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Capital of kitsch

Old-timey chic is hipper than ever in Chattanooga

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Chattanooga is far cooler than it has any right to be.

Let's face it: We're talking about a middle Tennessee city with a population of barely 170,000 – smaller than Augusta or even Columbus – whose cultural significance peaked in the 1940s, when it was still a railroad hub, manufacturing center and the inspiration for big-band songs.

But spurred by a smart downtown redevelopment program in the late '80s that gave Chattanooga a walkable nightlife zone and its popular aquarium, the city has become a great place to visit for those who don't need high-end shopping or fine dining. In fact, much of Chattanooga's charm lies in the confluence of vintage architecture, old-school restaurants, timeworn neighborhoods and some serious kitsch. Altogether now: See Rock City!

To be fair, the so-called "Scenic City" – a two-hour drive straight up I-75 from Atlanta – has some natural advantages. As its nickname suggests, terrain is in its favor. The downtown area sits in a valley on a bend of the Tennessee River – a real river, by the way, unlike our own shallow, creek-like Chattahoochee – with Signal Mountain to the north, Lookout Mountain to the southwest, and Missionary Ridge to the southeast. Some of the best views in the city are from the impressive Hunter Museum of American Art (10 Bluff View, 423-267-0968, www.huntermuseum.org), which sits dramatically atop a cliff overlooking the river.

Ironically, modern-day Chattanooga also benefited from several decades' worth of economic stagnation, during which the city avoided the same destructive brand of urban renewal that left boom-town Atlanta with few historic buildings or half-century-old eateries. For classic Southern meat-and-three dining, you'll enjoy the family-style Bea's Restaurant (4500 Dodds Ave., 423-867-3618); for a time-warp diner experience, try Nikki's Drive Inn (899 Cherokee Blvd., 423-265-9015); and those who adore breakfasting at the counter of a greasy spoon should look to the tiny Long Horn Restaurant (129 Market St., 423-265-2354).

For sheer tourism mileage, the Tennessee Aquarium (201 Chestnut St., 423-265-0695, www.tnaqua.org), while smaller than Atlanta's vaunted fish tank, has an appealing intimacy that makes up for the grandeur gap. Next door is an IMAX multiplex surrounded by an expansive riverside plaza that leads into Broad Street, the city's main bar district.

In fact, central Chattanooga is something of a pedestrian's paradise. From the aquarium plaza, you can stroll along the river to a winding path that leads uphill to the Bluff View Art District (411 E. 2nd St., 423-265-5033, www.bluffviewartdistrict.com) to visit the Hunter Museum, the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts (201 High St., 423-267-7176, www.thehoustonmuseum.com) and an open-air sculpture garden, or simply enjoy the view from a hilltop café.

Also down at the river is the Walnut Street Bridge (200 Frazier Ave.), a 120-year-old iron-truss structure long ago closed to street traffic that ranks among the world's longest pedestrian bridges. It connects central Chattanooga to the North Shore shopping district, which boasts funky boutiques, bookstores and sandwich shops. Illuminated at night, the bridge is a popular gathering place for joggers, buskers and sightseers.

Greater Chattanooga has other points of interest: the improbably enormous McKay Used Books and CDs (7734 Lee Highway, 423-892-0067, www.mckaybooks.com); the Chickamauga Civil War battlefield (3370 LaFayette Road, Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., 706-866-9241, www.nps.gov/chch); the Warehouse Row outlet-store center (1110 Market St., 423-267-1127, www.warehouserow.net); the laughably un-ironic International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum (3315 Broad St., 423-267-3132, www.internationaltowingmuseum.org); and the charmingly downscale Lake Winnepesaukah (1730 Lakeview Drive, Rossville, Ga., 706-866-5681, www.lakewinnie.com), an 80-year-old amusement park that serves as an antidote to Six Flags' in-your-face commercialism.

But there's one thing the Scenic City has for which there's no Atlanta-area equivalent – namely, the old-school kitsch-fest that is Rock City (1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain, Ga., 706-820-2531, www.seerockcity.com) and its fellow attractions. Ride the Incline Railway (3917 St. Elmo Ave., 423-821-4224, www.ridetheincline.com), the mile-long funicular that takes you to the top of Lookout Mountain. Venture into the mountain to see Ruby Falls (1720 S. Scenic Highway, 423-821-2544, www.rubyfalls.com), America's highest underground waterfall. Finally, enter the gates of the gloriously un-PC Rock City, where you can peer over Lover's Leap; sidle through Fat Man's Squeeze; cross the swinging bridge; tour Fairyland Caverns; and, of course, see seven states from a cliff rising 1,700 feet above sea level. Don't forget, it's the "World's Eighth Wonder."

For a day trip, weekend getaway or a few hours' stopover, Chattanooga is seriously worth the drive.

Don't leave home without ... A bunch of CDs, books or even old VHS tapes to trade in at McKay Books. Drop the unwanted media off as you enter, shop around and they'll call you when they've looked through your leavings.

Don't miss ... To understand Chattanooga's seedy-cool vibe, you need to get cocktails at Lamar's Restaurant & Motel (1020 E. Martin Luther King Blvd., 423-266-0988, www.lamarsrestaurant.com), a full-on dive and sometime music venue with velvet wallpaper, year-round Christmas lights and the stiffest drinks in town. Make sure you also shop for vinyl at Chad's Records (326 Vine St., 423-756-7563), which has a friendly, lived-in feel. And for antique-seekers, the huge Gateway Antiques Center (4103 Cloud Springs Road, Ringgold, Ga., 706-858-9685, www.gatewayantiques.com) lies on the southern edge of metro Chattanooga.

Recommended songs for the drive ... For some reason, Chattanooga's blue-collar environs seem to evoke an alt-country soundtrack: Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams, the Bottle Rockets, Neko Case, Son Volt, the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, etc.

Souvenir ... Need we say that anything imprinted with the familiar Rock City logo – from plates and mugs to snow globes and birdhouses – is a keeper? We especially look for vintage collectables, such as post cards and old pennants.

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