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Ready for a weekend getaway in a modern Southern city where the mountains are right there for you to explore? Here’s how to spend a weekend in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s one of my favorite cities in the South, with great food, plenty of outdoor activities, and a laid-back feel that is perfect for a relaxing yet fun weekend escape!
(Also, you know we love to pair a trip with a great book. So check out these books about Tennessee before heading to Chattanooga!)
Weekend in Chattanooga Overview
Before we dive into all the details, here’s an overview of how to spend your weekend in Chattanooga!
Day 1: Arrive in town and spend your evening at the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Day 2: Visit the Tennessee Aquarium, Ruby Falls, and enjoy time in the Northshore area.
Day 3: Have fun on Lookout Mountain by visiting Rock City and riding the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway.
Weekend in Chattanooga Itinerary
Now let’s get into all the details!
Day One in Chattanooga
Let’s start day one of our weekend in Chattanooga itinerary with Friday night.
Arriving earlier? Scroll to the bottom of this post to find a list of more things to do in Chattanooga beyond what’s in this itinerary!
Day One Evening: Chattanooga Choo Choo
For Friday evening, head to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. This is a historic train station in the heart of Chattanooga that has now been turned into an entertainment venue.
There is music, dining, and all kinds of fun experiences you can have here. So grab dinner at one of the restaurants here (STIR is definitely a top choice!) and then enjoy all there is to do around the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
The complex itself has a comedy club called Comedy Catch, an Escape Experience, and of course you have to check out the historic train in the Glenn Miller Gardens.
For more nightlife, head to Station Street just outside the Chattanooga Choo Choo. There you’ll find more bars and live music, and it’s Chattanooga’s only open container street. (In fact, it’s only the second open container street in all of Tennessee!)
Day Two in Chattanooga
For our second day in our weekend in Chattanooga, we’re going to focus on two of Chattanooga’s most iconic experiences: The Tennessee Aquarium and Ruby Falls.
Day Two Morning: Tennessee Aquarium
After breakfast (might I suggest Niedlov’s Bakery?), head to the Tennessee Aquarium.
To me, Chattanooga has always been synonymous with this aquarium because I have so many memories of visiting it has a kid. It’s also Chattanooga’s most visited attraction!
There are two buildings at the Tennessee Aquarium, River Journey and Ocean Journey. You can choose which one you’d like to start with.
Different people have their preferences, but I usually like to start with the Ocean Journey building. And I’d definitely recommend starting here if you’re traveling with kids, because I think it’s generally more exciting.
The Ocean Journey has a touch tank, a penguin exhibit, an amazing jellyfish room, a butterfly garden, and a huge tank with sharks and ocean fish. You’ll start at the top of the building and work your way down each level to the different exhibits.
Then head over to the River Journey building. There’s a lot of cool stuff here too! And I love that it really highlights animals that can be found not just in rivers around the world, but in the Tennessee River that runs right outside the aquarium.
In the River Journey you’ll find alligators, turtles, and some fish so big that it will be hard to believe they live in a river as opposed to an ocean.
Tennessee Aquarium Tips
- Buy your tickets ahead of time. You’ll have to choose a timed entry, so time it for as early as you can to make the most of your day.
- There are several large parking garages nearby. The closest one is on the corner of Aquarium Way and Chestnut Street. There is also another large one on the corner of 3rd and Broad. Both are just about a block away from the Aquarium.
- Plan to spend at least 2-3 hours at the Tennessee Aquarium. That’s about 1 to 1.5 hours per building. But if you really love marine life, you might need more!
Day Two Afternoon: Ruby Falls
After lunch (there are lots of restaurants to choose from near the Aquarium!), head up Lookout Mountain to see Ruby Falls.
Ruby Falls is a 145-foot waterfall deep underground beneath Lookout Mountain. And your visit here will involve walking through the cave to the falls and back out.
This is a super popular tourist destination in Chattanooga, so yes, it’s a little kitschy. But it’s fun and definitely worth doing at least once.
You’ll enter the cave with a guided tour, and it will take you 1,000 feet under Lookout Mountain, ending with a short light show a the magnificent Ruby Falls. And on the way you’ll see lots of cool cave formations (my favorites were the ones that looked like curtains falling!).
While the path is generally paved, it is somewhat narrow and this is definitely not fully accessible. So know that going on in. And while there aren’t any super tight spaces (definitely no crawling in this cave!) there are some narrower areas.
And if the thought of being 1,000 feet under a mountain gives you the heebie-jeebies, you can enjoy time on the surface. There’s a gift shop, a zipline experience, and the views from the top of the tower are some of best views of Chattanooga!
Day Two Evening: Northshore and Downtown
For late afternoon and evening, head back into downtown Chattanooga and check out the Northshore area across the Tennessee River.
This is a cute area with shops and restaurants. And one of my favorite touches are the bronze-cast dance step instructions you’ll find at various points in the sidewalks!
Then take the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge back toward downtown and check out The Passage. This amazing water feature marks the beginning of the Trail of Tears and it runs until 10:00 p.m. from May to September. Definitely make sure you’re wearing shoes that are either easy to take off or can get wet, because you’ll want to wade around in the water and walk down the waterfall steps.
Day Three in Chattanooga
For our last day in Chattanooga we’ll focus more on enjoying Lookout Mountain!
Day Three Morning: Rock City
You know all those See Rock City birdhouses? Well, Chattanooga is home to Rock City and it’s definitely worth seeing! It’s honestly one of my favorite places in the Chattanooga area.
Like Ruby Falls, Rock City is a little quirky and touristy, but it’s so beautiful! You’ll follow a winding trail through rock formations, find the overlook where you can see seven states on a clear day, and end by walking through the fairytale scenery built by the original owners of Rock City.
It’s really such a beautiful and peaceful place, and I think it’s perfect for people who want to experience Tennessee’s beautiful mountains but are a little intimidated by hiking through the woods. Rock City is like a tamed hike (they even pipe in peaceful music in certain sections), and it’s an easy walk for people who might be mobility challenged (although it’s not fully accessible and you can’t bring strollers in).
Plus, it has the most amazing views in the entire area! So definitely don’t miss this!
Day Three Afternoon: Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
We’re going to end our weekend in Chattanooga with one more incredible view and a truly unique experience: The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway.
This is a funicular cable car system that climbs Lookout Mountain at at 72% grade. In fact, it’s one of the steepest passenger railways in the world! (Which explains why I found it terrifying as a child!) There are two cars, and one goes up while the other goes down, so they balance each other on the cable and pull each other along. At least, I think it works something like that. I’m clearly not an engineer.
When you get to the top, you can enjoy views of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River before you head back down in the Railway and head home.
Where to Stay in Chattanooga
Here are some suggestions of where to stay in Chattanooga!
- The Edwin Hotel, Autograph Collection — Luxury right in downtown Chattanooga. It’s within walking distance of the Tennessee Aquarium and the Hunter Museum of American Art.
- The Chattanoogan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton — A Hilton hotel near the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
- Moxy Chattanooga Downtown — A budget-friendly Marriott option with a funky feel. Also close to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. It’s also a pet-friendly hotel.
There are also lots of great VRBOs in Chattanooga, especially if you are looking more for a stay in the mountains as opposed to downtown Chattanooga.
Where to Eat in Chattanooga
Chattanooga has no shortage of fantastic restaurants to eat at! Here are some of our favorites.
- Niedlov’s Bakery & Cafe — Breads, pastries, coffee, and more. It’s SO good! They make “rustic, naturally leavened breads” which are fantastic, but they also have a great breakfast menu. I loved my croissants here and their Morning Bun, which is like a cinnamon, sugar, and orange croissant.
- Frothy Monkey — Located at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Frothy Monkey is an “all-day cafe.” They are especially known for their coffee, but they also have a great breakfast menu with pastries, breakfast sandwiches, and full menu breakfast items.
Lunch and Dinner
- Main Street Meats — What began as a butcher shop has now also become a restaurant and bar. And let me tell you. This maybe one of the BEST hamburgers I have ever had. They are all about farm-to-table, and the quality of their cuts is just unparalleled.
- Community Pie — An ever-popular pizza place in downtown Chattanooga. I had their Carbonara Pizza and loved it. But they also have sandwiches and pasta.
- Tupelo Honey Cafe — This is always a favorite for me for modern, Southern food. This has always been one of favorite restaurants in Asheville, NC, and now that they’ve expanded to Chattanooga we’re happy to get to eat their food a little more often.
- The Purple Daisy Picnic Cafe — If you’re coming down from Lookout Mountain, this is the perfect place to stop in for lunch (it’s really close to the Incline Railway). It’s a small restaurant that focuses on BBQ and other picnic-type foods. And it’s a unique, fun, and delicious spot!
- STIR — Here’s your date night restaurant, that’s perfect for couples traveling together! Their highlights are craft cocktails and oysters. In fact, they make their cocktails with artisanal ice carved from giant blocks. But their menu also has other seafood options, burgers, steaks, and more.
- Clumpie’s Ice Cream — THE place to go for the best ice cream! There WILL be a line, but I promise you want to wait in it. Clumpie’s has multiple locations around town too.
- Milk & Honey — While Milk & Honey has plenty of great lunch selections, we’re going to highlight them for sweet treats because of their gelato, sea salted caramels, and even homemade pop tarts.
More Things To Do in Chattanooga
Have more time in Chattanooga? Here are some ideas of more things to do!
- Hunter Museum of American Art — A BEAUTIFUL building (I was lucky enough to get to attend a wedding here once) right on the Tennessee River. Perfect for art lovers.
- Creative Discovery Museum — This is the museum you want to visit if you are traveling to Chattanooga with kids! They are all about letting kids play and discover with all kinds of interactive exhibits.
- Chattanooga Zoo — Animal lovers can head to the Chattanooga Zoo! They are AZA accredited and animals include a snow leopard, spider monkeys, giraffes, chimpanzees, and more.
- Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum — Have a train lover in your family? Visit the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, where you can see different trains and take a train ride. At Christmas they also offer a special Holiday Christmas Lights Train that includes a visit from Santa.
- Racoon Mountain Caverns — If you want a little more adventure, then head to Racoon Mountain Caverns. You can take the Crystal Palace Tour, which walks you through a portion of the cave. Or do the Wild Cave Tour, which will have you crawling through tight cave spaces.
- Lookout Mountain Flight Park — Drive up Lookout Mountain to see hang gliders in action! They don’t publish a schedule, so you’ll just have to give it your best guess as to whether they will be flying or not. And if you want to try it out, you can book a tandem flight!
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