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Drone Aerial of Downtown Chattanooga TN Skyline, Coolidge Park and Market Street Bridge.
Photograph: Shutterstock/Kevin Ruck

The 19 best things to do in Chattanooga

These are the best things to do in Chattanooga, a lot of them outdoors and most of them absolutely unforgettable

Written by
Hilli Levin
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When a city has the nickname ‘the Scenic City’, expectations are high. Luckily for visitors, Chattanooga lives up to them and then some. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the Tennessee River and the mountain ridges of the Appalachian foothills, this outdoorsy town is a sight for sore eyes.

A sight for healthy eyes as well, let it be said. The best things to do in Chattanooga lean towards the relaxing side of the ledger, but don’t make the mistake of dismissing the place as sleepy. This is Tennessee, after all; a party is always happening somewhere. After ticking off the sights, eat your heart out at the best restaurants in town and make plans for Nashville, Memphis, and the rest.

Best things to do in Chattanooga

Tennessee whiskey is famous all over the world, and for good reason. Home to dozens of distilleries before prohibition, the city was out of the production game for over 100 years until Chattanooga Whiskey started cranking out that sweet liquor. Take a guided tour or just swing through the tasting room for some of the 1816 cask or reserve whiskey; or whatever experimental batch the staff is currently working on.

Chattanooga’s art scene is one of the best in the Southeast, and it’s in no small part due to the city’s investment in public art and arts education. While the Hunter Museum of American Art is definitely smaller than the neighboring High Museum in Atlanta, it punches above its weight class in terms of its world-class exhibitions and diverse permanent collection with works from the 18th century onward. At just $20 for admission to both buildings, you’ll get a bargain any day, letting you browse through the gorgeous museum while admiring panoramic views of the city.

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An absolute must-visit, this city gem offers a mix of Victorian and Italian-inspired architecture. Book a room at one of the historic bed and breakfasts, stroll through the River Gallery Sculpture Garden, peek your head into a local gallery, find one of the tucked-away courtyards with a quietly bubbling fountain and then enjoy a quality meal at one of the top-notch restaurants around the area. Before you leave, stop for a coffee and a house-made pastry at Rembrandt's and revel in the gorgeous patio.

If you’re after a dimly lit, relaxing spot to have a conversation over a quality draft beer, then Bitter Alibi is your go-to. Usually filled to the brim with the city’s 20-somethings and young professionals on the weekends, it’s a great spot to spread out and play one of the available board games on a weeknight. The bartenders are friendly and know their craft beer, and you’ll want to take advantage of their killer kitchen, which serves everything from shareable snacks like pimento cheese to Korean noodle dishes and brunch on the weekends. The rotating beers on tap are stellar, and so is the cozy basement bar setting.

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Rock City is arguably Chattanooga’s most famous tourist destination—there are barns all over the South that are painted with the famous directive, “See Rock City.” Perched atop Lookout Mountain, visitors can cross a 180-foot-long suspension bridge, scale a climbing wall, see an impressive waterfall and look out over seven different states from a single viewpoint at Lover’s Leap. The gnome-filled Fairyland Caverns built in 1947 are a bit of a head-scratcher these days, but it wouldn’t be Rock City without them. Visiting Rock City is an only-in-Chattanooga activity. Notice how the mid-century quirkiness that permeates the space perfectly complements the incredible views.

Blues legend Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, and the city honors her legacy with the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. The museum is small, but it’s definitely a quality one. Check out the African-American-focused art and get swept away by the timeless songs by the Empress of the Blues.

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Coolidge Park
Photograph: Shutterstock/Kevin Ruck

7. Coolidge Park

This vast park is home to one of the world’s largest footbridges (Walnut Street Bridge) and has an interactive water fountain and rock climbing facilities. Of course, if you’re not feeling so energetic on your visit, simply find a spot within the verdant Peace Grove and relax with a picnic. Go to ride a tiger on the carousel, naturally. This beautiful wooden wonder – which also has ostriches, elephants, and giraffes to ride – has been here since 1894.

A little grungy, a bit gritty, but always a good time, JJ’s Bohemia is a Chattanooga musical institution. You can expect to see a lot of up-and-coming Nashville rock bands stopping for the night, energetic young local acts, and weekly comedy open mic nights, not to mention the occasional burlesque troupe.

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Established in 1904, this unique shopping area has been revitalized. Today, you can find everything from local boutiques specializing in exotic orchids (yes, seriously) to staples like J. Crew and Anthropologie. This is basically a re-imagined mall for adults. Think of it as a shopping mecca. Why wouldn’t you visit it?

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this early 1900s train station is now a bustling complex with extensive outdoor gardens, a hotel, the state’s second open container street, shops, bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The destination put Chattanooga on the map and is the perfect example of reinventing long-ago-founded establishments for modern use.

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Every Sunday of the regular season, you can find the city’s best craftspeople, makers, and farmers at the First Tennessee Pavilion. Stroll through the collection of booths—sampling as you go, of course—pick up a unique souvenir, chat with some locals and even catch some live music while browsing. You should always visit the local market, but this one calls for extra attention, home to some delightful characters that will add flavor to your outlook on the city.

Beer snobs are sure to find something to love with 16 taps of beer, but Oddstory’s welcoming and unpretentious vibe makes this a local favorite. From a solid American pale ale to barrel-aged and seasonal limited releases, there’s a refreshing pint available to please any palate. Grab a seat at the open-air bar on a sunny day, play some rounds of trivia or see a live band, depending on the night.

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Open since 1992, the Tennessee Aquarium is one of the world’s largest freshwater aquariums. Now split into two buildings, you can choose to explore the space via River Journey or the newer Ocean Journey. It’s probably best to block out at least two hours for your visit, but it’s better to bank on spending a whole afternoon taking in all of these world-class exhibitions.

Chattanooga boasts a solid minor-league baseball team beloved by locals. The lovely 6,000-seat stadium is in the middle of the action downtown, making it easy to reach from any of the city’s top hotels. With tickets starting at just $10 a pop and plenty of cheap, cold beer, this is one of the best budget-friendly nights out in the city. Bonus: The stadium is right on the Tennessee River, ensuring that a nice cool breeze will intermittently sweep through the stands on even the hottest summer nights.

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The consensus is that Tremont Tavern is the bar for locals. It’s no-nonsense and no frills, but you’ll find their big, greasy burgers to be some of the best you’ve ever had. Go to play trivia on Mondays or revel in the famous beer and burger deal on Thursdays.

The North Shore neighborhood is centered on the strip of fun local shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars along Frazier Avenue. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon walking the pedestrian bridge, shopping, eating, and sipping your way through this popular and family-oriented area. The walkable neighborhood is ideal for those seeking to spend some time outdoors. The local boutiques, offering vintage and antique finds, add some luster to the area as well.

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Sunset Rock
Photograph: Shutterstock/ TheTennesseeAdventurer

17. Sunset Rock

If you want to enjoy the outdoors, there’s no better destination than the three-mile round-trip hike up Lookout Mountain from the historic Cravens House to Sunset Rock. Easily accessible from downtown, visitors can park for free and choose from a couple of different trails depending on how adventurous they’re feeling. Word to the wise: the most direct route is short and sweet, making this a brilliant afternoon activity. No matter which trail you choose, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of the Tennessee River Valley.

Although built in 1985, this beauty of a boat is based on the old American steamers of the late-nineteenth century (sans steam). Southern Belle started life as a tourist cruiser and still satisfies thousands of visitors annually with sightseeing trips along the Tennessee River. Make a meal of it by booking onto one of the two-hour dining cruises, during which guests can enjoy a full meal, live entertainment, and a tour of the pilot house with the captain.

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Aside from being an architectural marvel that houses some of the most unique climbing walls in the country (one you can climb yourself!), it’s relatively cheap to get in. Always dreamed of scaling a building (or a similar structure)? Now you can.

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