I’ve lived within three hours’ driving distance from Chattanooga for four years now, and yet when Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the top 10 small cities in the U.S., I was stunned. Really? I thought, Chattanooga? I decided I had to make the trip, and just a few days in town had me (and my 4-year-old) convinced.

Whether you’re traveling with teens with an eye for indie shops, or little ones who love nothing more than trains, trains, and more trains — there’s something for every family in Scenic City (Chattanooga’s official nickname, although I much prefer its unofficial ones such as “Nooga,” “Chattown,” and my child’s favorite, “the ‘Noog”).

Where to stay

The Edwin Hotel from Marriott’s Autograph Collection is a can’t-miss pick for combining elegance with accessibility, with an eye for design and an unbeatable location that’s walking-distance to everything you want to see downtown. It’s also just steps from the river and the Walnut Street bridge, so you can expect a room with a (gorgeous) view. Perhaps the best part of the Edwin, though, are its restaurants, but more about those later. Plus, The Edwin staff are doing a phenomenal job of keeping pandemic travelers safe — with flexible cancellation policies, increased cleaning protocols, sanitizer stations, enforced elevator distancing, you name it.

If you want to be extra-careful (ie avoiding elevators entirely), vacation rentals are always a great option for family travel, and VRBO has some fantastic Chattanooga picks — from cute homes with outdoor fire-hang spots to get you through the TN pandemic winter to a shockingly affordable riverside chalet (!) that sleeps up to 7.

Other favorite hotel picks around town include the artsy-funky (also Marriot-owned for you points-havers) Moxy Hotel as well as well as The Crash Pad, which bills itself as an “uncommon hostel” and is just that, with options ranging from dorm-style bunks to a private suite.

Where to eat & drink

Head to Alleia after a day of adventuring and kid-pleasing for cocktails, apps, and kid-approved pizza and gelato that will win you Parent of the Year awards (in the kids’ eyes, at least). The vibe here is refreshingly chill for an upscale restaurant (hence why we still recommend it for kids), although the food is so divine you’ll forget you’re on a covered patio in Tennessee and not in Puglia.

And I promised I’d get to Whitebird, the aforementioned restaurant at the Edwin, which cooks up Appalachian cuisine that all ages will love, including a Southern brunch and upgraded lunch and supper classics from mac ‘n’ cheese to roast chicken to a buttermilk biscuit board that will convert even a Yankee-hearted child like mine.

Also in the Edwin — or rather, atop it — is Whiskey Thief, the city’s first real rooftop bar, which serves up surprisingly good food (try the mushroom tacos!) along with seasonal cocktails and of course plenty of whiskey. After all, when in Rome — er, Tennessee.

Where to play

The Hunter Museum of American Art is not only a phenomenal collection; it’s also the perfect teaching museum to introduce kids to modern and contemporary art, due to its wander-through accessibility, supplementary/explanatory exhibits (like one that walks you through the process of glassblowing), and just plain fun-to-look-at sculptures, installations, and more. My 4-year-old was absolutely thrilled by an interactive video exhibit that lets you turn yourself into an impressionist painting — and just look at this gorgeous piece below that’s made, essentially, from blue jeans. Plus, the Hunter is doing a bang-up job of distancing; it truly feels safe and enjoyable to experience its entirety.

I can’t say as much, unfortunately, for the Chattanooga Aquarium. It’s an absolute icon, to be sure; the expected (but still delightful) aquarium fare such as slap-happy penguins and a ray-filled touch tank is woven through with the truly unexpected, such as lemurs swinging above your head, plus unparalleled river vs. ocean ecosystem world-building that will thrill kids of all ages. But the aquarium simply isn’t staffed adequately to enforce any kind of social distancing among patrons, and on a Saturday in 2020 it’s as crowded with often-unmasked families who brush (and breathe!) past you as if 2020 had never happened. Save this one for post-vaccine travels, folks.

Instead, head to Rock City, atop Lookout Mountain, six miles from downtown Chattanooga. Rock City is a natural (but also a bit manmade) wonder of cliffside trails, crystal-filled caves, and breathtaking views. From the top, you can see seven states (TN, GA, VA, NC, SC, AL, KY) when the clouds clear. Kids and adults alike will be mesmerized by this fairyland-feeling adventure. Unless you’re, you know, claustrophobic or afraid of heights; then, you can just hit up the friendly staff for a shortcut and meet your family at the outdoor cafe for fries. Win-win!

For a less dramatic but still lovely stroll, you can’t miss Walnut Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga. Grab a to-go coffee and pastry at Rembrandts’ Coffee House (if you can stomach the line around the block, that is) near the art museum and take in the beautiful views of both banks of the city from Chattanooga’s turquoise icon — one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges. Kids will love scampering along the wooden walkways and spotting fish, ducks, boats and more down in the river.

Another surefire hit with kids is the Tennessee Railroad Museum, which lets you book advance tickets for a ride on an old-school steam engine. Thomas the Tank Engine ain’t got nothing on the real thing — just ask any preschooler. They don’t call it the “Chattanooga choo-choo” for nothing.

Help little travelers stay safe and stylish with these kids face masks by Black-owned brands.

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