Welcome to a semi-regular new travel feature on The Frisky! “Cities That Surprise” will highlight places across America (and maybe around the globe?!) that defied or exceeded our expectations, for whatever reason. Have you ever been somewhere that was unexpectedly awesome, or completely different than what you thought it was going to be? Do you live in a city that is constantly misunderstood or unappreciated? Shoot me an email at email@example.com with your nominations and I’ll help you spread the word about these hidden gem destinations that deserve way more credit.
And now, let’s discuss the city I visited a couple weeks ago that inspired this whole idea: Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I don’t really know what I was expecting when my boyfriend Nick and I set off on a quick one-day road trip to Chattanooga. My main goal was a change of scenery and a distraction from a super stressful week. One of Nick’s customers had told him to check out Chattanooga when he got the chance, and since it was only a two hour drive from Nashville, it seemed like a good way to spend a sunny Saturday.
I did zero research beforehand, planning on just walking around town, getting some lunch, and seeing what there was to see (which, honestly, as a terrible planner, is my favorite way to travel). With no preconceived notions about Chattanooga, I assumed it would be similar to the countless other small cities and little towns that we have explored since moving down south: tons of farmland, parking lots full of vintage trucks, a couple greasy spoon diners with great pie. I was so, so wrong.
When we first rolled into Chattanooga, I turned to Nick and said, “Wait, where are we?!” The city center was clean and modern, perched on the edge of a gorgeous river in a lush green valley. We parked on one of the hilly side streets, which was lined with gorgeous brick townhomes that reminded me of strolling through posh neighborhoods in London. As we walked down the main street, we saw a diverse mix of families and young people eating lunch on the many restaurant patios or excitedly heading toward the Tennessee Aquarium, which is located on the waterfront.
We stopped for lunch at the Bluewater Grille, which was pretty much the opposite of the traditional Southern diners I’ve come to know and love: super chic, modern decor, a menu of fresh seafood, beer brewed in-house, a shockingly extensive self-serve bloody mary bar, and — my personal favorite — $3 mimosas (!). Nick had a veggie burger and I had a salmon caesar salad; both were delish. We accidentally got kinda buzzed from the cheap drinks so we decided to take a river walk to sober up.
On our way to the river we walked through an awesome craft fair and were greeted by a woman selling reusable fabric sanitary napkins and a couple of hippie dudes wearing baja hoodies. “Where are we?” I asked Nick again. “How drunk am I? Are we back in Portland?”
When we got to the river I seriously thought I was having mimosa-induced hallucinations: people were PADDLEBOARDING and also DOING YOGA ON THEIR PADDLEBOARDS right there in the middle of the Tennessee River. I know paddleboarding is super trendy right now all over the country, but I’ve only done it in Hawaii, and I was just totally not expecting to see it here. Besides the paddleboarders, there were tons of kayaks out on the water, and people jogging and biking along the riverside paths. The outdoorsy vibe combined with the gorgeous greenery was giving me Pacific Northwest flashbacks. Again, not what I was expecting.
There’s a beautiful old pedestrian bridge that crosses the river, so we strolled across that to check out the “north shore.” I popped into a couple cute clothing boutiques and we spent some time rifling through the racks at a used record store. Chattanooga obviously prides itself on being artsy and a little offbeat — there are tons of unique galleries and shops selling handmade art, home goods, and jewelry, and street art is everywhere (my favorite was the sidewalk installation which included instructions for dancing the mambo).
It was super hot, so we stopped into Clumpies Ice Cream for a scoop of refreshment. Sweet. Mother. Of. God. You guys, I am not even kidding when I say this is the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. It was flavorful, creamy, rich but somehow also light. Nick had a scoop of their sweet cream flavor that I’m still having sex dreams about. Amazing.
We left in the late afternoon to avoid driving home in the dark, but let me tell you, after spending one fairly short day in Chattanooga, we are itching to go back. There are so many sites and activities to take advantage of; I’d love to spend a weekend there in the not-too-distant future and hit up more restaurants, bars, boutiques, plus go to the aquarium and check out what the river looks like from a paddleboard (JK I really just want to gorge on Clumpies ice cream for two full days).
If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Tennessee and haven’t checked out Chattanooga, I highly recommend it. Even if you live farther away and have been searching for a funky place to spend a long weekend, give Chattanooga a chance. I think you’ll be, well, pleasantly surprised.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @winona_rose.