Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Oak Ridge, TN

  • Published 2022/02/17

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has an awesome backstory that will surely put you in awe.

This small city between Roane and Anderson County is 25 miles west of Knoxville.

Despite its sleepy and unassuming appeal, Oak Ridge is an interesting place to check out because of its history.

Interestingly, this city was founded under secrecy by the government of the United States in the middle of World War II.

It sounds mindblowing, but it’s where the Manhattan Project started and developed, which ultimately created the world’s first lethal weapon, the atomic bomb.

Everybody knows where these bombs were used in World War II and how they changed global warfare after that.

After WWII, the small city born of secrecy slowly transitioned from a scientific military installation to a vibrant and self-governing community in 1959.

The majority of residents voted to incorporate Oak Ridge into a modified city, and it has grown to the city it is today.

Oak Ridge has a lot of great things to offer for its visitors other than its rich history.

Of course, most of the time, you’ll find yourself strolling through museums, historic sites, and facilities relevant to its atomic past.

However, Oak Ridge also has scenic outdoor attractions and a vibrant arts community.

With tons of exciting things to create a memorable visit to Oak Ridge, you will surely be looking for the best options for your itinerary.

So, here’s a guide to the 15 best things to do in Oak Ridge, TN:

Discover More Fascinating Things at the American Museum of Science and Energy

Exterior of the American Museum of Science and Energy.

, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’d like to have a fun-filled day, visit the famous American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge.

It’s a great place to bring kids because of the interactive and rotating exhibits, featuring various science simulators.

The museum focuses on Oak Ridge’s scientific development and an expanded museum about the Manhattan Project history.

Name sign of American Museum of Science and Energy.

Brian Stansberry, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot of hands-on and interactive exhibits, including the Van de Graaff Generator.

Moreover, the museum offers educational tours.

Ultimately, you will learn fascinating facts about the technological marvels developed during the height of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge.

Clock display inside American Museum of Science and Energy.

, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Be at Awe at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park

The Oak Ridge’s Manhattan Project National Historical Park is one of the three sites of the latter throughout the country.

The other two historical parks are Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos in New Mexico.

These parks recently opened back in 2015 to educate the public about the history and legacy of this top-secret project by the U.S. Government.

In addition, one of the reasons for establishing these national historical parks is to enlighten the public that the project went beyond its main intention to develop weapons.

It also paved the way to numerous space travel, energy production, and nuclear medicine successes.

Meanwhile, during your visit to the park in Oak Ridge, you can tour various historical buildings, including the B Reactor, a former plutonium-producing reactor.

Explore the Oak Ridge History Museum

While the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the American Museum of Science and Energy offer visitors the backstory of the atomic age, the Oak Ridge History Museum focuses on the historical perspective of this city.

Contrastingly, the local museum offers visitors other aspects of the history of the Manhattan Project, particularly the people behind it.

Moreover, the museum also has an exhibit telling how people in Oak Ridge lived their lives during the height of WWII.

You’ll have a great time during your visit to this museum in Oak Ridge as you browse through the visual and historical artifacts, including a vast collection of photographs of the Manhattan Project’s official photographer Ed Westcott.

Celebrate Arts at the Oak Ridge Art Center

Aside from Project Manhattan and stuff about atomic energy, Oak Ridge has a thriving arts community that you’ll find at the Oak Ridge Art Center.

It is a must-visit attraction in the city if you want to get up close with world-class visual arts from local and renowned artists.

You will be overwhelmed by the beautiful creations of local artists and come across a huge array of crafts and artworks from international artists at its travel exhibit.

In addition, you can hone your artistic skills and creativity by joining the art center’s educational workshops and programs.

The museum has been managed by the Oak Ridge Community Art Center, which was established in 1952.

They play a key role in establishing Oak Ridge’s arts community, which helps develop the city’s own creative identity apart from the U.S. government’s atomic energy development.

The group also organizes various art events throughout the year in Oak Ridge, so you should proactively check their scheduled events because you might join one of them during your visit there.

Ring the International Friendship Bell

International Friendship Bell

Stan37 /

After you’re done with the Commemorative Walk, proceed to the International Friendship Bell, also located within the A.K Bissell Park.

This 8,000-pound bronze bell signifies the United States and Japan’s friendship after World War II.

It also commemorates the V.J Day, Pearl Harbor Attack, and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

View of the international friendship bell.

Douglas P Perkins (Douglaspperkins (talk)), CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sotetsu Iwazawa, a well-known Japanese bell maker, created the iconic bell and turned it over to the city of Oak Ridge in 1996.

It’s another must-visit historical site in Oak Ridge that you shouldn’t miss.

Taking photos of the bell and its picturesque surroundings are the highlights of your visit there.

Rub Elbows with Locals at the Oak Ridge Farmers’ Market

The Oak Ridge Farmers Market located inside Jackson Square is like your typical crowded but vibrant community market, featuring freshly harvested produce, organic meats, artisan bread and pastries, preserves, and fresh flowers.

Probably one of the main reasons you need to visit the Oak Ridge Farmer’s Market is the products displayed there.

It boasts sustainable and organic farming practices, a healthier option than regular products you buy in groceries.

Organized by the East Tennessee Farmer’s Association, the Oak Ridge Farmer’s Market runs from May to October every Saturday.

Many locals flock to the Oak Ridge Farmer’s Market not just to buy fresh produce but also to mingle with fellow locals, so it’s one of the best places to rub elbows with them.

Watch Live Performances at the Grove Theater

The Grove Theater in Oak Ridge is known for its rich history and memorable past.

It’s one of the first entertainment establishments during the height of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge.

Grove Theater is home to various science and arts organizations in Oak Ridge, and it’s currently operated by the High Places Community Church.

It hosts various stage plays, concerts, civic-related affairs, and religious events.

Visiting this old theater also gives you more information about the rich and colorful history of Oak Ridge.

Set Out in an Outdoor Adventure at the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement

The Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement is a bear witness to the city’s great history.

It saw how the Manhattan Project started that paved the way to the dawn of the atomic age and has seen the city progress from an underground city to a vibrant community.

Of course, the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement is a must-visit outdoor attraction because of its natural beauty.

Many locals and visitors head to this area to hike or bike along its scenic trails, teeming with woodland birds chirping overhead.

The entire trail of this area spans 11 miles with a combination of paved, dirt, and gravel roads, perfect for hiking and biking activities.

For a place to enjoy nature at the same time as stretching your muscles, you should head to this natural attraction in Oak Ridge.

Hike through the Beautiful University of Tennessee Arboretum

The University of Tennessee Arboretum spans about 11,435 acres, covering three forests in Oak Ridge Forest, Highland Rim Forest, and the Cumberland Forest.

From an outdoor enthusiast’s perspective, the vast forested area means it’s a perfect venue to do outdoor activities.

True to it, there are dozens of outdoor activities to enjoy in the arboretum like hiking, nature photography, wildlife photography, and biking.

Plant enthusiasts will discover more than 2,500 plant specimens from 800 various species and cultivars.

Most of the plant species found in the arboretum are endemic in the region.

Overall, the University of Tennessee Arboretum is a wonderful place for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts to visit.

Walk through the Secret City Commemorative Walk

Sign at Secret City Commemorative Walk.

DrNegative, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re up for more history in Oak Ridge, you should traverse the Secret City Commemorative Walk in A.K. Bissell Park.

This activity in Oak Ridge highlights a stroll around a narrow and circular pathway, where you’ll come across ten bronze tablets, each telling the backstory of the city and the Manhattan Project.

These tablets are great sources of information for those who want quick learning about Oak Ridge’s rich history.

The Secret City Commemorative Walk lasts roughly 15 minutes or longer, depending on how much time you spend on each tablet.

Aside from the commemorative walk, you should proceed to the ‘Founder Walls’ to honor the city’s pioneers.

Browse through Shops and Restaurants at the Jackson Square

Jackson Square is the premier entertainment and leisure destination in Oak Ridge.

It’s where you’ll find most of the shops, restaurants, and fun activities to do in Oak Ridge.

In the height of the Manhattan Project, many establishments outside the facility’s fence were built by the government to provide workers with their regular supply of food, drinks, and entertainment.

It paved the way for the construction of Jackson Square, which also serves as the original townsite of Oak Ridge.

Aside from being the commercial district of the city of Oak Ridge, Jackson Square has also been listed to the National Register of Historic Places.

There are various restaurants to dine at, such as the New China Palace, Dean’s Restaurant & Bakery, Gallo Loco Mexican, Crafter’s Brew Market & Social, and fast-food chains.

You should also check out the Jackson Square Oak Ridge Shopping Mall and the Through the Looking Glass Antiques and Collectibles to score rare finds.

Join the Celebration of the Lavender Festival

The Lavender Festival in Oak Ridge highlights the community’s celebration of the environment, herbs, and good health.

The annual festival that happens every June holds its activities at Jackson Square.

The festival highlights more than 150 artisans, displaying handmade products, food vendors, informative presentations, live music, wine tasting, and kids’ activities.

The festival started in 1998 has already grown big as thousands of people across Roane and Anderson Counties converge in Oak Ridge to join the celebration.

Ride the Department of Energy Bus Tour

The Department of Energy still operates in Oak Ridge for its scientific research in its extensive laboratory located in the city.

With that in mind, Oak Ridge is still a significant place for energy development today, even if the Manhattan Project ended after World War II.

The Department of Energy hosts regular guided bus tours in Oak Ridge’s historical sites, DOE’s research facilities, and other relevant places.

In addition, the bus tour takes you to the famous attractions related to the Manhattan Project around Oak Ridge.

To join this exciting bus tour in Oak Ridge, visit the American Museum of Science and Energy website to learn about its tour schedules.

Eat Delicious Pizza at Big Ed’s Pizza

Since 1970, Big Ed’s Pizza has served Oak Ridge’s locals with its mouthwatering Italian pizza in their joint at Jackson Square.

When you’re visiting Oak Ridge, Big Ed’s Pizza is the must-try food you shouldn’t miss.

What makes Big Ed’s Pizza iconic and makes people come back for more is its process and ingredients they have been using since day one.

They still make their dough and sauces fresh daily using original recipes that made them an iconic pizza joint.

For top-notch pizza and food, you know where to go in Oak Ridge.

Get Entertained at the Oak Ridge Playhouse

Oak Ridge Playhouse is a popular community theater in east Tennessee and the oldest theater in the southeast region of the United States.

If you’re looking for top-notch entertainment in Oak Ridge, this theater has regularly scheduled stage plays, concerts, musicals, dramas, and comedies.

Historically, Oak Ridge Playhouse has been in operation since 1943, providing employees and military personnel in the Manhattan Project entertainment after a tiring day at work.

The theater hasn’t changed until today and provides great entertainment to locals and visitors in its 315-seater auditorium.

Final Thoughts

Oak Ridge is a hidden gem full of surprises and fascinating history.

It is a highly recommended destination for history buffs, nature lovers, and art enthusiasts.

It boasts more than an ‘atomic city’; Oak Ridge has its own identity, which you’ll see on its museums, art galleries, and streets.

So, don’t forget to list these Oak Ridge attractions when you’re ready to visit this amazing city in Tennessee.

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