Thanks to television, movies and history classes at school, even the youngest travelers are already familiar with Nashville and Memphis. Both towns draw thousands of tourists for their ties to country music, roles in American history and down-home cooking. Chattanooga, meanwhile, offers visitors a perfect opportunity to get even further “down home” into small-town Southern life. While the Big Band-era song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” gave this town iconic status, the tracks going through it extend into a surprising variety of activities, from moving and fascinating historic sites to relaxing outdoor activities, quirky and fun landmarks and one of the nation’s top-ranked aquariums.
For more than 25 years, the Tennessee Aquarium has enthralled visitors with exhibits covering the biodiversity of the Southeast and a world-class assemblage of fish, birds, reptiles, insects and aquatic animals. What makes it especially innovative is the way it is divided up into two buildings — one on river habitats and the other on ocean habitats. Within many of the exhibits, special attention is placed on the conservation efforts of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, which extends its impact by conducting scientific studies, restoring the region’s natural ecosystems and educating the public on the importance of conservation efforts.
The family-owned Rock City Gardens, located atop Lookout Mountain (just over the Tennessee–Georgia border and six miles from downtown Chattanooga) is an interesting amalgam of botanic garden and roadside Americana. A 4,100-foot walking trail winds to or through naturally occurring rock formations, caves, birdhouses, gardens, the black-lit “Mother Goose” village and an overlook with views of seven states on a clear day. A few minutes away, Ruby Falls (founded by entrepreneur Leo Lambert in 1930) is built out of tunnels lined with interesting rock formations and geological marvels leading to its eponymous underground waterfall, 1,120 feet below the surface.
Centuries ago, the stunning terrain stretching across the region and its resources was the ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation. The forced migration of the original residents, known as the “Trail of Tears,” is merely glanced over in school textbooks. However, several poignant sites lining the southeast Tennessee stretch of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail endeavor to fill in many of the blanks in telling the Cherokee side of the story as well as highlighting other key events in the region.
The Hiwassee River Heritage Center not only delves into the personal and collective histories of those forced from their home, but also the area’s role as a crossing point during the Civil War. Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, meanwhile, shows what life was like before and during the eviction, and political events that led up to it.
With American music history standing as a source of pride, Chattanooga boasts several interesting museums exploring the subject. Rockers of all ages will love the Songbirds Guitar Museum, a showcase of rare vintage guitars with docents relaying the stories of how these handcrafted instruments changed the face of popular music around the world. The Bessie Smith Cultural Center pays tribute to the “Empress of the Blues” and her impact on music over recent decades. Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse Restaurant, roughly an hour out of Chattanooga in Monteagle, is known for its abundant platters of excellent barbeque. However, there is a performance space as well as loads of country and rock memorabilia to linger over.
Another fun way to explore the city and get to know its history is through Chattanooga Segway & Bike Tours, which not only provides an outdoors overview experience of Chattanooga’s history and worthwhile cultural hubs such as the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Creative Discovery Museum, but also the coolest neighborhoods and local feats of engineering.