Georgia’s leafy capital is due its time in the spotlight. Dynamic, progressive and home to one of the country’s most exciting food scenes, Atlanta is the new star of the South. Whether you stay for a week or stop by on a layover, you’ll soon discover why it’s one of our top 10 cities to visit this year.
Where do I start?
Atlanta is a city of distinct neighbourhoods, each with their own vibe. The best place to start is on the Eastside, where you’ll find rock ‘n’ roll Little Five Points, bohemian Virginia-Highland and laidback Inman Park, once Atlanta’s first suburb.
The Westside is more spread out, but home to some of the city’s coolest areas, studded by galleries, hip loft apartments and factory conversions. The Westside Provisions District is one of the easiest to wander on foot. Once a meat-packing plant, its red-brick industrial buildings have been tastefully renovated and are now packed with cool boutiques and upscale restaurants.
To understand the city’s history, dedicate a day to exploring historic Sweet Auburn, birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. The district was designated a National Historic Site in 1976, recognizing the achievements of the African-American community which has thrived here.
You can learn more about Dr. King’s life on a free tour of his Birth Home, in the visitor centre, or at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was once pastor. To get a feel for the area today, drop by the much-lauded Sweet Auburn Curb Market for lunch.
For a different taste of Atlanta life, head for quirky Cabbagetown, with its clapboard houses and narrow streets, or drive north to glitzy Buckhead for high-end malls and mansions (yes, this is where residents once protested against Justin Bieber). Downtown and Midtown, while essential to visit for the city’s big sights, can feel a little soulless.
Regeneration initiatives have transformed Atlanta in recent years. The highest profile development is the BeltLine, one of the most ambitious public projects in the country. Tracing an old railway line, it will cover 22 miles when fully complete; follow the trail on foot or by bike, and keep an eye out for the latest art installations along the way.
Foodies will love the enormous Ponce City Market, a superb multi-million dollar conversion of the derelict Sears, Roebuck & Co. building. It’s a slick development from the team behind NYC’s Chelsea Market, with shops including Williams-Sonoma and Anthropologie, and food hall residents ranging from award-winning burger purveyors H&F to smart bar-restaurants like The Mercury. Nearby Krog St Market is smaller and more convivial; try the bao at Suzy Siu's or the excellent Tex-Mex tacos at Superica.
The city has also hit the big screen again this year, thanks to FX’s new show Atlanta. Movie tours can take you behind the scenes, as well as to filming locations from the likes of The Hunger Games, Anchorman 2, Stranger Things and The Walking Dead, parts of which were all shot here.
What are the big sights?
The most recent addition to Atlanta’s must-visit sights is the thought-provoking National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Its varying interactive exhibitions offer insights into the both the Civil Rights Movement and contemporary struggles around the world.
Art-lovers should head to The High Museum of Art, where the diverse permanent collection ranges from Andrew Wyeth to Alex Katz to Monet. You might also spot artistic collaborations at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, such as installations by glassworker Dale Chihuly, while the shady avenues provide the perfect respite from the city’s sticky summer heat.
You’ll see a lot of hype about Atlanta’s big-ticket attractions: the World of Coca-Cola, where you can go wild tasting more than a hundred different drinks, and the neighbouring Georgia Aquarium, the largest in the western hemisphere. Both are good diversions if you have kids, but can be frighteningly busy at times. The Fernbank Science Centre offers a more educational experience – and dinosaurs.
For something different, you can take an interesting – if delightfully gimmicky – Studio Tour at the CNN Center. The 50-minute experience offers a glimpse into the newsroom and an introduction to the tech that keeps the show on the road.
Where are the best places to eat and drink?
Atlanta’s restaurants count among some of the country’s best, with cuisines running the gamut from top-notch Japanese to authentic Thai and Korean. Trend-driven new openings seemingly crop up each week, while a host of independent and family-run spots provide memorable meals year-on-year.
If you’re looking for fine dining, Star Provisions have been behind some of the city’s highest-profile names for decades. Bacchanalia consistently ranks among Atlanta’s top restaurants, receiving the James Beard Award for outstanding service in 2016, while their Italian-influenced Floataway Cafe is slightly more low key.
For seafood, try the elegant if pricy Optimist, or for something a little different go all out at Gunshow, where you can choose from innovative small plates presented on trays and trolleys.
You can get your brisket fix at the excellent Fox Bros Bar-B-Q, or head to JCT. Kitchen & Bar for a more refined take on Southern cooking – try the fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits. At Six Feet Under, overlooking the historic Oakland Cemetery, it’s all about gator bites, fried catfish and pitchers of peach margaritas.
More of a fast-food addict? A trip to Atlanta institution The Varsity is a must; they’ve been turning out the city’s finest chili cheese dogs since 1928.
As for drinks, Atlanta’s craft beer scene continues to improve; more than ten breweries have opened in the last decade. The Hop City Bar in Krog St Market is one of the best places to try a beer (or three), with 60 beers on tap and many more to takeaway. Cocktail culture has stepped up a gear, too; pull up a bar stool at Miller Union for modern twists on the classics or Amer for inventive concoctions like the Bling Machine and Delorean.
Top image © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock