Growing up in Atlanta, I have fond memories of school field trips to the aquarium in Chattanooga. Since it’s such an easy drive from Atlanta, our family would often do day trips or weekend trips here to check out the other attractions too
Revisiting as an adult brings a mix of nostalgia and exploration. As much as the city is just as I remember, a lot of new spots have popped up too.
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Last Updated: December 7, 2020
This is a special post for us. For the past few years, I’ve often wondered how Local Adventurer could be more than just a travel blog. We’ve always admired our good friends, Ian & Ruthie, who run an amazing program in Atlanta called Presencia, and we wanted to find a way to partner with them.
Thanks to you, our readers, Local Adventurer was able to fund a local adventure to Chattanooga for Presencia’s student leaders. In this guide, you’ll see that we had some of them share about their own experiences, many of which were firsts for them.
At Presencia, we work with a team of young leaders from the Buford Highway neighborhood in Atlanta to tutor and mentor the children of immigrants.
In addition to their work with Presencia, our staff navigates violence in their homes and neighborhood, immigration issues, poverty, and all the normal challenges of growing up.
When we were building our team and preparing for the 2019-2020 school year, we began working with Local Adventurer to plan a trip that would give our staff a new set of experiences and help them bond. We wanted to step away from our daily concerns, travel together, and grow closer as a team.
The city of Chattanooga was the obvious first choice to make this happen. From major tourist attractions to rugged outdoor adventures, Chattanooga, Tennessee is a great city for new experiences.
Some travelers are drawn by the “See Rock City” barns that sprawl as far north as Indiana and across the border of Texas. Others come for attractions like the Chattanooga Choo-Choo or the Tennessee Aquarium. More adventurous travelers visit to explore the local trails, climb the walls and boulders, or run the rivers.
Esther and Jacob met up with the Presencia staff in Atlanta, and we all traveled to Chattanooga, where we learned about ourselves and each other while tackling four challenging new experiences together.
We asked some of our staff members to tell us about their favorite activities. To skip to their stories click on one of the below:
17 Fun Things to Do in Chattanooga TN
- For Those Who Love the Outdoors -
Located just outside of the city, Raccoon Mountain Caverns has more than five miles of mapped cave systems. They have different tour options, but we recommend the wild cave expedition, where you crawl through and truly experience the cave.
Before entering the cave we were told that there were certain types of insects, reptiles, and bats in the cave. So I was nervous from the beginning because if I stumbled onto a spider, I would lose my mind.
We had to crawl most of the time which really did a number on my wrists and knees, but since we had knee pads it wasn’t as bad as my palms. Our cave guide, Mike, was a very hilarious person which made us go through the harder entrance of the cave to give us an experience we will never forget.
The last major crawl was the hardest. We entered a small opening, and I had to do the worm to get through. It was truly fun that I got to do this with the Presencia team. Their reactions varied as well as their overall opinion of caving, but I would 100% do it again if I could. – Amy
Pro Tip: Bring clothes you don’t mind getting dirty in and a change of clean clothes.
Nature lovers should head to Audubon Acres to get out of the city and take a stroll along the easy hiking trails. There’s also a small visitor center with an archaeological museum.
Another great option is Maclellan Island, also known as Audubon Island. The island is only accessible by water, making it much less crowded and there are only 1.5 miles of trails
Both of these spots are the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in Chattanooga.
Whitewater rafting was another activity we would do as a family growing up. I still remember how terrified and thrilled I was as a kid. They have all different levels to check out in the Chattanooga area.
I didn’t know what to expect. I was excited, but anxious about falling into the river. The nice breeze and splashes from the river thrilled me. I couldn’t believe the view: giant rocks like meatballs on spaghetti that seemed neverending. Trees hugging the riverbank, moving with a gentle breeze.
After a few minutes of instructions from our guide, Chaz, and some practice rowing together, the raft made contact with the water for the first time. Chaz gave clear instructions, and we felt like we could trust him to get us safely over the rapids.
At the first rapid we rescued a man who had fallen out of another raft. The rapid had caught him, sucked him in, and flipped him a few times. Chaz immediately brought out a rope and launched it through the air, across the river, and right into the hand of the man. We pulled him over and into the raft.
This adventure never felt boring. Excitement was all around us as we dipped down into small waterfalls or wove our way between rocks. We fought through the rapids without anyone falling, shared a few laughs, and admired the beauty of the trip. – Marco
Lookout Mountain offers some of the best views in all of Tennessee. When you’re driving up, you’ll see billboards for the paid attractions in the area, like Ruby Falls, and Rock City. We’ll talk about these later, but be sure to keep driving to the top where you’ll get some of the best views.
Another big attraction is the Incline Railway, which will take you to the top of Lookout Mountain.
Pro Tip: There are a ton of trails in the area that are worth checking out. Point Park is also up top and run by the National Park Service, so be sure you have your Annual National Park Pass with you.
Ruby Falls and Rock City are the city’s most popular tourist attractions. We grew up going to both of these spots on school field trips and the family. They are very touristy, but something everyone typically does at least once.
Ruby Falls is the largest underground waterfall in the US, standing 145 feet tall. Book a guided tour to check out the rock formations and be ready for the light show at the waterfall.
If you prefer high up views, head to Rock City nearby. You’ll find huge rock formations, a 100-foot waterfall, and a panoramic view of 7 states.
Pro Tip: They often have seasonal and special events that make the visits more magical. Check their calendars for the most up-to-date info.
Explore any part of the 10 miles of beautiful waterfront at the Tennessee Riverpark. You can fish on their piers, watch the boats come in and out, enjoy the outdoor art pieces, or just stroll along the peaceful banks. The park starts in downtown Chattanooga and you can go all the way to Chickamauga Dam.
Pro Tip: To see more of the park, rent a bike.
- For the Culture Lover -
The Chattanooga Choo Choo is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It started out as a hotel, but then became a train station in the early 1900s before turning back into a hotel in the 70s.
Now it’s a great place to visit for families. There are old train cars set up which you can tour for free, and the lobby is worth checking out too.
Pro Tip: For a unique experience, book a stay in one of the old sleeper cars that have been converted into hotel accommodations.
Established in 1863, this is the largest national cemetery in the state covering 120 acres. It’s also unique because you can see three different Civil War Battle sites here: Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga, and Lookout Mountain.
Civil War buffs need to stop by Chicamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, the largest and oldest Civil War park in the US. They were major turning points in the war. If you’re not into history, the park still offers great hikes and scenic views that make it worth the trek.
Before Georgia built its massive aquarium, this was where we grew up visiting. I still have fond memories of walking through the aquarium and gawking at the massive sea life as a kid.
The Tennessee aquarium is still one of the largest freshwater aquariums in the world, and they do a great job with the flow, making it easy to explore.
Pro Tip: Parking is $9 at their deck, but there is street parking along the river for only $0.75 per hour.
Families with elementary school-aged kids will love the Creative Discovery Museum (or if you’re just a kid at heart). There is a ton of interactive ways for kids to explore and learn through play covering everything from art to science to music.
Pro Tip: Hours change seasonally so be sure to check before you go.
The Bluff View Art District is a must for art lovers. The Hunter Museum of American Art is a good place to start and the central focus of the area. They carry everything from paintings, photography, sculptures, and more. They also have special exhibitions and educational workshops.
The area is small, stretching only 1.5 blocks, but the buildings are beautiful. There are also some great food spots, and you can check out The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts (Victorian art glass and antiques) and The River Gallery (visual art – paintings, ceramics, etc).
In the late 70s, they closed this bridge down to cars and turned it into a pedestrian bridge, which is now the longest pedestrian bridge in the world! It’s a great spot to see the city, and we loved walking it at night.
Pro Tip: This is another great spot to check out seasonal events, like wine tastings and music festivals.
- For Those Seeking New Experiences -
The escape room was a great first experience in Chattanooga. I really felt like we all came together and worked as a team. There was a lot of movement around as people scurried to find answers. The escape room had really challenging puzzles with answers that sometimes seemed obvious but weren’t.
I feel like the experience overall was awesome. The room was based on the city’s famous train line, and finding out that one of the employees who talked with us made the props was pretty cool because there’s a lot of work that goes into it. – Jeniffer
15. Ghost Tour
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, Chattanooga has some of the best ghost tours in the US. Book a tour with one of the local companies who will take you to some of the most haunted spots in the city. Some even claim that you’ll get to see and talk to ghosts and spirits.
As you know, one of our favorite things to do when we travel is rock climbing. Whether it’s checking out the local gym or outdoor spots, we love introducing people to climbing.
My favorite experience from this trip was indoor rock climbing. I thought I wasn’t going to like it because I’m not a very active person. But as soon as I started, my goal was to reach the top and I made it.
One of my favorite parts was cheering on my teammates to get to the top. A couple of them are scared of heights and I knew how scary it was to be up there, but I also knew how good it felt to finish it so I made sure they caught that feeling at least once.
At one point, I fell while I was trying to reach the top, and it was scary, but it only made me realize I had to get stronger and think better about my next moves. I would totally climb again if I had the chance. – Wanda
Presencia Trip Recap
On Saturday night, after finishing our last planned activity, we surprised Jacob with a piñata, confetti, and birthday cake.
As we were demolishing the piñata and fighting over the scattered candy, one of our staff received a phone call that her dad was at risk of deportation. Another said she was having a hard time processing the recent murder of an acquaintance.
As we rallied around them, cleaned our AirB&B, and prepared to return to our homes the next morning, we were grateful for the unity, creativity, and discovery the weekend provided. It gave us what we needed to return to our neighborhood and do the hard work ahead.
You can also watch Wanda’s story below, growing up in Presencia and now becoming the senior tutoring director.
Map of the Best Things to Do in Chattanooga Tn
More Things to Do in Chattanooga Tennessee
- AT&T Field Baseball – Watch the Chattanooga Lookouts, minor league
- Bessie Smith Cultural Center – Closed until further notice
- Chattanooga Market – there’s a holiday market for the first three weekends in December.
- Tennessee River Valley
- Chattanooga Duck Boat Tours
- Chattanooga Zoo – if you’re not a member, tickets must be purchased online.
- Classic Arcade Pinball Museum – max capacity is 25.
- City Tours – via Segway, Bus, Walking
- Coolidge Park
- The Comedy Catch– open with limited seating
- High Point ZIP Adventure – reserve tickets online only
- Gallery 1401 – they have social distancing pop up shops.
- International Towing and Recovery Museum
- JJ’s Bohemia – live music, closed until further notice.
- Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park – Closed until 2021
- North Shore Neighborhood – they have dance paving stones that teach you how to dance
- Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center
- Songbirds Guitar Museum
- Southern Belle River Boat Cruise – sightseeing cruise
- Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
- Warehouse Row – shopping
- Chattanooga Balloon Company – Permanently Closed
Where to Eat in Chattanooga TN
- The Bitter Alibi (Breakfast/Brunch, $)
- Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken (Southern, $)
- Clumpies Ice Cream Co (Ice Cream, $)
- Oddstory Brewing Co (Brewery, $)
- Public House (New American, Southern, $)
- State of Confusion (Peruvian, $)
- Tony’s Pasta Shop and Trattoria (Italian, $)
- Urban Stack (Burgers, $)
- Tremont Tavern (Pub, $)
- When to Visit: Visiting in Fall, between September to November, is the best time to find fewer crowds and better weather. Summer is the liveliest, but also the most hot and humid time.
- Getting Around the City: There’s a great bike-share system in the city that’s a good and cheap alternative to a car.
- A lot of tourist attractions offer discounts through hotels, flyers, and brochures. Here’s a good place to start for coupons.
Any other things to do in Chattanooga Tennessee we must include? What is a must every time you visit?
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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust
Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.