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Civil War battlefield, modern-day playgroundCivil War battlefield, modern-day playground

Chattanooga, TennesseeChattanooga, Tennessee

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.

  • During the 1990s, Chattanooga embarked upon a long-term revitalization plan. From this decades-long project came the Riverwalk, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the restoration of the Walnut Street Bridge, as well as a revival of the parks and downtown areas, which together have brought good restaurants and flocks of visitors. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium.
  • Take your sweetheart to the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Laura Beth McConahie via Flickr.
  • The river otters are some of the aquarium’s most popular inhabitants. Others include a pair of hyacinth macaws, a band of ring-tailed lemurs, and a flock of penguins. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium.
  • Walk or ride along the Riverwalk, which follows the Tennessee River for 13 miles. Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB.
  • Board the three-level “Southern Belle” riverboat for a dinner cruise. Photo courtesy
  • Located in the heart of downtown Chattanooga with excellent views of Lookout Mountain, the upscale Chattanoogan hotel has 198 guestrooms and suites, three outstanding restaurants, and a full-service spa. Photo courtesy Chattanoogan.
  • It’s all here but the “clickety-clack” of the train moving down the tracks. Sleep in a railway car at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Photo courtesy Chattanooga Choo Choo.
  • Strap on ice skates and twirl around the ice skating rink at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB.
  • The Tennessee Valley Railroad has been described as a moving museum, offering an interactive, historical experience. In December, thrill the little ones with a journey on the Tennessee Valley Railroad North Pole Limited holiday train. Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB.
  • Mmmm...gelato from Milk and Honey, with traditional flavors as well as unique ones like Avocado, Grapefruit, and Honeycomb. Photo courtesy Milk and Honey.
  • On November 25, 1863, more than 50,000 Union soldiers stormed the Confederate defenses along Missionary Ridge, east of Chattanooga. The attack stretched from the Rossville Gap at the Georgia border all the way up to Tunnel Hill at the northern end of Missionary Ridge. By the end of the day the Confederate Army of Tennessee was retreating toward Dalton, Georgia, and Chattanooga was firmly in Union hands. It was, as one Confederate officer later described it, "The death knell of the Confederacy." Photo by Jeff Gunn via Flickr.
  • A short drive from Point Park is Rock City, where you’ll find the world-famous “Lover’s Leap,” an amazing view into seven states, and a variety of gardens. Hang on tight as you traverse the swinging bridge and test your skills on the rock climbing wall. Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB.
  • Atop Lookout Mountain, Rock City’s gardens become a “Garden of Lights.” You can dine at the Big Rock Grill, too. Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB.
  • Walk along the Enchanted Trail in Rock City. If you peek through the crevices into Fairyland Caverns, you might find a scene from a favorite Mother Goose fairytale. Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB.
  • At Ruby Falls in December, little kids will be awestruck by “Christmas Underground,” wherein they journey through an ice cave and Sugar Plum Fairy Village to arrive at the North Pole and be greeted by Santa. Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB.

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.

From the Ross’ Landing area you can walk across the Walnut Street Bridge, one of the world’s largest pedestrian bridges. On Chattanooga’s north shore you’ll come to Coolidge Park, close to numerous restaurants and cafés. Check out the restored 1894 Dentzel indoor carousel with 52 hand-carved animals. Just west of the aquarium on the waterfront you can board the three-level Southern Belle riverboat for a dinner cruise. The Christmas Carol cruise offers holiday music, Santa, local live bands, prime rib, and shrimp Creole. Also close to the aquarium, the Chattanoogan is one of the city’s newer hotels, with three restaurants, a day spa, a fitness center with indoor pool, outdoor terrace and firepit, and live music on weekends.

The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway is one of the world’s steepest passenger railways, with a 72.7-percent grade. The incline was built after the Civil War, when Lookout Mountain became a tourist destination. Photo courtesy Lookout Mountain Incline Railway.

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.

You’ll snake your way through tunnels filled with multiple different cave formations, but when the passage opens to 145-foot Ruby Falls, you can’t help but be astounded. Photo courtesy Ruby Falls.

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!

Each winter, 15,000 to 20,000 sandhill cranes converge upon the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge as part of their journey from the upper Midwest to Florida. Board the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer for special two-hour sandhill crane viewing cruises, offered during the peak of their migration. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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