Situated conveniently along the Tennessee River and numerous highways, Chattanooga's long been valued for its strategic importance (it was dubbed the "gateway to the Deep South" during the Civil War). After you're done all the wintery walks and horse-drawn carriage rides in the city itself it's time to explore beyond. 

Nestled in the bluffs and mountains of the Cumberland Plateau, the city continues to be a convenient jumping-off point for various trips around the region. Just two hours from Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville and Birmingham, not to mention countless other regional destinations, it's the perfect base for a winter holiday.

If you're wondering what the best day trips from Chattanooga might be, these are our top picks.

Crowd gathers around an artwork at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Crowd gathers around an artwork at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights © wayfarerlife / Shutterstock

Head to Atlanta for food, shopping, arts and culture

Just two hours' drive south from Chattanooga (depending on Atlanta's famously snarly traffic), Georgia's capital offers shopping, live music, comedy, arts and culture without the need to overnight. You can easily pop down for dinner and drinks before a show and be home for a late bedtime or pick up a friend from the airport before hitting some boutiques. There are arts and crafts at the High MuseumCenter for Puppetry Arts and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film.

You can also learn about Black history at the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic SiteEbenezer Baptist Church (New) and Center for Civil & Human Rights. Or you can chow down at restaurants ranging from Waffle House (a true Atlanta staple) to upscale fare at Kimball House. Each of Atlanta's neighborhoods is its own little world to explore, so it's easy to find something new every time you pop down for the day.

How to get to Atlanta: It's a straight shot down I-75 from Chattanooga to Atlanta.

Top 15 things to do in Atlanta 

Singer Molly Sue Gonzalez & Jimmy Snyder, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge - Honky Tonk Bar, Broadway, Nashville, USA Martin Thomas AlamyBHBG1E rm.jpg
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge Honky Tonk Bar on Broadway, Nashville © Martin Thomas / Alamy

Nip over to Nashville for dive bars and live music 

Music City has earned a big reputation in recent years with revelers looking to celebrate bachelorette parties, boys' weekends and any other occasion under the sun. But Chattanoogans have an extra advantage in that Nashville is just two hours away, so it's easy to nip up for concerts, shows at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, a Predators game at Bridgestone Arena or a prix fixe feast at Catbird Seat. Just don't forget to factor in the time difference – Chattanooga is as far west as you can go and still be in the Eastern Time Zone, while Nashville is on Central Time.

How to get to Nashville: Nashville is two to two and a half hours away via I-24 West.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Visit Knoxville the gateway to Appalachia

There is more to Knoxville than just the University of Tennessee and Vols football games. Knoxville has several homegrown restaurants worth a visit, from the James Beard–rated JC Holdway to Yassin's Falafel House and has also become the second home of some of Asheville's favorite restaurants like Tupelo Honey Cafe. There's also a thriving brewery scene with fun pitstops like Balter Beerworks and Alliance Brewing Company.

Knoxville also serves as Tennessee's gateway to Appalachia. You can learn more about the region at the Museum of East Tennessee History, the Museum of Appalachia and the Green McAdoo Cultural Center. You also pass through Knoxville on the way from Chattanooga to Great Smoky Mountains National Park if you want to extend your day trip into a longer getaway.

How to get to Knoxville: All you have to do is get on I-75 north and keep the pedal to the metal for a couple of hours till you reach Knoxville.

shutterstockRF_410812180.jpg
With hip eateries and interesting history, Birmingham is a great day trip from Chatanooga © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

For history and history-making cuisine go to Birmingham

If you are looking for a change of scenery, Birmingham is just the ticket. Its industrial past contributes to a picturesque present, with fun destinations like the Sloss FurnacesVulcan Park and Railroad Park. You can learn about the Civil Rights movement at the Birmingham Civil Rights InstituteKelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Or take in some paintings from around the world at the Birmingham Museum of Art. A meal at Highlands Bar & Grill is a must – this is where Frank Stitt revolutionized southern cuisine by blending regional ingredients with French cooking techniques. Leave room for barbecue, though – Saw's Soul Kitchen shouldn't be missed either. Birmingham also has a trendy hipster side, which you can peep for yourself at spots like the Atomic Lounge and Marty's PM, where all things retro and geeky are cool. 

How to get to Birmingham: You'll start on I-24 West out of Chattanooga before merging onto I-59 South for the next hundred or so miles, or about a two-hour drive.

IMG_20200926_152638.jpg
Find an outfitter and raft the Ocoee for an exciting day trip from Chattanooga © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

Raft, kayak or hike the river valley at Ocoee, Tennessee

When Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, it was actually Ocoee where the paddling events were held. The river is studded with Class III-V whitewater rapids, and all along the drive from Chattanooga past Cleveland, Tennessee, the road is dotted with rafting companies that ferry passengers and equipment to put-ins using old retrofitted school buses. But you don't need a kayak or other watercraft to enjoy a day on the Ocoee. There are plenty of swimming holes, too, as well as hiking trails in the surrounding Cherokee National Forest. Grab a bite at the Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner.

How to get to Ocoee: Take I-75 north some 27 miles before taking exit 20 onto US-74 E. The total trip time is about 45 minutes.

Marvel at the faux-Bavarian town, Helen in Georgia

Kitschy Helen, Georgia, is two and a half hours from Chattanooga along one of the prettiest drives in the state. You'll hug the Ocoee River across the floor of southeast Tennessee to the north Georgia border, with gorgeous views of the mountain scenery. Once you reach Helen, there's a lot to see and do. The faux-Bavarian town is packed with shops, souvenir stands, beer gardens and fishing spots.

Float the Chattahoochee on a hot summer day – there are several outfitters, including Cool River Tubing, to send you downriver. Lots of fun waterfalls and hiking destinations are in the area on your way to Helen, including Anna Ruby Falls and Unicoi State Park. Reward yourself with a frosty one at King Ludwig's BeerGarden, a can't-miss watering hole with live music at the foot of a replica German castle. 

How to get to Helen: Take I-75 to Cleveland, Tennessee, before jumping onto US-64 East and US-129 South to State Rte 180 in Union County, Georgia.

IMG_20190929_104440.jpg
Sewanee is the perfect day trip for hikers © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

See the views atop Monteagle Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee

Home to the University of South, Sewanee is a curious town on top of Monteagle Mountain. This is a private, Episcopalian liberal arts college that owns 13,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, where a gorgeous Gothic campus is laced with nature trails and surrounded by neighborhoods of pretty historic homes. Like every good college town, Sewanee has some beloved businesses where students, faculty and townies can meet and greet.

The fried zucchini at Shenanigans is worth the drive up from Chattanooga all by itself. A coffee at Sterling's will fuel you up for a day of hiking on the Perimeter Trail or perusing Sewanee's cemetery for sardonic epithets left by late professors and priests. Speaking of priests, head for the Cross, a giant 60ft-tall Christian symbol on the edge of Monteagle Mountain. The base affords incredible views of the valley below.

How to get to Sewanee: It's just a forty-five-minute drive up I-24 West from Chattanooga – but make sure your brakes are in good order on the way back. The drive back down Monteagle Mountain is very steep.

Waterfalls and local artisan shopping in Mentone, Alabama

On the far end of the long ridgeline of Lookout Mountain, the front face of which overlooks downtown Chattanooga, sits the town of Mentone. Mentone's plays host to a bevy of private summer camps, but there is so much more to recommend Mentone for a fun day trip, including the whimsical and well-regarded Wildflower Cafe.

Be sure to check out nearby DeSoto Falls, a beautiful three-part cascade that is the tallest waterfall in Alabama. A small dam creates one level of the falls – it was originally constructed to provide power for the homes that sit on the rim of the canyon carved by the Little River that feeds DeSoto. After you hike around the falls, Mentone is full of cute shops and boutiques full of locally made pottery and other treasures.

How to get to Mentone: It's a 45-minute drive along I-59 S to Mentone.

City Park During Spring
Huntsville will have you gazing at the stars in a whole new way © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Get into tech in Rocket City: Huntsville, Alabama

Chattanooga may be called the Gig City thanks to its hyper-fast municipal internet, but Huntsville is still Rocket City, a moniker earned from its long association with NASA. You can learn all about Huntsville's tech pedigree at the US Space & Rocket Center, but there's a lot more to see on a Huntsville day trip than spacecraft.

The Huntsville Depot Museum harkens back to older forms of transportation, namely trains and trollies, while Concerts at Three Caves takes you underneath the earth instead of high above it. You can find a new appreciation for the diversity of life on our planet at the Huntsville Botanical Garden. Or get a taste of how varied Southern cooking can be at restaurants like Betty Mae's Restaurant, a soul food classic, and the upscale Cotton Row

How to get to Huntsville: Start on I-24 W, then peel off onto US-72 W/ to Huntsville – a trip of only an hour and forty-five minutes.

You may also like:
Five cities in the US southeast with a strong coffee culture
We've visited 48 US states in a camper van – here are the best 10
Sample bootlegging history at these 4 Tennessee moonshine distilleries 

This article was first published July 2021 and updated December 2021

Buy Lonely Planet's Ultimate Travel List

The second edition of Lonely Planet’s bestseller presents an all-new ranking of the greatest places to visit on Earth, reflecting the travel tastes and trends of today’s world. Decided by our global family of writers, editors and industry experts, and packed with insightful commentary, awe-inspiring photos and over 200 new entries, this is a must-have coffee table book for explorers and armchair travellers.

Buy Lonely Planet's Ultimate Travel List

Explore related stories