The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Culture - Story by RE­BECCA MCCORMICK Pho­tos cour­tesy of CHAT­TANOOGA VISI­TORS BUREAU

If Chat­tanooga had a hu­man face, she would be the grace­ful ma­ture model whose makeovers are so pro­fes­sional that no one could guess what she used to look like.

Dur­ing the Civil War, Chat­tanooga col­lapsed in a bloody bat­tle with Union forces un­der the com­mand of Gen­eral Ulysses S. Grant. Just as she was re­gain­ing her com­po­sure, waters from the Ten­nessee River rose 30 feet and nearly washed her away in the first of a se­ries of floods that ul­ti­mately forced The Scenic City to raise her street lev­els as much as 15 feet.

Back­ground: By the 1940s, Chat­tanooga had be­come known as the “Dy­namo of Dixie” — a bustling, mid-sized in­dus­trial town with a heart as big as all out­doors. Fifty years later, her old-school econ­omy was in deep de­cline. Down­town, once a mag­net of vi­brant com­merce, stooped un­der the weight of crime and de­cay.The city, once im­mor­tal­ized by the Chat­tanooga Choo-Choo, had fi­nally run out of steam.

In 2002, Mayor Bob Corker an­nounced the 21st Cen­tury Water­front Project — a vi­sion­ary pub­lic-pri­vate col­lab­o­ra­tion to re­vi­tal­ize 129 acres on banks of the Ten­nessee River near down­town Chat­tanooga.

Thirty-six months and $120 mil­lion later, the plan was vir­tu­ally com­pleted — in­clud­ing a rerout­ing of River­front Park­way, a glass bridge con­nect­ing the Bluff View Arts Dis­trict with the Ten­nessee Aquar­ium, new green space and pub­lic arts on the South Shore and new hous­ing. Sub­se­quently, the new Re­nais­sance Park — ad­ja­cent to Coolidge Park on the North Shore — was also fin­ished.

Why go now: Win­ters in Chat­tanooga are rel­a­tively mild, with av­er­age tem­per­a­tures rang­ing from mid-30s to mid-50s — per­fect weather for bi­cy­cling, hik­ing, kayak­ing or even tan­dem hang glid­ing at Look­out Moun­tain Flight Park, the na­tion’s largest hang glid­ing school (www.hanglide.com). Re­mem­ber: There’s no such thing as bad weather; only bad cloth­ing. Layer up. But even if you’re not the out­door type, the city is teem­ing with in­door ac­tiv­i­ties for the whole fam­ily — from shop­ping to sports, mu­se­ums to live con­certs, plus gen­er­a­tional fa­vorites like Ruby Falls and Rock City.

Spend your day: Dive into Chat­tanooga at the Ten­nessee Aquar­ium (www.tnaqua.org) —voted Best in Amer­ica for three years — and IMAX. You’ll want sev­eral hours to ab­sorb the thrills of 10,000 an­i­mals, a six-story 3-D the­ater screen and a river­boat cruise on the River Gorge Ex­plorer.

Later, visit the Moonpie Gen­eral Store (www.moonpie.com) to taste the orig­i­nal con­fec­tion man­u­fac­tured at the Chat­tanooga Bak­ery since 1917.

Fi­nally, hop on over to the Cre­ative Dis­cov­ery Mu­seum (www.cdm­fun.org), where the whole fam­ily can be­come a rock band! Sing a melody, pound the drums, strum chords on an elec­tric gui­tar and a play back­ups on a key­board in the mu­seum’s new record­ing stu­dio.

Must do: Chat­tanooga is draped in a rich ta­pes­try of arts and cul­ture. Make time to visit the world-class Hunter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art (www.hunter­mu­seum.org), it­self housed in an ar­chi­tec­tural trip­tych com­pris­ing a 1905 clas­si­cal re­vival man­sion, a low-slung 1970s build­ing and a 2005 con­tem­po­rary struc­ture of steel and glass.

Af­ter­wards, walk over the glass bridge to ex­plore gal­leries, bou­tiques and restau­rants in the Bluff View Arts Dis­trict (www. bluffviewart­dis­trict.com).

Don’t bother try­ing to ride the Look­out Moun­tain In­cline Rail­way (www.ride­thein­cline.com) un­til spring. Be­gin­ning Jan­uary 13, the at­trac­tion will be closed for sea­sonal re­pairs.

Where to eat: St. John’s Restau­rant (www.stjohn­srestau­rant.com; $$-$$$$) Think Gar­den & Gun mag­a­zine on a plate and pad your wal­let for up­scale South­ern first cour­ses like Kenny’s Crack­lin’ Cornbread with pork belly “but­ter.” Seafood is flown-in-last-night fresh. And en­trees are di­verse as quinoa pi­laf and buf­falo sir­loin.

In re­cent years, com­pa­nies like Out­door Chat­tanooga have branded “out­ven­tures” as a way to con­nect peo­ple with out­door ac­tiv­i­ties like raft­ing kayak­ing, moun­tain bik­ing and rock climb­ing.

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