Tennessee Aquarium: A Must-See Stop on Chattanooga's Scenic Waterfront and Historic Downtown
Updated: Nov 9
The world beneath the wavetops holds a strong fascination for many humans. Being face-to-face with a razor-toothed shark or a prehistoric looking sturgeon just quickens the pulse.
Many major American cities have aquariums near the waterfront. The National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans come to mind. But for a truly unique aquarium experience, find a way to visit the non-profit Tennessee Aquarium on the riverfront in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And check out the many other excellent sites to visit, grab a local beer and eat some great food.
This aquarium is split into two venues. A River Journey building has a uniquely-tiered floor plan that has you strolling along a variety of underwater habitats with thousands of freshwater fish swimming by. The Ocean Journey is similar with the centerpiece a huge reef structure. In both buildings, numerous alcoves and side exhibits have informative displays: everything from river otters to alligators to electric eels. I found the exhibit with six species of jellyfish mesmerizing. The way these mysterious creatures are illuminated in beautiful, freestanding glass structures make them appear like living, moving works of art. And, of course, the penguins are a big hit with the kids. $29.95 for adults. Includes both River Journey and Ocean Journey buildings.
The aquarium is a family favorite and offers many special programs for youth groups. It also has an IMAX theater. See www.tnaqua.org; be sure to check out the secret reef cam.
The aquarium is on the waterfront, but the best way to see Chattanooga from the water is with the Chattanooga Ducks. You ride on both land and water in an authentic, renovated WWII amphibious landing craft, listening to a 90-minute, narrated tour. A basic adult ticket is $22 but military get two bucks off. It’s money well spent. The guides entertain and inform, giving you the history of both the vehicles and Chattanooga, from the days of the Cherokee to the seedier days in the mid-20th Century to the vibrant city of today.
You board on dry land and wind through city streets before preparing to launch from a steep ramp –gives a nice splash factor as you plow in. Once in the water, deploy the prop and you’re a boat. Our guide Dave Anderson was great. He even let a couple of us (me included) drive while in the water on the return leg.
Another waterfront cruising option is the Southern Belle steamship, with daily sailings, including sunset dinner cruises. www.chattanoogariverboat.com.The waterfront is also home to a huge music festival every June (www.riverbendfestival.com).
Locals supposedly don’t like to talk about it, but in a nod to a “look how far we’ve come” mentality that permeates the city, they’ve clearly consigned to the trash bin the late news anchor Walter’s Cronkite’s 1969 declaration of Chattanooga as the world’s dirtiest city. Today’s city is a showpiece, a two-time winner of Outside magazine’s Best Town title.
Beyond the aquarium and riverfront tour, here are a few best bets and unsung hero suggestions for places to visit.
An iconic destination is the famous train terminal where the Chattanooga Choo Choo (made famous in the Glen Miller song) resides. It’s now a hotel where a unique experience is the opportunity to book a night in a restored luxury Pullman sleeper car. The Hunter Museum of American Art, on a bluff above the Tennessee River, is a top attraction. The museum primarily has paintings, sculpture, photography, mixed media, decorative arts, contemporary studio glass and more created in the United States from Colonial days to the present. Temporary exhibitions rotate through regularly. Admission is free for active-duty military and their families, including Guard and Reserve. Ride the Incline Railway to the top of Lookout Mountain and visit Point Park.
Touring leaves you thirsty. For microbrew offerings, check out Big River Grille & Brewing Works. Great atmosphere - tasty beer and ale. Try a sampler of regular brews and seasonals. My faves were the Seven States Pilsner and Iron Horse Stout. Good food there too, but don’t miss the kickbutt guacamole with plaintain chips over at Conga at 207 East Main St. The interior is nondescript but all the Latin American-styled food is “Wow” tasty. Wash it down with their superb sangria.
Chattanooga is a city of bridges. Erected in 1891, the Walnut St. Bridge is the world's longest pedestrian bridge. It’s the site of an amazing “Wine Over Water” festival each October. Sample wines from over more than 100 world wineries – right on the bridge!
Note: Avail yourself of some superb fishing in the bountiful waters around Chattanooga. For local fishing action, click here.