No matter why you visit Chattanooga—art, architecture, hiking, or food—its layers are best discovered on foot. Like Greenville, this former industrial city has cleverly reinvented itself, leaning into wildly diverse architectural bones and stellar terrain, albeit with a Tennessee riverfront setting. Peel back the layers and you’re bound to find one, if not several, that speak to you.
Chattanooga’s proximity lures me on short notice; I arrive downtown at happy hour. My first stop—even before checking in—is the Bar and Billiards Room at The Read House. A resident mixologist crafts what turns out to be one of the best cocktails in the city, his “Chattanooga-twisted old fashioned.” Lobby views from the mezzanine are nothing short of dazzling. Whether or not you stay at this sexy Prohibition-style hotel, it’s a must-see.
From there, it’s only a few steps up to the West Village’s festive Chestnut Street. This small district’s colorful Umbrella Alley tempts me to snap some playful selfies, but my ultimate destination is foodie favorite Easy Bistro, run by James Beard Award nominee Chef Erik Niel (reservations recommended).
The next morning is dedicated to exploring the aptly named Bluff View Arts District. I enjoy a sunny patio with happy patrons of Rembrandt’s Coffee House before whiling away some time in the rambling River Gallery. The Bluff View enclave also holds a large bed-and-breakfast compound and an impressive cliffside sculpture garden, brimming with works by a variety of notables.
It’s mere steps to the Hunter Museum of American Art, which punctuates the city’s riverfront cliffs with metallic drama. Due to pandemic restrictions, the Hunter is issuing timed tickets (as are most large attractions). Plan on losing track of at least an hour or two viewing works from the Hudson River School and the intriguing Ash Can School, as well as original works by modern, contemporary, and regional artists.
Chattanooga is designed for pedestrians. A transparent skywalk connects the Hunter to the popular Walnut Street Bridge, which traverses the river. I enjoy the trek across to Chattanooga’s North Shore neighborhood. Working my way along Frasier Avenue—buying handmade goods at Locals Only, and witty gifts from Blue Skies—I eventually refuel and rest a bit at Taco Mamacita.
Adventure Sports Innovation, down below Frasier Avenue, is a mind-blowing stop for outdoor recreation junkies, many of whom may have initially come to town for climbing. The company’s spider-like off-road vehicles are available for adventure tours on nearby Lookout Mountain. My imagination now on fire, I juice up my step count along the River Walk (which spans both sides of the Tennessee). After crossing the bridge again, I arrive at The Edwin Hotel, its crown The Whiskey Thief rooftop lounge. Here I look down and across to every place I’ve just explored.
My favorite meal—worth the drive to Chattanooga—is an evening at Alleia in the Southside district. The restaurant’s patio is full; indoor tables are spaced but humming. Between sips of my cocktail, I watch deft open-kitchen choreography. My grilled romaine salad with house-made guanciale is so good, I briefly consider eating two and skipping an entrée. Luckily, I order (and savor) a prosciutto, fig, and arugula flatbread, before forcing myself to leave the soothing ambience.
Lookout Mountain beckons me early the next day. Thirty miles of trails crisscross this recreational playground, favorites departing from Cravens House and the Glen Falls trailhead. I fully admit to enjoying famed Rock City at the mountain’s crest, its self-guided trails and footbridges wind through massive boulders and crevasses, and culminate at the spot where seven states are visible at once. After driving past the inviting Café on the Corner and parking near the top of the Incline Railway, I stroll through a striking neighborhood to reach historic Civil War site Park Point. Epic views of the river’s horseshoe bend and all of downtown are well worth the cost of entry.
I drive back down the mountain for a snack at HiFi Clyde’s, a game-filled pub. The bohemian Southside district, with its murals and highly imaginative repurposed buildings, is—like so much of the city—ripe for wandering on foot. At The Hot Chocolatier, I stock up on artisanal sweets for friends and family. Then I set off to explore the historic Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel complex (where guests can sleep in renovated train cars still on the tracks); Gallery 1401; Terminal Brewhouse; Wanderlinger Brewery (which stages socially distanced live music events); and several eye-popping new apartment buildings.
At day’s end, I grab an open-air barstool at the industrial-style Flying Squirrel, devour a bowl of ramen, and wash it down with favorite local brew Hutton & Smith. As night falls over the city, I make one last detour to marvel at the head-turning High Point Climbing facility, variant LEDs backlighting its multistory, climbing-wall exoskeleton.
Then and there, I realize Chattanooga is a fusion of Greenville’s great urban design and Asheville’s funkiness. It will take several more visits just to absorb the architecture and public art peppered across this Southern dynamo, but I’m up to the task.
The Edwin Hotel / Walking distance to riverfront and the Bluff View Arts District make this new boutique hotel a winner. 102 Walnut St. (423) 713-5900, theedwinhotel.com
The Read House / This historic hotel has wide-ranging price points and makes a sexy home base. 3107 Martin Luther King Blvd. (423) 266-4121, thereadhousehotel.com
Chattanooga Choo Choo / Book your very own train car for lodging within walking distance of Southside restaurants and breweries. 1400 Market St. (423) 266-5000, choochoo.com
Riverwalk / Stretching for miles along the Tennessee, the Riverwalk connects to area attractions. Riverfront Parking, 160 Riverfront Pkwy. (423) 648-4034
Lookout Mountain / Drive or hike up Lookout Mountain for trails, Rock City, and Park Point overlook. Incline Railway top station, 827 E Brow Rd, Lookout Mountain. (423) 821-4224, lookoutmountain.com
Alleia / Rustic Italian fare crafted from local ingredients scintillates and satisfies diners at this popular neighborhood hub. 25 E Main St. (423) 305-6990, alleiarestaurant.com
Easy Bistro / This upscale dining experience could be the best place to make new foodie friends. 801 Chestnut St. (423) 266-1121, easybistro.com
Flying Squirrel / An open-air setting provides lots of seating options at this popular Southside hangout. 55 Johnson St. (423) 602-5980, flyingsquirrelbar.com