A delightful city on the Tennessee River, Chattanooga has such a strong community spirit that it’s no wonder it has made such a remarkable turnaround since 1970. At that time, Walter Cronkite called it the "dirtiest city in America" and its downtown was definitely a place to avoid at all costs.
Bridge leading to two diverse buildings that comprise the Hunter Museum of American Art
With the addition of upscale condo developments, art galleries, new restaurants, and impressive-looking hotels, all of that has changed. But Chattanooga still has the feel of a small city, and while some locals complain about the rush-hour traffic, I never saw any. More than 8 million people visit Chattanooga each year, bringing in $690 million in tourism revenues per year.
Founded around 1810 with the opening of a store by Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Indians, Chattanooga’s population had reached 2,000 by the year 1860. Despite numerous setbacks – including a massive snowstorm in 1899, Yellow Fever and Spanish Influenza epidemics — the city continues to grow.
The future looks even brighter with the news that Volkswagen America Group will be opening its U.S. manufacturing factory there in 2010, bringing 2,000 jobs to the local market, in addition to 9,500 indirect jobs.
Chattanooga is a user-friendly city, so much so that it offers a free electric-shuttle service downtown in clean, new-looking buses that run every five minutes, seven days a week until 11 pm at night. The shuttle connects hotels with the shopping district, restaurants, riverfront, and everything in between.
Chattanooga’s Coolidge Park in the foreground with Lookout Mountain providing a backdrop to the city
The city is also an outdoor enthusiast’s dream: one of the fun things to do is to take a bike ride along the Tennessee River Walk, which stretches from the downtown riverfront to Tennessee River Park. It’s a 10-mile pathway with scenic views of boardwalks, wetlands, parks and more. There are literally hundreds of outdoor activities in which to partake, and the Visitors Bureau is the place to check in prior to visiting.
Of course, most people associate the city with the Chattanooga Choo Choo but, today, the railroad station is a Holiday Inn with 363 guestrooms including 48 rooms aboard restored train cars.
The Chattanooga Convention Center is worth a visit, and is so exceptional that any planner should give it a serious look. To compete with the likes of Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham for serious convention business, the 185,000-square-foot facility became the first center in the nation to incorporate "day lighting" technology, which allows sunlight to filter in through 30-foot ceiling openings at the flick of a switch.
Visitors enjoy viewing the marine life at the Tennessee Aquarium, the world’s largest freshwater aquarium
The Tennessee Aquarium is the top tourist attraction in the state and it’s not hard to see why. There are two major buildings at the Aquarium: the River Journey (opened in 1992) and the Ocean Journey (added in 2005). The former is the height of a 12-story building, and the latter is the height of a 10-story building and can hold 700,000 gallons of water. Here, you will find big, toothy sharks and tiny seahorses; cold-climate penguins, tropical Hyacinth macaws, otters, 70 species of turtles, snakes, alligators, crocodiles, jellyfish, crabs, octopus, cuttlefish and crayfish, to name a few.
The River Gorge Explorer ferries up to 70 guests from the Aquarium to the Tennessee River Gorge at speeds as high as 50 mph. During the two-hour cruise, passengers will have the chance to witness an unspoiled stretch of the Tennessee River and see more than 1,000 species of plants and animals including eagles and osprey. The habitat is a birder’s paradise complete with rare songbirds and raptors.
Another pleasant way to spend part of the day is a visit to the Chattanooga Zoo where the star attractions are "Hank, the Chimpanzee" and — my personal favorites — "Zoe and Nigalya, the red pandas." Called, "the best little zoo in America," the zoo continues to grow and expand. Many still mourn the death of "Pasha, the Argentine Jaguar" (at age 19), who was a favorite with the kids. His spouse remains at the zoo but, sadly, is in ill health. With only about 300 left in the wild, Argentine Jaguars are the most critically endangered species in Latin America.
Art is everywhere in Chattanooga, and the downtown skyline is dominated by the riverside profile of the Hunter Museum of American Art, which is composed of two buildings: a sleek, contemporary building and an historical mansion, once the home of George Thomas Hunter who made his fortune through Coca Cola distribution. Perched on an 80-foot bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, the Hunter Museum is devoted to modern American artists from the Colonial period to the present day. It is located in the Bluff View Art District, an artistic area owned by one family that includes restaurants, gardens boutiques, a hotel and art galleries.
Also in the Bluff View Art District is the River Gallery Sculpture Garden, which displays works from its Permanent Collection including those of Isamu Noguchi, Frank Stella and Evan Lewis Collection in this most delightful of outdoor settings.
One very unusual attraction is the International Towing & Recovery Museum, which features the history of tow trucks and houses some of these remarkable vehicles. The tow truck was invented in Chattanooga in 1916 and is home to the largest tow-truck manufacturer in the world. Many of the tow trucks on display were found rotting in barns or rusting in fields and have been lovingly restored by their owners. It even features a Hall of Fame, and recently introduced a limited number of "Wall of the Fallen" statues to honor tow-truck drivers who have died at accident scenes. Although not an obvious tourist haunt, it is well worth the visit.
A guide shows a group of tourists the drama of Chattanooga’s Ruby Falls
A must-visit place is the Haunted Cavern at Ruby Falls, an eerie 260-feet-deep underground cavern that was once a German slaughterhouse. A couple of the women who braved the experience with me were genuinely scared for most of the tour, and were quite relieved when it was over. Unfortunately, it is only open for a few weeks each year around Halloween, but it really is quite special.
Civil War buffs will want to head out to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, site of one of the bloodiest two-day battles of the Civil War in 1864, which saw 34,000 casualties and was a turning point in the war. The park was established in 1890 by both Union and Confederate veterans. To this day, cannon balls and other battlefield remnants are still being found.
The best way to experience the park is to follow the audio tour as you drive, in sequence, to the various crucial battle sites that resulted in a Confederate victory. Due to blunders by the High Command led by General Braxton Bragg (who is still disliked in the South), the Yankee troops were able to regroup in Chattanooga (eight miles away), and eventually take Atlanta and the rest of the South. Even today, emotions run high in certain quarters; and park rangers admit that they still have to accommodate Confederate sympathizers with a certain amount of caution and concern.