Where to Go in Chattanooga


How often do people outside the South think about Chattanooga? Or, to localize that even further, how often do people outside of East Tennessee and Northwest Georgia think about Chattanooga? However much that happens, it probably isn’t enough. This gorgeous city has a fascinating history and is the perfect size for a weekend getaway. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, with Lookout Mountain looming over the city and the Tennessee River running right through it, Chattanooga is a top spot for hikers and other outdoorsy types. It also has a bounty of exciting activities and attractions for all of us who prefer the comfort of the indoors, as well. Once you visit Chattanooga, it’s readily apparent why it’s known as the Scenic City. 

I used to hang out in Chattanooga a bit in the early ‘00s, when I lived just across the border in Georgia. I’d hit up Chad’s Records and Lamar’s (RIP), take in a Lookouts minor league baseball game, catch movies out by Hamilton Place, and eat at Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria in the Bluff View Art District when celebrating special occasions. It was a cool town then and it’s only gotten cooler since, despite the loss of Lamar’s. It’s close enough to—and different enough from—Atlanta to make a combo trip worth it for anybody who doesn’t live in the region. If you ever do make it to Chattanooga, it’s best, as always, to have a plan; here are some of our favorite things to do in the Scenic City.

Where to Go

Ruby Falls

The biggest attraction in downtown Chattanooga is the Tennessee Aquarium. The world’s largest freshwater aquarium when it opened in 1992, this riverfront aquarium originally focused on the wildlife and ecosystem of rivers from around the world. That alone made it a familiar field trip excursion for school kids throughout Tennessee and Northwest Georgia, but the Tennessee Aquarium wasn’t content to rest on its lilypads. In 2005 it opened a large expansion that looked at ocean life, just a few months before Atlanta’s own Georgia Aquarium opened and cut into its audience a bit. Even if you’ve been to the much larger one in Atlanta, you should take time to hit up Chattanooga’s aquarium. Not only will you learn some fascinating information about the Tennessee River and other bodies of water around the globe, but you’ll get to marvel at all manner of glorious sea creatures. Heck, the otter habitat alone is worth the cost of admission. And if you go on a weekend, you’ll get to browse the Chattanooga River Market outside the aquarium.

Before the Tennessee Aquarium, tourism in Chattanooga was defined by Lookout Mountain. Standing at almost 2500 feet high, the ridge looms over the city and outlying areas, with local legend (or at least one tourist attraction) claiming that you can see seven different states on a clear day. You can drive to the top, but the incline railway is the best and most scenic way to scale the mountain. Once inhabited by the area’s native Chickamauga people, the mountain was the site of a Civil War battle, like pretty much the entirety of this region of the country. (Even the most diehard Civil War reenactor would get their fill of the thing if they lived anywhere between Chattanooga and Atlanta.) Today, though, the mountain is worth visiting for two classic tourist sites that have been drawing people to Chattanooga for almost a century: Rock City and Ruby Falls.

Famous for its ubiquitous ads on the sides of barns throughout America in the middle part of the 20th century, Rock City is a fairytale-themed rock garden on top of Lookout Mountain. You’ll see gnomes, fairies, and other creatures from folklore throughout the grounds, and, as mentioned above, might be able to see up to seven states when the weather’s permitting. It’s also home to what’s considered the world’s first mini-golf course. Don’t expect a carnival or amusement park, as one young future Paste travel editor did when his family first took him here in his childhood; Rock City is a charming, relaxing, old-fashioned attraction that doesn’t need cheap thrills to attract an audience.

The other classic attraction on Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls looks inward instead of outward. Guests take a 260-foot elevator deep into the mountain itself in order to gaze upon the 145 foot waterfall in Ruby Falls Cave. During the walk to the waterfall your tour guide will point out various unusual rock formations, including ones that look like a plate of breakfast food, various animals, and a dragon’s foot. The waterfall itself is legitimately awe-inspiring; after walking through a narrow, meandering cavern for a half hour or so, you’ll come upon a spacious chamber in the middle of the mountain. Unseen streams converge almost 150 feet above, forming a waterfall that rages into a pool below. Ruby Falls dresses it up a bit with atmospheric lights and music, a crucial step that enhances the waterfall’s inherent majesty. Watching this natural wonder in a place that humans weren’t meant to see—this cavern had no natural opening, and had to be discovered through drilling like one of those underground chambers in Minecraft—is a legitimately powerful experience. And when you’re done you can buy a pocket knife with your name on it in the gift shop above.

Chattanooga Knives

Let’s leave Lookout Mountain and its natural wonders behind and head back downtown for some man-made marvels. The Chattanooga Pinball Museum at 409 Broad Street features over 44 machines of God’s greatest game, ranging from early ‘70s electro-mechanical jawns like 1973’s OXO and 1971’s Four Million B.C., to the latest high-tech whatsises from Stern and Jersey Jack. That’s right, you’ll be able to play brand new, state-of-the-art, very of-the-moment machines like 2021’s Godzilla, 2022’s James Bond 007 (with the Dr. No artwork), and 2019’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. There’s also a selection of old coin-op arcade games from the ‘80s and early ‘90s for those intimidated by the power of pinball. A flat rate gets you free play all day, making the Chattanooga Pinball Museum a fantastic bargain for anybody who enjoys having fun and being cool as hell.

Finally, Chattanooga has a number of notable museums, from the traditional to the one-of-a-kind. The Hunter Museum of American Art is known for its collections of 19th century landscapes and American impressionism, as well as a burgeoning collection of post-World War II contemporary art. The Bessie Smith Cultural Center and Chattanooga African American Museum explores Chattanooga’s African American heritage, from the introduction of slavery into the area, through the Civil Rights movement, and up to the events of today. The Coker Museum houses a ton of cool cars and motorcycles owned by Corky Coker of Chattanooga’s Coker Tire, and if that’s not enough for the automobile acolyte in your family you can also hit up the International Towing and Recovery Museum to see the amazing history of tow trucks in person. Finally, the Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum displays a selection of guitars that traces the history of the instrument, including guitars once owned by Chuck Berry, Loretta Lynn, Duane Allman, and more; Songbirds is also a non-profit foundation that raises money for music education and therapy, and a concert venue.

Where to Eat

Easy Bistro & Bar

Easy Bistro & Bar has been a Chattanooga staple for years, moving to a new space in the West Village during the height of the pandemic. Owner and James Beard nominated chef Erik Niel adapts French cuisine with ingredients sourced locally, and the result is a rich, complex menu of small plates, large meat portions, and both raw and roasted seafood. The Bavette steak was a fine entree, served medium rare and dowsed with au poivre sauce, while the tagliatelle with Chilean black winter truffles was a standout pasta dish. Our favorites were two small plates, though; the “Ode to Peanuts” was a sweet, salty delight, with summer melons, peanuts, and Surryano ham, while a plate of heirloom tomatoes and nectarines with pecans, fromage blanc and aged balsamic basically tasted like summer on a plate. 

Located in Southside, Flying Squirrel is a two-story spot with a big patio and a menu full of shared plates. Favorites include the savory Japanese pancake known as okonomiyaki, which can be served with or without pork belly, and spicy Korean “candy” chicken, which are small pieces of chicken fried in gochujang buttermilk with a lightly spicy bite to them. The best thing we ordered, though, was a tie between the heirloom tomato salad and the charred peach tomato pasta; both were perfectly refreshing for a hot day near the end of summer. And a deep wine and beer selection is complemented with a handful of classic and seasonal cocktails. Sit upstairs, if you can; there’s a dog park next door and watching them buddies romp around made our meal even better.

Lupi’s Pizza Pies has been a humble hometime favorite for almost three decades. The original Downtown location feels to this Atlanta native like Mellow Mushroom before it franchised itself out nationwide—like a cool little local spot with good pizza and a distinct sense of style. You can buy by the slice or the pie, or choose from a plethora of calzone and salad options, and whatever you get will taste fresh and made-to-order, unlike the prefab stuff from the big chains. The Downtown spot also has a pinball machine and a handful of arcade games, if you yearn for that classic childhood pizzeria vibe.

Where to Drink

Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery

Matilda Midnight, the bar at the swank little hotel The Dwell (more on that later), is a laidback little haunt with a luxe vibe and a deep bench of custom and classic cocktails. I never thought I would welcome Death but I totally dug the two I drank at this place; the banana-infused overproof rum with amaro, passion fruit, and an absinthe wash didn’t kill me but it definitely left me feeling a little numb in a delicious way. A solid wine and beer list round out the menu, but the true highlight is the ambiance, and especially the artificial nighttime sky above the bar. You know that thing some EPCOT restaurants do where they make it seem like you’re eating outside in Germany or Mexico or wherever, even when you’re in an air conditioned building in Orlando? They kind of do that here, and I absolutely love them for it.

Stir is much bigger and busier than Matilda Midnight, but it has a good rep and I can see why: it’s the king of cocktails, as far as Chattanooga is concerned. With orgeat, falernum and passion fruit jockeying for your tongue’s attention, the Saturn is like a tiki drink but with gin instead of rum; meanwhile the Whiskey Bramble adds orange blossom water for a tart, profound, citrusy take on the Old Fashioned. The drink list is full of thoughtful combinations like these, including a handful of carbonated cocktails on draft and a few barrel-aged drinks for the whiskey devotees. And if you want something straight, they’ve got a wide selection of all kinds of spirits. You can also snag a full meal here, too, if you’d like.

Long ago, well before Prohibition, Chattanooga was a major hub for whiskey and other distilled spirits. That ended when Tennessee enacted its own statewide prohibition a decade before the rest of the country, shuttering all of the city’s (legal) distilleries. Even after the 21st Amendment, Tennessee prohibited distilling in all but three counties for almost 80 years. That didn’t change until 2009, but even when it was expanded to 41 additional counties, Chattanooga’s Hamilton County wasn’t one of them. That didn’t stop the Chattanooga Whiskey Co. from starting in 2011 with the explicit goal of changing the laws and bringing a homemade whiskey back to Chattanooga. Spoiler: they got it done, and since 2015 guests have been able to tour and taste the company’s offerings at the Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery. With a capacity of only 100 gallons, this small operation lets Chattanooga Whiskey experiment with various ingredients and techniques in search of new and unique varieties of hooch. The short tour is a solid primer for anybody new to the world of whiskey, but the main reason to come is to take a seat at the bar (or the backyard atrium era) and drink some of the magic they whip up in those barrels downstairs. Make sure you get a reservation, though; you need to book your tours in advance.

Where to Stay

The Dwell is, in a word, elegant. This luxury boutique hotel’s 16 rooms are all decked out in a unique theme, with tasteful yet chic furnishings largely in the midcentury style. We stayed in the Flamingo suite, and yes, the walls were adorned with flamingo art prints and wallpaper. Other suites include the Convex, full of geometric designs, and the Tiki, with an in-suite bar and a tasteful nautical theme. Conveniently located downtown, the Dwell is about a block over from Miller Plaza Pavilion, the site of the weekly summer concert series Nightfall, and is an easy walk to many of the places I mentioned above. It’s also home to the excellent Matilda Midnight bar. Despite its elegance, the Dwell isn’t stuffy, and I think that has something to do with its history; although this hotel only opened in 2016, the building dates to 1909, when it was known as the Colonial Hotel. Before its latest revamp, it was operated for years as the Stone Fort Inn. There are other fantastic hotels in town, some of which are more affordable, but if you want to make your Chattanooga visit truly unforgettable, grab a room at The Dwell.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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