10 Fun Things to Do in Chattanooga for Families on Vacation

Updated on March 30, 2017
Kim Bryan profile image

I'm a Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

Nestled in the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, in the most southeastern corner of the state and occupying both sides of the Tennessee River, is a family vacation destination gold mine known as Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Scattered along Tennessee's interstates and highways, red barns with roofs shouting, "See Rock City!" in big white letters, brought visitors to the area in the latter half of the twentieth century. Today, however, Chattanooga is much more than the infamous Lookout Mountain. Chattanooga is rich in Native American and Civil War history as well as exciting entertainment.

Visit the Scenic City today and experience some of the sincerest southern hospitality you'll ever experience and check out these fun things to do while you're there.

View of Coolidge Park taken from Walnut Street Bridge
View of Coolidge Park taken from Walnut Street Bridge | Source

1. Coolidge Park

Once just a cluster of abandoned buildings on the river banks directly across from downtown, the area now known as Coolidge Park attracts locals and visitors alike to the area.

The focal point of the park is an 1894 antique Dentzel carousel which once operated in New York's Central Park. The grounds surrounding the indoor ride feature interactive water fountains whose cold spurts of river water help area kids beat the humidity of summer. It's during these same months the grassy acreage of the park becomes a popular spot for concerts, festivals. and other special events.

Source: chattanooga.gov

After enjoying a fun and relaxing day at the park, visitors can take a leisurely stroll across the Walnut Street Bridge. Built in 1890, the 2,376 feet bridge was the first to connect downtown with the area known as the North Shore. The bridge was closed to vehicles in 1978 and reopened for pedestrian use only in 2010 after restoration efforts by several local civic groups.

The bridge has played many roles since its creation at the turn of the century. Today it serves as the fireworks base for the city's grand finale at the Riverbend music festival held each summer. In October, the bridge becomes host to the Wine Over Water Festival, which showcases wines by more than 100 makers from around the world, a wide selection of cheeses, and other dishes.

2. Take a Cruise on the Southern Belle Riverboat

One of Chattanooga's oldest yet most popular attractions are the lunch and dinner cruises on the Southern Belle. Also known as the "pride of the South," the riverboat offers the right combination of history about the city and river and other entertainment.

The views along the river route of the Southern Belle are stunning, especially during at the beginning of the Spring and Fall seasons. Guests can enjoy these views from inside the vessel or standing on its multi-floor wrap-around decks.

I personally recommend the lunch cruise for families with younger children as the riverboat becomes a romantic venue of dining and dancing by night. Moms and Dads need not worry about picky eaters because one of the city's top spots for hamburgers is located on the third deck of the boat.

The Southern Belle offers a menu of cruise options, including limited time theme cruises throughout the year. Cruises depart from Pier 2 at Ross Landing several times daily.

Tennessee Aquarium
Tennessee Aquarium | Source

3. Tennessee Aquarium

More than twenty million people have visited Tennessee's prized freshwater aquarium sitting directly on the banks of the Tennessee River. Since it's opening in 1992, it's served as home to 12,000 animals representing 800 different species.

Guests are invited to a self-guided tour of the facility which begins in the widely-recognized glass roof top floor and will work their way to the ground floor via a series of ramps. Along the course, visitors will enjoy learning about a collection of freshwater species. Leaving the freshwater tanks, guests complete their experience with a visit to the saltwater tanks in the adjacent building.

The aquarium is handicap accessible and thus very stroller friendly. Restrooms with changing tables are available on every floor. Concessions are available between the two buildings, offering a menu of hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, pizza, and more.

If you're visiting during the summer months, your children will enjoy playing in the stream flowing through the grounds. Toddlers especially seem to love it, so be sure to have some swimming diapers on hand!

$18.95 +
Source: tnaqua.org
Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater
Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater | Source

4. IMAX 3D Theater

Chattanooga is one of a very limited number of IMAX theaters in the world featuring a laser projection system. Combined with the giant screens and 3D glasses provided, guests explore a variety of every-changing topics while feeling as though they are part of the event rather than just watching.

Tickets for the theater only are available or they can be added to your aquarium ticket for a discounted admission. The price below is for only the theater, although I highly recommend combining it with an aquarium ticket for the reduced cost.

$9.95 +
Source: tnaqua.org

5. River Gorge Explorer

Another attraction within the Tennessee Aquarium complex is the River Gorge Explorer. Visitors are invited to take a two-hour downstream tour of the Tennessee River. The scenic views can be enjoyed from inside the climate-controlled boat cabin or on upper observation deck.

One of the most beautiful portions of this tour is in an area nicknamed the Tennessee Grand Canyon. Only accessible by boat, nature's stunning artistry leaves visitors to this hidden spot breathless.

$24.95 +
Source: tnaqua.org
show route and directions
A markerCoolidge Park -
Coolidge Park, 150 River St, Chattanooga, TN 37405, USA
get directions

B markerSouthern Belle Riverboat Cruises -
201 Riverfront Pkwy, Chattanooga, TN 37402, USA
get directions

C markerTennessee Aquarium -
1 Broad St, Chattanooga, TN 37402, USA
get directions

D markerIMAX 3D Theater -
201 Chestnut St, Chattanooga, TN 37402, USA
get directions

E markerRiver Gorge Explorer -
201 Riverfront Pkwy, Chattanooga, TN 37402, USA
get directions

F markerChattanooga Ducks -
503 Market St, Chattanooga, TN 37402, USA
get directions

G markerRuby Falls -
1720 Scenic Hwy, Chattanooga, TN 37409, USA
get directions

H markerRock City -
1400 Patten Rd, Lookout Mountain, GA 30750, USA
get directions

I markerIncline Railway -
827 E Brow Rd, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350, USA
get directions

J markerPoint Park -
110 Point Park Rd, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350, USA
get directions

Chattanooga Ducks
Chattanooga Ducks | Source

6. Chattanooga Ducks

It's a truck! No, it's a boat! Wait, it's a... truckboat? The nifty little combination is called a Duck, an amphibious landing craft which was created by the US military. Chattanooga Ducks uses a restored World War II craft to give visitors an adventure through the streets of Scenic City before splashing into the Tennessee River, bound for Maclellan Island.

$22 +
Source: chattanoogaducks.com

Once you've enjoyed the great things downtown Chattanooga has to offer, get a different view of the city from atop Lookout Mountain.

Lookout Mountain holds great significance in American and Tennessee history. During the eighteenth century, it was home to the Cherokees, until they forced to move downriver with the arrival of European settlers. It was also the site of one of the Civil War's deadliest battles.

Today, the mountain's sad legend is overshadowed by the enjoyment had by the millions of tourist who visit each year.

Ruby Falls
Ruby Falls | Source

7. Ruby Falls

Part of the Lookout Mountain caverns which are believed to have been created more than 200 million years ago when current-day Tennessee was a sea bottom, Ruby Falls is the name given to the 145-feet waterfall deep inside the caverns.

Visitors are invited to take an easy hike down into the caverns to a beautiful observation point just above the natural pool below the falls. Guests are also encouraged to climb the Lookout Mountain tower for stunning views of the area and visit the Forest Playground for little ones.

A recent addition to Ruby Falls is the Zip Stream Aerial Adventure. Whether you want to just want to zip your way a straight line or challenge yourself with up to three obstacle courses, you can give it a try while you're visiting the falls.

$11.95 + CAVERNS
$24.95 + ZIP LINE
Source: rubyfalls.com

8. Rock City

In 1823, Missionary Daniel S. Butrick described in his journal "a citadel of rocks" atop the mountain which were arranged "as to afford streets and lanes." These are believed to be the remnants of a long-gone Cherokee settlement.

By the time the Civil War erupted in the area, those nearby had learned of the place which had come to be called Rock City. Following the war, only hikers and geologist seemed to have any interest in the old settlement; that is, until the early part of the nineteenth century rolled around.

Garnet Carter purchased 700 acres on the mountain on which he planned to create a residential area known as Fairytale, for his wife's love of European Lore. The development was to include a golf course but he designed a miniature golf course instead when the first course was taking too long. Tom Thumb Golf is now recognized as America's first mini-golf course.

After Frieda Carter set about beautifully turning the rock formations and stunning observation points into a breath-taking showplace, her husband realized the popularity among her friends and many others and decided to commercialize 14 acres of the estate and it opened to the public in 1932.

Among both natural and man-made rock formations of Rock City today, visitors are invited to a self-guided tour which begins with the Grand Corridor and ends with Fairytale Caverns and Mother Goose Village, which kids absolutely love.

$11.95 +
Source: seerockcity.com
Incline Railway atop Lookout Mountain
Incline Railway atop Lookout Mountain | Source

9. Incline Railway

At the turn of the twentieth century, the incline railway was built when vacationers had difficulty reaching the top of the steep mountain with their horses and buggies. Opened in November 1895, the incline carried passengers from the mountain's lower St. Elmo community to the luxury resort at the very top.

Although the resort has long since closed, the Incline Railway continues to carry passengers up the steepest parts of Lookout Mountain. Those who board at the St. Elmo's station will arrive at Top Station, situated within short walking distance of Point Park and the Battles for Chattanooga Museum.

$7 +
Source: ridetheincline.com
Point Park on top of Lookout Mountain
Point Park on top of Lookout Mountain | Source

10. Point Park

From these grounds in September 1863, Confederate troops observed Union soldiers for almost a month until they fought the notorious "Battle Above the Clouds." Today, the national park offers visitors a paved pathway around the 10 acre estate and take in sites such as stunning views of the Tennessee River and the city of Chattanooga, Confederate artillery relics, and historical monuments; including the New York Peace Memorial, a tribute to peace erected after the Civil War.

$5 (16+)
Source: nps.gov

11. Lake Winnepesaukah

I know the title says ten but technically, this one doesn't count anyway as it's located just outside the Chattanooga limits in Rossville, Georgia.

Winnepesaukah is the Cherokee word for "bountiful waters" and serves as a perfect name for this park with a large lake at its center.

Opened in 1925, the park's main feature was having the largest swimming pool in the United States at that time. In its earliest days, the park focused on water attractions; such as, the Boat Chute Mill attraction which opened in 1927 and is the oldest attraction of its kind still in operation today in America.

Today the park offers an assortment amusements for adults and children as well as a half-acre water park. Picnic pavilions are available for use outside the park gates.

Located less than a half-hour's drive from downtown Chattanooga, Lake Winnie is located at 1730 Lakeview Drive in Rossville.

Living little more than a car hour's drive away, I've had many opportunities to visit Chattanooga and explore the area. I've found the city's people to be some of the friendliest and most welcoming of any in the state.

For more information about other area attractions, dining, lodging, and special promotions and vacation packages, visit the Chattanooga Visitor's Bureau at chattanoogafun.com.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Kim Bryan


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      • profile image

        FYI 10 days ago

        River Gorge Explorer is permanently closed as of January 2018.

      • jo miller profile image

        Jo Miller 14 months ago from Tennessee

        Great article on Chattanooga. I lived there for many years and have two little granddaughters there now, living within walking distance of Coolidge Park (what a great place that is!). I thought the Southern Belle was no longer there, though.

      • Kim Bryan profile image

        Kim Bryan 14 months ago

        Ron, Chattanooga has progressed leaps and bounds. I do hope you get to come back and see it for yourself one day! :)

      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 14 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        I grew up in Chattanooga, but haven't lived there in several decades. Of the ten attractions you mention, seven weren't there when I lived there. I take that as a sign that Chattanooga is continuing to progress. I'm still hoping to get to the Aquarium some day.