Chattanooga Takes Your Vacation to the Next Level

Apr 1, 2021

The words “Chattanooga” and “Choo Choo” may be inextricably linked, but the city is more than just the railroad roots that made it so famous. In fact, this friendly southeast Tennessee city is great on so many levels that it’s recently been getting heaps of praise from The New York Times, Lonely Planet and Outside magazine, to name a few.

Nicknamed the Scenic City for good reason, there is no bad view no matter which way you turn. Look north (across the Tennessee River) and you’ll immediately see hills, while farther out and west is Signal Mountain. To the south and west, you’ll see Lookout Mountain, and to the east, you’ll see Missionary Ridge. But Chattanooga is more than just a pretty place, it's the perfect choice for an outdoor getaway with plenty of activities that are both budget- and family-friendly.

Read on to see the levels of fun and excitement that await in Chattanooga.

Go Underground

Ruby Falls

There is no shortage of great waterfalls close to Chattanooga (make time to visit the Lula Lake Land Trust, for example), but only one is below ground, as in, 26 stories below ground. Tucked inside Lookout Mountain is Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the nation. You'll get to this Insta-gem by taking a glass elevator and then explore on foot with guided tours more than 300 feet underground.

Once you get back on the surface, don't miss a chance to climb the 70-foot Lookout Mountain Tower built using the limestone excavated from the elevator shaft. From its lower and upper decks, you'll have amazing views of the Tennessee River Gorge and Cumberland Plateau. You can also get a bird's eye view here via High Point ZIP Adventure, with its five routes and 700 feet of zip lines. There's even more to do at Lookout Mountain, but we'll work our way up to it later on.

See Underwater

Tennessee Aquarium

Opened in 1992 along the downtown riverfront, the Tennessee Aquarium spans two buildings and visitors can trace the path of water from the mountains to the sea. Here you can get up close to sea creatures such as sand tiger sharks, alligator snapping turtles, giant Japanese spider crabs, and countless varieties of fish. There is even a live cam so you can see animals like the river otters or penguins pre- or post-visit to see how they’re doing. In addition to selling timed tickets (buying in advance is recommended) to limit capacity, the aquarium also recently used grant money to upgrade its HVAC system to make the building even safer for guests.

Walk (and Play) on Water

Walnut Street Bridge

Take advantage of the spring temperatures that hover in the mid-70s and stroll the Walnut Street Bridge across the Tennessee River, particularly at sunset for its Instagram-worthy views. Built in 1890 to connect downtown with North Chattanooga, at 2,376 feet, it’s one of the longest pedestrian-only bridges in the world. (Should you be there in the fall, the Wine Over Water Food & Wine Festival is scheduled to take place on the bridge from Sept. 27-Oct. 3 this year.)

Once you get to the other side, stop at Coolidge Park, where you can ride a tiger on the 100-year-old restored antique carousel or picnic with your family in open green spaces.   

Don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities to go in the water as well. Tour Chattanooga’s waterfront by kayak, paddleboard or wake board without ever leaving downtown; rent equipment from L2 Outside or River Canyon Kayaks. You could take the Southern Belle riverboat or rent your own boat on Lake Chickamauga, just north of the city. Drive about an hour west of Chattanooga and you can go tubing or whitewater-rafting down the Ocoee River (site of numerous national and international events, including the 1996 Olympic whitewater events).

Take to the Streets

Chattanooga is a walkable city, but there is another option, particularly if your littlest fellow travelers get tuckered out easily. Hop aboard the free electric shuttle that runs from the Chattanooga Choo Choo to the Tennessee Aquarium to take you around downtown. It runs daily apart from holidays and about every five minutes, so you won’t be waiting long.

Cooper's Alley

An alleyway might not be on your must-do list for every city, but it’s worth heading to Cooper’s Alley off 7th Street in downtown Chattanooga. A zigzagging public-art installation, “City Thread” winds 300 feet through the pedestrian-friendly alleyway, curving to make space for performances, outdoor dining or just resting your feet a bit.    

Aside from walking, you can also put your feet to work on the North Shore by giving the dance paving stones a run for their money. All along Frazier Street, there are numbered dance steps – from the merengue to the waltz – embedded in the sidewalk. At the very least, maybe it’ll make your kids laugh (or they’ll make a TikTok video of you). Keep dancing down the block to Clumpie's Ice Cream Co. for a scoop or two of mint chocolate chunk or butter pecan.   

Respect the Historic Level

Chattanooga was of utmost strategic importance during the Civil War, due to its vital railroad links, position on the Tennessee River and control of mountain lookouts that covered several states. As such, any history buff will have Chattanooga high on their bucket list.

Start at the Battles for Chattanooga Museum, which explores this history and features a weapon and relic collection. Hike or bike in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which is home to extensive exhibits and tours of battlefields. Another place to check out is the relatively new National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which highlights those who made heroic acts by putting service over self; this heritage started in Chattanooga and 34 medals of honor were awarded here during the Civil War.

National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

Don't think we forgot about the Choo Choo. Head to the Tennessee Railroad Museum, where you can actually ride a historic train on a 3-mile section of the former Southern Railway. Superfans of railway history might want to book a stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel where you can even sleep in a modified Pullman Train Car; built in 1908, this historic building was once the terminal station for the Southern Railway and the lobby retains this look.

Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel 

Go Sky High

Chattanooga is basically The Promised Land when it comes to rock climbing. In fact, there is more rock to climb within a 25-mile radius of Chattanooga than there is in Boulder, Colorado. Stone Fort, aka Little Rock City, is considered one of the best boulder fields in the United States; a short drive from downtown, it’s also one of the easiest climbing areas to access from the city. Rocktown, on Pigeon Mountain, is about a 45-minute drive, and aside from stellar sandstone, the appeal is that it’s off the beaten path. Tennessee Wall and Sunset Rock are two other top climbing destinations that also offer fantastic views.

Stone Fort

Keeping your adventures downtown is also an option thanks to High Point Climbing and Fitness, which offers an outdoor climbing wall smack dab in the center of the city, so you can get that Spiderman feeling of scaling buildings. They even have a “Kid Zone” for munchkins as young as three years old, featuring indoor and outdoor climbing walls as well as rope routes.

Should your mountaineering skills be less vertically inclined, there are plenty of hiking trails around the area. Most well-known is Lookout Mountain, just six miles outside the city, with its incredible views of Chattanooga Valley. The mountain is also home to aforementioned Sunset Rock as well as Rock City, from which you can spot seven states from its observation deck.

Signal Mountain is a 20-minute drive from downtown and quickly rewards hikers with one of its signature views, Signal Point. Overlooking the Tennessee River, the spot got its name during the Civil War, as it was used by the Union to relay messages via complex signals to a nearby Alabama city.

Incline Railway

If you like amazing views but not physical exertion, don’t worry, you’re in luck. Sure, you could drive up to the top of Lookout Mountain, but where's the fun in that? Instead, have a seat on The Incline Railway, a funicular ride one-mile up the mountain, which has been in operation since 1895 and is the world’s steepest passenger railway. Thanks to its many windows and glass ceiling, you'll get scenic views all the way to the top. 

Ready to go? Here are some helpful tips to plan your trip.

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