Chattanooga is Top Family Destination

Trains and attractions aimed at kids

My first visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, was with a group of friends. It was a fun getaway to just hang out with my long time buddies, but it would have been even more fun if I took my three-year old grandson.


He loves trains. He, like dozens of his friends, is crazy about Thomas The Train. Not only does he have the dozens of trains that belong to the Thomas The Train family, but he has all the train videos and books that tell tall tales about Thomas and his adventures.

Well, Chattanooga goes one step further in this train mania. It has the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a magnificently restored train station, now a Holiday Inn property, but different from any Holiday Inn anywhere.

It is located at Chattanooga's Terminal Station built in 1909 and served as the heart of bustling railway activity until trains were replaced by faster modes of transportation. The last train stopped on August 11, 1970. Doors and windows were boarded up, but the station was saved by the wrecking ball by a group of locals who recognized that the railroad still had a bright future.


More than $4 million was spent to renovate the property and the hotel was welcomed into the Holiday Inn family. The Chattanooga Choo Choo is now a magnificently restored structure for everyone who visits Chattanooga to enjoy. There are many shops featuring train memorabilia, actual train cars where guests can dine and there are sleeper cars that are beautifully restored where guests can spend the night. Four dozen restored passenger cars decorated in the Victorian style can accommodate up to four guests in a car.


The 24-acre complex also has a 3,000 square foot, automated 174 foot long Model Railroad Museum with 320 structures and 3,000 feet of track, a 1930's style café specializing in gourmet espressos and desserts and a station house restaurant with performing waitresses and waiters.

The term "hands on" takes on an adventurous new meaning after riding the Tennessee Valley Railroad , where the largest operating historic railroad in the South takes passengers aboard a faithfully restored, authentic steam or diesel passenger train at Cho-Choo city. The train runs summer weekends between Chattanooga Choo- Choo and Grand Junction Station. The ride takes about three and a half hours.

As if the restored train station wasn't enough, my grandson would have loved jumping on the free electric shuttle bus in Chattanooga, which has a station next to the Chattanooga Choo Choo and convenient stations all around downtown Chattanooga to visit area attractions.


My grandson would have been amazed when the electric shuttle stopped at the Tennessee Aquarium. It opened in 1992 and is the first and largest freshwater aquarium in the world. The height of a 12-story building, the 130,000 square foot building holds 400,000 gallons of water and more than 9,000 animals that swim, fly and crawl from alligator snapping turtles, 80 pound catfish and red piranhas to sharks and green moray eels. The Aquarium also has an IMAX 3d Theater and Environmental Learning Lab.

The Creative Discovery Museum, a multi-story museum designed for children to have fun and learn is another fun stop on the electric shuttle. The museum has several interactive exhibits and plenty of opportunities for children to learn about the world around them in a fun way.


Many kids are fascinated with trucks and my grandson is no exception. Well, many people may not know this but the Ernest W. Holmes Company manufactured the first "wrecker" in Chattanooga in 1916. And truck enthusiasts, car buffs and kids of all ages would enjoy a visit to the world's only tow truck museum in downtown Chattanooga, another stop on the electric shuttle. The official name of the museum is the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame Museum. The museum houses antique towing equipment, photos, memorabilia and a host of products and services honoring the history of an industry paralleling that of the automobile. It's not a large museum, but worth a visit.

The downtown area also has an outlet mall featuring stores such as Ralph Lauren, Coach and Bass for adults who like to shop.

Also in the downtown area are many kid-friendly restaurants. One of my favorites was Sticky Fingers, a chicken and rib eatery with lots of delicious sauces and wonderful desserts.


Further afield is Lookout Mountain, where you can see seven states from legendary Lovers Leap. It has two interesting destinations for adults and children. There is Rock City with its beautiful gardens and unique rock formations and Ruby Falls, an underground waterfall. A guided tour will take you in the caves at Ruby Falls and highlight unique formations. The Incline Railway, the world's steepest passenger railway, over 2,000 feet above sea level, is a unique way to see Lookout Mountain and its breathtaking, panoramic view. The Incline's free observation deck is the highest overlook on Lookout Mountain.


The newest hotel in the city is The Chattanoogan, the best place for Sunday brunch, with all the trimmings, including a make-your-own ice cream bar and dozens of entrees and delicious desserts. The Chattanoogan also has a spa which features the "Riverport" Stone Massage," which combines the use of hot stones from river and lava beds to relieve aching muscles and total relaxation. Local stones from the Tennessee River are used during the treatment. I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at the Chattanoogan spa, which also has steam and sauna rooms, an indoor pool and exercise facilities.

The Chattanoogan is located in the middle of downtown Chattanooga and is walking distance to the Outlet Mall and electric trolley stop. It is an upscale urban resort with 202 rooms, and is a welcome addition to the city with its 25,000 square feet of high-tech meeting space.

Chattanooga also has several art museums and up-scale restaurants in the Bluff View Art District. I especially enjoyed a visit to the Renaissance Commons in the Bluff View Art District where I learned how to bake bread from scratch from Chef Rob Alexander, the district's head baker and pastry chef. The beautiful Renaissance Commons is the site for weddings and other special occasions for locals, but it also prepares some of the creative cuisine for Bluff View Arts District restaurants.