Chattanooga, Tennesee is situated in southeast Tennessee on the Georgia border. This small city has to be one of the most overlooked small cities to visit for family fun. In addition to the man made tourist attractions, Chattanooga offers some of the best, unrivaled natural attractions in the southeast.
When researching the city, the attractions and places to stay, it can be overwhelming to choose what would be most important if not impossible. Depending on your interests, this vacation destination can and does offer a wide range of options. This review takes the most visited attractions for families and condenses it into a guide of must see attractions for a fantastic 2 or 3 day visit on a budget.
First, consider purchasing a vacation package. Depending on the one chosen, you can get your accomodations and site attraction tickets for as little as $200. The vacation package more widely purchased with more attractions will only run about $550. These packages take all of the guess work out of where to get tickets, where to stay and how to plan out all of the places you need to go.
The most popular package will include tickets to the Tennessee Aquarium, the IMAX Theater, Ruby Falls, Incline Railway and Rock City plus your hotel accomodations. Whatever package is chosen, be aware that touring Chattanooga requires the bulk of your touring walking. This will be a major consideration for those who may be limited in movement.
Chattanooga offers an electric bus service that is free to ride. The drivers are friendly and love to speak to the tourists. They are full of information and are very helpful in steering folks in the right direction for things to see and do. The busses are safe and clean and go to the attractions down by the river as well as most, if not all, of the hotels in downtown Chattanooga so it’s very convenient. Pick up a shuttle map and guide as you check in to your hotel.
Day 1 – Check in day.
Usually, hotel check in times are around 3 p.m. If you drive to Chattanooga, use this first afternoon and evening for relaxing and getting to know the area you are in. Being in a hotel with a pool, restaurant and other ammenities, it will provide a nice break from your day’s travels. Children love to swim in a hotel pool. There is always something magical about doing that! Taking a walk around your surroundings and taking in the sights which offer many photo opportunities is a stellar beginning to a fun vacation.
Day 2 – Hitting your first attractions.
Tennessee Aquarium and the IMAX Theater. The tickets you get from your package will need to be exchanged at the will call window conveniently located at the ticket office on the grounds. The tours are self guided and self paced. Linger at any of the exibits or pass some by.
The Aquarium is a huge complex of learning and is separated into two buildings. The River Journey and The Ocean Journey. The River Journey will take up the bulk of your time since it is bigger. Here, you will explore the life of seahorses, shrimp, various fish that you can touch and pet and river life. There are even river otters swimming around to entertain visitors. There are a lot of photo opportunities within this aqarium and even photographing the waterlife through the glass is possible. This tour will take approximately 2 hours depending on how long you choose to linger at any given exibit.
Small children are even mesmerized by the exhibits and squeel with delight. Strollers are permitted within the aquarium which is a very handy tidbit of information for families.
The Ocean Journey building offers stingrays, sharks, aligators and snakes. There is a petting tank for stingrays and sharks. This is another self guided tour that will take approximately an hour or so.
Drink and snack stands are available throughout the grounds to quench your thirst or take the edge off of your appetite. Beware that this is a tourist attraction and small drinks will cost over $2.00. However, between touring the River and Ocean journey buildings, there are options for eateries on the river front that you can also visit for a nice lunch.
The IMAX Theater is about two blocks from the aquarium and the movie is in 3D and will last about 45 minutes. It’s a good way to end the day relaxing and learning a bit about the subject matter they are offering.
After your day of going to the attractions, you can go back to your hotel to relax or take in the sites around the river. The waterfront offers and nice walk way to explore the waters edge and is just relaxing to sit and watch the marine vehicles going up and down the river. As the sun begins to set and the lights of the city begin to come on, you will be in awe at the beauty this small city offers after sunset. However, the shuttle does stop running around 7 p.m. so have alternative transportation planned before hand.
Day 3 – Check out and the mountains
After you check out of your hotel, head up to Lookout Mountain to enjoy the beauty nature has to offer. Ruby Falls, Incline Railway and Rock City. You do need to drive to these attractions and they are not located in one place. However, the arrows on the roadways directing you to them are very easy to follow and you will not get lost.
Ruby Falls – This is the only place you will not have to turn your tickets into the will call window. Parking is free. Tours to the falls start about every 15 minutes and are with a tour guide. An elevator will take the groups down about 260 feet into the mountain to begin the tour. If your family is about the last ones on the elevator, you will be closest to the front of the tour group and the tour guide.
Upon entering the caverns, there will be a photographer to take your picture. At the end of your tour, you can purchase an 8×10 photo in a cardboard frame for $15 plus tax.
The total hike in the cavern is just under 1 mile and takes about an hour with Ruby Falls approximately in the center of your tour. It is a constant 60 degrees in the caverns with it being just a little cooler yet near the waterfall so take a jacket or sweater. Actual photos of the falls is nearly impossible due to lighting in the caverns. It’s best to buy postcards at the end of your tour. The gift shop has a good variety of items for sale. Of Ruby Falls, Incline Railway and Rock City, this is the best gift shop of the 3. There is one at the beginning of the tour and one at the end.
When your tour is finished, you can purchase your photo if you choose, it’s not required. From observing, it appears approximately 30% of families purchase them. Additionally, at the end of the tour, you will be able to go to the observation deck to see the city of Chattanooga from the mountain and there is also a playground and concession stand. Grilled cheese and french fries will cost you $5 if your little one is hungry.
Parking here is not free. There are parking meters and you will need quarters. 25cents will buy you a mere 15 minutes of parking time. It is recommended to feed the meter at least six quarters for 90 minutes of time.
You will need to exchange your tickets from your package at the ticket window. The staff is friendly and will happily assit you. The train cars come up the mountain about every 15 minutes or so and the ride from top to bottom back to the top is relaxing. The altitude is quite high and those who are afraid of heights will not enjoy this. However, the train car travels slowly and those who are only mildly fearful of heights will not have as hard of a time.
When your ride is over, there are observation decks here as well where photo opportunities are abundant. Depending on how long you linger on the observation decks, this tour will not last over 90 minutes.
Rock City –
The natural wonders of this self guided, self paced tour rival those in bigger cities. Technically located in Georgia, this isn’t out of the way of the mainstream must see attractions.
Parking is free and you will need to exchange your package tickets at the ticket window. Upon entering, you will pass through a gift shop and on the other side, there are photographers to take your photo for purchase later for $20.
Some of the things you will see are “needles eye”, “fat man squeeze”, the 1000 ton balanced rock, a swinging bridge, fairy tale land and “goblins pass”. The crowning jewel is Lovers Leap where you can see 7 states. History says that it was determined by a fire that happened there that could be seen from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolna, Kentucky and Virginia. The views from this location at this altitude are just spectacular.
Chattanooga is very conveniently located to many places including Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, Asheville and many other locations. It is budget friendly and full of family fun. Children will learn about history and nature without even realizing they are learning anything at all. However, your trip to this charming destination will be talked about for a very long time with children repeating the lessons they learn leaving lasting memories that will encompass a lifetime.