and advice emails, are short, humorous, and informative. Follow her blog and sign up for ‘Love Notes from the Garden’ at conniecottingham.com. Reach her at connicotti@gmail.com.

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