For the past few years, the capital of Georgia has been hell-bent on proving that it’s also the capital of the South-eastern United States. Its place carved into fiction and folklore, DILRAZ KUNNUMMAL visits the city where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and where Margaret Mitchell wrote and based her timeless award-winning literary classic Gone With The Wind.
Atlanta’s magnetic historically rooted charisma has been noticeably enhanced of late by new charms and modern amenities, making now the perfect time to visit the beating heart of the American South. Originally a railroad town that served as a gateway to more far-flung corners of the Southeast, recent years have seen the opening of major new attractions, the unveiling of sprawling food halls, a new pedestrian trail snaking its way beneath the skyline and a brand-new streetcar system routed directly through Atlanta’s downtown hub, reinvigorating the bustling financial and commercial centre and drawing more people into the city.
The largest city in Georgia, whilst Atlanta is now a vibrant metropolis boasting a thriving and varied cultural community it also remains a crucial countrywide transportation hub. Super-easily accessible via one of the world’s busiest airports, the city has attracted a new influx of entrepreneurs, media moguls and world-renowned chefs, the latter giving rise to a burgeoning and diverse culinary scene.
Atlanta’s hospitality offerings range from deluxe full-service properties and well known 5* brands to boutique hotels and antique-adorned bed and breakfasts. There’s literally somewhere for everyone to rest their head in Atlanta, from celebs and high-flying CEOs to vacationing families and backpackers. For those who like to be in the thick of it all, the 414-room Loews Atlanta Hotel is well located in the epicentre of Midtown’s hustle and bustle – close to the famous Fox Theatre, Piedmont Park and the Margaret Mitchell House – and puts a lot more sights within easy walking distance; walking is indeed a pleasure in Atlanta.
Rooms are serene and modern with floor-to-ceiling windows, and walls are hung with colourful works by local artists and big flat-screen TVs. Try to bag a room towards the top of the hotel’s 26 storeys (www.loewshotels.com/atlanta). The hotel’s street-level Saltwood Charcuterie & Bar is renowned for its exceptionally good handcrafted cocktails, micro-brews and Southern-accented tapas-style plates and most definitely worth a look-in (www.saltwoodatlanta.com).
At the top end is the stately St. Regis Atlanta, which comes laden with the kind of luxuries and decadent touches one expects from Starwood’s premium hotel brand. Located in the heart of Buckhead, the St. Regis is Southern luxury personified, complete with a bevy of doting, immaculately turned-out butlers, whizzing around and fulfilling guests’ every request. Bedrooms are large, airy and well, pricey. Complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, handcrafted chandeliers, original artworks and probably the largest hotel bathrooms in the city, lined with marble and equipped with deep soaking tubs, double vanities, rain-showers and a television set in the bathroom mirror (www.stregisatlanta.com).
Completely Victorian inside and out and one of the first structures built in Midtown Atlanta (started in 1891 and finished in 1892), architecture buffs will love the stunning Shellmont Inn. Built by Walter T. Downing, one of Atlanta’s premier architects, the property is now a designated city landmark and 5-room B&B retaining oodles of charming details. Guest rooms are decorated in period splendour complete with Oriental rugs, wallpaper that replicates patterns in London’s V&A Museum and large antique carved-wood bedsteads (+1 404 872-9290).
Once you’re settled and unpacked it’s time to do some exploring! Atlanta is so buzzing with energy and enthusiasm it’s virtually impossible not to rise early. A good place to start is the CNN Centre, the world headquarters of the media mammoth, founded by Ted Turner. There’s a palpable sense of anticipation in the air as one enters the building. The voluminous lobby is lined with an array of flags and features the vehicle used for CNN’s conflict reporting. The vast complex wholeheartedly embodies the essence of the company that calls it home. A 50-minute insider tour includes riding the world’s longest freestanding escalator and peeking into various stops over 8 floors, including an active newsroom, live studios and the weather room. The USD33 “VIP Tour” is a must for all budding young news anchors! (http://tours.cnn.com)
Atlanta’s deep-rooted sporting connections are undeniable. Home of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the American city where beach volleyball and mountain biking made their Olympic debuts, Atlanta has always been an active and energetic city, its residents vocal and dedicated supporters. Nothing feeds an ardent fan more than the College Football Hall of Fame, a short stroll across Centennial Olympic Park, which pays homage to the revered game and unofficial religion of the South. Here visitors can search flat-screen digital displays for stats on their favourite players. Even entry tickets are interactive; tailoring your experience through the building to the people and games you care most about after naming your home team on arrival (www.cfbhall.com).
Since Atlanta was a touchpoint during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, it’s worth dropping into the intensely interesting Center for Civil and Human Rights to learn a little about the era. Comprising two very different sites, which quite honestly look as though they’ve landed from different galaxies, the USD68 million facility opened just over three years ago and is cutting edge to say the least (www.civilandhumanrights.org).
Meanwhile, a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (it may be a bit of a mouthful but it’s worth seeing!), includes admittance to the house in which the civil rights leader grew up and the church at which he was a pastor, and access to a digital archive where more than 10,000 documents from Martin Luther King’s personal collection can be viewed (www.thekingcenter.org).
Just across from these museums are the World of Coca-Cola Museum and the immense Georgia Aquarium (set on a 9-acre plot, to give you some idea of how massive it is), both of which have become international destinations.
The World of Coca-Cola stands in Atlanta’s once-blighted downtown, on a 22-acre plot that the company purchased in the early 1990s. You enter by walking under a 27-foot bottle of Coke that hovers in a 90-foot-high glass pillar, the walls of which glisten like crushed ice and are bracingly cold to the touch, even when it’s sweltering outside. Guests of every age are catered for in this mammoth homage to the most famous fizzy drink on the planet by way of a variety of attractions, including a “Vault of Secret Formula”, a 10-gallery “Milestones of Refreshment” exhibit, a loft space which showcases vintage advertising and other Coca-Cola memorabilia, a 4D movie experience and the inevitable taste room where more than 100 different beverages are on offer. If there wasn’t so much else to see and do in Atlanta it would be easy (and perhaps a little addictive) to lose half a day in the caffeine-fuelled world of this mass-marketing phenomenon (www.worldofcoca-cola.com).
Moving around Atlanta is a doddle thanks to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority public transport system (MARTA). A fascinating stop is Peachtree Center station, built 120ft underground and a veritable modern architectural marvel.
In the heart of downtown Atlanta, Underground Atlanta opened in 1969 as a “city beneath the streets.” Here visitors can explore six city blocks, 12 acres and three levels of shopping, restaurants and entertainment in one destination with more than 100 years of history. Guided 50-minute walking tours are offered daily to take visitors through the history of Atlanta from its early beginnings to the present day. The Georgia Railroad Freight Depot, which stands at the entrance to Underground Atlanta, is the city’s oldest building (www.underground-atlanta.com).
Culture vultures won’t want to miss Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, which was the first in the world to display works on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Here art aficionados can view paintings by van Gogh, Cézanne and Manet, not to mention an expansive and very well curated permanent collection. www.high.org
Sightseeing and touring is a draining business, and frequent pit stops are needed to rehydrate and maintain energy levels. Luckily Atlanta is awash with all manner of dynamic new culinary offerings, vibrant bars, happening cafés and celebrated restaurants. Since you’re in Southern America anytime is a good time for fried chicken! Founded in July 1997 by chef Erica Palmer-Dobb, Erica’s Sidewalk Café may be unassuming and tiny but the food is hearty and delicious (134 Baker St NE). Famous names like chef Kevin Gillespie have breathed new gastronomic life into a number of neighbourhoods and encouraged other eateries to move in alongside. Gillespie’s award-winning restaurant in the Glenwood park neighbourhood of Atlanta is a veritable treat for one’s taste buds (www.gunshowatl.com).
A meal at Angus Brown and Nhan Le’s Asian restaurant, Octopus Bar in South Buckhead, will not disappoint. Very sadly Brown passed away prematurely a few months ago at the age of 35, but the restaurant he co-founded lives on and reservations are essential (www.octopusbaratl.com). Meanwhile, for a prime cut steak in upscale yet relaxed surroundings, not to mention superb sushi and wonderfully fresh seafood, Ray’s In The City is hard to beat, impeccable service and tasty wholesome food its hallmarks (www.raysrestaurants.com).
Before calling it a night, be sure to hitch a ride on the 200ft SkyView Ferris wheel, located downtown and offering breathtaking panoramic views across the city. If you’re still flush after a whole day out, USD50/person will buy you an extended ride in a VIP gondola complete with glass floor and five Ferrari style seats (www.skyviewatlanta.com).
With a myriad of museums, outdoor activities, culinary adventures and shopping areas in the cosmopolitan capital of the South, there’s always something fun or happening in Atlanta which appeals to Americans and tourists alike. And Southern folk are ever so warm and friendly! With so many new attractions and such a diverse and thriving cultural scene, now is most certainly the time to visit the vibrant capital of the Southeastern United States (www.exploregeorgia.org/city/atlanta).