A JC Bucket List: 25 things to do in Johnson City, TN

Last year, during our travels to California and Colorado I typed out a quick post about Johnson City. It was a tribute, of sorts. When I wrote it, we had been away from Tennessee for a while and I was starting to miss some of my favorite places. Surprisingly, the post was quite popular. A lot of people are looking for information about JC and there doesn't seem to be much.

Coming back to the city for a few weeks at the end of last year, we noticed more changes than usual. You couldn't tell from the line of cars wrapping around JC's only Starbucks, but there is a great new coffee shop downtown. The Tweetsie Trail is finished and heavily used. Downtown streets are being torn up and rebuilt with landscaped medians. There is a new sculpture park downtown built over-top of what was once acres of warehouse and eyesore.

So much of the new that I've see in our travels across the country is sterile outdoor shopping malls and luxury condos. It's great to see new nature projects, small businesses, and warehouse reclamation. Praises to the people in Johnson City who are pushing for these types of projects. But on to the reason for this post... 

25 things to do in Johnson City!

1. Shoot pool at Numan's

Classy way to start the list, but as smoky and seedy as it is, Numan's Cafe and Sports Bar is a downtown institution. It's been the perfect place to people watch for over 20 years and has held strong through times when not much else was downtown. Where else can you see people smoking right next to their oxygen tanks or get cutthroat deals on zippo lighters from a trench-coat wearing entrepreneur?  Escape to Main Street Pizza or Mid City Grill if the smoke gets too heavy.

2. Explore Buffalo Mountain

White Rock,with its great views towards North Carolina and Elizabethton, is a mandatory hike for anyone living in Johnson City. Park at the gate and take the service road, or the more interesting White Rock Trail, to the top. Been there, done that? Buffalo Mountain offers a number of other interesting trails [trail map].

3. Browse the Johnson City Farmer's Market

The Johnson City Farmer's Market has been growing for years and is quickly becoming a focal point of downtown weekend activity. The 20,000 sq ft new Farmer's Market and Pavilion should be ready before too long. It's not just produce!

4. Catch a show at the Acoustic Coffeehouse (or The Down Home or The Hideaway)

A lot of Johnson City venues (Rafters, Casbah, Galaxy) have come and gone, but three venues have held strong. The Acoustic Coffeehouse, The Down Home and The Hideaway each offer a relaxed environment to listen to regular live music. Check out their music schedules in The Loafer or on their individual websites: Loafer - Acoustic - Hideaway - Down Home.

5. Hike to the Bay's Mountain Fire Tower

A medium-difficulty hike with a huge payoff. This fire tower was built in 1937 by the CCC as part of Roosevelt's New Deal Program. Bring a picnic then stay for one of Bay's Mountain's great nature exhibits.

6. Have brunch at Cafe One 11

Cafe One 11 has been the best brunch in town for years. Delicious.

Here is a more detailed write-up in the JC Press of Cafe One 11 from earlier this year.

7. Bike the full length of the Tweetsie Trail

Credit: Yelp
This rails-to-trails project is a huge new addition to the city's trail system. Running from right outside of downtown JC all the way to Elizabethton, this shaded trail is a great place to spend a few hours on the weekend. If you aren't up for the full round trip, drop a car in Elizabethton before starting. The whole trail in that direction is mostly downhill. Bonus: Another great area trail, just a few miles down the highway is Erwin's Linear Trail.

8. Eat a fall picnic at Willow Springs (or Winged Deer) Park

These two parks offer great views of the mountains and fall foliage. Willow Springs Park has one of the area's few dog parks and plenty of room to lay a picnic blanket. Winged Deer Park has great views of the trees and water by the river, away from the athletic areas,

9. Soak up some sun on a great JC patio

Some of the best (and most spacious) patios are at the newly opened Yee-Haw Brewing and Tupelo Honey in the downtown area. Smaller, but equally sunny are outdoor areas at the Atlantic Alehouse, Knights Pizza, and Mona Lisa's Gelato.

10. Hike to a waterfall

Not actually in Johnson City, but I won't tell if you don't! Load up some iconic JC music like The Everybodyfields in the music player and take a short drive to one of the area's many falls. Here is a list of area waterfalls.

11. Taste amaretto at Cafe Lola

Go to the liquor section of a grocery store in Italy and you'll see a whole shelf of Amaretto. Around these parts, we get the choice of Disarrono and a couple other overly syrupy options. Lola's Amaretto, made by the owner, is good enough to drink over ice. Definitely give it a try. Cafe Lola's also has some of the best food and one of the best brunches in JC. My wife and I spent quite a bit of time here when we were first dating.

12. Line dance at the Electric Cowboy

Anything "country" bores me to tears-- pickup trucks, NASCAR, cowboy hats; but like Numan's, The Electric Cowboy is an amazing place to people-watch and try something new. Right around the corner from Lola's, The Electric Cowboy has one of the most active dance floors in the city and play more genres than just country. It's not Billy Bob's in Fort Worth but it's pretty darn close.

13. Raft the Nolichucky

The upper Nolichucky has class II III and even IV rapids. If you don't know anyone with a raft,  a number of companies offer fully guided trips. In addition to the Nolichucky, there are other rivers within a couple hours that offer guided and unguided rafting and kayaking opportunities like the Tennessee River, Nantahala River, and Pigeon River.

14. Eat bratwurst at Freiberg's

Freiberg's has character and environment that is uncommon in the area. I haven't eaten here in years
since their menu is mostly meat, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy a good pint of Franziskaner while taking a break from a downtown festival.

15. Grill out at "the beach" at Boone Dam

The Boone Dam Park may be the closest thing to a beach we have in the tri-cities. You may have to wait until the dam leak issue is resolved and water levels return, but this park has a great swimming area and cook-out spots for when it does.

16. Stroll the new Founders Park

If you haven't been downtown in a while, this park is another amazing addition to the city's landscape. Hop from rock to rock over the creek or stroll the collection of large sculptures. Free concerts, yoga, and other activities are often available.

17. Sample some Dr. Enuf

I'm not a big soda drinker, but you can hardly call yourself a northeast Tennesseean if you haven't tried at least one flavor of the locally bottled, Dr. Enuf. This stuff was originally created alongside Mountain Dew in the early 40's before the Mountain Dew rights were sold to Pepsi.

Speaking of Mountain Dew and unique sodas, in 2012 Pepsi created a heavily malt flavored version of Mountain Dew exclusively for Johnson City called Johnson City Gold.The stuff is pretty hard to find nowadays, selling for up to $20 a can on Ebay, but if you come across some in a garage or under a soda machine, it's well worth trying.

18. Pet a dog or 20 dogs at the Johnson City Animal Shelter.

I'll confess, I haven't made it to the new location, but I've heard good things. The Johnson City Animal shelter is so much better than the dirty and depressing holding areas I've seen in other nearby towns. They've always allowed us to visit and spend time with the dogs.

19. Drive by the southern headquarters of Al Capone

Supposedly, Al Capone spent quite a bit of time in JC in the building that is now the Montrose Apartments on Locust St. Appalachian Ghost Tours offers a Johnson City Little Chicago Tour that focuses on these stories.

20. Try Apple and Artichoke Pizza from Scratch

I have eaten pizza from San Diego to Chicago and I grew-up in the Northeast, but I have no problem saying that Scratch Brick Oven pizza is a favorite. Not only can you order apple as a pizza topping, it's BYOB so you can drink an inexpensive beer of your choice and listen to a record while you wait for your pizza to cook.

JC is overrun with pizza chains-- try something different!

21. Visit a real southern castle

The Oaks is for sale and off-limits for now, but it used to be a medical office and event venue on the weekends. The grounds and building itself are a one-of-a-kind combination between imported Italian tile, sculptures, and unbeatable views towards Buffalo Mountain. I'm a little biased toward the property since I was married here, but hopefully it will open to the public or at least be put to good use in the near future.

22. Peruse Nelson Fine Art on a First Friday

Nelson Fine Art has been one of my favorite JC galleries since they hosted work by Michael Gregg. Here is info on First Friday.

23. Get lost in Fender's Farm Corn Maze

A second activity that isn't actually in Johnson City, but a short drive away. Fender's Maze is a great way to spend a couple hours during the day or night in the fall.

24. Laugh at the Comedy Zone

Johnson City doesn't have a designated comedy club yet, but it does have The Comedy Zone. Don't let its location at the Holiday Inn scare you away. They host everyone from regional comedians you've never heard of to more national acts like Carlos Mencia. See their schedule here.

25. Dance in the street at a downtown festival


Johnson City has a number of downtown festivals like Blue Plum and Umoja. Keep an eye on the downtown schedule for more information and bring your dancing shoes.

Bonus! Some nearby day trips:

26. Recreate a scene from the Sound of Music (or Star Wars) on the Roan Mountain Balds

Trails, including the infamous AT, run straight over the top of Roan Mountain offering 360 degree views of Tennessee and North Carolina. Take a day hike or stay overnight at one of the park's cabins near the foot of the mountain.

27. Climb the ladders at Grandfather Mountain

Grandfather Mountain is one of my favorite day trips from Johnson City. Many people end their visit at the suspension bridge by the parking lot, but the best part of this private park is the ladder trail that winds to the top of the mountain. Check the weather before you make the trip to make sure you'll have clear hiking.

28. Admire the view from Chimney Rock

A quick elevator to the top of Chimney Rock Park, a stop at the scenic cafe, and you'll be admiring great views of the river valley with a coffee in hand.

29. Soak in the off-season at Hot Springs

Hot Springs is just as enjoyable in the summer, but there is something special about escaping the cold fall air by getting into a private hot tub fed from the nearby springs. They also offer discounted cabin rates in the off-season.

30. Day-trip to Asheville or Boone

Hob Knob in Boone

I lived in Johnson City for years before making a trip to Asheville. Learn from my mistake! It may seem far away because of the mountains and state border, but Asheville is just a cd or two away. Boone is a little further, but also worth the drive for a change of scenery.

Links from other websites:

Top Ten Restaurants in Johnson City TN

Johnson City, Tennessee Where people from all over the world go to immerse themselves in the music of the mountains