History Buffs Itinerary
For a history buff, deciding to visit Chattanooga is a no-brainer. The challenge comes when deciding what to do when you get here. Few places in the country can claim such a rich concentration of historical events, ranging from Paleolithic Native Americans to Civil War battles to the rise and fall of the Iron Horse. Below are some of Chattanooga’s top historical hot spots.
Where to Stay
You have options aplenty if you want to stay in a room with a past. The Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel is a converted train station, which served all trains traveling southward from 1909 to 1970. The Bluff View Inn is a romantic B&B located in three turn-of-the-century homes, once owned by Chattanooga’s elite. The Dwell Hotel was once part of Fort James, a stone fort used in the Civil War. It was converted to a hotel after the war and after many decades in disrepair, reopened in 2016. Finally, The Read House opened in 1926 and offers rich architectural details, historic charm and plenty of local lore. If you need a little more space, Pot Point Cabin offers just that and a rich history too. The cabin was originally built in 1835 with hand-hewn logs and planks reclaimed from a flat boat wreck on the "boiling pot," a nearby rapid in the Tennessee River.
Day One Morning:
You’ll want to start your day with an overview of Chattanooga’s history. A riverboat cruise highlights the rich resources of the Tennessee River Gorge (the reason we’ve been so darn popular for about the last 10,000 years). Expect lots of wildlife sightings and history of Chattanooga’s first inhabitants – the Native Americans. Chattanooga Ducks will also get you in the water and offers a kid-friendly highlight of Chattanooga’s past.
For an inspiring perspective on history, plan a visit to the new National Medal of Honor Heritage Center on the downtown riverfront. Chattanooga is where our nation’s first and highest military award for valor was presented. Spending just an hour or two here will inspire you and your family with the values demonstrated by Medal of Honor recipients--patriotism, citizenship, courage, integrity, sacrifice and commitment.
Regardless of which route you choose, carve out time to walk around Ross’ Landing (the origins of the Trail of Tears), the Riverwalk (includes several significant Civil War sites), The Passage (an artistic tribute to the tribes of Chattanooga) and the Walnut Street Walking Bridge (built in 1890).
Day One Afternoon:
Once you’ve soaked up the history of downtown, head to an equally intriguing neighborhood – Chattanooga’s Southside. Once the financial hub of the city, the abandoned warehouses and old buildings are now occupied by restaurants, shops and art galleries. The TailGate Brewery is located in the revitalized Stong Building, a hotel built in 1909 for weary train travelers. Gourmet burger bar Urban Stack is housed in the former Southern Railway Baggage Building, one of the oldest buildings in the city.
After a quick lunch break, indulge in more rail history with a walk through the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel. If you’re artistically inclined, be sure to peruse some of the Southside’s art galleries, located about a block up Main Street.
Day One Evening:
After a full day, head to the Bluff View Art District for a dinner made for the history books. Not only is the food particularly memorable – including the homemade pasta at Tony’s or the light-as-air desserts at Rembrandt’s – but the setting is steeped in history. At the turn of the 20th century, Chattanooga was booming with wealth and industry. Some of the wealthiest citizens of the day built their homes in the Bluff View neighborhood, often referred to as “cliff dwellers” given their lofty location above the Tennessee River. In the early ‘90s, Dr. Charles and Mary Portera set about revitalizing the abandoned buildings by creating what’s today the Bluff View Art District – a European oasis up the hill from downtown.
Day Two Morning:
Start day two by immersing yourself in Chattanooga's African American history at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on M.L. King Blvd, formerly known as "the Big 9" it is the only remaining cohesive area historically associated with Chattanooga African Americans. The Chattanooga African American Museum at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center pays homage to Chattanooga's historic names like Bessie Smith, The Impressions, Reggie White, Venus Lacy, and many more. See replicas of former 9th street businesses, learn about the Civil Rights movement in Chattanooga, the city’s Negro League baseball teams, and more.
Ready for lunch? Stay on M.L. King Blvd and grab a chopped wiener plate at Memo's, barbeque from Chatt Smokehouse, or the famous fried catfish at Uncle Larry's.
Day Two Afternoon:
If you haven't already figured it out, you soon will get to know that the Civil War is a big part of our story. The historic “Battle Above the Clouds" took place on nearby Lookout Mountain. Ride up the mountain on the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway and take the short walk to Point Park, where Union soldiers surprised Confederates by sneaking up the mountain during an unusually thick fog. Be sure to check out the Battles for Chattanooga Museum. The visitor center houses a 33- by 13-foot mural by James Walker, an eyewitness to the battle, and several short audio presentations.
Another Lookout Mountain attraction with a fascinating back story is Ruby Falls, a 145-foot underground waterfall discovered in 1928 by local cave explorer, Leo Lambert.
Day Two Evening:
If you’re up for it, make the hike to the historic Cravens House (approximately 2-hours round trip). Either way, sunset at Point Park or nearby Sunset Rock is the perfect end to a historic day. Dine on the mountain or make the 15-minute drive downtown.
Three + Days
Have more than two days to explore Chattanooga? Luckily, there are still plenty of options for you. Choose your own path or forge a new one by mixing some of the options below.
Explore More Military History
In keeping with the Civil War theme, venture out to nearby Chickamauga. The most significant site is the Chickamauga Battlefield, where the Union Army suffered its most substantial defeat in the Western Theater. Today, it’s the oldest and largest military park in the nation. Tours by park rangers vary based on the season, so check their website. You can also navigate your own cell-phone guided tour by car, which can take anywhere from 1 ½ to 3 hours.
The nearby 6th Cavalry Museum is a must-see, honoring the “Fighting Sixth” Calvary, which saw action in the Civil War, Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War. After WWI, the regiment was permanently stationed at its current Fort Oglethorpe location (1919-1942) which today houses artifacts, uniforms weapons, vehicles, and more. Next head to downtown Chickamauga, a charming town with several historic stops like Gordon Lee Mansion, the Coke Ovens, and Crawfish Spring. Grab lunch at one of the local restaurants and poke around the boutiques and antique shops on the town square.
Explore More Native American History
The National Park Service touts Moccasin Bend as one of the most unique units found in the entire National Park Service system, probably because archeologists have found evidence of human habitation at this spot dating back 12,000 years ago. The 3.22-mile hike on the BlueBlazes Trail offers beautiful views of the Tennessee River and Lookout Mountain in the distance, too.
As a registered site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, Audubon Acres commemorates the forced relocation of Native American nations in the southeast, starting with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In addition to four miles of easy hikes, the park features the Spring Frog Cabin, believed to have been built by Cherokee in the mid-1700s and representative of the homesteads of the early 19th century. You can also explore the Little Owl Village, an archeological site that offers evidence of habitation dating back to the 1500s.
The Brainerd Mission Cemetery is the oldest in Hamilton County. The Brainerd Mission was started in 1817 by the American Board of Foreign Missions to educate and Christianize Cherokees. The one-acre site is now a shadow of the original mission, which consisted of a church, dormitories, two mills, and a large garden, but you can still explore the shaded graveyard and imagine the setting as it was over 200 years ago, as well as the mission's implications.
Explore More Train and Industrial History
Did you know that Chattanooga is the birthplace of the towing industry? Ernest Holmes Sr. fabricated the first wrecker in 1916 and the International Towing and Recovery Museum's 10,000-square-foot space offers a glimpse of towing and recovery from then until now. See the world's oldest known wrecker, a hand-cranked version with a 1916 boom on a 1914 Locomobile, along with many other fastest, biggest, title-touting wreckers. In addition to trucks, there's also a kid's area with Tater Tot, a miniature tow truck that lets kids try their hand at operating a boom.
Why not take a ride on a Chattanooga Choo Choo yourself? Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum offers a quick 65-minute trip on the Missionary Ridge Local that begins and ends at Grand Junction Station. The short ride takes you through the pre-Civil War era tunnel and includes a turntable demonstration during your 15-minute layover at the museum's restoration shop in East Chattanooga. Have time for a longer ride? Then treat yourself to a five-hour ride on the Hiwassee Loop or an eight-hour ride on the Copperhill Special. Both offer breathtaking views of the Hiwassee River Gorge, the perfect way to soak in the vibrant colors of the forest in fall.
Explore More Music and Art History
In addition to its collection of rare and vintage guitars and science of sound interactive exhibit (perfect for the kid and the kid-at-heart), Songbirds Guitar and Pop Culture Museum will take you on a journey through the past 80+ years to see how the electric guitar helped shape pop culture as we know it. Here, you can also learn about Chattanooga's music history and the influence of Chattanooga's Big 9--the street you just explored the day before. Looking for more? Follow the Tennessee Music Pathways to see more of the city and learn more about local musicians like Bessie Smith and The Impressions at the markers along the way.
The Hunter Museum of American Art's permanent collection tells the many stories of American art from the 1700s through today. Add in the ever-changing exhibitions and the rich history and architecture of the mansion that houses the museum, and your history-loving heart will be singing.
More to Explore a Short Drive Away:
Falcon Rest Mansion and Gardens, McMinnville, TN
A Tennessee Guest Ranch, Dunlap, TN
Red Clay Historic State Park, Cleveland, TN
History Buffs Itinerary Map
Find all the places we mentioned above in this map we made just for you.
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