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Atlanta Travel Guide

Margaret Mitchell likely wouldn’t recognize modern-day Atlanta, with its sprawling highways and towering skyscrapers (a few of which now dwarf the home where she wrote her famous novel “Gone With the Wind”). But the enterprising spirit that drove the city’s recovery after the Civil War, embodied so vividly by Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, is also what has made Atlanta into the dynamic metropolis it is today.

Visitors to the city will find world-class attractions like the Georgia Aquarium, the High Museum of Art and the Inside CNN studio tour — and more are on the way. Expected to open over the next few years in Atlanta are the College Football Hall of Fame (relocating from South Bend, Indiana) and the brand-new National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Despite all these modern developments, Atlanta hasn’t left its past behind. Many of its earliest buildings were destroyed when Civil War General Sherman left Atlanta in flames, but the city is still home to a number of historically significant buildings from more recent eras, many of which have been saved from demolition and restored. You can see them throughout Atlanta, from the 1920’s-era Fox Theatre to the gracious Victorian mansions of Inman Park. One must-see historical stop is the area of Auburn Avenue surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home (now a National Historic Park). This thriving African-American neighborhood was a vital nexus of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.

Atlanta’s public transportation system, MARTA, offers rail and bus service around the region, but to reach some of the attractions and restaurants recommended below, you may find it easier to rent a car.

Atlanta Attractions

At the Georgia Aquarium, you’ll be mesmerized by giant whale sharks and manta rays as they glide by on all sides in the Ocean Voyager exhibit; other crowd pleasers include beluga whales, penguins and otters. We also loved the vibrant tropical reef display with mock waves crashing overhead. Sure, it’s a big hit with kids, but the aquarium was the highlight of this grown-up’s day too.

At the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, you can tour the house where King was born (in an upstairs bedroom) and visit Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as co-pastor with his father for eight years. Also part of the site is the King Center, the final resting place of King and his wife, Coretta. Inside the Center are informative exhibits on the Kings and Mahatma Gandhi. Outside are a rose garden, fountain and the BEHOLD monument — a bronze statue celebrating King’s courage.

Art lovers shouldn’t miss the High Museum of Art, where the permanent collection includes works by John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Monet, Andy Warhol and Giovanni Bellini. The photography exhibits are well worth a look — the museum holds the nation’s largest gathering of Civil Rights Era photographs. The High is part of the Woodruff Arts Center, which is also home to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Alliance Theatre and Young Audiences (an arts education program for students).

Go behind the scenes with an Inside CNN Studio Tour at the network’s global headquarters in Atlanta. Listen in on real-time decisions being made in the Control Room about what goes on the air when; see how teleprompters, green screens and other technology work in a mock studio; and take a peek into the CNN newsroom, where stories are researched before they go live on TV.

You’ll find vibrant blooms and serene green spaces all year long at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, from winter orchid exhibits in the greenhouses to the profusion of summer blossoms in the Rose Garden. Don’t miss the Kendeda Canopy Walk, which takes visitors through the treetops to look down on colorful woodland gardens below.

At the Margaret Mitchell House, “Gone With the Wind” fans can walk through a re-creation of the apartment where Atlanta’s most famous author penned the epic love story of Scarlett and Rhett. Tour guides offer information about Mitchell’s life, relationships and inspiration for the book. The exhibit space next door showcases artifacts from the film, including the doors to Tara (the O’Hara family home) and the large portrait of Scarlett at which Rhett hurls a glass of sherry in one dramatic scene.

Kids will love the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, where they can crane their necks to take in huge dinosaur skeletons, discover clothing and jewelry from cultures around the world, and explore a stunning array of colorful seashells. The IMAX theater offers a rotating slate of programs such as “Journey to the South Pacific” and “Penguins.”

The Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum takes an informative and moving look at the lives of Jews in Atlanta and around the world. In addition to a comprehensive Holocaust exhibit, the museum showcases artifacts from Atlanta’s sizable Jewish community. Particularly interesting is the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was tried, convicted and then lynched for the murder of a young female factory worker. The anti-Semitism on display at his trial helped inspire the founding of the Anti-Defamation League.

Centennial Olympic Park was developed to serve as a central gathering space for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Be sure to check out the Fountain of Rings, where musical shows are held four times daily.

Imagine It! The Children’s Museum of Atlanta is a must-do if you’ve got little ones in tow. The exhibits are designed for kids age 8 or younger, but all ages are welcome to try out hands-on activities like painting on a giant wall, riding a John Deere tractor or playing in a stream full of fish.

Families won’t want to miss Zoo Atlanta, home to pandas, tigers, giraffes, elephants, gorillas and many more! There’s a petting zoo where kids can get up close and personal with goats and sheep, as well as live shows and daily feedings.

Yes, it’s more or less a big commercial in museum form, but World of Coca-Cola provides an intriguing look at a global phenomenon. The best part is the “Taste It!” room, where you can sample Coca-Cola beverages from different countries around the world. (We take no responsibility for the sugar high you’ll get if you try all 100+ flavors!) There’s also a working bottling line on site. You can take a step back in time in the Milestones of Refreshments gallery, featuring retro Coke ads and memorabilia from bygone decades, and in the Perfect Pauses theater, where you can watch classic Coke commercials.

Zip around town in an electric car on an ATL-Cruzers tour. The 75-minute ride provides an informative look at Atlanta’s neighborhoods and history, winding through areas like Sweet Auburn Avenue, the Martin Luther King historic district, Inman Park and Midtown. It’s a good way to get oriented before setting out to explore the city on your own.

For a more active overview of the city, check out Bicycle Tours of Atlanta. The company offers several tour options; one rolls through historic neighborhoods including Inman Park, Little Five Points, Sweet Auburn, Cabbage Town and Grant Park, while another focuses on murals, sculptures and other art.

The Sweet Auburn Historic District was once “the richest [African-American] street in the world,” according to John Wesley Dobbs, a local political leader. In a deeply segregated city, this thriving African-American neighborhood helped give birth to the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement even before the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., who grew up here. Learn more at the APEX Museum (the acronym stands for African-American Panoramic Experience) at 135 Auburn Avenue.

The Jimmy Carter Library & Museum is worth a stop to check out photographs and memorabilia from Carter’s years in the White House (including a replica of his Oval Office). The museum also hosts special exhibitions.

The Fox Theatre is a local landmark, dating back to the 1920’s. You can take a guided tour or catch a show; the 4,678-seat theater hosts concerts, comedy acts, films, Broadway plays and more.

History buffs will enjoy the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum. The main attraction is the massive Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta — at 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference, it’s believed to be the largest oil painting in the U.S. Created by German artists in the 1880’s, it offers a vivid rendering of this crucial battle; the display is accompanied by music and an informative narrative. Also on display in the museum are Civil War artifacts and the steam locomotive “Texas.”

Piedmont Park is Atlanta’s answer to Central Park in New York. This wide, grassy green space is the city’s playground and gathering space, and features outdoor concerts, picnic facilities, bocce courts, a dog park and much more.

Take a day trip to Red Top Mountain State Park. You can go swimming, boating or fishing on Lake Allatoona, go mountain biking on the Iron Hill Trail, explore a reconstructed 1860’s log cabin or sample some 12 miles of hiking trails.

Atlanta Restaurants

Think “Deep South” and you’ll probably imagine barbecue, crispy chicken and fried green tomatoes — and you can find all of that here. But Atlanta’s sophisticated dining scene ranges far beyond traditional favorites, including fresh takes on classic Southern cuisine and ethnic offerings from around the world. The top neighborhood for dining is Buckhead, with some of the city’s most upscale fare, but you’ll find great eats scattered throughout the city.

Enjoy river and garden views along with some of Atlanta’s best cuisine at Canoe, located on the banks of the Chattahoochee. The menu showcases inventive American dishes — like grilled salmon with spaghetti squash or slow-roasted Carolina rabbit with Swiss chard and bacon ravioli — and is accompanied by an extensive wine list. Go for a romantic dinner or an indulgent weekend brunch.

For self-proclaimed “fiery American cooking,” head to TWO Urban Licks. Live blues music plays five nights a week in this funky revamped warehouse, accompanying dishes like scallops with gouda grits and smoked chicken with mac and cheese. The unique wine wall features 72 stainless steel barrels of wine in a 26-foot-high temperature-controlled tower.

A visit to The Varsity is less about the food and more about the experience of this Atlanta institution. Opened in 1928, the downtown location is the world’s biggest drive-in restaurant, serving more than two miles of hot dogs every day. (The place is swamped during Georgia Tech games.) The onion rings and chili dogs are among the most popular options.

Nan Thai Fine Dining offers creative and beautifully prepared Thai dishes, like the fresh green papaya salad with crushed peanuts and sticky rice, and a variety of traditional curries (available with shrimp, chicken, pork or beef).

Atlanta’s business elite wheel and deal daily at Bone’s, rated by Zagat in 2012 as the country’s best steakhouse for both food and service. Beyond the thick, perfectly cooked steaks, the menu also includes seafood dishes like crab cakes and wild salmon. The sides — such as melt-in-your-mouth truffle butter mashed potatoes — are also worth a mention.

Shopping in Atlanta

Atlanta offers countless shopping opportunities both in and around town. If you’re into malls or outlets selling your favorite brands, you’ll find them aplenty — but you’ll also want to check out the city’s own homegrown boutiques, art galleries and antique stores. Although the Buckhead district alone could keep you busy for a few days, there are other neighborhoods that offer their own retail charms.

Serious shoppers should start in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood, where you’ll find two major malls (Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square) as well as oodles of boutiques, galleries and other places to whip out your credit card. Bennett Street is one of our favorite spots for art and antiques, while the trendy West Village offers a truly eclectic array of clothing, accessories, jewelry, home furnishings and collectibles. And if you’re looking for that perfect lamp or antique mirror, try the design stores at Miami Circle.

For offbeat finds, head to Little Five Points. This funky neighborhood specializes in vintage clothing, used books and music, and novelty items (we love the eclectic collection at Junkman’s Daughter, offering everything from Halloween costumes to bacon-flavored toothpaste).

One of Atlanta’s newest shopping hot spots is the Westside Provisions District. This former meatpacking district now boasts trendy boutiques and home furnishing shops. Try Atlanta MADE for furniture and home accessories from local artisans, G. Gilbert for women’s designer clothing, and Preserving Place for cooking supplies and classes.

The Castleberry Hill historic district is home to numerous up-and-coming art galleries. If you’re in town on the second Friday of the month, don’t miss its ArtStroll, when select galleries, restaurants and shops keep their doors open after hours.

For quaint arts, crafts, gifts and collectibles, head out of town to Stone Mountain Village (about a 30-minute drive from Atlanta). Its historic Main Street is fun for a leisurely stroll.

It’s a bit of a hike (45 miles) from Atlanta, but for serious shoppers the North Georgia Premium Outlets are worth the pilgrimage. Enjoy deep discounts on apparel, accessories and housewares from J.Crew, Calvin Klein, Kate Spade, Williams-Sonoma and dozens more. To get there, it helps to have a car; alternatively, some Atlanta hotels offer shuttle service for a fee.

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