Ultratravel cityguide: Atlanta, USA

Why Atlanta?

With most visits to the United States, especially from as far away as the Arabian Gulf, there’s a choice to make: East or West? With Atlanta, you’re kind of at the centre.

Not literally, of course – the city is the most important in the south-east of the country – and as transport hubs go, there are none better. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International airport, just 15 kilometres from downtown, is the world’s busiest by total number of passengers. Being in the country’s domestic travel hub means you can catch a cheap direct flight to almost anywhere American.

Atlanta also has a fascinating history, and is a great starting point to any exploration of the Southern states: Georgia, known as the Peach State, is also home to Savannah, America’s largest preserved historic city, and it’s the best place to begin a tour of South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana or Mississippi.

The city itself, which was hastily rebuilt after being burnt almost to the ground in the American Civil War, is extremely spread out, but if you know where you’re going, travel times are surprisingly short thanks to the road system. Dubbed the city “too busy to hate” – it’s always been an important business and transport centre and played a crucial role in the fight against segregation – Atlanta is unpretentious, and in many areas genuinely cool. Urban revitalisation projects such as the Atlanta Beltline (beltline.org), a former railway line, has been landscaped to bring together great open spaces, restaurants and cafes. Without the pollution, hassle or cost of bigger cities like New York or Los Angeles, you’ll enjoy renting a bike and cycling along the eastern section of the Beltline and around Piedmont Park, feeling like a local.

Atlanta’s restaurant scene is surprisingly sophisticated, if you know where to go. A sleepy Southern city this is not, but neither is it neurotic. See Atlanta.net for up-to-date listings and trip suggestions.

A comfortable bed

Atlanta has a good choice of accommodation at the luxury and mid-range levels. Most of the world’s top hotel brands, including Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, St Regis, W, JW Marriott, Grand Hyatt, InterContinental and Westin, are present; the only downside is that all of the top-end hotels are in fairly bland modern blocks or towers, with most dating from the 1960s onwards. There are two Ritz-Carltons; one in downtown and one in Buckhead.

Unless your primary goal is shopping, the downtown location is better because it’s close to all the main tourist sites. Double rooms cost from cost from US$236 (Dh866) per night including taxes, room only (ritzcarlton.com). In the middle range, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis (depending on timing) offers great value for money in a prime downtown location; the building, a 52-storey modernist skyscraper containing 1,662 rooms, has an eye-poppingly huge atrium and good views from rooms on the higher floors. Double rooms at $136 (Dh500) per night including taxes (marriott.com).

If you want a boutique hotel, the Glenn Hotel opposite the CNN Center is in a historic building dating from 1923. It has great panoramic views of the city from its rooftop terrace, SkyLounge, and a sophisticated feel; double rooms from $140 (Dh514) per night including taxes.

Find your feet

Atlanta’s downtown area is reasonably compact, so you should be able to walk from your hotel to most of the main sights. The centre of downtown is the Centennial Olympic Park, pleasant to walk around and connecting sites such as the CNN Center, where you can do a CNN Studio Tour from $16 (Dh59) per adult. At the northern end of the park are the Georgia Aquarium (georgiaacquarium.org), the largest aquarium in the western hemisphere (tickets cost $37.75 [Dh137] per adult); the World of Coca-Cola, an attraction dedicated to the history and marketing of the world’s most famous drink which gives you the opportunity to taste more than 100 different Coca-Cola drinks from all over the world (adult tickets cost $16 [Dh59]; worldofcoca-cola.com), and the excellent National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which documents the struggle both locally and nationally, against racism and discrimination, with a focus on the civil rights movement of the 1960s (civilandhumanrights.org; tickets $16 (Dh60 per adult.)

Once you’ve covered the main sights, it makes sense to head to the east side of the city to see the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site (nps.gov/malu/index.htm), an entire district with many interesting sites and buildings. A good way of taking in this and the surrounding areas is a 90-minute electric car tour with ATL Cruzers (atlcruzers.com) – you’ll also be taken to the affluent, historic suburb of Inman Park, the Atlanta Beltline and Georgia Tech. Tickets start at $29 (Dh127) per adult. There isn’t much time to get off the vehicle, but the small, six-seater vehicles with open windows allow for a good view, and you can return to any points of interest later by yourself, if you have time.

Meet the locals

There are free guided bike tours of the Atlanta Beltline on Saturday mornings (see beltline.org for details and to register), or you can rent a bike from bike shops such as the Atlanta Beltline Bikes at 151 Sampson Avenue and create your own tour, taking in Krog Street Market (krogstreetmarket.com), a stylishly redeveloped industrial site which is now a slick urban market and restaurant venue – think hip Tex-Mex, speciality Chinese dumplings and French-style patisseries; Ponce City Market, a historic warehouse which has been turned into a hip residential and dining centre (outside on Ponce de Leon Avenue, the Dancing Goats Coffee Bar has brilliantly strong quality coffee and an outdoor lounging space); and Piedmont Park, with its attractive lake and view of the midtown skyline.

Book a table

Atlanta has great steaks. The best I tried was a New York striploin at Linton’s in the Garden, a fine dining restaurant situated in the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Cooked in an iron pan, it was soft with a chargrilled, peppery exterior and served with artichoke purée, sweet potato crisps and salad ($32 [Dh118]). It also serves excellent soup and seafood. The modern restaurant has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on to trees. If you’re in Buckhead, one of Atlanta’s northern neighbourhoods, visit St Cecilia, a modern Mediterranean restaurant with glamorous old-style decor on Peachtree Road Northeast, opposite Phipps Plaza shopping centre. There’s a delicious Italian-style menu – I loved the bruschetta with whipped ricotta, kale pesto and date agrodolce ($7 [Dh25]) and the clam and market fish pan roast (more like a fish stew, with saffron broth and garlic toast; $16 [Dh60]).

In the affluent residential area of Piedmont Heights, north-east of Midtown, is Cape Dutch, a South African-inspired restaurant specialising in barbecue, from tomahawk and bone-in rib-eye steak to whole Maine lobster, peri-peri chicken and burgers (starting from $14 [Dh51.4]). There are also delicious salads, such as spinach and arugula with orange, red onion and goat’s cheese sorbet ($12; Dh44) and foie gras brûlée, with king oyster mushrooms, mango and raspberry ($19 [Dh70]).

Shopper’s paradise

People can – and do – spend days shopping in Atlanta’s Buckhead. A nondescript collection of shopping malls surrounded by roads and hotels, it looks like it could be anywhere in America, but that doesn’t seem to deter people. Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza (simon.com) are next to each other and between them offer most mid- to high-end brands. For food, True Food Kitchen (truefoodkitchen.com) is the best of an otherwise poor selection of cafes. More exciting (and much more expensive) is The Shops at Buckhead, (theshopsbuckheadatlanta.com), a new, low-rise, small-town style development offering nine acres of luxury brands and high-end restaurants. There are some delightful places to refuel here, including Corso coffee at 3065 Peachtree Street; with its all-Italian retro interior diner-style design, you’ll want to linger for longer than your iced cappuccino ($4.50 [Dh17]) takes to drink.

Don’t miss

The Center for Civil and Human Rights (civilandhumanrights.org) and the Atlanta History Center (atlantahistorycenter.com)

What to avoid

July and August can be very hot and humid.

Getting there

Qatar Airways flies from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Atlanta via Doha, from Dh3,320 return in economy and from Dh14,160 return in business class.

rbehan@thenational.ae

Published: September 26, 2016 04:00 AM

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