The story of Chattanooga begins and ends with the Tennessee River. It was coveted by both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, and its shores became a headquarters for the city’s booming manufacturing industry in the early 20th century. Today, the river is at the center of the city’s renaissance. Stretches of concrete along the banks have been replaced with grassy areas that serve as amphitheaters in the summertime, and kids splash through an artificial waterfall cascading down steps alongside plaques with Cherokee symbols—a tribute to the Trail of Tears. Scenic pathways and a footbridge made of blue glass also connect to museums and restaurants downtown.
In a minor upset, readers of Outside magazine named Chattanooga their dream town for outdoorsy activities in 2011. The magazine attributes the victory to the Cumberland Plateau, a series of “jagged ridges and sheer gorges” that make the area popular with kayakers, rock climbers, and hang-gliders. * Bluff View Art District: Sculpture gardens, art galleries, and stucco buildings crawling with ivy are perched on stone cliffs with beautiful views of downtown, the mountains, and the river. Sip a cappuccino at Rembrandt’s Coffee House before walking across a glass bridge to the Hunter Museum, which houses landscape paintings from the Hudson River School. * Lookout Mountain / Ruby Falls: You can supposedly see seven states and a waterfall from Lover’s Leap, one of the highlights of Lookout Mountain, located about 6 miles from downtown. But not all the best views are from the top: 1,120 feet below the mountain is Ruby Falls, a 145-foot-high waterfall in a cavern illuminated by red lights. * Tennessee Aquarium: The largest freshwater aquarium in the world includes a shark tank and a penguin exhibit. But its best offering is outside—book in advance to take a boat tour on the River Gorge Explorer, during which a trained biologist explains the marine life dwelling in the Tennessee River Gorge. * Shopping: Once a factory during the Civil War, Warehouse Row is now a retail area lined with boutiques selling locally made goods.
- Live music: While it doesn’t have the pedigree of Nashville, Chattanooga’s music scene is on the up-and-up. Big-ticket acts play at Track 29, a former skating rink; local bluegrass, rock, and country acts play Rhythm and Brews, which has a rollicking roadhouse feel. In the summer, the Friday Nightfall concert series hosts free performances in Miller Plaza downtown.
- Southern-fried fare: The fried chicken at Champy’s—moist on the inside, but not as greasy as you might expect—is nearly outdone by the sides, which include pickled fried green tomatoes and fried jalapeños. Another local fave is the chicken at Bea’s Restaurant, where side dishes are served buffet-style from a lazy susan on your table.
- Beers, whiskeys, and burgers: On the forefront of Chattanooga’s food renaissance are casual pubs such as Urban Stack Burger Lounge, where you can enjoy aged Tennessee whiskey alongside creative burgers such as the Asian Q, topped with a ginger barbecue sauce and kimchee. Beer nerds love the ales crafted onsite at the Terminal Brewhouse—enjoy a cold one on the lovely rooftop deck.
Where to Stay
- For a taste of history: High ceilings, wide bathtubs, and a three-course breakfast spread heighten the sense of grandeur at the AAA Four Diamond Mayor’s Mansion Inn, a Victorian B&B in the Fort Wood historic district.
- For families: Enjoy river views from some rooms at the Courtyard by Marriott Chattanooga Downtown; the hotel offers spacious accommodations near the aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum.
- For travelers with pets: Staybridge Suites Chattanooga Downtown hotel, on the west side of the city, is popular with dog owners. It’s within walking distance of the city’s popular Sunday market and the convention center.