Forget Memphis and Nashville: Now's the time to visit Chattanooga

Forget everything you thought you knew about this city's food and culture. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is undergoing a renaissance and transforming its industrial past. Today, you'll find trendy, hip, and sustainable eateries and world-class attractions in a city that still retains its Southern charm and hospitality, the roots upon which it was founded.

For a smaller city, Chattanooga has more than its share of unique and, in some cases, one-of-a-kind attractions. The Chattanooga Bakery is home to the Moon Pie, the beloved marshmallow and graham cracker confection originally conceived in 1917 as a snack for coal miners. Traditionally, this is enjoyed with an ice cold RC Cola.

Tennessee Aquarium_JellyfishOther claims to fame include the Walnut Street Bridge, one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world; the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, the world’s steepest with a 72.7 percent grade; the Chattanooga Choo-Choo lobby, which houses the largest freestanding brick dome in the world; and the only towing museum found on the planet — which only makes sense in light of the fact that this city birthed the tow truck industry in 1916.

However, these notable attributes are just a prelude to a few of Chattanooga's major attractions. The Tennessee Aquarium is one of the largest freshwater aquariums in the world, and its enormous complex includes two buildings with displays and exhibits that rival any competing facilities. These include alligators, otters, penguins, “river giants” like Mekong catfish and lake sturgeon, jellyfish, a reef tank with colorful and exotic fish, a butterfly garden, and the world's only Twitter savvy electric eel — Miguel Wattson. The aquarium has also partnered with celebrity chef Alton Brown to create the Serve and Protect sustainable seafood program.

Located just across the street from the Aquarium, the IMAX 3D Theater is where you can enjoy six stories of movie magic. It is one of the few around the country using the IMAX next-generation digital laser projection system to enhance the viewing experience.

Ruby FallsNot all of the attractions in the city are above ground, and while visiting, you must see Ruby Falls, the deepest commercial cave and tallest underground waterfall in the United States. Discovered by Leo Lambert in 1928, the falls were named after his wife, Ruby. Lambert brought her with him to explore the cave — on her hands and knees in a dress. Not surprisingly, he named the caves after her.

The group tours follow narrow passages highlighting unusual rock formations that Lambert found along the way. At the end, you will be rewarded with a spectacular, LED-lit, 145-foot waterfall that flows 1,120 feet below the mountain. Ruby Falls is also the first attraction in America to receive Green Globe Certification for environmental sustainability.

While cities such as Nashville, New Orleans, and Chicago are well-known for their music scenes, Chattanooga has just added a new attraction that is sure to put it on the melody map. Songbirds Guitar Museum houses the largest private collection of rare and vintage guitars in the world. The pop culture exhibit features some 300 guitars of all ages and styles out of a total collection of 1,500. These include acoustic, electric, jazz, and bass guitars. The most expensive ones are housed in “the vault,” which you can see for a separate add-on ticket. The Fender Stratocaster (1954) Sunburst with matching headstock, for example, is easily worth a million dollars.

Flying Squirrel_Pimiento CheeseThe Chattanooga culinary scene is equally impressive, with scores of independent eateries keeping pace with local revitalization efforts. The Flying Squirrel Bar is owned by the neighboring Crash Pad, the world's first LEED Platinum Certified (the highest level of environmentally friendly achievement from the U.S. Green Building Council) hostel in the United States. Located in the hip and trendy Southside district, the restaurant is a sculpture itself with reclaimed wood, a large swivel door, and an open window connecting diners to the outdoors. Locally sourced ingredients are used in their menu, which includes house-cut fries, duck confit tacos, and ramen — one of the chef's personal favorites.

Across from the aquarium, Easy Bistro & Bar is located in the 100-year-old building that housed the world's first Coca-Cola bottling plant. Award-winning chef Erik Niel uses local farmers and suppliers whenever possible to create dishes such as braised brisket with confit potatoes or even specialty raw oysters gleaned from the Gulf and East and West Coasts.

Main Street Meats is a popular lunch and dinner spot where the butchers know how to make the most out of every cut of meat. Savor the finely cured salami, French-style pâté, and smoked sausages or its specially blended, juicy burger.

St. John's RestaurantFor an elegant fine-dining experience, make a reservation at St. John's Restaurant, the city's first farm-to-table restaurant. Having won several Wine Spectator awards, its knowledgeable staff and sommeliers guide you through the best pairing options for your meal. The menu changes based on the seasonal availability of ingredients, but if available, start with Kenny's Roasted Pork Belly with sage-sausage gravy and blueberry jam ($13). From their summer menu, choose the popular Pickett's Ranch Trout with duck fat potatoes, Delano Farm cabbage, romano beans, and banana pepper aioli ($25).

One thing that you will probably notice while dining at these eateries is the excellent service from the very knowledgeable wait staff. Many are longtime local residents who are quite proud of their heritage and are invested in furthering Chattanooga's culinary prowess.

Still relatively unknown, Crabtree Farms is a nonprofit, sustainable urban farm. Amazing fresh produce is grown on its 22 acres, where they also offer cooking and education classes. One of Crabtree Farms’ main goals is to raise awareness about the use of locally grown food in everyday cooking.

Clumpies Ice Cream Co.Of course, Chattanooga has its share of sweet temptations such as Clumpies Ice Cream Co. The shop uses cream with a high butterfat content to create its smooth and creamy sensations, which are handcrafted daily. Consequently, it isn't uncommon for lines to form around the block. Try their Sweet Corn Blueberry or the Curious George made with ripe bananas and a swirl of peanut butter.

Southern charm is intact here, and it isn't uncommon for total strangers to warmly welcome you and tell you what they love about their city. With a revitalized urban community, top-notch attractions, and a thriving culinary scene, Chattanooga is much more than the sum of its parts.

 

Published online July 19, 2017: Written by: Ron Stern