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If you’re like me, you’ve changed planes at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport a time or two in your life. The busiest airport in the world, ATL’s enormous concourses always buzz with frenetic travelers on the go. While making your way through the hectic airport, have you given a second thought to the city of Atlanta itself? Why are all the city streets named after peach trees, for example?
We all learned in school that the Civil War’s General Sherman ordered the vital railroad hub of Atlanta burned to the ground. Now, 150 years later, “Hotlanta,” so nicknamed because of its hot and humid summer climate, boasts its importance as a center of transportation once again, as hub of two of America’s largest airlines, Delta and Southwest.
A city on fire… again!
The city is not just literally balmy, however; it’s on fire figuratively as well. Atlanta is legit a hotbed of outstanding activity! It’s no wonder that the city’s motto is Resurgens, Rising Again. (Nothing to do with peaches, alas.)
So for those of you lucky enough to venture away from the airport, I present the following “peachy” things to do. There are three main clusters of activity described here: the tourist area downtown known as Pemberton Place, the nearby Civil Rights history centered around MLK, and last but not least — sorry! — Hartsfield-Jackson airport!
Luckily for Atlanta tourists, most of the city’s noteworthy attractions are situated in this 20-acre downtown cluster.
One of the world’s largest aquariums, the Georgia Aquarium is home to well over 100,000 critters. You’ll want to arrive first thing in the morning, or after 4pm, when ticket prices drop if you buy them online. Guests rave about the indoor dolphin show, and thrill to rambling through the huge tank with sharks and manta rays circling all around them. Highlights of this aquarium include opportunities to interact up close with a variety of sea creatures including the whale sharks. These endangered animals are the world’s largest living nonmammalian vertebrates; you would make a tasty but rather small snack for them, as they are many times larger than you! Animal Encounters allows guests to hang out with their choice of dolphins, penguins and sea otters.
Adjacent to the Aquarium is the world-renowned Centennial Olympic Park. Home of the 1996 Olympic games, this beautiful 21 acre urban greenspace is now filled with walking paths, water gardens & the Fountain of Rings. To learn more about the cool events going on here, your first stop should be its official Visitor Center, located adjacent to the Fountain of Rings on the south side of the park.
No visit to the New South (“Too busy to hate on anyone”) would be complete without a stop at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Amongst its highly interactive, thought-provoking exhibits is the Woolworth lunch counter experience. You must be at least 13 to participate – it’s that intense. This brutal re-enactment of the hate experienced by four African American men just wanting to enjoy a meal really stands out in its stark effectiveness. Now that you’ve pondered the human rights journeys of the past, consider the future. Be sure to visit the Technology display to understand how tech can be so life-changing – in both good and terrible ways.
Current and future broadcasters, journalists, media stars and news junkies should sign up for the CNN Atlanta Studio Tour. The Cable News Network, on air since June 1, 1980, was the first all-news all-the-time television channel in the United States. There are three tours to choose from: Behind the Scenes, HLN with Robin Meade, and the VIP Tour. Guests note that this last option is by far the best, as in addition to visiting the control room, newsrooms, special effects studio, and more, you are taken to witness an actual studio broadcasting live on air! After any given tour, stop at the lobby food court for your choice of a delicious meal and awesome people watching.
Thirsty soft drink enthusiasts will enjoy the World of Coca-Cola. This museum, a paean to America favorite sugar-laden carbonated beverages, features a fun variety of interactive exhibits, including a really cool 4-D theatre experience. It’s fascinating to consider how Coke, a humble pharmaceutical tonic concocted right here in Atlanta, became such a behemoth of international corporatism. Rest assured, your thirst will be fully slaked by your choice of Coke product proffered upon entrance to the museum. But also try a taste here of the dozens of distinct varieties of Coca-Cola produced for consumers the globe over.
Martin Luther King, Jr National Historic Site
Atlanta is the proud home of the Martin Luther King, Jr National Historic Site. Fortunately, this is a very concentrated area east on I-85 from Pemberton Place, and it’s easily reached via Uber or public transportation.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta is a small church with a grand history. You’ll visit the historic site of the church; its iteration across the street is a dynamic place of worship today. Anyway, at Ebenezer you’ll want to take a few minutes to sit in the pews and listen to Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons. Close your eyes and imagine him here, as he was only 50-odd short years ago, leading the congregation with his powerful messages of hope and inspiration! In the basement, watch a video of Dr King’s sister narrating her family’s poignant story.
The onsite National Park and Visitor Center are home to Dr King’s birthplace and graves. Commit to spend at least a couple of hours here to fully appreciate Dr King’s legacy and impact on civil rights in the current era. You will be so moved, I promise!
ATL – Hartsfield Jackson International Airport of Atlanta
Last but not least, let’s re-visit the neighborhood of Atlanta’s gargantuan Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) for its variety of fascinating activities.
I’ve already confessed on this website how much I love airplanes and air travel. The Atlanta airport, with multiple runways in constant use by every variety of aircraft imaginable, is America’s mecca of plane spotting. You could visit an airport parking garage and uncomfortably camp out on its top floors for good runway views. But I’m sure you’d rather “camp out,” legally and in style, at the Marriott-branded Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Hotel.
This pyramid-shaped hotel is situated right on the northern edge of Hartsfield-Jackson’s slew of runways and concrete aprons. Request a runway-view room, for which you shouldn’t be charged more than an additional $20 per night. Then you can either relax on your very own balcony to enjoy all the plane spotting, or splash around in the indoor glass pool to do so.
Endlessly fascinated by flight, I would make my first Atlanta stop a visit to the Delta Flight Museum, right on the airport grounds. Historic aircraft dating back as far as the 1920s are on display. More recent airliners include the airline’s awesome Boeing 767, known as “The Spirit of Delta.” Take a tour of a 747 and defy death by a walk on its wing! And forget your Xbox 360: a dedicated 737 flight simulator is open to the public. Please be extra sure to visit the museum’s website before you go due to its restricted hours of operation.
Perhaps you’re a speed buff, but prefer the four-wheeled variety. If so, dig out your wallet and take advantage of the city’s most breathtaking way to kill an hour and a half, the Porsche Experience Center Atlanta. The website explains all the details, but basically, anyone at least 21 with a valid driver’s license can sign up to race drive the German manufacturer’s amazing sports cars for a 90 minute session around the facility’s proprietary racetrack. Expect to pay as much as $1,000 for this splendid opportunity.
Younger folk need not despair: you’re welcome to sit shotgun while a Porsche-certified veteran driver maneuvers you around the track. Another option for the youthful set is a 30 or 60 minute session in the driving simulator lab. All visitors can enjoy the Heritage Center, a celebration of the vehicles’ unique history. Also onsite are a retail store and two dining establishments.
I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to do in this vibrant city. I would love to know whether you have visited Atlanta before, and what appeals most to you? Tell me more in the comments!