Chattanooga lies on the banks of the Tennessee River, surrounded by natural beauty on all sides. It’s an easy drive from Nashville, Birmingham, and Atlanta, making it the perfect spot for a quick getaway. The city beckons visitors with its outdoor adventures, rich history, and stellar dining. Families will love the walkability of the downtown area, the city’s free electric shuttle, and the hospitality of the locals. These are some of our favorite things to do in Chattanooga with kids.
*I received admission to a few of these attractions to help facilitate this review. As always, opinions are 100% my own.
Best Things to Do in Chattanooga with Kids
See the underground waterfall at Ruby Falls
Ruby Falls is a spectacular waterfall inside Lookout Mountain on the edge of town. It is one of the must see spots in Chattanooga. Visitors enter this cave system via an elevator shaft that travels 200 feet below ground. Guides lead the group on a tour to reach the star of the show, Ruby Falls. Along the way guides share information about the history of the cave, the rock formations, and the area in general. Upon reaching the waterfall, guests are told this 145 foot waterfall sits 1100 feet underground (almost the same distance as the heigh of the Empire State Building). After that soaks in, a magical light show begins, turning the waterfall all the colors of the rainbow. It was one of our favorite experiences in Chattanooga.
Outside Ruby Falls is the Zip Stream Aerial Adventure park. This outdoor ropes course has bridges, walkways, and zip lines. It provides a beautiful view of Chattanooga from the mountain top as you sail through the trees!
Be amazed by the rock formations of Rock City
I didn’t know what to expect from Rock City, but as the name suggests, it’s a city made of rocks and more! Located on the Georgia side of Lookout Mountain, Rock City is an outdoor amusement park featuring an enchanted trail, a view of seven states, a waterfall, swinging bridge, and Fairlyland Caverns. Plan on spending a few hours exploring the nooks and crannies along the trail, admiring the beauty of Lover’s Leap waterfall, and seeing the magical displays inside Fairyland Caverns. There are seasonal events throughout the year including the Enchanted Garden of Lights during the holidays and Fairytale Nights in the spring.
Check out the views from the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
The Incline Railway at Lookout Mountain is the world’s steepest passenger railway. Known as “America’s Most Amazing Mile”, the incline provides stunning views of the Chattanooga area. At the top of the incline is the highest overlook on Lookout Mountain. This would be a great way to end the day if the weather is good.
Visit the Tennessee Aquarium and see animals from around the world
Plan on spending several hours at the Tennessee Aquarium as it’s one of the best aquariums we’ve visited in awhile. Located on the riverfront, the aquarium is divided into two main buildings, River Journey and Ocean Journey, with an IMAX theater in a separate building a block away. The entire space is magical from the time you enter. Floor to ceiling aquariums, welcoming docents, and interactive exhibits make the entire experience amazing for families. Around every corner is a new animal, a new surprise, something that takes your breath away.
The Ocean Journey includes a Lemur Forest, Butterfly Garden, Stingray Bay (yes, kids can touch them), penguins, and all types of sea life. The jellyfish area is especially beautiful. The River Journey has an Appalachian Cove Forest, swamp area (with alligators and turtles), River Giants, and Rivers of the World (think fish, snakes, frogs, and lizards). My boys could not get enough of the creepy, crawly creatures and loved learning about them through the hands-on exhibits. Don’t miss the different animal presentations throughout the day (including the awesome Secret Reef Dive show where the SCUBA diver answers questions while inside the tank) allowing children to learn about the animals on a deeper level.
Learn about Chattanooga’s history at Chickamauga National Military Park
Chattanooga was known as the “Gateway to the Deep South” and played an important role during the Civil War. The Battle of Chickamauga was the site of the second deadliest battle of the Civil War and it’s located just over the Georgia border from Chattanooga. Older kids can appreciate the historical significance of this first National Military Park and might enjoy a visit. We started at the Visitor Center where we watched a 25 minute video about the battle and learned about the local history. Afterwards, we drove through the area to see the battlefields, monuments, and cabins that remain. It is quite a moving experience.
Spend some time outdoors at Coolidge Park
Located on the north shore of the river, is Coolidge Park, a great space for families to unwind. There’s a carousel, water fountains for kids to run through, and a pavilion for seasonal concerts and events. It sits below the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, one of the oldest and longest in the world. This is the perfect spot for a family picnic, walk, or bike ride.
Take a ride on the river aboard the Southern Belle Riverboat
The Southern Belle offers a variety of cruises on the Tennessee River and a different perspective of Chattanooga and the surrounding area. Some cruises include music and a sit down meal, others offer short, but sweet city tours. Day or night, you’re sure to have a unique experience on the river.
Where to Eat in Chattanooga with Kids
Tupelo Honey – this place is exactly what I expect from a Southern kitchen. Delicious biscuits (with blueberry compote and honey of course), amazing shrimp and grits, and perfectly cooked buttermilk fried chicken with sweet potato pancakes. It was so good!
Julie Darling Donuts – we loved this adorable donut spot in Chattanooga and found some new favorites. We tried the pancakes and bacon, Oreo flavored, and cookies and cream (our favorite). They also have donut sundaes and Do-ssants (donut + croissant, yum). We’ll save those for next time.
St. Elmo Deli & Grill – this deli is conveniently located in St. Elmo near the base of the Incline Railway. Order sandwiches at the counter and find a spot to eat. They have sandwiches, burgers, salads, and some delicious side dishes (I loved the cilantro jalapeño slaw).
Clumpies Ice Cream – this is THE place to go for ice cream in Chattanooga and there are several locations around the city (we went to the one near Coolidge Park). Flavors run the gamut from traditional (Cookie Dough) to the unique Firecracker (tutti frutti topped with Pop Rocks). They’re all refreshing and you pay based on weight, not per scoop. The kids asked to return every day.
Frothy Monkey – this coffee shop/restaurant is open all hours of the day, but we stopped by for breakfast. The oatmeal was delicious and the biscuits and gravy were to die for! Know that the portion sizes are big, so take that into account when ordering.
Lupi’s Pizza Pies – this place has an eclectic vibe, with a friendly staff and delicious made to order pizza, calzones, and lasagna. Located on Broad Street, not far from the Tennessee Aquarium, it’s a good spot for lunch or dinner.
Where to Stay in Chattanooga with Kids
If you’re looking for more Chattanooga ideas, check out our guest post about Top 5 Family Friendly Things to Do in Chattanooga.