12 Reasons to Drive to Chattanooga, Tennessee

From fantastic restaurants to bizarre museums, there are plenty of reasons to take the short road trip to Chattanooga.

Downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee | Kevin Ruck/Shutterstock
Downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee | Kevin Ruck/Shutterstock

Tennessee is divided into three grand regions, marked by the three stars on the state flag. In the west, it’s so flat that if you get lost, you can just stand on the hood of your car to see the next town. Middle Tennessee has beautiful farmland and rolling hills, but it’s the east where it finally gets topographically interesting. Just a two-hour drive from Nashville, Chattanooga features real honest-to-goodness mountains and a beautiful river carving curves through downtown, and that’s just one reason why you should jump in your car to go see the River City. Here are a dozen more.

It’s 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. (Pro tip: 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, TN, home of the National Cornbread Festival and Lodge Cast Iron, where you can pick up some cheap skillets at their outlet store.

Tennessee River
Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Chattanooga knows how to take advantage of a riverfront

We’re trying to connect the East bank and West side of the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville, but Chattanooga is way ahead when it comes to developing an organic approach to taking advantage of the sweeping curves of the Tennessee River flowing through the urban core. Nashville is making some progress with recent announcements and developments, but the ten blocks between the river and the bustling Five Points neighborhood of East Nashville don’t have a lot to offer in the way of entertainment or walkability.

Chattanooga has developed their 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 their 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.

Tennessee Aquarium
Tennessee Aquarium

It’s a family-friendly destination

Minor league baseball is as American as apple pie, and 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… 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. The Bessie Smith Cultural Center permanently 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.”

The Coker Museum at Honest Charley
The Coker Museum at Honest Charley

There are some seriously 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 1970s, 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. The museum also hosts tournaments to prove your prowess.

Rail & Hops Brewers Festival
Rail & Hops Brewers Festival

Chattanoogans know how to get festive

Chattanooga is blessed with some fantastic outdoor spaces for hosting musical, culinary, and cultural events, so it doesn’t take much for them to throw up a stage and some fencing to create festival grounds. The 4 Bridges Arts Festival draws thousands of visitors to browse and buy from more than a hundred talented artisans who are selected by a jury for participation. Rails & Hops turns a new downtown public space into a giant beer garden hosted by local and regional craft breweries. Riverbend is Chattanooga’s biggest and oldest music festival, featuring performers from across many musical genres for almost four decades.

Whiskey Thief
Whiskey Thief

It's got some great drinking spots

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. 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. Whiskey Thief offers sweeping views of the river and great drinks at Chattanooga’s first rooftop cocktail lounge atop the Edwin Hotel.

Easy Bistro & Bar
Easy Bistro & Bar

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 or Memo’s Grill for their famous chopped hot dog plate.

Ocoee Rafting
Ocoee Rafting

Outdoor activity opportunities abound

The rolling hills around town are ideal for cyclists to clock off a few miles of climbing, so bring your own bike or rent one from the city’s fleet of cruisers and e-bikes. 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.

Lookout Mountain
Lookout Mountain | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

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 | Mia2you/Shutterstock

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

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink, and travel writer. If Nashville was theLove Boat, he’d like to think he’d be Julie, your cruise director. In truth, he’s probably more of a Gopher. Join him on the Lido Deck on Twitter @CeeElCee.

Jess Kelly contributed reporting to this article.