— CHATTANOOGA TENNESSEE — Chattanooga is a city that earned its way to one of the top spots for visitors. It has a wide variety of attractions, ranging from mountains highs to caverns below the earth. Lonely Planet called it “Best in the USA,” and the New York Times named Chattanooga one of the “Top 45 Places to go” in the World.”
Although it’s Tennessee’s fourth-largest metropolitan area, it’s a city with a dual personality. It sits on the Tennessee side of the Georgia/Tennessee line, and some of its top attractions are in Georgia.
I suggest staying at least five days to a week, as there is so much to see and do in Chattanooga.~Kathleen Walls
1. Rock it in Rock City
Chattanooga’s oldest and best-known attraction, Rock City, sits atop Lookout Mountain. Driving up the mountain, you pass between the two states multiple times.
Rock City is more than a beautiful garden. Natural phenomena like Fat Man’s Squeeze and Mushroom Rock make you aware of how whimsical Mother Nature can be. Artistic touches add to the garden’s natural beauty. Gnomes abide all over the garden. At Lover’s Leap, you stare down at seven states. My favorite place is Fairytale Caverns, where Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and traditional fairy tales come to life in vividly colored miniatures.
2. Watch Ruby Falls
Another attraction at Lookout Mountain is Ruby Falls. Since Leo Lambert discovered it accidentally in 1928, this has been one of Chattanooga’s most popular attractions. It’s easy to see why. The caverns leading to the falls some 230 feet below the surface showcase nature as an artist. Over centuries, water dripping through the caves has created some amazing sights.
For example, stalactites are a formation that hangs from the ceiling of a cave and looks like icicles. Stalagmites, their counterparts protruding from the ground formed by minerals in the water dropping from above, have formed unique shapes. Signs naming them appropriately and lighting that displays them are throughout the cavern-like Onyx Jungle, Turtle, even one that looks like its namesake, Bacon.
Our guide, Tommy, led us along the about a half-mile trek to the most spectacular underground waterfall you have ever seen. The 145-foot Ruby Falls is the tallest underground waterfall open to the public. When we approached, it was in darkness, and then the colored light show comes on: a truly spectacular wonder.
3. I’m Inclined to take the Railway
You can drive up Lookout Mountain, but it’s easier to take the Incline Railway to the top. You’ve viewed natural wonders so far. Incline Railway is a man-made wonder that takes you around a mile straight up Lookout Mountain. The view is spectacular during the ride but scary. It’s been operating for over a hundred and twenty-five years. Don’t worry; it is updated regularly. The latest update was in 2020. It’s a funicular railway system where a cable attached to a pair of ascending and descending vehicles counterbalances each other. When you depart the car, you can view the operating system on the floor beneath. The upper observation deck is the highest view on Lookout Mountain.
4. Do Battle for Chattanooga
When you reach the top of Lookout Mountain, there are Civil War sites within approximately a quarter-mile distance. The Battles for Chattanooga Museum is located at the entrance to historic Point Park. Visit the museum first to better understand the events of November 1863 that guaranteed the defeat of the Confederacy.
There’s a small museum inside, but the major attraction is the video that retells the story of the battles fought here. There’s a digital panoramic display in front of the screen that lights up the appropriate location. Then, the film tells of the events in the series of battles.
From there, it’s just a few yards into Point Park, the site of the famous Battle Above the Clouds. Throughout the park, cannons and placards tell the story of the battle.
5. There’s Another Railway
Take a ride on the Tennessee Valley Railway. I took the Missionary Ridge trip called the Local. It lasts an hour, but it’s a trip back in history. You depart from the main rail station at the museum in Chattanooga. You are transported to Missionary Ridge, which was the scene of an important Civil War battle. A guide narrates the trip explaining what you see from your windows and its historical significance.
One of the trip highlights is passing through the Missionary Ridge Tunnel, barely wide enough for one train to pass. At the end of the line, you exit and watch how the engine turned on a turntable for the return trip. Your guide gives you an overview of how engines, cabooses, and railcars get repaired inside the train restoration shops.
6. Visit the Rivers & Oceans
The Tennessee Aquarium, like Chattanooga, has a dual personality. When the original section opened on May 1, 1992, it was the World’s largest freshwater aquarium. It takes you to visit rivers and freshwater life. The second building opened in May 2005. It’s an ocean journey.
River Journey leads you down the rivers of the World. On the fourth floor, where you begin your journey, you meet playful otters. Descending via a marked path, Discovery Hall introduces you to the incredible aquatic species found in the Southeastern United States. You explore bayous and estuaries and see a few snoozing alligators. You visit the major rivers not only in the Southeast United States but all over the World. Your visit ends when you eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico on the second floor.
Ocean Journey takes you to visit not only the aquatic creatures of the ocean. It also brings in many who live nearby on land like penguins who depend on the icy waters of the earth for survival and ring-tailed lemurs who live on the island of Madagascar and are on the Threatened Species List. There is a touch tank where you can pet a shark or a stingray.
If you want to sit and relax, there’s an IMAX theater at the aquarium complex.
7. Learn About Bravery
The National Medal of Honor Center sits near the Aquarium and honors those brave enough to receive our nation’s highest honor. One person represented inside is Desmond Doss, a young Seventh-day Adventist medic who served in World War II. Doss refused to carry a gun, as he believed it was against the commandments. His fellow soldiers ridiculed him, but he would rush into the fiercest battlefield to treat a fallen comrade. In a battle for the Maeda Escarpment, he disobeyed orders and rushed into enemy fire to rescue as many as he could. His actions resulted in at least 75 lives saved. Besides his Medal of Honor, Desmond Doss received many other awards. Of all the soldiers serving in WWII, only 431 received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
8. Get Wild at the Zoo
Chattanooga Zoo is not large, but it is diverse and well planned with seven sections. You’ll visit giraffes in the Makazi Ya Twiga section showcasing the savannas of Africa.
Gombe Forest takes you to another section of Africa, where you meet up with chimpanzees. Walk the Tracks Section parallels part of the zoo’s train ride and takes you through America’s native wildlife like the cougar and coyote. Himalayan Passage walks you through Asia to discover the snow leopard and the red panda. Visit the rainforest of Latin America in the Corcovado Jungle, where you find jaguars, cotton-top tamarins, and spider monkeys. Deserts & Forests of the World brings you face to face with a colony of adorable meerkats from Southern Africa and fennec foxes, the World’s smallest fox. The favorite spot for the littlest ones is Warner Park Ranch, the domestic animal petting area of the zoo.
9. Get Catty at Naughty Cat Café
Naughty Cat Café is where you can relax and sip a beverage when you visit with about 30 cats looking for a forever home. It’s the only cat cafe in Chattanooga. Whitney Sickels and Heath Hanson wanted to help abandoned cats, so they began this project. It’s a wonderful way to relax, and you may even find a new housemate. They limited the age to over 11-year old children for the cats’ safety. Since it gets busy, especially on weekends, I suggest making an appointment.
10. Truck It
Towing began in Chattanooga in 1916. Ernest Holmes, Sr. devised a series of block and tackles called a Holmes 680 Wrecker Bed attached to his 1913 Cadillac to pull a stranded car out of Chickamauga Creek.
The International Towing Museum has a replica of the 680 device mounted on a 1913 Cadillac. It has dozens of others, including Holmes’ next version, the 485 mounted on a 1913 Locomobile with brass running lanterns and wooden wheels. There are trucks through the years to the present day. There’s even a cute little yellow one you can use for selfies. One of my favorites is a pink towing truck from Ohio built to honor the owner’s wife’s battle with cancer. It has never actually towed a vehicle but has been at shows and supports cancer victims.
11. Walk the Walk
For some relaxing and almost free fun, walk over the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge to Coolidge Park. The bridge and park are free, but you can splurge and spend a dollar for a ride on Chattanooga’s historic carousel. The park is a great place to picnic, and the kids can romp in the splash fountain between stone lions, camels, turtles, and elephants that spray them with cooling water.
12. Bluff Your Way in the Art District
Bluff View Art District is perched on the cliffs overlooking the Tennessee River, is a Mecca for artists. You can visit the outdoor River Gallery Sculpture Garden and Hunter Museum of American Art. The museum contains paintings, decorative art, sculptures, and more.
Huston Museum, located in a Victorian brick home, contains the glass and china collection of Anna Safley Houston ranging from the Victorian to Depression-era. Many artists have galleries in Bluff View where you can browse.
Pluckett’s Grocery or City Café Diner are my breakfast choices. Stir, in the Chattanooga Choo Complex or Old Gilman’s Grill are more upscale choices for dinner. Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria is delicious and filling in the Bluff View Art District. Tony’s has won the Times Free Press Best of the Best Award for Best Italian Restaurant in Chattanooga for three years in a row. You get to choose your pasta, sauce, and additions. The Wanderer is located in Hotel Indigo. For lunch, after seeing the Lookout Mountain attractions, try The Purple Daisy in Historic St. Elmo.
14. Sleep in a Boxcar
Chattanooga Choo Choo is where you can sleep in a boxcar at a world-famous hotel that once was a train station. You can have a real hotel room in the renovated hotel if you prefer. I stayed in one of the very upscale boxcars on a previous visit and felt like a Victorian matron. There is a beautiful garden when you step out of the boxcar.
While there, you must get a photo of Chattanooga’s iconic Choo Choo parked just outside the hotel. The lobby has many artifacts from the days when it was a working train station.
15. Color Your Dreams in Indigo
Hotel Indigo was my home away from home this trip. It’s Chattanooga’s newest hotel, very comfortable, and close to all the attractions.
Getting there is easy. You can fly into Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. If you’re driving, it’s just off Interstste-75.
I suggest staying at least five days to a week, as there is so much to see and do in Chattanooga. It’s an easy-driving city, but if you want to park and leave the driving to someone else, a free electric shuttle downtown called the CARTA from the Choo Choo to the Aquarium. It makes stops each block in-between
It’s a good idea to book ahead to avoid long waits.
For more Best Things to Do in Chattanooga, go to Visit Chatanooga.
*Opening photo ©Kathleen Walls
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Last Updated on August 2, 2021