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Coming in hot: The Best Things To Do In Atlanta

From the Atlanta Botanical Garden to five-star dining and Zoo Atlanta, there are so many cultural, culinary and artistic things to do in Atlanta. | By Paul Oswell | June 19, 2022 (Updated March 10, 2023)

If you’ve traveled by air in the United States, then there’s a good chance you’ve stepped foot in Atlanta. The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is one of the world’s busiest and is a huge aviation hub. But if the airport is your only experience of the ATL — or Hotlanta, or The Big Peach (choose from any number of nicknames) — then it’s time to consider a change. Here are our suggestions for a memorable Atlanta vacation:

  • Mix and match: From hip-hop to being a Hollywood hub, Atlanta’s entertainment options are top-notch

  • Hone up on history: From the Civil War through to the civil rights movement, the city’s past has plenty to explore

  • Fill up on food: Southern cuisine is getting a makeover at restaurants all over town

Explore the old and new

Modern-day Atlanta is borne from a varied mix of historical influences. It was here that General Sherman thwarted the Confederacy during the Civil War, and also where, some 20 years later, The Coca-Cola Company was formed, foreshadowing an influx of Fortune 500 companies. In 1929, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was born here, and in 1996, Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games. All of these factors have shaped the city into a confident and diverse destination that can’t be pigeonholed.

Atlanta is rightly known for its urban sprawl, but the amount of lush green spaces to explore comes as a welcome surprise to first-time visitors. Take the wonderful Atlanta BeltLine, for instance, an old rail corridor that is being transformed into a series of parks and trails across the city. Rent a bike and take yourself on a relaxing tour, taking the Westside Trail to stops such as Washington Park and the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum, while also enjoying art and installations along the way. Head to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Georgia Aquarium or Zoo Atlanta for a more exotic nature experience. Oh, and let’s not forget Piedmont Park, which has more than 200 acres of community gardens, playgrounds and a free public swimming pool to enjoy. Piedmont Park also has some of Atlanta's best dog parks, so bring your four-legged friend if you're able.

See what’s on display

The museum selection in Atlanta really cements its place as a regional leader in culture and the sciences. Get a comprehensive overview at the Atlanta History Center, which goes back to detail a Native American history of Georgia through the Civil War to more recent times. A sobering but important institution is The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opened in 2014 to inspire visitors to fight for change in the world. Three levels of galleries explore subjects such as the impact of Jim Crow laws and racism in America. You can continue the story at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, where Dr King’s birthplace has been turned into a celebration of his life.

In the mood for contemporary works? The High Museum of Art’s stunning collections include 20th century American fine and decorative art.

More than just comfort food

You can’t talk about the ‘New South’ movement without referencing its evolving culinary scene. A new generation of Atlanta-based chefs are mixing things up by updating classic Southern dishes and bringing new ethnic influences and inventive techniques to the table. There’s innovation aplenty to be found across the city. At the top end of the scale, you’ve got buzzy hotspots such as Lazy Betty, with its six- and eight-course tasting menus that dish out gourmet dishes such as snow crab salad with brown butter dashi and hearts of palm.

Places such as Miller Union provide solid contemporary reworkings of Southern fare, James Beard Award-winning chef Steven Satterfield making baked egg in celery cream an instant local favorite. For flavors from further afield, head to the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, where chef Guy Wong serves up exciting Asian small plates at his quirky joint, Ruby Chow’s. Live for seafood and inventive cocktails? Head to Kimball House in nearby Decatur — be sure to start with the Hawaiian rolls, you won’t regret it!

Shop around

With so many Fortune 500 companies in town, as well as big-spending movie stars and their crews, it’s little wonder that the city has plenty of options for offloading your disposable income. Ponce City Market offers something for every taste, featuring boutique galleries and studios alongside larger chain stores. Find a treasure-trove of local artisanal products from candles to plant pots at Citizen Supply, all the stationery you’ve ever dreamed of at Archer Paper Goods and a variety of delicious global flavors at the always-buzzing food hall. Fans of designer names should head to Buckhead Village. Located in Atlanta’s highest-end neighborhood, this outdoor space’s mall includes enticing luxe players such as Hermès, Dior and Tom Ford. If your tastes are more esoteric, then the record stores and clothing boutiques of neighborhoods such as Little Five Points will scratch your indie itch.

Music, man

Atlanta has long been a hotbed of musical talent. The city is incredibly comfortable talking up its pop stars in the same breath as its symphony orchestras. You might see the same locals enjoying hip-hop at contemporary music venue Tabernacle on a Saturday night and then taking in avant-garde dance at The Rialto Center for the Arts on Sunday.

Whether you prefer to dance the night away or shop until you drop, however, one thing is true: Atlanta is as diverse as it is dynamic. The city offers an authenticity that permeates everything from its music to its culinary scene, guaranteeing that this is one vacation destination that’s sure to please.

Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”

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