For two years during graduate school, I spent half my time in Atlanta, Georgia and the other half in Auburn, Alabama. I won’t bore you with the circumstances, just that I got to know the city of Atlanta and it was great. I still feel nostalgic when I have a layover at the Atlanta airport, I complain about how I can’t find spices anywhere that are as cheap as at the DeKalb Farmer’s Market, and I wish I could find a popsicle as good as the ones from King of Pops. Then I remember how bad the traffic is and I feel much better.
Here are my recommendations of what to see – and what to skip – when visiting ATL.
What to See
Little Five Points
Not to be confused with the “Five Points” (downtown Atlanta) station on the local transit (called MARTA), Little Five Points is an area with vibrant culture, funky shops, and cuisines from around the world. Have a unique shopping experience in Junkman’s Daughter, visit the Sevananda food co-op, or have fantastic spicy Indian food at Niramish. Want to go head to head with a local? Make your way to the public chess boards across from Criminal Records.
I’m not a huge fan of burgers myself, but the Vortex is a notable place in Little Five Points to grab a burger and beer. Check out The Girl and the Globe’s review of it and other Atlanta attractions here. Unfortunately, though, another restaurant she recommended – Dante’s Down the Hatch – has since closed. I was so sad to discover this as I researched for this blog post!
CNN Studio Tour
I’ll admit it; I freakin’ love the CNN tour. For $15 ($14 if you have a student ID), you get an inside look at the CNN headquarters. The highlight is getting to see the newsroom, which may or may not be bustling depending on the time you go. The tours last about 50 minutes and occasionally sell out on weekends; purchase your tickets in advance if it’s something you’re really looking forward to.
King of Pops
King of Pops is a purveyor of unique and delicious popsicles, many of which also happen to be dairy-free. With flavors like Chocolate Sea Salt, Raspberry Lime, and Lemongrass, you’ll want to take advantage of their 2 for $5 deal. These treats are widely available throughout the city; check the King of Pops website for locations.
Centennial Olympic Park
Centennial Olympic Park is generally a quick but quintessential Atlanta stop. Go when you’re already downtown, and preferably at night so you can see the fountain lights. Check the park’s website to see if any concerts or other events are happening at the park during your stay. As of 2013, the park also includes the 20-story ferris wheel, Skyview Atlanta. General admission tickets for Skyview run about $14.
The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site
The MLK Jr. National Historic Site includes The King Center (essentially a museum), the home that he was born in, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and a memorial where he and his wife were interred. This place evokes so many feelings, from sadness and despair to hope and joy. One of my favorite parts was seeing photos of marches taking place on Atlanta streets that I recognized. Be prepared to spend at least a few hours soaking up the history here. Fortunately, these attractions are all free, though make sure to donate if you’re able.
New York City has Central Park, San Francisco has Golden Gate Park, and Atlanta has Piedmont. Walk around the lake or one of the many trails, play frisbee in the meadow, and grab drinks at the neighboring Park Tavern. The magnolia trees and the city skyline make the park particularly beautiful. Go at the right time and you may get to enjoy a free concert as well. In fact, this is the location of the Atlanta Jazz Festival, one of the largest free jazz festivals in the U.S., which takes place over Memorial Day weekend.
The Oakland Cemetery is more than you might expect. It’s not just a cemetery, but also a public park with gardens and sculptures. Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind, was buried here, among other notables. Take a tour to get the full experience. To pair this activity with a great brunch, head across the street to Ria’s Bluebird afterwards.
DeKalb Farmer’s Market
Contrary to it’s name, the DeKalb Farmer’s Market is a grocery store located in a gigantic warehouse. Though you probably won’t be doing a ton of grocery shopping on your vacation, it’s worth a visit for the experience. A couple important points to note: 1) No matter what time you go, the place will be packed, and 2) You will find amazing deals on foods from all around the world. Need curry paste? Teff flour? Tostones? You’ll find it for cheap here!
What to Skip
The Georgia Aquarium was the largest in the world as of 2005. However, though the facility and its tanks are large, there’s surprisingly little to see. It also costs $36 to get in, which seems awfully steep. The best part is walking through a tunnel with a tank full of sea creatures all around you, which I’ll admit is impressive. As a very random perk, around the holidays they also invite Santa to the aquarium. My suggested alternative? Take your kid to see Santa at the mall and buy them a goldfish.
World of Coca-Cola
I took my parents here because they collect Coca-Cola antiques. If you don’t collect Coca-Cola antiques and you also don’t have a random affinity for Coca-Cola, I suggest skipping this attraction. For $17, the memories you’ll walk away with will likely be the following: a few old Coca-Cola trays, meeting the polar bear, and tasting sodas from all over the world (ok, the last part was pretty cool). I’ll let you decide whether or not this is worth the $17.
Most things OTP
Plenty of Atlanta residents make a point of not going (or dating) OTP, or “outside the perimeter.” This includes Atlanta’s many suburbs. Though I’m not hipster enough to make a rule of it, I do believe that most of the area’s best activities are within the city itself.
Speaking of OTP, Stone Mountain is located about 45 minutes east of Atlanta. It’s sort of a poor man’s version of Mt. Rushmore, and was actually originally worked on by the same sculptor. It depicts three confederate “heroes”: Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. You can take the Summit Skyride to see the carving in closer proximity. Prepare to be mildly disappointed.
For those who have been to Atlanta, did I get it right? For those who haven’t, what would your first stop be?