Things to Do in Chattanooga

Nestled in an East Tennessee ridge-and-valley landscape, Chattanooga lives up to its nickname of “Scenic City”


It’s surrounded by mountains and two lakes, and it even has the Tennessee River running right through it. Chattanooga's natural landmarks are spectacular to behold, including Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain and the Missionary Ridge. Not surprisingly, it’s this same topography that made Chattanooga a key battlefield region during the Civil War. If you’re looking for outdoor recreation and the amenities of a bigger city without sacrificing Southern charm, this is your ideal destination. Downtown Chattanooga is a vibrant community that offers numerous cityscape adventures, plus entertainment, shopping and dining options all within walking or biking distance. You’ll also find exciting destinations for kids, including a world-class aquarium and genuine vintage railroad—all aboard, Chattanooga Choo-Choo!

Journey Through the Rivers and Seas

Plan a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium for an afternoon adventure surrounded by its 9,000-plus inhabitants, from playful otters to graceful stingrays. You’ll embark on a quest discovering the stories behind both freshwater and saltwater habitats in dual-building exhibits—River Journey and Ocean Journey. The River Journey exhibit immerses you into the flow of freshwater from the mountains to the sea. Follow the Tennessee River by tracing its source from the Appalachian Mountains to its final stop in an ocean basin. The Ocean Journey showcases saltwater habitats focused on the aquatic and terrestrial wildlife of North America and the Gulf of Mexico, along with galleries of oceanic habitats worldwide. Don’t forget a wander through the Butterfly Garden if you need to come up for fresh air.

Rock Formations of Wonder

If you’ve always dreamed of exploring a majestic land with dynamic rock formations, vast gardens and breathtaking views, Rock City may fulfill your vision of paradise. This whimsical geological and botanical splendor is perched atop Lookout Mountain and was originally envisioned in 1924 as a residential neighborhood named Fairyland. Just 15 minutes from downtown, you’ll encounter towering boulders and ancient sandstone formations that seemingly resemble the streets and lanes of a town. Rock City Gardens augments this curious location with elements of European folklore and the Enchanted Trail. The 4,100-foot walking trail includes the Swing-A-Long Bridge suspended 180 feet over the Chattanooga Valley. Legend has it that you can see seven states on a clear day at the Lover's Leap overlook.

A Historic Incline to the Top

The Battle of Lookout Mountain played a pivotal role in the Confederate defeat during the Civil War, later prompting tourists to witness its daunting landscape. The trip of yesteryear up the ridge-like plateau entailed a 4-hour bumpy buggy ride. Thankfully, your trip in this era is a 15-minute ride each way in a trolley-style car railway for $15. The Incline Railway, also known as “America’s Most Amazing Mile,” takes you from the St. Elmo Historic District at the foot of Lookout Mountain and arrives at an observation tower at the top station. At 1,800 feet above the Tennessee River, you’ll get stunning mountain and valley vistas. No wonder the site of this Civil War clash was also dubbed "Battle Above the Clouds."

Cavern Trails and Waterfalls

Lookout Mountain offers yet another top attraction with Ruby Falls, also considered a top 10 most incredible cave waterfalls on the planet. The highlight of this vast cavern is its namesake 145-foot waterfall cascading down the center of a vertical shaft. Journey into the mountain and admire the distinct rock formations, where you’ll follow a guide along a subterranean trail lined with remarkable stalactites and stalagmites. You’ll witness walls of caverns resembling liquid rock—crinkled, folded and dripped into shape over millennia. The grand finale entails an up-close look at Ruby Falls, illuminated as it continues its estimated 30-million-year descent. On some Fridays you can opt for a Spooky Lantern Tour, with the trail's electric lights turned off and only lanterns to guide the way.

Misty Battles in the Clouds

If you're a have a budding historian in your family, don't miss the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. Here, you’ll learn about the clashing of Union and Confederate armies during the fall of 1863. Chattanooga served as an epicenter of battles, with both sides fighting for control of the key rail center and Tennessee River. Stop by the Chattanooga Museum first to see its centerpiece—an electronic map detailing the major battles—to gain perspective of the gateway to the Deep South. Next, head to Point Park Battlefield on Lookout Mountain, the site of the "Battle Above the Clouds" that proved the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. If the day's forecast includes a heavy mist, you'll experience the same conditions soldiers faced on that auspicious day.

Tennessee Train Travel Galore

All aboard at the Tennessee Valley Railroad! Relax and experience the Tennessee Valley from the perspective of slower-paced travel before automobiles and airplanes. Your authentic adventure on a historic train, pulled either by a steam locomotive or vintage diesel engine, entails a ride down one of Chattanooga’s original railroad lines. The Tennessee Valley Railroad is literally a moving museum, taking you from Grand Junction Station in Chattanooga, through the pre-Civil War Missionary Ridge Tunnel and beyond. If you want a shorter journey, take the 1-hour round trip to East Chattanooga. You’ll only disembark to watch the locomotive pivot on a rotating turntable for the return leg of your railroad adventure. If that's not enough, ride the rails all day with a longer trip to historic Chickamauga.

Official Child’s Play

Plan a trip to the Creative Discovery Museum with your kids for an afternoon filled with fun and spontaneity. Located in downtown just 2 blocks from the Tennessee Aquarium, the museum is an ideal indoor adventure designed just for youngsters. It offers impressive permanent and temporary exhibits that provoke interactive learning. Expect art lessons, story times, optical illusions, science demonstrations and more. Make time for the Little Yellow House, a permanent exhibit for toddlers that includes a tree house, doctor's clinic and garage—complete with a sports car and a garden for the youngest of visitors. Let the little ones loose in the RiverPlay area, where they will discover how a river works, learn about currents and dams and climb high into a crow's nest.

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