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Plan Your Vacation In Chattanooga, Tennessee

Updated on December 4, 2012

Things To Do In Chattanooga

Chattanooga has become one of the most popular vacation spots in the U.S. in recent years. The biggest question you'll have if you decide to visit is, "where do I begin?" There are so many things to do in Chattanooga. As a resident of Chattanooga for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that it hasn't always been that way. In fact, it used to quite the opposite. It has been very interesting for me to see how Chattanooga has revitalized itself. Today, I can hardly keep up with all of the attractions in this town. I truly would not want to live anywhere else right now.

So, in an effort to help anyone interested in visiting Chattanooga, I've developed this lens to give you the inside scoop from a Chattanooga local. I know how it is when you go to a new place for vacation. You're excited and want to see everything, but you don't know anyone from the town that can tell you what you don't want to miss, what's a waste of your time, where is the really good local food, what areas of town are safe, where are the best places to stay, what are the gems that no one else knows about from reading the tourism books. Look no further. I'll be your local guide.

Chattanooga, TN - A Great Place to Live or Vacation

Did You Know...?

  • Chattanooga was voted "Best Town Ever" by Outside magazine.
  • Chattanooga was voted one of the top 50 vacation destinations in the U.S. by Disney's Family Fun.
  • Chattanooga was highlighted in National Geographic Traveler in "Great Long Weekends:46 Places to Get Away from it All."
  • Readers of American Style Magazine voted Chattanooga #2 midsized city arts destination in the U.S.
  • Chattanooga is among the "Top 10 overlooked and underrated family destinations" according to Fodor's Choice Destinations.
  • National Geographic Adventure called Chattanooga "one of the best adventure towns in the U.S. to live and play."
  • The League of American Cyclists included Chattanooga as one of only 29 cities as a bicycle friendly community."
  • RelocateAmerica.com ranked Chattanooga as #3 in top 100 places to live in America.

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A City Reborn

a little background on how Chattanooga became a top travel destination

As I mentioned, Chattanooga hasn't always been a popular destination. I remember when I was in school in the 1980's and early 90's my friends and I could never find anything to do in the city. Chattanooga has always had great natural resources, but night life, restaurants, attractions, and those sorts of things are relatively new.

The city's rennaisance began in 1993 when residents voted to renovate a very old bridge that had been closed for years instead of tearing it down. This proved to be the seed that changed Chattanooga forever. Today, The Walnut Street Bridge is the longest pedestran bridge in the world, as well as the oldest. It crosses the Tennessee River and links The Northside of Chattanooga with the Southside. And in between is the downtown area. Around the same time (1992) The Tennesse Aquarium was built. As one of the largest freshwater aquariums in the country, it was destined to draw a lot of visitor's. Once the bridge was renovated those visitor's could also visit the other side of the river on foot. That combination set up a snowball effect for businesses of all kinds to open and thrive within the city. A few years ago, the city also invested resources to revitalize the entire riverfront area. Today, new businesses and attractions open almost daily. Chattanooga has been able to do something very unique during all of this, create big city benefits without losing it's small town feel. And I believe that is why it is such a special place to live and to visit.

Did You Know...?

Chattanooga is the birthplace of Coca-Cola.

Getting To Chattanooga

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Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport

If you Choose to fly to Chattanooga I think you will be very pleased with our airport. The Chattanooga Airport is known around town as Lovell Field. It is not crowded at all considering how many people come in and out of our city. It's very easy to navigate as well. There's not a lot to do there if you plan on staying there for a while though. There is one restaraunt/cafe and a small newstand, that's about it. But there's no reason to stay there anyway if Chattanooga is your destination.

Things To Do In Chattanooga

Well this can be a very broad topic. Chattanooga is a very well-rounded city with lots to do for many different sub-groups of people. Chattanooga attractions range from sight-seeing to music festivals to great restaurants and shopping, and most things in between. It just depends on what you want to do. It's like Disneyworld, it's impossible to see it all in one trip so you have to pick your priorities. That's why a site like this is so beneficial. Ask yourself, "What is the purpose of this trip?'' Is it a family vacation? A honeymoon? A weekend roadtrip? An eco-tour trip? An art festival trip? A trip for the kids? the adults? both? Whatever. There's somethong for everybody. I'm going to design the "tour" into some smaller categories for better navigation. You can pick the experiences and places that seem right for you and create your own agenda. Or no agenda at all, depending on how you prefer your travels ; )

Natural Attractions

Many of these attractions are some of the oldest in Chattanooga (most likely the entire country), and they are some of the coolest, in my opinion. We have so many places to visit for people who love nature and beautiful scenery. The list below are the places I recommend for anyone wanting to see some unbelievable natural formations.

  • See Rock City: I know you have seen this slogan painted on hundreds of barns throughout the south. Actually, there are only a handful left. But you really should see Rock City. It is a section of Lookout Mountain that has the most intriguing rock formations around. The absolute best time to go is in December during the Festival of Lights. It's breathtaking, but go before sundown so you can see it in it's natural state and then stay to see all the lights. On a clear day you can see 7 different states from the pinnacle of Rock City. And it's the best place to get a from-the-top view of the city.
  • Ruby Falls:

    You could go see Ruby Falls the same day because it's real close to Rock City. Ruby Falls is an underground waterfall located also on Lookout Mountain. Well, really through the mountain This cave running under Lookout Mountain was opened in 1929, and culminates in a 145 foot waterfall. Did I mention that this is all underground. It's really beautiful. You can't take strollers, and it is not accessible for wheelchairs. But it's a great place to visit, especially if the weather isn't great. Since it is all underground the temperature is maintained at 60 degrees year-round (without any heating or air devices). Of course it is also sheltered from any sort of precipitation that may be falling.

  • The Incline Railway:

    This is the world's steepest passenger incline railway at a 72.7% grade incline! It sounds scary, but it is perfectly suited for children and squeemish adults. A one way trip up the mountain takes about 10 minutes. It's a really cool experience. The incline made its first trip up the mountain in 1895, and has never had an accident. Along with Rock City and Ruby Falls, the Incline is one of the must-do things for people wanting to take in the beauty of the natural scenery that is so prevelant in Chattanooga. In fact, all 3 of these attractions offer trio deals where you can get tickets to each one at a better rate than you could individually.

  • Tennessee River Walk:

    This awesome resource is a 10 mile stretch of walking path that follows the banks of the Tennessee River from downtown to the Chickamauga Dam. It is concrete, so it is ideal for bikes or roller blades as well. I trained for a couple marathons here. The view is spectacular the entire way. It's one of the great places to see the river by foot. If you are visiting and still want to maintain your exercise routine this is a great place to do that. In the spring and summer the River Walk is a very popular place for locals to spend time with their families or just get outside. But it's open year-round from sunrise until sunset.

  • The Chattanooga Nature Center:

    This is a wonderful place to go if you like peace and quiet. There are walking trails that run throughout. It's also very educational. I like to go in October the best. For one thing the fall colors are georgeous. Many people visit us just to see the leaves! That's amazing isn't it? And the weather in October is usually perfect, clear and 65-70 degrees. But also during October they usually have hay rides, ghost stories, and things like that. It's a lot of fun, especially with the kids.

Did You Know...?

Chattanooga is hometown to a few celebreties including: Samuel Jackson, Bessie Smith, The Forrester Sisters, Dennis Haskins (Saved by The Bell Fame), and Usher.

The Best Places to Eat - from a local's perspective

Eating at great restaurants is one of the joys of travelling to new locations. Let's face it, we all gotta eat. We may as well eat good food! Below is a list of the best restaurants in Chattanooga. Some are mainstream, and some take some effort to find, but at least I can save you the trouble of trial and error. All of these places have food that you will never forget.

  • Pastaria:

    You would never guess that authentic Italian food would be found in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In fact, there are even a lot of Chattanoogans that don't know about this place. Although, word has begun to get around about "the best kept secret on Signal Mountain."

    I found this place about 15 years ago and have been going back regularly ever since. It's owned by a local architect and his family. The recipes come from his Italian grandmother. It doesn't get better than that folks. The service is very "laid back" (some would say slow), but it is totally worth it! Everything is made to order from scratch. Just bring in your favorite bottle of wine and enjoy some great conversation while you wait. Trust me, it's ok. Fresh and full of flavor is the best way to describe the food here.

  • La Altena (the one on Main St.):

    Another "off the beaten path" place. This one is owned by a local Mexican family. It looks pretty run down from the outside, but don't let that fool you. This Mexican food is like no other you have ever eaten. Chattanooga has a pretty high Hispanic population and they all eat here. That should tell you a lot. I've always found a lot of Mexican food to be heavy and somewhat similar tasting to all other Mexican food. However, La Altena is in a different league. Like Pastaria, it is so fresh and full of flavor. It's near the popular Southside district, but it is set off to itself a little bit. If you happen to be visiting Lookout Mountain and Downtown on the same day it is a great place to stop for lunch, as it's in between the two.

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  • The Boathouse:

    The picture above is the view from this restaurant. It definitely wins the "best scenery while dining" award. The boathouse is right on the edge of downtown and right on the river. There is an outdoor dining area as well as indoor options. The food is cajun inspired. It's sort of a mix between Southern comfort food and cajun style cuisine. The menu is relatively small, but I've never had anything less than wonderful off of it. My only complaint is that they do not have a kids menu. This, of course, is not a problem if you don't have kids. But if you are travelling with kids you understand my concern. It's great anytime if year, but my favorite time to go is in the fall because I like to sit on the patio and enjoy the nice weather as I dine and watch the sunset. It's as close to Key West as you'll get in Chattanooga.

  • Sushi Nabi:

    This place is located right in the middle of Coolidge Park. It has been in operation in Chattanooga for about 20 years. I know that because I went to my high school prom dinner there. It is a little bit pricey, but you're on vacation right? Seriously, if you love sushi, don't miss it. The owner is an award winning chef. I always order the bento box ; ) You can even take sushi making classes here if you wish. I'd eat here every day if I could afford it. Their ecclectic sense of decor is also really cool.

  • River Street Deli:

    The owner's name is Bruce. It's a New York Style Deli right across the way from Sushi Nabi's. This place is slammed with locals during weekday lunch hours. The menu changes a lot and it's all excellent. For dinner it's themed and reservations only. Great place to go and just hang out. The first time I ordered a sandwich there I'm posiive he had 10 lbs. of meat on the thing. It was crazy.

  • Clumpies Ice Cream:

    For those that understand that an ice cream joint is totally a legit place to grab dinner. In fact, when my daughter saw that I was creating a page about Chattanooga she specifically said, "make sure you add Clumpie's to your list." Clumpie's was started by some local guys who decided that ice cream could be more than it currently is. We also have a Ben and Jerry's, but this place puts them to shame, Bet you didn't think that was possible, did you? They have some regular stuff along with some more unique flavors. My favorite is the Chai ice cream and the Caramel Sundae. Another delicious flavor is their Key Lime ice cream. It's all homeade. And it's all good. If you go in the summertime the line is out the door. Be prepared to wait, but also be prepared to be amazed.

  • Sawasdee:

    Thai Food at its best. You'll never forget this place. It's at the foot of Lookout Mountain. Again, it is owned by a local family that has been in business here for about 20 years. I always order either Chicken Panang Curry or Pad Thai. It's a great place for a romantic date because it has a nice low key atmosphere end is off the main trek enough to not be super busy all the time. Those who know this place are loyal customers because they know the quality is supreme. This one is also a little slow with the service, but it has never bothered me at all because I'm willing to wait for food that great!

  • Waffle House:

    Ok, I'm gonna put this one chain restaurant on the list just because it is such a "Chattanooga" experience. Of course, the food is simple Americana that is totally unhealthy, but you need to eat there anyway. There are several sprinkled throughout the city. The best one is in Red Bank , which is really close to downtown. It's a good place to people watch too. If you have travelled through the Southern U.S. you know the Waffle House well, but I always take my Northern friends here at least a couple times if not for any other reason than for the waitresses to call them "sugar" or "honey" or "sweetie" or (my favorite) "darlin'" Order hash browns, scattered, smothered, covered, and diced.

  • Nikki's:

    Nikki's diner has been in Chattanooga for a long time, long before it became the popular travel destination it is today. It sits up on the hill right on the edge of Red Bank on the outskirts of downtown. They are known for their shrimp and their onion rings. Trust me, don't leave this place without trying the onion rings. They are the best I have ever tasted anywhere. And the shrimp are HUGE. This is also one you'll miss unless you go looking for it. Locals know it well, and you'll usually find it very busy. They don't advertise (they don't need to). It's on Cherokee Blvd. Just ask any local when you get here. They'll get you there.

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Cool Stuff To Do Downtown

Downtown has a lot of cool stuff for both kids and adults. We also have a free electric shuttle that loops the whole downtown area. Shuttles run every 5-7 minutes with multiple stops along the route. It really is awesome. Heck, if you wanted you could just go down there and ride the shuttle for a loop around just to see kind of where everything is at. I've done it before. I really have to give Chattanooga props when it comes to public transportation. The city has done a great job of making it easy to get around. So, what should you do? Well, here are my top choices.

  • The Tennessee Aquarium:

    This is pretty much a gimme. It's one of our biggest attractions, and it is very unique. There are two sections, a saltwater part and a freshwater part. There are a lot of saltwater aquariums around, but Chattanooga has a spectacular freshwater exhibit. The cool thing about it is you are overlooking the very river (Tennessee River) that all of the fish you are seeing are living in. We have some of the biggest catfish in the world here, some of which are on display at the aquarium. It takes about two hours to go through both sections at a leisurely pace. Of course, I've stayed there for several hours before since I'm one of those people that actually read all of the little information plaques about the exhibits.

  • IMAX 3-D:

    You can actually get combo tickets for the aquarium and the IMAX, which is a better deal. The IMAX is right next door to the aquarium so most people do both on the same day. They also have the permanent film "Into the Deep", which is a great supplement to the whole fish experience. In addition, they have other shows that rotate periodically. It's great for the kids.

  • The Horse & Carriage Tour:

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  • This is a must-do if you're on a romantic getaway. Kids will love it too. At night during Christmas season is really awesome. Basically, you get a tour of downtown by horse and carriage. They pick-up and drop off in front of the aquarium, so it's agreat way to cap off the evening after you've been walking around the aquarium all day.
  • The Creative Discovery Museum:

    If you are bringing kids you won't want to miss this one. This is a children's museum with both permanant and rotating exhibits. Every school around the area takes field trips here because it is so educational. However, if you come during the weekend you won't have to worry about that crowd. The museum covers both science and art. The Science Theatre is housed here. This is a great part of the museum that creates kid-friendly scientific experiments and presentations. We had an annual membership for years, and I used to take my daughters, and we'd spend the day down there during our summer vacations (I'm a teacher).

  • The Chattanooga ChooChoo:

    Yes, it's the same one that the famous song was written about. It's a cool place to just go walk around. There are a few shops in the courtyard area. It's now a hotel and home of The Station House, a dining experience where the wait staff sing. It's a pretty neat place to go. You can actually stay in the old rail cars if you want, of course I believe it's extra cost, but that's a "Chattanooga only" experience. The Shuttle also runs from this point all the way through the length of downtown so it's very convenient. And right behind the ChooChoo is one of our newest music venues, Track 29. There have already been some big name performers play here including: Jamie Johnson, The Avett Bros., and Lucinda Williams to name a few. They Might Be Giants are also coming soon. That's gonna be a great show as well.

Books You May want To Read Before Visiting

I always like to learn a little background about the places I visit before I actually go there. For me, it just makes the trip more interesting and also gives me some ideas about some of the things I may want to do once I arrive.

Chattanooga (Then & Now: Tennessee)
Chattanooga (Then & Now: Tennessee)

This book is cool to bring with you because it has photos of places around the city taken from the early 1900's and on the same page another photo from the same viewpoint of the locations today.

 

Live Music - We got LOTS of It!

Ok, music is kind of my thing so I may be biased, but Chattanooga has some of the most incredible venues and events for live music that I have ever experienced. The great part about most of them is that they are either FREE or very reasonably priced. Keep in mind, I'm just listing the things and places that I frequent. As with all the other categories on this page, there are many, many more things here. However, I like to recommend from personal experience.

  • Rhythm & Brews:

    This is my favorite place to go to have a beer or two and listen to great performances. It's a very small setting that hosts both local musicians as well as some more well-known acts. Typically, you can go hear great music almost any night for around a $7 cover charge. You can't beat that. It's mainly about the music here, and locally brewed beer, but they have appetizer-type food as well. Great place to unwind after a day of touring.

  • The Foundry:

    Every Friday night you can go down and listen to FREE Jazz music. Usually the groups rotate. There is a Martini bar and a couple Billiards Tables. It's a little more classy than some of the other spots, but not so much that it's uncomfortable. Like I said, it's free so a lot of locals just go down there and chill on Friday nights. If you're into a more laid back atmosphere this is a great place to go. It's also a great place to go to just meet people since it is attached to one of our more posh hotels. You can mingle with other travellers.

  • Nightfall Series:

    More FREE live music. This is a series of summer concerts that take place at Miller Plaza. It happens every Friday night from May until September. There is a main act and an opening act. Again, there are some big names that play here as well as some local groups. It's outdoors. Beer is sold, but it is a perfect family activity as well. This is also the the place to be if you love motorcyles. An entire city block is closed and the Harley's come roarin' in to line the street, hundreds of them....every Friday Night! People just stroll the street and admire the bikes (and wish they had one of their own... ; ) And after the concert they all crank up and the sound from their engines bounces off the buildings downtown. It's a really awesome experience.

  • The Riverbend Festival:

    This is the Grandaddy of music festivals in the south. Really, the only other one comparable would be Bonnaroo. It's a week-long festival with huge headliners as well as local bands, great food, and good people watching. You can get pins in advance for $30 or $40 at the gate. That's for the entire week!You will not find a deal like this anywhere in the country for concert tickets. These are just a few of the performers I have seen over the years: Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, The Oak Ridge Boys, Gloria Estefan, Patti LaBelle, Ritchie Havens, Charlie Daniels, The Black Crowes, Hank Williams Jr., Tracy Chapman, and even Bill Cosby (although not actually music). The Festival has been rated one of the top 10 Music Festivals in America. It's usually held in the first week of June. If you're making a summertime trip, this is a great week to come.

  • The Bessie Smith Strut:

    This is actually a part of the Riverbend Festival, but it is kind of set off to itself and in a different location. This particular event is geared towards the blues and jazz artists. As I mentioned before, Bessie Smith was from Chattanooga, and this event is named after her. It is quite an experience. The music is a lot more "raw" than the festival acts. And the food is AWESOME!

  • The Tivoli Theatre:

    This is home to Chattanooga's own Symphony Orchestra. We have a wonderful symphony. I have known many of the musicians that have played with the symphony over the years. They perform throughout the year. The Tivoli Theatre hosts other musical performers as well. I've seen Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan there. It's a beautiful venue with great acoustics and great seating. It's more of a classy place, so if you like to get all dressed up and go out on the town this is a wonderful place to go watch a music performance.

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The Visual Arts - Galleries, Museums, & Other Public Art

I am an artist and art educator living in Chattanooga, so I have been involved with the art scene in the city for a while. I can tell you that we are now one of the top art destinations in the country. Once again, it hasn't always been so, but it certainly is now. There are two main art districts in Chattanooga; The Bluff View Art District & The Southside Art District. Both areas are great for just strolling around and checking out art, especially when you go during one of our gallery hops. These usually take place in the summer sometime. The art here is very ecclectic , ranging from local folk art to Art shows featuring World renowned artists. Below are just of few of the great places to see art around town.

  • AVA (Association for Visual Artists)-

    This has been one of my favorite places to catch shows for years. They rotate gallery shows every couple months. They typically have some of the less traditional-type stuff, but not always. They also do conservative at times. It's located in the Northshore area near a lot of other shops that you'd probably also like to visit. They really support local artists. I've been a member on and off since college. You don't have to be a member to check out the shows though. During the gallery hops you can expect this to be one of the more popular stops.

  • Winder Binder Gallery-

    This folk art gallery is a few doors down from AVA. If I were to describe it in one word I'd choose: Funky. There's some really cool original folk art here. They also sell some unique books. This one is right next to the Walnut Street Bridge as well (remember the pedestrian bridge I told you about earlier?) Sometimes you can catch street musicians performing between the bridge and Winder Binder. That's cool too.

  • The Hunter Museum of American Art-

    This is where the big names in art show in town, but you can also catch local artists in figure drawing sessions and things like that. I have seen many, many wonderful shows at the Hunter. The buildings themselves are works of art in their own right. Below is a picture I drew of the Hunter a few years ago. It's my own interpretation, of course, but you can see the three distinct architectural styles that make up the museum: Classical, Modern, and Post-Modern. The view of the Tennessee River from the museum is fabulous. As the name states, the Hunter's collection is comprised of American artists. Many of my favorite artists are represented in their permanent collection, artists such as: Robert Henri, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Louis Nevelson, Jackson Polluck, Deborah Butterfield, and Robert Indiana to name a few. (Didn't realize there were so many Roberts). The Hunter is located in the Bluff View Art district. You can easily walk to it from downtown, the Walnut Street Bridge, or any of the other Bluff View establishments (all of which are great)!

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  • River Gallery and Sculpture Garden-

    This gallery is right across the street from the Hunter Museum. I personally think it is the gallery in town with the highest quality art on a regular basis. Not only that, the gallery itself is in a beautiful location. Right down the street (about 100 yards) is their outdoor sculpture garden. I have seen some fabulous work in this garden. There are some permanant pieces by well-known sculptors as well as some rotating exhibits. The sculpture garden is perched high on a bluff above the Tennessee River. It's a breathtaking place to visit alone, with a date, or with your family. And if you're lucky, you'll visit on a day that Rembrandt's Coffeehouse is roasting their coffee beans. It's right next door, and it's my favorite coffeehouse in Chattanooga. The aroma is enough to make you say, "yes, it's great to be alive today!"

This lens has the potential to be huge, but I wanted to go ahead and publish it so that people could go ahead and read about some of the things I've included so far. I'll be adding lots later. If you have something specific you'd like to know about Chattanooga drop me a line and I'll probably be able to include some info on it through this lens! Come see us!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      a beautiful place to visit