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Today’s Chattanooga, TN, City Guide is brought to us by Melissa Swanson, a freelance writer and administrator at a private university in Chattanooga. She has lived in the city since 2004, and has had many opportunities to explore and enjoy it. Today she shares the best in dining and shopping as well as the secret gems that Chattanooga has to offer. Thanks, Melissa, for this wonderful glimpse into Chattanooga! — Stephanie
Read the full city guide after the jump . . .
Chattanooga, Tennessee, has come a long way from its industrial past. More than 40 years ago, it was named the most polluted city in the nation. Now, thanks to the many efforts of its inhabitants over the years, the city has come alive. It’s eco-friendly, chic, and energetic, and there is always something fun going on downtown.
The city emphasizes environmental efforts, like LED street lights, and it encourages and supports small businesses and artists. Just recently, CultureMap magazine in Austin named Chattanooga an emerging hipster city, along with Asheville, North Carolina, and Burlington, Vermont. This April, Chattanooga unveiled its own custom typeface, called Chatype, born in a downtown coffee shop. That’s just one example of how Chattanoogans are working to make the city even better.
If you enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, climbing, and whitewater rafting, as well as great art and music, friendly people, and Southern charm, Chattanooga should definitely be on your list of cities to visit. Here are a few places I recommend while you’re here. Maybe after visiting these, you’ll discover even more to love about Chattanooga.
Check out this Google Map with all of the below listings!
Eat and Drink
212 Market Restaurant uses local produce to create delicious seasonal menus. Sit on the outdoor solar deck on a breezy summer evening and watch the downtown area come alive, or if you’re in town during one of their special events, participate in a wine dinner or jazz brunch.
Lupi’s Pizza Pies has the best pizza in Chattanooga. They offer just about every kind of topping you could ask for, and the restaurant is just as eclectic, with purple walls and bright booths that match the colorful art and vintage arcade machines. If you’re not in the mood for pizza, try a huge calzone or a melty lasagna.
The Blue Plate is a modern diner on the riverfront that serves classic southern-style brunches and burgers using local ingredients. The food is presented on blue plates that hearken back to the days of disposable plates used in mobile diners during the Depression.
The River Street Deli is a New York-style delicatessen on the edge of Coolidge Park serving quality sandwiches and soups. All of the sandwiches are excellent, but I recommend trying the creative and seasonal daily specials.
The Stone Fort Inn is a boutique bed and breakfast right in the heart of downtown. Each room’s decor is different, but they all seem to fit perfectly into the historic 1909 building. Socialize with your fellow guests over an evening wine and cheese reception or a billiards game, and in the morning, enjoy a breakfast made of mouthwatering pastries, fruits and casseroles served in a quiet, sunny room.
The Sheraton Read House Hotel has been a Chattanooga landmark since 1926. The Silver Ballroom, decorated with original Waterford crystal chandeliers and silver moldings, is a popular place for weddings and gatherings. The hotel is located on the electric shuttle route, making it easy to explore the downtown area.
The Bluff View Art District is a historic neighborhood atop a row of cliffs overlooking the Tennessee River. It encompasses an artisan bakery, a café, a coffee house (Rembrandt’s, mentioned above), indoor and outdoor art galleries, an inn, and a fine Italian restaurant. It’s worth spending a few hours relaxing here, where time seems to move a bit slower.
The Hunter Museum of American Art is in an historical mansion and sleek modern building atop the bluffs that overlook the river. The museum’s permanent collection is American art from the Colonial period to the present, and it features new special exhibitions every few months. Recent exhibitions include Dorothea Lange’s photographs, Herman Miller design, and Norman Rockwell paintings. The first Sunday of every month is free admission.
JJ’s Bohemia is one of the best places in town to see live music. It’s small but cozy even when it’s packed, and the bar has a solid selection of beers and an outdoor patio. JJ’s has shows every night, so you’ll have an opportunity to stop by no matter when you visit Chattanooga.
On Sundays, locals and visitors alike head to the Chattanooga Market. Located in a big covered pavilion, the Market is the best place to find fresh produce from area growers, as well as a wide range of locally made art and foods. Stretching from April to December, every weekend has a different theme, such as strawberries, bluegrass, CocaCola, chili, and hot rods.
The Tennessee Aquarium is definitely one of the most popular visitor attractions, but many locals visit regularly, too. It’s especially nice for families, but even if you don’t have kids, it’s a great way to escape from the summer heat and see interesting freshwater and saltwater wildlife, including penguins.
Eat and Drink
Taco Mamacita is one of my personal favorite restaurants. I love the fun, colorful atmosphere, and the made-to-order guacamole is heavenly. I always get the tacos with a side of Mexican street corn, but the Peruvian chicken is also excellent, and the restaurant offers a whole line of flavorful margaritas.
Sluggo’s North Vegetarian Café is good even if you’re not vegetarian. They fuse Southern favorites and Asian flavors, with an emphasis on fresh vegetables and creativity. Before you go, check the website to find out when they host live local bands or classic feature films.
Clumpies Ice Cream Company serves up extra-creamy ice creams made in small batches in a long list of delicious and exotic flavors. Clumpies is a Chattanooga tradition, so pick up one of their t-shirts or hoodies to show you’ve been there.
Good Dog is founded on the simple combination of hot dogs and fries, but they offer so many toppings and sides that you’ll never get tired. Locally made artisan buns provide the base for beef or veggie dogs, or in-house hand-cased sausages. They also have locally brewed beers on tap, as well as delicious cupcakes baked daily.
Aretha Frankenstein’s is tiny, so be prepared to wait a while, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with huge, fluffy pancakes and waffles, thick bacon, tasty omelettes, and big biscuits and gravy, served all day. It’s not your typical breakfast place — it’s not uncommon to see beer at breakfast here — but it’s a great place to slow down, hang out for a while, and meet cool people.
Terra Nostra is Chattanooga’s only tapas restaurant, with great meat, seafood and vegetarian choices that are perfect for sharing and sampling over wine. The menu changes with the seasons and combines Spanish, Asian, and Caribbean flavors. The décor is eclectic and unique, and the outdoor alley seating is nice on a sunny day.
Food Works is located inside the same historic mill that houses Knitting Mill Antiques (see below). The food is new and offers creative takes on favorite Southern flavors, and the restaurant is decorated with the same exposed brick and beams that supported the original mill. Go on a Monday night for half-priced wine.
Knitting Mill Antiques, housed in a turn-of-the-century sewing factory, is one of the best places to hunt for antiques in Chattanooga. From furniture and housewares to clothing and books, it’s nearly impossible to walk out without a newfound treasure.
Mia Cucina is my destination for gourmet kitchen supplies. In addition to brands like Le Creuset and Swiss Diamond, the store sells local goods, such as fresh spice mixes from Alchemy Spice Company. If you have time, sign up for one of their hands-on cooking classes or wine tasting events.
Blue Skies is one of my favorite boutiques to shop for gifts, stationery and handmade jewelry. The merchandise is constantly rotating, which means you can discover new favorite artists every time you go.
Visit Bone Appetit Bakery to pick up a special treat for your pet while you’re in Chattanooga. This bakery and boutique sells quality goods and homemade treats for both dogs and cats. Of course, pet customers are always welcome.
Eat and Drink
Niko’s Southside Grill combines Southern and Mediterranean flavors with local ingredients. The delicious house-made tzatziki sauce goes great on everything. The brick and wood interior is warm and inviting, and the shaded terrace is perfect on a breezy day.
Niedlov’s Breadworks is known across Chattanooga for its artisan loaves and buns. A number of local restaurants proudly use Niedlov’s breads for their sandwiches. My personal favorite specialty loaf is the roasted garlic. The bakery is also a lunchtime café, serving sandwiches, salads, pastries, and coffee.
The English Rose Tearoom is Chattanooga’s only authentic British tearoom, located in the historic Grand Hotel across from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Stop by for afternoon tea, and choose from a selection of sandwiches, scones, and biscuits. The shop also sells imported British foods, gifts, and fine china teacups and teapots.
The Terminal Brewhouse is located in a narrow and interesting turn-of-the-century building that used to be a hotel. The eco-friendly brewery crafts six great beers, all of which complement the burgers, pizzas, and steaks. Try the famous Philosopher’s Burger paired with a German Maibock beer.
The Hot Chocolatier is my favorite place to grab a special treat. Their cakes, candies, and desserts are divine. Relax in the salvaged-wood booths with a pot de crème or a macaron and shot of espresso, or grab a bag of chocolates to go.
Urban Stack Burger Lounge is a good place to grab a burger and a “manly drink.” They offer a number of great burgers, including two veggie patties, as well as other sandwiches and fries. Sit at the full bar or on the patio and enjoy a bourbon or whisky from their long list, or try a five-dollar shake.
The Camp House is a multipurpose building that houses a coffee bar and hosts live music, a craft workshop, and a church group on Sunday. It’s on this list because of its strong, flavorful espresso and coffee. Grab a cup and sit under the huge skylights to relax.
St. John’s Restaurant was Chattanooga’s first real contemporary fine-dining establishment. Along with its more casual sister restaurant next door, Meeting Place, it has become a destination for quality seasonal and regional foods prepared in creative ways and flawlessly presented. It’s just as appropriate for a romantic dinner as for a gathering of good friends.
The Crash Pad is for those looking for a bit more adventure. It’s a boutique, eco-friendly hostel with a friendly atmosphere. Choose from communal bunk rooms or private rooms, and get to know other travelers in the living room and kitchen. With extra space to store gear, it’s a good place for visitors who want to take advantage of the many outdoor activities in the Chattanooga area.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo is definitely one of the city’s claims to fame (thanks in part to the song). It was once the Terminal Station for trains carrying passengers to and from the South, but it’s now a historic hotel, complete with extra amenities like formal Victorian gardens and horse carriage rides. You can also spend the night in an authentic restored train car, converted into a lovely hotel room.
Lookout Mountain/St. Elmo
Eat and Drink
Pasha Coffee & Tea is St. Elmo’s go-to place for fresh coffee and sandwiches, as well as for community events, like book signings and book clubs, poetry nights, and live music. The sofas and chairs in the back room are great for reading or conversation.
Blacksmith’s Bistro & Bar is right next door to Pasha. The outdoor patio is always full on a clear evening. They serve great food for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch, but the best part is the weekly specials, like half-priced draft or wine, $5 cheese plates, or all-day happy hour on Saturdays.
Boccaccia Ristorante Italiano is small and out of the way, but it fills up fast, so make reservations. The atmosphere is warm and rustic, making it one of my favorite date-night restaurants. The house-made pasta is soft and delicious, and if you go on your birthday, you get a pasta and dessert for free.
Collective Clothing is a great little thrift shop for curated vintage and modern recycled goods — everything from clothing and accessories to records and art. The selection and prices are good, and you can always find something unique to take home.
Lookout Mountain area is home to the big three attractions: Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway, and Rock City (if you’ve ever spent any time driving across the country, you may have seen “See Rock City” painted on barn roofs, a tradition that started in the 1930s). The Incline Railway goes straight up the side of Lookout Mountain, depositing passengers at the top to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views. Ruby Falls is the nation’s largest underground waterfall, and Rock City features a long trail lined with gardens and natural rock formations, ending at a sheer cliff overlooking the valley. They’re probably Chattanooga’s most famous attractions, and they’re worth seeing.
The Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center is an educational non-profit organization located right at the base of Lookout Mountain. Walk or bike the trails and enjoy the native plants, canoe down the creek, or visit the animals housed at the Center (the animals are unable to survive in the wild for various reasons). The Center also hosts educational events, hikes, and workshops.
The Tennessee Bouldering Authority is an indoor bouldering and climbing training gym, with 3,000 square feet of climbing walls monitored by experienced staff. If you’d like a little exercise while you’re in Chattanooga, a one-day pass is $8.
Riverbend is a nine-day music festival that happens every June, right on the waterfront of the Tennessee River. The festival features over 100 bands, with a fantastic fireworks display on the final evening.
Nightfall is a series of free Friday night concerts downtown every summer, featuring a range of styles and bands from across the country.
The 4 Bridges Arts Festival happens in April and features contemporary original art and artists from around the US.
The biennial Conference on Southern Literature is a place for writers and readers to discuss literary topics, mingle, award prizes, and discover up-and-coming authors.
RiverRocks is Chattanooga’s 10-day festival dedicated to the outdoors, with events in paddling, climbing, running, biking, racing, and rowing every October. The 3 Sisters Festival, which celebrates bluegrass music, happens simultaneously during a couple days of RiverRocks.
A Few Notable Chattanoogans
- Daniel and Nathan Lindley — Together and individually, these brothers and chefs have opened and operate four of Chattanooga’s best restaurants: St. John’s, Meeting Place, Alleia and Public House.
- Maria and Laura Jones — Cousins and founders of McGowan and McClain, a beautiful and nature-inspired handcrafted jewelry line, featured in boutiques across the Southeast.
- John Henry — Sculptor who crafts large-scale metal public works of art that have been installed in both downtown Chattanooga and in cities across the world.
- Kayoko Dan — She’s the new, energetic young conductor and music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera.
Samuel L. Jackson