Chattanooga, Tennessee is best known for its scenery, whether you are walking riverside or driving 15 minutes away to Rock City. There is an abundance of things to do and tons of amazing restaurants that are ready to accommodate your every dietary need and restriction. It's a a city, but it's relatively slow paced when compared to the speed you're used to seeing in big cities, and the sad part? You're likely to drive right past it.
Situated mere hours from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and even closer to the metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia, many people pass Chattanooga on their way to their main destination. In fact, I have been guilty of doing this myself, although I live relatively close to it. After spending 4 days there recently, I'm shocked that I waited this long.
In an effort to make you pump the brakes next time you're passing by, I'm going to list several of the best ways to explore Chattanooga. Hopefully, after you read this, you'll add a few additional days to your next vacation to make the city more than a passing thought.
1. Take in the Tennessee River
There are a couple different ways to see the river while you're in Chattanooga, but no matter which you choose, your trip wouldn't be complete without admiring its beauty. For starters, you can walk alongside the river, or cross the massive Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. You can also take in the view from Coolidge Park, a 13-acre green space with a play fountain and a carousel.
If those ideas don't make you feel close enough to nature, you can opt for a riverboat cruise. I went on the Southern Belle Riverboat to enjoy a sunset cruise featuring popcorn and soda. There are also dining options that include buffets, and a full bar that offers mixed beverages and beer. On the top deck, you can enjoy live music by some of the area's most reputable musicians.
2. See Rock City
As mentioned before, Rock City is actually a short drive away from Chattanooga, but if you're going to be in the city, you should visit while you're close by. Opening to tourists in 1932, the attraction offers remarkable views from Lookout Mountain. You'll start by going through the scenic Rock City Gardens, which takes you on a bridge straight to Lover's Leap. From there, it is said you can see 7 states on a clear day.
After enjoying Lover's Leap and circling around to see the waterfall, you'll head into Fairyland Caverns. The caverns have sculpted scenes of popular fairy tales, which were placed there due to Frieda Carter (wife of Garnet Carter and founder of Rock City), who had a great love for European folklore. Another thing you'll see along the way? Gnomes. Rock City is home to 78 garden gnomes. At the end of the caverns, you'll trek through Mother Goose Village to see scenes from nursery rhymes, such as the Three Little Pigs and Humpty Dumpty.
3. Visit Ruby Falls
Ruby Falls is an 145-foot waterfall underneath Lookout Mountain. It was discovered by Leo Lambert, who purchased the land above it and had his team start building an elevator downward. When a gush of air was felt, the team, including Lambert, started crawling through a small opening before eventually finding the waterfall. He named it after his wife (Ruby, of course).
Today, visitors descend in an elevator before walking through twisting caves with beautiful rock formations until they finally reach the treasure at the end. The waterfall is located 1,120 foot underground.
4. Tennessee Aquarium
Although the Tennessee Aquarium started off with only a single, fresh water building, it has since expanded to include a salt water section as well. The first building you enter is the River Journey Building, where you can see a variety of fish, alligators, and my personal favorite, river otters. In my opinion, the coolest part of the River Journey section is the Rivers of the World exhibit, where it quite literally takes you to key rivers in numerous countries to show you what creatures live there.
The 2005 addition of the Ocean Journey building saw an introduction to sharks, stringrays, and sea turtles. One of the first things you do upon entering this section is visit the touch tank, where you can get up close and personal with stingrays and fish (No need to worry, the stringrays no longer have stingers). The two buildings combine to make The Tennessee Aquarium one of the top visited aquariums in the United States.
5. Bluff View Art District
The Bluff View Art District is a place where you can walk around, grab a bite to eat, or visit a small shop while taking in the sculptures placed all around you. It's a historic neighborhood that spans 1.5 city blocks and offers views of downtown as well as the Tennessee River. It's home to the River Gallery, which showcases work from local and national artists.
6. Hunter Museum of American Art
This museum is appropriately placed in the art district. It features a modern wing, a brutalist wing, and the classic section located in the Faxon-Thomas Mansion. While visiting the museum, you'll get to see African Impressionism, regional work, and contemporary art dated after World War II. With more than 100 years of art, visitors enjoy pieces from the colonial period all the way up to present day.
7. Chattanooga Choo Choo
Now a hotel and a hub for nightlife, Chattanooga Choo Choo used to be a fully functioning train depot housing Terminal Station. If you choose to stay at the hotel, you can actually book authentic sleeper cars. The area includes the beautiful Glenn Miller Gardens, a live music venue called the Songbirds, and a comedy club named The Comedy Catch.
If you're in it for the nightlife, you can hit up Gate 11 Distillery, and even take a tour. You can also pour your own beer at the American Draft, which offers an authentic experience inside a historic train car. While walking down Station Street, you're likely to always find something fun going on.
Where to Eat
I had such amazing food in Chattanooga, that it would be a crime if I didn't share it with you. For one, you HAVE to visit Tony's Pasta Shop & Trattoria inside the Bluff View Art District. It features an array of authentic Italian dishes and wine. If you're in the mood for pizza, you should check out Community Pie, which had Detroit and New York style pizzas, including options for gluten free eateries and vegans. Taco Mamacita had some of the best tacos that I've ever had, and their queso is nice and thick so it doesn't run off your tortilla chip.
We decided to get Urban Stack on our way out of the city, but it was one of my favorite meals of the trip, so I'm glad I didn't pass it by. Its main focus was burgers and fries, and like many other options on this list, it can cater to gluten free and vegan lifestyles. For dessert, we checked out Downtown Dough for edible cookie dough, and The Ice Cream Show for ice cream.
Where to Stay
I'm going to be biased here (which is one of my favorite things about having a blog), but after staying at The Edwin Hotel, I don't think I'll ever stay anywhere else in Chattanooga. The staff was extremely nice and the hotel itself was within walking distance of many of the things on this list. Beyond that, they have their own rooftop bar called Whiskey Thief. If that doesn't sell you on this, I don't know what will.
However, this hotel wasn't the cheapest, so if you're looking for an option that fits your budget, this Holiday Inn has pretty good reviews and it's centrally located as well.
Whether you've never visited Chattanooga before or you're hoping to return, I hope this blog offered some insight into what you should do and where you should eat. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments for other readers.
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