One of the best places to live in Tennessee, there’s no shortage of things to do in Chattanooga. In fact, there are so many things to do that it can feel like a daunting task to plan your trip, especially on a budget.
Luckily, the city is extremely budget-friendly and boasts a variety of affordable attractions and free outdoor activities to keep visitors entertained without breaking the bank.
You’ll enjoy things here that you can’t find anywhere else, including the tallest underwater waterfall in the country, the oldest military park, the largest freshwater aquarium, and so much more.
Check out this list of 21 things to do and start planning your affordable trip that’ll still manage to knock your socks off.
Table of Contents
- 1. The Chattanooga Market
- 2. Coolidge Park
- 3. Tennessee Riverpark
- 4. Nightfall
- 5. Hunter Museum of American Art
- 6. Chickamauga National Military Park
- 7. North Chick Blue Hole
- 8. Chattanooga Choo Choo
- 9. Renaissance Park
- 10. Public Art
- 11. Lula Lake
- 12. Rembrandt’s Coffee House
- 13. Aretha Frankenstein
- 14. The Tennessee Aquarium
- 15. McKay Books Chattanooga
- 16. Clumpies Ice Cream Chattanooga
- 17. Frazier Avenue
- 18. Chester Frost Park
- 19. Ruby Falls
- 20. Rock City Gardens
- 21. Chattanooga Zoo
1. The Chattanooga Market
Ranked as one of the best markets in the country, you don’t need to spend buckets of cash to have a good time. What better way to stretch your legs than by checking out a bunch of local vendors?
If you do have some cash to spend, you can’t go wrong with the large selection of vendors available, including over 50 nearby farms and more than 140 artisan vendors.
You’ll be surrounded by fresh meats, cheeses, produce, handmade crafts, pastries, artwork and so much more.
On top of this, there are 2 free concerts each night so you can enjoy live music while you shop around – and there are food vendors available for when you get hungry.
It’s important to note that the market is held only on Sundays during the months of April-November, but check out their website for more specifics.
2. Coolidge Park
Located along the Tennessee River, Coolidge Park provides scenic views for adults and fun activities for the kids.
- The park is known for its large interactive water fountain, where you’ll see kids running around trying to guess where the water will shoot up next.
- The rock climbing wall is completely free and is fun for both children and adults alike – so get ready to test your skills.
- Stop for a picnic at one of the many picnic tables and spend time with friends, family, or some time alone as you admire the beautiful views of the river.
- You’ll also find an ancient 100-year-old carousel that has been fully restored, so visitors can hop on their favorite animal and enjoy the ride.
The park is also just a stone’s throw away from the bustling city streets where you can hop between shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants.
3. Tennessee Riverpark
With nonstop views of the Tennessee River, you can’t go wrong with spending some time relaxing on the Tennessee Riverpark.
The park spans over 150 acres and provides over 13 miles of walking trails, so there’s plenty to do whether you’d prefer to be active or spend your time sitting back taking in the views.
The trails are paved and are popular amongst walkers, joggers, bikers, and skaters so pick your favorite method and get out there.
The Riverpark also provides free boat launches, so visitors can get out on the river, and the fishing opportunities are some of the best in the area. If you don’t have a boat, you can still enjoy a leisurely day of fishing on one of the few fishing piers available.
However you decide to spend your day, make sure to keep a lookout for the many art pieces that are scattered throughout the park.
One of the most excitingly free things to do in Chattanooga is easily the Nightfall concert series that is held every Friday night between May-August.
Located in Miller Park, you can enjoy free parking in the spacious lot but lawn chairs and/or blankets are recommended if you don’t want to stand the whole time.
The venue sees a variety of local musicians and hosts the competition known as Road to Nightfall, where you can cheer on your favorite contestants.
Make some new friends, bring your pup along for the ride, and grab a cold refreshing beverage or tasty snack from one of the many stalls available.
5. Hunter Museum of American Art
Nestled high atop a bluff on the edge of the Tennessee River, the Hunter Museum of American Art is beautiful both inside and out.
The museum is made up of a 1905 mansion, a 1970s structure, and a modern 2005 building, so you’ll be walking through 100 years worth of architecture. Within the museum, you’ll find some of the finest pieces of southeastern American art dating back to colonial times, while also displaying modern pieces as well.
Aside from the large collection of exhibits you can enjoy at any time of year, there’s also a variety of rotating exhibits to spice things up and provide perspective into different cultures.
Check out their website to see the latest events taking place, including the occasional lecture and social gathering.
6. Chickamauga National Military Park
Known as the most extensive Civil War dedicated park in America, Chickamauga National Military Park serves to commemorate the lives lost in the battle of 1863. It was on these grounds that the Union fought against the Confederates for possession of Chattanooga, and although the Confederates won the first battle, the Union was victorious in the end.
The battlefield was the grounds of the last major battle during the Civil War, and it was the first of its kind to be established into a memorial park.
The park is made up of over 10,000 aces across both Tennessee and Georgia and has over 80 miles of hiking trails between the 2 major battlefields.
The trails range from 5-14 miles, but many visitors choose to only hike a portion of the trail before turning around and heading back to check out one of the two visitor centers.
7. North Chick Blue Hole
A quick 20-minute drive outside of Chattanooga, the North Chick Blue Hole is one of the best swimming holes in the area and it is completely free to use.
Hidden away between Signal and Mowbray Mountain, the North Chickamauga Creek has created quite a few swimming holes along its path.
Just an easy 1-mile hike in will lead you to a variety of swimming holes to choose from, but keep in mind that the area has become very popular over the years. If you don’t mind sharing the water with locals and other curious tourists, you can enjoy an entire day swimming and sunbathing along the creek.
There are large boulders lining much of the creek that has even created smaller swimming holes where visitors can swim, sunbathe on the flat surfaces, and jump in for some more excitement.
8. Chattanooga Choo Choo
Even if you aren’t spending the night at this historic hotel, just walking around the grounds of the Chattanooga Choo Choo is an experience in itself.
The station originally opened its doors in 1909 during the golden ages when railroad transportation was at its prime and has since been transformed into a luxury hotel.
Guests spending the night have the opportunity to sleep in one of the restored sleeper cars that were once used by only the wealthiest of passengers. However, the hotel allows visitors to walk through the hotel even if they do not have reservations so that they can admire the many artifacts scattered throughout.
Aside from the history you’ll find around every corner, the hotel also boasts a large dining room for a quick bite to eat and a few boutiques to get your shop on.
9. Renaissance Park
Located right next to Coolidge Park, Renaissance Park serves as a reminder to keep the environment clean and to think about the possibilities of turning polluted areas back to their original state.
The park spans over 23 acres and is made up mostly of wetlands that were once extremely polluted but have since gone under extensive restoration to bring the area back to its original status.
Once the site for numerous manufacturing plants, it’s amazing to see the clear water and growing ecosystem that makes up the park today.
Aside from the grand project that has saved the area from complete destruction, the park also demonstrates the culture of the city, its past, and the present through the use of exhibits.
10. Public Art
With a fine collection of artwork scattered across the city both inside and out, you can easily spend an entire day walking around the area admiring the beautiful pieces.
The city is dedicated to bringing the community together and creating an inviting atmosphere through the use of art and has established over 100 pieces since the start of its mission in the 1990s. Outdoor art exhibits include:
- Bluff View Art District
- First Street
- City Center
- South Side.
As you travel amongst the exhibits, you’ll be in awe of the unique, vibrant sculptures that have been created by local artists, from blue rhinos to celestial clockwork.
Head over to City Hall to take your art journey indoors and marvel at the many paintings and glasswork that have been created over the years. Put on your walking shoes and get ready to venture through town, spotting every beautiful piece of artwork along the way.
11. Lula Lake
Lula Lake is a popular attraction, known as one of the most picturesque locations in the Chattanooga area – but its reservation-only method helps to reduce crowds.
The cascading waterfall flows into a large turquoise pool and is made up of an upper and a lower level, but swimming is not allowed at this location.
There are over six miles worth of hiking trails around the lake that are popular amongst hikers, bikers, and joggers. There are also picnic tables for guests to stop for a scenic lunch.
One of the more difficult trails may not be suitable for young children but provides the best views, as it takes you to the lower falls where you watch the water fall nearly 100 feet to its base.
Although the park is open to the public on specific days throughout the year, most visits require setting up a reservation in advance so make sure to plan ahead to enjoy this hidden gem.
12. Rembrandt’s Coffee House
Located in the Bluff View Art District, Rembrandt’s is the most popular coffee shop in the area and you can spend hours people-watching from its large cafe window.
Founded in 2004, all of the coffee here is roasted in-house and the result is a smooth, rich brew, unlike anything you’ll find on the streets of Chattanooga.
Once you fall in love with the amazing flavor, you can buy a bag of Roasting Coffee to take home and can even ask an employee to grind the beans fresh for you.
Pair your tasty cup of joe with some sweet pastries made fresh each morning, such as the cranberry walnut scone or the large blueberry muffin, but make sure to get there early before they sell out.
Aside from the sweets, the shop boasts a large variety of hot meals including breakfast options, sandwiches, soups, and salads.
13. Aretha Frankenstein
Nestled in the residential area of Tremont, you could easily mistake Aretha Frankenstein for just another house on the block and you may need to circle the block a few times to find a parking spot. But, one bite of their pancakes will have you wondering why you haven’t stopped by sooner.
The restaurant looks like an ordinary house from the outside with a spacious patio perfect for outdoor dining in the warmer weather, and the inside’s funky design is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
All of the walls are covered in colorful knick-knacks, posters, games, and Frankenstein-themed objects, and there are two massive chandeliers that hang from the ceiling.
Although most people visit for the award-winning Frankenstein pancakes, the restaurant has an extensive menu with a variety of tasty dishes and even stays open until midnight with lunch, dinner, and late-night options.
The inside of the restaurant is on the smaller side, however, so make sure to arrive early if you hope to score a seat without much of a wait.
14. The Tennessee Aquarium
Known as one of the largest aquariums in the country, you can spend the entire day exploring the Tennessee Aquarium without ever scratching the surface of the things to do.
The aquarium is broken up into two buildings – the River Journey and the Ocean Journey – and both provide completely different exhibits and attractions.
The Ocean Journey boasts a larger collection, including many interactive attractions, underwater caves, and massive tanks sporting marine life like sharks – and is a highlight for adults and children alike.
On the upper level of the Ocean Journey is the Atrium, where you can pet the stingrays, meet some cool reptiles, walk amongst butterflies, watch penguins do their thing, and hang with tropical birds.
Just because the River Journey is smaller, doesn’t make it any less interesting. It takes you through a variety of habitats that teach you just how different marine life in each river can be. Watch otters play for hours, check out the alligators, look for river giants, and even touch a young sturgeon while imagining just how large it will become.
Make sure to grab a bite to eat before heading into the aquarium or opt to go out for lunch between Journeys, as there is no food allowed within the buildings.
15. McKay Books Chattanooga
McKay’s is not your average bookstore, boasting a huge selection of constantly changing used books, video games, movies, and more. All of the items you find within the store have been brought in by visitors near and far, so you’ll have a diverse collection of things to venture through.
If you have any similar items lying around your home that you have no need for, bring them in for instant cash or trade-in credit and come home with some new goodies without spending a dime.
There’s also a free bin of items McKay’s didn’t feel comfortable selling outside the storefront, which might include some magazines, textbooks, cassettes, and old library books – so feel free to rummage through what’s available.
Be prepared for the book store’s massive size, as it can feel a bit overwhelming with its two stories of bookcases in a maze-like structure.
Although there are no places to sit back and read for a bit, feel free to take as much time as you’d like exploring the shelves; you never know what you might find along the way.
16. Clumpies Ice Cream Chattanooga
Clumpies has been the best place for ice cream in the Chattanooga area since it opened its doors in 1999, and it’s only gotten better since.
Everything at the ice cream parlor is made fresh each morning using only the best ingredients, so it’s limited to about 10 gallons of ice cream a day. Although the batches are small, you can try something new with every visit; the flavors are constantly changing and always delicious.
The parlor boasts nearly 40 very different flavors, so always check out their website before heading over to see what exciting options they have in store. You may have a hard time choosing between classic flavors like the espresso chocolate chunk and more unique options like blueberry muffin or lemon basil.
What’s even better, is that there are 4 storefronts in Chattanooga that all usually have different options for the day, so there’s a pretty decent variety. Combined with their low prices, different cone options, and milkshake choices, and you’ll definitely be running to Clumpies to satisfy that sweet tooth.
17. Frazier Avenue
Although you could definitely empty your pockets along Frazier Avenue, it’s a great place to window shop, grab a bite to eat, and mingle with the locals if you’re on a budget.
Located right along the Tennessee River, this busy strip is a scenic addition to the neighborhood and you’ll find people resting their feet on one of the many benches overlooking the water.
It is also right next to Coolidge Park, so you can spend a few hours exploring the park and then hop over to the avenue for lunch.
The strip is lined with a variety of interesting shops including boutiques, antique shops, sports gear, art galleries, olive oil, craft jewelry, cafes, bars, and restaurants.
Some fan-favorites for food and drink include Bela Lisboa Restaurant for authentic Portuguese food, Basecamp Bar for burgers and beer, and Totto Sushi Grill for some of the best seafood in the area.
18. Chester Frost Park
Pitch up a tent and spend a couple of nights at Chester Frost Park for an affordable and beautiful sleeping option lakeside that provides plenty of free things to do.
The campground is located on a peninsula, so you can enjoy waterfront views from almost every angle – and the lake itself spans over 280 acres, so the views go on for miles.
The campground has access to a spacious boat launch, boat docks, and ramps, so guests can get out on the water with ease.
If boating isn’t your style, there are plenty of other ways to spend your time including going for a swim and sunbathing along the beach. Grab your fishing pole or rent one from the campgrounds and head over to one of the many fishing piers scattered around the lake to kick back and relax.
There are plenty of places to enjoy a picnic, and there’s also an indoor pavilion to hang out in if the weather gets bad.
19. Ruby Falls
You don’t want to miss a chance to see the iconic Ruby Falls, known as the tallest and deepest underground waterfall across the country open to the public.
There are a few different options when it comes to touring this amazing natural landmark, including some exciting options like zip lining.
Many opt for a guided tour of the falls, which takes you down 26 levels via elevator to the base. You’ll learn about the cave, see a variety of rock formations, and stare in awe during the waterfall’s light show.
The falls are located deep within Lookout Mountain, so you could spend some time exploring the surrounding area as well because there are so many breathtaking views to be seen.
Head over to the Lookout Mountain Tower and the Blue Heron Overlook to see the sweeping views that go on for miles.
20. Rock City Gardens
Another natural attraction you don’t want to miss is Rock City Gardens, which is also located on Lookout Mountain and provides amazing views from start to finish.
You can spend the entire day exploring the wonders Rock City Gardens has to offer, including unique rock formations, panoramic views, gushing falls, and trails galore.
The gardens scattered throughout the trails boast over 400 different plant species native to the land, with vibrant wildflowers that bring the area to life.
Go for a hike along the Enchanted Trail to see a handful of natural wonders that’ll leave you speechless, including:
- The Hall of the Mountain King
- The Grand Corridor
- Mushroom Rock
- Fat Man’s Squeeze
- The Swing-ALong Bridge.
Admire views that span over 7 states on clear days at Lovers Leap, which sits tall at 1,700 feet above sea level and has a cafe where you can grab a bite to eat while taking in the sights.
21. Chattanooga Zoo
The Chattanooga Zoo is one of the few zoos in the country that provides an interactive approach with open exhibits, so visitors can feel more immersed with the animals and their environment. You can experience the zoo for as little as $10.00/person – making it nearly impossible to pass up this unique experience.
Surprisingly, considering its small size, the zoo has over 500 animals within its limits and over 200 species for guests to learn and engage with. Check out their website to see the latest encounters and feeding schedules for a chance to feed giraffes or meet some adorable wild creatures like the fennec fox and the bobcat.
You can add a tour to your visit to get up close and personal with carnivores, reptiles, or primates for an additional $10.00/person.
If you’re staying in Chattanooga, be sure to check out the 15 Best Day Trips from Chattanooga, TN to help you plan fun and exciting day trips!