I Left My Heart in Chattanooga

After living there for three short but sweet years, I learned that Chattanooga, or Chattie as I affectionately call it, is a fantastic place to live and visit.

Where to begin? For history buffs, there are countless landmarks in the area, commemorating events that changed the course of American history, from the Trail of Tears to the Civil War battles in and around Chattanooga. For families with young children in tow, there's the spectacular Tennessee Aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum, Coolidge Park with its lovely fountain and antique carousel, and Ruby Falls-an underground waterfall reached by guided tour through narrow caverns and passageways. For outdoor enthusiasts, there's the promise of a place often called the "Boulder, Colorado of the East;" rock climbing, fly fishing, cycling, hang gliding, hiking, rafting, and so much more await the adventurous.

What I'm offering here is an itinerary for a three-day getaway to Chattanooga. It's an activity guide that has passed the test of many visits from our family and friends, and it includes our favorite places that we try to re-visit on our trips back. Three days fill up quickly in Chattanooga, so you should know that for every place that follows, there are at least five other alternative attractions or activities. Also, this itinerary assumes that you've awakened in Chattanooga on day one. I recommend that you wake up in the Bluff View Inn, found in the town's popular Bluff View Arts District.

Bluff View Inn is perched overlooking the Tennessee River, which flows below through downtown Chattanooga. Within a minute's walk from the inn (and that's not an exaggeration), there's the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Houston Museum of Decorative Art, a sculpture garden, a bocce ball court, an art gallery, three restaurants, a thirteen-mile exercise trail that follows the river upstream to Lake Chickamauga, and Walnut Street Bridge, one of the world's longest pedestrian bridges.

Another lodging option that's relatively new to Chattanooga is the Delta Queen steamboat, which retired to life as a floating boutique hotel. Hotel guests and tourists can board the Queen from Coolidge Park and bask in the brass nautical history of it all.

Day One: Signal Mountain and the North Shore

Rembrandt's Café in the Bluff View Arts District makes a great starting point in Chattanooga, so consider this hot-spot for breakfast on your first full day in the Scenic City. Locals love and frequent this place just as much as tourists. The display cases are full of breakfast and dessert pastries, chocolates, pies and cakes, while the menu offers paninis, soups and salads. For breakfast, you can't do better than an almond croissant. Take it outside and enjoy their gorgeous patio seating.

Next, head up to Signal Mountain, a ten-minute drive from downtown Chattanooga. Our visitors particularly loved the "W" road that sharply zigs and zags its way up the rocky side of the mountain-a vertical road if I've ever been on one. Once you've made it to the top, consider driving north along East Brow Road for beautiful homes on the left, and a breathtaking view of the valley below on the right. Then, turn south on Highway 127 and head to the "old towne" area of ​​Signal Point. The streets here are lined with quaint stone cottages and magnificent estates, and you can still see the tracks of the streetcar that used to run through this neighborhood. The area here was developed at the turn of the twentieth century as an escape from diseases, namely cholera and yellow fever, in the valley below.

When you've had enough of the car and historic home viewing, take a rest stop at Signal Point Park. From this spot, you can look down on the lush and verdant Tennessee River gorge and forget that civilization is nearby. Park signage explains that Signal Point was part of a signaling system used by Native Americans first, then Union troops during the Civil War. Depending on your energy level at this point, you could embark on a hike from the park. The Cumberland Trail, part of the Great Eastern Trail, starts at this park, and it's a stunning walk through mountainside woods.

There are a couple of options for lunch on Signal Mountain, but I'd head back down the mountain for lunch in the North Shore area. Two of our favorite spots were the River Street Deli for amazing muffulettas, Stromboli, and Brooklyn accents; or Mercantino for an atmosphere that can't be beat. And once you've parked near the action on the North Shore (that would be Frazier Avenue), you can leave your car behind for hours.

Hit the boutiques after lunch, being sure not to miss Blue Skies, Plum Nelly, and Sophie's. It is impossible to enter any one of these three stores and leave empty-handed, so just give in. Treat yourself or a friend to vintage style, unique home and personal accessories, handmade jewelry, glass, and ceramics. These three stores, plus the many other businesses along Frazier-including a local bookstore, an outdoors outfitter, and art galleries-are gift-givers heaven.

When you need a break from shopping, pick up a treat from Clumpies Ice Cream and stroll over to Coolidge Park overlooking the river. You'll be surrounded by people of all ages as they play in the fountain, toss Frisbees and footballs, and relax inside a wonderful urban green space. While there, you can see if there are any plays to catch during your stay-the Chattanooga Theater Center sits just on the edge of the park.

For dinner, the Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar is a great choice, and it's only a five-minute car drive from downtown. They serve Louisiana oysters and other great seafood (the wood-grilled tilapia is outstanding), and, oddly enough, their Mexican dishes-especially the quesadillas-are just as popular. If you have room for an appetizer, the Mexican shrimp cocktail is unforgettable. The Boathouse sits right on the Tennessee River, and they've got plenty of outdoor seating overlooking the water.

Day Two: The Great Outdoors

A trip to Chattanooga without some kind of outdoor adventure is a missed opportunity. It's kind of like going to New York City without seeing a play-you've missed a key element of the local culture. Fuel up with a hearty breakfast from Bluegrass Grill on Main Street. This family-owned restaurant packs people in starting at 6:30 am for omelettes and tasty variations of hash. Load up on carbs; You'll need them today.

For peace and quiet, a guided fly fishing trip is an excellent excursion, as is a nice-and-easy float down the Hiwassee River in an inflatable kayak or raft. We also enjoyed walking the extensive trails of Chickamauga Battlefield, part of the country very first national military park. There's a seven-mile auto tour of the battlefield, but on foot or on bike is the best way to experience the beauty and historical significance of this land. And the terrain here is relatively flat, a huge plus for those of us from elevation-challenged regions.

For the more adventurous, there's the aforementioned Cumberland Trail on Signal Mountain, or scores of other fun hiking trails on Lookout Mountain. We never got the chance to go, but Cloudland Canyon State Park-just over the border in Georgia-is supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful in an area referred to as "God's Country." Trails there range from two to almost seven miles, and there's a 600-step staircase for hikers making the trip to the bottom of the park's gorge.

Bold outdoors enthusiasts will be glad to know that Chattanooga is considered the regional rock climbing capital, and it attracts mountain bikers from all over. Prentice Cooper State Forest is one of many options for both of these activities. Please, oh please, do not attempt to climb rocks without a guide. On water, the Ocoee River offers the sought-after near-death rafting experience. Yes, I thought I was going to die on the upper Ocoee. Twice. But it's fun if you're into that kind of thing (jury is still out for me). Some of the more endearing names of the Ocoee's Class IV + rapids are "Broken Nose," "Diamond Splitter" and "Hell's Hole." Finally, those who aren't interested in land or water activities can try hang gliding off the side of Lookout Mountain. I couldn't bring myself to strap into a glorified kite, but two friends from France did, and they said it was chouette.

After a day spent in the great outdoors, a shower and a satisfying dinner are in order. As your body will not want to stray too far from its bed at the Bluff View Inn, stroll around the corner to Tony's for an Italian dinner. The atmosphere is one that forces you to linger long after the meal is done, especially if you're lucky enough to score a table on the second-floor terrace. A green salad with their roasted tomato tarragon dressing and all of the pasta dishes are reliably delicious.

Day Three: Lookout Mountain, Southside and Downtown

Between the hotel and Lookout Mountain lies Niedlov's Breadworks, which has amazing cinnamon rolls, muffins, scones-come to think of it, everything at Niedlov's is good. The artisan-owners "love to knead and knead to love," and you can taste the baked-in passion. Give it a try for breakfast this morning.

There are several roads that take you up to the top of Lookout Mountain; each one is scenic, so pick one for the ride up and another for the ride down. Once you're up there, take in the gorgeous views and mansions, especially those along West Brow Road. (This exploration of Lookout Mountain sounds a lot like the first day's Signal Mountain itinerary; but if the residential area of ​​Signal Mountain is charming and accessible, Lookout Mountain is caviar dreams. Each mountain is worth a visit as they offer different clues into Chattanooga's culture .)

Lookout's Point Park-not to be confused with Signal Point Park-is a must as an easily accessible part of the Lookout Mountain Battlefield. A small museum just across the street will explain the very Lord of the Rings-sounding "Battle Above the Clouds" that took place on the mountain during the Civil War. Another treasure on Lookout Mountain is the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which offers driving and hiking trails through a bucolic setting of meadows, wildflowers, forest, ponds and creeks.

After a mountaintop morning, Mojo Burrito-at the foot of Lookout Mountain in the lovely historic neighborhood of St. Louis Elmo-brings you back to earth with tortillas wrapped around super fresh ingredients. Southern Star located in the Southside neighborhood also keeps it real with true southern home cooking. Don't skip dessert-the banana pudding leaves you speechless.

While you're in the Southside neighborhood, there are four shops that are very much worth a visit. Revival is located inside Warehouse Row, and although I couldn't afford much from this store, I had fun just being in the presence of its greatness. Just like any luxury goods store, you can find table accessories by Juliska and pewter by Match. But what sets this store in a league of its own is a beautifully curated collection of home furnishings, from eighteenth century white leather Italian chairs to modern Belgian coffee tables. You'll discover home design elements in Revival that you never knew you wanted. Shadow Box Paperie on Main Street will make you put pen to paper and renounce all forms of electronic communication. They have other home accessories, too, all wonderfully presented. For serious antique-lovers, Southside Antiques is an essential stop-gorgeous corner cabinets, dining tables, antique books, and armoires. Finally, the Galleries at Southside, much like The Foyer in Baton Rouge, is a collection of vendors under one roof, selling gifts, accessories, art and antiques at many price points.

In the late afternoon, head back to the inn to park your car and take advantage of the amazing pedestrian activities in downtown Chattanooga. Visit the sculpture garden and spend time over the river on one of the Walnut Street Bridge benches. The bridge was converted to pedestrian use in 1993, and much like the Pont des Arts in Paris, people can't get enough of bridge time. Suspended above the Tennessee River, they exercise, create art, gather for festivals, commute to work on bike, and yes, they snuggle here as if they were in Paris.

Leave enough time before sunset to experience The Passage and Ross's Landing Plaza, a Cherokee nation and Trail of Tears memorial located adjacent to the Tennessee Aquarium. The Cherokee inhabited this area that would become first Ross's Landing, then Chattanooga, until they were forced West on the Trail of Tears. Thousands died during the horrific journey. At this memorial, you'll find moving quotes by Cherokee and American leaders at the time of the native removal.

For dinner on your last night in Chattanooga, you may as well have a blow out. St. John's restaurant is as flawless a restaurant as I've ever experienced. Chef Daniel Lindley was nominated for the James Beard award this year and last, and you'll know why after just one meal at St. John's John's. From his kitchen come the finest ingredients available, many of them organic and local, and the menu changes often to reflect growing seasons. The current menu includes handmade quail tortellini, Kobe beef steak, and chocolate molten cake. The service is dreamy, the flat iron building is a beauty, and everyone leaves happy.

And everyone leaves Chattanooga happy, though I was also kicking, screaming and crying the day my husband and I said goodbye to our hilltop North Chattanooga home. My husband says I'm projecting, but I swear that even our dog misses Chattanooga. The pull of family and old friends brought us home to Louisiana, and we are of course glad to be back home among them, but we will be returning to Chattanooga as often as we can for the rest of our lives. It's that kind of place.