Considering spending a weekend in Chattanooga? Read on for all my top recommendations
Chattanooga is a historic yet trendy city in southern Tennessee that is seriously underrated. Built up as a railroad hub, this city has flourished in recent years, becoming a great destination with city amenities, a touch of a small town feel, and a lot of options for outdoor activities.
While many people just do a day trip to Chattanooga from nearby cities (Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, Huntsville, Birmingham, etc), Chattanooga definitely has enough to do for an entire weekend. We’ve visited Chattanooga several times now, and we’re still planning on going back – everyone in our family loves the city, and there’s always something to see and do.
From historic sites to incredible Southern restaurants, exciting attractions, great views, and lots of nature, Chattanooga certainly has something for everyone, whether you’re visiting with kids or a group of adults.
This guide to spending a weekend in Chattanooga is done with families in mind, but almost all of the activities are great for adults too – and we saw groups of adults at almost all of these spots.
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Where to Stay in Chattanooga
Let’s get the basics out of the way – you’re going to need somewhere to stay during your weekend in Chattanooga. These are 3 accommodation options in Chattanooga I’d highly recommend.
✔️The Read House is a historic, upscale 1872 hotel that boats “Jazz Age opulence,”
✔️Large chandeliers, dark wood paneling, fancy ceilings, drop dead gorgeous dining rooms and other common areas
✔️Room are very lovely, bathrooms in particular are luxurious
✔️Check availability and prices here
✔️Beautiful, classy hotel with absolutely stunning and unique decor
✔️Located right on the river, just adjacent to the pedestrian bridge
✔️Rooftop pool + bar with incredible views
✔️Check prices and availability here
✔️An affordable but still very nice hotel in a prime spot in downtown Chattanooga
✔️Fun indoor + outdoor pool area
✔️Rooms are well-designed, and all have hardwood-like floors
✔️Great budget option (while not compromising on quality)
✔️Check prices and availability here
(Photo via Expedia)
Chattanooga Day 1 Itinerary
You’ve just arrived in the city! These are the top things to do with your first day in Chattanooga.
The Chattanooga Riverwalk
Start out your time in Chattanooga with a walk along the Tennessee River. This riverside promenade extends for 13 miles, offering great views of the river and the city. The Riverwalk sometimes goes right along the water (without guardrails), sometimes removed a few meters from the water, and in some spots splits into higher and lower paths. The sidewalk is nice, wide, and clean, and is a really beautiful area.
There are multiple locations where you can rent city bikes through Bike Chattanooga for about $8/hr. These locations only carry adult-sized bikes, so this isn’t a good option if you are with children. Along the river is a great place to utilize this service.
The Passage is a really unique, fun feature right in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. This inventive urban splash pad has water cascading down sidewalk steps, and pooling in a basin on a roadway underpass. The basin is practically adjacent to the river, and is connected to the Tennessee Riverwalk. The water is clean and refreshing, and is a really fun place to cool off on a hot summer day.
Want to see the Passage but don’t want to get wet? Don’t worry, the staircase and underpass is split in half – one side has the water, the other stays dry.
My kids loved it here, and I was impressed with how clean the area around the water was – there wasn’t a lot of garbage or random clothes around.
It also has historical significance as the Passage is actually an interactive statue commemorating the Trail of Tears which crossed the Tennessee River at this location.
Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge
The Walnut Street Bridge is a pedestrian-only bridge that connects downtown and North Chattanooga. I love a good bridge situation, and the Walnut Street Bridge delivers a very nice experience – the views over the river and back to the city are lovely.
Plus, the wooden flooring (the bridge was built in 1891) and the distinctive blue trusses overhead make for a very aesthetic experience (and makes for a great photo spot!) Fun fact: this bridge is the 4th longest pedestrian bridge in the world.
The Walnut Street Bridge starts on the downtown side and ends on the North Chattanooga side, right at Coolidge Park. Coolidge Park is a large greenspace with a variety of activities available.
There’s plenty of space to spread out and have a barbecue or picnic (we saw a lot of people doing this), and there’s a fun splash pad with shooting water spouts and stone animals to climb on. There are also some sculptures to see (go find the Blue Rhino on the east side of the park), an indoor carousel to ride, and a walkway along the river.
Near the Blue Rhino are some steps taking you right down to the river bank. This is a kayak launch pad, so if you have a kayak, you can easily access the generally calm river waters from here. Or, you can just walk on the rocks and enjoy the views.
Want to Get on the River? This unique kayaking excursion takes you out on the Tennessee River and to the Chickamauga Dam, located just upstream from downtown.
Besides it’s history with trains, Chattanooga is most famous for the incredible Tennessee Aquarium that sits right on the banks of the river. There are two buildings, the River Journey and the Ocean Journey, to the aquarium, plus an IMAX theater.
There are over 10,000 marine animals that live in the beautiful habitats of the aquarium, including sharks, stingrays, piranhas, eels, turtles, snakes, crocodiles, penguins, otters, and a large variety of fish
It is highly advised to buy your timed entry ticket online in advance, as time slots can sell out. I’d plan for a minimum of 2 hours to enjoy the aquarium.
- Hours: 10am-5pm (9am-5pm on Saturdays)
- Entrance Fee: Basic entrance is $40 for adults and $30 for youth 5-17. There are multiple package upgrade options you can purchase.
Southern Belle River Boat
The Southern Belle Riverboat offers 1.5 hour daytime and sunset cruises on the river. Revel in the incredible views as you float past the city, Lookout Mountain, and the countryside around you, while you enjoy live music or live narration (depending on whether you do a daytime or nighttime cruise).
Upgrades to include dinner on the boat are possible. This is a delightful way to spend the evening in Chattanooga.
Day 2 of Your Weekend in Chattanooga:
Downtown Chattanooga is a lively area, with a lot of character. The neighborhood feels very crisp and clean, and is a blend of trendy and charming, with a majority of brick buildings, and sometimes brick streets and sidewalks. It’s a great outdoor city space with plenty of pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and areas.
In downtown, you can find plenty of cute and quirky boutique shops and local restaurants. Chattanooga also has a lot of fun little corners and points of interest in downtown; here are 4 different things you should look for as you wander around and explore:
Chattanooga has many of this “bricked sculptures” all around town. Each one is in a different shape – we’ve seen steamboats, row boats, fire engines, tractors, and more, and my kids LOVE climbing and playing on them.
Umbrella Alley is a cute little spot with a canopy of colorful umbrellas. You can find this spot right off of Chestnut Street, between MLK Boulevard and 8th Street.
Beautiful, colorful, and unique murals are all over downtown Chattanooga. While murals are scattered around the city (keep your eyes open!), many of them are near or off of Highway 41, or on MLK boulevard.
The locations of the murals pictured above are (and are pinned at the map at the bottom of this post)
- Angel Wings: Corner of Long St and US Hwy 41
- Abstract Art with Hands: Kinsley Hotel
- Polka Dot Wall: Alley off of approximately 1428 Williams Street
➡️Second Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga
I just think this church building is so fun – I mean, there’s a turret!
The Chattanooga Choo Choo
The railroads have historically been a huge industry in Chattanooga, with the city being a transit point for many of the train lines. In fact, the convergence of multiple railways made Chattanooga a fairly strategic city during the Civil War. All this led to what Chattanooga is maybe most known for: the Chattanooga Choo Choo song.
All of the trains going through Chattanooga stopped at the Terminal Station. This station was constructed in Beaux-Art style, with a large outside facade, a soaring domed ceiling, and beautiful details throughout. It’s definitely worth stopping to see this beautiful and historically significant building.
No longer running, the terminal station today is known as the Chattanooga Choo Choo and has been repurposed over the years. In the 70’s, to prevent the station from being demolished, the train station was converted to a hotel + restaurant area.
Currently, the Chattanooga Choo Choo doesn’t function as a hotel, but the courtyard terrace behind it is a public communal area for shops, restaurants, and entertainment. You’ll find a distillery, bar, a few restaurants, an escape room, comedy club, gift shop, jewelry store, and garden area.
Also in the courtyard, you can see the actual, historic “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the train leaving Cincinnati and arriving in Chattanooga that earned the nickname.
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
The term “museum” is used a little loosely here because the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum is more of a living, experiential museum. While there are several trains in the yard that you can look at (not touch or climb on), the real experience is going on a train ride. The train rides are all on historic, restored trains.
There are many railroad ride options available here, ranging from a one hour ride to 8 hour rides, with options for dinner on the train, and special events at holidays. We did the short, one hour train ride. It was only 15 minutes out and 15 minutes back, with about 25 minutes to watch the train turn around. There’s a guide that shares fun historical facts about the train, the area, and the places that you are passing as you go by.
After the 15 minute ride out, everyone disembarks from the train to be able to watch the train turntable in action. They drive the engine on and turn it around in front of you – it’s a fun demonstration, and our kids loved the experience.
If you have a train lover in your group, this experience is not to be missed.
Ruby Falls is a popular tourist attraction in Chattanooga, located on (and under) Lookout Mountain, where you hike through a cave to reach a tall underground waterfall. The hike through the cave is guided, and the whole process is a very efficient and well-oiled machine.
A quick note about Lookout Mountain: This very tall, very large hill is located just southwest of downtown, and holds a lot of hikes, lookout points, and attractions on it. So, if someone is talking about Lookout Mountain, know that there are a lot of different spots and things to do on the one mountain.
Okay, back to Ruby Falls. To start, you descend 260 feet in an elevator to the underground location where you meet your guide, watch a video about how the cave was discovered in the early 1900’s (fun fact: the cave is named after the wife of the man who discovered it), and begin your cave walk.
The tunnel that you’re walking through was generally decently tall (most people could walk through just fine, but as a 6’0 tall person, I occasionally ducked my head a little bit), and is pretty comfortable to walk through. There are a lot of typical stalagmites and stalactites, with several special and interesting structures that the guide will point out to you.
At the end, you come to a large, very tall chamber with a 90 foot waterfall cascading through an opening near the top. Lights illuminate the waterfall with changing colors- the effect is very pretty.
Since the pathway is out and back, you will occasionally pass other groups, and when you do, the group that is going in yields to the group going out. We only had to do this 1-2 times on each leg – you’re not constantly passing people as you walk.
Overall, it’s a nice experience and while there are many cool caves in the world to visit, the underground waterfall made this one quite unique. You are with other people – this is not a secluded nature experience, but it’s still nice.
Total distance that you walk is just over 1 mile, which our kids handled just fine, and the passageway wasn’t too tight or small. If you’re visiting during summer, this is a great activity for a hot afternoon, as the cave stays a cool 65 degrees year-round.
Tickets are sold on site, but they do sell out. I’d highly recommend buying them online in advance. Included in the ticket is access to the roof of the “castle” built on the grounds.
- Hours: 8am-8pm, daily (hours vary by season, double check before you go)
- Entrance Fee: Adults: $25, Kids 3-12: $16
Point Park is a bit of a gem at the very north edge of Lookout Mountain. This spot is part of the National Park Service, and a memorial for the Lookout Mountain Battlefield from the Civil War.
The entrance to the park is through a really cool castle-like gate, and then you can view different memorials and monuments to the battle and read the placards to learn more about how the progression of the battle.
There are about a dozen old historical cannons around the park, and some great views towards the city. The edge of the mountain at Point Park is fairly sheer, so you get a sweeping view of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.
On the left side of the park (if you’re looking out at the city, aka the north side), there’s a little path that takes you down some stairs and around to Roper’s Rock, a cool little stone building with a lookout spot with a slightly different vantage point. Here, you get unencumbered views of the entire valley, including Moccasin Bend – the big 180 degree bend in the Tennessee River.
This was one of our favorite things to do in all of Chattanooga. I recommend coming here in the evening because this is also a great place to…
Watch the Sunset
At least once during your weekend in Chattanooga, you should watch a great sunset over the city. There are a few great spots to watch the sunset on Lookout Mountain. Sunset Rock is the most well-known and popular, and it’s just a little bit farther back on the mountain from Point Park.
What I would actually recommend, though, is catching the sunset from the trail to Roper’s Rock. Just after you turn onto the trail down to Roper’s Rock from the top of Point Park, there are some really big rocks situated in an opening between the trees, which offer a fantastic western view over the hills and ridges in the distance.
Day 3 in Chattanooga
The final day of your weekend getaway involves nature, history, great views, and adventure.
Glen Falls is a charming little nature hike to a cute waterfall on the back of Lookout Mountain. This easy 2.3 mile round trip trail takes you through the woods to a waterfall that tucked between some boulders, making it partially hidden (in the picture, you can’t really see it, in real life, it’s much more visible and obvious).
You can wade in the water at the bottom of the pool since the falls and current are not that strong. However, I recommend you keep going on the path that goes up and past the waterfall to another really pretty spot.
Here, the rocks are large and flat, and the stream babbles easily over the rocks. You can keep walking on the dirt path next to the stream, or even walk on the flat boulders through the stream.
Rock City Gardens
Rock City Gardens, on Lookout Mountain, is a popular and fun curated nature path that takes you through small natural canyons, slot canyons, caves, and lookout points, passing by garden areas, over several bridges, and past different sculptures.
There is one twisting loop path that everyone follows through the gardens, which has over 40 different points of interest. The path itself is only 3/4 of a mile long, but since there are many places to stop and look at things, plan for around 2 hours to visit the gardens.
On the trail in Rock City is where you’ll see one of the most well-known photo spots in Chattanooga – Lookout Point, or Lover’s Leap.
The final section of the garden takes you through the Hall of the Mountain King (a path through a cave with lights), and then the Fairyland Caverns, which has little fairy tale scenes in alcoves as you walk by.
The final spot is a large room with a little Mother Goose village, showing many Mother Goose scenes around the hill and castle. It’s a little kitschy, to be sure, but also, my kids really loved it. It definitely had some of the feel of the 7 Dwarves ride at Disney World.
- Hours: Rock City opens at 8:30am and last entrance is from 3:45 and 8pm, depending on the season. Visitors are able to remain past the “closing time” to finish their exploration of the garden.
- Entrance Fee: $27 for adults, $17 for children ages 3-12. It is recommended to buy tickets online, as time slots can sell out, but you are able to purchase tickets in person.
Final Activity – Choose from 3 Options:
For your final hours in Chattanooga, choose from 1 (or 2, if you end up with more time) of the following options: Option 1 is a interesting Civil War historical site, Option 2 is a nature spot in a beautiful state park, an Option 3 is a fun adventure activity.
➡️Option 1: Chickamauga Battlefield
Chickamauga Battlefield is a Civil War historic site located about 15 minutes south of Chattanooga by car. This site is part of the National Park Service, and includes a visitor’s center and a large driving loop through the battlefield. In fact, it was the first National Military Park and the beginning of preserving Civil War battlefields; it was created with support from northern and southern states.
The visitor’s center has some really interesting exhibits, as well as a short film about the battle and the war. Both were very helpful in giving context and information about why the area and the battle was so significant in the Civil War.
If nothing else, definitely stop by to pick up a driving map of the battlefield. If you’re with elementary age kids, grab a Junior Ranger book for them to do while you visit. This book has activities related to what they will see in the park, and when they complete the book, they can turn it back in for a Junior Ranger badge.
And there is a lot to learn about this battle. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s brother-in-law died here, which was a huge personal blow to him (even though he was fighting on the Confederate side). Or you’ll learn the significance of the tower pictured below – where a Union force -the Wilder Lightning Brigade – was cut off from the rest of the army and had to make a last stand at the crest of this hill.
Chickamauga was a massive, massive battle, involving 150,000 soldiers that lasted several days and stretched out over 5000+ acres. Today, you follow a set driving route through the fields, where markers, monuments, cannons, cannonballs, and placards are set out to indicate what was happening at that particular location.
For example a blue placard showed where Union soldiers formed ranks, and red placards were for the confederacy. Piles of cannonballs indicate where generals were killed. Cannons, of course, represent cannon emplacements. As you drove the 7 mile route, it really hits how large an area this covered as you go through forests, fields, hills, and famland.
You really can make a visit to Chickamauga last as long or as short as you want. As you drive past fields, you can get out and look at the different placards and memorials, or you can just drive slowly by, taking it all in. As people who enjoy history, we found this to be extremely interesting – the scope of the battle was really mindblowing.
➡️Option 2: Cloudland Canyon State Park
If you want more nature experiences and hiking trails during your Chattanooga weekend trip, I’d recommend heading out to Cloudland Canyon State Park, just 30 minutes from downtown.
Cloudland Canyon is a beautiful park (that’s actually in north Georgia) with a deep gorge, a rim overlook trail, and a Waterfalls Trail that takes you down into the canyon, where you can see 3 waterfalls in less than 3 miles.
The trail starts as a dirt path, but fairly quickly transitions into staircases heading down, often passing by big boulders and cliffs. On this trail, you’ll see Hemlock Falls, Sitton’s Gulch Falls, and Cherokee Falls. Cherokee Falls is the grandest of the three, and was my favorite of the bunch.
The waterfall came over a curved ridge that made the area kind of bowl-shaped. The water drops into a nice, clear pool of water at that is lined by big boulders to sit on.
Fee: $5 for a day pass
➡️Option 3: Ocoee Whitewater Rafting
The Ocoee River is just 30 minutes east of Chattanooga, and is part of the Cherokee National Forest. The Ocoee is a world class white water river, and was actually used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but there are lots of white water rafting experiences that the general public can enjoy.
Most of the rapids on the river are class III. (If you’re unfamiliar with the rapid class system, it goes from I to VI, with class VI being extremely dangerous and class I rapids being barely a bump.) Most white water rafting tours go through class III/IV rapids.
No experience is necessary for white water rafting, as an experienced navigator is in the boat with you, helping handle the raft and guide you safely through the rapids. A rafting experience starts at the tour operator’s base camp, where they give you safety instructions, get you outfitted with the right gear, and then load you up in buses to drive you to the starting point.
This is a great adventurous end to your Chattanooga weekend, whether you go with adults or the family (children need to be 12 years old to whitewater raft here).
👉My Recommendation: This top-rated, half day (3 hour) whitewater rafting adventure is an excellent option to fit in during your Chattanooga trip, where you experience the thrills of 17 rapids along 5 miles of the Ocoee. Note that you must be 12 to do this experience.
✔️Check availability for white water rafting here
Overview of Your Chattanooga Itinerary for the Weekend
- Tennessee Riverwalk
- The Passage
- Walnut Street Bridge
- Coolidge Park
- Tennessee Aquarium
- Southern Belle Riverboat
- Explore Downtown
- Chattanooga Choo Choo
- Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
- Ruby Falls
- Point Park
- Sunset at Point Park
- Glen Falls
- Rock City
- Chickamauga Battlefield OR Cloudland Canyon State Park OR White Water Rafting in Ocoee
Map of Things to Do in Chattanooga
Do You Need a Car for 2-3 days in Chattanooga?
The short answer is yes, you will need a car for a weekend trip to Chattanooga. While the downtown area is incredibly walkable, many of the other attractions you have to drive to.
If you need a rental car, I’d recommend booking with DiscoverCars.com – they reliably have the best rates and availability for rental cars. However, definitely make your reservation ASAP – prices go way up and availability goes way down the longer you wait!
Where to Park in Chattanooga
There are a few options for parking in downtown Chattanooga. Street parking or city lot parking is $1/hour. We found that the small, surface level lots or street parking wasn’t too hard to find unless there is an event happening. City parking garages are the next most inexpensive option, and the private parking lots are the most expensive option.
Is Chattanooga Safe?
Yes, overall Chattanooga is very safe. The downtown area of Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, and all the places I recommend in this itinerary are very safe for travelers to enjoy.
Visiting Chattanooga for the Weekend – The Wrap Up
Is Chattanooga worth visiting as a weekend trip? My vote is absolutely yes. Chattanooga makes a perfect 2-3 day trip. There is great food, fun city vibes, historical sites, and fun natural wonders to experience in this fun, underrated southern city.