3-day itinerary: Walkable, friendly, and full of breathtaking sights, Chattanooga will charm you.
Chattanooga may not be a city that you hear mentioned frequently by travelers, but it should be. This family-friendly destination in southeastern Tennessee is a town on the rise with offerings for adults and kids of all ages. Walkable, friendly, and full of breathtaking sights, Chattanooga will charm you and have you planning a return trip before the end of your visit.
We've put together an ideal 3-day itinerary for your family. Read on!
Photo Courtesy: Chattanooga Fun
On your first day in Chattanooga, start at the city’s jewel on the river - Tennessee Aquarium (1 Broad St.). With two buildings to explore, plan on spending at least a few hours delving into the marine life and ecosystems of both rivers and oceans. The River Journey building includes the River Giant exhibit, which features some of the biggest animals that you'll find in rivers. The oversized catfish and monster blue cats are both fascinating and somewhat creepy, but they kept my kids mesmerized. The river otter exhibit and alligator bayou are also surefire hits with families. In the Ocean Journey building, you’ll have the chance to touch stingrays, observe penguins, walk through a butterfly garden, and test your bravery in a shark cage. The Tennessee Aquarium also offers add-on options including a river gorge boat tour, IMAX movies, and a backstage pass that allows you to touch and feed the animals. Admission cost: Youth (2 & under) Free; Youth (3-13) $18.95; Adult $29.95
KidTripster Tip: Your aquarium tickets are good all day, so arrive early, take in one building, and then take a break. You’re within walking distance of several great restaurants for lunch or three different water play areas; on certain days, there’s even live music. If you think that your kids may splash around, pack a change of clothes.
After you’ve learned about the Tennessee River and all the animals that live there, it’s time to explore the river itself. The Chattanooga Ducks (503 Market St.) tour is one of those experiences that your kids will be talking about for weeks. The adventure begins when your family loads a WWII amphibious landing vehicle for a guided tour of downtown. After you learn a bit of history about the Duck vehicle as well as Chattanooga, it’s time to see if the Duck really floats! Our guide took a vote on how he should enter the water (fast or slow), and then we barreled down a ramp, splashing into the Tennessee River. You spend about 30 minutes on the river, learning more Chattanooga history. Plus every child gets a turn behind the wheel! Cost: Youth (2 & under) $5; Child (3-12) $12; Teen (12-18) $22; Adult $24.
KidTripster Tip: Advance reservations are available online and highly recommended. Online reservations close two hours before the tour, so after that, you'd need to stop by the tour office on Market Street to reserve your spot. Arrive early, buy your tickets, and then walk across the street to Cupcake Kitchen (500 Broad St.) for a pre-tour treat.
Time to check into The Chattanoogan hotel (1201 Broad St.) for a bit of relaxation. Located near downtown, this hotel offers a mix of luxury and family fun. We were lucky enough to have two connecting rooms, which gave us lots of space to spread out as well as two bathrooms. While my kids were excited to have their own room (although we kept the connecting doors open most of the time), the candy bar in the lobby was even more thrilling. The indoor pool and hot tub were a great way to end a long day. After dark, the pool takes on an exotic look with colored, underwater lighting. An added bonus is the roof deck off the pool with tables, chairs, and views of Lookout Mountain. Rooms start at $140/night.
KidTripster Tip: The Chattanoogan sometimes offers special family-friendly packages that include lodging, activities, and meals. These are most often available around spring break and can be a great savings for families.
After you’ve checked into your room at The Chattanoogan and grabbed some Tootsie Rolls from the candy bar, head downstairs for dinner at the Broad Street Grille. The hotel’s main restaurant serves regional American cuisine with a full bar menu and great kids’ options. For the picky eater in your family, the chef will happily alter existing options. Our family split the OMG (Oh My Gooey) ice cream dessert - chocolate cake with whiskey sauce, hot fudge, marshmallow mousse, vanilla ice cream, and coated pretzels — and the dessert was more than enough for four of us and definitely required a few wipes to clean up afterwards!
After dinner, it’s time for the more adventurous (and perhaps older members of the family) to head back downtown for an evening with Chattanooga Ghost Tours (57 E. Fifth Street). The walking tour includes many sites that are thought to be haunted. The tour guide told stories of paranormal apparitions and unusual happenings, but our tour didn’t see any otherworldly appearances. The entertaing tour is all walking and happens rain or shine, so plan accordingly. Cost: Youth (Under 3) Free; Youth (3-12) $14.95; Adult $16.95.
Photo courtesy: Chattanooga Ducks
Wake up early and head over to the Creative Discovery Museum (321 Chestnut St.). My youngest loved using his imagination in the Little Yellow House, complete with a musical bridge and full kitchen. My middle son preferred the Rooftop Fun Factory, where he was able to use a simple machine to pull himself off the roof and blow bubbles towards downtown Chattanooga. The Riverplay area allowed the boys to get wet which was much needed after a visit to the Excavation Station, where everyone was digging for fossils in the sand. My two younger children (ages 3 and 8) happily could have spent several hours at the Creative Discovery Museum, but my oldest son (age 12) was bored with the “baby-ish” activities fairly quickly. The museum is better suited to kids, ages 10 and under. Cost: Youth (Under 2) Free; Other $13.95.
After spending time looking at the nearby mountains, my boys were ready to explore the natural beauty that surrounds Chattanooga. We drove up Lookout Mountain to Ruby Falls (1720 South Scenic Hwy.), the tallest underground waterfall that’s open for public viewing. Upon our arrival, we found out we weren’t the only ones who thought a visit to the underground cavern would be a perfect way to spend an afternoon. The line to get into the facility was more than an hour long, but the staff kept things organized, and the kids waited in the air-conditioned car. Once we were inside, we took an elevator down for a guided cave tour that ended with the waterfall. The tour takes 90 minutes and is quite a bit of walking. It isn’t stroller-friendly, so if your children can’t walk for extended periods, waiting up top may be a better option for certain members of the family. Once in the cave, the views were breathtaking with different rock formations and areas to explore with your eyes. Cost: Youth (Under 3) Free; Youth (3-12) $11.95; Adult $19.95
KidTripster Tip: After your tour ends, you can go to the lookout area to take in the views. Don’t miss this optional portion of the tour!
Once we had recovered from our trek underground, we headed back down the mountain to check out a restaurant that our Chattanooga Ducks captain had recommended. The Blue Plate (191 Chestnut St.) bills itself as a metropolitan diner, and the captain insisted that the restaurant had some of the best food in the city. Add in the front row views of the Tennessee River at sunset, and we figured we had to check it out. The food did not disappoint! The Blue Plate serves locally-sourced, homemade comfort food that left us stuffed. It’s hard to pick a favorite item, but the “build a blue plate” where you can choose from just sides is pure genius and something that I wish would become a nationwide trend.
Photo courtesy: Creative Discovery Museum
On our last morning in Chattanooga, we were lucky enough to wake up at The Chattanoogan on a Sunday, which meant that the onsite restaurant, Broad Street Grille, was serving it’s Sunday Champagne Brunch. Brunch runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and includes a meat carving station, omelette station, a variety of breakfast and lunch items, and bottomless mimosas. The kids particularly enjoyed the waffles with fruit and whipped cream as well as the cheese blintz, also with strawberries and whipped cream.
Once we had fortified ourselves with brunch, we headed back up Lookout Mountain to Rock City (1400 Patten Rd., Lookout Mountain, Georgia). Rock City is one of Chattanooga’s best known attractions, but it’s actually in Georgia. Once you reach Rock City, there are miles of trails to explore with caves, beautiful mountain views, and even a climbing wall. The highlight of Rock City for our family was lookout where you're supposed to be able to see seven states. I’m not sure that we could see all seven, but we had fun trying. Lover’s Leap is also a great place to stop for photos and to take in a beautiful waterfall. My kids enjoyed most of our stops at Rock City, but the Fairlyand Caverns, which include a blacklight area, were not well-received. Rock City is not stroller accessible in all areas, so little legs will need to walk up and down stairs, if touring. Cost: Youth (Under 3) Free; Youth (3-12) $11.95; Adult $19.95.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure you have coins for the telescopes at the lookout. I didn’t have enough for both my older boys to take a turn, so things got a bit heated. Brothers!
Before saying goodbye to Chattanooga, hop on the Incline Railway (3917 St. Elmo Ave.). It's the world’s steepest passenger railway with a 72% incline. The ride takes you about a mile up the Lookout Mountain, but the views throughout the entire ride are spectacular. You can ride it both ways with one ticket. Cost: Youth (Under 3) Free; Youth (3-12) $7; Adult $15
KidTripster Tip: If you intend to take in any combination of Rock City, Ruby Falls or the Incline Railway, combination tickets are available that will save you money over the individual ticket prices. The combination packages can be purchased online or at the ticket windows.
Photo courtesy: Rock City Gardens
Chattanooga is located in southeastern Tennessee. It’s within a 2-hour drive of Atlanta and 2-1/2-hour drive of Nashville. The city is serviced by Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, also known as Lovell Field.
Jamie Farber lives in West Michigan with her husband and three sons. Her English degree somehow has led her to a career planning Disney vacations with Mickey Travels.