Incline Railway. Built in 1895, the Incline Railway remains one of the steepest passenger railways in the world and offers incredible views. Pay to park at the top of Lookout Mountain and take the railway down, eat lunch, then do the return trip.

Rock City. The signs saying See Rock City are giving good advice. We followed a hiking trail about a mile to see natural wonders and scenic views. At the end, you walk through a fairyland cavern with hand-crafted neon storybook scenes – a real kid-pleaser. seerockcity.com

Carousel and Coolidge Park. The restored 1894 Coolidge Park Antique Carousel has 52 hand-carved animals, a calliope and ornate gold leaf benches, and rides at a remarkable price, just $1 each (age 2 and younger, free). In summer, kids race in and out of the park’s splash fountain and shaved ice vendors abound.

Creative Discovery Museum. We could have spent all day here, blowing giant bubbles outside or playing inside in the boat area where kids put on captain’s coats and life jackets or cook in the ship’s mess. The playground/climb and explore area keeps kids moving and the wands to make super bubbles were a hit. Inside, we also made beetle hats for a craft, then played with dough and stamps and put together puzzles. Kids can take care of babies and patients in the health center, enjoy storytelling, visit the big sand pit in Dinoland – and dress up like a dino – or play instruments in the music zone, among many activities.

Chattanooga Zoo. You won’t find elephants at this modest and inviting zoo, but lots of other animals including red pandas and fun-to-watch monkeys. Kids can ride a camel ($5 fee) and exhibits put you close to the animals. 

More Fun in the City

For families with older kids, a must-see is the Tennessee Aquarium and the IMAX and park around it (tnaqua.org). Kids of all ages love the Chattanooga Ducks ride (chattanoogaducks.com) in a World War II amphibious landing craft that takes you on a tour of the city, then for a ride on the Tennessee River. And famous Ruby Falls (rubyfalls.com), an attraction centered around a waterfall more than 1,120 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain, is a big tourist draw. The city is surrounded by Civil War history and battle sites we’ll visit when the kids are older.

Staying There

We spent one night at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel, in an old Pullman car – our children loved it! Spending the night in a Pullman was an unforgettable experience, but don’t expect luxury. Our train car had a queen bed, and a twin day bed with a trundle, and a small bathroom. In April and May, Thomas the Tank Engine visits the Tennessee Valley Railroad (tvrail.com) and the hotel has packages that include a 25-minute train ride (April 23, 24 and 30; May 1 and 7). The hotel is undergoing a renovation and the museum and trolley were closed when we visited. choochoo.com

The city has an abundance of family-friendly hotels, many within walking distance of attractions families want to visit. We stayed at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel on our second night, for its great location downtown near the river and attractions and its two-room family suite. Our kids more than approved of the complimentary chocolate chip cookies at check-in. doubletree.hilton.com

Eating There

  • Good Dog, a fun hot dog restaurant in north Chattanooga, just over the Tennessee River – try the pimento cheese dog; vegan and veggie menu, too. eatatgooddog.com
  • 1885 Grill, at the base of the Incline Railroad, has a great $5 kids menu – our kids loved their grilled chicken and fries. 1885grill.com
  • Lupi’s Pizza, with homemade pizza using fresh, local ingredients, opened its downtown location 18 years ago. lupi.com
  • Sluggo’s Vegetarian Café, just a short drive from downtown, serves inventive, wholesome dishes and has a fun kids menu with PBJ sandwiches, veggie plates, tofu bowls and more.
  • Beast and Barrel Gastro Smokehouse, a downtown restaurant with high-quality dining, welcomes families and has high chairs and a kids menu. beastandbarrel.com
  • Snack Places. Two discoveries are the Moon Pie General Store, with delicious moon pies and sodas (facebook.com/chattanoogamoonpiestore), and Clumpies Ice Cream Co., an old-fashioned hand-crafted ice cream store where you buy ice cream by how much it weighs (clumpies.com).

– Laura Powell

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