I‘d dismissed Atlanta as a place for leisure. It takes gumption to risk its traffic jams and congested sporting events. When Braves games or aquarium jaunts require a venture into ATL-territory, “get in and get out” is always my method. It’s more controllable. Less opportunity for discomfort. But if I’m learning anything about life, it’s that control is a sham, and the best experiences always involve uncertainty. Exploration is worth the risk, a nugget of wisdom reinforced by a recent adventure through A-town’s iconic neighborhoods.
I begin in Buckhead with an introduction to the northern suburb’s revived hotel, The Whitley. Formerly the Ritz-Carlton at Buckhead, the interior was completely redesigned last year under the Marriott Luxury Collection brand. Walking into the lobby feels like stepping onto a wide front porch, a charming ambience that the renovation’s lead designer Barbara Parker affirms as intentional. The overall effect is stylishly modern, yet not lacking in warmth, which extends to the more than 500 luxe rooms and 56 suites. There’s even a hint of blue in the ceilings—a sure sign of a true Southern home.
While Buckhead is renowned as Atlanta’s Fifth Avenue shopping mecca, the area’s attractions encompass more than just retail. A quick drive from The Whitley, the Atlanta History Center stands as a cultural hub with a wide range of diverse exhibits. Its latest addition is the fully restored cyclorama painting The Battle of Atlanta, which depicts the 1864 Civil War conflict; displays delve into the 49-foot-tall circular masterpiece’s controversial history. The center also includes several gardens and the majestic Swan House, its stately columns recognizable from the blockbuster Hunger Games movies.
My next stop is the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which requires a cross-town trip I would normally avoid in the afternoon. But now there’s Uber and I’m feeling brave and as I adventure toward Midtown, I eagerly hunt for camera crews and buildings I might recognize from the screen—after all, 455 movies and TV shows were filmed here last year. Experiencing the garden’s gorgeous summer blooms is a dream, especially with the fantastical plant sculptures from its Alice’s Wonderland exhibit, and for a moment I forget I’m in a booming metropolis. The area abuts Piedmont Park and the eastside portion of the BeltLine, an old railroad track turned into a multiuse greenway trail. The BeltLine happily connects me to my dinner stop at Ponce City Market—a convenient alternative in the five o’clock rush.
Ponce City Market unites four Atlanta neighborhoods (Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, Poncey-Highland, and Virginia Highland), and as the old Sears-Roebuck distribution hub, its size seems cavernous. The maze of floors abounds with a myriad of dining options, chic retail vendors, apartments, and office spaces. Dinner at Brezza Cucina is a satisfying mix of Italian and American, and a can’t-miss experience is Ponce’s rooftop, with skyline city views.
After a comfortable evening back in Buckhead, and brunch at The Whitley the following morning, I head towards Inman Park, a historic neighborhood known for its revitalized Victorian homes. The area has a walkable vibe, with a vibrant mural or a friendly neighborhood bar around every corner. I indulge myself at Krog Street Market, a food hall with fare from, well, everywhere. I decide on a bowl of ramen, not my typical comfort food, but again I’m exploring and it’s every bit worth the chance. The market is also attached to the BeltLine—meandering south from Inman Park to the Cabbagetown arts district.
I make my way towards downtown via Auburn Street, home to The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, which includes Dr. King’s childhood home and church. The Sweet Auburn area was a booming business district for African Americans in the early twentieth century, known for jazz bars like the Royal Peacock, which hosted phenoms Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. The revitalized area features countless tributes to black heritage well worth experiencing, along with a slice of Sweet Auburn Bread Company’s sweet potato cheesecake.
From the park, the Atlanta Streetcar’s blue line transports wanderers straight to downtown’s iconic amusements—and while the World of Coca-Cola and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights are tempting escapades, I decide to save them for another trip—I’ll be back for more. Exploration is worth the risk.
The Whitley While The Whitley allows for easy access to Buckhead shopping, you’ll want to stick around the hotel’s Trade Root Lounge for the pecan whiskey; 3434 Peachtree Rd NE
BeetleCat Nestled in Inman Park, this seafood joint is another of renowned chef Ford Fry’s creative ventures. Try the lobster roll—a menu favorite—and make sure to arrive early; 299 N Highland Ave NE
Krog Street Market This upscale food hall offers everything from Southern fried chicken to Vietnamese pho. Take a ride on the BeltLine beforehand, then stop in for a cold one—I suggest local brewery Orpheus’ tart saison, Atalanta; 99 Krog St NE
Ponce City Market You could spend an entire week here wandering the countless vendors. Minero’s churros are a must-try, and Brezza Cucina makes a mean short rib agnolotti;675 Ponce de Leon Ave NE
The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park After visiting the house Dr. King grew up in, stop by his memorial site, where he and his wife Coretta are buried; 450 Auburn Ave NE
Atlanta Botanical Garden While the conservatory and native plants in this expansive garden are lovely, the mosiaculture creations for Alice’s Wonderland are phenomenal. There are giant camels made of succulents, even a Queen of Hearts display—you and the kids will be enthralled; 1345 Piedmont Ave NE
ATL-Cruzers One of the best ways to experience Atlanta’s diverse neighborhoods is via an electric car tour with ATL-Cruzers. Do this to get a lay of the land—it makes exploring the city feel much more manageable; 3160 Ted Turner Dr NW