Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Nannette Holliday checks in from Atlanta in the USA...
Georgia is the largest US state east of the Mississippi River, and you may be expecting its capital Atlanta to be just another big, sprawling city.
Think again! This spacious, orderly and green metropolis is packed with charm and steeped in history. It’s fair to say that Atlanta has it all. From world-class restaurants, top-notch bars and sassy boutiques, to a diverse variety of museums, cultural facilities and sporting attractions, even a week-long stay won’t be enough to cover everything — as I recently discovered.
As the home of some of the best-known brands in the world, Atlanta has plenty to offer fans of popular culture.
To get a sense of your surroundings, join a 90-minute narrated city tour on The Peachtree Trolley. Operating twice daily from Tuesday to Sunday, the trolley departs from the Hilton Garden Inn in Downtown. Get a rundown on the major tourist hotspots around town, including the CNN Center, world-renowned Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, Oakland Cemetery, Fox Theatre and much more. It’s a great way to choose the sites you want to return to later.
After the tour, stroll across the road to Centennial Olympic Park — 22 acres of green space right in the heart of the city, punctuated with public artworks, ponds and fountains. Originally built for the 1996 Summer Olympics, the park was the centrepiece for the games’ festivities. See one of the four daily shows at the Fountain of Rings, where 251 water jets are choreographed to music. There’s an hour-long self-guided walking tour on offer that takes in all the highlights. It starts and finishes at the visitor centre.
From here, you have an amazing array of attractions within easy reach. While some of them may sound like kitschy tourist traps, don’t be fooled. They’re all amazing. To avoid the often-lengthy ticket lines and make a saving on entry fees, it’s worth pre-purchasing an Atlanta CityPASS.
The 50-minute tour of the CNN Center, CNN’s global headquarters, takes guests behind the scenes of this esteemed news service. See news being written, produced and delivered, and you can even take home a souvenir photo of yourself sitting behind the news desk.
For those that watch the news just to see the sport, head next door to the College Football Hall of Fame, which offers more than 50 interactive exhibits. Check out the three-story Helmet Wall, along with the Heisman and National Championship trophies. You’ll have the opportunity to take a seat at the iconic ESPN College GameDay Desk or kick a field goal on the 45-yard football field.
Atlanta is also home to the global headquarters of Coca-Cola, and the World of Coca-Cola museum (complete with a giant bottle top out front) will fill in the blanks on the drink’s 128-year history. Learn how the secret formula came about and sample exotic-flavoured takes on the central product.
Just behind the World of Coca Cola is the epic Georgia Aquarium, which houses more than 100,000 marine animals. The whale shark tank is incredible. You can even pay to swim or dive with them, but book early.
After all that activity, the perfect way to catch your breath is a ride on the SkyView ferris wheel. Towering nearly 20 stories above Centennial Park, the climate-controlled gondolas provide breathtaking panoramic views of Downtown and the surrounding metropolitan area. If you’re feeling fancy, book a VIP gondola with Ferrari-style seats, a glass floor and an extended flight time.
Serious culture vultures should venture north of the city centre to the Richard Meier-designed High Museum of Art. The building is covered in white porcelain that mirrors its interior. The collection of 19th and 20th century American art includes pieces by Thomas Sully, Norman Rockwell and Frederic Church. There’s also an impressive collection of classic Italian works from the 1300s to the 1900s. The High hosts a wealth of events, including Friday night jazz performances. Check their online calendar before your visit.
Nearby, and owned by the excellent Atlanta History Center, the Margaret Mitchell House is a homage to one of American literature’s most famous names. Here in the mid-1920s, Mitchell, who died tragically at the age of just 48, penned her famous novel Gone with the Wind. She and her husband, John Marsh, affectionately referred to the apartment as ‘the dump’, and surrounded by second-hand furniture in rooms she painted herself, the writer penned her tale of antebellum wealth and privilege built on the back of black slavery.
Back towards the city, you’ll find one of Atlanta’s most iconic landmarks — the Fox Theatre. Originally a movie palace, today the 4,665-seat theatre provides an intimate venue for touring Broadway shows, variety performances and musical acts. Guided tours of the venue are offered on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. If you want to see a show, be sure to book well in advance. I missed out on getting seats for Hamilton because I didn’t!
Atlanta for history lovers
Atlanta played a key logistics role for Confederate forces in the Civil War, and would later give rise to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.
The architecturally stunning National Center for Civil and Human Rights in the city centre, which opened in 2014, charts the emergence of the movement and documents continuing human rights struggles across the world. The museum has two temporary exhibition spaces and three permanent exhibits. There’s a poignant collection of revered civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, Jr’s personal effects, including his briefcase and handwritten drafts of notable speeches.
To learn more about King, climb aboard the Atlanta Streetcar at Centennial Park and travel a mile east to the Sweet Auburn neighbourhood. Here the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park encompasses several buildings. You can visit the modest home where King was born and raised (free 30-minute tours begin at 10am, but get there early as they operate on a first-come-first-served basis), the still practising Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was once a pastor, and the excellent King Center — a vibrant memorial to King’s vision, which welcomes close to a million visitors a year.
Just south of here is Oakland Cemetery — the final resting place of Margaret Mitchell and some 70,000 other Atlantans. Graves date back to the 1850s and you get a strong sense of the historical social divisions in American society. Visit the Confederate Memorial Grounds (where several memorials have been subject to attacks by vandals during the recent Black Lives Matter protests), the African American Grounds, Jewish Flat and Hill, and Potter’s Field — where a single monument commemorates thousands of those who couldn’t afford a private burial plot. Guided tours of the cemetery operate on weekends, but otherwise, download a free self-guided tour from the App Store.
Great places to eat in Atlanta
Dining out is half the fun of a visit to Atlanta.
For the quintessential American diner experience, you can’t go past the original family-owned Varsity on North Avenue in Midtown. It has what’s billed as the world’s largest Drive-Thru, and the renowned cry: ‘What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?’ has been ringing in the ears of diners for decades. Wash down your burger or hotdog with a Frosted Orange — a vanilla milkshake mixed with orange soft drink.
A few blocks north, The Vortex is often referred to locally as the ‘Godfather’ of Atlanta’s burger scene. Award-winning tucker, an extensive selection of alcohol, and a lively atmosphere are all part of the appeal.
Up in super-trendy Buckhead, you’ll find plenty of dining options. Try the Colonnade Restaurant for down-to-earth yummy southern fried chicken, coleslaw and fries. This is one of the city’s best-loved eateries and you can bag the leftovers ‘to go’.
Anis Café and Bistro has the Provence-inspired decor nailed and delivers French country-style fare, while Seven Lamps has a cool rustic vibe and does Modern American and awesome cocktails. If you’re celebrating something special, try The Palm Atlanta for succulent steaks and seafood.
South of the city in Hapeville, seek out the original Chick-fil-A Dwarf House, founded in 1946. Along with the original chicken sandwich, waffle fries and nuggets, the Dwarf House’s full-service dining room offers burgers, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches, and all-day breakfast. Their signature item is the Hot Brown. It’s claimed to be the perfect hangover cure — a hearty mass of chicken, bacon and toast, suspended in a gravy boat of gooey cheese.
While there are lots of awesome bars across Atlanta, here are two unique options to check out. The first is the prohibition speak-easy-style Red Phone Booth in Downtown. You enter through a red phone booth to partake in turn-of-the-20th-century crafted cocktails.
Secondly, enjoy a range of craft-brewed frothies at the SweetWater Brewing Company in Buckhead. Jump on a tour of the brewery for $8USD, which includes tastings.
Where to shop in Atlanta
Buckhead is one of Atlanta’s most affluent communities and the spot to shop.
Upscale retail precincts are scattered throughout the area, but the best places to splash your cash are Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza.
If you’re in the market for fine arts, antiques, furniture, accessories or rugs (and who isn’t while on holiday?), head to Miami Circle. With over 60 individually owned showrooms there’s something to suit every taste and budget, and shipping can be arranged. There’s even a couple of great little restaurants to revive in afterwards.
For a taste of Atlanta community spirit, the producer-only Peachtree Road Farmers Market is held in the heart of Buckhead on Saturdays from early March to early December. Shop for certified organic produce, alongside handmade items like pottery and jewellery.
Ways to relax in Atlanta
Sprawling across 200-plus acres, Piedmont Park is Atlanta’s answer to New York’s Central Park.
There are walking and jogging paths, picnic facilities, playgrounds, tennis courts, a public swimming pool and another organic Saturday farmers’ market. Annual events held in the park include the Dogwood Festival (a celebration of art and creative spirit), the Jazz Festival, and Atlanta Pride.
Just a stone’s throw from the park is the fabulous Atlanta Botanical Garden. Yet again there’s a huge amount to see, including The Lou Glenn Children’s Garden, the Edible Garden, the Tropical Rotunda, and one of the few remaining mature hardwood forests in the region. If you’re bamboozled by the choice, use the handy itinerary planner on the garden’s website. The Fuqua Orchid Center houses a variety of rare high-elevation orchids and a colourful collection of poison dart frogs! If you’re around on a Saturday morning, catch the endangered frog feeding.
Atlanta loves its sport and sports fans will love Atlanta. Pro teams include the Braves (baseball), the Falcons (American football), the Hawks (basketball) and more. Take a tour of the glittering Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Downtown, which is home to the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United. With a giant stainless-steel falcon out the front, an in-house art gallery, and a soaring central dome that opens like a giant flower, it’s easy to appreciate why this is one of the five most expensive stadiums in the world. The 2019 Super Bowl was played right here.
Do you have any tips to add to our Atlanta travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image courtesy of Explore Georgia. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Nannette Holliday was obviously born to travel — Holliday is her real name. A former TV and radio presenter, Nannette’s globetrotting has earned her the nickname ‘International Woman of Mystery’ amongst friends, while also providing a rich library of experiences to draw on creatively. Many are woven into her first novel: The Sting of Fate, and Nannette is currently working on the sequel. When she’s not drafting chapters for herself, Nannette writes for a variety of magazines, and even ghostwrites books for other people. It all helps keep her in the manner she has become accustomed to — indulging in world travel, fine food and great wine!