Situated along the banks of the Tennessee River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga is a Tennessee treasure. It’s not too big, not too small—Chattanooga is just right. And this lovely southern city truly offers something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for art, food, family fun, history or adventure—Chattanooga delivers. Here are 7 reasons to add this charming city to your travel plans.
See Rock City—the simple three word advertisement for Chattanooga’s oldest attraction can be seen painted on barns along highways leading to the region. And, it’s exactly what it sounds like—a city of rocks high atop Lookout Mountain. Hold your tummy in as you pass through the Eye of the Needle and Fat Man’s Squeeze or head up to Lover’s Leap where (on a clear day) you can see seven states.
Just down the road, Ruby Falls is another Chattanooga classic. A guided tour leads you through the cavern’s amazing rock formations to a stunning 145-foot-tall underground waterfall.
The Tennessee River winds through the heart of Chattanooga. Spend an afternoon or evening exploring on board the Southern Belle riverboat. Daily sightseeing cruises are available as well as dinner cruises.
Or, cross over the river with a walk on the Walnut Street Bridge. Erected in 1890 and standing 2,376 feet high, the Walnut Street Bridge connects the north shore of the Tennessee River to downtown Chattanooga. It’s one of the longest pedestrian bridges in North America. Time your stroll for sunset when the lights of the city begin to decorate the sky.
Coolidge Park at the foot of the bridge is an ideal place for an afternoon of picnicking and Frisbee. Central to the park is a restored antique carousel with 52 whimsical hand-carved animals where rides are only $1. On warm days, the youngsters can splash about in interactive fountains carved as lions, turtles and more.
Before Chattanooga was founded, the area was home to the Cherokee Indians. Sadly, they were removed from their native lands in 1838 along the Trail of Tears. The Passages in Chattanooga is a “weeping staircase” erected as a tribute to the Cherokee who lost their lives during the cruel march. Scenes along the sides of the stairs depict the story of the seven clans of the Cherokee Nation indigenous to the area.
Chattanooga was also the site of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles—the Battle Above the Clouds. Today that battle is commemorated at Lookout Mountain’s Point Park. As you wind your way through the monuments and cannons from the period, be sure to check out the fabulous views of the Chattanooga Valley below
Not all of Chattanooga’s history is sad. Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, was born in Chattanooga and it was here that she began her singing career by performing in the streets of the city. The Bessie Smith Cultural Center shares her story as well as the African American Heritage of the region. And if you happen to be in town in June for the city’s premier music festival, Riverbend, you can join in the Bessie Smith Strut down Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Stretching for one and a half city blocks on East Second Street, the Bluff View Art District is a historic downtown Chattanooga neighborhood. Set high above stone cliffs that afford spectacular views of the Tennessee River, the Walnut Street Bridge, and downtown Chattanooga, the area is full of art galleries, coffee shops, bed and breakfasts, courtyards and gardens. Stroll through the perfectly manicured grounds of the River Gallery Sculpture Garden—the city’s first outdoor art museum. Don’t miss the Hunter Museum of Art, antebellum home on one side and a steel sculptural building on the other.
Chattanooga’s Southside neighborhood takes art to another level with its Main Terrain Art Park—an urban art fitness park that combines workout stations with art. Street art is popping up everywhere with murals depicting the history of the area. The largest is a Martin Luther King mural that wraps around the AT&T building downtown. The project was headed by Meg Saligman Studios and completed with the help of a dozen mural artists including Chattanooga locals.
You’ve no doubt heard the song, and the Chattanooga Choo Choo is alive and well today in the form of the downtown complex at Terminal Station where kids—old and young—can climb aboard a replica. If you want to spend the night in a restored Pullman train car, you can do that too at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Historic Hotel.
The Tennessee Valley Railroad engages train enthusiasts with a ride aboard a full-size steam train. This moving museum showcases the history of the railroad and its importance during the Civil War. There are several trains to choose from, but I recommend the Missionary Ridge Local which begins at the Grand Junction Station and takes passengers along one of the original railroad lines in Chattanooga, crossing four bridges and passing through pre-Civil War Missionary Ridge Tunnel, which was completed in 1858.
And when you’re heading up to Lookout Mountain, take a ride on the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway. This trolley-style train climbs through the mountain’s natural beauty at a 72.7% grade making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world.
Chattanooga’s surrounding landscape makes it a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, white-water rafting and hang gliding are all available just a short drive from downtown.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, take the adventure inside at High Point Climbing and Fitness. Located downtown, this premier rock climbing experience is suitable for beginners as well as advanced climbers. There are inside and outside climbing areas with walls stretching up to 60 feet tall.
If a softer adventure is more your style, take a leisurely bike ride or a stroll down the 13-mile Riverwalk that runs alongside the Tennessee River.
Offering both a River Journey and an Ocean Journey, the Tennessee Aquarium is one of the city’s best attractions. The Ocean Journey showcases sharks, butterflies and those adorable penguins while river otters, alligators and turtles entertain visitors in the River Journey. Scuba divers also interact with guests during scheduled shows.
For kids ages 12 and under, the Creative Discovery Museum provides a wealth of discoveries. There’s a two-story water play section, a simulated archeological dig and an entire section on bees where kids can take a peek into an active beehive.
For old-fashioned family fun at its best, head to Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park just 15 minutes from downtown. This classic American amusement park has been entertaining Chattanooga locals and visitors since 1927. The park’s first ride—the Boat Chute—is still one of its most popular. And it’s the oldest Mill Chute ride in the country. Even I went to “Lake Winnie” as a kid—it’s just what you do!
Have you experienced Chattanooga?
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Terri Marshall is a New York City based freelance writer whose work includes travel, spirits, and all things chocolate. Terri's work appears in several publications. She has been a featured guest on Peter Greenberg's Worldwide Travel radio program and Denver's KZKO Radio Morning Express show. Terri will not hesitate to go to the source for great chocolate - even if that means hiking through the jungle and picking cacao pods herself.
Happiest when she's globetrotting, Terri has covered destinations all over the United States, Europe, and into Central and South America. Favorite adventures include reindeer driving in Norway and fishing for piranhas in the Amazon jungle of Peru. You can keep up with Terri's adventures on her website www.TrippingwithTerri.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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