I took a multi-week road trip from New York down to Atlanta in 2017, part of the research of my book Appalachian Trail Road Trip. After a few weeks of driving, stopping along the way in small towns and mountain gaps, I reached the ATL and had a few days to roam around. I realized pretty quickly that Atlanta had a lot more to offer than you might expect.
First, the disclaimer: Atlanta is my starting point in Appalachian Trail Road Trip because it’s the closest major hub to Springer Mountain. For many AT thru-hikers, Atlanta is the very first destination. For you, valiant road tripper, it’s a great place to get your bearings. Plus, if you’re taking a couple days to explore Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, you may want to include two or three days in the ATL as part of the trip.
With that out of the way, what are you going to get out of Atlanta? A lot. It’s a spread-out city broken into well-defined neighborhoods. Interstates 75 and 85 converge north of Midtown, then together, slash through the center of the city south. Interstate 20 is the primary west-east highway, coming through just below Downtown. Interstate 285 is a beltway option separating the city from its outer suburbs. When exploring Atlanta, your best bet to maximize sites and attractions is to focus on the area around the I-75/85 convergence down to I-20, then go east a bit. Neighborhoods to know: Midtown, Georgia Tech, Downtown, Old Fourth Ward, Little Five Points, Sweet Auburn, Cabbage Town, Reynoldstown.
If you’re getting to Atlanta, you’re probably flying into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic. Your best bet when adventuring in Atlanta is to rent a car from the airport, but know that the city’s traffic can be maddening. Don’t make any tight schedules and always leave room for traffic delays.
If it’s your first time in Atlanta and you have two full days, here are three must-visits:
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site: Spread out over a few city blocks in Sweet Auburn, the site (450 Auburn Ave., 404/331-5190, ext. 5046, 9am-5pm daily) includes King’s childhood home, church (Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church), the historic fire station that was desegregated by King, his and Coretta Scott King’s final resting places, and the King Center (449 Auburn Ave., 404/526-8900, www.thekingcenter.org, 9am-5pm daily, 9am-6pm daily summer, free), which holds nearly 1 million documents associated with King.
Center For Puppetry Arts: A whimsical and colorful museum and art center (1404 Spring Street NW, 404/873-3391, www.puppet.org, 9am-5pm Tues.-Fri., 10am-5pm Sat., noon-5pm Sun., $12.50 museum ticket) devoted to puppetry, and best yet, it was created with Jim Henson’s blessing and input. That means the late puppeteer’s stamp is on the place with a standing exhibit on Henson’s life’s work. You’ll find original creations, sketches, videos, and of course, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird, and others. During my walk-through it took me about three minutes before crying tears of joy. Seriously, check this place out.
Centennial Olympic Park: A chance to breathe in the packed downtown area, this park (265 Park Ave W NW) created for the 1996 Summer Olympics has greenspace, the Fountain of Rings, and pretty views of the skyline. For history buffs, it’s also the site of the July 27, 1996, Olympic bombing.
Eats & Drinks
In Little Five Points, hit up the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club (1136 Euclid Ave. NE, 404/688-2582, www.theeayc.com, noon-2:30am Tues.-Sat., noon-midnight Sun., 3pm-2am Mon., under $20) for a fun night with cheap drinks, pub grub, and a burlesque trivia night. Beer lovers should visit the Porter Beer Bar (1156 Euclid Ave. NE, 404/223-0393, www.theporterbeerbar.com, 11:30am-midnight Mon.-Thurs., 11:30am-2:30am Fri., 11am-midnight Sun., under $25). Pro tip: Get the salt-and-vinegar popcorn.
In the Cabbagetown and Reynoldstown area, one more bar: 97 Estoria (727 Wylie St. SE, 404/522-0966, 11-3am Mon.-Fri., noon-3am Sat., 12:30pm-12:30am Sun., under $20), a fun hang with cozy wood interior, cheap can beer, and DJ nights. For grub, visit Home Grown (968 Memorial Drive SE, 404/222-0455, www.homegrownga.com, 7am-3pm Mon.-Fri., 7am-2pm Sat.-Sun., under $20 breakfast and brunch, under $25 lunch) for breakfast or lunch. Fried bologna sandwiches? Hell yeah. Best quote I got in Atlanta was from owner Kevin Clark: “Before they go into court, the lawyers, drug dealer, and cops all eat together here.”
Comfort food is the move at the Busy Bee Cafe (810 Martin Luther King Drive NW, 404/525-9212, www.thebusybeecafe.com, 11am-7pm Mon.-Fri., noon-7pm Sun, under $30) in Atlanta University City. Fried turkey, fried fish, ham hocks … all of them are good.
Best bets? I really liked the Highland Inn & Ballroom Lounge (644 N. Highland Ave. NE, 404/874-5756, www.thehighlandinn.com, $60-$120), more of a budget stay within walking distance to Midtown highlights like Ponce City Market (a gentrified shopping and dining destination everyone in the city tells you to visit). For something a little more upscale, check out the Ellis Hotel (176 Peachtree St. NW, 404/523-5155, www.ellishotel.com, $140-$200), which takes care of its guests with a women’s-only floor, a dog-friendly floor, and a fresh-air floor (rooms with 24-hour air filtering machines, sealed mattresses and pillows).
As for what else to do over a weekend? You’ll just have to buy Moon Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trail to read my full Atlanta guide!