Atlanta, Georgia, is a bustling, world-class city, with a skyline full of impressive architectural designs that complement rolling hills and abundant foliage. Atlanta is consistently ranked as one of the best places to do business in the U.S., and more than 750 of Fortune's Top 1,000 businesses have offices there. The Atlanta airport (Hartsfield-Jackson) is usually ranked as the world's busiest, and its airport code, ATL, has become the city's nickname among locals.
Atlanta's fast-paced, ready-for-the-future attitude is evident in its booming convention business. Other Atlanta attractions include pulsing nightlife, showplace museums, sophisticated fine-arts facilities and painstakingly restored historical landmarks.
Downtown Atlanta has several hubs of activity. Encircling Centennial Olympic Park is the Georgia World Congress Center convention facility, CNN Center and the Georgia Aquarium. A few blocks away, Peachtree Center is a cluster of grand hotels, retail shops, restaurants and business towers. Cultural events downtown include concerts in Centennial Olympic Park and a range of presentations at Woodruff Arts Center and Georgia State University's Rialto Center for the Performing Arts. The Atlanta Streetcar, which currently makes a 2.7-mi/4.3-km loop throughout downtown and the Sweet Auburn district, is slated for major expansion over the next decade.
Just a few miles/kilometers away, the city's progressive sights and sounds evolve into quiet dogwood- and azalea-lined streets. Residents of historic, in-town Atlanta neighborhoods, such as Buckhead and Virginia-Highland, enjoy restored homes, baby-stroller-friendly sidewalks, unusual antiques shops and art studios, and intimate, cozy outdoor cafes.
Atlanta's phenomenal growth in the past few decades—in the age of suburbs and superhighways—has created urban sprawl. Lake Lanier, once a weekend getaway 40 mi/64 km north of Atlanta, is part of the city's northern suburbs. Southern suburbs, likewise, stretch 40 mi/64 km south to Lake Jackson in Butts County, formerly a rural community. Still, recent years have seen a trend back toward the center, with much redevelopment and construction downtown and in the in-town districts that encircle it.
The Atlanta Beltline is at the center of much of this growth, as it continues to be developed, and residential and commercial buildings spring up around it. The Beltline connects most in-town neighborhoods to a single walking path, with parks, shopping centers, bars and restaurants close to the path.
Rather than a single city center, Atlanta has several pockets of development. Downtown occupies a large area that begins at the intersection of Interstate 20 and I-75/85 and extends north for about 3 mi/5 km. Three smaller districts of note are nearby: Little Five Points—a quirky mix of outlandish shops, galleries, restaurants and bars to the east of downtown—is surrounded by the vibrant old residential neighborhoods of Inman Park, Candler Park and Poncey-Highland. Inman Park itself has become a destination as well, with several shops and some of the city's most noted restaurants all along a single stretch on Highland Avenue. West End, a short distance southwest of the central downtown area and close to the intersection of I-20 and West Whitehead Street, is the location of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of four historically African-American colleges.
Immediately north of downtown is Midtown (the two areas can be roughly separated by Ponce de Leon Avenue—Highway 78/278—known locally as just "Ponce"). West of Midtown, across I-75/85, is Atlantic Station (the country's largest brownfield redevelopment project) with retail and entertainment, offices, residences and a hotel, all built on the site of a former steel mill. To the west of Atlantic Station is the Westside district, a popular destination that hosts some of the city's best dining and shopping. Virginia-Highland adjoins Midtown to the east (east of Piedmont Park) and is a sought-after residential neighborhood with a concentration of sophisticated boutiques and restaurants.
About 2 mi/3 km north of Midtown is another major area: Buckhead, known for its beautiful homes, thriving restaurants and clubs, high-rise business towers and upscale shopping.
Atlantans often describe locations as ITP or OTP: being inside or outside of the Perimeter—I-285, which encircles the city. Most suburbs lie outside of it.
Atlanta's future would have been hard to predict in 1837, when the town, in its earliest incarnation, was known simply as Terminus—the final stop on a rail line that ran from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Trains became the engine for growth. By the mid-1840s, the city, with a new name, was situated at the crossroads of several rail lines running through the southeastern U.S.
As a transportation and manufacturing center, Atlanta was vitally important to the Confederacy during the Civil War. As such, it was targeted by the Union army under Gen. William T. Sherman. Union troops captured the town in 1864, burned key buildings and destroyed the rail system. Confederate troops burned bridges and warehouses containing ammunitions and supplies to keep them from Sherman's troops. As a result, Atlanta was left in ruins.
Following the war, Atlanta worked quickly to rebuild. It became the capital of Georgia in 1868. In 1888, celebrating its rebirth, Atlanta adopted a phoenix rising from the ashes as its official symbol.
Atlanta's rapidly growing population in the late 1800s included a large number of African Americans, many of them former slaves who were educated by missionaries in freedmen's schools. These institutions contributed to Atlanta's eventual role as a leader in African-American higher education. The city also became important in the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born and educated in Atlanta and, like his father, preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Then came air travel: Again, Atlanta was poised to expand its role as a transportation hub. Today it sits at the center of a web of interstate highways and international flight patterns. That's the reason that southerners like to joke, "You may be going straight to hell, but you're still going to have to pass through Atlanta first."
Today, the city's growth continues. It is the home of such prominent companies as Coca-Cola, CNN, UPS and Georgia-Pacific, and has become a hot spot for tech start-ups and marketing agencies.
During the day, people carrying briefcases and students with backpacks crowd the streets of Atlanta. At night, downtown's clubs and restaurants come alive, although the streets themselves seem a bit deserted. However, several popular spots dot the downtown landscape and could be a destination for those a bit more daring. As in all parts of Atlanta, though, visitors should always be aware of their surroundings.
Spend at least a morning or an afternoon exploring downtown Atlanta—if only to get a feel for the city's government and business center. You can walk or take the MARTA train from most downtown hotels to the CNN Studios for a 50-minute tour and then stroll across Centennial Olympic Park to the Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest such marine exhibition. The World of Coca-Cola is also adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park.
You can also take a taxi, MARTA or streetcar to several of Atlanta's most distinctive sights, which are close to downtown. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s work and life are showcased in the MLK National Historic Site, one of the best places to learn about the accomplishments of the civil-rights leader. A bit farther east of downtown is the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. Of course, author Margaret Mitchell may have done more to publicize Atlanta than anyone else with Gone With the Wind. The Midtown house where she wrote the classic novel is open to visitors. Zoo Atlanta in Grant Park is a great family-oriented choice.
Additionally, Atlanta has an impressive array of museums scattered throughout the city.
In an effort to reduce early-morning crime, noise and litter, Atlanta (which includes Buckhead, Midtown, Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland) makes bars stop serving alcohol at 2:30 am and close by 3 am.
Georgia also has banned smoking in most enclosed public places. Restaurants and bars either ban smoking or ban children younger than 18 from entering their establishments. Smoking is permitted in private rooms in bars and restaurants. In Decatur, a suburb near downtown Atlanta, smokers must be at least 20 ft/6 m away from the entrance to any public place.
Nevertheless, most bars and clubs in Buckhead, Midtown, Old Fourth Ward and Virginia-Highland are packed each weekend with young and energetic revelers. Expect to pay a US$5-$20 cover charge at most nightclubs.
Atlanta is known for its abundance of restaurants—from fine dining to "hole in the wall" barbecue shacks. In a city that generally favors new over old, a few landmark restaurants such as The Varsity have stood the test of time.
Southern food is in the spotlight, and you'll find it on the menu at inexpensive casual restaurants as well as upscale establishments. "New Southern" aptly describes many of Atlanta's noted restaurants, where you'll find reinterpreted southern classics such as fried chicken, grits and pecan pie. However, given Atlanta's diverse population, there is also a great variety of ethnic eateries.
Dining times are generally 6-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch, 5-10 pm for dinner.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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