Straddling the Tennessee River and framed by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga is easy on the eyes. Thanks to those rolling green hills and the river’s serpentine course, this southern Tennessee town has been dubbed the “Scenic City.”

But it also offers a rich history: the city was a Civil War battleground, and its Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park is the largest and oldest military park in the nation. Elsewhere, year-round opportunities for incredible outdoor adventures abound, thanks to its abundance of green space, including the 13-mile-long Tennessee Riverwalk, and natural wonders, like Ruby Falls, one of the world's largest underground waterfalls.

If you're planning a trip to Chattanooga, here are some great things to add to your must-do list. 

High Falls and Lovers Leap on Lookout Mountain
High Falls and Lovers Leap on Lookout Mountain © gnagel / Getty Images

Learn more about Civil War history at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Lookout Mountain is home to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the oldest and largest military park in the nation. Tour the park either on your own with your smartphone as your guide or with a park ranger. The Visitor Center is home to exhibits on the 1863 Campaign for Chattanooga, a series of pivotal Civil War battles, the Fuller Gun Collection, one of the most comprehensive displays of small military arms in the United States, and a small theater that screens a short orientation film, The Campaign for Chattanooga: Death Knell of the Confederacy, every 30 minutes during park hours. 

Descend 260ft by elevator and hike to Ruby Falls, one of the world's largest underground waterfalls

Set off on a guided cave walk that will lead you 260ft deep into Lookout Mountain. As you hike the cavern trail to Ruby Falls, one of the world's largest underground waterfalls, you'll encounter speleothems, stalactites, stalagmites and even "cave bacon," layered flowstone that looks strikingly similar to the breakfast favorite, before you reach the thundering falls. 

Hike the "Enchanted Trail" and "See Seven States" at Rock City Gardens

Rock City is not an actual city, but a series of massive, ancient rock formations perched high atop Lookout Mountain. Hike the 4100ft Enchanted Trail to see Rock City's majestic rock formations, which include the Fat Man Squeeze, a narrow aperture leading through an immense boulder that you'll have to squeeze through sideways. Climb the wall at Lover's Leap, where you can experience the "See 7 States" panoramic view of Tennessee and its six neighboring states. 

The best time to go to Chattanooga

The historic Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
The historic Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, one of the world's steepest passenger railways © Taylor E Williams / Shutterstock

Ride "America's Most Amazing Mile" aboard the Incline Railway

The single-track Incline Railway, one of the world's steepest passenger railways, set off on its first one-mile run up Lookout Mountain in November 1895. Today the funicular railway is both a National Historic Site and Mechanical Engineering Landmark, offering the unique opportunity to climb the ridge at a 72.7% grade. Your railway journey along "America's Most Amazing Mile" begins at St. Elmo's Station at the base of Lookout Mountain, and ends at Point Park, a ten-acre memorial park, part of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, where stunning views of Chattanooga Valley from 2100ft above await.

Paddle Lookout Creek at Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center

Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center is a 317-acre green oasis located just 10 minutes from downtown Chattanooga, where you can hike or bike over 15 miles of trails. The center is also home to a boat launch, located on the banks of Lookout Creek. Bring your own watercraft or rent canoes from Reflection Riding for an additional fee, and enjoy a paddle along this winding tributary of the Tennessee River.

Tennessee Aquarium's Secret Reef is home to sand tiger sharks, bonnethead sharks and green sea turtles
Tennessee Aquarium's Secret Reef is home to sand tiger sharks, bonnethead sharks and green sea turtles © Vstock LLC / Getty Images

Come face to face with a shark at the Tennessee Aquarium

The Tennessee Aquarium, home to over 10,000 animals, is Chattanooga's most visited attraction. Dive into the River Journey, one of the largest freshwater aquariums in the world, and follow the path of a raindrop from high in the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico or stroll the Delta Country exhibit, where American alligators and alligator snapping turtles lurk in a recreated bayou. The Ocean Journey follows the course of the river into the Gulf of Mexico: the exhibit's largest tank, the Secret Reef, is home to sand tiger sharks, bonnethead sharks and green sea turtles. The aquarium's IMAX theater screens documentaries on marine and other wildlife.

Cruise the Tennessee River aboard a retro steamboat, the Southern Belle

Experience the Tennessee River while enjoying a cruise aboard the Southern Belle Riverboat, a replica of a classic river steamboat with a breezy, open-air, third-floor deck. Choose from a sightseeing, lunch, dinner, sunset or twilight cruise. In the autumn, the Southern Belle's Fall Foliage Cruise offers a scenic, three-hour tour of the Tennessee River Gorge dressed in its fall best. 

The Terminal Brewhouse pub and restaurant in Chattanooga, TN
Chattanooga's popular Terminal Brewhouse pub and restaurant © csfotoimages / Getty Images

Sip local beer culture

Celebrate Chattanooga's long history of beer crafting and contemporary, vibrant beer scene by sipping IPAs, stouts or pilsners at one of the city's unique breweries. Chattanooga Brewing Company began brewing its German-style beers back in 1890. Settle into a comfy leather sofa and taste traditional German Lagers at OddStory Brewing Company. Hutton & Smith Brewing Company has a cozy taproom where beers are all rock-themed. On the Southside, Terminal Brewhouse charms with old-world character and elevated takes on classic pub fare. Naked River Brewing is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Chattanooga and pairs its beers with BBQ. Book a small-group ChattaBrew Tour to go behind the scenes and meet the brewmasters at four different breweries. 

Sample hand-crafted whiskey at the Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery

Tour the Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery, the first legal whiskey distillery in Chattanooga in over 100 years, and see the production process in action. Sip flights of the latest releases and seasonal whiskey-based cocktails in the distillery's cozy tasting room.

Stroll the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel

The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel is a Beaux-Arts beauty of a former railway station located in the heart of Downtown Chattanooga. Built in 1909, the Terminal Station saw passengers pass through towards their trains during the Golden Age of Rail Travel until 1973; in 1989, it was restored and reopened as a hotel, the city's first historic preservation project. Opt to spend the night at the hotel or simply stroll the former railroad tracks, today's picturesque Glenn Miller Gardens.

The best neighborhoods in Chattanooga

Chattanooga's Coolidge Park Carousel, built in 1894
Chattanooga's Coolidge Park Carousel, built in 1894 © Melinda Fawver / Shutterstock

Take a swirl on a circa 1894 carousel

Coolidge Park is a stretch of green space overlooking the Tennessee River on Chattanooga's north side. Take a swirl on the park's crown jewel, a circa-1894 carousel featuring 52 hand-carved animals and a calliope band organ. Kids will also enjoy making a splash in the park's interactive water play fountain.

Shop Warehouse Row

Once a turn-of-the-century warehouse district, Warehouse Row now houses upscale boutiques, cozy coffee shops and casual eateries.

Journey through a Himalayan passage populated by red pandas at the Chattanooga Zoo

Meet the animals of the world as you journey through the Chattanooga Zoo. Travel through the Himalayan Passage, home to snow leopards and the largest indoor red panda exhibit in the world. Come face to face with chimpanzees in the Gombe Forest or mingle with macaws and spider monkeys in the Corcovado Jungle. The Walkin' the Tracks exhibit showcases animals that call the United States home, including bobcats, cougars and coyotes, with a backdrop that references Chattanooga's history as a railway hub. 

Sculptures on display in Chattanooga's Bluff View Arts District
Chattanooga's Bluff View Arts District is compact and worth the stroll © Ritu Manoj Jethani / Shutterstock

Explore the Bluff View Art District

Stretching 1½ blocks on the Tennessee Riverfront, this tiny district boasts three major art institutions: The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts is home to a collection of over 15,000 pieces of decorative art glass from the early 1900s. The River Gallery highlights local and regional artists via rotating exhibits; its meditative outdoor sculpture garden stretches a stroll-worthy two acres along the riverfront. The Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga's premier art museum, showcases the most complete collection of American art in the Southeast, with masterpieces from the 1700s to today.

Amplify your guitar knowledge at Songbirds

Songbirds is dedicated to music history. By day, it's a museum, where you can see the vintage guitars owned by musicians B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Loretta Lynn and more and enjoy interactive exhibits highlighting Chattanooga's music history. By night, Songbirds' custom-built stage and 250-person sound space hosts live concerts and other music-focused events. 

The best day trips from Chattanooga, Tennessee

The 13-mile-long Tenessee Riverwalk
The 13-mile-long Tenessee Riverwalk is best traversed by bike © Nolichuckyjake / Shutterstock

Bike or walk the Tennessee Riverwalk

Rent a bike and ride the 13-mile-long Tennessee Riverwalk, from historic Ross's Landing to the Tennessee Riverpark and Chickamauga Dam. 

Play a few rounds of pinball at a museum dedicated to the classic arcade game

Challenge yourself to a few rounds of pinball on classic machines, including Caribbean Cruise (1989), Cyclone (1988) and Delta Queen (1974). The Classic Arcade Pinball Museum has classic arcade games and pinball machines, and flat-rate admission gives you unlimited play.

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This article was first published November 2017 and updated August 2021

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