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3-Day Chattanooga Itinerary for Big Families

    3 day chattanooga itinerary

    When deindustrialization threatened Chattanooga’s largely manufacturing-based economy in the late 20th century, it reinvented itself as a tourist destination without ever losing sight of the people and history that made it what it is today. The result is a city where there’s always something new to discover but that never feels like a typical tourist trap.

    Chattanooga’s location in south Tennessee makes it an easy weekend trip for much of the southeast, and there’s enough to do there that a weekend trip will only scratch the surface. This 3-day itinerary will give your big family a taste of Chattanooga’s history and the natural beauty of the area.

    Baldwin 2-6-0 29, Chattanooga Choo Choo, April 2013 CNV00043           

    Day 1 – Chattanooga Choo Choo, Incline Railway, Point Park

    First, spend some time exploring Chattanooga’s railroad history with a visit to the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo. The old terminal building serves as the lobby of a hotel now, but you can still walk around inside and look up at the impressive domed roof. Outside there are gardens to explore and a train engine to climb on, as well as several shops and restaurants.   Next up, take a trip up Lookout Mountain on the Incline Railway; it reaches a 72.7% grade, making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world (those with a fear of heights should proceed with caution!).  

      061811 Lookout Mountain Incline Railway Tennessee 007  

    You can buy a ticket package here that includes the railway plus Rock City and Ruby Falls and save a few dollars over purchasing tickets separately. Once you get to the top, your big family can grab some hot dogs for lunch and take the five-minute walk over to the National Park Service run Lookout Mountain Battlefield.  


    Here you can explore the small visitors’ center to learn about Chattanooga’s role in the Civil War, then walk across the street to follow the short, kid-friendly path around Point Park and take in some beautiful views.    



    After you make your return trip on the Incline Railway, head back toward the Choo-choo to get some dinner at the Terminal Brewhouse, located in a historic building that once served as a hotel for railroad passengers. The menu has plenty to appeal to kids, but with offerings that go beyond typical pub food for grownups (and of course there’s a great selection of craft beer if that’s your thing).


    Day 2 – Walnut Street Bridge, Chattanooga’s NorthShore, Tennessee Aquarium

    Spend your second day on flatter ground, exploring a few of the many things to see in the downtown area. First take a walk across the Tennessee River on the Walnut Street Bridge, one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world.  

    Walnut Street Bridge  

    From there, you can explore Chattanooga’s NorthShore. Take a ride on the restored carousel in Coolidge Park and stop for lunch at one of several great local restaurants before heading back across the bridge.   Back on the southern side of the river, see The Passage at Ross’s Landing, a permanent outdoor exhibit about the Cherokee tribes who lived in the Chattanooga area that memorializes the site of the beginning of the Trail of Tears.  


    Then spend the afternoon at the Tennessee Aquarium. There are two buildings to explore here; the original structure, River Journey has exhibits about the fish and wildlife you’d find along the Tennessee River as it flows from the mountains to the ocean; playful otters are a highlight here, as well as the seahorse exhibit found on the lower level.   Next door is Ocean Journey where you’ll find a butterfly garden, penguins, sharks, and all sorts of other ocean dwellers. If you’re still looking for more fun when you finish here, there’s also an IMAX theater across the street where you can catch a movie. For dinner, try local pizza joint, Lupi’s just a short walk from the aquarium.  

    Day 3 – Ruby Falls, Rock City

    Time to head back up Lookout Mountain for the final day of your Chattanooga trip. First stop at Ruby Falls and take an elevator deep into the earth for a guided tour of the cave that leads to a spectacular underground waterfall.  

    Ruby Falls, again

    Finally, finish your trip at Rock City, where a walking trail will take you through caves, rock formations, and gardens. Small kids will love the kitschy Mother Goose Village and Fairyland Caverns, and everyone will appreciate the great views from Lover’s Leap and the thrill of walking across a suspension bridge with a view of the Chattanooga Valley. There are places to pick up fast food here and a full-service restaurant if you want to grab some lunch before seeing the sites.

    Gretchen Holcombe lives in the northern suburbs of Atlanta with her husband and four boys. She blogs about home and travel at Boxy Colonial. Keep up with her latest adventures on Instagram and Facebook!

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