Chattanooga vs Asheville: Who knew there was a rivalry?
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.
Laura August 19, 2010 at 4:35 pm
Honestly, we really enjoyed our time in Chattanooga and think it’s a great city with a lot to offer (and one which we’d really like to visit again in the future). So I apologize if it didn’t come off that way. We found it highly amusing that anyone would be sensitive to our talking about Asheville, let alone that we heard it from several people. And I don’t necessarily think any of the comments were intended to “put down” Asheville, rather they were said with a bit of jest, but just the fact that anyone would say it leads us to feel that at least some folks are sensitive to talk about their neighbor to the East. The point of the post was more to look at the fact that each city is more than just a pretty spot in the mountains, and that simple comparisons are often stereotypical and leave out all the complexities of a city’s personality.
Jim Johnson August 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm
I definitely agree with the point of your post. I guess I found it as amusing as you did that anyone here would say anything disparaging about our friends to the east. I guess there’s some in every crowd!
And I definitely hope you return. In the meantime, I’ll follow your travels online.
Be safe, have fun, and may the wind always be to your back!
100poundsago August 20, 2010 at 6:10 am
“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.”
That is hiting the nail on the head right there…AMAZING thought and statement!
BarbV August 20, 2010 at 7:17 am
This was interesting. I live in Asheville and so love it. My husband and I spent a weekend in Chattanooga recently. We found the city beautiful. Its funny because I always thought Chattanooga was bigger than Asheville. Downtown seems more like a big city than Asheville does. And yes, they are very different towns with very different vibes. I think Chattanooga has more to offer as far as “city attractions” such as IMAX and the aquarium. Asheville is indeed focused on local. Local food, local beer and great local art and music give it that small town feel. Both cities are great depending on what you are looking for.
Alphonso August 21, 2010 at 6:44 am
Well I’m heading to Chattanooga to visit some friends I have cycled with. I have been to Asheville, I didn’t stay but 2 days and the bicycle shops all but one didn’t seem to well just wasn’t all that. Asheville being right of the Blueridge parkway I would of expected stores with all right touring tires to where I didn’t have to order them.
Tanner Lovelace August 24, 2010 at 1:36 pm
How interesting. I went to college in Chattanooga and while there I never heard anything at all about Asheville. There was more about being in the shadow of Atlanta. But, perhaps times change.
I also find it curious that you describe Asheville as “larger”. My impression of it is one of a much smaller city than Chattanooga. But, I’ve never actually lived in Asheville; I’ve just visited and driven through.
BTW, I see you’re heading to Durham and the Triangle area soon (which is where I live, and how I found your website since it was posted to a local bike related mailing list). Welcome!
Curtis Borders October 8, 2010 at 11:31 am
I also am a bit perplexed about the things you heard about Asheville from Chattanoogans. I’ve lived in Chattanooga my whole life and my wife and I try to visit Asheville at least once every year or so. We definitely love our hometown, but Asheville is also very beautiful and laid-back. Needless to say, I really don’t have anything negative to say about Asheville and neither do any of my friends.
As an aside, I did a little research about the city size comparison and here is what I found:
According to the 2008 census, Asheville has a city population of 74,543 and a metro population of 408,436.
Chattanooga, on the other hand, has a city population of 170,880 and a metro population of 518,441 (also according to the 2008 census).
Also, Chattanooga is fully 100 sq. miles larger than Asheville (143.2 vs 41.3).
carson pace October 16, 2014 at 8:20 am
After living in Asheville on and off for 12 years and loving every moment of it I know find myself living in Chattanooga. Yes, the cities are very different. I feel that the observations posted by others are mostly accurate. The bottom line for me in comparison is that Chattanooga is a more cyclist friendly place to live. I spent all of my 20’s climbing the hills downtown Asheville and heading across the bridge into West Asheville via the river district. I also spent my college days rolling around Montford drinking the best beer in the world and having fun. I guess that is just it. Asheville is about having fun. Can you get a job? Maybe…I had to go to Philly for a couple of years to get my foot in the door of the cycling industry. Now that I am in Chattanooga I do appreciate the work ethic and ease of travel via bicycle. It is a so much more accessible for the average cyclist to commute here. In short, both cities are incredible. I would live in Asheville again in a heartbeat and Chattanooga is quickly winning my heart.
Greg March 31, 2015 at 9:46 am
I am a lifelong mountain biker and bicycle commuter of 20 years. Me and my family of 5 are relocating from Austin TX which is very bike friendly to either Chattanooga or Asheville. Sounds like Chat may be a better choice for a cyclist wanting to travel by bike. Can anyone give me any more insight? I will eb working from home so employment is not an issue, but I do want a place with a decent cost of living and plenty of stuff to do outside. Thx.
Bo November 4, 2015 at 9:38 am
I have lived in Asheville for 10 years. It is a very progressive city. I love the food, the beer, the outdoors, the local pride. However, I am becoming disenchanted with its rapid growth and lack of job opportunities. My wife and I are considering relocating and would prefer to stay close by. Chattanooga is one place that we are considering. Of course, Portland seems like my kind of town but we aren’t sure if we want to travel that far away from friends and family. While I respect that each city has it’s own personality, I am looking for a place that offers the same outdoor activities and social culture that I currently have with greater job opportunities. Any and all input is appreciated.
harriet December 14, 2019 at 10:03 am
I was never aware of this rivalry. Thanks for enlightening me with this post!
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I’m sorry you got the impression that there’s a rivalry between Chattanooga and Asheville. In 15 years of living here, it’s the first I’ve heard of it, and the first disparaging comments I’ve heard about Asheville. I’ve heard people here comment about trust funds on nearby Signal Mountain and Lookout Mountain, but not about Asheville.
Frankly, people don’t talk much about Asheville here. Probably, when you told folks you were heading there, there was more talk about Asheville than usual. It just doesn’t come up in conversation that often. When it does, it’s positive. Many people head there for vacations or long weekends. So maybe you talked to a few disgruntled anti-Asheville folks and hit a raw nerve.
I also don’t get a sense of envy here. If anything, we joke that we’d like Boulder to become the “Chattanooga of the West” rather than Chattanooga remaining the “Boulder of the East” that we’re often called (and happily accept) in some leading outdoor and travel publications.
I’m delighted that you and Russ got to spend some time here, and that I got to hang out with you. And I’m glad you liked it here.
But please don’t make generalizations about Chattanoogans putting Asheville down. We tend to respect and often admire our neighbors here, and Asheville is a fine neighbor.