How to Spend a Weekend in Chattanooga
With a population of about 180,000 people, Chattanooga, Tenn., has spent the past quarter century transforming itself from a post-industrial city in decline to a tech-centric destination with a vibrant, family-friendly downtown. It’s also earned a reputation as a great place for outdoor enthusiasts, with easy access to hiking, trail riding, rock climbing and more. There’s more to do here than you can fit into a weekend—but in 48 hours here, you can do a lot.
Chattanooga’s about a two-hour drive from both Nashville and Atlanta, depending on traffic. To fly from any distance, expect to change to a regional carrier at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, which I find one of the most unpleasant airports in the country. On the bright side, Atlanta is likely to be the only stressful aspect of a visit to Chattanooga. (There are some nonstop flights from New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Newark Airport in New Jersey, as well as Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and other hubs.) Chattanooga Airport is small and easy to use but be forewarned for your return: It has few food options, none good.
Try the Read House Hotel, housed in an 1872 building but renovated in 2018. The renovation was well done, preserving the building’s grandeur—the lobby feels like a sojourn into a romantic past—while elevating modern amenities. The rooms are bright and spacious, and the bathrooms are smartly equipped with lights under the vanities for those moments when you really don’t want to see too much and—it’s the small things—shower controls placed so that you don’t have to douse yourself before the water has a chance to warm up. Room service at the Read House is surprisingly reasonably priced, and the hotel offers a bar and billiards room where one could quite happily while away an evening.
Other options: the Edwin Hotel, part of the Autograph Collection, is stylish and fun, in keeping with its proximity to the excellent Hunter Museum of American Art. For a different experience, try the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a train station morphed into a hotel and retail complex. You can stay at the MacArthur Building or in a renovated Pullman train car.
The Tennessee Aquarium is a priority, not just because of the cool marine creatures swimming about in its two buildings, River Journey and Ocean Journey, but because knowing that the aquarium was built in the early 1990s as a way to spark a rejuvenated Chattanooga downtown (it worked) will help visitors better understand the city they’re experiencing. There’s a free electric shuttle that’ll take you there from any of those hotels, but downtown Chattanooga is easily walkable, and you’ll contribute to the energy of the city—and get more from the experience—by hoofing it. From the Read House, you can take the Riverwalk to the aquarium, or walk north along Broad Street. There are abundant digressions along the way: How could you not check out the MoonPie General Store or the Classic Arcade Pinball Museum?
From the aquarium, it’s a quick stroll to the impressive Hunter Museum of American Art, which offers a respectable set of permanent exhibits and ambitious modern shows that would surprise visitors with preconceived notions of art in a small Southern city. Through January 12, for example, the museum is exhibiting Blak Origin Moment, a series of works in textile by Noel W. Anderson that explore the evolving identity of the black male. It’s provocative and discomfiting, as it should be. The museum architecture alone, a fusion of a 1905 mansion with two aggressively modern buildings, is worth exploration. A side trip: It’d be a shame not to stop in at the nearby Rembrandt’s Coffee House, which has an unremarkable interior but outstanding coffee, decadent pastries and a lovely patio. Breakfast here, with the sun rising, a hot cup of coffee and a newspaper is basically my definition of the good life.
From the museum, walk across the 2,400-foot Walnut Street Bridge, which spans the Tennessee River, to the NorthShore. The bridge’s preservation was another key piece in the revitalization of Chattanooga, and it’s charming as all get out. There are any number of terrific restaurants, coffee shops and stores awaiting on the other side; I particularly liked Winder Binder Books, Art & Music, which creatively curates all three; the Rustic Trading Company, full of unexpected things for the home; and Clumpies Ice Cream, which is exactly what you want it to be. (But before you get to Clumpies, pay a visit to Taconooga, which has authentic Mexican food—an over-used description, but in this case it’s really true—and a roster of tacos far beyond the typical chicken, beef, pork and fish.)
In the evening, return to the Read House to eat a special occasion dinner at the excellent Bridgeman’s Chophouse, on the ground floor of the hotel. It does everything a good steakhouse should—from a massive shrimp cocktail to a New York strip aged for up to 45 days—but it throws in some unexpected twists, particularly with its sides: Try the savory smoked cheddar mashed potatoes, or the crispy Brussels sprouts with toasted pecans and bacon. After all the walking you’ve done, you’ve earned it.
Start the day at Kenny’s Southside Sandwiches, where the simple pleasures—bacon, egg and cheese on a homemade English muffin, hash potatoes and eggs—are the best, and the coffee would wake the dead. Continue the theme of treating yourself well with some shopping at Warehouse Row, a group of buildings from the early 1900s on the site of a restored Civil War fort. The shops offer chain staples such as J. Crew and Anthropologie, as well as more interesting local options like Shadowbox Paperie and home furnishings store Revival. There are plenty of places to grab lunch at Warehouse Row as well; my favorite is Two Ten Jack, deftly executed and creative Japanese food.
If you’re ready to venture beyond downtown, this might be a good time to visit the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Start at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center. You’ll need a car to get there—Uber and Lyft work fine on the way out, expect a wait for one on the way back—and to really explore the park, which totals about 9,000 acres, you also need a car. (You can hike and ride horses in the park, but that’s a different kind of experience.) The Civil War battlefields were the sites of bloody 1863 clashes over control of Chattanooga, which the Union rightly saw as a crucial hub of the Confederacy. The military side of these events is well told here, though you won’t hear as much about slavery in Tennessee as a visitor from outside the South might expect. (Chattanooga has done an impressive job of preparing for its economic future, and a less good job of reckoning with its divided past.) The shop at the Visitor Center does offer a comprehensive collection of books about the conflict and all of those affected by it, including (white) women and slaves. It is jarring, though, to see Confederate “kepi” caps on sale. On what public occasion would it be appropriate to wear one? And I’m not sure I want to know the people who wear them in private. (To be fair, the National Park Service runs the shop, not Chattanooga.)
Returning to downtown in the evening, take in a show at the Tivoli Theatre on Broad Street—it’d be a shame to leave Chattanooga without visiting this 1921 Beaux Arts gem. Owned by the city since 1976, the Tivoli was an underutilized asset until 2015, when new mayor Andy Berke created a nonprofit foundation to run it; now there are more frequent and (sometimes) more topical events. (Recent weeks saw a performance by political comedian Bill Maher—timely—and a Broadway revue by icon Bernadette Peters, timeless.) The Tivoli relies too much for my taste on shlocky middlebrow entertainment like a Fleetwood Mac cover band (“Rumours of Fleetwood Mac”) and Kenny G, but theaters do what they have to in order to survive, and the Tivoli is turning a profit. No matter: It’s the moral responsibility of any traveler, when in a city with one of these beautiful and vital pieces of history, to buy a ticket; they really don’t make ’em like this anymore. If it takes going to Kenny G to do it…do it.
I’d follow a night at the Tivoli with a nightcap back at the Read House Bar & Billiards Room. (It’s only open until 12 a.m. on weekends, so you can’t get yourself into too much trouble.) You can grab a late-night snack, shoot some pool and relax with a drink before bed. It’s the perfect way to cap a terrific weekend. All that hiking, biking, rock climbing and river paddling? You can—and should—do that on your next visit.