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When we need a weekend of fun or want to escape busy Nashville and play tourist in another city, there’s one place that always comes to mind: Chattanooga. Chattanooga embodies the quirkiness of Austin with the peaceful atmosphere of a small town. It’s an “It City” that hasn’t been discovered yet (until now? Oops.). With exciting, family-friendly attractions, a pedestrian-friendly downtown, and gorgeous mountain and river views, there are plenty of things to do in Chattanooga, Tennessee! Chattanooga is an easy, relaxing vacation with the added bonus of having many things to do with kids too.
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Located on the banks of the Tennessee River in the heart of Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium ranks high on everyone’s list when they visit the city. This world-class facility features one building focused on rivers and freshwater animals and another building with ocean creatures. The penguin exhibit and the giant stingray touch tank are two popular attractions, but my favorites are the hilarious river otters and the amazing butterfly garden, which always seems to have butterflies emerging from their cocoons. The aquarium focuses on education and conservation, but the exhibits are entertaining enough for anyone to enjoy (disco jellyfish, anyone?).
Creative Discovery Museum
The Creative Discovery Museum is just three blocks away from the Tennessee Aquarium, making downtown Chattanooga full of fun for kids (plus, walking from place to place means avoiding car seat battles!). The museum’s giant water table captured my preschooler’s attention during our visit, while the performing arts area with its instruments and recording booths were a popular stop for our whole family. The Creative Discovery Museum also offers views of downtown Chattanooga from its observation tower and rooftop exhibits. Traveling with toddlers? Check out the Little House, designed just for the museum’s younger visitors.
Don’t Miss! A Local’s Guide to Kid Friendly Nashville
While you’re near the Tennessee Aquarium or the Creative Discovery Museum, walk across the Walnut Street Bridge to reach Coolidge Park (a stroller is recommended to prevent whining) (for your kids, not for you). The park has an antique carousel, a play fountain, and whimsical animal statues. There’s oodles of green space for kids to run and play. And if you need a quick recharge, duck into Chattanooga favorite Clumpies for handcrafted ice cream.
When we need a weekend of fun with kids or want to escape Nashville there’s one place that always comes to mind: Chattanooga.
Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls
If you’re looking for vintage vacation vibes, head 15 minutes from downtown to Lookout Mountain. There you’ll find some of Chattanooga’s oldest and most iconic destinations. Take a one-hour cave tour and descend 26 stories in an elevator to see Ruby Falls, an underground waterfall. Rock City, made famous by their See Rock City ads on barns, has gardens, interesting rock formations, and a breathtaking overlook that (it’s claimed) offers a view of seven states. The Rock City tour ends with Fairyland Caverns, featuring tiny, retro sculptures of scenes from fairy tales. Need an adrenaline rush? Add a zip line adventure or a steep ride on the incline railway.
Families traveling with teens might want to drive east to Ocoee, Tennessee, to try whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River, which was used for competition in the 1996 Summer Olympics. Cave expeditions at Raccoon Mountain and paddle boarding on the Tennessee River also will appeal to outdoor fans, while families who love art and history will want to schedule stops at historic Civil War sites or the Hunter Museum of American Art.
Where to Stay: Chattanooga Hotels
Consider staying in downtown Chattanooga at the Hilton Garden Inn or the Courtyard by Marriott for easy walking access to the Tennessee Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum. AirBnB offers bungalows just blocks from Coolidge Park with multiple restaurants and shops nearby. For a uniquely Chattanooga experience, stay in the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, where you can spend the night in a refurbished Pullman train car.
With exciting attractions, a pedestrian-friendly downtown, and gorgeous mountain and river views, Chattanooga is an easy, relaxing vacation with plenty of family-friendly activities.
Where to Eat
Terminal Brewhouse is a family-friendly spot right next to the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. In the Coolidge Park area, Aretha Frankensteins is a popular breakfast spot. Good Dog offers just about every type of hot dog you can name (and the fries were a big hit with our family). Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria is at the top of my list for next time (tomato sauce with house-grown veggies? Yes, please.)
When You Go
The Chattanooga Airport (CHA) is served by Allegiant, American, Delta, and United Airlines. The city is about a two-hour drive from Nashville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. While you can walk to a few attractions from the downtown hotels, you’ll want to rent a car to reach Lookout Mountain and other locations.
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