I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
February 7, 2019
If there’s any city I feel completely knowledgeable about (besides Nashville), it’s Chattanooga, Tennessee. My oldest stepdaughter enrolled at UT Chattanooga in 2008, my younger stepdaughter followed her a few years later, and at least one of them has lived in Chattanooga ever since. We generally visit them at least four times a year, and we try to do something new together every single time we visit. So when it comes to planning a Chattanooga family vacation or just coming up with new things to do with kids in Chattanooga, I can absolutely help!
Check out this list of Ferrier family favorites and I’m positive you’ll be adding this fun-filled city to your family vacation shortlist.
The cornerstone of the Chattanooga family experience has to be the Tennessee Aquarium. Housed in two separate buildings (freshwater and saltwater), it’s filled with fascinating exhibits and amazing creatures, including sharks, jellyfish, lemurs, butterflies, penguins, stingrays, and much more. If it’s a repeat visit for you, consider springing for Backstage Passes for a behind-the-scenes tour and private animal encounters. My kids loved getting to see some off-exhibit animals (like a horrifying Portugese Man-o-war and a very smart octopus) and viewing the animals from a keeper’s perspective.
Believe the hype — We finally visited Ruby Falls on our most recent trip to Chattanooga and it is truly all it’s cracked up to be. You’ll descend in an elevator 620 feet into the earth and walk a half-mile through Lookout Mountain’s 30 million-year-old cave system before arriving at this 145-foot underground waterfall, which is enhanced with lighting and music to make things that much more thrilling. I’m a cave junkie and we’ve been on every cave tour within driving distance of Nashville and my kids were STILL completely awestruck by the sight of Ruby Falls. One note – The temperature in the cave feels like 70 degrees with the humidity so you won’t need a jacket, even in wintertime. Carrying heavy coats on a mile-long walk through narrow cave passageways isn’t fun, y’all.
I’ll add that the gift shop at Ruby Falls also has one of my all-time favorite souvenirs. My son bought a small hematite tower-shaped stone for $9 and a $3 LED light-up platform to put it on. He turns it on every night in his room and it’s the coolest nightlight EVER. We get lots of ridiculous souvenirs on our travels and this stands out as decidedly non-ridiculous. Just saying.
Sunday really is a funday if you spend it at the Chattanooga Market. We are farmers market freaks and this one is my all-time favorite. From the end of April until the end of December, head over to the First Tennessee Pavilion on Sunday for a gigantic market that includes more than 50 farms, 130 artisans, and live music. There’s soooo much to love here — We always stop for cold brew chocolate coffee from Velvet Robot, fresh-baked pretzel bread, delicious Dracula sausage from Sausage World, and locally foraged wild mushrooms, as well as jewelry, art, birdhouses, wall hangings — If they sell it, we’ve probably bought it at some point!
And while we’re on the topic of Sundays, this is the only day Flying Squirrel is open to all ages for its fabulous brunch — and plenty of parents bring their kids out to take advantage of the opportunity. This is seriously one of the best brunches I’ve ever had, and I can’t decide which dish I liked best. Pictured left to right are the Wagyu tartar sandwich (phenomenal), the 5-spice french toast (made with Niedlov’s brioche and a definite kid favorite), and the Korean BBQ beef burrito (seriously awesome). Add live music and Sriracha Bloody Marys and you’ve got yourself one heck of a family meal.
This has to be the best view in Chattanooga and it’s a perfect spot for family photos. You can find it by entering ‘Sunset Rock’ into Google Maps. You’ll drive up Lookout Mountain and park in a small lot in a neighborhood, then take the short trail out to the rock. Be careful if you have smaller children, since there are no fences to spoil the view.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, check out this 1.5 mile out-and-back hike from Cravens House to Sunset Rock, which I’m now determined to try with my family the next time we’re in town. It’s a family-friendly hike that takes you to this same spot, along with ‘sweeping views’ and ‘towering sandstone cliffs.’ Oh my.
Chattanooga has some fantastically funky little shops, and my favorite has to be Blue Skies on the NorthShore. Here, you’ll find the perfect gift for every single person you know, including yourself, as well as whimsical home decor and gorgeous handcrafted jewelry. I don’t think I’ve ever visited Chattanooga without stopping here, and most of my jewelry comes from this store. Do note that Blue Skies does have a few items like dishtowels and socks that contain hilarious phrases with expletives, so if you’re sensitive to your children seeing that sort of thing, you may want to Birdbox them before entering.
After all that shopping, you’re gonna be hungry. Head a few doors down from Blue Skies to Beast + Barrel, which has a solid place on my favorite restaurants list for Chattanooga. We have eaten here MANY times — the service is always great and the food is never not fantastic. Try the Big Katz pastrami sandwich or the salmon pastrami BLT (pictured above). Both feature house-cured meat that’s out of this world. My husband reports his chicken in a biscuit, also pictured above, was delicious as well.
Whether you’re shopping at Blue Skies or stuffing your face at Beast + Barrel, you’ll definitely want to make time afterward to cross the nearby Walnut Street Bridge — It’s the longest pedestrian bridge in the U.S. and it’s another fantastic family photo op. You’ll cross over Coolidge Park and the Tennessee River and enjoy fantastic views of downtown Chattanooga, located on the other side.
Directly beneath the Walnut Street Bridge, you’ll find the Coolidge Park interactive fountains — This is one of my favorite splash pads in the nation. Statues of animals spurt water from their mouths and add magic to the whole experience. When my kids were smaller, we couldn’t visit Chattanooga without a stop at the fountains.
Even if it’s cold and rainy, you can still enjoy Coolidge Park’s antique carousel, which you’ll find right beside the fountains. Built in 1897, this indoor carousel has been restored and now gives joy to kids of all ages for just a dollar a ride.
Problem: Your kids need to eat NOW. And it’s two in the morning. Solution: City Cafe Diner! This 24-hour downtown diner is a local favorite, and when you visit, you’ll understand why. Its ginormous menu ensures plenty of options for even your pickiest eaters — and the food is surprisingly good. Its scintillating pie and cake display is pretty much guaranteed to keep your kids in line in hopes of earning dessert at the end of their meal. Its no-frills retro ambience will make you feel right at home, even if your #OOTD is a dirty t-shirt and pajama bottoms. And its round-the-clock hours mean you can get a meal at any time of day or night. What’s not to love?
One of Chattanooga’s most unique accommodations can be found at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel. Behind the historic Terminal Station, original Pullman cars all contain queen beds and private bathrooms. Some also have a daybed and trundle, making it perfect for a family of four. We spent a night in one of the cars and had a blast — The hotel is within easy walking distance of some of our favorite restaurants and shops and the experience of sleeping in a train car absolutely thrilled our kids. We have also stayed in one of the many hotel rooms located behind Terminal Station. I was not a fan of that experience, although I do see they’ve been renovated since our stay.
If you’re visiting Chattanooga with kids (heck, if you’re visiting Chattanooga at all), you really shouldn’t miss The Hot Chocolatier. Located right across the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, this perennial hotspot serves up a long list of imaginative hot chocolate flavors, as well as house-made artisan chocolates and coffee drinks. We generally make more than one stop here when we’re in town; it’s the one thing my entire family can agree on, although we each have our own favorite flavor!
Younger children will definitely want to make a stop at the Creative Discovery Museum, where they’ll experience hands-on exhibits, art lessons, science demonstrations, animal petting, and traveling exhibits that change every couple of months. A play gym for ages 3 and under will keep your babies and toddlers occupied as well. Considered one of the best children’s museums in the country, it’s conveniently located in downtown Chattanooga within walking distance of the Aquarium.
Rock City is one of the most unique and beautiful places in the nation, and no first-time visit to Chattanooga is complete without a trip here as well. You’ll find this natural wonder atop Lookout Mountain — It’s truly enchanting with many picturesque nooks and crannies the whole family will love. Opened in 1932, Rock City has remained in the same family ever since — They’ve done a great job of preserving its kitschy ‘See Rock City’ charm. Tickets are steep — the price varies based on which day you plan to visit– but I think you’ll find they’re worth it. I’ve written more about Rock City here.
My husband took my kids on a Chattanooga Ducks tour when they were five and eight and it was definitely one of their favorite things they’d ever done at that age. I mean, the man had Number One Parent status FOR DAYS. You’ll board authentic WWII amphibious landing craft and tour downtown Chattanooga before splashing into the Tennessee River at Ross Landing for a tour of the Tennessee River and Maclellan Island. Your children might even get a chance to drive the boat! The whole thing lasts about an hour, so your kids won’t have time to get bored! Tours start and end at 503 Market.
In addition to a 6-story screen, the IMAX 3D Theater now has a new laser projection system, so these amazing 3D films have never looked better. Various films show hourly throughout the day and most are about 45 minutes long, which is definitely the sweet spot for the average kid’s attention span. We’ve gone to this theater many times and have never gotten tired of it — It’s right across the street from the Aquarium and an easy add-on to your day there.
River Street Deli is an ideal lunch stop if you’re shopping in Chattanooga’s NorthShore neighborhood (it’s right below Blue Skies) or relaxing in Coolidge Park. This no-frills deli is also very kid friendly. Order at the counter, find a table, and prepare to chow down on delicious sandwiches and soups. (I’m partial to the rare roast beef with boursin cheese and Dijon mustard.) Your children will give the kids menu their seal of approval — It includes peanut butter with banana and honey, grilled cheese, and hotdogs. We stop here often!
Larger families — or those with older kids who might appreciate a little extra space — will definitely appreciate all the amenities offered by Embassy Suites in Chattanooga’s suburban Hamilton Place neighborhood. Our entire family of six stayed here during our last visit and I can highly recommend it. Suites have two separate rooms — a bedroom and a living area — which is perfect for teens and tweens who like a little privacy while on vacation. Connecting suites are also available. We also loved the indoor pool here, but I think our favorite thing was the food and drinks! Breakfast is included with your stay and it’s delicious. In addition to a buffet, you can have waffles and omelets made to order. And every evening between 5:30 and 7:30, complimentary drinks (including alcoholic beverages) and snacks are available in the lobby. This was just what we needed between a long day of touring and dinner. Do note that this hotel is a 15 minute drive to the downtown area.
With 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor climbing and an incredible kids area that adults will envy, High Point Climbing and Fitness has to be one of the coolest climbing gyms in the nation. You will definitely notice it when you’re in downtown Chattanooga — Look for climbers scaling the outside climbing wall facing busy Broad Street. Inside, children as young as three can test their skills in the Kid Zone, which includes 15 auto belays and a 10 foot tall kids’ boulder.
Simply put, Clumpies is a Chattanooga staple. Lines often extend out the door in the summertime for a scoop or several of flavors like strawberry brownie balsamic and southside salted caramel. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it! You’ll find Clumpies locations in Chattanooga’s NorthShore, St. Elmo, and Southside neighborhoods as well as on Lookout Mountain.
Chattanooga’s most charming neighborhood has to be the Bluff View Art District. Here, old world-style homes mingle with shops, art galleries, restaurants, and lots of outdoor sculptures, all overlooking the Tennessee River. Take pictures in the sculpture garden, stop for coffee and sweet treats at Rembrandt’s Coffee House, and pick up a loaf of bread at the Bluff View Bakery before you leave.
Your kids will love the Incline Railway, a funicular railway known as “America’s Most Amazing Mile.” You’ll ride in trolley-like cars up the side of Lookout Mountain. The railway reaches an incline of 72.7%, which makes it one of the steepest railways in the world — Built in 1895, it’s also got to be one of the oldest! At the top of the mountain, enjoy the amazing views before heading back down again.
Locals love ‘sledding’ down this steep, grassy hill in Renaissance Park on the NorthShore. Cardboard works great, but as you can see, so do these plastic sleds we brought with us to Chattanooga once just for this occasion! You’ll find Cardboard Hill at 100 Manufacturer’s Road. On a nice day, expect to be joined by lots of other local families.
Main Street Meats is my new Chattanooga restaurant obsession, and no wonder — It’s operated by the co-owners of Easy Bistro, which is my favorite ‘fancy’ restaurant in the city. In this airy, light-filled restaurant, enjoy incredible soups, meat and cheese plates, and sandwiches made with meats from local farms. My husband and I agreed the mediodia sandwich (swiss, smoked pork, ham, and orange marmalade) was out of this world and the soup of the day — brown butter sunchoke– just might be the best soup I’ve ever tasted. My son loved his chili cheese croissant dog, while my daughter devoured the burger. I’m in love.
If you happen to be visiting Chattanooga on the first or last weekend of the month, you’ll definitely want to make time for a trip to the Lula Lake Land Trust, privately owned land with two beautiful waterfalls that’s open to the public twice a month. The hike to both waterfalls was easy for our ten-year-old — Just be sure to get a map when you sign in so that you don’t get turned around along the way. In the past, the gates have stayed open on public weekends until the parking lot was full — After that, visitors were out of luck. I’ve noticed you can now make reservations online to visit, which is a much better system. Tickets are free, but a $15 per car donation is encouraged. You can also make reservations on the Lula Lake site for free guided 4-mile hikes, which I’m now eager to check out!
It would be cruel and unusual of you not to stop at Julie Darling Donuts during a Chattanooga vacation with kids. Open since 2009, it’s a perfect stop for breakfast or a snack — The cake donuts come in all kinds of inventive flavors like nana pudding, salted caramel, and red velvet. A pit stop here is an easy way to turn your kids’ frowns upside down and a perfect reward for walking the nearby Walnut Street Bridge.
Yep. It’s another cool interactive monument your kids will love, although this has a somber story behind it you’ll want to share with your family. Located at Ross’s Landing, 100 Riverfront Pkwy, The Passage marks the spot where the Trail of Tears began. Here, you’ll find a ‘weeping wall’ of water and a stair waterfall your kids can walk up and down — The water represents the tears shed by the Cherokee people. Seven ceramic disks on the wall tell the story of the Cherokee Nation. It’s a great spot to cool off when it’s hot outside and to reflect on one of the most horrifying times in American history. Want to read more about the Trail of Tears and how to talk about it with your kids? Check out the post I’ve written about it here — I think the information I uncovered when I was researching it for my family will surprise you.
You need a place to buy Chattanooga souvenirs and this has to be the coolest option in the ‘Noog. Located across the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo and next door to The Hot Chocolatier, Locals Only is stocked with Chattanooga signs, shirts, and ball caps, as well as all kinds products made by locals from in and around Chattanooga. I especially loved their pre-stocked Chattanooga gift boxes, which are filled with local products and created to meet a range of budgets. What a perfect gift idea!
Raccoon Mountain Caverns has 5.5 miles of discovered cave passageways and is considered to be one of the most geologically active caverns in the South. Two things make this open-to-the-public cave especially interesting to me. I’ve heard their ‘Crystal Palace Walking Tour’ is particularly kid-friendly. I’ve been on a few cave tours that weren’t, so this knowledge matters! And for adventurous families with older children, Raccoon Mountain Caverns offers ‘wild cave expedition’ tours — 2 to 5-hour tours that require gloves, pads, lights, and helmets and include crawling, climbing, sliding and squeezing. This is definitely my idea of a good time! It’s now on my vacation bucket list.
Love the outdoors like we do? Then you will definitely want to check out Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center. View 50 animals here, including a bobcat, wolves, a fox, and a bald eagle, explore one of the largest treehouses in the Southeast, hike the 14 miles of trails, or go canoeing — Staffers will provide the equipment, but reservations are strongly encouraged! What I love most about this place are the special programs, which include guided canoe floats, forest therapy walks, photography workshops, and more. Check the website’s events calendar to see what’s happening during your Chattanooga visit.
Two words on why Milk & Honey is a must-stop if you’re in Chattanooga with kids: homemade poptarts. You’ll also find authentic homemade gelato, Stumptown espresso and coffee, lots of other assorted homemade sweets and pastries, and a breakfast and lunch menu that will make your stomach grumble with abject longing. It’s a big snack stop for my family, since half of us love coffee and the other half crave sweets, and it’s a great place to pick up a quick breakfast on your way out of town.
Take a train ride back into time aboard the one of the Tennessee Valley Railroad’s historic trains, where the rides are designed to be a sort of ‘moving museum’ for passengers. Train rides are scheduled throughout the year and include romantic dinner rides, Thomas the Train rides for kids, rides with Santa, and more. Train rides range from an hour to 8 hours, so there truly is a train ride for every family. Check out the Tennessee Valley Railroad to see what’s scheduled during your Chattanooga visit.
Come for the cheese, stay for the stories! Not only does Bleu Fox Cheese Shop have an excellent selection of cheeses (and plenty of samples!), if you’re lucky enough to go when cheese monger Chris is there, you’ll be regaled with the fascinating backstories of every cheese you try. It’s local entertainment at its finest — and if you’re wondering why Chris is brandishing the knife, he wants you to know that if you order a wedge of Parmesan and the person behind the counter does not cut it with one of these special Parmesan daggers, YOU NEED TO RUN.
You’ll find Bleu Cheese right across the street from Main Street Meats — and if you’re kids aren’t diehard cheeseheads, that’s completely okay BECAUSE…
The coolest vintage toy shop in Chattanooga is just a few doors down from Bleu Fox! Green Door Toys is our go-to place for souvenir shopping — Give your kid $5 and let them go crazy amid bins of My Little Pony figures, Star Wars collectibles, Pokemon cards, and so much more. Chances are, you’ll see lots of toys you remember from your own childhood. Our oldest has probably spent more money here than at any other shop in Chattanooga — and she’s 28!
Imma let you in on a little Ferrier travel secret. When we visit Chattanooga, my husband generally Pricelines a room at a target of $100-$120 per night. When he sets the parameters for downtown hotels that have a rating of at least 3 stars, we always end up with an affordable room at a hotel we really like, right in the heart of everything. We’ve done this over a dozen times and always been satisfied, although my husband did drop the rating to 2.5 stars a time or two and the results weren’t so great. Our favorite downtown hotel by far is The Chattanoogan. We also love The Read House (mostly for its gorgeous historic — and newly renovated! — lobby), and we’ve been pleased by the Chattanooga Marriott Downtown and the Holiday Inn Express as well.
This Southside Chattanooga restaurant is generally buzzing — and when you taste the food at State of Confusion, I think you’ll become a fan as well. With lots of indoor/outdoor seating, it’s generally not too hard to find a table, and if there’s a wait, there are plenty of shops (like Bleu Fox and Green Door) to keep you occupied while you wait for the text telling you your table is ready. State of Confusion is known for its many varieties of ceviche and Peruvian-inspired foods, but we went crazy for their house-made fried bologna sandwich and savory monkey bread. Delicious!
I will freely admit I’m enamored by great cold brew coffee, mostly because most places just serve hot coffee on ice and call it cold brew, and THAT IS NOT COLD BREW. If you want to taste what may very well be the best cold brew coffee I’ve ever had, head to Velo Coffee Roasters in Chattanooga’s hip Southside neighborhood. Get yourself some of their cold brew and pick up one of the coffee shop’s inventive snacks for the kids.
Perched on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, the Hunter Museum of American Art has to be one of the most beautiful museums in the nation. Inside, you’ll find American art from the Colonial period right up to the present day by artists including Mary Cassatt, Andy Warhol, and Childe Hassam. I know (trust me, I KNOW) it can be tough convincing your kids to visit a museum for an hour or two — Before your visit, be sure and print out this Family Guide, which will keep them busy and informed as you make your way through the exhibits.
Rare is the shop that keeps my entire family of six enthusiastic and excited about browsing — The Refindery is one of those places. This is a labyrinthine, extremely well-curated antique mall with cool finds for every taste and budget. We often stop by when we’re in town and we almost always leave with stuff we never knew we needed but now can’t live without. I dare you to buy that mounted buffalo head.
I could add even more to this list, especially when it comes to restaurants. We love Community Pie! And Easy Bistro (although I save this one for date nights)! And Terminal Brewhouse! And The Public House!
I love the NorthShore’s In-Town Gallery for local art! And Winder Binder, a cool art gallery/used bookstore! And I love that there’s a McKays in Chattanooga, which is my all-time favorite used bookstore — There’s a branch here in Nashville, too.
I’m sure some of you have more to add as well. Please do! What are your favorite things to eat, do, and see in Chattanooga? Let us know in the comments and we’ll be sure and check them out the next time we’re in town! In the meantime, enjoy this list and consider Chattanooga for your next family getaway. You definitely won’t regret it.
Thanks to Chattanooga Fun for hosting our latest Chattanooga adventure! I’ve received media accommodations for some of these activities, but I always research and develop our itinerary independently and my opinions and recommendations are always my own.