From a ride on the Tennessee River to wandering through the Sculpture Fields, the Scenic City offers natural wonder and manmade attractions galore.
If all you know of Chattanooga is the 1941 Glenn Miller Orchestra hit “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” then you’re missing out. (And even that reference has slipped off the pop culture radar for most people.) But the song’s namesake train still exists, and it’s just one of many reasons to become more familiar with the Scenic City.
Chattanooga may get less publicity than Tennessee destinations like ever-booming Nashville, steamy, bluesy Memphis and the beautiful Pigeon Forge-Gatlinburg area, but it deserves more attention as a unique getaway for its top-tier cultural attractions, walkable neighborhoods, great restaurants and close proximity to natural wonders. As a bonus, visiting will also give you ample opportunity to say the city’s name, which is derived from Native American words. (Say it out loud—“Chattanooga.” Isn’t that fun?!)
Taking I-71 and I-75, Columbus-area residents can get to Chattanooga—situated in the Tennessee Valley between ridges of the Appalachians (thus its Scenic City nickname)—in about seven hours. How long you stay is up to you, but you can fill up, say, a long weekend and still not come close to experiencing everything it has to offer. Rather than overwhelm you with an abundance of options, here are the seven best things to do in Chattanooga right now.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
1. Visit the Sculpture Fields
There are obvious and obligatory things to have on your Chattanooga itinerary, but let’s start with a unique and off-the-beaten-path stop—the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, a 33-acre public greenspace filled with about 35 large-scale pieces of fine art adjacent to the city’s robust Southside.
Executive director Anne Rushing has helmed Sculpture Fields since it opened in 2016. “My background is in taking art out of traditional exhibition spaces. Even the idea of ‘museum’ can be intimidating to some people,” Rushing says. “Here, you can have a picnic or walk your dog, and people who maybe aren’t into the fine arts can get an introduction.” Rushing’s own pooch, Sadie the Sculpture Dog, makes frequent appearances on the park’s social media platforms.
The park has a circuitous history. The land was donated by a private citizen to the city of Chattanooga in 1911, but it was literally the lowest point in a city through which a river meanders, so it was often unusable. In the 1940s, a solution was proposed to temporarily use the space as a landfill to raise the level of the land. It eventually reopened, but it was discovered to be contaminated and closed in 2003 due to environmental concerns.
In 2006, renowned sculptor John Henry and his wife, Pamela, conceived the idea of addressing the environmental and health issues and creating a public art space on the land. Henry, whose studio overlooked the area, spearheaded a movement among civic leaders and the worldwide art community that resulted in Sculpture Fields, which features six permanent works and a rotating collection of 3D pieces by international and local artists.
In addition to being an arts presence and greenspace in the city, the park hosts two big events each year. Spring in the Park marks the anniversary of the opening of Sculpture Fields with a family-friendly bash that culminates in the burning of a sculpture created specifically for the event. Sculptures in the Sky is a kite fest held in the fall, celebrating the park’s history by flying what are “sculptures themselves,” in Rushing’s words.
Sculpture Fields at Montague Park is free and open to the public dawn until dusk daily. From downtown, it’s accessible by car, bike (rental stations are plentiful in Chattanooga) or the free electric shuttle.
2. Ascend a Mountain (if You’re so Inclined)
Breathtaking views, natural features, American history and more make an excursion to Lookout Mountain an essential part of any visit to Chattanooga.
Marissa Bell, public relations manager for the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau, recommends spending some time in the St. Elmo Historic District, the neighborhood with a small-town feel at the base of the mountain. Once a separate municipality, St. Elmo is now a revitalized neighborhood within Chattanooga, home to shops, restaurants and the Mad Knight Brewing Co.
Catch the Incline Railway in St. Elmo for a ride to the top of Lookout Mountain, billed as “America’s Most Amazing Mile.” At the top, visit Point Park, a 10-acre memorial that overlooks the Lookout Mountain battlefield, the site of a Civil War skirmish.
A day at Lookout Mountain should also include a stop at Ruby Falls, the country’s tallest underground waterfall open to the public. The cave views inside are on par with the scenic vistas on the mountain.
If you’re a save-the-best-for-last kind of person, wrap up your visit at Rock City, with its spectacular panorama—allegedly with sightlines to seven different states—and hiking trails. The brave can walk the 180-foot Swing-A-Long Bridge to get to Lover’s Leap, the popular vantage point, and also marvel at the splendid view of the High Falls cascading down the mountain.
Chattanooga is billed as the Scenic City for good reason—everywhere offers a feast for the eyes. There’s even a dedicated city agency, Outdoor Chattanooga, that can help. Its experts offers guidance on the best places for backpacking, caving, hunting and hiking, for which there are plentiful options. The Riverwalk is a 123-mile path through downtown along the Tennessee River. There’s also 92-acre Stringer’s Ridge Park with three trails that overlook the North Shore and downtown. And then the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park beckons just to the south.
3. Take a Selfie on a Very Long Bridge
Chattanooga’s city center is eminently walkable, enhanced by the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, which connects the downtown riverfront to the bustling and funky North Shore. Erected in 1891, it’s one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges and an iconic spot for taking pictures of yourself to induce vacation envy in your friends.
To make the most of your Walnut Street walking experience, you’ll want to grab a bite at the North Shore’s Taconooga (get it?) and stop in at Julie Darling Donuts for some craft pastries (maybe box them to go) and a locally roasted Mad Priest Coffee for the walk across the bridge into town. Both are within eyeshot of the bridge’s North Shore terminus. As you exit the bridge downtown, you’ll spy The Ice Cream Show, a quirky little joint that makes customized, blended ice cream and fro-yo flavors. Treat yourself—you’ve earned it!
4. Eat the Duck
So many good restaurants, so little time. That’s the Chattanooga dining scene for an out-of-town traveler. If you want to save time deciding where to eat, hit Beast + Barrel on the North Shore. If you’re skeptical of the term “elevated pub food,” don’t be. Beast + Barrel is a contemporary yet rustic smokehouse, blending traditional British elements with the tastes of the American South.
Skip the menu, too, and just order the duck burger, topped with sriracha goat cheese and cherry compote. There are other delicious meaty and meatless items—like house-made sausages and a chickpea burger, respectively—but do the duck. It’s at once familiar and daring, and you’ll feel like you’ve tasted the spirit of the city.
For those who want more options, there are plenty to be found. James Beard-nominated chef Daniel Lindsey runs Alleia in the Southside, serving Italian dishes with local ingredients and flair. Lindsey’s former operation, St. John’s, is also a high-end dining experience, focusing on seafood. For something significantly less formal, Champy’s serves top-notch fried chicken and beers in the east end Martin Luther King neighborhood. Also, Southside’s State of Confusion offers scratch-made food with a low country and South American bent. It is housed in a former eclectic shop/junk dealer and has retained some of the kitsch.
Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria in the Bluff View Art District has casual Italian dishes with locally sourced ingredients in a hip, downtown neighborhood. While you’re in Bluff View, visit the River Gallery and Rembrandt’s Coffee House.
5. Stay at the Choo Choo
Maybe you don’t go for things that skew toward the schmaltzy or sentimental. So, perhaps, spending your stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Historic Hotel isn’t for you. But, while there are lots of other options, how many allow you to sleep in a Pullman train car?
This hotel is indeed a renovated train station and offers traditional rooms in addition to train cars. It’s home to a pair of high-quality dining options, a pour-your-own-beer hall, a distillery and a comedy club. It also houses Songbirds, a combination guitar museum and live music venue. Located in Southside, the Choo Choo is within easy walking distance of a host of other dining and entertainment options and adjacent to Station Street, an entertainment district that’s an open container area.
If you prefer something quainter than sleeping in a decommissioned train, the Bluff View Art District is home to the Bluff View Inn, a bed-and-breakfast housed in three turn-of-the-(previous)-century homes and within walking distance of popular downtown attractions.
6. Experience Riverfront Culture
The Tennessee River winds its way through Chattanooga in such a way as to create a lengthy riverfront. The city capitalized on this feature and has made the riverfront home to a number of destinations for visitors. Most notable is the Tennessee Aquarium, where you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate the variety of creatures that call the place home. You can get close-up views of freshwater and saltwater animals, and be sure to check out the building’s eye-catching design.
Within blocks you can find the Hunter Museum of American Art, located on the bluff that gives name to the aforementioned art district. The museum is home to an eclectic collection of works by American artists in traditional and new media. Also in the neighborhood is the Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga’s children’s museum focusing on art, science and hands-on activities.
If you’re checking out the riverfront destinations, don’t miss the Moon Pie General Store. Yes, the Moon Pie, that most glorious of packaged desserts, was first made—and continues to be produced—in Chattanooga. Memorabilia and, of course, all flavor of Moon Pies are available.
7. Ride the River
Chattanooga wasn’t merely built along a river for aesthetic purposes. Its port spurred the city’s growth, and there are still several ways to hitch a ride on the water.
The Southern Belle Riverboat offers a traditional river-town experience. The old-timey vessel embarks on several sightseeing and themed cruises every day—if the sky is clear, the sunset cruise is a real winner. (Plus, the owners are Ohio expats, says general manager Jonathan Reinert.) Located in the heart of downtown, the Bluff View Inn is nearby if you want to stay close to the water. If you prefer a more personal river experience, L2 Outside rents kayaks right downtown.
Whether you get your feet wet in the current or simply enjoy the view from atop the bluffs, you’ll get a chance to appreciate how the city earned its nickname.
Jim Fischer is a writer in Columbus who has enjoyed exploring Chattanooga. He insists Beast + Barrel’s duck burger alone is worth the trip.
Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Best Driving Vacations 2020.
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