The Scoop on the Secret City
Get tips from a pro on the best ways to explore Oak Ridge.
Oak Ridge was once known as the “Secret City” because of its role in the Manhattan Project, and today, people who are unaware of the community’s history want to know what and where these secrets are. First, stop by the Explore Oak Ridge Visitor Center for a FREE Secret City Pocket Guide for a quick reference of things to do and see. Then take a deeper dive with these insider’s tips on uncovering many interesting aspects of what this intriguing community has become.
American Museum of Science and Energy
A good place to begin learning about the city is to start with its history, and the American Museum of Science and Energy interprets the community’s story well. This highly interactive museum recently moved to a new location at 115 Main St. E. and has brand new exhibits featuring the Oak Ridge story from the Manhattan Project to the most recent technological advances. There, you can see a 3D printed “secret” Jeep and a “secret” moon box, then depart on a public bus tour to go to all three government “secret” sites throughout town, including the National Historic Landmark Graphite Reactor.
Oak Ridge History Museum
See many historic and iconic black-and-white images taken by famous Manhattan Project photographer Ed Westcott. as well as a documentary on his life at the new Oak Ridge History Museum located in the original Midtown Community Center at 102 Robertsville Road. The museum also has drawings of “alphabet houses” initially constructed when the town was built. There is even a dormitory room with all the furniture from the era.
East Fork Riparian Trail
This new trail features a sturdy concrete yet mysterious pedestrian bridge crossing the flood prone East Fork Poplar Creek. It passes the historic Jefferson Soda Fountain, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2019 and is the oldest operating pharmacy and restaurant in town.
Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge/ Manhattan Project National Historical Park
One “secret” located here at 461 W. Outer Dr. is an authentic Flat Top house from the Manhattan Project-era. Five people slept in one! Plans are to build a 16-by-16 foot hutment for the structure. Don’t forget to have your National Parks passport stamped at the Children's Museum, also.
Oak Ridge Civic Music Association/Symphony
In its 75th anniversary season, the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra is the oldest continually operating orchestra in Tennessee. Concerts are held in venues ranging from the Historic Grove Theater to churches to the Pollard Auditorium and outdoor concerts in A. K. Bissell Park.
Alexander Guest House
Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and other scientists stayed at the Guest House at 83 Kentucky Ave. when they came to Oak Ridge. You can see exactly where Oppenheimer was sitting when Ed Westcott made his iconic photo near the mantle that still exists in the main lobby. This iconic structure of history was nearly lost to neglect but has been restored to its former glory and is now a senior living center. You can visit the main lobby and see a large historical display there.
Oak Ridge Playhouse
The long-standing theater company began in 1943 as the Little Theatre of Oak Ridge when the city was being built for the World War II top-secret Manhattan Project. The Playhouse moved in 1957 to its permanent home, the former Center Theater movie house, in historic Jackson Square at 227 Broadway Ave.
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Big Ed’s Pizza
You have never eaten real New York style pizza until you have had this “secret” recipe from Big Ed's Pizza. The restaurant is also located in an original World War II structure.
Oak Ridge Art Center
The Oak Ridge Art Center, formed in 1952, dates back to the Manhattan Project, as arts have been a part of life in Oak Ridge from the beginning. With a world-class art collection, second-to-none educational programs and excellent exhibits, the center, located at 201 Badger Ave., is an active and welcoming community “secret.”
The Soup Kitchen
This historic restaurant at 47 E. Tennessee Ave. has the best soup you will ever taste (hint: Try the snow crab soup and Mexican cornbread). The Soup Kitchen is located in an original Manhattan Project building.
K-25 History Center
The city’s newest museum is the K-25 History Center, which opened in February 2020 adjacent to the original building foundation of the K-25 uranium enrichment complex built here during World War II. Exhibits convey the extraordinary stories of people who constructed and operated the complex.
If you'd like to learn more about the Oak Ridge area, check out the latest edition of Livability: Oak Ridge, TN.