11 Reasons to Drive to Chattanooga, Tennessee

Amazing restaurants, public art, and beautiful scenery abound.

We could all use a chance to get the heck out of town now and then, really just somewhere other than our own backyards. Day trips feel safest, but overnights are doable if you don’t have to spend too much time on the road. Chattanooga is an ideal choice for a road trip from Nashville, close enough to reach in a couple of hours, but a world away in terms of topography, attractions, and the overall vibe. More than just a pit stop on the way to Atlanta, Chattanooga has plenty to offer in its own right, and at least you’ll be keeping your tax dollars at home in Tennessee. Get ready to hit the road!

Chattanooga is closer than you think.

Chattanooga is only a two-hour drive from Nashville down Interstate 24, and you’ll even take a quick trip through Georgia along the way. (Liquor taxes are cheaper in Georgia, and there’s a Costco right across the border on the far side of downtown.) The trip from Music City to Scenic City takes you across the beautiful Cumberland Plateau down into the Sequatchie Valley with side trip opportunities to the quaint college town of Sewanee or the sweeping vistas from Jasper Highlands. Or you can stop in South Pittsburg, home of the National Cornbread Festival and Lodge Cast Iron, where you can pick up some cheap skillets at an outlet store.

Bluff View Art District
Bluff View Art District

The town really knows how to take advantage of a riverfront.

Chattanooga has developed its downtown around a holistic plan to connect both sides of the river, including Ross’s Landing Park with expansive green spaces for lounging or playing, the pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge to link downtown with the hip NorthShore neighborhood, a minor league baseball park looming over the river, boat ramps to launch personal watercraft, the museums of the Bluff View Art District—and attractions like the Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum, and a 16-mile long Riverwalk to connect everything together for walking and biking.

Public Art Chattanooga
Public Art Chattanooga

Public art is everywhere.

Music City’s primary downtown works of public art look like a deconstructed rollercoaster and some Pick Up Stix. In Chattanooga, the city has dedicated itself and a significant part of its public budget to sprinkling whimsical works of sculpture and murals around the city to provide a pleasant surprise around almost every corner during a stroll around the city center. From a giant blue rhino to classic sculptural figures to modern architectural structures, there are striking sites to see all over the city.

The whole family will enjoy it.

Whenever minor league baseball finally hits the field again, a night at the ballpark watching the AA Lookouts play is a charming throwback to times when sports weren’t big business. Kids love the Tennessee Aquarium, a unique facility constructed to mimic the flow of water from the small headwater streams of the Tennessee highlands all the way to the great rivers and finally out to the ocean. Visitors head to the top of the towering building to see small fish swimming in natural habitats and then progress down walkways past aquariums housing larger and larger sea creatures as creeks become streams, then rivers and finally, the Gulf of Mexico.

Adjacent to the aquarium is a large IMAX theater screening dramatic nature documentaries and the engaging Creative Discovery Museum filled with interactive exhibits filled with buttons to push and levers to pull that will delight children and OCD adults. The Coolidge Park Carousel is another family favorite with hand carved steeds ready to take your kids on a musical ride to nowhere. Mommy and Daddy can ride on the gold-leafed benches if they’re prone to motion sickness. Finally, experience the SWINCAR e-spider at Adventure Sports Innovation. The unique, French-made four wheelers can be rented with a guide and ridden through the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center.

Hunter Museum of American Art
Hunter Museum of American Art

These attractions are, well, attractive.

The museums of Chattanooga aren’t just for the kiddies. The Hunter Museum of American Art is a world-class facility and the highlight of the Bluff View Art District. Between its permanent collection and rotating exhibitions, the Hunter showcases a wide range of iconic artwork and sculpture representing more than three centuries of American creativity. Although the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is temporarily closed, it typically houses an exceptional collection of artifacts that tell the stories of African-American contributions to the culture of the city with a special emphasis on the importance of Bessie Smith, known as “The Empress of the Blues.”

You can learn about military heroes and tow trucks at some quirky museums.

Chattanooga hosts some eccentric and fun museums that are worth a visit to see artifacts that you’ll never find gathered anywhere else. The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center pays homage and tells the stories of the recipients of the highest honor that the American government can bestow upon members of the military. 

The towing industry isn’t the most beloved, but the International Towing Museum might change your mind. The museum gathers artifacts from a century of the industry, including Holmes’s original truck and the Chevy Silverado that set the tow truck speed record of almost 110 mph on the track at Talladega in 1979. Cory Coker was another local gearhead, collecting vintage cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses, and even aircraft that are now displayed in the warehouse where Coker once stored his company’s inventory of tires, aka the Coker Museum.

Pinball wizards will want to pass some time at the Classic Arcade Pinball Museum in downtown Chattanooga. With operable machines from as far back as the early 1970’s, your admission ticket entitles you to free play all day. The collection also includes historical games that aren’t available for play, but they do demonstrate the technological advances through history of these entertainment devices.

Chattanooga Whiskey
Chattanooga Whiskey

There’s a reason they call it Chatta-hoochie. 

Chattanooga lagged behind other large cities in the state when it came to legalizing distilling within city limits, but once they did free the spirits, Chattanooga Distilling came out of the blocks running. The inventive distillery actually developed a whole new category of whiskey that they call Tennessee High Malt, and it’s a delicious meeting point between the smoky peat of scotch and the sweet corn of bourbon. Their innovative experimental distillery offers tastings and tours, including some products that aren’t available anywhere else.Craft beer fans can find plenty to love in Chattanooga at breweries like Heaven & Ale, Hutton & Smith, Oddstory Brewing, Chattanooga Brewing, The Terminal Brewhouse and others, or you can sign up for an excursion with ChattaBrew Tour and let them introduce you to the tops on tap. Flying Squirrel shakes up and stirs craft cocktails in a dramatic ambiance that feels like drinking in an airplane hangar that’s been decorated with the leftovers from a barn raising. (Trust us, it works.) The Bitter Alibi is another expansive drinking venue, but their playful takes on classic cocktails are the perfect accompaniment to a menu of internationally-inspired small bites.

Sugar's Ribs
Sugar's Ribs

The restaurant scene is hopping.

Chattanooga has something for every palate or budget. Try down-home spots like Sugar’s Ribs, with its wide variety of smoked meats and actual live goats grazing in the backyard. Or opt for modern elevated Southern eateries like the James Beard-nominated Easy Bistro. In one of the city's most historic buildings, Urban Stack has over-the-top decadent bar food, and a bourbon selection that makes it pretty darned difficult to tear yourself off the bar stool. Alleia focuses on rustic Italian cuisine, using local and seasonal ingredients to add a sense of terroir to their house-made pasta dishes. Neutral Ground is a relative newcomer to the city’s dining scene, but their takes on quintessential Big Easy dishes like po’ boys and yakamein has quickly made them a favorite.

Booking a night at the Kinley Chattanooga Hotel will put you across the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo full of places to eat like the Frothy Monkey with house made bagels and thick cut bacon. Main Street Meats makes everything in house from cured meats and head cheese, to spreads and burgers using locally sourced meat. Grab some incredible pastries, soft pretzels, breads, and breakfast sandwiches from Niedlov’s Bakery & Café. The Shrimp and Grits from Whitebird can’t be missed while in town and don’t forget to stop into Sleepyhead for a latte.
 

Outdoor activity opportunities abound.

The rolling hills around town are ideal for cyclists to clock off a few miles of climbing, and the most intrepid riders can take on the route of a former race called the 3 State 3 Mountain Ride, a century that travels through Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia including more than a mile of elevation gain. Whitewater enthusiasts can make the easy drive over to the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympics kayaking competitions. Many outfitters lead canoe and rafting trips down the churning Ocoee as well as the nearby Hiwassee and Nantahala rivers. Meanwhile, High Point Climbing & Fitness/Downtown offers both indoor rock climbing and outdoor climbing with a professional guide at Sunset Rock if the weather cooperates. Be one of the first in North America to experience the SWINCAR e-spider at Adventure Sports Innovation. The unique, French-made four wheelers can be rented with a guide and ridden through the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center. 

The area around Chattanooga offers easy hiking trips that showcase some beautiful waterfalls. A particular favorite is the (rather unimaginatively named) Falling Water Falls, a magnificent 110-foot tall cascade, plummeting into a misty gorge filled with gorgeous native foliage. Lula Falls is a similar height, but features an even greater volume of water tumbling over the edge of the precipice. Instead of landing in a deep pool, the water thunders down upon a flat shelf of rock and large boulders to create a dramatic scene.

Incline Railway
Incline Railway

You can see seven states at once.

Lookout Mountain is famous for its slogan “See Seven States,” and on a clear day, you really can spy Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama from the top of the peak. Wait, that’s only six. Oh yeah, look at your feet and you’ll see Tennessee. The famous Incline Railway carries visitors from the valley floor up to the top of Lookout Mountain to enjoy that view, and the ride up is half the fun. Another long-time attraction is the kitschy Rock City, with its dramatic overlooks, swinging bridges, and enchanted gardens filled with beautiful plants and slightly creepy statues of gnomes, it has been a popular destination since the first “See Rock City” sign was emblazoned on a roadside barn roof in 1935.

Ruby Falls
Ruby Falls

There's an incredible underground waterfall.

The final attraction in the Lookout Mountain complex is actually underground, where you can tour the tallest subterranean waterfall in the country (open to the public, that is). Visitors descend more than 250 feet below the surface to tour the caverns, with colorful light shows reflecting off of limestone formations. Then, you reach the 145-foot cascading Ruby Falls tumbling from the surface to the pool below. It’ll be dark at first, then all of a sudden, the falls light up, creating a breathtaking experience. You’ll also learn all about the cave’s accidental discovery by Leo Lambert on a harrowing 17-hour expedition in 1928. The falls are named after Lambert’s wife, Ruby, and opened to the public in 1930. —Jess Kelly

Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink, and travel writer based in Nashville. Follow him @CeeElCee.

Jess Kelly contributed reporting to this article.