Chattanooga Travel Guide

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Best Things To Do in Chattanooga

Boredom is hard to come by in Chattanooga. For starters, the Tennessee Aquarium is one of the world's largest freshwater aquariums. Ruby Falls is the country's largest underground waterfall, and Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park is the largest military park in the nation (and the oldest). The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway is one of the steepest incline railways in the world. And the Bluff View Art District may be the smallest neighborhood you've ever heard of (only 1½ blocks!). With so many superlatives, it's hard to believe Chattanooga was made famous by the Chattanooga Choo Choo song (we're confused, too). 

How we rank Things to Do

Updated November 5, 2015

  • #1
    Things to do in Chattanooga
    View all Photos
    #1 in Chattanooga
    Monuments and Memorials, Museums, Recreation, Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Museums, Recreation, Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Along with natural attractions and a notable role in history of the rail industry, Chattanooga is very well-known for being a Civil War battleground. The Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park is the oldest and largest of America's Civil War parks, encompassing land north and south of the Tennessee-Georgia border. During the Civil War, Chattanooga was considered to be an attractive area for its railroads and location, earning the title of the "Gateway of the Deep South." In 1843, battles broke out in various areas in Chickamauga and Chattanooga, with both the Union and Confederate troops experiencing victories and losses.

    The park is headquartered at Chickamauga, Georgia, which is about 9 miles south of downtown Chattanooga. Visitors looking to stay in Tennessee are still within reach of many important war sites, including Orchard's Knob, the Chattanooga National Cemetery, Signal Point, Lookout Mountain and various areas along the Missionary Ridge. Those with a tight itinerary (and who already have plans to visit either Ruby Falls, Rock City or ride the Incline Railway), should visit Point Park, the site of the "Battle Above the Clouds" and the Battles for Chattanooga Museum at Lookout Mountain.

  • #2
    Tennessee Aquarium
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    #2 in Chattanooga
    Museums, Natural Wonders, Tours, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Natural Wonders, Tours, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Tennessee Aquarium is one of the world's largest freshwater aquariums, and easily Chattanooga's biggest attraction, contributing more than $100 million to the city's economy annually. And for good reason: The Tennessee Aquarium isn't your average fish tank. The aquarium aims to take visitors on a journey, and features eclectic animals that dwell above and below sea level. The theme of the journey is the migration of a raindrop as it makes its way from atop a mountain stream to the bottom of the ocean. Through the "River Journey" exhibit, visitors travel through the Appalachian Cove Forrest to the Tennessee River, meeting many friends along the way, including chirping birds, river otters, alligators, turtles and more. The Ocean Journey follows that same raindrop deep into the ocean, where penguins, jellyfish, sharks and colorful reef fish live. There is also a pool of stingrays, which visitors are allowed to touch, featured along the journey.

    The aquarium offers more than two dozen animal programs complimentary to visitors. There are various Keeper Talks and the Secret Reef Dive Show, where divers answer questions from visitors within the tank. There is also the unique Butterfly Release show where patrons can help release new butterflies into the aquarium's Butterfly Garden. Recent travelers loved their visit at the aquarium, with many amazed by the amount of animals housed at the facility. Along with the animals, reviewers were also pleased with the knowledgeable staff members. Some travelers reported being able to spend more than one day at the aquarium, thanks to the fun atmosphere and a variety of things to see and do. Visitors also highly recommend a stop here if you're traveling with children. A few travelers even advised springing for the Backstage Pass, which allows guests to spend time with the keepers to get more up close and personal with the animals.   

  • #3
    Bluff View Art District
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    #3 in Chattanooga
    Cafes, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Cafes, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Those who find themselves beat after traversing the city's many natural attractions should consider taking a stroll through the charming Bluff View Art District. Situated atop a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga, this district is barely a neighborhood, it stretches across just 1½ blocks. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in character. Lush vines hug buildings, public works of art are carefully strewn along the waterfront and some of Chattanooga's most popular sustainable eateries, including Rembrandt's Coffee House and Tony's Pasta Shop & Trattoria, call this area home.

    The small district also boasts three art institutions: The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, The River Gallery and the Hunter Museum of American Art. The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts features a collection of Victorian art glass and antiques, while the River Gallery focuses on visual art, showcasing many different mediums from paintings to ceramics and even jewelry from local and national artists. The River Gallery also has a stunning sculpture garden, which is currently listed in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens. The Hunter Museum of American Art is the biggest of the family, sprawling across three buildings, each of which displays art that matches the architecture's style. For example, the Colonial-style mansion houses art from the colonial period, while two other modern buildings feature more contemporary works. The Hunter Museum of American Art has featured the likes of Monet and permanently houses work from Andy Warhol.

  • #4
    Chattanooga Choo Choo
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    #4 in Chattanooga
    Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    To the naked eye, the Chattanooga Choo Choo may look like just another hotel, but what lies within the building's old brick walls is a history so rich it helped put Chattanooga on the map. Ironically, the building that housed the Chattanooga train station was originally a hotel before it was acquired by the Southern Railway in 1905. Four years later, it opened as a train station and eventually became a hub, transporting more than 50 passenger trains a day. From the time it opened to its closure in 1970, all trains traveling south passed through Chattanooga, with Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt among the many passengers who frequented this historic station. Although well-known in the railroad industry, the Chattanooga Choo Choo didn't became a household name until the Glenn Miller Orchestra created a song of the same name, which was featured in the 1941 movie "Sun Valley Serenade."

    By 1973, the train station was turned back into a hotel thanks to the efforts of four local businessmen who were fans of the song and wanted to spare the building from demolition. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is among the Historic Hotels of America. Some of the original station tracks still run through the property, and sleeper cars have been restored and converted into hotel accommodations. Visitors not staying at the hotel can marvel at the first Chattanooga Choo Choo Train, which dates back to 1880 and is the only one of its kind in the city. The property also boasts shops, gardens and a trolley, which travelers can ride to hear an audio narrative of the building's history.

  • #5
    Rock City Gardens
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    #5 in Chattanooga
    Hiking, Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Recreation
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Recreation
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    This popular 4,100-foot path located on the Georgia side of Lookout Mountain offers attractions to appease many different types of travelers. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy weaving through the tall boulders situated at Needle's Eye and Fat Man's Squeeze along the Enchanted Trail. Children will feel like adventurers crossing the 180-foot long Swing-a-Long Suspension Bridge and likely delight in the figurines depicting fairytales and classic children's stories in the Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose's Village. Couples looking for a photogenic moment will appreciate Lover's Leap, a lookout point adjacent to the mountain's 90-foot waterfall. And everyone will have fun trying to see how many states they can spot from 1,700 feet above sea level at the See Seven States viewpoint.

    Rock City now sees more than half a million visitors a year, but it used to struggle to attract visitors to its grounds when it first opened in 1932, due to its off-the-beaten-path location. One of Rock City's founders, Garnet Carter, hired a local artist to promote Rock City around the country. The artist, Clark Byers, traveled across the nation and painted "See Rock City" on farms and barns as far as Texas and Michigan, eventually solidifying Rock City as a roadside attraction to visit. 'Although a commercial success, Rock City is still a family-run business, currently operated by a third-generation descendent of the Carters.

  • #6
    Ruby Falls
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    #6 in Chattanooga
    Natural Wonders, Tours
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Natural Wonders, Tours
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Located along the Tennessee River Gorge just south of downtown Chattanooga, Ruby Falls is one of Lookout Mountain's most popular attractions — and it was discovered completely by accident. In 1905, railroad construction forced the closure of the Lookout Mountain Cave, making it inaccessible to the public. Local cave explorer Leo Lambert sought to reverse this and gathered a team of excavators to help build an elevator from the surface that would lower visitors into the cave. Five years into construction, a team member drilled into an 18-inch opening that led to a new cave, where Ruby Falls now stands.

    Located 1,120 feet below the surface of the mountain, Ruby Falls is America's deepest commercial cave and largest underground waterfall. Carrying out Lambert's vision, visitors can take an elevator down to the falls and learn about the various rock formations located along the path to the falls. The attraction also boasts a lookout tower, a playground and a ziplining adventure. There are a variety of holiday events and seasonal tours, including the Lantern Tour, where guests are guided through the mountain caverns only by lantern.

  • #7
    Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
    View all Photos
    #7 in Chattanooga
    Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    The most practical way to get to Lookout Mountain may be by car, but the most memorable experience is definitely the Incline Railway. Billed as "America's Most Amazing Mile," the railway transports passengers up the steepest part of the mountain on a nearly 73 percent grade track, making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world. Below, visitors can explore the historic district of St. Elmo's, and up top visitors will be treated to views from the highest point of Lookout Mountain. Some of Lookout Mountain's biggest attractions are less than a mile north of the railway station, including Point Park, the site of the 1863 Civil War "'Battle Above the Clouds'" and the Battles for Chattanooga Museum.

    Many recent visitors reported loving the views from within the rail car and atop the mountain. However, some complained of the high price for such a short ride, the lack of attractions and amenities at the top of the mountain, and long wait times — a few travelers reported waiting an hour for a one-way ride. And a select few visitors recommended skipping the attraction entirely during the summer months due to crowds and the rail car's lack of air conditioning.

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