Tennessee is famously known for its “music city” and capitol Nashville, Elvis’s Graceland in Memphis, and the Great Smoky Mountains. However, the city of Chattanooga, the state’s fourth largest city, is a blossoming metropolitan area rich in Tennessee history. A critical location and battleground site in the Civil War, Chattanooga was also the starting place of the Trail of Tears, the unfortunate, forced removal of Native Americans from native lands. In my eyes, downtown Chattanooga is an up-and-coming hip, urban location, akin to western cities like Portland and Seattle. With the Tennessee River and nearby Smoky Mountains, outdoor recreation is a key pastime with the locals.
After spending a month away from home living in Chattanooga, I grew to love the area, the people, and appreciate its history. Here are my favorite touring spots that visitors should stop at and enjoy while exploring downtown Chattanooga.
(I was not compensated by any of these companies or sites for this review.)
Most people have heard the old song about the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or know the term, but few know its history. Chattanooga’s Terminal Station opened in 1909, earning the designation of the first railroad station in the South. Dedicated to handling passengers and cargo, this station created a pathway connecting northern cities like Cincinnati to Chattanooga. Despite even welcoming some U.S. Presidents to Chattanooga, the city and its train station didn’t become a household name until the release of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” a song written in 1941 for the movie Sun Valley Serenade and played by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. The song caught on because of the popularity of the movie, but also due to the song’s memorable train noises (imitating a train leaving a station and train whistle sounds) and its catchy swing tune.
However, after decades in transportation advancement, there were fewer and fewer trains heading to Chattanooga. Terminal Station eventually closed in 1970 and was almost demolished, but it was purchased, restored and opened up years later as a hotel. Now the old Terminal Station is known as the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel.
In addition to lodging, this building has a convention center, restaurants, bars, and a few shops. The original entry for Terminal Station now acts as the registration area for the hotel and a few remaining train tracks sit outside. On one of these tracks is an old steam train that represents the Chattanooga Choo Choo (see photo above). Additional vintage train cars sit on the tracks, available as hotel rooms, although not currently available as of this publishing. The Glenn Miller Gardens can also be found outside the building, with seating and outdoor games.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in downtown Chattanooga is a fun place to stop for a visit. It costs nothing to sightsee and you can enjoy the Beaux-Arts designs in the old terminal building. My family and I spent about 30 minutes looking around, checking out the gardens and trains in the back. As with everything that has happened this year with the pandemic, there was less activity at the Chattanooga Choo Choo than normal. Often there is live music in the Glenn Miller Gardens and next door at Station Street. Nevertheless, it was fun to witness the history that made this city famous. For more information on the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel and complex, click here.
Right across the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, you’ll find Chattanooga Whiskey’s store and tasting room. Famous for being Tennessee’s only high malt whiskey, Chattanooga Whiskey was founded on a mission to bring whiskey distilleries back to Chattanooga after a long 100 years. In the late 1800s, Chattanooga was a booming area, filled with distilleries and liquor dealers, making it a major hub in the US for alcohol production and distribution. However, ten years before prohibition took place country-wide, the state of Tennessee adopted prohibition, closing down all state distilleries. After prohibition, select counties were allowed to distill whiskey, but it wasn’t until 2011, that whiskey was welcome again in Chattanooga’s Hamilton County. In May of 2013, the Whiskey Bill passed and whiskey distilleries found their home again in Chattanooga.
With Covid regulations in place, it’s best to give the store a call to book an appointment for a tasting. However, you can head in to buy bottles and merchandise anytime. They offer many varieties of whiskey, including traditional, experimental, and clear. Chattanooga Whiskey instantly became my husband’s drink of choice while living here. Between the whiskey’s flavor profile and their unique glass bottles, this whiskey became a kitchen staple. To head to their website, click here.
In 1891, the Walnut Street Bridge was built over the Tennessee River, but later closed in 1978. After nearly a decade of not being used, it was restored and reopened as one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges, connecting the north shore of Chattanooga to downtown. Now, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its length and age (for a Camelback truss design bridge). On a typical day, you’ll see many joggers, walkers, and cyclists on the bridge, as well as tourists enjoying the view of the city, the Tennessee River, and Lookout Mountain.
When walking over the bridge and back, it’s a little more than a half mile walk. There are even a few benches along the way to sit and enjoy the view of the Tennessee River.
One of the top tourist sites in Chattanooga is the Tennessee Aquarium. Home to more than 12,000 animals that represent nearly 800 species of animals, this is one of America’s top aquariums. Located next to the Tennessee River, this attraction is split into two different buildings, one for freshwater creatures and the other for saltwater. Due to Covid, my family and I did not visit inside the aquarium, but it appeared rather busy when we walked by. Outside the aquarium, there’s a large gathering area with scenic park features for kids to play with as well as places to sit, eat, and buy merchandise.
Currently, tickets can be purchased with a designated time for you to enter. Times are in thirty minute time blocks and the aquarium suggests giving yourself at least 2 hours to visit. Keep in mind, during this Covid pandemic, children 12 and up must wear a mask. Click here for more information on the Tennessee Aquarium and their IMAX theater.
Renaissance Park is on the riverbank of the Tennessee River, just north of downtown. While Renaissance Park has 23 acres of urban wetlands with native trees and flowers, a picnic area and pavilion, Cardboard Hill is simply a large hill in an open grassy space. On the Saturday morning we visited, there were nearly a dozen kids running up the hill with large sections of cardboard and then launching themselves down the long grassy hill to waiting parents. Some kids brought their own pieces of cardboard, and others simply picked up the pieces that were left by others.
Because of the height of the hill, most of the children here were older. My husband and father-in-law even tried the experience of sledding on grass down Cardboard Hill. It’s a fun way for kids (and adults of all ages!) to pass the time with a fun activity.
On the North side of the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga is Coolidge Park. Located next to Cardboard Hill and Renaissance Park, Coolidge Park is another open area riverfront park. This open space gives tourists a great view of the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, the John Ross bridge, and the Tennessee River. A popular park with locals, this is a large natural area to gather with friends, have a picnic, or let the kids run and play.
In the park, you’ll find the Coolidge Carousel, a 100 year-old restored carousel located inside one of the buildings. However, this carousel was closed in 2020 because of Covid-19. In Coolidge Park, you can rent a kayak and float down the Tennessee River or enjoy the 13 miles of paths on the Tennessee Riverwalk.
In the summer, children enjoy the circular water fountain in the middle of the park. Statues of animals that surround the fountain are a fun place for kids to climb and sit (with supervision). Restrooms can be found in the Walker Pavilion within the park, opposite the carousel building. Coolidge Park in downtown Chattanooga is a popular place for festivals, outdoor concerts, and events that will likely resume once the threat of Covid-19 has ceased.
After spending a month living in Chattanooga, I learned so much about the area and its people. With its good food, great culture, and plenty of southern hospitality, Chattanooga’s been one of the best cities I’ve recently visited.
In the coming weeks, keep an eye out for my favorite things to do outside of downtown Chattanooga.