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If the only thing you think of when you hear Chattanooga is its famous choo choo, you’re missing out. This city, an easy road trip from Atlanta or Nashville, has a ton of kid-friendly things to do, in a scenic riverfront location surrounded by mountains. Here are TravelingMom’s top picks from a native Chattanoogan.
Chattanooga occupies a prime spot along the banks of the Tennessee River. Surrounded by Lookout Mountain and Raccoon Mountain, this vibrant southern city effortlessly blends family attractions, outdoor pursuits, intriguing history, enticing art and a tasty dining scene. It’s a must-stop on a southeast family road trip.
As an original Chattanoogan, I’m happy to see the city blossom. With my parents still in town, our family often heads to Chattanooga for our annual reunion. Spanning four generations, we definitely have varied interests. Here are some of our favorite things to do for all ages, in any season.
Chattanooga’s Famous Choo Choo(s)
1. Chattanooga Choo Choo
You’ve no doubt heard the song, and the Chattanooga Choo Choo is alive and well today in the form of the downtown complex at Terminal Station. Here kids—old and young—can climb aboard a replica. If you want to spend the night in a restored Pullman train car, you can do that too at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Historic Hotel. Not enough train for you? There’s more!
2. Climb Aboard the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
The Tennessee Valley Railroad engages train enthusiasts with a ride aboard a full-size steam train. This moving museum showcases the history of the railroad and its importance during the Civil War. There are several trains to choose from, but I recommend the Missionary Ridge Local which begins at the Grand Junction Station and takes passengers along one of the original railroad lines in Chattanooga, crossing four bridges and passing through pre-Civil War Missionary Ridge Tunnel, which was completed in 1858.
3. Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
When you’re heading up to Lookout Mountain, take a ride on the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway. This trolley-style train climbs through the mountain’s natural beauty at a 72.7% grade making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world.
Read More: Like trains? Check out the Cog Railway in New Hampshire!
Lookout Mountain’s Classic Attractions
4. See Rock City
It’s the simple three-word advertisement for Chattanooga’s oldest attraction, seen painted on barns along highways leading to the region. And Rock City is exactly what it sounds like—a city of rocks high atop Lookout Mountain. Hold your tummy in as you pass through the Eye of the Needle and Fat Man’s Squeeze or head up to Lover’s Leap where (on a clear day) you can see seven states.
Go Below: Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Ruby Falls
Are you and the family ready for an Indiana Jones-style adventure? Chattanooga has a wild side underneath its surface, waiting to be explored.
5. Raccoon Mountain Caverns
Reserve an hourlong Crystal Palace walking tour to see a section of the Raccoon Mountain Caverns. Visitors will see stalactites, stalagmites and…bats! Children must be over three to tour the cavern.
6. Ruby Falls
You can take underground tours at Lookout Mountain too. Another Chattanooga classic, Ruby Falls showcases fascinating rock formations including a stunning 145-foot-tall underground waterfall. It’s the tallest and deepest in the USA that’s open to the public. Take a guided tour and learn about these incredible natural wonders.
7. High Point ZIP Adventures
If you’d rather be above ground, check out the Ruby Falls’ High Point ZIP Adventure. My two oldest grandkids, Katherine (13) and Marshall (11) got their adrenalin pumping on 700 feet of soaring zip lines. And, yes, squealing was involved! The attraction also has an outdoor climbing wall—a 40-foot climbing tower with several routes to challenge your skills.
Find Your Favorite Outdoor Adventures in Chattanooga
With Lookout Mountain, Raccoon Mountain and Tennessee River as backdrops, Chattanooga boasts outdoor activities in abundance. Horseback riding, mountain biking, kayaking, white-water rafting, hang gliding and miles of hiking trails keep the adventures coming. You will find plenty of outdoor things to do in Chattanooga with kids!
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8. Kid-Friendly Hiking in Chattanooga
Pick up a hiking trail in the St. Elmo community at the base of Lookout Mountain and climb your way up. For energetic kids (and grandmoms!) the Kiddie Trail offers a 3.6 mile out and back path to Sunset Rock. Or, if you’re really brave, give hang gliding a try. Personally, I’ve never worked up the courage to step off a perfectly good mountain, but those who do love it!
TravelingMom Tip: Start your Lookout Mountain adventures by fueling up with pizza and ice cream at Mr. T’s located near the Lookout Mountain Incline in St. Elmo.
Explore the Tennessee Riverfront
The Tennessee River winds through the heart of Chattanooga. Here are five ways to enjoy it!
9. Take a Riverboat Cruise
Spend an afternoon or evening exploring on board the Southern Belle riverboat. Daily sightseeing cruises are available as well as dinner cruises.
10. Ride the Duck
For a hybrid sightseeing experience, the Chattanooga Duck combines land and water for a splashing good time!
11. Walk the Very Long Walnut Street Bridge
Cross over the river with a walk on the Walnut Street Bridge. Erected in 1890, the Walnut Street Bridge connects the north shore of the Tennessee River to downtown Chattanooga. Standing 2,376 feet high, it’s one of the longest pedestrian bridges in North America. Time your stroll for sunset when the lights of the city begin to decorate the sky.
12. Ride the Carousel in Coolidge Park
Coolidge Park at the foot of the bridge provides an ideal place for an afternoon of picnicking and Frisbee. Central to the park, a restored antique carousel with 52 whimsical hand-carved animals offers rides for $1. On warm days, the youngsters can splash about in interactive fountains carved as lions, turtles and more.
13. Stretch Your Legs along the Riverwalk
Take a leisurely bike ride or walk along the Chattanooga Riverwalk also known as the Tennessee Riverpark. Currently stretching 13 miles from St. Elmo to the Chickamauga Dam, the Riverwalk will eventually span 22 miles.
TravelingMom Tip: Here’s how to much to tip and who to tip on a vacation.
All Creatures Great and Small
14. The Tennessee Aquarium
Located on Broad Street in Downtown Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium offers both a River Journey and an Ocean Journey. Uniquely designed, the River Journey traces the path of a single raindrop from the mountains to the sea. The Ocean Journey picks up the story showcasing sharks, stingrays, butterflies and those adorable penguins. And, in the River Journey, turtles, alligators and delightful river otters entertain the whole family. Scuba divers also interact with guests during scheduled shows.
15. Chattanooga Zoo
Prefer furry critters? The Chattanooga Zoo has lots of kid-friendly activities including annual hug a bunny days, teddy bear checkups and giraffe feedings. The Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums reciprocity program. If you’re a member of your local zoo, check to see if your membership gets you free or discounted admission in Chattanooga.
Check Out What’s Fresh
16. Taste the Chattanooga Market
In Chattanooga on the weekend? Don’t miss the Chattanooga Market, one of Frommer’s “Top 10 Public Markets.” Besides the farm fresh produce and artisan crafts, the Market always features live music. Find it from April to November at the First Tennessee Pavilion.
Need something to wash down the goodies? Adult bevies can be found at Chattanooga Whiskey. They operate two distilleries. The downtown Experimental Distillery offers tours.
17. The Creative Discovery Museum
When it comes to children’s museums, Creative Discovery Museum ranks among the best. For kids ages 18-months to 12 years, the CDM provides a wealth of discoveries. A two-story water play section and a simulated archeological dig entertain all ages. A favorite of my grandkids when they were younger, Buzz Alley offers a peek into an active beehive.
Kids explore the outdoors on the museum’s second floor in The Great Indoors exhibit. Building a campfire and testing fort-building skills engage the whole family. There’s even a rock-climbing wall. Next, be sure to head up to the roof for hands-on play at the Rooftop Fun Factory.
Find Teachable Moments in Chattanooga’s History
18. Honor the Cherokee at The Passages
Share the region’s history with the grandkids. Before Chattanooga was founded, Cherokee Indians lived here. Sadly, they were forced from their native lands in 1838 along the Trail of Tears. Downtown Chattanooga pays homage to the Cherokee who lost their lives during this cruel march at The Passages, a weeping staircase near historic Ross’s Landing. Scenes along the sides of the stairs depict the story of the seven clans of the Cherokee Nation indigenous to the area.
19. The Battle Above the Clouds
Chattanooga also saw one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles between Confederate and Union soldiers —the Battle Above the Clouds. Commemorated at Lookout Mountain’s Point Park, you’ll find monuments and cannons from the period. Be sure to check out the fabulous views of the Chattanooga Valley below.
20. Climb the Wilder Tower
Just across the Tennessee/Georgia line, Chickamauga witnessed another American Civil War battle as the troops marched down to Atlanta. At the center of the Chickamauga Battlefield stands Wilder Tower. I climbed the 136 steps to the top of this circular icon from the time I could walk. Now, my grandkids climb it with me. Of course, they’re much faster than I am!
When the Weather’s Not Great
21. High Point Climbing and Fitness
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, take the adventure inside at High Point Climbing and Fitness. Suitable for beginners as well as advanced climbers, this downtown gym always lands on the to do list when my grandkids visit Chattanooga. From inside climbs to an outside climbing wall, it’s a fitness-focused good time for the whole family. My youngest grandson, Benjamin, prefers to start out in the Kid Zone. Once he works up a bit of courage, he heads for the big climbing walls.
Enjoy the Art: From the Streets to the Museums
22. Bluff View Art District
Stretching for one and a half city blocks on East Second Street, the Bluff View Art District is a historic downtown Chattanooga neighborhood. Set high above stone cliffs that afford spectacular views of the Tennessee River, the Walnut Street Bridge, and downtown Chattanooga, the area is full of art galleries, coffee shops, bed and breakfasts, courtyards and gardens. Stroll through the perfectly manicured grounds of the River Gallery Sculpture Garden—the city’s first outdoor art museum.
23. Hunter Museum of American Art
Don’t miss the Hunter Museum of American Art, an antebellum home on one side and a steel sculptural building on the other. Don’t miss the Hunter Museum of Art, an antebellum home on one side and a steel sculptural building on the other. Children 17 and under are free to enter the museum every day. The Hunter runs a popular camp program during spring break and summer so young artists can express themselves. Several of craft projects are available online.
24. Main Terrain Art Park
Chattanooga’s Southside neighborhood takes art to another level with Main Terrain Art Park. Formerly an industrial site, this urban art fitness park combines workout stations with art making it a good place for the grandkids to run off excess energy.
Also, street art is popping up everywhere with murals depicting the history of the area. Among the most notable, a 42,179 ft Martin Luther King mural wraps around an entire city block making it the largest mural in the Southeastern U.S.
25. Lake Winnipesaukah Amusement Park
For old-fashioned family fun at its best, head to Lake Winnipesaukah Amusement Park just 15 minutes from downtown. Entertaining Chattanoogans and visitors since 1927, Lake Winnie’s first ride—the Boat Chute—remains one of its most popular. Also, it claims the title as the oldest Mill Chute ride in the country.
Discover more thrills on the OH-Zone! The tallest ride in the park, the OH-Zone! drops riders down 14-stories at 50 MPH in a breathtaking freefall. I grew up going to “Lake Winnie” every summer, my kids went when they were young, and now…my grandkids. It’s a classic!
With so many fun things to do in Chattanooga with kids, you’ll no doubt walk away with memories to last a lifetime!