Sitting astride the Tennessee River and wedged within the hilltops of the Cumberland Plateau, Chattanooga is one of the South’s prettiest cities. And thanks to its ultra-fast public internet, the so-called “Gig City” has become a tech hub, supporting a bustling community of startups, software companies and venture capital firms. Combine that with the down-to-earth charisma of the region’s top rock climbing, cycling and hiking activities, and you have one of the most interesting destinations in the South.
But to really get to know Chattanooga, travelers should explore each of its unique neighborhoods. From taking in an art show downtown to exploring Civil War and Reconstruction history in the North Shore, these are Chattanooga’s best neighborhoods.
Best neighborhood for arts and culture
Most stories about Chattanooga start with what the city’s downtown used to be – a polluted mid-sized southern city gripped by a grim post-industrial funk. Then, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Chattanooga’s old money foundations combined their philanthropic powers like the Captain Planet Planeteers to clean up the waterfront and build something better. Soon the triangular armature of what would be the Tennessee Aquarium formed a sketch of Chattanooga’s now-instantly recognizable skyline.
Restaurants inspired by the California farm-to-table movement popped up the keep nine-to-fivers downtown after dark, as did regular events like the free Chattanooga Nightfall concert series at Miller Plaza on warm summer nights when the air smells like boxwood. An old rail crossing over the Tennessee River was turned into the pedestrian Walnut Street Bridge, now one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. The kid-friendly Creative Discovery Museum followed, along with the IMAX movie theater.
An electric shuttle began to run the length of downtown, linking historic hotels like the supposedly haunted Read House with attractions on the revitalized waterfront like the Southern Belle Riverboat and a memorial to the Indigenous Cherokee removed from Ross’s Landing on the Trail of Tears.
Just up a steep hill from the main drag along Market and Broad Streets is the Hunter Museum of American Art, housed in a grand Classical Revival mansion that was once a private home. Today the Hunter is surrounded by later Brutalist and post-modern additions full of works by both local painters and world-famous artists like Robert Rauschenberg. Surrounding the Hunter is the Bluff View Art District, a collection of bed-and-breakfasts in the more modest mansions dotting the bluff, linked by restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and a sculpture garden where you can watch paddle boarders and kayakers negotiating the river below.
The North Shore
Best neighborhood for families
Once upon a time, the North Shore was more Haight Ashbury than family-friendly weekend hotspot – but those days are long gone. Midcentury storefronts have transformed into ice cream parlors, art supply shops, taco spots, donut emporiums and quirky boutiques. Broad swaths of former industrial plots were turned into Coolidge and Renaissance Parks, complete with an antique carousel and year-round sledding hills for children. The free electric shuttle now connects the North Shore to downtown, ferrying tourists and staycationers between family-friendly attractions like the Aquarium and Creative Discovery Museum.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the Northshore wasn’t even part of Chattanooga – it was a post-Civil War Freedmen’s community called Hill City where factories and warehouses lined the riverfront. The Tennessee River was a tacit racial and class boundary between what was then considered Chattanooga and the string of communities to its north. Indeed, sculptor Jerome Meadows is currently working on a statue dedicated to Ed Johnson, a Black man who was lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906. The memorial will sit at the foot of the bridge on the downtown side.
Despite the stark divides of the Jim Crow-era South, however, the former town of Hill City eventually became one more neighborhood in a growing metro. When Chattanooga’s downtown began to revitalize in the late 1980s and early 1990s, North Chattanooga followed suit. Over the past decade, blocks of condos have filled in the vacant lots, and pancake restaurants have popped up in old bungalows. Middle-class families vie for a position at nearby private and performing arts schools and grab weekend burgers at low-key corner taverns.
Best neighborhood for foodies and nightlife
One of Chattanooga’s more recent success stories is the Southside, another former commercial strip at the far end of downtown that went from buzzy to blighted and bounced back thanks to concerted place-making efforts. The annual MAINx24 festival was organized to celebrate a handful of existing businesses like Zarzour’s Café and attract new entrepreneurs and developers – and hit a home run. Over the past ten years the neighborhood around Main Street has gone from the kind of neighborhood that attracts party-minded college seniors in need of off-campus housing to a collection of some of Chattanooga’s most lauded bars and restaurants.
Here you’ll find concert venues that pull national acts, coffee shops slinging pour-overs and avocado toast, Fellini-esque Italian bistros, infrared saunas, line-out-the-door breakfast joints, upscale shopping in an old warehouse and even a sweet little cheesemonger. There’s a well-regarded elementary school, a farmer’s market, the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, a sports stadium and a skate park. Like the North Shore, the Southside is now connected to downtown by the free electric shuttle, so it’s easy to reach even if you don’t have a car. You can even skip the hotels that dominate downtown for Crash Pad, a boutique hostel adjacent to its sibling, the popular Flying Squirrel Bar.
Hitch a ride to or from the depot at the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo – the magnificent old brick train station that once put Chattanooga on the map in the Reconstruction years and was made world-famous by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade. Right across the street are the Hot Chocolatier and the storefront for Chattanooga Whiskey Distillery, a spirits brand that successfully lead a 2013 campaign to overturn a Prohibition-era law preventing the local manufacture of whiskey. Belly up at Urban Stack, a hip spot specializing in burgers and bourbon, and you can try some Chattanooga Whiskey in a cocktail, too.
MLK and Fort Wood
Best neighborhood for college students and craft beer fans
Adjacent to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus, the MLK and Fort Wood neighborhoods each harken back to a different period of Chattanooga history. For decades, the former was the heart of Chattanooga’s Black community, lined with jazz clubs, barbecue joints, and barbershops. That’s still true today – just ask any local about how long they’ve been dining at hometown favorites like Uncle Larry’s hot fish and Memo Grill, which has been open for over fifty years. You can learn more about Chattanooga’s African American heritage at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, too, named for the late, great local blues dynamo.
But developers are finally making a move on a number of abandoned buildings and empty lots, realizing that MLK could be the college strip that crops up in so many university towns with businesses catering to students and twenty-somethings. Now MLK has become something of a brewery district, with OddStory, Hutton & Smith Brewing and Wanderlinger all in proximity, along with other hoppy hubs like the craft beer bar Barley and popular neighborhood pub The Bitter Alibi. Capping it all off is JJ’s Bohemia, a divey little concert venue where you can see some of the best bands in Chattanooga.
As for tony Fort Wood, these few blocks of grand old houses shaded by a canopy of towering oaks were once the site of a Civil War battery. From here, Union troops launched an offensive on Orchard Knob a mile or so away in a neighborhood of the same name, and later on Missionary Ridge to the south. Though the old military works are long gone, you can still get a feel for the history of the place from the house names and building dates etched into pavers on the sidewalk.
St. Elmo and Lookout Mountain
Best neighborhood for the outdoors and living like a local
One of Chattanooga’s original trolly suburbs, St. Elmo sits at the foot of tony, blue-blood Lookout Mountain and is full of pretty, old Victorians covered in painted bric-a-brac. The neighborhood has also become a hipster haven, favored by young professionals and families who scooped up one of these houses when they were cheaper and in need of a coat of paint and have since been rewarded with new businesses opening up within walking distance. The patio at 1885 Grill is typically packed for brunch, while trivia nights at the very-literally-named Tap House draw a steady stream of regulars back week after week.
Exercise buffs will enjoy hiking, trail running, or cycling up the side of Lookout from the Guild-Hardy greenway – it’s a rail-to-trail conversion that passes underneath the famous Incline Railway and past the Ruby Falls underground waterfall to connect with a swath of hiking trails and old Civil War batteries that are snarled across the flanks of Lookout Mountain. If you want a challenge for your glutes, head all the way up to the Cravens House and Point Park Battlefield historic sites on foot and see splendid views of Chattanooga spread out around the Tennessee River like a picnic blanket. Or you can take it easy and ride the Incline up and down before grabbing pizza at Mr. T’s Pizza & Ice Cream or lunch at Sawasdee Thai Restaurant.
Travelers with kids will especially love opting outside at the Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center. Or you can try the Tennessee Riverwalk, a 16.1-mile-long greenway favored by pedestrians and cyclists that connects St. Elmo to downtown, Fort Wood and even the Chickamauga Dam north of the city. Not feeling a hike? Rock City is another way to get some time in nature atop Lookout Mountain, this time by strolling rock gardens and quirky cave formations with a fairy tale theme. Believe it or not, when Rock City opened in the early 1930s, it also became the birthplace of miniature golf.
The West Village
Best neighborhood for business travelers
Chattanooga’s newest neighborhood has reclaimed a pocket of downtown left relatively empty and out of the way when the freeway was constructed in the 1970s, routing auto traffic away from traditional entry points to the city like the Choo Choo and toward the “Golden Gateway” further north. A pair of gleaming glass office towers were built in the area before the brassier of the two was picked up by Westin Hotels and crowned with a sky view cocktail lounge.
Soon a slew of other attractions aimed at business travelers and well-heeled visitors popped up, including long-time local favorite Easy Bistro, which recently moved to the West Village from its old outpost near the aquarium. Others are brand-spanking-new like the Old Gilman Grill, housed in a former paint store that opened in 1910. Easily walkable, you can get from the West Village to downtown, the Southside, or the Bluff View Arts District in just a few minutes, and the electric shuttle is just a few blocks away. As long as you’re hoofing it, stop by Umbrella Alley (located across the street from Peet’s Coffee) to snap a fun photo for Instagram.
Highland Park, Ridgedale and Orchard Knob
Best neighborhood for pedestrians and public transit
Largely residential and not yet gentrified to the extent of the nearby Southside, Highland Park is mostly home to a mix of University professors, staffers from a nearby fleet of hospitals, young families and old-timers who haven’t been squeezed out yet by rising home prices. Across McCallie Avenue, Orchard Knob is named for the prominent hill that rises up almost out of nowhere, topped by Civil War monuments that are part of a national military park. Climb to the top and you’ll get splendid views of Chattanooga, including Lookout Mountain (on a clear day you can see the Craven’s House partway up), Signal Mountain, and Missionary Ridge.
These historic trolly suburbs are the kind of place where you can cozy up in a quiet AirBnB or boutique hostel and walk to grab breakfast at Wally’s (open since the 1930s), a sandwich and a beer at the Spot or Charlie’s Barbecue in neighboring Ridgedale, dig through crates of vinyl at Yellow Racket Records, or scour The Refindery for antiques. Together Cafe is a coffee shop just off Orchard Knob Avenue next to a picturesque gazebo on the former Tennessee Temple Baptist University campus, since reimagined as an assortment of charter and Montessori schools. Best of all, Highland Park is easily accessible via the #4 bus route that runs up McCallie Avenue and down MLK/Bailey or is a bicycle-friendly distance from the happenings on the Southside.