Chattanooga has long been a destination for those interested in Civil War history, who visit for its battlefields, museums, and re-enactments. But this little city offers much more, and in December it’s all dressed up with decorations and special festivities. Just fly to Chattanooga’s Lovell Field Airport in southeastern Tennessee, near the borders of Georgia and Alabama.
Once you’re downtown, discover what a pleasant walking town the revitalized Chattanooga has become. Start at Ross’ Landing, in the heart of downtown, which commemorates Chattanooga’s original name and pays homage to the Cherokee tribe. Across the street, the Tennessee Aquarium is home to thousands of land and aquatic animals. Look for “Scuba Claus” during the reef show in December or catch the 3-D “Polar Express” at the IMAX Theater. You also can speed up the Tennessee River on a sleek 65-foot hydrofoil jetboat; in winter you can see thousands of sandhill cranes on the cruise. Near the aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum is designed to really engage kids; they also have special holiday events.
Right downtown you’ll find the Chattanooga Choo Choo rail station, which inspired the hit song. It’s now been converted into a hotel and restaurants, and you can sleep in some of the trains. There are indoor and outdoor pools and garden mazes. In winter the Glenn Miller Gardens becomes an ice skating rink; Santa is in residence on select dates.
More family-friendly fun can be had at the Chattanooga Zoo, with special activities and decorations for the holidays. To learn more about Chattanooga and its famous landmarks, take a 60-minute Double-Decker Bus Tour. About 10 minutes out of town, Raccoon Mountain Caverns offers cave tours and a campground. Fans of trains will head for the Tennessee Valley Railroad, 25 miles northeast of downtown. Board a train and go back in time; special holiday train rides are available.
The city offers a dizzying array of dining options. Top chef? Many say it’s Chef Lindley of Alleia, serving rustic Italian cuisine. Great Southside District spot? The Feed Co. and its farm-fresh menu. Good steaks and seafood without exorbitant prices? That would be Public House. Since we’re in the South, who can pass up real Southern barbecue? Try Sugar’s for great ribs. Locals love the "killer burgers" at Urban Stack, in the 1867 former Southern Railway Baggage Building. Finally, sometimes, you just need some fantastic gelato and craft coffee, or maybe a fresh fruit popsicle—Milk and Honey has you covered.
Lookout Mountain, about 15 minutes from Chattanooga, is the place to explore Civil War history and the outdoors. Visit the Battles for Chattanooga Museum and then walk out to Point Park, site of “The Battle Above the Clouds” and part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. If you like, walk over to the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway and ride it down (72.7-percent grade!) to the town of St. Elmo and its shops, restaurants, and microbrewery. It’s a short drive from Point Park to Rock City and its ancient rock formations, gardens, swinging bridge, world-famous “Lover’s Leap,” and panoramic views into seven states. The charming Chanticleer Inn Bed and Breakfast is just steps away from Rock City, serves elaborate breakfasts, and is decorated to the hilt at Christmas.
Discovered in 1928 by Leo Lambert and named for his wife, Ruby Falls is a spectacular 145-foot waterfall, 1,120 feet underground. As you explore the cavern, count the drops of water that fall on your head—those are “Ruby Kisses,” each said to convey seven years of good luck. We were duly impressed—so much water flowing continuously—and who couldn’t use a little good luck? With so many things to do, we’ll have to visit Chattanooga again!
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