Flying into Georgia’s capital city, it’s easy to see why its been called a “city within a forest” – the view down below is a green canopy of oaks towering over residential areas, shading them from the glare of the sun.
At ground level, there’s plenty going on to entice people into the city, to linger longer than a layover at Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport. Even since its early days, Atlanta has been a hub for the South – back in its early rail heyday, in fact its original name was Terminus. These days, some people (though excluding most locals) dub it “Hotlanta”, referring to the subtropical climate, which makes it a great destination for spring or fall visits but can be testing in summer. But the “hot” part could easily refer to the city’s surging status as a tourism draw.
Top Atlanta Attractions
The best place for visitors to start is downtown, just 20 minutes from the airport by car or MARTA, the local subway system. The international cable news giant CNN is headquartered here and lots of visitors stop by for a selfie in front of the giant CNN sign or take the 50-minute studio tour.
On the other side of Centennial Olympic Park (above) – built for the 1996 Olympic Games, which transformed a good chunk of the city – are three major attractions facing each other. Atlanta’s also the home base of Coca-Cola, and in Pemberton Place – a plaza named after hirsute pharmacist John Pemberton, who invented Coke in 1886, you’ll find both a statue of this gentleman and the World of Coca-Cola, which in addition to the soft drink’s vaunted secret formula (kept in a vault here) is also a slick, multimedia museum displaying memorabilia, advertising through the decades, and a tasting zone.
Right across from here is the Georgia Aquarium, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, home to among many other things a 23,800-cubic-metre (6.3-million-gallon) tank that’s home to four huge whale sharks. Right here on the square as well is the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opened in 2014 and charts the story of the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the continuing struggle for human rights globally. The centre’s King Collection houses a rotating display of artifacts relating to Atlanta’s most famous son, Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, these visitor favourites are connected by streetcar (which returned to Atlanta in 2014) to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, running along Auburn Avenue. This includes, within walking distance of each other, the birth home and tomb of the iconic civil rights activist as well as the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both King and his father MLK Senior preached.
Park Life & Midtown Arts District
Nearby, Krog Street Market is a nine-acre complex of bars and restaurants which helped boost Atlanta’s growing food scene reputation considerably when it opened in 2014. So did Ponce City Market, less than ten minutes north, when it opened later that same year on a 16-acre site (one of the southeastern USA’s largest structures) that includes eateries and boutique shops. These two are actually joined by the Atlanta Beltline, an ambitious and ongoing urban regeneration project that will eventually encircle the city with 35 kilometres (22 miles) of landscaped former railway lines. This section, the 2.2-mile Eastside Trail, 3.5 km (just over two miles) long, is popular with runners, hikers, cyclists and rollerbladers, and it continues on to Piedmont Park, the city’s green oasis neighboring the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Piedmont Park is also just south of the Midtown Arts District, a cluster of arts and cultural venues with the High Museum of Art at its centre. Displaying works of masters such as Rodin, Sargent, this fine art museum has strong links with the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City but puts its own stamp on its exhibitions.
The Gone with the Wind Trail & the ‘Hollywood of the South’
Also in Midtown, the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum is one of several places in and around Atlanta to explore the city’s links to this country’s 1861-65 civil war as told in Mitchell’s iconic novel (and resulting movie) Gone with the Wind, mostly written in Mitchell’s modest apartment, which is part of the museum.
Mitchell is buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, a beautifully landscaped sculpture garden and burial ground dotted with magnolia trees at the highest point in the city. Dating back to 1850, it’s the best place to seek out history in town and includes Civil War monuments and a separate “Slave Square”, an area covered on guided tours that discuss slavery and racial segregation in Atlanta under the postwar “Jim Crow” laws that were in place here, many up until the 1960s.
For another dose of Civil War lore, the Atlanta History Center tells the story of the city’s past and how it was quickly rebuilt during the postwar reconstruction, rising from the ashes to earn the nickname the “Phoenix City”. The museum is located in Buckhead, an affluent district home to the wealthy and occasionally famous, such as Elton John and – intermittently – Justin Bieber. It’s also home to Swan House, an elegant 1920s mansion with period furniture open for tours, and the Cyclorama, a 360-degree panorama from 1886 depicting the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta. This was once the world’s biggest painting, was moved from downtown to Buckhead in 2015, and is currently undergoing restoration in time for a 2017 opening. (Shoppers note: Buckhead’s also the best place for upmarket Atlanta shopping, in zones such as sprawling mall Lenox Square and neighbouring Phipps Plaza.)
Many Gone with the Wind sites can be visited on the edges of Atlanta, part of a “Gone with the Wind Trail” – most covered by Atlanta Movie Tours of sites linked to Mitchell (it also offers discounts to the two Gone with the Wind museums in Marietta and Jonesboro, where her family’s plantation and stories inspired her Pulitzer prize-winning novel). The company also has tours stopping at other locations relating to Atlanta’s burgeoning movie and television production. Nicknamed “Hollywood of the South”, Atlanta has played backdrops to hits including the Hunger Games franchise, Marvel comics movies, and TV phenomenon The Walking Dead.
Stone Mountain & the Old South Versus the New
East of the city, Stone Mountain is the largest exposed mass of granite in the world, and Carved on the mountainside is a giant image of three Confederate generals, on the traitorous rebel side of the Civil War, carved by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who went on to create the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Borglum was a member of the notorious racist Ku Klux Klan, and the mountain became a popular site for KKK meetings – even meriting a mention in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Today, Stone Mountain Park is Georgia’s most visited attraction, popular with outdoors enthusiasts both black and white, but the bas-relief carving – the largest in the world – remains controversial. Some want it removed, given its negative associations and connection to the worst aspects of the Old South. For now, it is part of the mixed history of Stone Mountain, often seen from the air, rising in the distance as flights leave Atlanta, the undisputed capital of the New South.
More information: Atlanta.com.
Lee Howard is a London-based freelance and photographer who covers travel, arts and culture; his work has appeared in The Guardian, National Geographic, Rough Guides andWhere Traveler. Follow him on Twitter at @LeeeHoward.
photos | Lee Howard, Christopher Meder