Chattanooga, TN
Credit: Doug Strickland / Corbis

Chattanooga, TN

Ever since Walter Cronkite dubbed Chattanooga “the most polluted city in the U.S.” in an infamous 1969 newscast, the south Tennessee city has been the ready-made punchline for any crack about country bumpkins, poverty, and terminal post-industrial squalor. But thanks to immense efforts from Chattanoogans over the past decade, the city is in the midst of a renaissance and has become a regular atop best-cities-to-live lists. Optimistic, affordable, and active through all four seasons, 'Nooga now draws the same crowd you'd expect in hipster strongholds like Portland and Nashville, folks who want the benefits of a metropolitan lifestyle without sacrificing ready access to the outdoors. And heck, it's even now referred to as Gig City by some, thanks to a new city-wide gigabit broadband service that arguably makes it the most connected city in America.

It wasn't long ago that the downtown was a wasteland of closed factories, boarded up windows and abandoned storefronts. Now Chattanooga is eminently walkable – anchored by a world-class aquarium that focuses on freshwater species – and is host to a bevy of foodie-friendly options; the Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar, perched above the Tennessee, combines Southern classics, like smoked pork with bbq sauce, wood-spit roasted chicken, and fried catfish with more modern fare like the house special olive-oil fried potatoes. The best places to stay are either the established and elegantly southern Chattanoogan Hotel, or a newer “boutique hostel” called The Crash Pad. Targeting a younger crowd, the latter hosts some of the city's best dance parties, and even flies in DJs from New York and Los Angeles.

The once-fouled Tennessee River that bisects the city itself now teems with life, and is home to a year-round parade of events – chief among them The Head of the Hooch rowing regatta – and regularly fills up with stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers, and boaters of all types on summer weekends.  There's also a lush, 13-mile bike path that runs along the river past numerous grassy knolls and parks that turn into concert venues for events like the Riverbend and RiverRocks Music festivals.

Venture a few miles outside of town and you’ll be challenged by a curse of riches. There are caves to explore and rocks to climb in the Sequatichie Valley. Or, hit challenging whitewater on a kayak or raft on the Ocoee River, not to mention one of the few dozen other nearby creeks that sport category IV and V runs. Bikers have 18 miles of real-deal singletrack to traverse on Raccoon Mountain. And there's a well-known hang-gliding hotspot at Henson’s Gap, featuring a launch from a staggering 1,800-foot cliff that instantly explains this town's nickname: Scenic City.