Chattanooga goes beyond its Rock City days with an impressive aquarium, an expanded art museum and a choo choo that serves fine steaks.
The old signs on barns and billboards scattered throughout the South’s hillsides don’t do Chattanooga justice. Visitors still can “See Rock City,” and they should. The geologic attraction has survived 75 years thanks to one of the most enduring and successful grass roots ad campaigns.
The pride of Chattanooga is the Tennessee Aquarium, located at 1 Broad St. Billed as the world’s largest freshwater aquarium, the emphasis here is how a single drop of water travels from the Appalachian Mountains down the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico. Saltwater exhibits give a close look at a coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico and feature sharks, barracudas, stingrays and more.
The aquarium opened in 1992 and was expanded in 2005 to include the ocean galleries. The newest exhibit, “Penguins’ Rock,” opened May 3. The exhibit’s 20 penguinsGentoos and Macaronislive in an 18,000-gallon pool of 45-degree water. Visitors can enjoy watching them ride the waves that roll across the floor-to-ceiling windows.
There’s also an IMAX theater adjacent to the aquarium. Behind the attraction, a terraced patio leads to the Tennessee River bank where fountains of water spray cool mists in the summer. Relax from your aquarium tour and watch passing water traffic or take a ride on a water taxi.
Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art, 10 Bluff View, has galleries that are filled with works from the Colonial period to present day. The museum’s 28,000-square-foot expansion includes a glass-and-steel addition that comes with a spectacular view of the Tennessee River and new café.
Nearby, a local physician and philanthropist turned a curve in the river into the Bluff View Art District, a cluster of bed-and-breakfast inns, restaurants, an art gallery and even a bakery. There’s an outdoor sculpture garden, perfect for an after-dinner stroll, and a bocce ball court. The district is at the corner of High and East Second streets.
A few steps away, the antique glass and ceramic collection of Anna Safley Houstonnicknamed Antique Annienow comprises the Houston Museum of Decorative Art, 201 High St. There are also rare pieces of American antique furniture, including several Southern pieces.
Chattanooga on Wheels
The Tennessee Valley Railroad, 4119 Cromwell Road, features lovingly restored and preserved engines and railroad cars. More importantly, there’s a chance to take a scenic 50-minute ride on an authentic early railroad. Seasonal excursions are offered in addition to the daily trips. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum also features restored cars and engines, as well as a host of volunteers willing to answer questions and explain the history and intricacies of the old engines.
Chattanooga also offers the world’s only International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame Museum, 3315 Broad St. It’s filled with old tow trucks, from the early days of the auto through World War II and into the 1990s. There are also numerous toy tow trucks and a gift shop.
But the automobile is not forgotten in this town of trains. Fifteen minutes outside of Chattanooga in Trenton, Ga., the Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater shows a double feature on the 100-by-50-foot screen. Owners say it’s the largest screen in the world. Films are shown nightly during spring, summer and fall. Take Interstate 24 west to Interstate 59 south to reach the drive-in, located at 217 Old Hales Road.
Oldies But Goodies
One of the most enduring attractions in Chattanooga, Ruby Falls, is a gift from nature. Visitors ride an elevator down to the limestone corridors and caves where guides lead the way, first to an introductory video, then to the natural rock formations.
Located at 1720 S. Scenic Highway on historic Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls features one of the highest waterfalls (145 feet) in the country. Those who are claustrophobic may want to skip this cave tour and take in the popular incline railway that glides up the side of the mountain. Billed as “America’s Most Amazing Mile,” the railway provides many good photo opportunities. Board the rail car at 3917 St. Elmo Ave.
Rock City Gardens, located atop Lookout Mountain (1400 Patten Road), has fascinated tourists for 75 years with its pathways through massive formations. There are various paths to follow, some more difficult than others. More than 400 varieties of native plants can be found in the gardens.
From one vantage point, the view stretches for miles, providing on a clear day a glimpse of no less than seven states. There’s even a Lover’s Leap where, according to local folklore, two young Native American lovers leaped to their deaths because their tribes were at war.
Chattanooga, keeping its railroad history intact, now offers families a variety of attractions to put a vacation on the track toward good times.
Fred W. Wright Jr. is a contributor from St. Petersburg, Fla.
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