Family-friendly fun in the capital of the New South
Since my husband and I started our family’s admittedly ambitious endeavor to visit all 50 states as a family by the time our son (now aged 9) graduates from high school, we have captured vacation photos posing by major attractions across cities in 15 states. This summer, we crossed Georgia off the list by spending 36 hours in Atlanta, which bears the distinction of being as some call it – a small town trapped in a big city or perhaps more accurately, a collection of small towns.
An attractive Southern belle lined with blooming dogwoods and fragrant azaleas, Atlanta was surprisingly far more lush with greenery than we envisioned. What was not unexpected were the abundance of historic sites, commercial enterprises, burgeoning art scene and of course, Southern hospitality.
It’s a city that has been known by many names over the years (it was once called Terminus and Marthasville), but resurgence and renewal are no stranger to this thriving metropolis that was burned to the ground during the Civil War only to rise from the ashes like a “phoenix” (the mythological bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn) that now serves as the city’s motto.
In more recent memory, Atlanta is the birth city of Martin Luther King, Jr. and holds its place of importance during the Civil Rights Movement and its Centennial Olympic Park was the site of the 1996 Summer Games. And of course, the city is home to countless corporations including Coca Cola and Turner Broadcasting.
Since we were only here for 36 hours, we wanted to make the most of our stay by visiting the “must-see” sites on every tourist’s list and stopping by some of the perhaps lesser-known areas of this historic city. So we crafted our checklist to include Centennial Olympic Park, the World of Coca Cola and Skyview Atlanta (the ferris wheel that towers nearly 20 stories above Centennial Park). We took two tours – first on a fun trolley ride full of other tourists on Day One to gain a great overview and lay of the land and then a private excursion via an open-air electric vehicle that provided a more in-depth narrative and personal insights from a 30+ year resident’s perspective.
Because many of Atlanta’s top attractions are squeezed into a relatively small area, we chose to stay at The Loews Atlanta, located in mid-town and an easy walk or Uber ride to and from anywhere we wanted to go. Once we arrived, our rental car remained at the hotel until it was time to head home.
Location, location, location
The stylish, contemporary 414-room (including 44 suites) Loews Atlanta hotel (loewshotels.com) proved to be the perfect “home base” for our three-day stay. Our accommodation was an exceedingly comfortable, bright space with floor-to-ceiling windows, a spacious bathroom with a soaking tub and a TV and (a favorite with the kids) a gourmet mini-bar.
Upscale amenities include a beautifully soothing spa, an expansive state-of-the-art fitness center with such a broad offering of workouts (yoga, spin classes) and equipment that it is by far the most impressive hotel fitness facility I’ve ever seen, a hip lobby bar and innovative restaurant, Saltwood Charcuterie & Bar.
Named for its emphasis on salted, cured meats and cheeses classically presented on rustic wooden boards, the restaurant’s centerpiece is its charcuterie station where diners can sample hand-carved, house-made and locally sourced ingredients. The menu at Saltwood, which encompasses a bar, restaurant, outdoor patio, 125-seat private dining space and chef’s table, showcases small, shareable plates and handcrafted cocktails and local microbrews.
Venturing in for lunch, we found the menu featured something for every palate, including burgers and fries for the kids – albeit more artfully displayed and infinitely more flavorful than the homemade variety to which they were accustomed. I know this because I felt compelled to take a bite (or two) of my husband’s signature burger which arrived piled high with sautéed mushrooms, bacon, clamored stone mountain goat cheese and a sunny side up egg, while I opted for a custom salad from the Cold Counter, where I could select from a fresh assortment of local lettuces, toppings, dressings and an array of stovetop sides, including quinoa with vegetables, couscous and more.
For our family, the best feature this luxury hotel has to offer is its prime location in the northernmost corner of Piedmont Park. Atlanta’s Midtown is the second largest business district in the city and is known as the “heart of the arts,” with an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities, shopping, art galleries and award-winning musical and theatrical performances. Atlanta’s fabulous Fox Theatre is a restored movie palace turned cultural jewel that is the venue for a variety of wonderful live entertainment ranging from dance and Opera to Broadway shows and rock concerts. The Moorish lobby and ballrooms harken back to a bygone era of the opulent 1920s and a highlight of this Atlanta icon is the “Mighty Mo,” a 4,000-pipe organ built at a cost of $42,000 in 1929 that audiences can still hear today before every Broadway performance and the Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” performance each year. Even if you don’t catch a performance, the Fox Theatre is open for tours.
Another site rich in history is the recently opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights which offers a sweeping, in-depth and moving view of the movement’s darkest moments and greatest achievements. The museum also presents an evolving look at modern human rights issues here at home and around the globe.
A few miles away on Auburn Avenue, visitors can tour the stately yellow structure that is the boyhood home of the movement’s greatest leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Daily entry is free, but get there early as it’s first-come, first-served and tickets are often snapped up early in the day. Run by the National Park Service, entrance is also complimentary into the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site which offers a uniquely personal account of a very public life and includes the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King was baptized and where he and his father both served as pastors) and the King Center – the final resting place of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
The Peachtree Trolley Tour (peachtreetrolley.com) – a 90-minute fully narrated tour provided our family with a wonderful overview of the must-see stops in the city. We boarded the Phoenix (a fully-enclosed, climate controlled trolley car) and settled in for a comfortable and informative ride, rolling by the aforementioned attractions and many others, including the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, CNN, Turner Field, the golden domed Georgia State Capital, Oakland Cemetery (Atlanta’s oldest) and Underground Atlanta. Originating near Centennial Olympic Park, our guide shared a bit of history, stories and legends surrounding these iconic landmarks.
After hearing our tour guide’s account of the The World of Coca Cola (worldofcoca-cola.com) experience, we walked over (a mere block away from where you board and disembark) to spend the better part of the afternoon exploring the 92,000-square-foot dynamic, multi-media museum that resides on a 22-acre plot in downtown Atlanta (Coca-Cola donated nine acres for the construction of the Georgia Aquarium and another 2.5 acres to the city for the civil-and-human rights museum and where you can experience “the real stories behind the world’s most famous beverage brand.”
The lobby showcases a Coca-Cola folk art bottle display and several of the bottle sculptures that were created for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games (the company invited artists from around the world to express their country’s unique culture and artistic traditional by decorating their own bottle sculpture). The Loft is home to a mix of nearly 200 historical and international artifacts that represent more than 125 years of Coca-Cola memories, including a Coca-Cola Syrup urn circa 1886 and Coca-Cola beach pants popularized in the 1970s.
We watched a six-minute film celebrating life’s “Moments of Happiness” in the Coca-Cola Theater and speaking for the moms in the room at least, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as we witnessed several milestone moments – big and small, including a mother’s response to her son’s video message from where he was stationed in Afghanistan and his homecoming surprise for his parents. The kids had a ball at all the interactive exhibits, posing with the Coca-Cola polar bear mascot and visiting The Vault, where the secret formula is stored and the 4-D sensory movie experience complete with moving seats and other special effects. But the highlight of the tour of the Coca-Cola Tasting Room with features six “freestyle machines” with over 100 different beverage choices – both domestic and international – to sample to your heart’s content (our son’s favorite was a mint flavor offered in Africa, while our daughter preferred a fruity variety popular in Asia).
Day Two we decided to start the morning with the ATL-Cruzers Electric Car and Segway Tours (atlcruzers.com) for what proved to be a highly entertaining and informative private guided experience from a longtime local’s perspective. Our guide, Mira (rhymes with “mirror,” is worth being mentioned – and requested – by name. She gave our family a truly animated, enthusiastic, knowledgable experience of her home city seen through the eyes of a local. She toured us past many of the now-familiar landmarks and iconic Atlanta tourist stops, sharing an in-depth history and little-known facts about each locale. But we have to say the highlight of this experience was that the route showcased many other “off-the-beaten” path places and residential neighborhoods that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered on our own – including the lovely Inman Park (where many of the homes are reminiscent of the antebellum era and very “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) which hosts an annual festival the last weekend in April that is widely regarded among the the city’s most spirited and eclectic events.