No destination can be mastered in a day, but sometimes a day is all you have. When my family’s travels allowed us to squeeze in a short 24 hour visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee several years ago with our kids, we jumped at the chance. Although Chattanooga is only a few hours from the city in which I grew up, I had not paid a visit in nearly 30 years.
Chattanooga turned out to be the surprise hit of our Southern road trip. The attractions were ideal for younger kids (ours were 6 and almost 2 at the time of our trip) while still being interesting and engaging for adults. It’s rare to find a city with so many attractions that strike that balance.
While the breadth and variety of family-friendly offerings in Chattanooga definitely warrant a visit of at least a few days, the easy navigability and layout of the city means that you can also see and do a lot even in a shorter visit. Here are the can’t miss highlights in Chattanooga with kids, even if you have only a day or two to see the sights.
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Best Things to Do in Chattanooga with Kids on a Short Visit
(Editor’s Note: This guide is being republished at a time when capacity restrictions and special health and safety restrictions may be in place. Check attraction websites to be sure you have the necessary reservations and can pack and prepare what may be required!)
1. Tennessee Aquarium
With the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium not far from where I live, my family has pretty high standards for aquariums in our travels. Without a doubt, the Tennessee Aquarium could go toe-to-toe with any of the world’s best. It also didn’t have the overwhelming and crushing crowds of some of the larger city aquariums we’ve visited on our travels, which can sometimes spoil an otherwise amazing outing.
The Tennessee Aquarium is divided into two large buildings – River Journey and Ocean Journey. Highlights for my younger kids included a room with hundreds of live butterflies as well as the touch pools.
Entry to the aquarium is good all day long if you want to break up your visit. Children under 3 are free, making the aquarium a great value for families with toddlers since it is an attraction that little ones can still appreciate and enjoy.
2. Rock City Gardens
Even if you know very little about Chattanooga, chances are pretty good you’ve seen a red “See Rock City” structure before. The message was painted on barns to serve as billboards to advertise the tourist attraction (its more modern incarnation is a red birdhouse sold in the gift shop). It’s a travel marketing ploy that worked incredibly well, even long before there was an online world to make things go viral.
But Rock City itself is more than just a well-marketed tourist trap. Located on Chattanooga’s famous Lookout Mountain where seven states are visible, Rock City Gardens combines natural beauty (natural rock formations, gorgeous waterfalls and amazing vistas where you can see seven states) with a bit of man-made fairytale magic.
At Rock City, kids will love squeezing through tight spaces between the rocks, watching the waterfalls, and simply seeing the amazing views. Our then 6 year old marveled at Fairyland Caverns (where Rock City’s gnomes live, of course) and Mother Goose Village, an impressively enormous diorama with characters from every fairy tale under the sun. Forget Disney magic… Rock City magic had her transfixed.
If you plan to visit Rock City with little ones, be aware that Rock City doesn’t permit strollers as they would never work on the narrow and uneven paths. Bring a baby carrier to transport your little one, which will also help address any safety worries you might have at such elevations.
3. Ruby Falls
Also located on Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls is the one attraction we ran out of time to visit this trip due to thunderstorms slowing down our travel. But I know enough about it to know how majestic of a stop is can be for kids, so we are saving it for our next trip!
Located inside a cave, Ruby Falls is the country’s deepest and tallest publicly accessible underground waterfall. Families can take a cave walk tour (reservations required in 2021) and evening tours for ages 5+ are also available to experience different lighting.
4. Incline Railway
On the other end of Lookout Mountain, closest to Chattanooga, is Incline Railway. It is sure to be a hit with any child who is obsessed with trains. The super-steep funicular railway takes you up to a beautiful vista overlooking the city. But even if rain and fog loom large as they did while we visited, I’d recommend a ride. The sheer engineering marvel of the railway will inspire wonder in your children.
5. Creative Discovery Museum
For travelers, children’s museums can sometimes be a mixed bag. What works for locals doesn’t always work for tourists paying a city a visit for a short time. The innovative exhibits and intriguing museum architecture at Chattanooga’s Creative Discovery Museum made it something more than just another children’s museum. It is well worth a stop for out-of-towners with younger kids.
With water play areas, a giant indoor climbing structure, a huge exhibit devoted to music and fine arts, and a separate play area for the littlest visitors, Chattanooga’s Creative Discovery Museum has all the features that make a top-notch children’s museum.
6. MoonPie General Store
One of the most important things to do when traveling is to sample the local delicacies. Chattanooga’s most famous food is the iconic MoonPie – a marshmallow patty sandwiched in between two cookies and coated in chocolate or one of several other flavors.
Not far from the Tennessee Aquarium and Creative Discovery Museum is a store where you can purchase every variety MoonPie makes. In case you make time for a visit, my daughter recommends the salted caramel version.
Where to Stay in Chattanooga with Kids
With kids, the downtown area near the riverfront close to the Tennessee Aquarium is the place to be. Chattanooga has several hotels within the area and prices are usually exceedingly reasonable.
My family stayed at the SpringHill Suites Chattanooga Downtown/Cameron Harbor which was an excellent fit for families with young children. The rooms are all mini-suites which gave us a little extra space for our toddler who had an earlier bedtime than the rest of the family. The hotel also offered a hot breakfast and refrigerators in every room, all included in the price.
The hotel was within walking distance to the Aquarium and Creative Discovery Museum, but it would be a bit too long of a walk for little ones unless they are still in a stroller. We chose to drive due to rain and found parking in downtown areas to be plentiful and cheap. We also noticed that there was a city bike share rack in front of the hotel, which would be perfect for getting around town with older kids.
Other hotels with ideal family-friendly accommodations and locations include:
- Courtyard Chattanooga Downtown: As close as you can get to the Tennessee Aquarium, this hotel has all the essentials for families available.
- Hilton Garden Inn Chattanooga Downtown: Super strategic highly walkable location sandwiched in between the Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum, and the Chattanooga Lookouts baseball stadium.
- The Edwin Hotel: A Marriott Autograph Collection property, this is one of the more luxurious hotels in Chattanooga. While many boutique hotels lack rooms that work for families, the Edwin offers two queen beds in many rooms, so families can have both practicality and style with this hotel.
How to Get to Chattanooga: Road Tripping & Best Airports
A lot of visitors who come to Chattanooga come from drive market areas. Located near the intersections of Interstates 59, 75, and 24, there are certainly a lot of road trip routes that make the city accessible.
But for travelers who need to fly (like our family from California!), there are a few air travel options too. What are the best airports to fly to Chattanooga?
Chattanooga Municipal Airport (CHA): Chattanooga has a mid-size regional airport that has frequent service to and from Atlanta (on Delta) or Charlotte (on American). A few other destination cities like Dallas, Chicago, Houston, and Orlando are also available. Airlines that serve the airport in 2021 are Delta, United, America, and Allegiant.
Nashville International Airport (BNA): About 2 hours from the city of Chattanooga is the much bigger city and airport of Nashville, Tennessee. BNA has many more cities served, and has the following airlines in 2021: Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United and several smaller airlines seasonally. Consider also doing what we did, which was to fly to Nashville and combine the two cities into a single trip.
Atlanta (ATL): Last but certainly not least, the enormous airport of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson is also only two hours away, so it is a viable airport alternative for potentially cheaper prices or another Southern road trip destination. Just beware the wild card of Atlanta traffic jams and don’t plan to arrive or depart during times that might result in getting stuck in rush hour in the city.
Traveling to Tennessee? Check out these other guides to family-friendly destinations in the state:
Disclosure: The Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau graciously provided my family with attraction tickets and hotel accommodations during our stay.