Chattanooga packs a punch for being a small town in Southern Tennessee. It’s got a little bit of everything for all kinds of tourists; from history, culture, food, and best of all, the scenery. Nicknamed the “Scenic City,” its location along the Tennessee River already gives it an advantage over others.
The city is right by the Tennessee-Georgia state lines. It’s about two hours from Nashville, about 5 hours from Memphis, but it is only less than an hour from Cleveland. In neighboring Georgia, it’s about an hour to Dalton and almost three hours to Atlanta.
Interestingly enough, Chattanooga was actually a battlefield during the Civil War. It’s also the home of a number of hundred-year-old restored trains. While the Walnut Street Bridge joined the ranks of one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges.
Find out what else you can do in the city. Here are the 15 best things to do in Chattanooga!
Because of its strategic location and railroad access, Chattanooga became a battleground during the Civil War. Battles happened between Chickamauga, Georgia, and Chattanooga in Tennessee. Now, this military park offers insight into what happened during that period.
The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is one of the country’s oldest and largest Civil War parks. The majority of the area is in Chickamauga. However, it’s only 9 miles south of Chattanooga, and there are still lots to see on the Tennessee side.
Some sights to see are Orchard’s Knob, Signal Point, Lookout Mountain, and the Battles for Chattanooga Museum.
The Tennessee Aquarium isn’t just an attraction; it’s an experience. The aquarium takes you on a journey, not just under the sea. They take you along the journey of a raindrop from atop a mountain until it gets to the ocean seafloor.
They tell fantastic stories through the animals you encounter and the ecosystems you can explore.
The aquarium is one of the largest freshwater aquariums not just in the country but in the world.
Bluff View Art District
Take some time to explore the city, and what better way to do that but by walking through Bluff View Art District. It’s called such because it’s located on a bluff, overlooking the Tennessee River and downtown.
It’s got coffee shops, local restaurants, and art museums to entertain you. These museums include the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, the River Gallery, and the Hunter Museum of American Art.
The district has that small-town charm down to an art form, and you’d love the break this gives from all the main attractions.
Hunter Museum of American Art
This museum is one of the art institutions you’ll find in Bluff View Art District, and it’s also the biggest. Since it sits on an 80-foot bluff, the museum has excellent overlooking views of the Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga.
The building is a work of art itself as a classic revival mansion done in 1904. Their collection is impressive, with three buildings to house both permanent and temporary exhibits. The museum aims to tell American art through different mediums, from paintings, sculptures, photography, to mixed and new media.
Chattanooga has many natural attractions in its arsenal. Among those, Rock City Gardens is one of those must-see places. Located in Lookout Mountain, Rock City has adventures for people of all ages.
Try Needle’s Eye, Fat Man’s Squeeze, or Swing-a-Long Suspension Bridge for those who like outdoor adventure. Children might enjoy the Fairyland Caverns or Mother Goose Village.
One of their more famous attractions is their lookout points. They have overlooking views in Lover’s Leap, Observation Point, and the so-called “See 7 States” View. This lookout point is 1700 feet above sea level, and apparently, you can see 7 states from here. See how many you can count!
Their gardens house more than 400 species of plants and trees, with something blooming every season. They also highlight several artworks in their gardens.
Another attraction in Lookout Mountain is the Ruby Falls. It’s situated along the Tennessee River Gorge and was a chance discovery.
In the attempts to open the Lookout Mountain Cave to the public, they drilled an opening that led to a cave where Ruby Falls lives. It was a happy accident as Ruby Falls is the tallest and deepest underground waterfall in the country and a wonderful attraction.
You can take an elevator that will take you down the cave, where you can explore the area and learn more about its rock formations. Plus, there is a lookout tower and a zip-lining adventure.
They also hold seasonal events like the Lantern Tour, a guided tour with only a lantern to light your way.
Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
Lookout Mountain definitely has many attractions you can see, and the best way to get there is by car. But a memorable experience awaits you if you go through the Incline Railway.
The Incline Railway is a short, one-way ride to the highest point of the mountain. It may seem impractical, but the views at the top are said to be worth it.
The Railway passes through the steepest part of the mountain and is one of the world’s steepest passenger railways.
The station is also near some parts of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. And St. Elmo’s district at the bottom of Incline Railway is also a good neighborhood to explore.
Raccoon Mountain Caverns
Another cave to explore is Raccoon Mountain Caverns. It’s got 5.5 miles of mapped passageways and includes a Crystal Palace Tour and a wild cave expedition tour.
Outside, the area is an RV park and campground, where you can camp, go go-karting, pan for gemstones, or see the stunning views of the city from the Lookout and Raccoon Mountains.
Chattanooga Choo Choo
As a significant player in the railroad industry, you’ve got to see some historical landmarks from that time. The Chattanooga Choo Choo has been transformed from hotel to train station to the hotel back again.
As a train station, it saw 50 passengers per day, and everyone passed through Chattanooga when traveling in the south.
To save it from demolition, it turned back to a hotel with some of the original structures preserved.
You’ll see railroad tracks all throughout and can even experience sleeping in sleeper cars. The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in the Historic Hotels of America.
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
Chattanooga has up its game when it comes to railroad museums since this one takes you on an actual ride on the tracks.
The train museum takes different routes, depending on the kind of trip you’d like. The most common and basic route is the Missionary Ridge Local.
This trip takes an hour and takes you on a 6-mile journey. Here, you’ll learn all about railroads, how they operate, and the Tennessee railroad history.
They’ll also give a turntable demonstration and a tour of the restoration center of the museum.
Other rides include Hiwassee Loop (4-hour trip on the Hiwassee River), Dinner Train (dinner with the tour!), or Chickamauga Turn (6-hour trip detailing the two cities’ Civil War histories). There are other seasonal and holiday trips you can try.
The Walnut Street Bridge is another historical icon in Chattanooga. The bridge was built in 1890 and connected the two areas of the cities, the southern and northern sides.
This was a big deal as this connected the racially segregated city, with African Americans on the north side and the whites on the south side.
It’s now closed to vehicles and is actually the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. It is also the first non-military bridge to be erected over the Tennessee River.
They host events like Wine Over Water and the Riverbend Country Music Festival.
Creative Discovery Museum
The Creative Discovery Museum is one of the best attractions for kids. People of all ages can have fun in the museum, but it’s primarily targeted at teaching kids through play.
Their exhibits are heavily interactive and designed to explore, create, and learn more about art and the kids’ creative side.
They have art lessons, storytimes, and science demonstrations. Families can also enjoy activities like digging dinosaur bones, getting in the water at RiverPlay, or creating something in the music studio.
Another family day trip you can do is going to the zoo. Located inside Warner Park, the Chattanooga Zoo is 13 acres of fun exhibits and local and international animals.
They try to make the zoo experience as involved as possible by steering clear of people just seeing the animals through the glass.
They have several exhibits with over 300 animals in their care and 200 species where some are endangered species.
The Himalayan Passage is a popular destination. This exhibit includes the largest indoor Red Panda exhibit, Hanuman Langurs, and Snow Leopards.
The zoo is also one of the cheapest zoos in the country.
Audobon Acres is a 130-acre wildlife sanctuary and is the oldest one in the city.
It’s home to diverse animals and plants, a small visitor center with an archaeological museum, and about 5 miles of trails.
These are perfect for walking and hiking trails amidst nature. If you’re here in the summer, you can swim or kayak in the South Chickamauga Creek that’s part of the area.
Tennessee River Gorge
A visit to Chattanooga isn’t complete without a visit to the lovely Tennessee River Gorge. The river is a massive part of what makes the city so charming and special. There are a couple of ways you can enjoy the river.
The first one is to take a ride out of the water. You can rent a boat or take a tour on a cruise. Many companies in the city offer boat rentals. But if you’re looking for a cruise, Southern Belle River Boat has cruises every day.
The second option is to just hang out by the shore at Tennessee Riverpark. The river park starts at the Chickamauga Dam and ends at downtown Chattanooga. It’s got 10 miles of Tennessee River waterfront for you to walk and explore.
It also has 6 fishing piers if you’re an angler. And a marsh where plenty of birds can be seen, perfect for bird watchers.
Where to eat
Chattanooga is as varied as they come when it comes to cuisine, but here are some tried and tested restaurants that locals love.
Local favorites: Big River Grille, Easy Bistro & Bar, Boathouse, and Taco Mamacita
Other restaurants to try are Uncle Larry’s Restaurant, Whitebird, Community Pie, and Champy’s.
Where to stay
The city has a lot of unique stays, and your accommodation can depend on which area you’re staying. Regardless, here are the top-recommended places for your trip:
The Read House
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Downtown
Country Inn & Suites by Radisson Lookout Mountain
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Day trips from Chattanooga
Chickamauga, Georgia is one of your best options for a day trip for its shared history and proximity to the city. But here are some other cities and destinations you can explore: