We often return to places that we have really enjoyed in the past, especially when it’s a place of learning and science that completely fascinates the kids. The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee is just that: engaging, fun and perfect for family travel. Fyi, I just want to apologize in advance because this article is going to be one big gush of love for the Tennessee Aquarium cuz it’s that awesome.
Do you visit a lot of aquariums? We do and we’re pretty critical of them, both for the positive and negative. We love the hands-on learning available in our small local aquariums and are completely captivated by the aquarium tanks the size of small lakes, but we also can’t support the aquariums that keep cetaceans (dolphins and such) or have random animals (maybe tigers, perhaps). Basically, there are few aquariums that we truly love and will repeatedly return to, but the Tennessee Aquarium is for sure one of them.
Note: the two reasons we keep returning to the Tennessee Aquarium are 1.) size/diversity of exhibits (wow!) and 2.) minimal crowds. For being such an amazing and humongous aquarium it’s very calm with what seems like very few visitors on the weekends. Perfect to add to your list of things to do in Tennessee!
What you'll find...
- Planning a trip to Chattanooga
- How to Visit the Tennessee Aquarium
- The River Journey
- Accessibility at the Tennessee Aquarium
Planning a trip to Chattanooga
For us, our visits to Tennessee coincide with trips to visit family in Atlanta, so each time we visit we like to head to Chattanooga. From the suburbs of north Atlanta it’s about an hour and a half to Chattanooga. The drive is typically without much traffic so it’s not a pain, but it’s still a long one with kids, so if you’re going, try to make the most of your trip up.
We haven’t gotten to stay there yet, but the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel looks cute and you get to stay in old train cars. There are also some very nice standard hotels in downtown Chattanooga with two Marriotts being very close to the Tennessee Aquarium.
If a vacation rental is more your style, there are several close to the downtown core or out hear the hills. You can book a stay, visit downtown and then go hiking near Chattanooga! It’s perfect!
If you’re spending several days, finding a hotel close to River Place and the downtown area is a great idea, as there is the River Gorge Explorer boat to do (through the Tennessee Aquarium), the Creative Discovery Children’s Museum, there’s a river boat with music and dinner, there is Civil War history… Basically, you’ll not be bored.
Tip: the Visit Chattanooga website has some great tools for planning your visit, so use great resources like this site and other travel blogs to build a great trip. Check out this great guide to Chattanooga too!
How to Visit the Tennessee Aquarium
Firstly, be sure you’ve eaten before you start exploring the Tennessee Aquarium. One of the reasons it’s our favorite to visit of all the aquariums we’ve been to is because it’s huge and really well laid out. You could spend forever in there. For food, either find something wonderful in downtown Chattanooga or hit up the small food court there within River Place (the plaza in front of the aquarium).
Note: they’ve got a no food or drinks policy in the Tennessee Aquarium, so be wise.
Parking: there is a good sized parking lot attached to River Place. It is a pay lot, but is only $9 or $10, which is really good for a city lot. Street parking is available too, but pay attention to posted signs.
Once your crew’s tummies are set you need to pick which building you want to start in. The Tennessee Aquarium is broken down into the River Journey and Ocean Journey and each is so different. We like to start with the Ocean Journey because it’s got the sharks, but do it how you want. And you can always do one half, go have lunch and then come back to the other side. Lots of options.
Tip: if you’re visiting the Tennessee Aquarium with kids ask them what they’re most interested in and start with that. While with a lot of things in life you want to save the best for last, with aquariums you want to pique kids’ interests from the start and they’ll be less impatient later (if that’s something they struggle with when traveling).
The Ocean Journey
This part of the Tennessee Aquarium is really fascinating and diverse. From touch-tanks to undersea caves, it’s really cool and crazy fun for kids. As I said before, we’ve become more discerning over the years when it comes to aquariums and appreciate the size of the exhibits in the Ocean Journey building. They’re amazing, the placards have PLENTY of information and the layout is easy to explore with kids.
When you think of the Tennessee Aquarium or Chattanooga skyline you probably think about the peaked glass roof of the two main aquarium buildings. Each of these atrium house extremely different collections and, well, just read on…
Touch Tanks and Birds
On the top floor of the Ocean Journey building is the coolest and one of the most fun features of the Tennessee Aquarium: Stingray Bay. It’s the most beautiful touch-tank we’ve visited. Full of skates and stingrays, you can carefully pet different types of rays as they swim past, some of which actually love the attention and will hang out or do repeated drive-bys at the top of the water to get a nice pat on the back. In this part of the Atrium you’ll also get to meet a variety of snakes and tropical birds. It’s kind of the catch-all zone for cool things that you would meet in a warm, sunny climate.
Note: never force a kid to touch an animal they don’t want to. We’ve had the opportunity to pet snakes, tarantulas, birds and more, but it’s rare that our kids want to meet them face to face. Touch tanks are always a hit, but when a keeper is holding the animal, something about it spooks the kids. The boa constrictor at the St Augustine Alligator Farm is a great example…
Safety moment: aquariums and zoos are great for learning about wildlife safety, such as coral snake vs king snake… like we learned here. And the rhyme to tell the two apart (in case you’re wondering) is “red touching black, safe for Jack. Red touching yellow, kill a fellow”. FYI.
The Butterfly Garden at the Tennessee Aquarium
If you followed our journey around Denver, Colorado you probably saw our visit to the Butterfly Experience there. It was awesome. Well, the Ocean Journey atrium also houses a beautiful butterfly garden. True, it’s not as big as Denver’s, but it’s really well put together and has a good number of active butterflies.
Tip: the chrysalis showcase in butterfly gardens, including here at the Tennessee Aquarium, is a great learning opportunity to show kids science in action. On this visit we got to watch a butterfly leaving its case and opening its wings for the first time.
Penguins’ Rock: the Antarctic in Tennessee
It’s true. Penguins do rock, and their exhibit is awesome. While we always want to see the largest exhibit possible for any animal, the penguins in the Tennessee Aquarium really do make the most of their multi-leveled space. With several levels of rocks and a nice sized diving pool, the penguins here are the most active we’ve seen in any zoo or aquarium ever. The Tennessee Aquarium does a very good job at providing information about both the species in the exhibits as well as environmental info.
Photo Op: the penguins are so active and constantly diving, so spending an extra minute or two to snap some really cool pics with or without kids is totally worth it!
The Undersea Cavern and Secret Reef
We love to share when we have fun parenting breakthroughs or milestones with the kids. Well, entering the Secret Reef section of the Ocean Journey was a big thing for us.
For the first time ever, Elliott, our youngest, couldn’t contain himself and was going up to strangers excitedly screaming “Sharks!! Tur-dllle!!!” We’ve never seen him break out of his shell (‘scuse the pun) like he did in this exhibit.
And why shouldn’t he? The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta does have the largest indoor tank in the USA, and it also houses three of the largest type of fish in the world: whale sharks; but here at the Tennessee Aquarium there aren’t the huge whale sharks, there are smaller sand and tiger sharks which are more appropriate to be in an aquarium setting. The tank is huge and the lighting is perfect to really examine the many creatures as they swim by so closely.
There are also two sea turtles in this exhibit, which do appear to be in great health. We’ve seen turtles in other aquariums that seemed like they were struggling, but that was not case here (I’m no expert though). **If you have solid information about sea turtle captivity, please leave a comment and help us be informed as best as possible.
Reminder: understand your camera settings and how motion in a dark place is captured. While the tanks are well lit, pics of kids are a challenge.
Jellyfish and Undersea Art at the Tennessee Aquarium
There are of course many more beautiful and amazing exhibits to see and read about, but the last one in the Ocean Journey area that really stands out is the jellyfish. The Tennessee Aquarium has the most remarkable setup with a variety of tank shapes and ways of viewing the jellyfish. Our favorite is the mirrored room that is beyond trippy and probably the most beautiful sight in the whole aquarium.
In addition to the living exhibits, the Tennessee Aquarium also showcases a lot of art. The most notable of these gallery type showings is of course… the jellyfish. Jellies are beautiful and mysterious to watch anyways, but the blown glass creations of display really highlight the delicate and colorful world of the jellyfish. If only we could’ve smuggled one out for our house…
The River Journey
You forget that rivers are super diverse and have many different forms until you start to explore the River Journey section of the Tennessee Aquarium. Going through this building is really fun because you see everything from life in the mountain streams to the river delta and bayou. Also, one of the most unique touch-tanks is here.
Otters in the Atrium
River Otter Falls is so cool! The Seattle Aquarium has a pretty cool otter exhibit, but this one takes the cake. Is it that the otters are so active and playful and it’s easy for anybody to watch them, or is it that there are live trees changing with the seasons just like outside while trout swim upstream? The atrium’s exhibits are wonderfully relaxing and engaging and it’s the perfect spot to chill while the kids go a bit crazy.
Note: we never get great pictures of the otters because we’re always super captivated. I stole these from the Snapchat story I made that day.
Tennessee Aquarium Ramp Pavilion
As you start to wind down through the River Journey building you get to experience every type of river environment you can imagine. What makes this building so fascinating is that you’re surrounded by four floors of tank at all times (while in the center of the building). There are divers in the tanks sometimes, river monsters (huge fish) and amazing exhibits of freshwater rays. It’s phenomenal.
Note: the River Giants exhibits were created with the help of National Geographic to show people the value of major river ecosystems and to demonstrate healthy environments. Take the time to read the info as you wander and ALWAYS ask questions.
Learning About the Mississippi Delta
Yes, there are fish here too, and it’s more than catfish, but the big attraction to this area and the Discovery Hall are the gators. Yep! Tennessee is kind of the Southeast so you should expect to see alligators at some point. The bayou is set up so you can get an honest feel of how congested the waterways are, but still you’re able to see and learn about the individual animals.
The other big thing we get excited about in this part of the Tennessee Aquarium is the sturgeon touch-tank. It’s small, but as the sturgeon grow they are moved out of the tank. This and other programs like it are major contributors to the recovery of the sturgeon population.
Learning about Marine Sciences
While most of the River Journey building of the Tennessee Aquarium is dedicated to the North American river environments, there is a good portion of the lower half that showcases and teaches about the rivers of the rest of the world. We haven’t gotten to spend a ton of time in this section as it’s at the end of the aquarium route, but on our next visit we’ll be sure to spend more time with these smaller tanks and displays.
Also, the basement of the River Journey building is home to the seahorses. I know, I know: not river fish. True, but it’s the perfect place to see these creatures if you’ve just finished the Ocean Journey. Either way, be sure to say hi to them because they’re adorable and really interesting to watch!
Accessibility at the Tennessee Aquarium
We’ve visited the Tennessee Aquarium with a stroller, wheelchair, knee-scooter, and five wild kids. Both of the buildings are full of ramps and elevators, making ALL parts of the aquarium accessible to nearly anybody who faces mobility challenges. The only inconveniences that we’ve found are the wooden plank floors (for atmosphere in the otter atrium) and the need to take the elevator down from the atrium level of the Ocean Journey building. Seriously though, that’s it. And for those who are able, there are escalators so there’s no need to worry about stairs.
While I don’t know the history of the person or team who designed the Tennessee Aquarium buildings, I can confidently say that they were designed to be accessible, fun, and easy for as many visitors facing all kinds of challenges as possible. We love it.
Tip: ramps can still be challenging for people facing mobility issues, so don’t be impatient if there are other guests taking more time going down them than you. Know that everybody wants to enjoy the aquarium AND stay safe.
Snapchat story at the Tennessee Aquarium
Do you see why we keep returning to the Tennessee Aquarium? It’s incredible. The exhibits, the environment, the lack of crowds… it’s as close to perfect as you can get. If you haven’t been but are going to be in the Atlanta or Nashville areas, it’s completely worth it to take the drive to Chattanooga to experience the amazing place that is the Tennessee Aquarium.