Atlanta, Charlotte’s sister city to the south, offers big-city benefits with plenty of Southern charm.
by Cathy Martin
On a recent weekend at the Atlanta Botanical Garden — just as the roses and peonies were flaunting their blossoms — couples, tourists and families in their Sunday best stroll, sip wine at patio tables and laze about on benches, admiring the blooms. There’s a quiet buzz over in Storza Woods, where a new Dale Chihuly sculpture, a stunning 30-foot glass and steel tower installed in December, has captured the crowd’s attention.
Across the park, in the outdoor kitchen near the edible garden, a sold-out class, “Cooking with Fresh Herbs,” is about to begin. Throughout the spring and summer, chefs including acclaimed restaurateur Hugh Acheson and local 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist Craig Richards will host dinner events here.
In the Skyline Garden, notes from a band playing at the adjacent Piedmont Park reverberate, with downtown’s gleaming towers as a backdrop. The bustle of the city is nearby — but no one seems hurried inside this peaceful slice of nature in the city that touts itself as the capital of the Southeast.
The garden is just one of many discoveries I made upon returning to the city I’ve known since childhood. A four-hour drive from Charlotte, Atlanta’s museums, restaurants, entertainment venues and shops offer more than enough to fill a weekend. Even if you think you know Atlanta, chances are you’ll uncover something new on your next visit.
Atlanta Botanical Garden encompasses more than 30 acres and includes an expansive children’s garden, canopy walk, orchid center and more. On view through Oct. 16, Origami in the Garden showcases 18 colorful metal installations by Santa Fe artists Jennifer and Kevin Box, from whimsical birds and bunnies to pinwheels spinning in the breeze. The garden abuts the 200-acre Piedmont Park (about twice the size of Freedom Park) and is a stone’s throw from Virginia Highland, the tree-lined neighborhood with cozy cafes should you want to stop for a bite before or after the day’s adventure.
With an eye-catching design by esteemed North Carolina architect Phil Freelon and immersive exhibits, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights highlights key moments in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The museum includes artifacts from Martin Luther King Jr., including handwritten notes and manuscripts, and an enlightening exhibit depicting the modern-day struggle for human rights around the world.
College football fans can while away an afternoon at the College Football Hall of Fame, a $68.5 million attraction that moved here from South Bend, Ind., in 2014. Upon arrival, link your pass with your alma mater (or any school of your choice) for a personalized experience. From displays spotlighting legendary coaches to interactive experiences like a touchdown simulator, there are more than 50 exhibits to explore across three levels.
Serious shoppers will want to allow plenty of time in Buckhead. With luxury brands galore, Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square have anchored the upscale neighborhood for decades. Buckhead Village (previously The Shops Buckhead Atlanta) is a pristine open-air mixed-use center with high-end boutiques including Billy Reid, Veronica Beard, Jimmy Choo, Hermes, Etro and Dior. Chastain Park is a 260-acre green space in Buckhead with walking trails, a public golf course, a horse park and amphitheater. While you’re in the area, stop by The Chastain, a country store-turned-restaurant serving upscale comfort food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The historic Old Fourth Ward neighborhood is home to Ponce City Market, a 2.1 million-square-foot former Sears distribution center that houses a sprawling food hall plus local and national retail shops. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park is here, along with access to the Atlanta BeltLine, an urban network of parks and trails in development along a 22-mile rail corridor encircling the center city.
Left: St. Julep at the Kimpton Sylvan Hotel (photograph by Cris Molina). Top right: The Betty at the Kimpton Sylvan Hotel (photograph by Cris Molina). Bottom right: Hotel Colee lobby bar.
Luxury options abound in Atlanta. A couple of new Buckhead hotels are shaking up the buttoned-up reputation of this tony neighborhood with a relaxed atmosphere and boutique amenities.
The Kimpton Sylvan is a 217-room hotel with a midcentury aesthetic and sprawling outdoor spaces, including a spacious outdoor pool and a trio of clever dining and drinking options. St. Julep is the Sylvan’s rooftop bar with a casual, upbeat vibe: Take in the skyline view of Buckhead while imbibing easy-sipping cocktails with cheeky names like Kicked by a Mule (Tito’s vodka, Pimm’s and ginger beer) and Smokey and the Bandit (Vida mezcal, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Chincina). Willow Bar is a spacious outdoor lobby bar in a garden-like setting. The Betty is a modern throwback to the glamourous supper-club era, with plush velvet booths, friendly and attentive service, and a menu of updated classics infused with bold flavors. Start with oysters on the half shell, wagyu steak tartare or tuna crudo — ginger wasabi mustard gives this dish a spicy kick. If your server asks if you’d like any bread, the answer is yes: The warm baked-to-order gougères, or cheese puffs, will melt in your mouth. Mains include mushroom lasagna, prime steak, Cornish rock chicken, and a zesty basil spaghetti with Calabrian chili and tomato confit.
Hotel Colee offers a playful and unpretentious vibe, with a rooftop pool, a comfortable lobby bar for drinks before heading out on the town and local artwork on display. Interior designer Andrew Alford was brought in to inject pops of color and modern Southern style into the 286-room hotel, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Whimsical decor like the colorful streamer art installation in the port cochere and the cheerful mix of pattern and color in the lobby exude fun.
Kinship, pictured left, is a market, coffee shop and butcher in Virginia Highland. Bully Boy, right, is a seafood-focused restaurant with an Asian-inspired menu in Old Fourth Ward (photos by Henry Hollis).
EAT & DRINK
Start the day at Le Bon Nosh, a French-inspired counter-service cafe in Buckhead serving coffee, breakfast and house-made pastries in an elegant, airy setting. Or drop by for lunch (soups, salads, sandwiches and tartines are on the menu) and grab a seat on the patio, at one of the communal tables or at the elegant curved marble wine bar. A dinner menu features shareables like crudites and burrata serrano, along with heartier dishes like steak frites and grilled red snapper, with an all-French wine list.
Grab breakfast or lunch to go at Kinship, a butcher shop/market/coffee bar in Virginia Highland serving a small menu of breakfast and lunch sandwiches like the Poultrygeist: smoked Springer Mountain chicken salad with celery, spicy cucumbers and arugula on a pillowy brioche roll. There’s also a small but curated selection of dry goods, wine and flowers — all the necessary provisions for a picnic in nearby Piedmont Park.
Storico Fresco Alimentari is a lively classic Italian restaurant in a tucked-away basement that’s also a pasta shop and market during the day. Stellar cocktails, knowledgeable service and a convivial atmosphere (along with a surprisingly good lemon-rosemary fried chicken) make this a Buckhead mainstay for lunch or dinner.
Little Rey’s is a Tex-Mex counter-service concept from Chef Ford Fry that’s an ideal choice for families or a casual meal. Nachos, tacos, salads, margaritas and soft serve are on the menu. Inside, expect the same vintage vibes as Ford’s Superica, or dine on the covered wraparound patio at this busy intersection in Piedmont Heights.
A spinoff of the Manhattan original, Le Colonial in Buckhead Village serves French-Vietnamese fare in an upscale setting and offers great Happy Hour specials weekdays, including $8 cocktails and bar bites.
Off the beaten path in Old Fourth Ward is Bully Boy, a seafood-focused restaurant serving an Asian-inspired menu ranging from oysters to Australian wagyu, with an emphasis on sushi. Apps include crispy Brussels sprouts with a sweet chili glaze and Chinese broccoli with togarashi pepitas and a ginger mirin glaze. The Spirited Away roll — spicy snow crab topped with sesame-crusted tuna and cucumber — is a nod to the 2001 anime film by the same name. Finish your meal with colorful mochi — bite-sized portions of the Japanese rice-flour dessert filled with ice cream in seasonal flavors. SP
PRO TIP: The Atlanta CityPASS includes admission to five attractions at a discounted rate, including the Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta and World of Coca-Cola, plus your choice of two additional museums — Fernbank Museum of Natural History, College Football Hall of Fame or Center for Civil and Human Rights. Tickets are $86 for adults and $68 for children 3-12. Learn more at citypass.com/atlanta
Atlanta photographs courtesy Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau