Nestled against the Tennessee River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga, Tenn., has transformed itself in recent decades from an unassuming town to a hyper clean, high-tech (“Gig City” was the first in the United States to offer gigabit internet speeds), outdoorsy family destination that offers hiking trails, rock climbing, museums, one of the finest educational aquariums in the world, and innumerable food and entertainment venues.
Families can share experiences that lean more toward kayaking and mountain biking than meeting Mickey or riding Space Mountain, though the region has a number of its own natural rides (white-water rafting on the nearby Ocoee River, for example, and Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding school is just 20 minutes away). The region “where cotton meets corn” is evident in Chattanooga’s straddling of two cultures:the mountain communities of Southern Appalachia to the north and the cotton-growing states to the south. Nearly geeky in its optimism — and all the better for it —Chattanooga is a breath of fresh air.
Start out slow at the Hunter Museum of American Art in the Bluff View Arts District overlooking the Tennessee River. The outstanding collection — housed in an early 20th-century mansion, a modern 1970s-era building and a contemporary structure of steel and glass —represents the sprawling artistic talent of the American soul, from the Colonial period to the present day, with works by Thomas Cole, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Helen Frankenthaler, among many others. There is also photography by Lorna Simpson and Sally Mann, and glass works by Karen LaMonte and Dale Chihuly, and, for children, plenty of hands-on activities.Adult admission: $15. Children under 17: free.
There will soon be action verbs in your sentences, so head to nearby Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria in a former carriage house of a Victorian mansion for some fancy carb loading that won’t break the bank. Just about everything here is made from scratch and time tested. Grab a seat on the upper deck under the wisteria, and try the Low Country linguine with sautéed crawfish and mushrooms ($13) or seafood ravioli with dill sauce ($14). Warning: It’s all too easy to gorge on the olive oil dip with bits of pecorino, so go easy.
Avoid the tourist crush at Ruby Falls by opting for the lesser-known Ruby Falls Lantern Tour, which squires and schools small groups through the Lookout Mountain Caves to a 145-foot waterfall more than 1,000 feet below the surface, and named after the wife of its discoverer. The tour traverses a maze of corridors with formations the guides explain along the way. At some point, the guide will require participants to turn off their lanterns to experience total darkness, but not after hitting the switch on the falls’ spectacular light show. Lantern Tours are available from February through November and cost $29.95.
After breakfast (suggestion: alderwood-smoked salmon frittata for $8.75 at The Bluegrass Grill) make your way to Zip Stream Aerial Adventure, also at Ruby Falls. Zip-lining is fast becoming a bucket list item for many outdoor enthusiasts, and this zip line run is family friendly — for those who can reach up to 70 inches and whose weight falls between 60 and 275 pounds. Choose from one of the courses developed for children that include tunnels, zigzag bridges and swinging logs with zip-lining at the end. Just want to fly through the pines at about 35 miles per hour? The park offers a zip-line experience, à la carte, for $29.95.
This isn’t the time to steer away from fried food. Family-owned Uncle Larry’s fries up fresh catfish to something close to sublime. Tilapia and other fish, shrimp and pork chops are on the menu, but it’s the delicately battered catfish that keeps the locals coming back. It all started at a family reunion when the owner, Larry Torrance, was goaded into going commercial. Two large pieces of fish with two sides and a soda will set you back about $14. Add on a slice of key lime cake ($3.35) to complete the diet fail — it’s worth it.
New to the Chattanooga Choo Choo campus on Station Street and gaining national attention for its rare vintage guitar collection, Songbirds Guitar Museum is a staggering compilation that appeals to both guitar connoisseurs and those who wouldn’t know a Fender from a fender. The self-guided tour takes patrons through the origins of rock ’n’ roll, showcasing music history from the 1930s through the 1970s ($15). There is a collection of custom-color Stratocasters and one of the most complete sets of Gibson Firebirds, Telecasters, Esquires and Jazzmasters in the world. For $38.95, you can take a guided tour through “the vault,” which houses some extremely rare guitars. In the evening, consider a visit to the museum’s live venue, Songbirds South.
Visit bikechattanooga.com, then find one of the numerous bike stations close to the waterfront. For $8 an hour, you can bike along the river and past the diverse merchants on Broad Street and its environs. Take a nostalgic trip through Americana at the Moon Pie General Store, a novelty gift shop where Moon Pies are still made, or help create your own glass ornament at Ignis Glass Studio (Ignis suggests calling first: 423-265-2565). Find time to get to Highpoint Climbing and Fitness Gym to watch people scaling the gym’s surreal 60-foot-high outdoor climbing wall. Or send the young ones (or yourself) scrambling skyward.
The Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar is one of the few foodie haunts in Chattanooga situated right on the Tennessee River. Ask the bartender about the Boathouse’s Sips program, which allows one to taste any of the 16 rotating high-end wines at a fraction of the cost. The “sips” are four ounces. The minimum is $10, and there is no cap. The massive deck that surrounds the restaurant blasts heaters that keep diners warm in cooler seasons. Try the Lotta Lotta Garlic Chicken with arugula, pineapple, tomatoes, avocado and feta cheese ($17) or go old school with the wood-grilled rib eye ($35).
Called one of the best-designed bars in the country by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, The Flying Squirrel, in Chattanooga’s hip Southside, is a gorgeous gastro pub built from remnants of a 115-year-old barn in McMinnville, Tenn. The menu is well thought out, and the cocktails are award winning. The Reverend (Elijah Craig Bourbon, Luxardo Maraschino liquor, Fernet, orange cream bitters and orange peel) was voted one of the best new cocktails by Restaurant Hospitality magazine. Or try the Electric Eye (New Amsterdam gin, Aperol, Lillet Blanc, orange bitters, orange, $9).
Head to the Tennessee Aquarium for a morning of water ballet. The mission of the aquarium — which underwent a major expansion in 2005 — is to connect the movement of water from the mountains to the sea with the beings that both live in or are dependent on the world’s water system; it’s a well-told conservation story that includes lemurs, birds, otters, penguins and a wondrous Butterfly Room. There are thousands of colorful reef fish, prehistoric-looking sturgeons, the nation’s largest salamander and the feared red-bellied piranha. In Stingray Bay, guests can touch sharks and stingrays. The aquarium’s app (tnaqua.org/app) tells users where experts will be throughout the day. Adult admission is $29.95; children 3 to 12, $18.95; under 3, free.
A few blocks from the aquarium is the entrance to the 2,376-foot-long Walnut Street Bridge, a Chattanooga centerpiece that is on the National Register of Historic Places. The pedestrian bridge connects the Bluff View Arts District to the city’s vibrant North Shore, and is considered a “linear park,” with places of rest and bits about the bridge’s history stationed along the way. At night, the bridge is nearly an aphrodisiac, lit up and reflecting across the water — part City of Lights, part Bridge of Sighs.
Make your way to Milk & Honey for homemade gelato; try the velvety coffee and cream gelato ($5.50) or choose a fresh paleta (a much-improved Popsicle) for $3. If shopping is on the schedule, this is the neighborhood to roam; the free-spirited North Shore merchants include art galleries, handmade jewelry and gift shops, clothing stores, cafes, tattoo parlors and record stores. If you’re exiting Chatt Town on the south side, veer over to Rock City on Lookout Mountain to where — ostensibly — one can see seven states. All you have to do is stand there and take in the vista, and this one is grand.
Once a Civil War fortification, the retro-chic The Dwell Hotel (120 East 10th Street; thedwellhotel.com; from $225) is a colorful boutique hotel that seems well-suited to the population Chattanooga serves particularly well — the young and the cool.
The DoubleTree by Hilton Downtown Chattanooga (407 Chestnut Street; doubletree3.hilton.com; rooms start at $175 per night) is in the heart of Chattanooga and close to many of the riverfront attractions, as well as the Bluff View Arts District. Amenities include a swimming pool; family packages are also available.
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