CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.: Growing up in St. Louis, we often drove to Florida to visit relatives. And whenever we passed through Chattanooga, my dad belted out a few lines: “Pardon me boy … is this the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”

By the time he forgot the rest of the lyrics, Chattanooga was a glimpse in the rearview mirror. And, perhaps a few decades ago, nobody could fault us for it.

In 1969, Walter Cronkite called it “the dirtiest city in America.” A year after that, the last train left the once-bustling Terminal Station. The Choo Choo was the nickname for the Cincinnati Southern Railroad’s wood-burning steam locomotive that traveled from Ohio to Chattanooga.

Since then, Chattanooga has transformed into a forward-looking, green-conscious place that embraces its history while chugging forward.

I recently went to Chattanooga with our son, 9, and daughter, 7, during a spring break trip. I had properly educated the kids by showing them Glenn Miller performances on YouTube. With the lyrics buzzing through our brains (“Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are!”) we enjoyed more than enough eating, sightseeing and entertainment options to keep everyone happy.

Today, Terminal Station, built in 1909, is the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, which sits on the edge of downtown. While they touted the newly renovated hotel rooms, we had reserved a Pullman train car room. The lobby and domed ceiling of the old station wowed us as we checked in, as well as a glimpse into the newly renovated cafe, the Frothy Monkey.

While the room/car was otherwise comfortable, the carpet was a bit shabby and the bathroom floor tiles cracked and wobbly. That first night, raindrops steadily drummed the curved metal roof, soothing us to sleep. The next morning, drops on my head jolted me out of bed. A text to the front desk got us moved to one of those newly remodeled rooms.

The kids loved the indoor pool, climbing on an old steam locomotive and playing giant checkers at the hotel’s Glenn Miller Gardens. Next door was a stop for the city’s free electric shuttle, which was clean, efficient and took us where we needed to go downtown. (Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, choochoo.com, starting at $119 a night.)

Aquarium

The two main buildings of the Tennessee Aquarium, River Journey and Ocean Journey, offer vastly different experiences. A new Lemur Forest exhibit with an improved stingray pool opened in March on the roof of the ocean building, where we visited penguins and jellyfish and circled down through a giant saltwater tank that houses several sharks and two rescue sea turtles.

One turtle, named Oscar, lost part of his back legs and tail in an encounter with a boat propeller, but swims around just fine, explained a guide. Stuffed Oscar dolls with partial legs and tails were — of course — available in the gift shop.

River Journey took us through a room filled with tanks of seahorses, turtles and wildlife found in rivers worldwide. Otters played in their rooftop habitat, and giant catfish and freshwater rays swam slowly by in the River Giants tank. We also watched an electric eel tweet. (Yes, its electric discharges trigger its own Twitter account: @EelectricMiguel)

We crossed the street to catch Wild Africa at the aquarium’s 3-D Imax theater. The underwater scenes looked so realistic, it felt like we were back at the aquarium. (Tennessee Aquarium, general adult admission $29.95, child 3-12 $18.95, tnaqua.org)

Lookout Mountain

“See Rock City,” said the barn. “See Ruby Falls,” said the billboard. “See Rock City and Ruby Falls,” said the third barn and fourth billboard. “FINE,” we said. These attractions, about five miles from Chattanooga at Lookout Mountain, have entertained tourists for so long the historical kitsch is part of the experience.

Garnet and Frieda Carter developed Rock City among their land’s giant rock formations and opened it to the public in 1932. Tourists still shimmy through Fat Man’s Squeeze and obey the plea to “see seven states” at Lover’s Leap. We enjoyed the swinging bridge, the 100-foot fake waterfall and looking for gnome statues, but we were most enchanted by the black-lighted dioramas inside Fairyland Caverns, which date from the 1940s.

In 1928, cave enthusiast Leo Lambert drilled into the side of Lookout Mountain and crawled through the cave for several hours to discover the magnificent, 145-foot waterfall more than 1,100 feet below. Lambert returned with his wife, Ruby, to show her the waterfall, which he named after her.

The walk to the falls took us by formations such as the “dragon’s foot,” the “potato chips” and the “bacon.” We heard the falls on the approach, and saw it upon the guide’s dramatic flip of a light switch. The lights changed color as we oohed and ahhed and took pictures. (Rock City, adult general admission $19.95, child 3-12 $11.95, seerockcity.com; Ruby Falls, adult general admission $19.95, child 3-12 $11.95, rubyfalls.com, combo tickets available)

Kids’ museum

My son claimed he was “too old” for a children’s museum, but his grumbles stopped upon our approach to the Creative Discovery Museum building. A window wall showcases a two-story climbing and water play structure inside, where they tried out musical instruments, dug for dinosaur bones, connected circuits and dodged other kids.

A rooftop “fun factory” with machines to spin and ropes to pull didn’t keep their attention too long, but we enjoyed the view from a lookout tower, which contained information about the green building practices of the Carmike Majestic 12 Theater next door. (Creative Discovery Museum, general admission for ages 2 and up $13.95, cdmfun.org)

Historic bridge

The historic Walnut Street bridge was slated for demolition until community members helped raise funds for its preservation. It reopened in 1993. It connects the Riverfront Plaza around the aquarium across the Tennessee River to Coolidge Park and the funky shops of Frazier Avenue. We walked across the wood-planked bridge with the promise of Clumpie’s Ice Cream, a local favorite, on the other side.

We rode the park’s restored 123-year-old carousel, with carved Civil War soldier figures standing sentinel on the calliope. The kids climbed on animal sculptures (the fountains around them weren’t yet turned on for the season) and played a snail-shaped hopscotch game embedded in the sidewalk.

Chattanooga is brimming with works of public art. Many sculptures were interactive (a brick couch and boat, wooden peg “pixels” on a giant pegboard) and captivated the kids.

The Hunter Museum of American Art perches atop a bluff above the river. The museum is in an Edwardian-style mansion built in 1904 with modern additions, and the terraces offer sweeping views. (Hunter Museum of American Art, adult admission $15, children 17 and under free, huntermuseum.org)

Dinner and a show

The Tivoli Theater, one of three historical theaters downtown, is an easy stop along the free shuttle line. Before seeing Riverdance, we treated ourselves to dinner at Main Street Meats near our hotel. The kids ate every bite of the Lake Majestik Flat Iron steak and mashed potatoes dinner ($18) that the waiter split at no charge. I treated myself to a Rikki-Tiki-Tavi cocktail made with pineapple shrub and lime and Don Q Rum ($9.75) and Rivermeat: pan-seared trout ($21.50).

The Moon Pie, Chattanooga’s marshmallow-filled, graham and chocolate treat, turns 100 this year. The general store downtown includes a lunch counter, free Moon Pie samples and plenty of trinkets to help you celebrate. If Moon Pies aren’t your thing, maybe chicken and waffles-flavored taffy is.