Feeling restless? A little stir-crazy? Looking to get out of town, but unsure about committing to an overnight stay anywhere? Have no fear! Options for day trips away from the Scenic City abound, whether you’re looking to stay in-state or take a little schlep over some state lines. The following urban getaways are all within 2.5 hours of downtown Chattanooga – far enough to feel like a mini-vacation, but close enough to be out and back before the clock strikes midnight. Bon voyage!
Chattanooga’s closest neighboring major metro area, Knoxville clocks in at just under two hours away. The city has long surpassed its somewhat scruffy reputation thanks to its host role for the 1982 World’s Fair and continuing revitalization initiatives. Knoxville has something to entertain you for a day no matter what you’re looking for, whether that be history, arts and culture, music, sightseeing, or good eats.
Tennessee history buffs will have a field day at the Museum of East Tennessee History, which features seasonal state history exhibits and plays host to a top-notch research library and genealogy magazine. Not far away are Blount Mansion and James White’s Fort, two 18th-century homes available to tour. Those interested in the arts and sciences should check out one (or two or three!) of the city’s museums, including the Knoxville Museum of Art, the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture, and the American Museum of Science and Energy.
For those with kids in tow, have a day of family fun at Zoo Knoxville, where the Asian Trek, Grasslands Africa, and the Amphibian and Reptile Campus are all waiting to be explored. Visitors looking for a leisurely stroll can walk and learn on a Historic Downtown Knoxville Walking Tour, or opt for a spookier experience with Haunted Knoxville Ghost Tours. If you’re craving a view of the nearby Smoky Mountains, stop off at the Sunsphere, which offers panoramic views from its fourth-floor observation deck.
Shopping & Dining
If you’re headed to Knoxville in search of some retail therapy, local shops and big retailers alike can be found in downtown’s Market Square and at Turkey Creek. And no matter why you’ve made your pilgrimage to Knoxville, one thing will remain true: You’re going to work up an appetite! Knoxville’s growing restaurant scene is impressively diverse for a city of its size. While there’s an abundance of casual eateries, plenty of upscale options are waiting for you as well, such as upscale farm-to-table bistro Oliver Royale or Western-game forward Lonesome Dove, where one can experience unique dishes like elk foie gras or wild boar tenderloin in a fine dining setting.
Nashville’s nickname of “The Music City” can speak for itself. Tennessee’s largest (and still rapidly growing) city is famed for the music of its past and present, and it’s a worthy visit for anyone who’s ever cared about folk, country, and bluegrass tunes. However, the city’s size means that music isn’t the only thing it has to offer those who are in town for the day. A little over two hours from downtown Chattanooga, a quick visit to our state’s capital is well worth battling the traffic of I-24.
If the main event – the music – is the thing that you’re after, there’s several can’t-miss stops that you’ll want to consider for your day’s itinerary. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum deserves at least a few hours of your time, and the Grand Ole Opry, an iconic country music venue that’s been around since 1925, offers daytime backstage tours. Other key music-related touring spots include the Ryman Auditorium, the Johnny Cash Museum, and the National Museum of African American Music.
Not particularly musically inclined? Don’t write Nashville off just yet. History enthusiasts can visit the Hermitage home and museum – President Andrew Jackson’s home – and the Belle Meade historic mansion and winery, both of which are on the outskirts of town. The Adventure Science Center and the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere are great options for a day out with the little ones; fans of automobile history can visit the Lane Motor Museum; and fine arts fanatics can enjoy beautiful pieces housed in a historical Art Deco venue at the Frist Art Museum. More of a sports fan? Take a trip in the fall to catch the Tennessee Titans play in an NFL game at Nissan Stadium.
Shopping & Dining
Perhaps more than any other major metro area in the state, there is no shortage of shopping in Nashville. For one-stop shopping, malls like Opry Mills and The Mall at Green Hills will be your best bet. If you’re more interested in neighborhood shopping, East Nashville’s Fatherland District plays host to an eclectic mix of boutiques, mercantiles, and dining options, while neighborhoods such as The Gulch, Sylvan Park, and Hillsboro Village offer a blend of local shops and national retailers.
When it comes to cuisine, a blend of Southern staples and innovative experimental concepts come together to provide a booming and varied restaurant scene. The Catbird Seat offers seasonal tasting menus crafted by James Beard Award-nominated chefs, and craft cocktail bar Attaboy was recently named one of the best bars in the country. Nashville is, of course, famous for Nashville hot chicken, and Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is credited with popularizing the dish. Hungry, but not sure what you want? Stop by the Assembly Food Hall downtown for a collection of Nashville’s best, from a cannoli café to tacos made with handmade tortillas.
The largest nearby metro area by far, Greater Atlanta boasts a population of just under 7 million, and the city of Atlanta serves as the state’s capital and hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. The city presents a wealth of museums, parks, shopping, and award-winning dining; in fact, there’s so much to do and see that, if visiting for just a day, you’ll have to carefully pick and choose what to fit into your agenda.
There are things to do in Atlanta that cater to nearly every interest. Perhaps most famous are the Georgia Aquarium, a sprawling campus that’s home to over 120,000 forms of marine life, and the World of Coca-Cola, a museum dedicated to the history of one of America’s favorite soda brands. If you’re into theater, ballet, comedy, or music, plan your trip around a show at the Fox Theatre, an opulent Golden Hollywood-era venue downtown. Interactive history lessons abound at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, the Delta Flight Museum, and the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame.
Art enthusiasts can visit galleries at the Millennium Gate Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and the High Museum of Art, a century-old museum in Midtown with a diverse collection that includes Monet. Highlights for children include the Center for Puppetry Arts, which offers tours and performances, and the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, featuring over 30,000 square feet of hands-on exhibits. News junkies and those with an interest in broadcast journalism can sign up for a CNN Studio Tour, and visitors in search of some thrills and chills can stop at Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags White Water – both of which are classic sprawling amusement parks.
Shopping & Dining
Atlanta is home to several shopping districts. If you’re looking for the more traditional mall experience of department store anchors and national retailers, Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza are the places to go. Atlantic Station, located on the city’s Westside, is an eclectic collection of retail, dining, and entertainment, including Scandinavian furniture giant IKEA. In the heart of the city is Little Five Points, a shopping district known for its bohemian, funky vibes. If you’re looking for a more locally driven blend of dining and retail, check out Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market, housed within an adaptively reused warehouse and the historic Sears, Roebuck & Co. building respectively.
When it comes to Atlanta’s restaurant scene, it can be hard to know where to start. If you’re looking for innovative Southern fare and small plates, consider Top Chef finalist Kevin Gillespie’s spot in Glenwood Park, Gunshow. If surf and turf with a little romance is what you’re in search of, Bones Restaurant has been a steakhouse staple in Buckhead since the 1970s. Mary Mac’s Tea Room, one of the oldest restaurants in the city, is a perfect comfort food lunch spot. If it’s a juicy, greasy burger that you’re craving, Midtown’s The Varsity is an iconic locale that also happens to be the world’s largest drive-in restaurant. And if you’re hoping for fine dining with a view, upscale-European Nikolai’s Roof, located on the 30th floor of the Hilton Atlanta, is sure to provide a memorable date night experience.
Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham has a similar past to that of Chattanooga – an industrial hub that’s cleaned up its act and is now drawing more people in by the day. With a variety of museums, vibrant neighborhoods, and a dining scene that punches above its weight, Birmingham is a great place to learn something new and eat something different.
Alabama’s history is deeply intertwined with the Civil Rights movement, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a great place to learn more about the city’s role during that era. If your children love science, the McWane Science Center is a prime spot for kids to learn about the world around them with interactive, hands-on exhibits and IMAX showings. If you’ve got a motorcycle fiend in the family, Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum provides an extensive display of historical motorcycle and race car models.
If you’re looking for a panoramic view of the city, venture up to Vulcan Park & Museum, which houses Birmingham’s iconic 56-foot iron statue of the Roman god Vulcan, the largest cast iron statue in the world. If hanging out with some wildlife is more your speed, plan to spend some time at the Birmingham Zoo, which houses animals from Alabama as well as around the world – you can even hand-feed birds at the Lorikeet Aviary. For those fascinated by manufacturing history, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark – a monument to the Industrial Revolution that’s been standing since 1882 – offers self-guided and guided tours that depart from its visitor center.
Shopping & Dining
The Birmingham area has plenty of opportunities for some retail therapy. The Summit Birmingham, an outdoor shopping center with an extensive range of shopping and dining, offers national retail options such as Anthropologie, West Elm, Lululemon, Madewell, Pottery Barn, REI Co-Op, and more, with both casual and more elevated dining options on-site as well. For an indoor, classic mall shopping experience, the Riverchase Galleria has over 150 shopping and dining options across the mall. If you’re in the market for décor and design shopping, visit Pepper Place, which houses upscale design shops, local market vendors, and dining options that will please any foodie.
Birmingham boasts an excellent food and beverage scene, and options abound no matter what you’re in the mood for. If you’re in search of fine dining, book a reservation for Hot and Hot Fish Club, which has a James Beard Award under its belt. For luxurious Italian fare, get a table at Bottega, which has won the same award. For a more casual bistro experience, you can’t miss Chez Fonfon, a beloved French-inspired eatery. Hoping for a landmark Southern spot? Check out John’s City Diner, which serves farm-to-table comfort food. In the mood for a funky brunch? Try El Barrio, which specializes in dishes from various regional Mexican cuisines. And if you’re really hankering for some barbecue, get a plate at the award-winning Rodney Scott’s BBQ – and try it with some of Alabama’s famous white barbecue sauce.
One of the fastest-growing cities in Alabama, Huntsville is known by its residents as “The Rocket City” thanks to the major part it played in the 1960s Space Race. You’ll find the space theme recurring all throughout the area, from museums and murals to street names and craft beer titles.
The city’s most popular attraction is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a sprawling museum campus known for its full-scale model of the Saturn V rocket standing tall in the outdoor part of the museum. Learn about the history of space exploration, ride simulators, and eat “space ice cream” while you’re there. Other museums you can find around town include the Huntsville Museum of Art, EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, Constitution Hall Park, where you can learn about the state’s history, and Burritt on the Mountain, a mountaintop historic home and estate that features a folk school and 19th-century cabins on the property.
Art enthusiasts should plan to stop by Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, a repurposed factory that’s the largest privately owned arts facility in the Southeast. Here, you can see working studios for over 200 artists and makers in various media, shop for vinyl, and find artisan teas, desserts, and lunch options. If you’re looking to enjoy some entertainment in the open air, catch a Lookouts vs. Trash Pandas minor league baseball game at the Rocket City Trash Pandas’ Toyota Stadium, or grab tickets to a show at the Orion Amphitheater – this year’s lineup includes the Dave Matthews Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kenny Chesney, Josh Groban, Chris Stapleton, Jack White, and more. If you’re in more of a playing mood, head downtown to Pints & Pixels, which plays host to over 40 vintage arcade and pinball games as well as a full bar.
Shopping & Dining
If you’re looking to get some shopping done and catch a meal at the same time, Bridge Street Town Centre is an open-air, mixed-use locale that offers spots to shop from national retailers, smaller boutiques, and places to grab a drink, a sweet treat, or a full meal. If you’re looking for local retailers, visit the downtown area for yummy baked goods from The Moon Bakeshop or city- and state-inspired gifts from the historic Harrison Brothers Hardware, which has been in business since 1894.
Huntsville’s dining scene is a blend of classic Southern cuisine and international eateries. One of its more renowned dives, the Po Boy Factory offers up authentic New Orleans dishes and po-boys made on bread delivered weekly from the bayou itself. Downtown, Commerce Kitchen, Cotton Row, and The Bottle all offer elevated, white-tablecloth Southern eats, and Phat Sammy’s offers casual Southern-Korean fusion fare. If you’re looking for top-tier Mediterranean, Big Papa Gyro is a lunch hot spot, and if you’d rather unwind with a few beers and some pub grub, visit Campus No. 805 for a selection of craft breweries and casual dining with patio seating (and a speakeasy hidden behind a row of lockers!).