People have had to make a lot of changes over the last year, from how they work, to how they go to school, shop, eat, and visit friends. And for many, it was a year without a traditional family vacation. But finally, things are starting to change. While we’re still not out of the woods yet—precautions to prevent the spread of COVID are still necessary—at least we’re starting to think about how to travel with the family again.
As a vacation destination, Chattanooga has something for the whole family to enjoy, with a mix of both urban charm and outdoor adventures. It isn’t hard to enjoy the best of what the city has to offer while staying physically distant from others, and visitors can still take advantage of all the attractions that have made Chattanooga one of the most popular spots for family travel in the Southeast.
While in the midst of the pandemic, the city has created protocols for everyone’s protection, with hotels, restaurants, and attractions all following Tennessee's clean and safe guidelines. Give them a read before any visit to ensure that you’re prepared to get the most out of your trip. A virtual visitor’s center has been created to help plan your getaway and answer any questions you have about traveling during these unprecedented times.
Your trip to Chattanooga may be a bit different than it was in the past, but it’s still an incredible place to spend time together. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect on a family-friendly excursion to the Scenic City.
Chattanooga’s Must-See Family Attractions
There’s a long list of things for families to do in Chattanooga, but there are several stops that families don’t want to miss. Let’s start with the Tennessee Aquarium, the top-rated aquarium in the country. Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, the aquarium is known for both its freshwater and ocean exhibits. Some of its popular inhabitants include sharks, alligators, the enormous Arapaima giant catfish, jellyfish, and stingrays. But let’s be honest: the otters and the penguins are the real show-stoppers. They’re hilarious. Just right up the street is the Art District full of...you guessed it — art. The Hunter Museum of American Art is a great stop for families as admission for youth 17 and under is FREE.
Get out onto the water yourself by taking a ride on the Chattanooga Ducks, an authentic World War II amphibious landing craft. Start on land with an historic tour through downtown before taking the plunge into the Tennessee River at Ross’ Landing. You can also explore the River on the Southern Belle, a vintage steamboat that boasts panoramic views of the riverfront and Lookout Mountain.
Back on land, there are two more attractions you don’t want to miss. The Chattanooga Zoo—known as the “best little zoo in America”—isn’t all that small, with more than 500 animals exhibited. But it’s designed to bring the animals up close to you so that you can really observe their behavior. Spend time in an African forest, the South American jungle, and the Himalayan mountains, among other natural habitats. If you’ve never seen a snow leopard in the flesh, it’s an experience you’ll always remember. For those with younger children, the Creative Discovery Museum is designed to inspire kids to learn through play. They can create sculptures in an artist studio, dig for dinosaur bones, put on a play, and enjoy all kinds of hands-on exhibits.
It’s worth noting: due to ongoing limited capacity restrictions, all of these Chattanooga attractions are asking for advanced reservations and ticket buying. So it pays to plan ahead!
The Great Outdoors
Lookout Mountain is one of Chattanooga’s defining sights, and families will find lots to explore at this one-of-kind place. Start with the views that gave the mountain its name by taking a short hike to enjoy an overlook of the city at either Sunset Rock or Point Park. Next, take a ride on the Incline Railway, a mile-long trip on trolly-style rail cars that rise via a breathtaking 72.7 percent grade up the mountain. For more than a century, the Incline Railway has been entertaining visitors and providing them with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Next stop is Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the country. Not only will you enjoy the subterranean display—accessible via a 26-story elevator—but the attraction also features incredible above-ground views of the Cumberland Plateau and a zip-line park to explore. At nearby Rock City, you’ll find even more natural wonders, including ancient rock formations, gardens with more than 400 native plants, and panoramic views where legend has it, you can view seven states. The kids will enjoy trips through the Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village.
Lookout Mountain is just the start of outdoor activities in and around Chattanooga. History buffs will love exploring the Civil War sites and memorials in the area. In the heart of downtown, right next to the Aquarium, the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center offers a fascinating glimpse inside the stories of Medal of Honor recipients. With 6,000 objects in the museum and hundreds of inspiring anecdotes detailing the circumstances of service members who’ve earned the medal, this place is sure to inspire. If you want some fresh air with your history tour, you can’t beat the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Excellent hiking trails can be found in just about any direction, with options for those with young kids as well as those who want a serious challenge. Rock climbing is a popular activity in the region, and you can even learn how in downtown Chattanooga at the High Point Climbing Gym. Or take a trek to see one of the impressive waterfalls in the region—you won’t be disappointed.
Explore the City
Chattanooga is a walkable city that’s filled with interesting areas to wander. Start at the Walnut Street Bridge, one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges, which connects downtown to the NorthShore historic district and its boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants. There you’ll also find Coolidge Park, a great spot for a picnic. Other Chattanooga neighborhoods worth exploring include Riverview (an excellent place for a bike ride), the Southside Historic District, St. Elmo, and West Village.
You’ll never run out of restaurants to enjoy on your trip to Chattanooga. Some kid-friendly favorites include Taco Mamacita on the North Shore, with an impressive outdoor dining area. For Italian, consider Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria in the Bluffs View Art District or Lupi’s Pizza Pies downtown. Make sure to save room for some small-batch, hand-made ice cream at Clumpies in the Lookout Mountain area.
Whenever your family is ready to travel again, Chattanooga is waiting to help create an experience that you won’t forget. We may not quite be back to “normal” yet, but a memorable getaway from home can do a lot to help you all feel that we’re on the way back.