Atlanta isn't one of those cities you'll always find sitting with their good side to the room – a visitor could find themselves here again and again and still not understand why locals like the place so darn much. To truly know Atlanta, however, is to really begin to appreciate Atlanta – this cannot and will not happen, though, if you simply ride around town in your car, enjoying the city's many traffic jams and egregious misuses of urban space, passing judgment from the driver's seat. No, to really get into Atlanta, it's so much better to ditch the car altogether, allowing yourself to get up close and personal with what is actually a magnificently varied, endlessly unique city that deserves far more credit than it ever gets from most outsiders. Don't be like most people – on your next visit, or even on a particularly lengthy layover at the airport, get out from behind the wheel and (gasp!) go for a walk. Here's how (and what) to do.
First, hop the train into town.
Whether you're out in the 'burbs or stuck in an airport terminal, chances are that you're not all that far from downtown via the region's typically efficient but generally underappreciated MARTA rail network. A ride is just $2.50 each way - pick up a Breeze card at the vending machines ($2), load it with $6 and go.
Say hello to downtown Atlanta.
It's a big city, so there's a lot going on down here, but the heart of town isn't necessarily where you'll find Atlanta at it's most compelling. Really, you're here to hitch a ride on the new Atlanta Streetcar. Exit the MARTA at Peachtree and look for the nearby streetcar stop. Tip: Walk a block or so south to the eastbound stop at Woodruff Park to save some time – the service runs in a twisted sort of loop that's prone to traffic tie-ups. You can use your Breeze Card for this trip – the cost is $1. You'll have a relatively short ride out into the city's Old Fourth Ward, long one of its most interesting areas and very recently one of its most popular zones.
Hop off in Dr. King territory.
When you see the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, you're here – here being the heart of the fascinating Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Everything from his boyhood home to his grave can be found within a small, walkable area – make sure to stop in at the visitor's center first and get oriented – the exhibits and materials here will have you brushed up on your Civil Rights history in no time.
Explore the new Old Fourth Ward.
Far from just one of the city's most important historic areas, this close-in neighborhood has become extremely popular with Atlanta's sizable cool crowd – wander up Irwin Street to the Krog Street Market, a well-curated food hall offering everything from dan dan noodles to barbecue to high-end ice creams. The market is located just next to the growing Atlanta BeltLine, a miles-long, multi-use trail that's become a car-free superhighway through some of Intown's hottest zipcodes. (If you're here on weekends, you'll be glad you didn't drive – as in so many places in Atlanta, parking can be impossible.)
Okay – time for a serious walk.
Eat up, because you're hitting the BeltLine. If it's a sunny day, prepare to be joined by a surprising number of people. So it's not totally glamorous (or elevated) like New York's High Line, but this massive urban renewal project (still ongoing) seems to be having roughly the same impact. And why shouldn't it -- it's nice. There's art to look at. Everyone's building condos overlooking the trail. People want to be here. Just before the trail dips beneath Freedom Parkway, detour up the hill a little and wet your whistle at the Victory Sandwich Bar, a fantastic little all-day café and bar with an outdoor patio, a Ping Pong table, good drinks and affordable eats.
Ready for another market? Because here comes one.
Just before the trail hits busy Ponce de Leon Avenue, to the left you won't be able to miss the massive old warehouse complex that's recently been reborn as the rather dazzling Ponce City Market. What once belonged to Sears, back when it was Sears & Roebuck, is now a mixed-use complex with offices, shops and a massive (and architecturally impressive) food hall full of pricey but tasty comestibles. Local legend Holeman & Finch sells their famous burgers from a takeout window (H&F Burger, it's called), there's high-end coffee, fried chicken and pretty much everything else you could be hungry for (if anything, after your previous stops).
Next, get back on the trail.
If you were pressed for time, you're now just a quick Uber ride from the nearest MARTA station, but you've come this far – why not do one more mile on the BeltLine – this will bring you directly to Atlanta's giant front lawn, Piedmont Park. As with any great city park, there's a ton going on here – if you've just got time for one stop, make tracks for the Atlanta Botanic Garden. If you've got time for no stops, cut past the lovely Lake Clara Meer and head out the west entrances into Midtown.
Got time for some art?
Angle your way through the man made canyons of Midtown, aiming generally for the Arts District MARTA station – just before you get there, you'll find the High Museum of Art, the rather dramatic home to a wide-ranging collection and considered to be one of the best museums in the Southeast. (It also has air-conditioning, which on many Atlanta days, is reason enough to head inside.)
Take one last ride on the train. Had enough? The train's right across the street – the last $2.50 remaining on your Breeze card will be enough to get you back to where you started. Pretty cool town, right?
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