Over the years Atlanta has been one of those cities that has a certain draw for me and I can’t stay away forever. Unlike most other cities I go to, once just wasn’t enough when it came to Atlanta. I first went to Atlanta when I was in college in the late 90’s and I’ve been back a few times since then. I almost moved there straight after graduate school and most likely would have if I would have gotten a job offer there.
Still, when I go back (as I recently did) I’m always amazed at how much the area has grown since my previous visit. I read a projection that they expect the population of Atlanta to grow to 8.6 million people by 2050 (it’s currently just over half a million). Traffic is insane and you’d be well-advised to take the MARTA public transportation system https://www.itsmarta.com/, primarily the train system although there are buses and streetcars as well. Besides, even if you don’t mind sitting in endless traffic, parking is expensive and hard to find especially in the popular Midtown and Downtown areas.
The MARTA trains are abundant, clean, and safe for the most part. Just learn which line your stop is on and if you need to transfer stations and know which direction you need to go. It’s easy to figure out but I’ve always found friendly and helpful people to ask if I was confused about something or forgot something.
Where to Stay
There is an abundance of hotels, Airbnbs, Bed and Breakfasts, and even an Alpaca Treehouse with llamas, alpacas, bunnies, and chickens (https://www.alpacatreehouse.com/alpaca-treehouse). The most convenient and safest place to stay is in the Midtown or Downtown area although I’ve also stayed just north of Atlanta and that was fine albeit not quite as convenient. Prices range from the super-expensive Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott Marquis, and St. Regis to the moderately-priced Doubletree by Hilton, Sonesta, Hotel Indigo, Radisson to the budget-friendly options like Econo Lodge, Days Inn, Motel 6 and so many more. Often the more expensive places to stay are located close to an array of shops and restaurants so the downside if you stay at a budget-friendly hotel you may have to drive or take public transportation for a bit longer than otherwise. Even more important than saving a few dollars, first and foremost make sure your hotel is in a safe area.
Likewise, there is an abundance of things to do in Atlanta. Here are some of my favorites with a couple of others thrown in that are popular with other people but just aren’t my thing.
Atlanta Botanical Garden- I’ve been here a couple of times and on my most recent visit I discovered places that I hadn’t seen the first time. It’s funny because they even state on their website: “As the Garden evolves, it’s never the same place twice.” I can attest to that so even if you’ve been before, it’s worth going again. I love the “Garden Guide” feature that you can click, choosing specific things like Family Adventure, Flying Solo, Fresh Art and Music, and more, then click which garden (there’s another in Gainesville), how much time you have, and so forth. https://atlantabg.org/garden-guide/
This is definitely one of the best botanical gardens I’ve been to anywhere in the world and also one of the largest and most comprehensive. Tickets are on the pricey side, starting at $22.95 and up for adults but if you enjoy flowers and nature, I feel like it’s worth it. Most people spend a couple of hours here, especially if you don’t stop to have lunch or dinner at the cafe (which is good but also on the pricey side if you get table service).
Fernbank Museum– the tagline is “Where Science, Nature, and Fun Make History” and this is a perfect description of the museum. There are indoor exhibits such as Fantastic Forces, A Walk Through Time in Georgia, Curator’s Corner; outdoor exhibits such as WildWoods, Fernbank Forest, Rain Garden; and temporary as well as permanent special exhibits such as Sky High focusing on birds, Habitat where you can see sculptures and explore four different biomes. Plus you can watch a movie on a giant screen for a bit extra. As a scientist and nature- and history-lover, this place is just heaven to me and worth every penny for the $20 admission. https://fernbankmuseum.org/
Georgia Aquarium– this is the largest aquarium in the world, whether you’re measuring by number of fish or volume of water. I really like how their exhibits are laid out, for example take the Aquanaut Adventure: A Discovery Zone. This has 49 kid adventures, more than 15 species, and one rope bridge. Here you can learn about aquatic life in extreme environments. In other words, you don’t just walk by tanks filled with fish and other animals, you learn about the animals and gain an appreciation for aquatic animals and the research marine scientists do.
The Georgia Aquarium is heavily invested in research and conservation, a fact that I love. There are also several behind-the-scenes encounters you can pay extra for, which is great if you especially love, say, penguins, seals, or sea lions. Plus, there are many educational programs, both online and in-person, in addition to volunteer programs, programs for military and veterans, and even virtual yoga. Tickets for adults are $36.95 and includes access to all the Aquarium galleries, 4D Theater shows, general-seating Dolphin Presentation, Sea Lion Presentation and supports ocean conservation. https://www.georgiaaquarium.org/
Atlanta History Center– not only is there historical information on events that specifically took place in Atlanta, like the 1996 Olympics, but there are also displays on national events like the 19th Amendment, the American Civil War, and so much more. In my opinion, this is one of the best history centers in the United States and ranks up there with the Smithsonian museums as far as quality and quantity. The outside grounds are also worth checking out, with 33 acres of gardens, woodlands, and trails. You can also have lunch at the Swan Coach House on the grounds of the Swan Mansion and try some quintessential Southern fare like pimento cheese grit fritters, chicken salad tea sandwiches, mint juleps, and homemade pecan pie. https://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/visit
Stone Mountain Park- located in Stone Mountain, Georgia, about 30 minutes from Atlanta is Georgia’s most-visited attraction. Located on 3200 acres of land, you can find trails that range from short and easy to longer and more difficult. One of the toughest trails is also one of the most popular, the Walk Up Trail; even though it’s only a mile, it goes straight up the mountain, much of it on stone, with the steepest parts near the pinnacle. If you’re not able or just don’t want to hike that steep of a trail, you can take a cable car to the top (Summit Skyride) for a fee.
Cherokeee Trail is one of the longer trails, at 5 miles and it meanders along past water views and through the woods. You can also see a 100-year-old Grist Mill (although you can’t go inside) and the Quarry Exhibit to see how the park was made with photos and outdoor displays plus there are extra activities for children that require a ticket. If you plan to just hike around the park for the day, entry is free except for the parking fee. There are a few options for staying inside the park, ranging from a campground with over 400 sites, Stone Mountain Inn, and a Marriott hotel. The MARTA public transportation stops about 1/2 mile from the park’s West Gate or you can take an Uber from Atlanta if you don’t have a car. https://www.stonemountainpark.com/
World of Coca-Cola– as you might imagine this museum showcases all things about the Coca-Cola Company. I’ll admit, I’ve never been here, as I’ve never been a big fan of Coca-Cola or any soda for that matter, but I know it’s popular. There are artifacts, a bottling display, a tasting experience (that’s been altered for COVID safety), and more. Most people spend a couple of hours here. Tickets for adults are $18. https://www.worldofcoca-cola.com/plan-your-visit/
Zoo Atlanta- with over 1000 animal species and the only twin giant pandas in the United States, this is a nice way to spend a morning, especially if you have young children but even if you don’t. You can find the usual zoo offerings like behind-the-scenes encounters, giraffe feedings, train rides, and wildlife presentations. The zoo is also actively involved in research and conservation programs around the world. Tickets start at $26.99 for adults and $20.99 for children. https://zooatlanta.org/visit/
Money-saving Tip: If you plan on doing a few of these activities, you should consider buying an Atlanta CityPass. For $77 for adults and $63 for children you will get entry to 5 attractions including Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and Zoo Atlanta plus 2 more attractions that you can choose from Fernbank of Natural History, College Football Hall of Fame, and National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It could potentially save you 45% off ticket prices if you purchased them separately. You have nine consecutive days to use the pass beginning on the first day of use. https://www.citypass.com/atlanta
Favorite Foods and Restaurants
I would be remiss to not include some of my favorite restaurants in Atlanta. Again, there is an abundance of truly over-the-top restaurants scattered all around the Atlanta area. The ones I’m going to list here also rank high on lists like Yelp (because I know food choices can be subjective).
South City Kitchen– Southern food at its best: shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, Carolina trout are some of my favorites.
Local Expedition Wood Fired Grill– technically not in Atlanta but two locations on the outskirts, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta. Fresh, made-to-order at the counter with choice of protein, sides, rice or salad, or you can get wraps or salads. Great if you’re in a hurry but want something healthy.
Hattie B’s Hot Chicken– besides Atlanta, locations in Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, and Las Vegas. I ate at one of the Nashville locations first and have since tried the Atlanta location. The chicken is tender and juicy and hot but not too much spice to be enjoyable.
Aviva by Kameel– Mediterranean food. Excellent shawarma, hummus, and falafel.
Atlanta Breakfast Club– need I say more?
Ice Cream Places- we seemed to get on an ice cream kick when we were in Minnesota prior to going to Atlanta recently. Some places we enjoyed include: Amorino Gelato (in Lenox Square), Morelli’s Gourmet Ice Cream (so creamy), and Frosty Caboose in a converted train caboose in nearby Chamblee (the green tea ice cream sundae with crystallized ginger and a fortune cookie on top is genius).
Atlanta is definitely a city where you can pop in for a long weekend or you could stay a week and there would still be plenty to do. Another thing of note is it does get hot and humid during the summer, as does the rest of the Southeast in the US. If you’re not used to sticky hot summer weather, the fall or spring would be more comfortable, or even the winter. The lows in the winter hovers around the mid-30’s and the highs are around the mid-50’s so it’s still not too cold to walk around outside.
Have you been to Atlanta, Georgia? If so, tell me about it- what did you do and what were some of your favorite things?