While some major cities have declined in population over the years, Atlanta is booming. The Atlanta metropolitan area was home to 2.2 million people in 1980; by the time of the 2010 census, there were nearly 5.3 million people there. In 2020, the population is expected to exceed six million!
When a city grows that rapidly, visitors can feel lost in the maze. But if you know where to go, you can have a great time on a weekend trip to Atlanta.
Here are some of the best things to do in the area.
Visit Centennial Olympic Park
Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. While some of the venues have been retrofitted for other uses, Centennial Olympic Park, right in the heart of downtown, remains. All of the amenities built for the Olympics can still be accessed today.
If you have a smartphone, the best way to tour the park is to take the audio walking tour. When you arrive at the park, start at the Ivan Allen memorial. It’s located in the park directly across from the Omni Hotel near the intersection of Andrew Young International Boulevard and Marietta Street. When you get to the memorial, pull up this page on your phone. On the map that you see, click on the number one. This will play the first message of the audio tour (don’t forget to bring your headphones!). At the end of that message, you will be given directions to the next audio tour stop. If you get lost, just follow the map on your phone screen to the next location.
If you don’t have time to take the full audio tour of the park, there are still plenty of things to see. Among the most popular features of the park are the Olympic Ring Fountain in the southern part of the park, the Quilt of Nations (a walkway through a series of quilted paving patterns), and the Children’s Garden and Playground.
Explore The Atlanta Botanical Garden
Like many things in Atlanta, the city’s botanical garden is relatively new. Unlike the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the United States Botanic Garden, the Atlanta Botanical Garden doesn’t have a history stretching back 100 years or more — it opened in 1973. That hasn’t stopped the garden from becoming one of the top institutions of its kind in the nation, however.
And the complex is more than just a botanical garden. If you plan ahead by checking the garden’s online event calendar, you can attend one of the garden’s chef demos, where local chefs will prepare your food using fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs from the garden. Or, depending on the time of year, you can attend one of the themed events, such as the Scarecrows In the Garden event in October or the Garden Lights, Holiday Nights event in December.
The Atlanta Botanical Garden is adjacent to Piedmont Park, about a 10-minute drive from downtown Atlanta. The best place to park is the SAGE parking facility near the Piedmont Avenue entrance. Parking is paid by the hour, and rates vary depending on the season. For current ticket prices, check the website before you go.
Tour The CNN Center
It seemed like a crazy idea at the time — a 24-hour cable news network. At the beginning, Ted Turner probably didn’t even realize what he was building, but CNN quickly grew from a small cable broadcaster to a massive international news network. Today, the company employs more than 3,000 people, many of them at the company headquarters in downtown Atlanta.
Visitors can get an up-close look at the news network by taking a tour of the CNN Center. Tours take place every 20 minutes all day, so it’s easy to find a spot. It’s best to purchase tickets in advance on the website. Tours last approximately 45 minutes and can be elevator/ADA-assisted upon request.
For an enhanced experience, consider the VIP tour. This more expensive tour will give you access to the news studios that CNN uses daily. Keep in mind, though, that these tours can sometimes be canceled if there is a major news event that day and the studios need to be closed off. VIP tours depart four times per day, and tickets can be purchased on the website.
Eating In Atlanta
You’re in the South, so you’re going to want to try some Southern comfort food. Here are some of the best options for dining out in Atlanta.
Atlanta Breakfast Club
You’ll want a bona fide Southern breakfast, right? Then be sure to visit Atlanta Breakfast Club. Located in Midtown, Atlanta Breakfast Club prides itself on serving the best breakfast in Atlanta. And the ultimate Southern breakfast — at least when you’re in Atlanta — means one thing: chicken and waffles. While Atlanta Breakfast Club’s chicken and waffles are divine, the menu also features a number of other breakfast options, including breakfast tacos, shrimp and grits, and peach cobbler French toast.
White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails
Located in downtown Atlanta (the Hyatt Regency is right across the street), White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails will provide the modern dining experience you’re looking for. Once you have your trip planned, you’ll want to call ahead for reservations, but with proper planning, you’ll easily get the reservation time you want.
The White Oak Kitchen experience centers on cocktails, so make sure to try one of the signature drinks. Then choose one of the inventive main courses, like the peach salad (of course — it’s Georgia, after all!), rainbow trout, or roasted quail.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room
In the 1940s, there were 16 tea rooms in Atlanta. Today, there’s only one: Mary Mac’s Tea Room. So if you’re looking to experience a little bit of Atlanta’s history, head to Mary Mac’s in Midtown.
It’s truly a 1940s experience. When seated at your table, you’ll find a paper and pencil. You’re in charge of filling out your order that goes to the kitchen. Mary Mac herself started that tradition in 1945, and it has remained to this day.
What to order? The most popular item on the menu is the Southern Special. Choose an entrée (the meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, and roast pork with cornbread dressing are all delicious), a side (I’d go with the fried okra), and a dessert (peach cobbler, of course!).
Shopping In Atlanta
There are plenty of places to shop till you drop in Atlanta. There are malls everywhere you turn in this sprawling metropolis, especially out in the suburbs, but if you’re staying near the city center, there are several unique shopping options within a 10-minute drive.
Ponce City Market
When I say “unique shopping options,” I mean unique. Ponce City Market, located in an old Sears store, is an open marketplace featuring a variety of places to gather, eat, and shop.
The development has many different facets. There’s a preschool on-site, and there are offices occupied by architects, health-care companies, and public relations firms. There’s a food hall with 36 different places to eat. And there are more shops than you’ll be able to visit in one trip.
There are the national chains (Anthropologie, J.Crew, and Lululemon, just to name a few), but also many local shops. There are bookstores and sewing studios and outdoor outfitters and everything in between. You could truly spend an entire day here and not see all of it.
Lenox Square is Atlanta’s upscale shopping area. It markets itself as “the Luxury Of True Luxury,” and that’s certainly true of its list of shops. Most every high-end store, from Cartier to Burberry to Fendi to Jimmy Choo, has a presence in Lenox Square. Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Neiman Marcus — the list goes on and on.
But Lenox Square offers much more than luxury shops. You’ll find stores like Ann Taylor, Coach, and Michael Kors, but you’ll also find several unique options. Visit Nadia’s Boutique for unique fashions, Alex and Ani for eco-friendly jewelry, and Diane von Furstenberg for signature print dresses.
Cap off your shopping experience with some delicious gelato from Amorino!
Nearly across the street from Lenox Square is another shopping area, Phipps Plaza. Anchored by Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, Phipps Plaza provides much of what Lenox Square does, just with different store options.
For some, the ability to visit Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue is a draw, since those stores are not available everywhere in the country. But there are several more unique shopping opportunities at Phipps Plaza.
These include Frontgate, a popular online kitchen, bath, and home accessories retailer that opened its first brick-and-mortar store at Phipps Plaza. There’s also Trina Turk, a contemporary clothing store with only 13 locations in the United States. And these are just some of the more than 100 stores at Phipps Plaza!
All of this — the stores mentioned above, the restaurants mentioned above, and the attractions — because Atlanta grew from a charming Southern town to one of the largest metropolitan areas in the South. It’s worth a weekend visit, and maybe more!
Planning a trip to Atlanta? Don’t leave without checking out the city’s nine best-kept secrets.