Founded at the crossroads of rail lines in 1836, Atlanta, Georgia was called Marthasville and Terminus before the Western & Atlantic Railroad led to the name. The city was infamously burned to the ground by Sherman’s troops during the Civil War, but following the devastation, rose from the ashes like the phoenix that is the unofficial mascot. It’s been the home of Civil Rights heroes John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as authors like Margaret Mitchell and Joel Chandler Harris, musicians OutKast and Gladys Knight, and countless athletes. Atlanta also famously hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics and continues to be a sports town. Lately, it’s also become known as “Hollywood of the South” because of tax initiatives that bring film productions to the state. It’s also my hometown, so I have plenty to share!
Most travelers don’t see beyond the airport and downtown, where the majority of the tourist attractions and chain hotels are located. There’s so much more to see beyond this district. The city’s layout makes it feel like these neighborhoods are their own towns, each with unique architecture and history.
Old Fourth Ward is the city’s hottest neighborhood, originally named for Atlanta’s ward system, and has gone through a number of changes over the years. Thanks in part to developments like Ponce City Market and the Atlanta Beltline, new restaurants, shops and residences have set up alongside it. Explore Fourth Ward Park while you’re there.
The former cotton mill area is called Cabbagetown, made up of restored lofts and small row houses tucked into narrow one-way streets. Residents are fiercely proud of their home, especially for its eateries like Agave, Little’s Food Store, and Carroll Street Café. Historic Oakland Cemetery forms the neighborhood border on one side, equal parts graveyard and city park. Wander the area in search of street art and murals. Midtown feels the most like the city, complete with high rises and notable hotel chains. The neighborhood is set around Piedmont Park, Atlanta’s largest public green space, and its adjoining Atlanta Botanical Gardens. It’s also home to attractions like the Margaret Mitchell House and the High Museum of Art, and the epicenter of annual Pride festivities.
The historically black neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, Sweet Auburn, is full of landmarks, from King’s childhood home and church to the Curb Market to the former offices of the Atlanta Daily World, now Condesa Coffee. A streetcar line runs through it, connecting to downtown, and Edgewood Avenue has become a nightlife hotspot for dive bars and clubs.
East Atlanta is a hip area for locallyowned restaurants like Argosy and We Suki Suki as well as dive bars with large patios. Live music venues and clubs like The Basement and The Earl keep the party going late into the night. The neighborhood is also known for annual events like the East Atlanta Strut and seasonal markets.
The popular Westside has been transformed from run down warehouses into many retail areas that are near Atlantic Station and Georgia Tech. Make reservations to dine at some of the city’s top eateries, including JCT Kitchen, Cooks & Soldiers and The Optimist. Catch blues musicians at Northside Tavern or watch the sunset from the rooftop at Oku, a popular sushi restaurant.
Like a city of its own, Decatur is set around a historic square that has a fiercely local mindset when it comes to restaurants and stores. Come during one of their events, like the Decatur Book Festival, or catch an up-and-coming musician at Eddie’s Attic. Don’t miss the restaurant scene with favorites like Leon’s Full Service, Kimball House and Revival.
Restaurants and Cafés
After many years of being overshadowed by other Southern foodie cities like Charleston, Nashville and New Orleans, Atlanta is finally getting its due in the media, thanks in part to celebrity chefs like Hugh Acheson and Kevin Gillespie. There’s something for every budget and palate. For most, you can just show up, but the big-name eateries might require a reservation, especially on weekends. Homegrown– I’m always hesitant to write about my favorite breakfast place, but I can’t hide it anymore. This place looks like an old school diner mixed with your grandmother’s house. Funky artwork covers the wall and is all for sale. The menu has Southern favorites like chicken biscuits, fried catfish and blue plate specials.
The Optimist– Seafood lovers flock to this Westside Ford Fry restaurant for its outdoor bocce court, oyster bar, cocktail program and top-notch selection of fish. But those who don’t eat seafood can also find something to enjoy, from burgers to roasted chicken.
8 arm– This funky eatery is equal parts coffee shop and restaurant with an open air patio and small dining room. Their menu changes daily and is available for weeknight dinner, brunch and late night bites. The patio has a shipping container bar with frozen cocktails and beer.
Buford Highway– There’s nowhere better for international dining in Atlanta than the restaurants along this stretch of road in Chamblee. Start at the farmer’s market and wind your way through Chinese, Malaysian, Korean and even Guatemalan restaurants. Lee’s Bakery is one of my favorites for its cheap sandwiches and pho.
Staplehouse– Named by Bon Appetit as the best restaurant in America, it supports The Giving Kitchen, a charity for food and beverage industry employees that fall on hard times. The menu is both colorful and creative, but reservations are a must.
Paschal’s– Few Atlanta restaurants are as historically significant as this soul food eatery where Civil Rights activists dined. The fried chicken is some of the best in the city, best paired with collard greens or macaroni and cheese.
Food halls- The newest restaurant trend allows diners to try multiple things in one convenient location. Sweet Auburn Curb Market is the original, with real produce vendors and small restaurants like Arepa Mia. Ponce City Market is where top name chefs set up, from Italian to Mexican to Mediterranean. And Krog Street Market is smaller, but has an equal diversity of selections.
Bars and Nightlife
Atlanta is a city previously known for its nightlife and while Buckhead may no longer be the wild place it once was, it’s still where you can find the popular nightclubs. Elsewhere in the city, there are dives with cheap beer to swanky cocktail lounges that craft drinks to order and craft breweries serving all styles of beer.
Nine Mile Station– Make reservations for this rooftop beer garden at Ponce City Market. The menu is fantastic, but you can’t beat the views. Open rain or shine, bring some friends for draft beer, cocktails and wine.
Clermont Lounge– To call it a “strip club” wouldn’t do it justice. This dive bar has dancing ladies, but all are over the age of 50. Look out for “Blondie,” the most famous performer, while sipping on a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Bring cash for entry and don’t take photos inside!
Manuel’s Tavern– Another longtime Atlanta watering hole, Manuel’s has winding rooms covered in memorabilia from over the years. Enjoy a pint of beer, both local and national, as well as the tasty bar food.
The Mercury– In search of swanky cocktails in a Mad Men-style setting? This lounge above the food hall at Ponce City Market is where to go, whether you’re enjoying it at the bar or taking it to enjoy as you peruse the shops downstairs.
Breweries– There’s no shortage of breweries around town, especially on the Westside. Sweetwater is the longestrunning, but Monday Night, Orpheus, and Wild Heaven have become popular in recent years. All offer tastings and tours.
The Regent Cocktail Club– While definitely on the swanky end of things, it’s one of the few non-fratty places around. It has an open rooftop overlooking Buckhead and nice cocktails.
Church– Also known as Sister Louisa’s Church of the Ping Pong Emporium, this Edgewood favorite is equal parts bar and art installation. Swig a cheap beer while playing a round of ping pong, donning choir robes.
Things to Do
There are many types of attractions in Atlanta, from the well-known ones to quirky and lesser-known museums. Add in an equal mix of both for a wellrounded experience. If you’ll be hitting the highlights, look into the Atlanta CityPass to save you time and money.
Georgia Aquarium– The world’s largest aquarium showcases countless species, including those found in our backyard and beyond. Favorite creatures include the beluga whales, river otters and horseshoe crabs.
World of Coca Cola– Visit the interactive attraction that details the company’s history from pharmacy remedy to beverage giant. Sample the brand’s drinks from around the world and see the vault where they keep the secret recipe.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site– This area includes the Civil Rights leader’s childhood home and the church he preached at. Tour the visitor’s center and the King Center for the full experience.
Center for Civil and Human Rights– This state of the art museum interprets both the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and modern struggles in the LGBTQ and immigrant communities.
High Museum of Art– Visit one of the region’s top art museums, which showcases early European to modern works with a large selection of self-taught folk art and pieces from regional artists like Howard Finster.
Atlanta Botanical Garden– Located within Piedmont Park, this garden features plant species from around the world as well as art and sculpture made of plants as well as glass by Chihuly.
Atlanta History Center– The Buckhead museum encompasses multiple exhibits, including sections on the Civil War and the 1996 Olympics as well as a historic farm. The center also manages the Margaret Mitchell House in Midtown.
Delta Flight Museum– Learn about the international airline’s history from local farm airline to major brand in their historic hangar. Inside, visitors can see their airplanes from over the years as well as uniforms.
Fernbank Museum of Natural History– The 75-acre museum covers natural history with exhibits on dinosaurs, Georgia’s natural environment, and world cultures. There are also changing exhibits and sprawling grounds.
Atlanta Beltline– The city’s best resource is the rails to trails paths that loop around the city, including from Piedmont Park to the Old Fourth Ward. Hop on and off along the way to see local artwork and bars and restaurants.
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum– Learn about the life of Georgia’s president, from his early days as a farmer in Plains to Nobel Peace Prize winner. The museum features artifacts from his life and hosts readings and events.
Tours- Visit the city’s filming locations with Atlanta Movie Tours and hear about the culinary history with Atlanta Food Walks, two of my favorite tour companies. There are many more that hit the city’s highlights.
If you’re looking for high-end luxury stores, Buckhead is where you’ll find them. But elsewhere in the city, there are funky boutiques and secondhand and antique stores, especially around the Old Fourth Ward.
Citizen Supply– Located in Ponce City Market, this store sells goods from a variety of local vendors, including clothing, artwork, jewelry, candles and other gifts.
The Beehive– Similarly, this store sells handcrafted items from multiple vendors from Atlanta and beyond. They also teach arts and craft classes. Draper James– Owned by Reese Witherspoon, this Buckhead boutique sells Southern-inspired clothing, accessories and gifts. You’ll be offered sweet tea to sip while you shop.
Paris on Ponce– Part antique store, part artisan market, you never know what you might find at this 46,000 square foot Beltline-adjacent spot.
Trashy Diva Clothing Boutique– Now with an Atlanta outpost, this New Orleans original sells vintage-inspired clothing for curvy ladies, including dresses and lingerie.
Buffalo Exchange– This chain store in Poncey Highlands sells new and secondhand trendy clothing for both men and women. They also buy items if you’re short on cash.
Psycho Sisters– Atlanta’s original vintage store is in Little Five Points, selling gently used clothing as well as wacky accessories, jewelry and wigs.
Clothing Warehouse– Organized by color, this is where to pick up soft vintage t-shirts, denim and accessories. They started as a warehouse where you could buy items by the pound.
Criminal Records– Atlanta’s original record store in Little Five Points sells new and used vinyl, CDs, and tapes from well-known and independent artists.
Sid and Ann Mashburn– The upscale men’s and women’s boutique is run by a husband and wife team on the Westside. There’s even an in-house coffee shop. Where to Stay Atlanta has its fair share of big-name hotel brands, but there are more and more boutique and unique stays. Choose from one of these stylish options all over town for any budget.
Hotel Clermont– Formerly an abandoned motor lodge, this hotel in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward has a rooftop bar overlooking the city, a French-inspired restaurant, cocktail lounge, and coffee shop. They have king rooms, suites, and even bunks.
Loews Atlanta Hotel– Located in the center of Midtown, the hotel’s Atlanta location has a restaurant, in-house spa and fitness center, and is popular for events and festivals as well as for visiting celebs. Rooms and suites have floor to ceiling windows that overlook the city.
The American Hotel– This hotel originally opened as the first desegregated hotel in Atlanta for traveling sports teams and later hosted countless celebrities and politicians. The downtown DoubleTree has been renovated back to its midcentury style.
The Ellis Hotel– This historic property survived a devastating fire, but is now a boutique hotel downtown with women’s only floors, pet friendly rooms, and a wellness room.
Atlanta isn’t really thought of to be a highly walkable city, but it depends on the neighborhood. Within downtown, you can get around very easily as well as in places like Inman Park and neighborhoods located along the Atlanta Beltline.
It’s also becoming a more bike-friendly city, especially thanks to the Beltline, PATH trails and bike lanes in certain parts of Atlanta. Relay Bikes are the bike share program and can be picked up all over the city and rented by the hour or day. Bike shops like Skate Escape and Atlanta Bicycle Barn also have rental bikes.
MARTA is the city’s public transportation service, which includes both buses and trains. The trains don’t run many places except for in the city center, but are the best way to get to and from the airport. All fares are USD2.50 per journey and can be loaded onto a Breeze card. Taking the train is also encouraged if you’re going to sporting events or areas without parking. The Atlanta Streetcar connects between downtown and Sweet Auburn as well.
What you’ve likely heard about getting around Atlanta is just how bad the traffic is, which lasts for at least three hours twice a day. Unless you’re used to aggressive driving, I don’t recommend it. If you’re traveling further out in the state, you can rent cars for the day through agencies at the airport or downtown or use Zipcar. Travel Insurance is a wise purchase if you’ll be driving. I recommend World Nomads. Ridesharing is a much better option. I exclusively use Lyft to get around parts of Atlanta, but Uber is also available.
Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport is around 25 minutes from downtown and can be accessed by train or car. Visitors also arrive by train at the Amtrak Station in Midtown. Bus drop offs for Megabus are at the Civic Center MARTA Station, while Greyhound picks up at the Garnett MARTA Station.