Chat­tanooga of­fers plenty of fun, art, na­ture to keep a fam­ily happy


CHAT­TANOOGA, Tenn. — Grow­ing up in St. Louis, we of­ten drove the fam­ily truck­ster to Florida to visit rel­a­tives. And when­ever we passed through Chat­tanooga, my dad belted out a few lines: “Par­don me boy … is this the Chat­tanooga Choo Choo?”

By the time he for­got the rest of the lyrics, Chat­tanooga was a glimpse in the rearview mir­ror. And, per­haps a few decades ago, no­body could fault us for it.

In 1969, Wal­ter Cronkite called it “the dirt­i­est city in Amer­ica.” A year after that, the last train left the on­ce­bustling Ter­mi­nal Sta­tion. The Choo Choo was the nick­name for the Cincin­nati Souther n Rail­road’s wood-burn­ing steam lo­co­mo­tive that trav­eled from Ohio to Chat­tanooga.

Since then, Chat­tanooga has trans­formed into a for­ward-looking, green-con­scious place that em­braces its his­tory while chug­ging for­ward.

Its Ten­nessee Aquar­ium cel­e­brates its 25th an­niver­sary this year, and has helped re­vi­tal­ize a once-ne­glected river­front. In 2010, the city was the first to of­fer gi­ga­bit-per-sec­ond in­ter­net ser­vices to all homes and busi­nesses. And Ter­mi­nal Sta­tion be­came a ho­tel com­plex, with re­cent up­dates to ho­tel rooms, new restau­rants and a new Song­birds Gui­tar Mu­seum.

I re­cently drove the 450 miles from St. Louis to Chat­tanooga with our son, 9, and daugh­ter, 7, dur­ing a spring break trip .( My hus­band stayed home to work and en­joy a quiet house.) I had prop­erly ed­u­cated the kids by show­ing them Glenn Miller per­for­mance son You Tube. With the lyrics buzzing through our brains (“Woo, woo, Chat­tanooga, there you are!”) we en­joyed more than enough eat­ing, sight­see­ing and en­ter­tain­ment op­tions to keep ev­ery­one happy.

The Chat­tanooga Choo Choo Ho­tel

To­day, Ter mi­nal Sta­tion, built in 1909, is the Chat­tanoo g a Choo Choo Ho­tel, which sits on the edge of down­town. While they touted the newly ren­o­vated ho­tel rooms, we had re­served four nights in a Pullman train car room.

“Don’ t old men live in train cars?” asked my skep­ti­cal daugh­ter.

“No, there won’t be any ho­bos in our ho­tel room,” I re­as­sured her.

The lobby and domed ceil­ing of the old sta­tion wowed us as we checked in, as well as a glimpse into the at­tached and newly ren­o­vated cafe, the Frothy Mon­key, where we en­joyed a light din­ner. While the room/car was other­wise com­fort­able, the car­pet was a bit shabby and the bath­room floor tiles cracked and wob­bly.

That first night, raindrops steadily drummed the curved metal roof, sooth­ing us to sleep. The next morn­ing, drop son my head jolted me out of bed. A text to the front desk got us moved to one of those newly re­mod­eled rooms. The stay wasn’t a loss: the kids loved the in­door pool, climb­ing on an old steam lo­co­mo­tive like the orig­i­nal Choo Choo and play- ing gi­ant check­ers at the ho­tel’s Glenn Miller Gar­dens. Next door was a stop for the city’s free elec­tric shut­tle, which was clean, ef­fi­cient and took us where we needed togo down­town. ( Chat­tanooga ChooChoo Ho­tel,, start­ing at $119 a night.)

Rock City and Ruby Falls

“See Rock City,” said the barn. “See Ruby Falls,” said the bill­board. “See Rock City and Ruby Falls,” said the third bar n and fourth bill­board. “FINE,” we said.

Th­ese at­trac­tions, just about five miles from Chat­tanooga at Look­out Moun­tain, have en­ter­tained tourists for so long the his­tor­i­cal kitsch is par t of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Both places still de­liver.

Gar­net and Frieda Carter de­vel­oped Rock City among their land’s gi­ant rock for­ma­tions and opened it to the pub­lic in 1932. Tourists still shimmy through Fat Man’s Squeeze and obey the plea to “see seven states” at Lover’s Leap. We en­joyed the swing­ing bridge, the 100-foot fake wa­ter fall and looking for gnome stat­ues, but we were most enchanted by the black­lighted dio­ra­mas inside Fairy­land Cav­erns, which date from the 1940s. Snow White, the three men in the tub and Humpty Dumpty glowed like per­form­ers at a fairy­tale night­club.

In 1928, cave en­thu­si­ast Leo Lam­bert drilled into the side of Look­out Moun­tain and crawled through the cave for sev­eral hours to dis­cover the mag­nif­i­cent ,145- foot wa­ter­fall more than 1,100 feet be­low. Lam­bert re­turned with his wife, Ruby, to show her the wa­ter­fall, which he named after her.

“I don’t know about you, but if I crawled through a tun­nel for hours in a dress to see a wa­ter­fall, I’d ex­pect it to be named after me, too,” said our male guide, who had clearly run through this script be­fore.

The walk to the falls took us by for­ma­tions such as the “dragon’s foot,” the “potato chips” and the now-trendy “ba­con.” We heard the falls on the ap­proach, and saw it upon the guide’s dra­matic flip of a light switch. The lights changed color as we oohed and ah­hed, took pic­tures, walked back the way we came (Mmmm, ba­con …) and took the el­e­va­tor back up. (Rock City, adult gen­eral ad­mis­sion $19.95, child 3-12 $11.95, see­rockc­; Ruby Falls, adult gen­eral ad­mis­sion $19.95, child 3 t o 1 2 $11.95, ruby­, combo tick­ets avail­able.)

Cre­ative Dis­cover y Mu­seum

My son claimed he was “too old” for a chil­dren’s mu­seum, but his grum­bles stopped upon our ap­proach to the down­town build­ing. A win­dow wall show­cases a two-story climb­ing and wa­ter play struc­ture inside, where they tried out mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, dug for di­nosaur bones, con­nected cir­cuits and dodged other kids on field trips.

A rooftop “fun fac­tory” with ma­chines to spin and ropes to pull didn’t keep their at­ten­tion too long, but we en­joyed the view of down­town from a look­out tower, which con­tained in­for­ma­tion about the green build­ing prac­tices of the Car mike Ma­jes­tic 12 Theater next door. (Cre­ative Dis­cov­ery Mu­seum, gen­eral ad­mis­sion for ages 2 and up $13.95, cdm­

A quick, cheap lunch at nearby lo­cal fa­vorite Lupi’s pizza sat­is­fied ev­ery­one. ($2.50 per slice of cheese pizza, 75 cents ex­tra per top­ping).

Wal­nut Street bridge, parks and ar t

The his­toric Wal­nut Street bridge was slated for de­mo­li­tion un­til com­mu­nity mem­bers helped raise funds for its preser­va­tion. It re­opened in 1993. It con­nects the River­front Plaza around the aquar­ium across the Ten­nessee River to Coolidge Park and the funky shops of Frazier Av­enue on the north shore. We walked across the wood-planked bridge one af­ter­noon with the prom­ise of Clumpie’s Ice Cream, a lo­cal fa­vorite, on the other side.

We rode the park’s re­stored 123-year-old carousel, com­plete with carved Civil War sol­dier fig­ures stand­ing sen­tinel on the cal­liope. The kids climbed on carved an­i­mal sculp­tures (the foun­tains around them weren’ t yet turned on for the sea­son) and played as nail-shaped hop­scotch game per­ma­nently em­bed­ded in the side­walk.

Chat­tanooga is brim­ming with works of pub­lic ar t, most in thanks to the grow­ing city pro­gram Pub­lic Art Chat­tanooga. Many sculp­tures were in­ter­ac­tive( a brick couch and boat, wooden peg“pix­els” on a gi­ant peg­board) and cap­ti­vated the kids. Back on the other side of the bridge, the Hunter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art perched atop a bluff above the river. The mu­seum is in an Ed­war­dian-style man­sion built in 1904 with moder n ad­di­tions. The ter­races of­fer sweep­ing views of the city’s bridges and of kayak­ers and row­ers on the river. (Hunter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, adult ad­mis­sion $15, chil­dren 17 and un­der free, hunter mu­

Other at­trac­tions

The Tivoli Theater, one of three his­tor­i­cal the­aters down­town, is an easy stop along the free shut­tle line. This year’s lineup in­cludes “The Sound of Mu­sic ,” “Kinky Boots” and “Jersey Boys.” We saw the fast-paced, foot-stomp­ing “River­dance,” a show we hadn’t caught back home. Be­fore the show, we treated our­selves to din­ner at Main Street Meats near our ho­tel. The kids ate ev­ery bite of the Lake Ma­jestik Flat Iron steak and mashed pota­toes din­ner ($18) that the waiter split at no charge. I treated my­self to a Rikki-Tiki-Tavi cock­tail made with pineap­ple shrub and lime and Don Q Rum ($9.75) and River­meat: pan-seared trout ($21.50).

The Moon Pie, Chat­tanooga’s marsh­mal­low-filled, gra­ham and cho­co­late treat, turns 100 this year. The gen­eral store down­town in­cludes a lunch counter, free Moon Pie sam­ples and plenty of Moon Pie trin­kets to help you cel­e­brate. If Moon Pies aren’t your thing, maybe chicken and waf­fles-fla­vored taffy is, which you can bag up along with tra­di­tional kinds.

The next time my fam­ily takes a road trip in our fam­ily truck­ster, I’m not sure we’ll make it as far as Florida. We might see Chat­tanooga in the dis­tance, start singing, and de­cide we need to stop again. Woo woo!


Ruby Falls in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., is 145 feet tall and more than 1,100 feet be­low ground.


Hun­dreds of bicycles are avail­able for rent at more than 33 sta­tions through­out Chat­tanooga, Tenn. This stop is in front of the Chat­tanooga Choo Choo Ho­tel. In the back­ground is The Ter­mi­nal Brew­house, lo­cated in a re­fur­bished ho­tel.


The Chat­tanooga Choo Choo Ho­tel is in­side the con­ver ted and re­fur­bished Ter­mi­nal Sta­tion and fea­tures an in­door pool.


Goldilocks runs away from the three bears in­side Fair yland Cav­erns and Mother Goose Vil­lage at Rock City. The scenes, de­pict­ing sev­eral Mother Goose nurser y rhymes, date back to the 1940s.


The Coolidge Park Carousel was built in 1894 and has been re­stored. Rides are only $1. Stat­ues of Civil War sol­diers keep watch.


The glass-pan­eled Holm­berg Bridge leads to the Hunter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Ar t in down­town Chat­tanooga, Tenn.

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