When traveling north to Chattanooga from Atlanta, you jut through enough of the Appalachian Mountains that an approving smile comes across your face. After a couple of exaggerated bends along I-75 just north of the Tennessee-Georgia border, all of a sudden out pops an expansive area filled with businesses, buildings and bustle. For years now, only outdoor enthusiasts and the savviest of travelers have been truly keen on Chattanooga’s growth. But now that our Forbes Travel Guide editors have had a few days to sample the Scenic City’s budding culinary, cultural and high-end hotel scene, we’re screaming its joys atop the same hills we passed through to get there in the first place.
Chattanooga may only be the fourth largest city in Tennessee, but it hurts for nothing—especially when it comes to hotel accommodations. That said, you’ll want to center your weekend jaunt on The Chattanoogan, arguably the city’s finest hotel. Though it’s situated in a corner brick building in a warehouse-dotted sector on the downtown edge, this property somehow still feels secluded. When you step inside, an earthy color palette and unique art pieces set a tranquil, is-this-really-Tennessee mood. Upstairs, the king guest rooms (complete with pillow-top beds and flat-screen TVs) and the 960-square-foot mountain-view suites (sporting woven upholsteries and wet bars) only enhance the feeling.
Bask in all that the hotel has to offer (The Chattanoogan Spa, for starters), but do set aside time to make your way to one of the city’s most popular attractions, the Tennessee Aquarium. Where some observers expected the site to shrivel in the shadow of the glossy Georgia Aquarium—by the way, Chattanooga is less than a two-hour drive from Atlanta—the Tennessee treasure has not only stayed afloat, but has thrived with a steady stream of timely exhibits (such as the Scuba Claus diving show through Dec. 22) and innovative movies (Penguins 3D in IMAX, starting Nov. 29) the whole family will enjoy.
After that excursion, mosey on over to Lupi’s Pizza Pies for lunch. A feel-good establishment that won’t blow you away with its décor (one table toward the back even doubles as a floor-model video game), Lupi’s proudly shows locals in their natural habitat—and it doesn’t hurt that the eatery is a homegrown establishment. Plus, scrumptious pies such as the Veggie Stuff and Meaty Stuff are, well, stuffed with fresh toppings (think ground beef, tomatoes and herbs) that come from local growers as often as possible.
Walk off lunch just four minutes away at another city gem, the Hunter Museum of American Art. Constructed on a limestone bluff that overlooks the mighty Tennessee River, the museum’s contents reside in a Classical Revival mansion from the early 1900s, a more modern structure from the ’70s and a streamlined steel-and-glass building from 2005. Inside those walls are enough pieces from well-known artists (Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg) and game-changing eras (the African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond exhibit starts Feb. 14) to captivate you for hours.
By the time your art lesson concludes, you’ll have earned a respite back at the hotel. After napping, make the short drive over to 212 Market Restaurant for dinner. The downtown eatery paints a picture of coziness with its cottage-y wooden tables, modest floral arrangements and warm service. The kitchen’s cool, sustainable takes on bison ribeyes, trout and grass-fed burgers make the place downright irresistible.
Your second morning in Chattanooga can only begin at one place—The Blue Plate. Taking a more contemporary slant on a southern diner, this local institution is speckled with shades of navy, gray and silver and stocked with elevated tables and C-shaped booths. The menu is a bit more reserved, focusing its attention on local ingredients necessary to make morning staples such as egg white omelets, biscuits and sawmill gravy, and breakfast potatoes.
It wouldn’t surprise us if one of The Blue Plate’s partners proved to be Crabtree Farm, a fascinating destination about eight minutes from downtown that feels as if it could be in the middle of rural Tennessee. Essentially a working farm—we’re talking sheep, ducks and a honey-producing apiary—where area restaurants and residents come for weekly pickings of okra, arugula and green peppers, Crabtree also provides nutritional outreach to local schools and opportunities for visitors to get a taste of Chattanooga via a small onsite market.
If Crabtree’s back-to-earth ways rub off on you, connect with The Chattanoogan’s concierge desk to partake in one of the many outdoor activities that the city has come to be known for such as flat-water paddling, rock climbing or horseback riding. Of course, if you prefer your nature to have a little less effect on your heart rate, stop by the Chattanooga Market (every Sunday through Dec. 21) and be blown away by the selection of produce, cheeses, fresh-cut flowers and other goods for sale.
While pastry snacking is certainly understandable at the market, you’ll want to make sure your midday meal happens at Elemental. Situated in the environmentally-focused 2 North Shore development, the restaurant lives up to its moniker by having a slight industrial feel (see: exposed brick walls, wooden tables) that’s still focused on crispness and quality. If the tractor sitting in the middle of the dining room weren’t indication enough, chef Brian Hedeman’s Sunday brunch menu of dishes such as the Elemental Benedict (poached eggs, country ham and greens) and red potato and veggie hash certainly cements the establishment’s field-to-fork philosophy.
Just six minutes from Elemental is the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a property consisting of a train station, rose garden, museum and hotel. At this beloved site, you can tour the 103-year-old station, explore a wood-burning train fashioned after the 1880 model and even learn more about the 1941 song performed by the big-band legend Glenn Miller Orchestra that became an international smash. While you’re at the Model Railroad Museum, have your camera at the ready for some unforgettable snaps of a true-to-scale replica of Chattanooga and the surrounding mountainous terrain.
When you finish reliving your childhood dreams of being a conductor, get your caboose back to The Chattanoogan for rest and one last remarkable meal. After cleaning up, there will be no need to bother the valet for your car because you’ll be eating dinner at Broad Street Grille, the in-house eatery where chef Ryan Randolph and his culinary crew prepare some of the city’s most elegant plates. The farmhouse cheese board (selections can include aged cheddar, three-month manchego, Asher Blue, among others) is phenomenal, and the pan-seared Scottish salmon is a can’t-miss entrée. Enjoying it all from the chef’s table connected to the energetic kitchen is the proverbial icing to a wonderful weekend in the Tennessee hills.
Photos Courtesy of Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, The Chattanoogan and DeMarco Williams