Chattanooga’s Attractions Make For A Great Family ‘Explorvacacation’

From Civil War sites to exciting caverns, from art to being ‘green’ Chattanooga is a great getaway

by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman

The famous Chattanooga Choo Choo isn’t just a fabulous attraction, it is also a fun and fascinating hotel, where you can actually stay in the railcars © 2011 Karen Rubin/

After a recent visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, exploring its Civil War sites (Chattanooga & Chickamauga National Battlefield), the Bluff View Arts District, the Tennessee Aquarium and the River Gorge Explorer, and then going nearby to Lookout Mountain (actually in Georgia) to visit the extraordinary Ruby Falls (with the deepest underground waterfall in the US) and the iconic tourist attraction, Rock City, it is no wonder Chattanooga has been named a top destination to live, work and play by Outside Magazine, National Geographic Traveler and Southern Living magazine.

The magnificent lobby of the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, once the famous railroad station.

Famous for the Chattanooga Choo Choo (now a historic hotel where you can actually stay in the renovated railcars), Chattanooga is a terrific destination to visit any time of the year, but summer means events, festivals, music, arts, extreme outdoor adventures, baseball, delectable delights, shopping – in short, a phenomenal two or three-day family getaway. Set along the Tennessee River, surrounded by picturesque mountains, Chattanooga is less than a two-hour drive from Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Huntsville and Birmingham.

Stunning detail in the lobby of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, converted from the historic railroad station © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Once you get to Chattanooga, you can park your car and explore the city aboard the free electric shuttle that connects you to downtown hotels, attractions, boating options, restaurants, riverfront scattered with parks, green spaces and a minor-league baseball stadium, coffee shops, and shopping venues throughout the Downtown/Riverfront, North Shore and Southside Districts.

Two or three days is really not enough, and I can’t wait to return to explore the city and the area attractions in more depth – particularly the way it has integrated green and sustainability into its revitalization.

A sculpture garden in the Bluff View Art District, overlooking the Tennessee River, in Chattanooga © 2011 Karen Rubin/


It’s easy to plan your multi-day vacation to include a variety of Chattanooga adventures.

1. BOATING CRUISES: Explore the downtown riverfront and the Tennessee River on an eco-cruise aboard the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer or on the Blue Moon; a sightseeing, lunch or dinner cruise on the Southern Belle Riverboat or a scenic ride along the riverfront aboard the amphibious Chattanooga Ducks.

fabulous diversity of attractions, like the Hunter Museum, in the Bluff View Art District, make Chattanooga a prime destination for a family “exploravacation” © 2011 Karen Rubin/

2. WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS: Come face-to-face with sharks, stingrays, penguins & thousands of other animals that swim, fly and crawl at the downtown Tennessee Aquarium; go an exotic voyage into the wild at the Tennessee Aquarium’s IMAX 3D Theater; or venture near snow leopards, red pandas, jaguars and more at the Chattanooga Zoo.

The Bluff View Art District is also the place to go for quaint bnb’s and bistros, and where you can watch a master chocolate maker create his tasty art © 2011 Karen Rubin/

3. FESTIVALS & LIVE ENTERTAINMENT: Be entertained at numerous downtown music festivals throughout the summer including the 9-day Riverbend Festival featuring Miranda Lambert, Brian McKnight, Beach Boys, Casting Crowns & more; 5-month Nightfall Concert Series; Riverfront Nights Music Series; Southern Brewer’s Festival or year-round concerts at Rhythm & Brews.

4. CULINARY DISCOVERIES: Whether you’re looking for upscale restaurants or trendy dives, you’ll find an array of establishments downtown that have attracted food reviewers and celebs including Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day show. For fine-dining, Wine-Spectator-Award-winning restaurants, you can’t miss Table 2 and 212 Market or the James-Beard-nominated St. John’s. If you’re looking for to-see-and-be-seen in places, check out one of the watering holes with the finest local brews at Big River Grille, Market Street Tavern, Hair of the Dog Pub, Urban Stack or The Terminal.

The Tennessee Aquarium on Chattanooga’s riverfront sparked the revitalization of the city © 2011 Karen Rubin/

5. HISTORICAL EXPLORATIONS: Visit the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo in the Southside District; the Trail of Tears passage at Ross’s Landing on the downtown riverfront; the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, International Towing & Recovery Museum; Bessie Smith Cultural Center or the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, only 15 minutes from downtown.

6. ARTS & CULTURAL ACTIVITIES: Take in one of the nation’s largest collections of American art at the Hunter Museum of American Art; stroll through museums & galleries in the North Shore, Bluff View Arts & the Southside Districts; create your own masterpiece at the interactive Creative Discovery Museum for children or enjoy public art along First Street, Main Street and the downtown area.

The dramatic view from Rock City on Lookout Mountain, a popular tourist attraction since 1930, but part of the Civil War battlefield in 1863© 2011 Karen Rubin/

7. SHOPPING SPREE: You’ll find an eclectic variety of boutiques, galleries, quaint shops, antiques & restaurants in the downtown North Shore and Southside Districts; and just 15 minutes from downtown visit Hamilton Place, Tennessee’s largest mall, that features over 200 shops and eateries.

8. LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN FUN: Cool down high atop Lookout Mountain, just six miles from downtown. Venture through the trails at Rock City Gardens; 260 feet below the ground at Ruby Falls; straight up & down Lookout Mountain on the world’s steepest passenger railway, the Incline Railway; and much more.

Explore the trails and take in the stunning views at visit at an iconic tourist attraction, Rock City, a popular spot since 1930s © 2011 Karen Rubin/

9. THRILLING ADVENTURES: If you’re up for a thrill, try hang gliding 2,000 feet in the air along Lookout Mountain; whitewater rafting on the wild Ocoee River only 45 minutes from downtown; or plummet 14 stories to the ground 50 miles per hour on the OH-ZONE! at Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park.

10. OUTDOOR RECREATION: Land, air and water – we’ve got it all. Try out rock climbing downtown at Coolidge Park or numerous other places, biking along the Tennessee River on the Tennessee Riverwalk, kayaking or canoeing downtown, hiking, fishing, golfing, and more. Outdoor Chattanooga is the central resource for information about outdoor recreation. They also host guided hiking, biking, and kayaking trips, classes, and demonstrations.

The famous, historic Delta Queen, now permanently moored on the Tennessee River on Chattanooga’s waterfront, is a hotel as well as an attraction © 2011 Karen Rubin/

For more information on Chattanooga’s Summer Adventures including maps & itineraries,

What’s New to Do

Chattanooga is dedicated to continually enhancing the city, always making it a better destination. So whether you’ve been here before or it’s your first time, you’ll find some great new ways to have fun, topping off an already impressive array of things to do.

Jesse Hunter, a railroad engineer on the Jackson TN to Chicago route, is nostalgic when he gets a chance to climb aboard the engine of the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo train.

**High atop Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls opened the ZIPstream Aerial Adventure, an obstacle course built in trees with ladders, nets, bridges, tunnels and zip lines.

The historic Chattanooga Choo Choo – come aboard © 2011 Karen Rubin/

**Chattanooga River Market is every Saturday from March 19-Sept. 24 on the Aquarium Plaza and includes live music from local and touring artists, produce, special events, arts & crafts vendors and

**Tennessee Aquarium started a Backstage Pass program that gives you VIP access with up-close encounters only accessible by animal keepers. This month they opened an all new exhibit, “Ranger Rick’s Backyard,” that brings together kids, nature and fun in partnership with National Wildlife Federation.

Ruby Falls, actually beneath Lookout Mountain, with its mysterious underground waterfall, is one of the marvelous attractions to visit when you come to Chattanooga © 2011 Karen Rubin/

**The nationally acclaimed Civil War Trails Program has come to Chattanooga, with 13 interpretive signs and maps – making it even easier to visit the area’s historic sites. Discover seldom-seen Civil War photographs in the exhibition, “Between the States”, at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

**Bikers’ Dozen is a series of scenic loops that are about experiencing life on the back roads of the Tennessee Valley – on your motorcycle or car. This website includes 13 detailed routes (with maps, images, road signs, and written route descriptions).


Colored lights turn a natural wonder into visual art at Ruby Falls, located deep within Lookout Mountain © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Considering how critically important the railroad was to Chattanooga, you can’t imagine what a thrill it is to stay in the historic railroad station, and the actual Victorian train cars.

You get the absolute best sense of living in history and feel transported in time – not to mention the pure sense of delight – when you stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The historic hotel (and member of Historic Hotels of America) is literally created out of the historic railroad station, where you can stay in one of 48 Victorian train cars converted to the most delightful rooms, wonderfully furnished in period pieces (but with modern amenities like high-speed wireless Internet access), furnished with queen-size bed and some have daybed with pull out trundle bed.

he exciting trail thousands of feet beneath the surface amid the marvelous formations of the caverns of Ruby Falls, deep within Lookout Mountain © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The train station offers marvelous dining places (including a saloon-style restaurant where the waiters take turns singing), cute shops. You can climb aboard the historic locomotive, and dine in the dining car as well. The music of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” immediately rings in your ears (it plays fairly constantly).

The original motel offers an indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, gardens. There is even a historic train ride on a trolley. Also, a free electric shuttle from the bus terminal next door takes you downtown. I don’t know when I have had a more enjoyable and interesting stay. Chattanooga Choo Choo, 400 Market St., Chattanooga, TN 37402, 800-TRACK-29 (872-2529),

Cannon at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park help tell the story of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

OVERNIGHT VACATION PACKAGES: Take advantage of special overnight packages by staying multiple nights. Packages vary and include spa treatments, attractions, dining certificates and

The Visitors Center at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, the first national military park, and the model for Gettysburg and Vicksburg © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The Visitors Center at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, the first national military park, and the model for Gettysburg and Vicksburg © 2011 Karen Rubin/

For trip planning assistance and vacation packages, contact: Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 215 Broad Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee 37402, 423-756-8687, 800-322-3344,;FACEBOOKTWITTEREVENTS calendarCOUPONS (dining, attractions, accommodations, etc.).


Wednesday, 22 June, 2011

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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