37 Hours in Chattanooga: Day Drinking + Adventurous Diversions in Tennessee’s Coolest Little City
I suppose I didn’t know what to expect from Chattanooga. With relatives just outside of Memphis, I wrongly assumed that Tennessee was Tennessee was Tennessee. In my mind, it didn’t matter which corner of the state you traveled, it was all about the same: blues, barbecue, beer, and miles and miles of nondescript US interstate.
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But after only two days in the city, I left with a real sense of surprise and adoration. I arrived back home, reflected on my trip, and realized it’s one of my favorite cities in the South.
And it offers a whole lot more to do that you might imagine! With just a day and a half to spend in and around the city, here’s an ideal itinerary for (beer-loving) adventurous travelers …
I’ll let you in on a little secret … Southerners love their beer almost as much as their barbecue. Craft beer in particular has overtaken cities of every size in the south and Chattanooga is, thankfully, no different.
For your first stop, head to Big River Grille downtown. You can’t go wrong with a beer flight, but be forewarned: you’ll be sampling all six of their standard year round beers, plus all three seasonals. That’s nine samples in total. Granted, these aren’t full beers we’re talking about. But, if this is your first stop of the day (as it was for me), you may want to eat something first if you don’t want the bartender peeling you off of the floor. Almost everything on the menu is typical pub fare, so you really can’t go wrong.
1:30p / Explore the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum
This very real slice of Americana is dedicated to all things towing industry related. Through a variety of surprisingly well done exhibits, visitors can learn about the history of towing, the inherent dangers of the industry, and even pay homage to the greatest tow truck drivers of all time via their Hall of Fame wall.
Among the most interesting installations are the world’s strongest tow truck, as well as the worlds fastest (which topped out at a stunning 109+ MPH on a NASCAR track). Don’t miss the gift shop either with plenty of kitschy/corny (read: awesome) souvenirs. Admission is just $10 for adults.
Raccoon Mountain is rated Tennessee’s #1 cave! I’m not sure how a cave wins that award or what makes one cave WAY better than another. Regardless, it’s an odd but likely accurate distinction because it’s a pretty awesome cave system.
There are a number of tours to choose from, including some that take visitors deep into the heart of the cave on day-long expeditions. But, assuming you’re short on time, take the Crystal Palace Tour. At less than an hour, this simple tour offers a guided exploration of the front portion of the Raccoon Mountain Caverns. Your expert guide will explain how caves form, provide a brief history of this unique cave system, and point out a wide variety of formations including stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flow stone, natural bridges, and more. Adult admission is around $15.
Before heading off to dinner, stop at the Bluff View Arts District. This charming little historic neighborhood is located along the city’s newly revitalized riverfront walkway. Here, you’ll find a coffee shop, a few restaurants, an art gallery, a bed & breakfast, and plenty of quiet gardens. I highly recommend bringing your favorite Nicholas Sparks novel and wiling away an hour or two.
I visited a number of spots that highlight Chattanooga’s up and coming food and drink scene and Urban Stack Burger Lounge is well near the top. This upscale burger and bourbon bar in the city’s Southside promises “killer burgers & manly drinks”. As it inhabits one of the coolest buildings in Chattanooga — the Southern Railway Baggage Building (circa 1867) — it also offers plenty of cool, vintage swagger.
I ordered a classic Old Fashioned and was pleasantly surprised to find it made the right way (i.e. looking more like bourbon than like a fruit salad). Just Maker’s Mark, homemade brandied cherries, orange and bitters. That’s it. (Like my Tennessee granny used to say: “the way to a man’s heart is with bourbon …” Granny was a sailor.)
The menu offers a variety of pub fare but the big get here is, of course, the burgers. I was tempted to order my namesake Big Mike but opted instead for The Steakhouse (barbecue sauce, bacon, atomic horsey sauce, crispy onion, cheddar cheese and green onion) and it was everything I hoped it would be. Thick, juicy, and perfectly cooked.
Overnight @ SpringHill Suites by Marriott Chattanooga Downtown/Cameron Harbor
Back at the hotel already? Patience, grasshopper.
After a quick check-in, grab a drink and head to the hotel’s outdoor patio. You’ll find plenty of other guests huddling around the fire pits, all watching the stunning sunset. It’s the perfect spot to relax for an hour or three after a full day in the city.
First off, it’s right on the water – the same newly revitalized waterfront as the Bluff View Arts District — and most rooms offer some form of riverview (some with a balcony). And did I mention the sunsets?
I highly recommend ditching the car while in town in favor of walking or biking. Thankfully, the latter is easy as the hotel is a dedicated stop along the city’s Bike Share route. This initiative offers riders the ability to rent a bike for a predetermined period of time and cruise the city at their leisure. (Just $6 for a 24-hour pass!)
Whether you choose to bike or walk, the hotel is within a few minutes commute to all of the city’s major attractions, including: Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Lookouts AT&T Field, Southern Bell Riverboat Cruise, Cherokee Rafting, Bluff View Art District, Vandeville Café Dinner Theater, and River Gorge Explorer.
Inside, it’s all contemporary style and comfort where every room is either a studio, 1-bed, or 2-bedroom suite. In-room amenities include just about everything you’d expect, but most notable are a microwave and mini-fridge. (So that leftover burger from two hours ago needn’t go to waste)
The Blue Plate is among the city’s most happening eateries any time of day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, 4th meal … it’s packed. And I can see why.
The vibe is like an ultra-cool, futuristic diner. While I only stopped in for breakfast, their Aretha Frankenstein pancakes rank among the best pancakes I’ve ever had, period. Tall, crisp edges, fresh blueberries and just the right amount of syrup. Two months out, and I still dream about them.
9:30a / Hang Gliding @ Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding Flight Park & Training Center
For many, hang gliding is a once-in-a-lifetime experience; for others, it becomes a lifelong obsession. It’s a jaw-dropping, literally breathtaking adventure that brings humans as close as possible to feeling like a bird. Even if only for a moment.
The area in and around Lookout Mountain is literally where modern hang gliding was born, so the instructors at Lookout Mountain Flight Park are the best in the world.
Visitors are pulled up to altitude (as high as 3,000 feet) via a tow plane and cut loose upon the instructor’s signal. From there, it’s fifteen minutes or more of flying like a bird. The glider is guided via subtle body movements — pull back on the bar to accelerate and nose-down, push out to slow down and nose-up.
No experience is necessary, as first-timers fly “attached” to an instructor. The best part though is that even beginners are offered the opportunity to fly the hang glider themselves with the instructor right alongside them.
There’s even a GoPro camera attached to the outside of the glider so you’ll have a record of yourself screaming like a little girl at 10-second intervals for the entire flight. Single flights start at $199 and reservations are required.
Many ‘Noogans (that can’t be the right term, but it sounds awesome, doesn’t it?) confirmed that Taco Mamacita is the place to go for great Tex-Mex in the city. This North Shore eatery features a modern, eclectic menu and a full bar with patio.
The a la carte tacos are the way to go, most notably the Baja Fish (Panko breaded tilapia served with crispy Naba cabbage, authentic Mexican white sauce, pico de gallo, sliced radishes and cilantro) and Sloppy Jose (Mama’s version of a Sloppy Joe. Spicy ground beef, jalepenos, monterey jack cheese, sour cream and Fritos).
Full yet? I didn’t think so. Just next door to Taco Mamacita is the wildly popular Milk & Honey where it appears everyone and their nana goes for a daily gelato fix. Flavors include an eclectic offering of everything from salted caramel and dirty chai, to sweet tea and pistachio. The gelato is thick, rich, creamy and hit-you-over-the-head-with-flavor good – among the best I’ve had in the eastern U.S.
Belly full of tacos and gelato, it’s time to get movin’. You’re in luck because one of the best things about Chattanooga is its prime riverfront location. And that means excellent watersports opportunities.
Outdoor Chattanooga offers a variety of outdoor and watersports activities. Their Downtown Chattanooga tour is the “quintessential paddling trip in Chattanooga … a two-hour tour of our downtown waterfront via kayak, canoe or standup paddleboard on the Tennessee River.” Any time of year, the water is almost as smooth as glass, making it the ideal adventure trip for kayakers and paddlers of all skill levels.
No trip to the South is complete without barbecue and Sugar’s Ribs hits all the BBQ-lover’s pleasure zones. This classic, no-frills joint is located just off the high near a rather [ahem] sketchy motel, complete with goats grazing on the front lawn. But don’t let the location fool you! Pull up a chair on the outside patio and enjoy the excellent views of Chattanooga’s downtown skyline.
Unlike many places, Sugar’s smoke spareribs (as opposed to baby back ribs) in the style of the old South which means they’re moist on the inside, and crunchy on the outside. Whatever you do, don’t settle for just one thing – have a look at the menu and order a little BBQ tapas!
Grab Drinks @ The Pickle Barrel
The Pickle Barrel, Chattanooga
Not ready to call it a night yet? The Pickle Barrel is one of the city’s best dive bars and well worth a stop for a nightcap. The dark, stained wood, dusty old furniture, and mismatched decor make this about as no-frills a bar as you’ll find anywhere. Patrons range from bikers and college co-eds to tourists and business-folk and it’s bound to be packed to the rafters almost any time of day. Don’t miss their namesake fried pickles!
Overnight @ SpringHill Suites by Marriott Chattanooga Downtown/Cameron Harbor
At last … head back to your (verbosely named) hotel and catch one last Chattanooga sunset before winding down your trip to one of Tennessee’s best cities.