While sometimes overshadowed by its larger sisters Nashville and Memphis, Lonely Planet voted Chattanooga, Tennessee one of the places you must see in 2018. After a late spring visit, it’s not hard to see why. With plenty of outdoor adventures, art to peruse, food to eat, and history to jump into, Chattanooga charms visitors to southeast Tennessee.
The city has been revitalizing itself, particularly with the $20-million makeover that is transforming the Chattanooga Choo Choo train station. Check yourself in as home base for your trip and sit out in the courtyard between railcars for a morning moment in a relaxing rocking chair. With home base taken care of, start your adventure in Chattanooga with the Tennessee Aquarium. With more than 750,000 visitors at the facility since opening in 1992, the aquarium showcases the Tennessee River biodiversity hotspot it sits on—engaging the public and teaching about the animals around these parts. You’ll venture through exhibits like the lemurs and penguins, while also journeying through the local fish and animals.
After spending time enjoying the wildlife, journey a few miles out of Chattanooga to Lookout Mountain and visit Rock City Gardens, a 4,100-foot walking trail showcasing rock formations and caves among the gardens. Look for the gnomes hidden throughout and find out how Rock City took barns and made them into a super successful marketing campaign to attract visitors. At Lookout Mountain you’ll also find the breathtaking Ruby Falls underground waterfall, more than 1,120 feet below the surface of the mountain. Leo Lambert and a team of excavators found the waterfall in 1928 and opened the area as a public attraction in 1930. Thousands now visit every year.
If you are looking to unwind and disconnect, head further out of Chattanooga to one of the many trails and natural areas like Savage Gulf State Natural Area. A 15,590-acre natural area, Savage Gulf is carved into the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau. The Great Stone Door is an impressive cliff line overlooking the Savage Gulf. It gets its name from a crack in the cliff that runs from the top to the bottom that looks like a door left slightly ajar. It is a photogenic stop for visitors. The hiking is mostly flat, but gives more amazing views of the landscape once you get to a lookout. There are so many trails to venture on and plenty of wildlife to seek out. While exploring the South Cumberland Plateau and its stunning parks, stop by Dutch Maid Bakery and meet Cindy who owns and bakes some of the most amazing eclairs I’ve ever had. Located in tiny Tracy City, it’s worth the stop for lunch. Grab some goodies on the way out so you can have a sweet treat for the rest of your hiking adventures.
After a day of scenic overlooks and underwater adventures, head back into town and check out Easy Bistro for dinner. Serving contemporary Southern cuisine with distinct local flavors from Chattanooga’s surrounding farmlands, you can indulge in offerings like rainbow trout with curry aioli, steak frites with wagyu sirloin covered in herb butter, or shrimp and grits. Pair your entree with a nice cocktail or a glass of wine, but save room for a dessert like the bourbon bread pudding with candied pecans.
Spend the next day heading out to Bradley County where you can immerse yourself in the history of Tennessee. Start at the James F. Corn Interpretive Facility at Red Clay State Historic Park that, during the 1830s, was an important governmental center for the Cherokee people. Continue on to the poignant Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, a multipurpose facility dedicated to those who suffered and died on the Trail of Tears. The history told here involves the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southeastern United States to make land available for white settlement. The park is intended to interpret and educate the public about the forced removal of the Cherokees from their ancestral land as well as inform them about the unique wildlife in the area.
Heading back into Chattanooga, stop in Cleveland and have dinner at Café Roma. They serve traditional Italian cuisine in a modern, rustic space. A small restaurant on the corner of downtown in a small city, the food is very tasty. Don’t miss the Bruschetta Café Roma – spiced red grapes, goat cheese and walnuts. And save room for their crème brulee.
Back in Chattanooga, go to the Songbirds Guitar Museum, attached to the Choo Choo Hotel. USA Today readers named it one of the best new attractions in the country. The museum showcases music history from the 1930s through the 1970s with a collection of over 300 classic American acoustic and electric instruments. They have over thirty Gibson Sunburst Les Paul guitars from 1958 to 1960. In addition to their expansive guitar collection, there are over 45 classic bluegrass flattops like banjos and mandolins. Or, spend the afternoon at the Bluff View Art District, a historic neighborhood with restaurants, cafes, mezzanines, patios, paths and views offering visitors a chance to relax and unwind for an hour or afternoon. Set high atop stone cliffs that plunge into the river, the city’s first art district has panoramic views of the Tennessee River, downtown Chattanooga and the Walnut Street Bridge.
If you are looking for a unique place for outdoor adventure with slower town living, Chattanooga may be the answer for you. With so many things to see and do, it’s the perfect place for getting outside to stretch your legs and learn about the history of this area. While they tout their high-speed internet, life seems to move a little slower here. It’s a fantastic place to take in some culture and allow yourself a little time to breathe.
Cover photo: The Walnut Street Bridge lights up the city at night. Photo courtesy Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau
Kayla Elliott is a writer in Austin, Texas who writes about travel, food, and entertainment as well as fine tuning resumes and job descriptions. She has a deep love for trivia and queso.