Editor's note: This is part of a series on small towns within driving distance of Chattanooga that are big on charm and amenities while still offering space to spread out.
Filled with friendly locals and overloaded with charm, small towns make the perfect getaway for those looking for a change of pace, a place to ditch city life for just a bit. And during the pandemic, they've become popular with travelers looking for a way to escape.
According to Airbnb's 2021 U.S. Travel Report, 51% of respondents said they are "more interested in being isolated beyond major tourist areas than they are in being surrounded by people and energy (24%)." Sixty-two percent said they wanted to vacation within driving distance of home.
Vrbo, another short-term rental site for homeowners around the globe, also notes that its customers are preferring to escape to destinations closer to home, seeking nature-oriented experiences when they do.
BELL BUCKLE, TENNESSEE
Drive time from Chattanooga: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Even the name Bell Buckle has a ring to it that brings a smile to your face, so it's no surprise that it's often considered a small-town treasure — just 450 residents — and one of the most picturesque in the Volunteer State. The village, which dates to 1852 in the heart of Middle Tennessee, has Victorian homes from a bygone era, with big, welcoming front porches that just make you want to sit and have a glass of sweet tea. Strolling through town, you'll find plenty of eclectic shops filled with art and antiques. And there are sights to see while you soak up all the Southern charm.
What to Do
15 Webb Road
There are several great antique stores in town, but we especially like this turn-of-the-century antique mall for its charming ice cream parlor, which serves hand-dipped ice cream in waffle cones and doesn't skimp on its banana splits and handmade fried fruit pies. Let them serve you a cheeseburger with fried green tomatoes for lunch, then hunt for your take-home treasure with some of the house special white chocolate-raspberry ice cream in hand.
904 Hwy. 82 E
This small, family-run farm lets guests literally take their pick from the fruit trees, bushes and brambles, pumpkin fields and wildflowers that adorn its 22 acres at different times of the year. If it's a girls trip, you can schedule a private flower-picking session complete with light refreshments or a ladies night out centered around flower arranging.
Henry Horton State Park
4209 Nashville Hwy., Chapel Hill, Tenn.
About 40 minutes from Bell Buckle, this picturesque park offers a wide range of outdoor activities: the chance to catch that prize fish, hike 10 miles of easy terrain, swim, spot that elusive bird, take a guided float down the Duck River or tee up for a challenging game of golf, for example. The park also has cabins, a lodge, restaurant and camping facilities, and a day trip to Bell Buckle makes for a pleasant break. Visit tnstateparks.com for more.
*** Don't miss this big event:
Bell Buckle RC Cola-MoonPie Festival
MoonPies may have been born in Chattanooga, but nowhere are they more highly celebrated than in Bell Buckle. The festival offers an afternoon of bluegrass, clogging, crafts and games, all outdoors for a socially distanced celebration of the South. Visit bellbucklechamber.com to learn more.
Where to Dine
Bell Buckle Café
16 Railroad Square E
Bell Buckle is famous for several things: its artsy community, the MoonPie Festival, The Webb School — the oldest continuously operating boarding school in the South — and this quaint cafe. You just can't go to Bell Buckle and not get a taste of what has made this little place one of the top 10 restaurants to visit in Tennessee, as rated by Only In Your State. From burgers and pizza, to chicken-fried steak and meatloaf that come with three sides and cornbread, the menu has a little bit of everything.
82 Market and Diner
103 Webb Road W
Fill up your tank and your tummy at this unimposing place along Route 82. It's a gas station/country market/diner all in one with surprisingly good made-from-scratch food beginning with made-to-order omelets with hashbrowns at 6 a.m. Lunch lasts all day and features plates of meats, like meatloaf or hamburger steak, with two sides, like mac and cheese and fried apples. The menu changes at dinner. "Whatever the cook feels like making," says employee Lisa Hamler.
Bell Buckle Coffee Shop and Book Swap
2 Railroad Square
This charming brick café on Railroad Square is a great place to begin your day with a double shot of espresso and a bacon, egg and cheese muffin. Or grab a book from the café library and have a Reuben or pimiento cheese sandwich for lunch.
Where to Stay
207 Webb Road E
This Victorian home, with its gracious front porch, is well over 100 years old, but with free Wi-Fi and other up-to-date accoutrements, you may feel as if you have one foot in the past and the other in the 21st century. Made-to-order breakfasts are served daily. A bar/lounge area offers a relaxing break for an afternoon or after-dinner drink.
422 Belmont Ave.
For an elegant overnight in an antebellum 1852 home-turned-inn, make the 11-mile drive to this B&B in Shelbyville where the rooms here are named after famous horses. You're in the heart of Tennessee Walking Horse country, after all. The grounds of the Walking Horse National Celebration championship horse show, held around Labor Day, are just a mile away. Back at the inn, the rocking-chair front porch overlooking the expansive lawn is welcoming. And you'll have a restful night's sleep in one of the big four-poster beds. The included breakfast is self-serve.