In this storied town where once the river was wild and crisscrossing train tracks brought in locomotives, the “Scenic City” is now a top family destination
We were humming “Is that the Chattanooga choo choo?” for weeks after our visit to this engaging city in southeastern Tennessee. It’s a perfect destination with activities ranging from kayaking to caverns, museums, Civil War battlefields, a vibrant art scene and a state-of-the-art aquarium.
In the 1800s, Chattanooga was a Tennessee River railroad-riverboat transportation nexus. In the 1900s, it became an industrial city — dirty streets and dirty air — but today has reinvented itself as a fresh, lively and reasonably priced destination. Some fun facts about Chattanooga are that this is where MoonPies, the marshmallow sandwich treat, was created; where the tow truck was born; and where the world’s first franchised Coca-Cola bottling plant was built.
Many of today’s activities in Chattanooga still involve the river. The famed Delta Queen, which plied the Mississippi for 60 years, is now moored on the riverfront with tours, a restaurant, entertainment and unique stateroom lodgings. The paddle-wheeler Southern Belle provides dinner cruises and great nighttime views of the city on the rocky bluffs above the river.
Then there’s the River Gorge Explorer, a hydrofoil catamaran, which offers cruises. Gloria, our naturalist narrator, pointed out everything from herons to historical spots and explained that the boat can go 55 mph, and while it draws 3 feet at dockside, it only draws 8 inches on the water.
Outdoor Chattanooga — the city’s recreation department — offers moderately priced outings that include kayaking instruction and guides for a paddle on the gently flowing current. Other activities include bicycle rental, rock climbing and white-water rafting.
The Tennessee Aquarium, with its prismlike rooftops, is consistently listed among the top 10 aquariums in the country. It features both the freshwater River Journey and the saltwater Ocean Journey, an IMAX theater, a butterfly gallery, a rooftop aviary and a large turtle collection with an immense snapper that is estimated to be at least 100 years old. The penguins in their frigid exhibit are particularly drawn to shiny objects and sometimes interact with visitors through the glass — when they aren’t filching stones from each other’s nests, that is. Especially enchanting are the seahorse displays and a jellyfish exhibit called Jellies: Living Art.
More than 150 volunteer scuba divers provide feeding and maintenance throughout the aquarium and you can often spot one scrubbing away underwater. Neatest treat for us: hand-feeding the suede-smooth manta rays. (Go early; when the shrimp allotment is gone, it’s gone.)
The Chattanooga Zoo is green, shady and improved with a recent $12 million renovation. Exhibits include jungle, swamp, desert and mountains, and notable attractions include snow leopards, red pandas and cotton-top tamarins (monkeys that weigh about a pound). Also great fun is a magical carousel featuring more than 30 hand-carved animals representing rare and endangered species from around the world, and a vintage organ that dates back more than 100 years.
As an extended treat, we joined an extra-fee Behind-the-Scenes tour. “The animals come to the glass when they see the employees’ blue shirts,” explained Amanda, our personal guide. “When I don’t have my blue shirt on, there’s no response.” We got to feed the rather aloof camels and go inside the red pandas’ enclosure to hand-feed these appealing little creatures.
Since Chattanooga was a railroad center dating back to the 1800s and made famous by the Glenn Miller recording of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” it’s worth checking out the historic terminal train station, open daily, that’s part of the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum offers a “moving museum” with 55-minute rides during the week on diesel locomotives and longer rides on weekends on steam locomotives.
A CITY OF ART
Parts of Chattanooga used to be a discouraging scene of decrepit warehouses and empty buildings. Now a number of artists and artisans make their home here. The reason? Chattanooga’s commitment to the arts reflected in a program of grants from CreateHere, a local nonprofit focused on art. Grants of up to $15,000 were given to individuals including painters, sculptors, breadmakers, craftsmen in wood and other artists and artisans. Their opening of numerous shops, galleries and art studios has created a diverse, affordable community with an energetic art vibe. Well over a half-million dollars was awarded between 2007 and 2011 and those dollars spurred innovation and artistry in the city.
“I love Chattanooga,” one of the glassblowers at the Ignis Glass Studio told us. “They really go out of their way to attract artists. The city’s big enough for good restaurants, and it’s real affordable.” He paused to retrieve a blob of glass from the hot oven. “We make our art where we can afford to live and ship it to where people can afford to buy.”
The Bluff View Art District along the river is the result of a remarkable rescue of some of the mansions of the wealthy industrialists of the early 1900s. One family bought many of these once-fine old mansions, then transformed them into art galleries, a bakery, bed-and-breakfasts and well-regarded eateries. A large outdoor sculpture garden adds to the charm.
Also on the bluff is the Hunter Museum, a dramatic complex overlooking the river. The modern additions are themselves works of art and the vibrant interior walls of burgundy, royal blue and deep green enhance art displays from many periods. There are interactive exhibits and activities as well.
The nation’s first (and still largest) battlefield preservation is Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park that commemorates the battles that spelled the end of the Confederate dreams. There are Visitor Centers at both the Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain Battlefield sites with maps, exhibits, films, interpreters and driving tours.
Lookout Mountain, a short drive from the city, is also home to Ruby Falls, an impressive 145-foot waterfall deep within an extensive cavern system. A memorable Halloween treat is the Haunted Cavern at Ruby Falls. Although the self-guided tours through the caverns rack up as many as 10,000 visits during October, the waits are not long and two dozen professional actors add to the spooky charm. (When the “statue” of the gypsy fortuneteller suddenly looked at us and spoke, we admit we jumped!)
Rock City, a family owned business, presents beautiful gardens among imposing natural rock structures. The Swinging Bridge and raptor shows are visitor favorites. The Incline Railway, which bills itself as the world’s steepest passenger railroad, takes you to the top of Lookout Mountain and back again. (A combination ticket for all three is available.)
And for a very special treat, consider Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding. “Really fun,” exulted one 70-year-old visitor. “You fly tandem with an experienced pilot so it’s very safe. I felt like an eagle.” Another adventure is the Ruby Falls ZIPstream. We were introduced to the exhilarating sport of zip-lining with progressively longer “zips” and we were told they’d taken “zippers” from 5 years old to some in their 80s.
Chattanooga is a great place to see with its history and many attractions. In fact, some folks come for a visit and then move there for good.
IF YOU GO
Chattanooga prices are modest. In the downtown area, for example, free electric shuttles run every 5-7 minutes connecting lodgings, the convention center, museums, art galleries, restaurants and the aquarium. You can park all day for $5-$9 (some charge more if you take up multiple spaces) in downtown lots adjacent to the shuttle terminals.
For more information on the city, including guides to activities, attractions, dining and printable coupons, visit www.chattanoogafun.com. Call 800-322-3344 to receive a visitor guide by mail.
Holiday Trav-L-Park, 8 miles southeast toward the Chickamauga battlefield, is actually on the site of a Civil War skirmish. There is an historical marker and 170 shaded campsites, most pull-through sites up to 70 feet. There are also camping cabins, a pool and playground, free Wi-Fi, a camp store, laundry, a handicapped- accessible bathhouse and a dump station. 800-693-2877, www.chattacamp.com
Raccoon Mountain RV Park near Raccoon Mountain Caverns is about 5 miles west and offers 55-75-foot-long pull-through sites, back-in sites, camping cabins, a bathhouse, pool and playground, laundry, free Wi-Fi at full-hookup sites and a dump station. 800-823-2267, www.raccoonmountain.com
Chattanooga Choo Choo (original train terminal), 800-872-2529
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (train rides), 423-894-8028, www.tvrail.com