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The Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga TN
Photo Credit: Journal Communications Inc./Jeff Adkins

History Buffs: Here's Your Chattanooga Itinerary

Few places in the country can claim such a rich concentration of historical events.

For a history buff, deciding to visit Chattanooga is an easy decision as the city is home to a rich concentration of historical events. Stories from Paleolithic Native Americans to Civil War battles to music history are told through exhibits, artifacts, historic homes and more. Below are some of Chattanooga’s top historical hot spots.

Where to Stay

Bluff View Inn

The Bluff View Inn is a romantic B&B located in three turn-of-the-century homes, once owned by Chattanooga’s elite. Historical beauty and modern amenities blend for a memorable experience. Three homes make up the property: the main mansion of Bluff View Inn called  the Maclellan House circa 1889 with English Tudor-style architecture and the exclusive honeymoon suite; the T.C. Thompson House circa 1908 with four guestrooms and two apartment-suites; and the 1927 Martin House with three guest rooms decorated with antiques and more.

The Read House

The Read House opened in 1926 and offers rich architectural details, historic charm and plenty of local lore. Located in the heart of downtown, this hotel has two buildings - the Historic Tower with rooms offering city and mountain views with Keurig coffeemakers, complimentary Wi-Fi and large rooms; and the Manor has rooms with king or queen beds, 50" flat screen TVs, luxurious bath products and other in-room amenities.

1 Day

National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

The first Medal of Honor recipient was awarded to Private Jacob Parrott in 1863 for his role in the "Great Locomotive Chase" that ended outside Chattanooga. The Chattanooga area would soon become  the place where 33 Medals of Honor were awarded. Hear the stories of those who made heroic acts by putting service over self at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. Inside, you'll see interactive exhibits, hear oral histories and learn about Medal of Honor recipients' patriotism, courage, citizenship, integrity, sacrifice and commitment. 

Ross's Landing

Carve out time to walk around Ross’s Landing, named after John Ross who was the leader of the Cherokee Nation. The renovated park includes a river pier, marina, natural amphitheatre and great views of the Tennessee River.  Along Ross's Landing you can walk the Riverwalk which includes several significant Civil War sites. The Passage is an artistic tribute to the tribes of Chattanooga and the Walnut Street Walking Bridge, which was built in 1890, gives breathtaking views of the river and city.  

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 Terminal Brewhouse is located in what was once known as the Strong Building, built as a hotel for train travelers. It's said the building was also home to a number of speakeasies during Prohibition. Gourmet burger bar Urban Stack is housed in the former Southern Railway Baggage Building, one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was originally built in 1870 as a baggage room by the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad.

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Continue learning about Chattanooga's railroad history by stopping at the Chattanooga Choo Choo and the gorgeous Terminal Station (parts were built before the Civil War). The station had a significant role in the train era as most trains bound for the South made their way through Chattanooga. The Choo Choo was made world famous thanks to the 1941 song of the same name by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The song was featured in the movie "Sun Valley Serenade."

Bessie Smith Cultural Center 

Crowned the "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith is known as the greatest classic blues singer of the 1920s. At the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, learn about her life growing up in Chattanooga and how she became internationally-renowned. Hear the stories behind her songs "Nobody Knows you When You’re Down and Out,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “Backwater Blues,” accompanied by musician greats like Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson and Benny Goodman through exhibits, artifacts and music.

Bluff View Art District

After a full day, head to the Bluff View Art District for a dinner made for the history books. 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. Today, it's a European-style oasis of art galleries, shops and restaurants with must-have dishes like homemade pasta at Tony's Pasta Shop & Trattoria, the creamy shrimp and grits of Back Inn Café or the light-as-air desserts at Rembrandt’s Coffee House. Cap off the evening with an offbeat history lesson from Chattanooga Ghost Tours (the Hunter Museum of American Art is said to be one of the most haunted sites in town) or a ride around town on Chattanooga Horse Trams.

2 Days

Lookout Mountain

Spend your second day immersed in the historic Civil War battle that took place on nearby Lookout Mountain, called the “Battle Above the Clouds.” 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, which houses a visitor center with a 33x13-ft. mural by James Walker, who was an eyewitness to the battle, and several short audio presentations. 

Rock City Gardens

A handful of lunch options exist on the mountain but if you want to incorporate a historic site, dine at Rock City Gardens Café 7 (open April to October). The upscale Southern menu is accompanied by an unbeatable view from Lover’s Leap. You have to purchase a general admission ticket, but Rock City Gardens has an interesting history of its own, being a top tourist destination since the Great Depression.

Ruby Falls

Tour Ruby Falls, the nation's tallest underground waterfall at 145 feet. It was originally discovered in 1928 by local cave explorer, Leo Lambert who named the waterfall after his wife, Ruby and opened it as a tourist attraction in 1929. Descend 260 feet to see giant cave formations and experience the thunderous roar of Ruby Falls.

3 or More Days

Southern Belle Riverboat

Take a sightseeing cruise on the Southern Belle Riverboat, in operation since 1985. You'll see beautiful views of Chattanooga, hear the history of the Tennessee River and city and have the chance to see wildlife. The tour is one and a half-hours on the open-air deck. You'll also get the opportunity to tour the pilot house.

Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum 

Continue your journey through transportation history by making a visit to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum where you can see exhibits and hear stories about train travel in Tennessee. Hop aboard on the Missionary Ridge Local for a six-mile, 55-minute train ride. Along the way, you'll hear local history and railroad operations from a tour guide, cross the Chickamauga Creek bridge, pass through an 1858 tunnel, see a turntable demonstration and see the restoration facility. 

International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum

Walk through the fascinating history of America's towing and recovery industry at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. You'll learn a lot about its contributions to society, see memorabilia and antique tow trucks,  including the "world's fastest wrecker" that set the world closed course speed record in 1979.

Public House Chattanooga

After a day full of touring, make the trip back downtown (about 30 minutes) to relax and dine at Public House Chattanooga located in Warehouse Row that was built in the 1900s on the site of a Civil War fort. High-quality meats and fish, an impeccable wine list and a relaxed atmosphere blend for an elevated meat-and-three. "Hot chicken" bites, five spice pork belly and the sauteed sea scallops small plates are a great start to you meal. Follow with the pimento cheese and bacon burger, salmon club and fried chicken salad. Save room for dessert so you can indulge in vanilla bean creme brulee, peanut butter pie and chocolate chip cookie banana pudding among others.

Chattanooga is bursting with history. Check out more of the city's historic destinations.

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