When we told people in Chattanooga that we were headed to Asheville, we got some serious dirty looks. People scoffed at the idea that Asheville is a better city, telling us that we’d be disappointed once we got there. “Chattanooga is a real, working town,” we were told, “nobody works in Asheville, they just live off their trust funds.”

In return, when we got into Asheville, and mentioned these comments from Chattanoogans, we were told, “People in Chattanooga need to lighten up, learn to have some fun. They work too hard.”

We find it kind of fascinating that there’s this sort of rivalry between the two cities. Maybe rivalry isn’t the right word, though, it’s more of an envy on the part of folks in Chattanooga. And not so much that Asheville is better, but that Asheville gets all the press, while Chattanooga is working so hard to become a great city. We’ve come to realize that it’s a lot like a younger sibling always trying to find his/her time in the spotlight, but never quite getting out of the shadow of the older sibling. Chattanooga is constantly in the shadow of Asheville. And, Asheville, it turns out, is constantly in the shadow of Portland, because you should hear how some folks prickle when you compare Asheville to Portland.

The interesting thing about this envy is that there’s no real comparison between the two cities. Sure, they have some definite commonalities, but they also have very different personalities, so comparing them to each other is just reaching for the low-hanging fruit.

We found Chattanooga to be a really wonderful city with a “small town” feel. It’s an active city, with a city-sponsored focus on how many amazing outdoor activities are nearby. And it’s fairly easy to get around on a bicycle, as there are a lot of low-traffic side streets and a beautiful greenway that runs for many miles out of the city.

Of course, when people say that Chattanooga is a “working” town, they’re absolutely correct, and this distinction colors everything that happens in the city. You spend time in Chattanooga and you can feel the work ethic that runs through the veins of the city. Even with all the recent progressive changes, it’s a definite Southern, old-money, conservative place (with a long history as such). But it’s also a city that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty, and Chattanooga has put itself to work transforming itself from the most polluted city in American to a gem of an outdoor recreation destination (Chattanooga is host to the highly successful Head of the Hooch Regatta, which now rivals the Head of the Charles).

Asheville, on the other hand, is larger, and more of a tourist draw. It’s smack in the middle of the seriously amazing Appalachian Mountains, so it reigns as a home-based for exploring this region. The food in Asheville is incredible, with a heavy focus on fresh, local ingredients. There’s a lot of art, a lot of shopping, a lot of hippies – and it’s a definite bring-your-own-job sort of town. Ironically, cycling in Asheville leaves a lot to be desired, and the progressive spirit that flows through a lot of the city does not yet extend to alternative transportation.

When I asked what word best described Asheville, I was told “localized” – and this fits Asheville, because you feel a strong sense of community here and push to support your community first. Because of this, Asheville can feel somewhat clique-ish and hard to break in, but it also means it’s a good city to spend time in if you need a nurturing space to “find yourself.” It also makes Asheville a more laid-back place, that attracts the sort of people who know how to drink good beer, eat good food, relax into art, and just “be.”

We’ve spent enough time in enough cities to become highly aware of the differences between places. So, after spending a week in Chattanooga and a week-and-a-half in Asheville, we can truly appreciate what both cities have to offer. We had the opportunity to meet lots of people and delve into various activities and explore. And we can honestly say that they’re very different places. Will Chattanooga ever be like Asheville? Will Asheville ever be like Portland? We hope not. We hope they keep their own flair and build their own niches.

If you’re headed out to this area, you really should check out both cities. Like any good explorer, you should ignore what the guidebooks tell you to do, and see each place for yourself.