Nestled in against the Tennessee River along the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga is a riverfront city on the rise and overflowing with activities.
Cities located near water have a unique opportunity to create something special and Chattanooga has certainly done so with its six distinctive downtown districts. The art, pubs, restaurants, and shopping will impress. There is also plenty to experience in the area around the city: mountains with spectacular views, hiking trails, rafting, waterfalls, and a Civil War battlefield museum for history buffs. I will say up front that I fell in love with the city on my first visit and cannot wait to return and explore all Chattanooga has to offer.
My first destination in Chattanooga was the Walnut Creek Pedestrian bridge located on the eastern edge of the Riverfront district.
This bridge was built in 1891 and closed to motorized traffic in 1978. With no funds to demolish the bridge, it sat desolate as a deteriorating blemish on the river as an ever-present reminder of Chattanooga’s economic decline in 1970s and 80s. Fortunately, forward-looking community visionaries saw an opportunity to convert this bridge into a pedestrian bridge in hopes of revitalizing Chattanooga’s rapidly declining downtown and riverfront area.
From the Walnut Street bridge you can also enjoy a nice view of the Market Street Bridge (below).
The restored pedestrian bridge (below) now connects Chattanooga’s revitalized downtown to the trendy North Shore district known for its boutiques shops, restaurants, cafes, and two parks. During my visit to the bridge, I saw countless people enjoying a stroll or run over the river. Today, the Walnut Street Bridge stands as a symbol of revival that has spawned an explosion of development throughout the downtown area.
Beyond the Market Street Bridge (shown below from the North Shore District perspective) and along the shoreline are several popular Chattanooga destinations: Ross Landing Park, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the Southern Belle Riverboat which offers sightseeing and sunset tours. Collectively, this area is called the Riverfront District. I will return to this area in a future visit.
Today, I turn around and head east to Bluff View Arts District. A short walk from the bridge leads me to the Hunter Museum of American Art. This highly-acclaimed museum has exhibits on tour throughout the US. The museum was founded by a charitable contribution by George Hunter, descendant of the Coca-Cola bottling magnate – Benjamin Thomas.
A short walk from the Hunter Museum takes me to the scenic Bluff View overlooking the river and bridges. I had targeted this location as a great place for photos but the cloud cover was working against me. In retrospect, I’d recommend heading to the North Shore district (across the pedestrian bridge) to take photos of the bridge with downtown Chattanooga as the backdrop.
Still in the Bluff View Arts District, I visited to the River Gallery Sculpture Garden which was also on my list. It has a mix of permanent sculptures and exhibits that rotate through annually. There are also several historic homes that have been converted into Inns with nice cafes and restaurants in the area as well.
Leaving the Bluff, I head to the Southside District. This area was once filled with industrial warehouses and office buildings that had fallen into decline and been mostly abandoned by the mid-1900s. Today though, the area is a beacon of urban renewal with substantial investments to refurbish historic buildings along with parks, art, new housing, boutique hotels, entertainment, pubs, and diverse dining experiences.
As you might expect from a city with so much to offer, there are also a lot of very cool hotels (including boutique hotels) and deciding where to stay is no easy choice. I ultimately decided to stay at the Kinley in Chattanooga’s trendy Southside District and would quite happily make that my base camp during my next visit.
I knew the hotel had a speakeasy inside (which was part of the hotel’s appeal). Its location wasn’t obvious, but there was a shinning hint that it might be behind this bookcase…
Once inside, I eased into the relaxed vibe of the speakeasy with a glass of W.L. Weller 12-Year Bourbon.
W.L. Weller was the first to offer a bourbon with wheat (rather than rye) as the flavor grain back in 1849. Weller’s grandfather originally opened the first Weller distillery in Kentucky. W.L. Weller took over the operations after returning from service with the Louisville (KY) Brigade in the Mexican-American War (c. 1845). This bourbon has earned over 30 medals in US and international bourbon contests including the Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2019. A bottle of this gem will run you ~ $300. At this rate, it is obviously a bourbon to be sipped and savored. My glass of W.L Weller 12-Year Reserve was distinctive and excellent as promised.
I wanted to take more photos of the interior but didn’t want to interrupt the guests. There was a bar seating for 10 or so folks with an impressive selection of spirits. More private seating was spread around the corners of the room and back wall opposite the bar. I did manage to get a shot of one corner of the speakeasy after a small group left the area. It was quickly occupied.
Another location of note in the Southside District is the Chattanooga Choo Choo which is a destination experience unto itself. Some may have heard the song Chattanooga Choo Choo by the Glenn Miller Band which was a European favorite during World War II.
The Terminal Station was originally opened in 1880. After falling into disrepair during Chattanooga’s industrial decline, it was restored and opened to the public in 1974 as a hotel and added to the National Register of Historic Places that same year. The property still serves as a hotel and has significantly expanded its options to include full service restaurants, bars, music, comedy, retail shops, and a distillery.
Chattanooga’s Early History
The area known know as Chattanooga was first settled by Cherokee Indians. It would eventually become a staging area for the Trail of Tears march which relocated many of the Cherokee Indians to the Oklahoma territory.
In 1838, the city of Chattanooga was established and grew quickly due to its location on the Tennessee River. The next wave came in the 1850s when Chattanooga became a railway hub connecting lines coming into and out of Georgia and Alabama. Between the river and railways, Chattanooga was of strategic importance in the Civil War (1861-1865) with three key battles (Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge) taking place as part of the Chattanooga campaign. In the post-Civil War era, Chattanooga’s railways and river contributed to the city becoming an industrial hub in the South.
Lookout Mountain will be my primary destination during my next visit. In addition to the military history, points of interest include the Incline Railway, Sunset Rock Park, Cavern Castle, and Rock City. As a kid, I remember traveling through the mountains and often seeing red barns with black roofs that had “See Rock City” advertisements painted on them. At the height of this advertisement, there were about 900 barns between Florida and Michigan that had been painted. Today, most of those rural farms and barns are gone but some of those remaining in Tennessee are treated as historic landmarks.
Perhaps the most impressive site around Lookout Mountain is Ruby Falls (below). Ruby Falls is the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. If you believe that you will only have one trip to Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls should be atop your “must-see” list.
One last taste of Chattanooga before heading out.