16 free things to do in Chattanooga, Tennessee
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Over the years, Chattanooga has developed a varied reputation for its Civil War history, natural scenery, arts community and tech scene. It can sometimes feel like the city has tried on identities faster than a teenager experimenting with fashions week to week to longtime residents. But Chattanooga wears its many hats well, and its variety of offerings are part of what makes it such a fun place to visit.
You don’t have to break the bank, either, to get a little taste of everything Chattanooga has on deck. From public sculpture gardens to city parks, from historic sites to quirky craft markets, there’s a lot you can do in the Scenic City for free. You just need to know where to look. These are 16 of the best free things to do in Chattanooga.
1. Coolidge Park
Once an abandoned shipping yard Coolidge Park has been a favorite spot for families since the early aughts. It has a fun fountain where water shoots out of the mouths of stone lions that kids love to climb on, a late 19th-century wooden carousel lovingly restored by local master carver Bud Ellis, a 50-ft climbing wall on one of the piers of the Walnut Street Bridge and winding walking paths along the edge of a river.
One end is anchored by the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, which has put on fun performances by adult and youth casts for decades. The other ends with the Market Street Bridge, though it connects to Renaissance Park on the other side.
There’s a kayak and canoe launch that will get you onto the Tennessee River, and many restaurants and shops have back entrances opening to the park. Grab a sandwich from River Street Deli, ice cream from Clumpies, or a gourmet weenie from Good Dog and start exploring.
2. The Chattanooga Library 4th Floor
Chattanooga got the nickname “Gig City” when the Electric Power Board rolled out one of the country’s first municipal fiber-optic broadband networks. Now Chattanooga has some of the fastest internet in the land, including at its public library.
Right downtown near the city’s designated Innovation District, the library boasts all the usual books and historical archives you’d expect from this kind of institution. But the Chattanooga Library also boasts unique facilities on the fourth floor designed to help visitors develop the tech skills they’ll need for tomorrow’s professional and creative opportunities.
The 4th floor has a 3D printer, a button-maker, a zine studio (zine is a shorthand for self-published magazines on a variety of topics, from music fandom to creative nonfiction to DIY how-tos), a laser cutter, vinyl plotter, photography studio, sewing lab, a floor loom, an Arduino and Electronics Project Kit, and even an HTC Vive Virtual Reality Booth.
While some services require the cost of materials (usually 6 to 30 cents per gram of plastic or vinyl) or a public library card to use, most are free and it’s a fun way to try equipment for creative projects.
3. Walnut Street Bridge
The Walnut Street Bridge has been part of the Chattanooga skyline for over a hundred years. It became a dark symbol of racial divides in the Jim Crow South after a pair of lynchings – one in 1893 (three years after it was built) and the other in 1906.
The bridge was nearly demolished in 1978 because it was in such poor repair. A group of concerned citizens rallied to save the bridge and got it added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Money was raised to retrofit the Walnut as one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world, and it quickly became a magnet for tourists and locals alike, linking the revitalized downtown and North Shore neighborhoods.
Today, the Walnut Street Bridge hosts a variety of events throughout the year like the Wine Over Water Festival, local craft markets and the Seven Bridges Marathon and provides a fun viewing spot for events taking place elsewhere on the waterfront like the Riverbend Festival, Iron Man competition or downtown fireworks displays.
4. First Street Sculpture Garden
Tucked away at the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge at First and Market Streets is a small sculpture garden that rotates its works every year or so, keeping things fresh. Take a stroll down the hill on your way up to the Bluff View or down towards the Aquarium and enjoy pieces like Louise Peterson’s “High Four,” a beloved statue of a Great Dane offering a paw that took on a patina as more and more humans learned to shake.
5. The Tennessee River Walk
The Tennessee Riverwalk is a 16-mile greenway running from Chickamauga Dam in Hixson to the north and the old Wheeland Foundry in St. Elmo to the south. It’s paved in concrete the whole way and is a favorite spot of locals out for lunch breaks or pushing strollers with a morning coffee.
There are several restaurants and other businesses you can stop at along the way, from the Boathouse on Amnicola Highway (get the tableside-made guac and margaritas) to the Third Deck Burger Bar on an old riverboat downtown to the St. Elmo Tap House. You’ll also encounter plenty of picnic spots, playgrounds, and kayak launches, too.
6. The Chattanooga Market
This lovely mix of a farmer’s market and craft fair typically runs from April to December, thanks to Chattanooga’s mild climate. A solid roof covers the First Tennessee Pavilion that houses the Chattanooga Market in case of rain, but its sides are open air- bringing in nice breezes.
Live music acts take the stage at one end of the market, where food trucks are clustered by first-come cafe seating. The rest is filled with rows of booths selling everything from fine art to handmade baby clothes, jewelry, skincare products, local honey, spices, produce, local gifts and more.
7. Sculpture Fields at Montague Park
Home to huge sculptures by artists around the world, Montague Park is 33 acres of outdoor space dedicated to open-air art. There are 40 pieces of art here at any given time, sprinkled throughout a large field punctuated by big trees, picnic pavilions, and walking paths.
The Sculpture Fields are dog-friendly and afford panoramic views of Lookout Mountain. Since opening in 2016, it’s become a popular place for joggers, portrait photographers, kite enthusiasts and families strolling over from their condos on the Southside.
8. Chickamauga Battlefield
Once the sight of one of the bloodiest fights of the Civil War, and supposedly haunted by a cryptid called Old Green Eyes, Chickamauga Battlefield is mostly a winding maze of walking, cycling, and driving routes spread across rolling former farmland and stands of tall pines.
It’s all collected into a National Military Park, and you can certainly learn a lot of detailed Civil War history here from the park rangers. But Chickamauga Battlefield is also a great place to learn about a wide range of subjects from local ecology to Indigenous history to monumental art and symbolism in the Reconstruction era.
On any given day, you’ll find parents teaching their kids to ride bicycles on quiet forest paths, out-of-town history buffs, locals out for a lunchtime power walk, sunset ghost hunters and families camping out for the weekend.
9. The Passage
Before Chattanooga was settled by European colonizers, it was an important trading post for Indigenous nations, including the local Cherokee. In the 1800s, John Ross arrived via the Tennessee River and struck up a long-standing relationship with the Cherokee, who even inducted him into their tribe.
Ross’s trading success directly led to Chattanooga’s founding, and the point of his arrival is still known as Ross’s Landing. The Tennessee Aquarium was built near that spot, and later the Passage was added to honor the Indigenous history there.
The Passage is a beautiful public gathering place, public art installation, and memorial to the Cherokee who were removed on the Trail of Tears tucked between the Tennessee Aquarium and the Tennessee River. Ceramic sculptures inspired by important Cherokee legends and history are blended with weeping fountains that invite visitors to bear witness to the terrible impact wrought by the Indian Removal Act.
10. River Gallery Sculpture Garden
Nestled near the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Victorian Christmas village of bed-and-breakfasts and bakeries that make up the Bluff View Art District, the River Gallery Sculpture Garden is a perennial favorite for its mix of diverse art in an unbeatable setting.
The permanent collection debuted in 1993, though visiting works have been known to pop up from time to time, too. There are cast bronze skateboarders, kinetic sculptures twisting in the waterfront wind and abstract works that glitter in the southern sunshine. The Garden connects to the Tennessee Riverwalk, too, so it’s easy to make part of a longer stroll through downtown, by the water and up to the historic Fort Wood neighborhood.
11. Hiking to Sunset Rock
Partway up Lookout Mountain overlooking a broad valley to the southwest, Sunset Rock is a popular spot for rock climbers, casual hikers, and photographers.
The approach can be easy or challenging depending on if you start from the top of the mountain (note that parking can be tricky in this largely residential area) or from the bottom. If you plan to use the small lot at 405 W Brow Rd, be aware it can fill up fast – and pack a thermos of coffee or a picnic lunch to make the most of your time at Sunset Rock. It’s less than half a mile from the parking lot, though you can keep going along other trails if you want to keep going.
12. Forest Hills Cemetery
Another great place to learn about Chattanooga’s early history is Forest Hills Cemetery in St. Elmo. This garden-style graveyard has been in use since the 1880s, and its splendid tombstones and ornate mausoleums pay tribute to some of the city’s founding fathers and many prominent families.
Civil War generals are buried here, along with the great industrialists who profited off Chattanooga’s old foundries and railroad empires, the founders of local private schools, and even a United States Postmaster General. With a canopy of huge old spruce trees, winding paths and a quiet atmosphere, it’s a great place for a stroll, just a short walk from St. Elmo’s main hub of shops and restaurants.
13. Disc Golf
There are several disc golf courses available for free use throughout the Chattanooga area. Carver Recreation Center in the Orchard Knob neighborhood has a nice nine-hole disc golf course that’s excellent for kids and beginners.
The Sinks is a well-regarded disc golf course at DuPont Park in the northern suburb of Hixson, with challenging wooded terrain that’s free to use as long as you already have your gear. A tiny two basket course is in Henriette Park in the Ferger Place neighborhood between the Southside and Highland Park is good to get a feel for the sport without running into crowds.
There’s even a disc golf course at Cloudland Canyon State Park (a 30-minute drive from Chattanooga), though you’ll need to pay a fee to use that one.
14. Hiking to Snooper’s Rock
Snooper’s Rock is another stunning viewpoint that offers high returns for little effort. Head to Prentice Cooper State Forest near Signal Mountain to the north of downtown.
You’ll have a longish winding drive down dusty forest service roads that always feel like you’ve gone a little too far, but the walk from the trailhead to Snoopers Rock itself isn’t long at all, just a little steep.
The result is a panoramic view of the gorge between Signal and Raccoon Mountains through which the Tennessee River has carved its path. Hawks circle in the updrafts overhead and tiny houses peek out of the dense green foliage coating the mountainsides. It’s one of the best views in Chattanooga that will rarely appear on a tourist brochure.
15. Geocaching at Cloudland Canyon State Park
There are many fun things to do at Cloudland Canyon State Park, from hiking to staying overnight in a yurt. But geocaching is a kind of scavenger hunt the whole family can get behind. Several themed geocache hunts you can undertake at Cloudland Canyon have some kind of educational component from Indigenous history to the park’s geography.
You’ll need a phone or other device that can use GPS coordinates to help solve clues that lead to buried treasure. There is a $5 parking fee to enter Cloudland Canyon, but all other activities there are free.
16. Enterprise South Nature Park
An old World War II munitions-manufacturing site dotted with concrete bunkers was recently turned into a network of mountain biking courses, equestrian trails and walking paths.
Since 2016, Enterprise South Nature Park has become hugely popular with residents of the city’s northern suburbs and workers at the local Volkswagen plant. Bunkers #28 and #50 are open to the public for viewing if you’re curious about the history of the place and leashed pets are allowed if you’re looking for a place to get outside with your furry friend.
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