Chattanooga vs. Knoxville Smackdown Finale: The Differences and the Verdict

Chattanooga AquariumImage by (aka Brent) via Flickr

In terms of tourist star-power, Chattanooga will probably always have the advantage. Their aquarium is extremely well known and is adjacent to an IMAX theater. Both sit near the river and on the riverfront, visitors may choose between a riverboat ride or a ride on the more adventurous Duck tours. They also have a minor-league baseball stadium downtown and, while not downtown, the specter of the Chattanooga Choo-choo, Ruby Falls, Rock City and Lookout Mountain loom large.
What does Knoxville have to answer the above? I’m afraid, not very much. Each of those attractions bring people to Chattanooga who otherwise would not have made the trip. What brings people to Knoxville? Well, the Vols, of course, but those are prescribed dates. We have conventions and events, but they have those, as well.

Knoxville Riverfront definitely needs work.

Riverfront development seems farther along in Chattanooga. I read a comment on a blog recently in which the writer mentioned that Chattanooga has a tremendous advantage over Knoxville because Chattanooga has a river. It was a telling comment because, of course, not only do we have a river, we have the same river and it comes to us first! So how could this person be so confused? I think it’s because we are so high on the bluff above our waterfront that there is no easy, clearly marked way to get there from downtown for an out-of-town visitor. This is an important problem that Knoxville must tackle in order to fully exploit the potential that sits just at the bottom of that very steep hill. Chattanooga also has extensive trails along the river accompanied by a sculpture garden within walking distance of downtown.

There are other differences that seem to counterbalance: We have a dog park and they do not. They have very cool, free, electric shuttles. Compared to our noisy gasoline-powered trolleys, they have a very clear edge. Why can’t we go electric?
Downtown Grocery Store, Chattanooga, TN
Downtown Chattanooga has a grocery store and a Dollar General Store, but no wine or liquor store that I could see. The grocery store, however, looked almost dilapidated and would we want a Dollar General Store on Gay Street? As for the wine and liquor store, I think most people would agree that’s an asset for our downtown.
Family Dollar Store, Downtown Chattanooga, TN
But if you want to visit a city, not as a tourist, but to enjoy an urban experience what do you want? You want to eat at excellent or cool restaurants, you want a good cup of coffee in an independent coffee shop, you want some entertainment and you’d like to shop. This is where the distinction between the two downtown areas becomes a stark contrast.
212 Market, Chattanooga, TN
I was shocked to find such a small number of quality restaurants available in downtown Chattanooga. We ate at 212 Market several times during our visit simply because it was the primary option for better dining – and it was excellent. They emphasize local produce and fresh food and I’d be delighted to eat there again. We did, however, eat on their outside deck and realized that there were very few people to watch and we had to speak over a constant roar of traffic. We missed the great people-watching and pleasant sounds of pedestrian traffic on Market Square.
There were two barbecue restaurants and one of these, Sticky Fingers, is a chain. I’ve enjoyed it before, but on this trip it was not so good. There are a couple of Mexican restaurants, one of which is a much smaller, slightly lower quality version of our Blue Coast Burrito. Other options include Panera Bread and Applebees. I spotted one deli and they do have a vegan restaurant.
Closed Hair of the Dog Pub faces Applebees, Sign Reads “Eat Local/Drink Local”
Do you realize there are currently ten different restaurants on Market Square along with two delis, two ice-cream/Shaved Ice spots and two more restaurants on the way? That will make fourteen places to eat a meal on Market Square. Only two of them, Subway and Blue Coast Burrito, are chains. This is not to mention all the places to eat on Gay Street or surrounding blocks and the Old City. There is no comparison in quality of food and quantity of choices. And as for entertainment, I saw one pretty cool looking bar, but no more. Again, compared to our Old City alone, what can you even say?
Recently opened club at 807 Market St., Chattanooga, TN
And where are the cool coffee houses? Outside of Starbucks inside the Read House, there is no place downtown to get a good cup of coffee. I remember a small place there years ago with excellent coffee and numerous chess boards. I loved that little shop. Now it is gone and nothing has replaced it. This is simply not civilization, people. With multiple choices of locally owned shops in which to purchase a very fine cup of coffee in downtown Knoxville, this category – which is very important to me – is easily one that Knoxville wins in a no-contest ruling.
Hallmark Store, Downtown Chattanooga, TN

As for shopping, they have a Hallmark that closes at 5:00, a couple of high-end men’s clothing stores which also close in the afternoon and one very small dress shop. That’s it. Mast General Store alone overwhelms those meager offerings. When you add all our other downtown shops such as Rala, Fizz, Bliss, Bliss Home, Earth to Old City, The Fortunate Traveler, Unarmed Merchants, The Art Gallery and Union Avenue Books, the comparison is simply overwhelming in Knoxville’s favor.
Which brings up the most damning comparison of all for downtown Chattanooga: As far as I can tell, no one lives there and no one local goes there. After nightfall the streets were dead. I could not spot anything that looked like apartments or condos. Nearby areas have some limited housing, but I saw nothing downtown.
So the major difference is that we have people downtown. Knoxville is a fun place to visit, not for an attraction, but for the entire urban experience and it is because our downtown is full of life. That never gets old. After you’ve visited Chattanooga’s tourist attractions, what reason is there to return? I won’t hesitate to return to Chattanooga when there is a conference or concert I want to attend, but for my urban delight, I’ll happily stay in downtown Knoxville.
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