Chattanooga, Tennessee was on my “to do list” for a while, so we were excited to finally have an opportunity to explore the city. Even if it was for just a weekend.
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.
Unfortunately, it was a scolding hot southern summer weekend during our visit, so hiking was out of the question. Luckily, Chattanooga made a perfect small city break.
Here’s how we packed our two-days full of fun.
We started with an iconic view over Chattanooga at Point Park. As we had a long drive the day before, we were a little lazy and missed sunrise, but it was still gorgeous.
A short walking trail took us through a few historical monuments and memorabilia before getting to Ochs Memorial Observatory. Plaques around the viewpoint told a fascinating story of the city’s role in the Civil War.
Have a Little Fun at Rock City Gardens
We heard it can feel very touristy when it gets busy, so we headed to Rock City Gardens for opening. This was definitely the right choice. We had the park almost to ourselves and enjoyed the gardens much more than we originally thought we would.
We strolled the mile-long self-guided walking trail at a leisurely pace, stopping at all the fun and quirky attractions along the way. The walk itself was easy, and there were alternative routes to avoid stairs where needed.
The trail started with a narrow corridor surrounded by natural boulders and rock formations, hence the attraction’s name. Along the path, miniature barns painted with “See Rock City,” and tons of garden gnomes paid homage to the park’s start and 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 was amazing how far we could see.
Below the lookout point was 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.
You can see their free Birds of Prey show at Rock City during the summer. They have an amazing story to share, and you will fall in love with their feathered co-stars.
We loved them so much we’ve become donors. If you also support animal charities, please check out their website and consider donating. They are doing some great work.
Marvel at Ruby Falls
One of the world’s tallest known subterranean waterfalls is under Lookout Mountain. A guided tour took us on a 1-mile round trip trek to the waterfall and back in just under 1.5 hours.
Though we knew lines would be 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, our guide pointed 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.
Once we reached the waterfall, the guide turned on the color changing lights on a five-minute timer. This gave everyone plenty of time for photos before starting the return trip back to the surface.
We suggest booking tickets ahead to avoid the ticketing line. Though, it’s worth noting, the allocated time slot was only for entering the line for the tour. We then waited 30 minutes for the tour before finally getting on the elevator to head down into the cave.
Use the Incline Railway to Reach Lookout Mountain
Lookout Mountain 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 took about 15 minutes in each direction. From the top, there was a platform within their facility with great views above the city.
Not interested in riding the railway or waiting in the line? 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.
Meet a Local Treasure at the 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 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.
Feel Tiny at the 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 are about 35 sculptures in total with several paths to follow. Just be careful of nasty red ants if you leave the path.
Also, there was no shelter or shade on the site. Other than that, it was a quiet place to take a stroll and enjoy the sculptures.
Enjoy 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 wander around the vendors, and settled in to watch the show.
Later we learned these musical events happen every Friday and Saturday night in summer. Actually, they have a ton of different summer events. Here are the most popular.
Going strong for 30+ seasons, this free musical event takes place in Miller Plaza and Miller Park in the city center. Usually, a local band kicks off the event at 7 pm with a national touring band taking the stage at 8 pm. Check their website for the schedule. Typically, these run every Friday from May/June 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.
Sip at the Local Microbreweries
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.
Big River Grille & Brewing Works – Located on Broad Street near the riverfront. This micro-brewery served 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.
Wanderlinger Brewing Company – Though they didn’t have much in the way of food, this was a cool place to grab a drink. Free live musical performances are also a regular occurrence.
Terminal Brewhouse – Another place we grabbed a bite while trying some of the local brews. Though the names on the menu were a bit silly, the food was good. Oh, and the building was well worth a peek.
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.
Catch Sunrise at Raccoon Mountain Overlook
We did better at getting up for sunrise on day two and it was well worth it.
We headed west out of the city about 15 minutes to Raccoon Mountain. Managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority electric company, this free area had a state designed Wildlife Observation Area. Lookout points and over 28 miles of hiking and biking trails covered 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. In winter, keep a lookout for the bald eagles nesting near the visitor center.
Shop at Chattanooga Market
A weekend in Chattanooga wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the local market. Luckily, mid-day on Sunday was the perfect time to head to the First Tennessee Pavilion. There was an amazing variety of goods on offer. We loved all the handmade crafts. It was also a great place to grab 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.
Spend the Night at the Chattanooga Choo Choo
Though they were in the process of restoring the building, it was fun having a quick peak at the historical station.
Today, the old station houses a hotel. You can even stay in some of the old rail cars.
In the Choo Choo complex, there was a little distillery, a train car that doubled as a bar in the evenings, a comedy club, a small game arcade, and a few other retail and dining options.
Ponder the Hunter Museum of Art
Next, we headed over to the riverfront.
The architecture of the Hunter Museum was just as impressive as the art it contained. Confusingly, three very different style buildings made up the museum.
- The Mansion, which clearly looked like a Georgian home.
- Known as the 1970’s Building, a concrete example of Brutalism.
- A 21st Century Waterfront West Wing, an ultra-modern glass and steel complex.
The museum housed a small but interesting collection of primarily American art. There was a good mix of paintings, prints, sketches, glass works, photography and various mixed material pieces.
Don’t forget to check out the sculpture garden surrounding the museum and the views of the Tennessee River from the back balcony.
Wander the Bluff View Art District
Next door to the art museum was the most beautiful historic neighborhood that pays homage to the arts. There was an art gallery, coffee shop, bakery, and a few upmarket restaurants. All the buildings have their own historical character, but our favorite was the bakery next to the sculpture garden.
On the far side of the neighborhood was 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 various sculptures were hidden among the gardens and walking paths.
We stayed a night at the inn at the Maclellan House (circa 1889). With the lovely view of the river, it was a beautiful place to stay. Plus, we found it easy to walk into the city.
Walk the Tennessee Riverpark
Running straight through the Bluff View Art District was a 13-mile walking trail. The trail started at the Chickamauga Dam, then followed the river into and out of the city before reaching the Incline Railway.
Part of the trail included a round trip over the Walnut Street Bridge. Built in 1890, the bridge is now only open for pedestrians and bikes. We found it made a lovely stroll over the river to the northern side of the city.
On the north side of the bridge was Coolidge Park. As it was such a hot summer day, local kid’s played in the fountains to cool off. The park also had a beautifully restored indoor carousel that caught our attention. At only $1 a ride, it’s a local favorite.
The area also had several restaurants and bars, but since we already had dinner plans on the south side of the bridge, we didn’t eat here.
Finally, to close off our weekend, we grabbed dinner at White Bird, an upscale restaurant close to the south side of the Walnut Street Bridge. 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 are usually needed for a dinner sitting.
Where to Stay in Chattanooga
- The Bluff View Inn was in a great central location, close to the river and the Walnut Street Bridge.
- For close proximity to Lookout Mountain, we stayed a night at the Hampton Inn Lookout Mountain.
- We also stayed a night at the inn at the Maclellan House (circa 1889) in the historic art district. If you’re looking for something with a lot of character, this place is beautiful.
- For something a little different, look no further than the Chattanooga Choo Choo. While regular hotel rooms are available, the hotel also boasts rooms in pullman train coaches.
Books on Chattanooga
If you plan on staying in the Chattanooga area a while, it’s worth getting a book on some of the local trails and history.
- Chattanooga: 40 Spectacular Hikes in and Around the Scenic City – If it’s not blistering hot, Chattanooga has an awesome outdoor scene. This book with help you find the best trails for your ability.
- The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga – Part of a three-book trilogy on the battles which took place in and around Chattanooga and Middle TN.
- Haunted Chattanooga – The South and ghost stories go hand-in-hand, and this book has some of Chattanooga’s best haunting stories.
For more Tennessee getaways, here are a few other posts you may like.