Family Road Trip Guide: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Fall is the perfect time to visit this southern beauty of a city, especially for outdoor lovers.

Chattanooga, in southeast Tennessee near Georgia, oozes with southern charm and offers ample outdoor attractions and family-friendly activities. Nicknamed “the Scenic City” for its location amidst the Appalachian Mountains and Tennessee River, Chattanooga features a walkable downtown with an educational aquarium, scenic views worthy of a fall colors visit and food my son still raves about.

Here’s a guide on how to make the most of your family road trip to Chattanooga.

Getting to Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga is about a nine-hour drive south of Detroit. Take I-75 south about 620 miles through Toledo, Cincinnati and Lexington to Chattanooga.

What Families Love About Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga offers a variety of family-friendly attractions to choose from. My crew’s favorite features were the super friendly people, outdoor activities and warmer weather. Locals all had time to ask, “How are you doing, darlin’?”

The natural beauty is abundant, leaving less room for kids to complain when you want to spend time outside. And the weather is warmer than Detroit with more sunny days, almost no snow and al fresco dining aplenty.

The Tennessee Aquarium is the No.1 Chattanooga attraction on TripAdvisor. It features two separate buildings, River Journey and Ocean Journey, as well as an IMAX 3D Theater with a six-story screen. The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center is next door and incredibly inspiring. The first medals were awarded in Chattanooga for actions in the Civil War.

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Chickamunga & Chattanooga National Military Park. Photo credit: Courtney Fries.

Down the street, you can visit the Classic Arcade Pinball Museum to play countless old-school pinball machines in themes ranging from Hot Wheels to Star Wars and KISS. Admission includes unlimited play on all working games — but be warned, your kids are not going to want to leave. So take advantage of the “come and go” wristbands and return later in the day.

My family is big on outdoor adventure, so I was super pumped to learn about Adventure Sports Innovation, a Chattanooga company that pioneers outdoor adventure technology. It offers all sorts of thrilling land, water and virtual reality experiences, including walking in hover shoes, surfing on hydrofoil boards and hang gliding simulations. My son and I explored Lookout Mountain via Swincar eSpider, which is a four-wheel electric vehicle with pendulum seating and spider-like arms. Even climbing up or down the rugged terrain we stayed upright, which was a wild sensation. The engine was so quiet I could barely tell the Swincar was on. We had a spectacular time laughing and joking as we tackled turns and swayed in the fresh air.

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Swincar eSpider on Lookout Mountain. Photo credit: Cortney Fries

Incline Railroad is known as the world’s steepest passenger railway and “America’s Most Amazing Mile.” Ride the funicular to the top of Lookout Mountain for scenic views, a souvenir shop with food and treats and a taste of Incline Railroad’s more than 125-year history. At the top, you can walk to other attractions, like Point Park, part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

My mother and stepfather met us at Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. You take an elevator into the heart of Lookout Mountain, traverse cave trails with a guide and stand back to behold the colorfully illuminated falls. After your tour below ground, take in panoramic views of the Tennessee Valley. It’s an interesting multi-gen activity. If you’d like to see the valley in a more heart-pounding way, soar through the treetops on a Ruby Falls High Point ZIP Adventure.

Rock City is another outdoorsy attraction, with ancient rock formations, a 140-foot waterfall, gardens blooming with 400 plant species, a path that meanders through points like Fat Man’s Squeeze, a Swing-A-Long Bridge and panoramic views over seven states. To enhance the fall foliage experience for those with color blindness, special viewfinders to alleviate red-green colorblindness are available at the Rock City lookout point. Events like Rocktoberfest in October come to life with seasonal flare, like German music, German food, costumed characters and Birds of Prey shows.

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Rock City Waterfall. Photo credit: Cortney Fries

The Tennessee RiverPark stretches 25 miles along the Tennessee River to the base of Lookout Mountain and beckons visitors to bike or stroll. A walk across the Walnut Street Bridge, one of the longest pedestrian walkway bridges in the world and a gorgeous spot for sunset, provides access to shops, ice cream, a carousel and more. Chattanooga Choo Choo is a grand, historic train terminal that has been transformed into a hotel, bar, restaurant and live music complex. Stroll past patios and gardens and soak up the ambiance. Little kids will love The Creative Discovery Museum, an award-winning, hands-on children’s museum with water, art, theater and other engaging exhibits.

Where to Stay in Chattanooga

The opulent and swanky Read House Hotel is a top hotel in downtown Chattanooga. On the National Register of Historic Places, it recently underwent a $30 million renovation. We loved the Read House’s upscale Gatsby vibe, from the doormen crowned with top hats to the studded leather armchairs and glamorous artwork popping with personality. There’s a pool and a Starbucks on the first floor, as well as a chophouse and bar with billiards.

Where to Eat in Chattanooga

My son still talks about his meal at Uncle Larry’s. This family-owned fried fish restaurant with three locations is worthy of its tagline, “fish so good it will smack you.” The crispy, crunchy coating is seasoned just right. I devoured my catfish while my son still craves the fried shrimp and hush puppies. We were so full we had to take our homemade Oreo pie to go.

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A feast at Uncle Larry’s. Photo credit: Courtney Fries

The line at Niedlov’s Bakery and Café can get long, but that’s a sign of the quality. Get there early if you want to snag a cruffin, which is a delightful marriage between a croissant and a muffin, filled with flavored cream. The bread and pastries are made from scratch and offered in delicious varieties. My son gobbled his raspberry croissant and I was impressed by the breakfast sandwiches.

If you’re in the mood for a steak dinner, Bridgeman’s Chophouse is the place to go. Located in the lobby of The Read House Hotel, this upscale eatery will make you feel special from the moment you enter. The Braised Short Ribs with truffle chive grits and crispy shallots were worth writing home about. Whenever my son is feeling fancy, he orders crab cakes. He enjoyed those immensely, as well as some white truffle mac n’ cheese.

No family trip is complete without pizza. Lupi’s Pizza Pies is highly rated so we had to give it a try. The homemade, hand tossed pizzas with local ingredients pleased both of us.

If you’re celebrating a special occasion or just feeling like a fabulous night out, indulge in a meal at St. John’s Restaurant. Upscale with exquisite service, every dish is gorgeous and flavorful. My son dug into his sautéed sea scallops and somehow had room for a trio of gelatos. My wagyu steak on a bed of creamy polenta felt like a warm hug. The staff puts as much attention to detail into the impressive drink list as the seasonal menu.

Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant is next to the Tennessee Aquarium and serves up finger-licking comfort food with live performances jamming on stage. We visited for breakfast and the skillet cinnamon roll was ginormous, gooey and definitely a crowd pleaser. We also had to try the King’s French Toast with peanut butter-cream cheese fluff and bananas. Elvis would be proud.

Mean Mug Coffeehouse is a favorite local coffee shop that offers a bevy of beverage options, including superfood lattes and Kyoto-style cold brew. Breakfast is served all day as well as salads and sandwiches. My son was impressed by the pastries, while I appreciated the whipped feta cream cheese on my smoked salmon bagel.

Overall, we were all smiles in Chattanooga.

Content sponsored by Southeast Michigan Ford Dealers.

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