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Chattanooga Tennessee has been on my “Eastern US – To Do List” for a while now so we were excited to finally have an opportunity to explore the city. We took a long weekend and headed over the mountains.
Located along the snaking Tennessee River, Chattanooga is a short distance away from the Appalachian Mountains. It’s known as an outdoor destination, with nearby whitewater rafting opportunities along with canoeing, parasailing and tons of hiking and biking trails.
We went on a very hot summer weekend, so unfortunately hiking was out of the question for this trip. Luckily, Chattanooga also makes for a perfect small city break.
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Point Park, Lookout Mountain
If you are looking for an iconic view over Chattanooga, Point Park is your place. If you can time it for sunrise or sunset, even better.
A short walking trail takes you through a few historic monuments and memorabilia before getting to Ochs Memorial Observatory. Plaques around the viewpoint tell the fascinating story of the city’s role in the Civil War.
Rock City Gardens
Hearing it can feel quite touristy when it gets busy, we headed to Rock City Gardens first thing in the morning. The park was quiet, so we strolled through at a leisurely pace. When we left about mid-day, the ticketing lines were quite long.
We enjoyed Rock City Gardens much more than we thought we would. Basically, it’s a mile-long self-guided walking trail with lots of fun and quirky stops along the way. The walk itself is easy, and there are alternative routes to avoid the stairs where needed.
The walk starts with a narrow trail surrounded by natural boulders and rock formations, hence the attraction’s name. Along the path, miniature barns painted with “See Rock City” and garden gnomes pay homage to the park’s start and its original owners.
Rock City is most famous for its Seven States Lookout. We’re not completely sure you can see seven states, but we had a very clear day and it is amazing how far you can see. Below the lookout point is the picturesque and heavily photographed High Falls.
One of our favorite experiences at the park was meeting Dale and John from Wings to Soar. This non-profit organization cares for non-releasable birds of prey, including the majestic Bald Eagle named Osceola. If you visit Rock City during the summer be sure to catch their free Birds of Prey show. They have an amazing story to share, and you will fall in love with their feathered co-stars.
One of the world’s tallest known subterranean waterfalls is under Lookout Mountain. A guided tour takes you on a 1-mile round trip trek to the waterfall and back in just under an hour and a half.
Though we knew lines would long, we saved Ruby Falls for midday in order to escape the heat. Temperatures at Ruby Falls stay around 60◦F year-round. We found the temperature quite comfortable until we reached the waterfall, where it seemed to get significantly cooler.
Along the route, your guide will point out several beautiful stalagmite and stalactite formations. Sadly, as the falls have been open for decades of tourism, many of the reachable formations are no longer active due to tourists touching them over the years.
Once reaching the waterfall, the timed color changing lights provide around 5 minutes of viewing. It’s plenty of time for everyone to get photographs before starting the return trip.
We suggest booking tickets ahead to avoid the ticketing line. Though be aware your allocated time slot is for entering the line for the tour. We waited about 30 minutes in line for the tour before getting on the elevator to head down into the cave.
Lookout Mountain also has one of the world’s steepest passenger railways. With a grade of 72.7%, two 100 horsepower winches pull the cars at just under 10 miles an hour. It takes about 15 minutes each direction. From the top, there is a platform within their facility to give you access to great views above the city.
Not interested in riding the railway? Or don’t want to wait through the lines? Don’t worry, Lookout Mountain and its other attractions are all easily accessible by car.
Chattanooga is just within the Eastern Time Zone. As we made our way to various locations on the outskirts of the city, our cellphones kept switching from Central to Eastern Time Zone towers. We found our watches more useful to keep track of time on this trip.
Mountain Memories Gift Shop
We don’t normally list gift shops as an attraction, but hear us out.
This sweet little place and the lady who runs it, are the epitome of southern hospitality. We stopped in for a drink and a quick photo of the Incline Railway, but stayed for the conversation and local knowledge.
The shop dates to 1928 and sits about half-way up the Incline Railway. Sadly, the railway does not stop here, but it offers a great viewing platform to watch it.
If you are looking for local souvenirs, this is as authentic as it gets. They specialize in very reasonably priced handmade quilts, moccasins and fudge but there is a whole ton of stuff here. We even picked up a huge jar of local honey and a few local jams.
Sculpture Fields at Montague Park
Before heading into the city for the evening we stopped at the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park. This free outdoor museum for modern art sits on a 33-acre public park. There is about 35 sculptures in total with several paths to follow.
Just be careful of red ants if you leave the path. Also note that there is no shelter or shade on the site. Other than that, it’s a pretty quiet place to take a stroll and enjoy the sculptures.
Free Summer Music Events
When we arrived in Chattanooga on Friday evening, we were surprised to stumble upon a large community festival. The gathering of motorcycles and food trucks initially caught our attention. As we got closer, we could hear a band playing and crowds cheering. There was so much energy from the crowd, we grabbed some food, took a wonder around the vendors and settled in to watch the show.
Later we learned these musical events happen every Friday and Saturday night in summer.
Going strong for over 32 seasons, this free musical event takes place in Miller Plaza and Miller Park in the city center. A local band kicks off the event at 7 pm. A national touring band takes the stage at 8 pm. Check their website for the schedule. These usually run from May to the end of August.
Located along the riverfront at Ross’s Landing. The outdoor stadium turns into the perfect place to celebrate the summer with music and food. These events typically run at 7 pm every Saturday night from late July to the end of August.
If you are not in Chattanooga for summer or it’s too hot to enjoy the outdoor festivities, a fun alternative are the local microbreweries.
Catch the city’s free electric shuttle (donations welcome) from the terminal station across from the Big River Grill. Take it to the end for the terminal station on Market Street. They run every 5 minutes.
Big River Grille & Brewing Works – Located on Broad Street near the riverfront. This micro-brewery serves a full menu along with a pretty good variety of small batch beers brewed on the property. We enjoyed the food and Jeremy found his new favorite beer, the Barrel-Aged Bock.
Raccoon Mountain Overlook
If you are an early riser, head west out of the city about 15 minutes to Raccoon Mountain. Managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority electric company, this free area incorporates a state designed Wildlife Observation Area. Lookout points and over 28 miles of hiking and biking trails cover the mountain and the valley below.
We arrived for sunrise, and headed for the Chattanooga Overlook. Photos do not do this view justice. It was breathtaking.
If you are there during opening hours, the visitor center has an amazing view over the valley on the other side. If you are there in winter, keep a lookout for the bald eagles nesting near the visitor center lookout.
A weekend in Chattanooga wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the local market. Luckily, mid-day on Sunday is the perfect time to head to the First Tennessee Pavilion. There are an amazing variety of goods on offer. We really loved all the handmade crafts. It’s also a great place to grab some lunch.
Be sure to stop by the local ice cream shop, Clumpies. A fantastic place to cool down from the day and sample some interesting flavors of ice cream. Lemon Basil anyone?? You pay by the weight so get as much or as little as you want in a scoop.
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Though they are in the process of restoring the building, this is a fun place to have a quick peak at the historical station. It now houses a hotel and some of the rail cars are even rooms you can rent.
In the Choo Choo complex, there is a little distillery, a train car that doubles as a bar in the evenings, a comedy club, a small game arcade and a few other retail and dining options.
Hunter Museum of Art
Next head over to the riverfront.
The architecture of the Hunter Museum is just as impressive as the art it contains. Confusingly, three very different style buildings (actually wings) make up the museum.
The Mansion, which clearly looks like a Georgian home. A concrete example of Brutalism, known as the 1970’s Building. Then there is the ultra-modern glass and steel 21st Century Waterfront West Wing.
The museum houses a small but interesting collection of primarily American art. There is a good mix of paintings, prints, sketches, glass works, photography and various mixed material pieces.
Don’t forget the sculpture garden surrounding the museum and the views of the Tennessee River from the back balcony.
Bluff View Art District
Next door to the art museum is the most beautiful historic neighborhood that pays homage to the arts. There’s an art gallery, coffee shop, bakery and few upmarket restaurants. All the buildings have their own historical character but our favorite is the bakery next to the sculpture garden.
On the far side of the neighborhood is a small sculpture garden. The sign says they close at 5, though we were told the gates are usually open from dawn to dusk. Throughout the neighborhood there are various sculptures hidden among the gardens and walking paths.
We actually stayed at the inn on this property at the circa 1889 Maclellan House. It is a beautiful place to stay with a lovely view of the river, and we found it super easy to walk into the city.
Running straight through the Bluff View Art District is a 13-mile walking trail. The trail starts at the Chickamauga Dam, then follows the river into and out of the city before reaching the Incline Railway.
Part of the trail includes a round trip over the Walnut Street Bridge. Built in 1890, the bridge is now for pedestrians and bikes only. It makes a lovely stroll over the river to the northern side of the city.
On the north side of the bridge is Coolidge Park, there are fountains for the kids to play in on a hot summer day and even an indoor carousel for a $1 a ride. There are also a few restaurants and bars in the area.
Looking for a nice place for dinner near the bridge? We can recommend White Bird. We both loved our mains and I keep thinking about their Fried Green Tomato Nuggets. Our only regret was not saving space for dessert. Reservations usually needed for a dinner sitting.
We had an amazing time in Chattanooga, and can’t wait to come back. What are your thoughts on what we should do next time we are in Chattanooga?