You may think you know Georgia's capital city, but think again. No place in the South has grown faster and changed more, and it just keeps getting better. You'll want to visit our five favorites; they offer world-class fun for every member of the family. Come take a bite out of the Big Peach, and enjoy its freshness.
1. Georgia Aquarium
The sheer size of the new Georgia Aquarium has earned it the nickname "eighth ocean of the world." Walk through the front door, and you'll begin to feel like one of the fish. Schools of jacks swim determinedly ahead, leading the way into one of the best aquariums anywhere. Five galleries--each exploring an individual ecosystem--attract your attention with scores of big tanks full of slippery creatures. Touch tanks put you up close with rays, shrimp, and urchins. Longnose gars fin through thick tubes overhead in the rivers area. The big ocean tank, home to whale sharks, monstrous groupers, and cool-looking largetooth sawfish, draws crowds. Take time to explore the coral exhibit with waves crashing overhead as neon-colored fish dart in and out of the bubbles. In another gallery, oohs and aahs surround the playful seals, otters, penguins, and beluga whales. Even 18 months after opening, the aquarium is still best viewed in the early and late hours of weekdays.
2. Piedmont Park
Sure, Atlanta has traffic. Yet it also claims one of the largest city parks in the nation where you can revel in the grass and shaded splendor. One of the biggest crowds congregates in Piedmont Park for the free Bark in the Park concert on July 23. Music and animal lovers bring their pooches to spread blankets on the ground for a night of music by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The doggies instinctively seem to know to stop barking as the orchestra plays. The 185-acre Piedmont Park, which sits adjacent to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, sports trails and sidewalks, lakes, a weekend farmers market, open-air concerts, and one of the best views of the skyline. It gets better every year. Plan to visit the garden on Thursday, when it stays open till 9 p.m. with kiosks offering cocktails. During your stroll, seek out the two permanent art glass works by Dale Chihuly, created for the site in 2004. One adorns the Parterre Garden Fountain outside (it looks like a wig of glass curls standing on end), while the second hangs like a chandelier in the conservatory.
3. High Museum of Art
Few cities can match Atlanta's array of cultural events. Some of the most exciting emanate from the recently expanded High Museum of Art. Perched along Peachtree Street in Midtown, three new buildings double its size and create a plaza, which includes Table 1280 restaurant. The original architecture and the Italian design by Renzo Piano blend seamlessly. The resulting arts village is a light-filled space, inside and out. Now the High has room to show off its considerable collection of 19th- and 20th-century American works. A blockbuster three-year show accompanies the new digs. Curators from the High Museum handpicked European masterpieces from the Louvre to tell the story of the French museum's collections. This year's segment, "Decorative Arts of the Kings," lets you pull back the curtain and glimpse household items cherished by former Versailles residents. The High continues to celebrate contemporary culture with its permanent exhibit of modern and postmodern works. This summer's show, "Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005," opens May 12. The photographer's images of celebrities include her professional and personal favorites.
4. Atlantic Station
The city's shopping and dining just keep getting better. Since it built its first mega-mall, folks have flocked here like birds to a feeder. Now locals and visitors alike put Atlantic Station on their migratory routes. The multiblock area sits in Midtown, where I-75 and I-85 North split. The new 17th Street bridge conveniently accesses underground parking. Currently, Atlantic Station is chockablock with big chains, including such spots as a flagship Dillard's, west elm, and Journeys. Locally owned shops are also moving in, such as Taste Clothing Boutique, which stocks trendy fashions from New York and Los Angeles. You'll want to seek out IKEA, a Scandinavian home store a couple of blocks away. It's the only location in the world to serve grits in its cafe. You can overnight here in TWELVE Atlantic Station hotel, which houses one- and two-bedroom suites complete with granite-and-stainless steel kitchens, living rooms, flat-panel TVs, and granite baths, in the same building as condos with similar layouts. Hotel rates start at less than $200. Restaurants can't open fast enough in Atlantic Station. Our favorite, Lobby at TWELVE, features upscale lunches and dinners. We also go for the pomegranate margaritas and guacamole at Rosa Mexicano. Two spots owned by Ashton Kutcher and his TV pals have added to the scene: Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante joins the glitzy bowling-and-billiards complex, Ten Pin Alley.
5. Downtown Hotels
With so much happening in the metro area, you'll want to be in the center of the action. Catering to a twenty- and thirtysomething crowd, the boutique property The Glenn Hotel boasts a see-and-be-seen, swanky lobby bar. The dark hallways upstairs lead to chic rooms with traditional luxurious linens. Baths offer little privacy but lots of panache with beaded shower curtains and round glass walls that are sometimes open to the bedrooms. Rates begin at $199. Families may stay more comfortably at the Embassy Suites near the aquarium (rates from $165). Rooms include kitchenettes, and outdoors, a cool pool appeals to kids. Later this year, downtown will see several new boutique hotels open, including a Hilton Garden Inn, The Ellis Hotel, and another TWELVE hotel/condo combo. Just don't blink too often in this city. New spots for fun and entertainment spring up that fast.
- Georgia Aquarium: www.georgiaaquarium.org
- Piedmont Park: www.piedmontpark.org
- Atlanta Botanical Garden: www.atlantabotanicalgarden.org
- High Museum of Art: www.high.org
- Atlantic Station: www.atlanticstation.com
- TWELVE Atlantic Station: www.twelvehotels.com
- The Glenn Hotel: www.glennhotel.com
- Embassy Suites: www.embassysuites.com
Five Additional Reasons To Love Atlanta
- Pop into the World of Coca-Cola after its May 24 re-opening next door to the aquarium. New films, fun memorabilia, and samples of Coke products from around the world promise a sparkling visit. (www.woccatlanta.com)
- Splash and skip through the watery spouts at the Fountain of Rings in the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park. After a recent face-lift, a new water and music show squirts up four times a day. (www.centennialpark.com)
- Feel much safer walking downtown's streets. Keep an eye out for the Ambassador Force, uniformed folks in pith helmets on foot and on bicycles, who help visitors find their way around. (www.atlantadowntown.com/ambassador.asp)
- Fall in love with Zoo Atlanta's most famous baby, Mei Lan. The panda cub frolics with her mom in the Grant Park attraction. (www.zooatlanta.com)
- Save up to 50% off admissions to attractions with the Atlanta CityPass. It includes the Georgia Aquarium, the High Museum of Art, Inside CNN Studio Tours, World of Coca-Cola, and Zoo Atlanta. (www.citypass.com/city/atlanta/html)
- Avoid interstates 7-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. on weekdays. Don't plan to drive 3-8 p.m. on Friday nights when you can avoid it. It's the busiest time on all the city's roads.
- If you're coming from out of state, pick up a city map at the visitors centers at the state lines to aid your navigation.
- Expect valet parking at restaurants all across town. Tip ($2-$5) when getting back into your car.
- Take the Atlanta Tourist Loop buses that make stops about every 30 minutes between major attractions and hotels in downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead. MARTA trains are safe and clean―especially between Five Points, Midtown, and Lenox Square. Visit www.itsmarta.com for train and loop routes.
"Gotta Love Atlanta" is from the May 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.