The state of Tennessee is flush with flashy attractions, from Graceland to the Grand Ole Opry to Dollywood. The city of Chattanooga, which borders the state of Georgia and makes for a great weekend or day trip from Atlanta or Nashville, hums with energy, but has none of the tourist-clogged chaos of state’s other well-trod hotspots. With laidback charm to burn, and prices that are sure to make any value-minded traveler happy, this easygoing southern city should be on your must-visit list, especially if you love high-end travel at budget prices.
Where to Stay
Chattanooga’s hotel scene offers some gems, starting with the Dwell Hotel. A true boutique hotel in a world of “boutique chains,” the Dwell has stylish rooms with bright accents. (Think banana-leaf wallpaper and cobalt and orange throw pillows against white sheets and exposed brick.) Matilda Midnight, a cocktail bar that lets you sit under hundreds of twinkling lights, and Solarium Cafe, which serves breakfast all day, are neighborhood mainstays. Rooms start at just under $200 per night.
The Westin Chattanooga anchors the West Village neighborhood, a quickly developing area of the city where you’ll find seasonal street festivals, public art, restaurants, and boutiques. You’ll want to do some exploring in this walkable city center enclave during your stay. You’ll enjoy all of the typical Westin trappings here, including the brand’s signature Heavenly beds and shower heads, plus distinctive features like a living plant wall and a cozy fireplace in the lobby, and nighttime views from the Alchemy SkyBar. Rooms start at $200 per night.
The newest design-conscious hotel on the scene in Chattanooga is The Edwin Hotel, which is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. With a new restaurant that will pay homage to traditional local flavors, a spa, and a terrace that overlooks downtown, this 90-room property begins hosting guests in September. Rooms start at $245 per night.
What to See and Do
You can’t talk about attractions in Chattanooga without discussing the Tennessee Aquarium. Spread over four enormous buildings situated along the Tennessee River, this complex is fun to visit whether you’re 7 years old or 70. The Ocean Journey building, with its penguin and shark exhibits, and its tanks of swirling neon jellyfish, is a crowd-pleaser, but it’s the River Journey building where you’ll have an experience unique to Chattanooga. Here, you’ll trace the fish and wildlife of the Tennessee River from its mountain source to the place where it meets the sea in the Mississippi Delta. You’ll see alligators and snapping turtles, and exhibits featuring "river giants” — fish that can grow longer than most humans. And of course, you must pay a visit to Miguel, the aquarium’s electric eel, which is part of the Rivers of the World exhibit. Miguel emits electricity that’s translated into tweets that post to his popular Twitter feed. Admission costs $29.95 for adults and $18.95 for kids 3-12. The aquarium is also home to an IMAX theater; films require an additional charge and tickets can be bought in combination with aquarium tickets, saving you a few dollars. Go early or late on weekends, especially in summer, to avoid the crowds.
The Bluff View Art District, a picturesque riverside neighborhood, packs a big sightseeing punch in just a few short blocks. Photo-ops, complete with river and city views and structures that date from the early 1900s, abound around every corner, which of course makes this area popular for weddings. Be sure to wander through the 2-acre River Gallery Sculpture Garden, where you’ll find 195 pieces of art situated along the river’s edge. It’s free to enter. The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts ($9 admission; $3.50 for kids), just around the corner, houses an array of Victorian art glass and antiques, while the Hunter Museum of American Art, with its various buildings that include a classical revival mansion and a stark contemporary addition, is home to one of the most complete American art collections in the Southeast. Tickets cost $15.
What to Eat and Drink
If you’re exploring the Bluff View Arts District, you won’t be at a loss for places to eat. Rembrandt’s Coffee Shop roasts their own beans and serves everything from handmade chocolates and artful pastries to carefully crafted soups and sandwiches. This is also where you’ll find Bluff View Bakery, whose rustic loaves can be found in restaurants throughout the city. Meanwhile, for dinner, Tony’s Pasta Shop and Trattoria serves the classics at incredibly reasonable prices in the former carriage house of a Victorian mansion. Dishes go up to about $14.
If you’re near the aquarium, you can’t go wrong with Easy Bistro and Bar. Situated in a former bottling plant, this high-ceilinged space has been given a stylish redo with dark walls and mirrored accents. Oysters, biscuits and gravy, and cheese grits, along with other traditional Southern dishes, are given elegant treatment here. Prices range from $8 to $26, and this is a particularly great place to do brunch.
If you’re looking for a place that feels utterly local, take a short drive across the river to Aretha Frankensteins, especially if you don’t mind calories. Filled with sci-fi and film memorabilia, the specialties at Aretha’s include thick pancakes, towering biscuits, and overstuffed burritos and quesadillas. There’s often a wait, especially at brunch, so grab a coffee or a beer (including Pabst Blue Ribbon for $2.25) and wait on the porch until your name is called. Breakfast combinations and omelettes go up to about $10. Sandwiches and burritos go up to about $8.