Itinerary: 3-day family trip to Chattanooga from Atlanta

Disclosure: Our experience was part of a partnership where we received compensation and gratis experiences for our time, and for this post. While our time was bought, our opinions were not. 
Photo by Lori McMillen Brown
Photo by Lori McMillen Brown
Need a family getaway, but don’t relish the thought of flying or driving far? Chattanooga is the perfect blend of distance, activities, and natural wonders. The combination allows for a day trip for those visiting Atlanta; a weekend getaway for Atlanta families; or even another stopping point for a road trip extending through Georgia.
We did the planning for you and give you three days that will keep your family, of all ages, active and enjoying Chattanooga’s more popular area attractions.

Day 1

Morning– Within 2 hours of Atlanta, Chattanooga road trips don’t have to start before the rooster crows to still be an adventure-packed day. Leaving by 9:30am will have you pulling into the Chattanooga area for an early lunch.Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken is a perfect choice for families- covered patio (inside seating also available); paper plates; simple but tasty menu; license plate clad walls; whimsical folk-art inspired murals; and an environment welcoming everyone from families, to bikers, to businessmen. Their family meal options provide a substantial, yet economical restaurant experience.
Afternoon– Before check-in time at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, enjoy all of the onsite railroad-themed activities and museums: ride the trolley; explore the formal gardens; take a self-guided tour of the Model Railroad Museum; take a 30-minute horse and carriage ride; or explore their various shops.
If you are itching to get downtown, then park your car and ride the FREE Downtown Electric Shuttle from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo to the aquarium area.  Walk down to the river and take a hike along the Tennessee Riverwalk. Don’t miss the opportunity to walk across the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge to Coolidge park, or the Holmberg footbridge to the Bluff View Arts District. After your afternoon exploration, hop the electric shuttle back to the hotel.
It is time to check-in. Older kids can enjoy a dip in the numerous indoor/outdoor pools at the Choo-Choo, while younger kiddos can get in a nap before the evening activities.
Evening– Around 5pm, take the shuttle downtown to the aquarium.  Pick up your tickets for the River Gorge Explorer from the Tennessee Aquarium Will Call area before 6pm.  We recommend that reservations be made in advance, especially for the sunset trip.  Cooler temperatures, more wildlife sightings, and gorgeous sunset views are all advantages to be had from this particular trip timing.
Grab a quick bite to eat at Cheeburger Cheeburger, located across Market Street off the Ocean Journey side of the aquarium. Other conveniently located family-friendly dinner options include Blue Plate and Mellow Mushroom, both located off the River Journey side of the aquarium.
Board the River Gorge Explorer by 6:45pm, at the Chattanooga Pier. The boat leaves promptly at 7pm. This roundtrip excursion takes you into “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon”, the Tennessee River Gorge, and lasts approximately 2 hours.
Be sure to read the full post of our River Gorge Explorer adventure, for a more detailed account.
Around 9pm you will return to the Chattanooga Pier.  By the time you disembark, meander across the street to the shuttle stop, ride back to the hotel, and make it to your room…expect it to be around 10pm.
Get a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow is a big day!

Day 2

Morning– Load the family in the car and head towards Rock City.  Stop at Chattanooga Coffee Company for a light bite and some java.  Don’t worry, there are kid-friendly breakfast options- yogurt, fruit, bagel, cinnamon bun, etc.  The roasting studio, located off of Broad Street, provides breakfast entertainment as you watch them roasting the coffee on premises.
Plan to arrive at Rock City NO LATER than 10am to be able to fit all three attractions into one day.  You can arrive as early as 8:30, if your disposition and dynamics allow.
Plan on having a light snack at the Cliff Terrace area at Rock City- about half-way through Rock City. This is a perfect spot to take a break and really enjoy the views over the Chattanooga Valley.
For a more information on all 8 Tennessee road trips highlighted in the “Make Summer Last in Tennessee” promotion, please visit Travel Mindset
Afternoon– Plan to head towards Ruby Falls around lunchtime.  On the way, stop at Cafe on the Corner for a BIG and filling lunch to carry you through. Now that you are full, it is time to make your way to Ruby Falls.  The heat of the day is a perfect time, as this experience is completely subterranean. The entire tour experience is about 1.5 hours.  Upon exiting you can also climb the tower, play on the playground, eat in the cafe, zip line, and even go gem panning.  Don’t forget that your exit is always through the gift shop.  Build in time and boundaries for that.
Head back up the mountain to Incline Railway. Board from the top and do the roundtrip.
Finish off at Point Park as the cool of the evening hits. Depending on the time of the year, it closes between 5-6.  If your time is getting to close then do Point Park first and save Incline Railway for last.  Weekends year round, and summer all week have later hours, when the last roundtrip car leave at 8:50 pm.
Evening– Should you take the Incline Railway down at a time that allows for dinner. St. Elmo at the bottom has a restaurant. Because it was such a long day of activities, we were exhausted. We opted for calling Lupi’s Pizza before leaving Lookout Mountain, and placing an order with their downtown location. An easy pickup and right back to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, where we ate in our room.  The door opened to the waterfall pool area, that our room looked over, making it the perfect ending to our day.
For a more detailed itinerary of today’s activities, as well as tips and tricks, see our article- “Spend an entire day: Adventure and family fun on Lookout Mountain”.

Day 3

Morning– Go ahead and pack up the car to check out. Off the main rotunda area, where you check out, is the Gardens Restaurant with a breakfast buffet. Eat a BIG breakfast to tide you over and accommodate a late lunch. Four tickets to the buffet were included in our package booked at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, as well as MOST of the tickets for attractions included in this itinerary.
You can take the free shuttle downtown, but we opted to drive downtown and park right at the aquarium. $9 all-day parking. Do both buildings of the Tennessee Aquarium– start with the River Journey and then onto the Ocean journey.
Afternoon– Eat a diner style late lunch at Blue Plate, conveniently located at the corner between the aquarium and the IMAX theater, our next stop. Check the daily schedule, but most days have hourly or every-other hour showings. We opted for a 4pm IMAX show with popcorn.
Now is time to start prepping the family for the ride home.  This is a great time to let the kids play in the water features around the aquarium. Between 6-7pm, change the wet clothes for PJs.  Load up and drive back to Atlanta to arrive just in time for bed.

How to get there:

From Atlanta, take I-75N into Tennessee. Merge onto I-24W, via Exit 2.  Look for signs into the downtown Chattanooga area.

Time savers:

Many area hotels, also have attraction packages available.  These not only provide some minor savings, but also help to budget and save time.  Our experience at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo allowed us to pick up all our included tickets as we checked in, with the option to pick them up earlier in the day before check-in.
 Originally published on August 5, 2013