This Tennessee city that characterizes both Old and New South is chock-full of both nature and town attractions.
By Kathleen Walls
After a year of lockdown, I finally hit the road. My stop in Chattanooga found a fun mix of old and new, side by side. A hop on the new free electric shuttle called CARTA runs from the sparkling Tennessee Aquarium to the classic Chattanooga Choo-choo, with stops at every block in between. Check my list of favorites and you’ll see Chattanooga has more to offer families than just a choo-choo.
The Best of Chattanooga for Families
2. The fishy-fishies
My first stop was the Tennessee Aquarium. Two buildings make up this aquarium, located right on the Chattanooga River, but start at the first, called River Journey. The exploration begins on the fourth floor and works downward. (There is a path laid out, so you can’t get off track.) Everyone will learn something new and the kids will love the huge tank, which is visible from all floors and dominates the second floor. The top floor is Cove Forest. My favorite there are the river otters.
In the Mississippi Delta Country on the third floor, you meet alligators, turtles, wading birds, a variety of snakes, and other wildlife that make up the complex web of life in the steamy swamplands. Next, you explore the rivers of the world from the Amazon to the Congo. Kids especially love to watch the electric eel. When you are saturated with freshwater pursuits, move on to Ocean Journey.
Ocean Journey is in a separate building and packed with colorful creatures of the deep—including sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, and reef fish. But you’ll find more than fish in this building—the butterfly garden, for one thing, where those tiny flying jewels will alight on your body. Then there are the lemurs climbing and the penguins strutting around their enclosures. You can see the huge sharks up close, and the coral reef is teeming with thousands of colorful fish, ranging from the toothy barracuda to the tiny minnow. The Boneless Beauties gallery showcases luminous jellyfish to a huge Pacific octopus and more. Near the exit, there is a batch of child-size eggs, so your kiddo can scramble inside and see themselves as a hatching sea creature.
3. Some rock ‘n’ roll
Next stop is one of the old-timers, Rock City Gardens. When it opened in 1932, the country was in the midst of the Depression, so it got a slow start as a viable venture—but now it’s a top attraction in the Chattanooga area. Frieda Carter, the creator of the garden, was a German immigrant who loved fairy tales, so she fashioned a world of gnomes among the massive natural boulders of the garden that sits atop Lookout Mountain—the ridge that dominates the edge of Chattanooga.
Fat Man’s Squeeze takes you between the walls of two giant stones that look impossible to fit through, but you’ll make it. Swinging Bridge might scare youngsters and those afraid of heights, so try the bypass. And Lover’s Leap offers a view of seven states on a clear day. And Fairyland Caverns is a favorite. (Since it was raining off and on when I visited, I welcomed sheltering inside.) Old favorites like Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Goldilocks brighten even the darkest day here.
4. An accidental falls
Ruby Falls is a guided tour of the natural caverns inside Lookout Mountain. Our guide, Tommy, was very knowledgeable and told us a lot about the way the caverns were discovered by accident, by Leo Lambert, in 1929, and he named them after his wife, Ruby.
Descending 260 feet down by glass elevator, you will then walk along a trail passing formations that include Crystal Chandelier, Leaning Tower, and Onyx Jungle before reaching the climax of the tour, the 145-foot underground waterfall known as Ruby Falls. When you reach the falls, it will be in darkness, and then colored lights come on, displaying this amazing beauty in all its glory.
5. The up and up
Lookout Mountain itself is a wonder of nature. Driving to the peak, you swing back and forth between Georgia and Tennessee. But instead of driving, I recommend taking the Incline Railway, a 125-year-old funicular and mechanical wonder that takes you straight to the top, where you can see everything from the highest point of the mountain. From there you can walk to Point Park, the Battle for Chattanooga exhibit, and the Craven House, which each tell part of the Civil War story.
6. Creative consciousness
The Creative Discovery Museum is a kids’ delight. Toddlers can explore the Little Yellow House, where they climb into a treehouse or cook a pretend meal in a fully equipped, miniature kitchen. Older kids love the rooftop garden or Buzz Alley and the Bee Garden, where they can be a pretend beekeeper or a worker, queen, or drone honeybee in an oversize hive. It’s so much fun, they won’t realize they’re learning!
7. More round and round
Don’t miss a stroll over the Walnut Pedestrian Bridge, which is touted as the world’s longest pedestrian bridge. Coolidge Park, on one side, is a beautiful gathering place to picnic and celebrate holidays right in town. The kids will like the large green space for running around and the interactive fountain, where jets spurt water out of the mouths of lion and bear statues and up from the ground. (It’s the perfect antidote for a Tennessee summer.)
But the old-time carousel is the highlight of the park. It began life in the workshop of Gustav Dentzel in 1895. Its first home was in Rochester, New York, and then it was transferred to Massachusetts, and finally to Atlanta. In the 1960s, the old girl was dismantled and its beautifully carved horses sold individually. The carousel sat rotting in an old warehouse until a Chattanooga man, Charlie Walker, rescued it in the early 1980s. Another man, Bud Ellis, founded a group called Friends of the Carousel, and taught the carousel’s supporters to carve wood. Today the carousel is filled with new hand-carved horses and other fanciful animals. Best of all, it’s only one dollar to ride!
8. Furry, purry, and meow
The Naughty Cat Cafe’s motto says it all: “Escape reality shed stress, save lives.” Cat lovers, do not miss this one. Whitney Sickels and Heath Hanson wanted to find a way to rehome some of Chatanooga’s way-too-many abandoned cats, so they opened the city’s first and only cat café, where visitors can simply pet some of the 30 or so kitties in residence or take one home for adoption. Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, or grab a beer and a muffin. I was lucky to get in without an appointment but suggest making one in advance, especially on the weekend—the café is a pretty popular destination!
Note that to avoid pulled tails and hot tears, the minimum age at the Naughty Cat Café is 11.
Where to Eat in Chattanooga
Chattanooga is filled with great dining establishments. A few of my favorites are City Café Diner and Puckett’s Grocery for breakfast. Stir in the Chattanooga Choo Complex, Tony’s in the Bluff View Art District, Old Gilman Grill close to downtown, or The Wanderer in Hotel Indigo for lunch or dinner. And for a quick snack after seeing the Lookout Mountain attractions, try the Purple Daisy in historic St. Elmo.
Where to Stay in Chattanooga
- Aquarium Adjacent – Try the brand-new Hotel Indigo, just a short walk from the aquarium. My room was spotless and had a nice view.
- Gilded Age – If you want something more historic, try The Chattanooga Choo Choo. It’s recently renovated and offers a traditional luxury hotel stay or a vintage boxcar. When I stayed in the boxcar, I kept thinking one of the Rockefellers or Carnegies might pop their head in from the next car.
- High Style – The Dwell Hotelsits at the center of downtown and is draped in mid-century swank. Older kids and adults will dig the variety of rooms, each with a different theme and all oozing “cool.” Grab a Singapore Sling at the tiki bar on the ground floor because… Chattanooga!?
Kathleen Walls – June 2021
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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