Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a new southern city on my destination list that I just visited for the first time this past June: Chattanooga Tennessee. As a swing dancer and fan of Big Band music, I have to admit, I was excited to see the city that made the Chattanooga Choo Choo famous. To top it off, I was slated to stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, which has it’s fair share of history. See my top 3 STAY article which has suggestions on where to stay for chic and hip, quirky and historical and elegant and classic.
I was fortunate to try a number of fun activities during my stay, from experiencing the cultural and art scene and hearing live music (see my Thriving Music Scene in Chattanooga article) to white water rafting, hand gliding and dining (be sure to read my Foodie Guide to Chattanooga).
Above, the wondrous Ruby Falls
1. Hang Gliding
I have always wanted to go hang gliding and finally had an opportunity to do so over Lookout Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga. Lookout Mountain Flight Park offers the opportunity to fly above the mountains and valleys that surround Chattanooga in tandem with a certified instructor. It really does feel like you’re flying as you float below the clouds and take in the breathtaking views. Apparently Chattanooga has one of the largest hang gliding schools in the country, a fact I never knew.
Unlike many hang gliding places where you have to jump off a mountain, you depart from the ground. They fasten you in on ground level and an ultralight plane pulls your glider up into the air to around 2,000 feet with your instructor and you attached. After you reach the right height, the cord is disconnected and you fly above the mountains. So so cool! See my standalone piece for more photos from my experience. For more photos including a short video, check out my standalone adventure travel post on hang gliding and rafting.
I always try to get out in nature on each and every trip regardless of whether it’s a nature focused trip or not. There are always opportunities to get to the outskirts, talk to locals and take in some of a destination’s natural beauty, even in large cities like New York. Nature can be so grounding and transformative, which is so important when you’re on the road. I encourage you to take a deep breathe, center yourself and be present with nature on every trip you make. Below, it was so easy to get lost looking out over Lookout Mountain before we made our way to the site where we’d get rigged up to fly. Seeing this magnificent view from here put flying into perspective an hour later.
2. White Water Rafting
If you’re an adventure seeker or a nature lover, you’ll want to try white water rafting in the middle of the Tennessee Mountains — what a way to take in the state’s natural beauty! And, who doesn’t love the thrill of a fast flowing river? We went on both Class III and IV rapids down the Ocoee River, which was the site for the canoe slalom races during the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta.
Located just north of Chattanooga in the Cherokee National Forest, the Ocoee River flows through a beautiful gorge surrounded by scenic wildlife. Count on a half day for the experience — you’re brought up to the entry point by bus and your “team” of six carries the raft down to the beginning of take off, where you start off with a Class IV rapid. Fun, fun, fun! We went with Outdoor Adventure Rafting (OAR) who also offers tubing float trips, rock climbing, rappelling, paintball, and low & high ropes courses.
On your way back into town, a fun lunch spot is the traditional Ocoee Dam Deli and Diner near the Parksville Dam. It is family owned and operated and they have plenty of classic Southern dishes on the menu like Fried Steak, okra, green fried tomatoes and chicken and slaw. For more photos, see my post dedicated to the rafting trip and hang gliding the same week.
Bike Chattanooga is a 24/7 bicycle transit system with about 300 bikes at 33 stations located throughout the city. Each station has a touch screen kiosk system, map and docking points which release bikes using a member key or ride code. A pass will buy you 24 hours with unlimited 60-minute station-to-station trips. You simply lock the bike back up at any station dock and wait for the green light to confirm the bike is secure. More information can be found at www.bikechattanooga.com/stations.
Credit: World Cycling Atlas.com.
It’s a fun thing to do day or night and easy to navigate — I strongly recommend it as the best way to see the city. It can be one of those romantic afternoon things to do or a fun activity to do with kids in tow. I wished we had more time to take in the beauty of the river, or even have a picnic alongside it. It tends to get very hot and humid starting in June so your best non-sticky months to go are late April through end of May or anytime in the Fall for opportunities to explore both the outdoor and indoor activities that Chattanooga has to offer.
4. Thriving Music Scene
I wrote about Chattanooga’s thriving music scene at great length, including a whole list of great venues to explore while you’re in town, so be sure to take notes. A highlight of the trip was meeting Shane Morrow, the co-founder and director of an initiative called Jazzanooga. It was founded in 2011 as a citywide celebration of jazz. While it draws from the cultural relevance and history of Chattanooga, it also provides a festive platform where diverse communities can gather and celebrate the city’s extraordinary jazz heritage. Their feeling is that Jazz transcends race, religion and national boundaries and unites all audiences. It speaks to the heart, mind and spirit, and is universal. They do regular performances in its downtown space and provide music education.
I’d recommend taking the Big Nine Walking Tour, which is a historical and cultural tour of the MLK District, which used to be called the Big 9 District. The tour includes cultural and music history, historical buildings and the public art that makes the neighborhood pop. More information can be found at www.jazzanooga.org. Below are some shots I took on the walking tour.
Local musician Matt Downer was jamming away at Rock City (See #10 on this list) while we were there — he was participating as part of Rock City’s Summer Music Weekends. Pulse Magazine called Matt “one of the last, best examples of the oral tradition in American folk music.” He performs traditional old time music on fiddle, banjo and guitar. Growing up on Sand Mountain, Alabama, he learned to play music from his grandfather and the elder musicians of the area.
A veteran performer, he has played at various venues and festivals including – Rock City, Tivoli, Nightfall, Riverbend and the International Stringband Festival, performing with legendary artists such as – Carolina Chocolate Drops, Pokey Lafarge, Jack Rose, Michael Hurley and Norman Blake. His most recent album was recorded without electricity, directly to wax cylinders, on a 1906 Edison Gramophone at the MTSU Center For Popular Music. I have a video of him performing in my Chattanooga Thriving Music scene article, so be sure to check it out.
5. Drinks & Dining
As a foodie, I’ll always put food towards the top of any “To-Do” list and even though I shy away from carbs and traditional Southern fare typically doesn’t, there are far too many yummy dishes that you must try when heading to anywhere in Tennessee. See my Foodie Guide write-up for specific recommendations on restaurants and food experiences. To whet your appetite, have a look at some of my favorite “tastes” during my trip. It also includes which bars are fun and for what, i.e., Artisan drinks vis a vis beer, Martinis and so on.
Try the ribs at Clyde’s on Main
Above, the onion soup at Hennen’s
Brunch at The Daily Ration
6. Tennessee Aquarium
The Tennessee Aquarium is located on the banks of the Tennessee River and includes two buildings where you can interact with scuba divers, discover otters, alligators, prehistoric-looking sturgeon, a tweeting electric eel, sharks, stingrays, colorful reef fish, penguins, a butterfly garden and more.
We had what’s referred to as a Backstage Pass, which gives you a behind-the-scenes tour and special access to the animals, including seeing the baby animal nursery in the Q-room, which is not yet on exhibit. You can also take in an IMAX 3D movie as an additional choice. More information can be found at www.tnaqua.org. Enjoy some of my shots below.
7. Tennessee Stillhouse
You can’t go to Tennessee and not explore the whiskey scene – after all, this is where you’ll taste some of the best whiskey in the country. Located in the Southside District across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo is the Tennessee Stillhouse, a micro-distillery and tasting room. Yum!
When Chattanooga’s whiskey game was at its peak in the pre-prohibition days, there were 20 distilleries from Market and Main Streets to the Riverfront. Chattanooga Whiskey helped re-write century old laws and today, they are making the first legal whiskey distilled in Chattanooga in over 100 years. Tours include a lesson in how whiskey is made from “grain to glass” and a chance to peak into the process, as well as taste different blends at the end. More information can be found at www.chattanoogawhiskey.com.
8. Theaters & Museums
Chattanooga has three beautiful historic theaters, all located in the heart of downtown. Tivoli Theatre, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Auditorium, and Walker Theatre were all important examples of early 20th century civic architecture by renowned architect Reuben H. Hunt. The Tivoli Theatre, also known as the Tivoli and the “Jewel of the South”, has been open since 1921.
In 2016-2017, The Tivoli Foundation will present a five-title Broadway Season at the Tivoli Theatre called “Broadway at The Tivoli.” John Prine was performing at the Tivoli when we were there however acts change all the time so be sure to call ahead or check the schedule prior to your trip.
Photo credit: ChattanoogaFun
The Hunter Museum of American Art
While there are other museums you can experience in Chattanooga, the one that most impressed me after a bit of research is the Hunter Museum of American Art, which is perched on an 80-foot bluff on the edge of the Tennessee River. The Hunter has American art from the Colonial period to the present day, and the collection includes paintings, works on paper, sculpture, photography, mixed media, furniture and contemporary studio glass covering a range of styles and periods. A few of the artists whose work is represented in the Hunter include Thomas Cole, Fitz Henry Lane, Winslow Homer, Robert S. Duncanson, Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, John Marin, Thomas Hart Benton, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Jack Beal, George Segal, Duane Hanson, Robert Rauschenberg, Sam Gilliam, and Andy Warhol.
I loved the work of contemporary glass sculptor, Stephen Rolfe Powell. Powell, who is recognized both nationally and internationally for his colorfully patterned pieces, draws his inspiration from nature, and ancient Italian murrini techniques. A Birmingham native, Powell began his artistic career as a painter and ceramicist. He had his first experience with glass blowing in the early 1980’s, and has been devoted to the medium ever since. Powell’s Jellies: Living Art, was shown at the Tennessee Aquarium and is a joint exhibition between the Hunter and the Aquarium.
There’s also a unique Art Space in town where we saw the work of pop surreal sculptor Matthew Dutton (his work below).
Entrance to a separate room in the Art Space where they hold independent and unique films on a regular basis in Chattanooga.
9. Rock City Gardens & Ruby Falls
A great day trip is an excursion to Rock City Gardens and Ruby Falls which is nearby. Rock City is on Lookout Mountain on the outskirts of Chattanooga and is well known for the many barn advertisements throughout the Southeast and Midwest that have the slogan “See Rock City” painted on roofs and sides. Apparently, Clark Byers painted over 900 barn roofs in nineteen states for Rock City from 1935 to 1969. Rock City claims that it is possible to see seven states from Lover’s Leap, a point in Rock City, but this has not been proven. It is incredibly beautiful however and a great family travel choice.
Known for its unique geological and botanical wonders, this enchanted 4,100-foot walking trail is a true marvel of nature, featuring massive ancient rock formations and it feels as if you’re below in a mysterious cave even though you’re not that far from the ground.
There’s also a 140 foot waterfall that cascades down Lookout Mountain, a panoramic view of seven states and a Swing-A-Long Bridge that spans nearly 200 feet — this is a great morning or afternoon activity and I’d recommend pairing it with a visit to Ruby Falls and making it a full day.
Ruby Falls is America’s deepest commercial cave and tallest underground waterfall open for public viewing. Some 1,120 feet below Lookout Mountain, there’s a 145-foot waterfall. Ruby Falls is listed in the National Register for Historic Places and is committed to sustainability through a concerted effort to reduce their environmental footprint. They tout four main environmental initiatives: the production of renewable energy, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, recycling and waste reduction, and land use planning. They have apparently made enough progress in these four areas to be the first U.S. attraction to successfully complete the Green Globe International environmental certification process. Bravo to them!
Credit: Green Globe Travel
10. Chattanooga Market
On our last morning, we took a stroll through Chattanooga’s local market, which is the region’s largest producer-only arts and crafts and farmers’ market. It is held every Sunday from April to December at the open-air First Tennessee Pavilion in Chattanooga. There are tons of handcrafted works by local and regional artists being shown at different booths, live entertainment, chef demonstrations, fresh bakery and produce items and apparently a different theme for each week.
I’m not sure what the theme was when we were there, but my favorite part of the visit was talking to the local craftsmen, from beautiful teak wood and hand blown glass to homemade soaps and sheep-wooled hats. And, of course, tasting some of what was on offer, from white tea and tacos to sheep cheese and gelato from Milk & Honey. (we’ve listed them as a great dessert spot on our Chattanooga Foodie Guide).
Below, DB Reisen hand spins at the market — her focus is on luxurious-thermal-affordable gloves, hats and scarves made from wool, Alpaca and Angora fiber. More info at www.BoPeepsBlackSheep.com.
Here, I have a chat with DB about her craft.
A few articles to read before planning your trip to Chattanooga:
- The Foodie Guide to Chattanooga Tennessee
- 3 Great STAYS in Chattanooga Tennessee
- A Look at Chattanooga’s Thriving Music Scene
- Hang Gliding & White Water Rafting