Mixing traditional Southern hospitality with fascinating history, cultural vitality, and a stupendous natural setting, Chattanooga is an unexpected treat. Best known to older generations as the home base of Glenn Miller’s 1940s big band swing anthem “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” this midsize city stretches along the banks of the Tennessee River, where a pleasant promenade of footpaths and bike trails ties an array of tourist attractions into local history. Markers, fountains, and plaques commemorate everything from Civil War battles to the sorry story of the banishment of the native Cherokee westward along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
The opening of the ever-expanding Tennessee Aquarium (800/262-0695, daily, $30), one of the largest and most popular in the country, was key to Chattanooga’s current renaissance. Along with an IMAX theater, the excellent Hunter Museum of American Art, and a baseball stadium for Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, the aquarium has energized a wholesale reconstruction of the Chattanooga riverfront. On a nice summer’s day, cross the river on the Walnut Street Bridge, gazing down at kayakers and rock climbers before hopping on the dollar-a-ride historic carousel in idyllic Coolidge Park.
While the aquarium and related attractions have given the city a new lease on life, one of the country’s most enduring tourist attractions, Rock City (800/854-0675 or 706/820-2531, $20), has been tempting travelers here for nearly a century. Standing six miles south of town atop 2,392-foot-tall Lookout Mountain, Rock City is one of the most hyped sights in the United States. From the 1930s through the 1960s, hundreds of rural barns from Michigan to Texas were painted with the words “See Rock City,” “World’s 8th Wonder,” and “See 7 States.” (The claim that one can see seven states from Rock City is disputed, but in order of distance they would be Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia.) Rock City itself is terrific, with paths winding through oddly shaped limestone canyons at the edge of heart-stopping cliffs. Even better are the other attractions atop Lookout Mountain, especially the beautiful limestone caves, 145-foot-high Ruby Falls (423/821-2544, $20), and the historic Incline Railway (423/821-4224, $15 adults). All-inclusive tickets are available.