A visit to Chattanooga is an opportunity to experience history. Few cities in the nation are as closely tied to railroads and the Civil War as Atlanta’s nearest neighbor across the Tennessee line.
An enjoyable exploration of this Tennessee Valley city shows that railroads and the Civil War have defined what Chattanooga was and still have a major influence today.
The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad reached Chattanooga in 1854. A decade later, the town’s railroads would be embroiled in the Civil War, both as a strategic pipeline and as target of the struggle between North and South. Battles in and around Chattanooga were important in the defeat of the Confederacy and the eventual end of the Civil War.
When the war ended, the railroads in the region, like Chattanooga itself, were in shambles physically and financially. As the 19th century progressed, recovery in this “gateway to the South” proceeded apace and brought a railroad revival that carried commerce once again to the growing city and linked it with Atlanta and with points north.
Today, the city, still laced with rail lines, celebrates its heritage with a first-rate railroad museum and numerous battlefield monuments and National Park Service interpretative centers and historic sites.
The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, six miles from downtown, operates more-than-century-old steam locomotives pulling vintage passenger cars and gives riders a realistic taste of what it must have been like in the golden age of railroading. One museum route tunnels under Missionary Ridge, the site of a major battle.
To get a good sense of the carnage that took place around Chattanooga in the 1860s, visit the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park Visitor Center or Lookout Mountain, the scene of the Battle Above the Clouds.
Contemporary Chattanooga is an interesting city with a bustling and revitalized downtown riverfront and an excellent aquarium, a good art museum and the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex, named after the 1940s song made famous by Glen Miller.
Before You Go
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The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and the battlefields require a car for access, but a drive up Interstate 75 is the best way to get there from Atlanta anyway. The nearest Amtrak station, for example, is in Atlanta.
Chattanooga is at the intersection of I-75 and I-24. The railroad museum is 31 miles north of Dalton and 105 miles southwest of Knoxville.
If you prefer to fly, Chattanooga International Airport (CHA) is served by four airlines and is nine miles from the downtown riverfront.
On a Day Trip
- Visit the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park Visitor Center in Fort Oglethorpe on the Georgia side of the state line and drive around the battlefield.
- Ride the Missionary Ridge Local (a 6-mile round trip) at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
Staying Two or Three Days
- Explore downtown Chattanooga’s museums, restaurants and shops.
- Visit the Tennessee Aquarium downtown.
- Take the incline train up Lookout Mountain.
- Take a cruise on the Tennessee River.
- Visit Rock City and Ruby Falls while exploring Lookout Mountain.
- Take a longer train ride into the mountains at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (check the schedule).
- Visit the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex.
How to Dress
Dress for riding the train at the railroad museum and for touring the battlefields in a comfortable, casual and seasonal way. The city and its attractions are fairly laid-back, and even though Chattanooga is known as the gateway to the South, the Deep South’s typical formality in dress is not omnipresent.
At a Glance
- Over–50 advantage — The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and its train rides are comfortable, accessible and relaxed. Battlefield visitor centers are accessible, and most monuments and battlefield sites can be viewed from a vehicle or with a short walk.
- Required mobility level — Low.
- When to go — The best time to visit Chattanooga is from September through November, so it’s a good choice for a final summer fling over Labor Day weekend or a getaway during a fall school break. Fall color is an attraction from mid-October to early November. The crowds are gone at that point, and the temperatures are still mild. By December, it gets cold, and snow can interfere with mobility.
- Where to stay — Many national hotel chains are around Hamilton Place and downtown.
- Special travel interests — Civil War, railroads and U.S. history.
Jeffrey Orenstein, Ph.D., and Virginia Orenstein are husband-and-wife travel writers from Sarasota, Fla. Their Simply Smart Travel column appears in newspapers and magazines in nine states. They publish travel ideas, articles, photos and a blog at www.SimplySmartTravel.com and at www.facebook.com/SimplySmartTravel.