After years in the second rank of American destinations, Atlanta is a city on the move says Kaye Holland
I’ll be honest. Before I went to Atlanta I wasn’t all that excited believing it to be all about malls and modernity. But after touching down in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta - the world’s busiest airport - where I was welcomed like family by Olympus Worldwide Chauffeured Services who transported me quickly and safely to my hotel all the while peppering the journey with amusing anecdotes about Atlanta, I began to change my mind.
A sinful breakfast of buckwheat pancakes with Stacy Shade - an Atlanta citizen so bright and cheery, she deserves her own chat show - the next morning, confirmed the fact that Atlanta citizens are genuinely welcoming.
Make no mistake: the friendliness (Atlanta’s tagline is, after all ,the 'city that’s too busy to hate') and happiness of the locals is infectious but then they have a lot to smile about right now…
The recent release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 starring J-Law and Julianne Moore - much of which was shot in Atlanta at venues such as the sumptuous Swan House (even the most talented of set designers would be hard pressed to create a more stunning location) - has helped put Atlanta back on the map. As has next month’s 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind - aka the second best selling book (only the bible has sold more copies) of all time. Author, Margaret Mitchell, famously wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning novel in turn-of-the century, three-story Tudor Revival building on Peachtree Street.
Factor in the opening of new world class museums, hip hotels and restaurants plus the sort of energy you only get from a city, and reasons to head to the ATL soon add up… For while Atlanta hasn’t always had good press, not least from other southerners - the Louisiana locals I later met weren’t remotely complimentary about The Big Peach - even those that are anti-Atlanta have to admit that the place they love to loathe is having a moment.
For a good overview of the city, sign up for a Peachtree Trolley tour. Riding through Atlanta in a classic trolley isn't America at its most grittiest but sometimes a vanilla adventure is what you’re after and I certainly enjoyed my narrated journey through this surprisingly inviting, pretty city whose elegant boulevards are lined with lovely trees.
Then spend a not to be missed morning checking out Atlanta’s museum scene. There are many museums to explore but the headline act has to be the new Center for Civil and Human Rights. Curated by George C Wolfe, this interactive exhibition will have you weeping so keep the Kleenex close. The Center’s theatrical and high-tech exhibits use motion, sights and sounds to immerse visitors in the American Civil Rights Movement and also connects the Civil Rights Movement to contemporary human rights issues around the world, so don’t scrimp on time. Linger a while and let the civil rights history seep into your bones...
To get the back story on America’s remarkable Civil Rights leader and Nobel Prize Winner, Martin Luther King, who was born and in Atlanta, take a trip to Martin Luther King Jr.’s baptist church Ebenezer. Much like Gandhi, Dr King favoured a non violent approach and it’s down to King that America ended a system of statutory discrimination.
If this all sounds a tad too heavy, head next door to the World of Coca Cola - a temple to the Atlanta based carbonated drink company. Visitors can learn all about the world’s favourite fizzy product and also sample coke products from all around the world.
Prefer sports to soft drinks? Check out the new US$68 million College Football Hall of Fame - a 94,256 square foot shrine that includes an eye catching giant wall of helmets.
Meanwhile media buffs might be tempted to take the 55 minute tour through the headquarters of international news giant CNN where former Mirror editor, Piers Morgan, enjoyed a tempestuous (Morgan gained profile - if not viewers - Stateside for his crusade against gun laws) four years.
My favourite though was the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum - a bonafide shrine to the author of Gone With The Wind. Given that it’s author shied away from publicity, it’s a little ironic that 30 million copies of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel are in print worldwide. As someone who - despite being aware of the controversies - cherishes the novel (and David O. Selznick’s 1939 film), I loved the tour which not only revealed where Mitchell once wrote her sweeping novel but also provided an insight into the author. A feisty former newspaper reporter, Margaret - or Peggy as she was known - was raised on Civil War stories and didn’t actually realise that the south had lost until she turned 11. A flirtatious, raven haired beauty, Margaret had many admirers in her youth - not unlike like her famous heroine - while her first husband Berrien ‘Red’ Upshaw, whom she married in 1922 shared many of the same qualities as the dashing Rhett Butler.
Over at Oakland Cemetery, you can visit the grave-sites of Margaret Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh, as well as other Mitchell family members and pioneers of Atlanta.
But it’s not all about museums: modern day Atlanta is a word class restaurant capital too. The upscale South City Kitchen is a good spot to become acquainted with southern staples like Corn bread (so good we munched our way through the whole basket), Fried green tomatoes, Buttermilk fried chicken served with sautéed collards and mash and a pecan pie guaranteed to make you close your eyes with happiness. South City Kitchen is a favourite haunt of A- listers but there’s no dress code - whether you turn up in jeans or doll up in a dress you’ll fit in. A meal at Ford Fry’s King + Duke and Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South should also be on everyone’s bucket list - every dish we tried at these celebrated chefs' restaurants screamed of a confident kitchen. And hop on a midnight train to Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles - owned by the Grammy award winner, her son Shanga Hankerson and gospel singer Ron Winans - whose concept dates back to the roaring twenties when musicians couldn’t decide whether they wanted dinner or breakfast after a show. The restaurant’s namesake dish - crisp, fried chicken stacked atop a warm waffle and drizzled with maple syrup - is the standout but you’ll find Fried green tomatoes, grits and other good ole southern favourites on the menu too.
Atlanta also lures visitors with its stellar shopping scene - the city is home to enough shops to satisfy even the most serious of shopaholics. There’s something of a buzz building around the newly opened Buckhead Atlanta, combining as it does the the walkable streets of Paris with the haute shops of Rodeo Drive. Shop here if you’re feeling flush (budget is an oxymoron in Buckhead, a district which loves to revel in the luxurious side of life) or just gawp at the Real Housewives of Atlanta cast who seemingly spend their afternoon glued to their cell phones in this grown up playground of bars, boutiques and restaurants.
If you’re not up for giving your credit card a hammering, look to Lenox Square Mall - home to affordable American favourites like Anthropologie, Abercrombie, Macy’s and more. For further retail nirvana, wander to the Westside Provisions District (WSPD). The former meatpacking district, is now reeling with independent boutiques but my picks would be Preserving Place, Atlanta MADE and Ann Mashburn all of which help make Atlanta idea city break material.
And now is a good time to go - it’s less stifling than in the scorching summer months while December will see the city celebrate the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind.
Bottom line? If you haven’t been for a while, it’s time to go back. And if you haven’t been full stop, it’s time to add Atlanta to your bucket list for the Big Peach has got its groove back. Ready to pack your bags?
IF YOU GO...
Where to stay
Atlanta isn’t short of hotels where you can lay your head but I’d recommend the Renaissance Atlanta owing to its serious service values, discreetly deluxe rooms (the kind you never want to leave) and it’s handy midtown location. Alternatively live the life of a lottery winner (for at least one night) and check into Atlanta’s newest hotel, the Hyatt Atlanta Midtown. This stunning oasis of luxury features a heated indoor saltwater pool and 24-hour Fitness Center and fabulous restaurant in Fork & Juniper while the rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of Piedmont Park, Downtown Atlanta, and Buckhead.
How to get there
Delta Airlines fly from London Heathrow to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, with an average flight time of nine hours.