I’m tired of hearing about Chattanooga’s revitalized riverfront. Sure, it’s great, but it’s old news. The plucky railroad town is like the little engine that could, packed with entrepreneurs, techies, artists, and outdoorsy experts. There are start-ups and pop-ups sprinkled in old, vacant storefronts; sculptures lining the streets; and a public utility that installed the fastest Internet in America. The city is so creative it has its own font.
For a year, my husband and I lived in the town boosters love to call “the Scenic City,” below the brow of the Cumberland Plateau just 115 miles or so from Atlanta. Visiting two years later, it’s clear this little mountain city shines brighter than ever, from the hills of the North Shore, over the river, and through downtown to the gritty, art-filled flats of the Southside. And you can cover it all by foot, on the free electric shuttle, or on two wheels from one of more than thirty Bike Chattanooga share stations.
But some of the best things about Chattanooga can’t be found on the streets. The city serves as a base camp for all kinds of adventure recreation, from whitewater and single-track bike trails to the jagged ridges of the bluffs and smooth, toe-able sandstone boulders. On a sticky summer day, we opted for a lazy 2.2-mile hike just fifteen minutes from town, at Rainbow Lake on Signal Mountain, complete with ruins, swinging bridges, and a swimmin’ hole.
Because throngs of rock climbers visit from all over the country, the most distinctive place to bunk up—literally—is a hostel called the Crash Pad (a pun on the cushion that softens a dismount from a boulder), opened in 2011 by two climbers from upstate New York. The LEED Platinum–certified lodge is not your typical hostel: It’s boutiquey and upscale, with seven private rooms in addition to twenty-four well-appointed bunk beds in a common area. And last year its owners opened the liveliest bar in town, Flying Squirrel, right next door, with two-story glass windows, steel trusses, cedar beams, and an ambitious cocktail menu. (For a more conventional stay, try the Sheraton Read House, comfy and well-situated downtown in a historic 1926 building.)
On our second day, we pedaled to the North Shore across the Walnut Street Bridge, a pedestrian/bike bridge over the glassy expanse of the Tennessee River. This district has the newly opened Farmer’s Daughter, whose owners hail from local supper-club stardom. Find cold-brew coffee in beakers, live bluegrass when the mood strikes, and a pop-up art gallery in this renovated Exxon station. Next door is Southern Sqweeze, an organic, cold-pressed juice bar started by the same woman who used to make me sweat bullets in yoga class. Also new is a gastropub called Beast + Barrel, which doles out charcuterie, wine on tap, and local brews. Try a dram of 1816 Cask from Chattanooga Whiskey Co., which plans to open its own stillhouse downtown early next year.
One thing that hasn’t changed in a decade is the top spot for upscale dining. St. John’s Restaurant recently passed the chef’s hat from James Beard nominee Daniel Lindley to his longtime chef de cuisine, Rebecca Barron, but the food—from the local lettuces and free-range chicken to a blueberry-ginger shortcake—remains the finest in town. Another Lindley spawn, Alleia, serves upscale Italian on the Southside.
Main attractions are worth exploring, like the Tennessee Aquarium, Hunter Museum of American Art, and Warehouse Row (a multiuse complex by the developers of Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, with posh local boutiques—and a J.Crew and Anthropologie coming this fall, the first premier national retailers to open downtown since the 1930s). But tourists who don’t get off the riverfront grid will miss gems like Moccasin Bend Brewing Co., three miles south in St. Elmo, recently renovated but still with a whiff of your hip grandmother’s 1970s basement. Or Lamar’s Restaurant, a swanky throwback lounge on the side of a motel that serves stiff martinis and late-night fried chicken.
In fall and winter, the air is crisp and ripe for outdoor pursuits. October brings a monthlong, all-levels adventure sports competition called RiverRocks, as well as the free, world-class 3 Sisters Festival of Bluegrass Music.
Active, artsy Chattanooga begs for comparison to Asheville or even Austin in an earlier, less polished time. So book now, but please, keep Chattanooga wild.
This article originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.