Though Atlanta now sprawls far beyond its original boundaries, the best way to experience it is still at its heart in downtown. New construction sits side-by-side with the city’s history, with nods to those who have shaped Atlanta architecturally, culturally, and socially. The city’s symbol is the phoenix, and just as the mythical bird renews and perseveres, Atlanta similarly evolves and continues to grow over time.
In the heart of downtown are hundreds of places to stay, shop, and dine. We selected The American Hotel Atlanta, a historic building situated a short walk between public transportation system MARTA and many of the main attractions. Nearby are Centennial Olympic Park, Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the College Football Hall of Fame.
Day 1 – The Joy of Jellyfish
Our first day began with the Georgia Aquarium, one of a number of attractions surrounding Pemberton Place. The greenspace is adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park, easily explored at the beginning and end of the day. The beautifullandscape created for the 1996 Olympic Games boasts breathtaking views of the city’s skyscrapers.
The Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005 with the largest tank in the United States and more than 100,000 creatures to observe. Whale sharks, the largest fish alive, are one of the main attractions. As a special treat, walk to the end of the Aquanot Adventure to view the top of the enormous tank. Occasionally the whale sharks will rise to the surface, showing their enormous size.
See a manta ray or sharks fed, watch otters play, and enjoy jellyfish hypnotically floating through a giant tank. One of the most popular creatures is Stella, the curious octopus who has been known to throw seastars across the tank.
The beluga whales are also popular, but can be quietly observed from the ballroom behind the small cafeteria. Pull up a chair and watch them play and curiously observe their visitors on the other side of the glass. Allow at least two to three hours to see the majority of the aquarium’s exhibits.
Civil Rights in Atlanta
Sitting with my hands on the lunch counter, I tried to remain calm and control my breathing despite the ruckus behind me. It sounded like someone was being punched, beaten, mauled, but I couldn’t turn around. I jumped as a hand slammed onto the countertop next to me, wondering if I was next. I started to remind myself that it wasn’t real, then stopped. If I didn’t believe that it was happening, the experience would lose its impact.
Another hand slammed the counter on my other side, words flew at me preying on my insecurities, my unworthiness to exist as a human. I attempted to maintain my composure, yet the tears still fell. I could no longer wait. I abruptly removed my headset and handed it back to the young attendant, only lasting 90 seconds at the lunch counter experience, part of Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights. The dramatic and emotional encounter is one of the highlights of the museum, which also includes an amazing array of Martin Luther King, Jr., speeches, drafts, and mementos.
The center opened in 2014 with exhibits designed to help visitors link the history of civil rights with the need for human rights globally. It’s an integral part of understanding why Atlanta is called the cradle of the civil rights movement.
With a Coke and a Smile (and a snack)
End the day on a high note, downing caffeinated beverages. While the World of Coca-Cola is not a must-see, it’s still an interesting look at the beverage created in Atlanta and the drink’s impact around the world. Taste flavors from other countries, create your own flavor of Coke, and learn about John Pemberton’s secret formula, which sold for $2,300 in 1888.
Although the aquarium has a café inside, there are several places to dine in the area surrounding the attractions. Many are packed at lunchtime, so a reservation is suggested, or time your visit well-before or well-after lunch. Atlanta Breakfast Club is an excellent way to start the morning on a full stomach before accruing all those steps during the day. Apache XLR generally has open seating before lunchtime and fantastic food. For a fun midday snack try The Yard Milkshake Bar.
Day 2 – Fox and Fries
The next morning, we took a tour of Atlanta’s Fox Theater built in 1929 by Fox Studios as a movie theater. The incredible design has a grand Arabian design, which is carried throughout the décor inside and out. Above the theater’s seats is a canopy of twilight sky and 96 twinkling stars, with clouds drifting across the sky. The theater is easily accessible via MARTA, just a block from the North Avenue Station.
For lunch around the corner, no Atlanta visit is complete without a stop at the Atlanta institution, The Varsity. The world’s largest drive-in restaurant will be celebrating its centennial birthday at the end of this decade. There’s no simple response to the cashiers’ constant call of “What’ll ya have?” The French fries and a cheeseburger are safe options. For those who want to try the food that made this restaurant one of the most popular in the country, order onion rings, a chili dog, apple pie, and a frosted orange.
Truth and Love and Hunger
We headed back to the hotel to catch the Atlanta Streetcar to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. The park incorporates notable Dr. King locations such as his birthplace home and Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King and his father preached. Near the National Park building entrance, we followed the actual footsteps of civil rights activists like Thurgood Marshall, Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis.
One final stop on our way out of town was the Atlanta History Center. My main goal was to recreate some scenes from The Hunger Games series, as the location served as President Snow’s mansion. We were treated to so much more. A half dozen exhibits are available including those on civil rights and the South’s place in history. One piece of local history that is now preserved there is The Cyclorama. This enormous hand-painted mural depicting the Civil War was once its own tourist attraction, and while it is associated with racial and cultural challenges, it’s hard not to appreciate the impressive artisan work that was required to create it.