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Destination Guide

 

Atlanta has been thoroughly divided and subdivided into a complex network of districts and neighborhoods. In some areas, every other block or so seems to claim distinction as its own unique neighborhood with its own specific nickname, which can get rather confusing for visitor and native alike.

The nice thing about the neighborhoods in this town, however, is that despite the influences of time, gentrification, urban renewal and shifting demographics, most neighborhoods have managed to retain their charm and flavor. Another pleasant surprise is that unlike some cities, the attractions and amenities of Atlanta are fairly evenly distributed among the various neighborhoods.

Whatever you might be looking for, from high-end shopping in Buckhead to fine dining in Virginia-Highland to ultra-cool clubbing in Little Five Points, each of the city's districts has much to offer. As more and more residents and tourists flock to this capital of the New South, Atlanta's diverse neighborhoods stand as a fitting parallel to the rich melting pot that the city has become over the years.

Downtown
As in many cities, Atlanta's downtown serves as the center of most business, financial, and government doings. But, unlike many cities, it cannot be considered the hub of the town's social, cultural, or entertainment scene. Atlanta's downtown is business-focused, and other than for fine dining or professional sports events, pretty much shuts down after business hours.

The ever-changing downtown skyline is dominated by skyscraper hotels and office buildings, perhaps none more impressive than Peachtree Center, which serves the business community in both capacities. Most major chain hotels are represented, including the Ritz-Carlton, the Atlanta Hilton & Towers, the dramatically-sloping Marriott Marquis, and the Westin at Peachtree Plaza, which features the aptly-named, revolving Sun Dial restaurant on the 71st floor.

Many of Atlanta's most prestigious business addresses, such as the world headquarters of Coca-Cola, are downtown. The Georgia World Congress Center, one of the world's largest convention facilities, plays host to a never-ending string of trade shows and business expos.
Nestled in the southern corner of downtown you'll find the golden-domed Georgia State Capitol Building. Built in 1889, its Corinthian columns are closely guarded by many court and government offices. Also peppered about this neighborhood are buildings housing various departments of Georgia State University.

Nearby, take a stroll through Underground Atlanta. Opened in 1989, this enclosed mall of shops, restaurants, and attractions also houses the most comprehensive division of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, which offers information on activities and events throughout the city. Standing near the entrance to Underground Atlanta is the World of Coca-Cola, the soft-drink giant's popular interactive museum, where you can relive the history of the world's favorite beverage and sample Coke products as they are prepared in the four corners of the globe.

A short cab ride to the south will bring you to Turner Field. Built as a multi-use facility for the 1996 Olympics, it is now home to the high-powered Atlanta Braves. If you're lucky enough to visit Atlanta during baseball season, stop by; a large allotment of standing-room tickets are made available for each home game at the low price of $1.

Baseball's not the only game in town, however. On the west side of downtown, you'll find the 71,000-seat Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons and host of the annual Southeast Conference Championship football game each fall. The Georgia Dome is also the site of the annual Peach Bowl, and was chosen in 1994 to host Super Bowl XXVIII. The much-anticipated Phillips Arena opened its doors in 1999, and now features Atlanta Hawks basketball and the National Hockey League's newest franchise, the Atlanta Thrashers.

Across the street from Phillips Arena, visit the massive CNN Center, home to cable television's first 24-hour news network. Tours of the studios are conducted hourly, and free seating is always available for CNN's live current affairs program, "Talk-Back Live." And, just across the street, be sure to visit Centennial Olympic Park, a 21-acre expanse of green commemorating the 1996 Olympics.

Atlanta's downtown area is a bustling commercial district by day, with a wealth of restaurants, department stores and tourist attractions. After dark, however, there are better, and safer, neighborhoods to explore.


Midtown

The line between Downtown and Midtown has never been distinctly drawn, but a safe choice for the demarcation is busy Ponce de Leon Avenue. This vibrant and diverse neighborhood stretches from the Georgia Tech campus on its western edge, north several miles toward Buckhead, and dissipates slowly to the east into the Virginia-Highland area.

Midtown's skyline rivals downtown. Mighty hotels such as the Four Seasons and Sheraton Colony Square stand side-by-side with the regional headquarters of such giants as IBM and BellSouth. The Georgian Terrace Hotel, which hosted the cast party for the premiere of Gone With the Wind in 1939, still stands proudly on Peachtree Road in the heart of Midtown.

Across the street from the hotel is the theater where the premiere took place: the recently restored Fabulous Fox Theater, which now features Broadway plays, opera, rock concerts, and movies. And just a few steps down Peachtree is the Margaret Mitchell Home and Museum, dedicated to the woman who wrote the Civil War epic.

Also on Peachtree, you'll find the Woodruff Arts Center, home to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, as well as the High Museum of Art, which recently featured the traveling exhibits of such notables as Pablo Picasso and Norman Rockwell.

Known for its diversity, Midtown has long been home to a large segment of Atlanta's gay community. You'll see plenty of rainbow flags fluttering from porches of the beautifully restored Victorians between Ponce and 10th Street. Gay-owned and oriented businesses abound and flourish, such as the Outwrite Bookstore near Piedmont Park, and such infamous gay bars as Burkhart's and My Sister's Room. If you're game, buy a one-night membership to Backstreet, the gender-bending, all-nighter, gay/straight/other club where America's favorite drag queen, RuPaul, first strutted her stuff.

Clubbing is the word that best fits the nightlife in Midtown, and dress codes are often strictly enforced. Now and again, you'll even spot a velvet cordon snaking its conspicuous way onto the sidewalk, evidence of certain clubs' propensity to emulate the chic nightspots of New York. High profile spots like the Crescent Room and Innuendo play to the 20- and 30-something rave-techno crowd, while lower-key joints like the fashionably retro Leopard Lounge offer a break from such image-conscious posturing. A nice smattering of smaller and casual neighborhood bars are spread throughout the area, and most of the big hotel bars keep up a respectable pace.

The economic range of Midtown denizens runs the full gamut. From the mansion dwellers in Ansley Park along the northern reaches of the district to the seedy elements that haunt the liquor stores and fast-food joints of Ponce de Leon to the grungy-cum-preppy types that prevail around the campus of Georgia Tech, a broad cross-section of Atlanta natives will greet you on the sidewalk. You'll find yuppies from all over the city taking their lunch on benches across from Piedmont Park, watched at a casual distance by a small group of the homeless being passed by a highly-coifed septuagenarian on her way to the exclusive Piedmont Driving Club. Notched into a northeast corner of Piedmont Park, membership in this exclusive group is said to be among the most coveted and elusive in the New South. It is said, though not confirmed, that Margaret Mitchell was once denied a membership, a bit too nouvelle for their taste.

Stuck in among the many churches, restored and condo-ized warehouses, and pleasant tree-lined residential neighborhoods you'll find some of the best dining that Atlanta has to offer. South American fusion is the new rave at Loca Luna, while distinctly different Southern American is the specialty of South City Kitchen on Crescent Avenue. Running parallel to Peachtree, quieter Juniper Street is host to a long string of casual, open-air restaurants that draw big numbers for both dinner and happy hour.

The unquestioned social center of Midtown is Piedmont Park, a 180-acre expanse of green bordered by Monroe, 10th, and Piedmont Avenues. Featuring lakes, tennis courts, and numerous athletic fields, this is also where a great majority of in-town Atlantan turn out to walk their canine companions. Any given day will find literally hundreds of dogs and their fashionable leash-mates patrolling the grounds, and this is a great opportunity to see a wonderful cross-section of the area's population and the admirable harmony in which they generally co-exist. While you're there, stop by the Atlanta Botanical Gardens on the north side of the park; its forests and greenhouses provide even further haven for plant- and nature-lovers.


Buckhead
An address in Buckhead--be it for home or business--is a mixed blessing. Certainly some of the ritziest but also some of the bawdiest and most rowdy elements call this area just north of Midtown home. Still, through the years, Buckhead has held onto its claim as the most renowned and fashionable of all Atlanta neighborhoods.

The legends of how Buckhead came upon its unusual moniker are varied, but most center around the killing of a large deer by a local hunter in the early 19th Century, and the subsequent mounting of said animal's noggin over a popular public house. While taste and public health ordinances have made such sights less common in recent years, the wild tavern tradition of the area is still in full swing, and most nights of the week find the bars of Peachtree and Bolling Way doing a brisk business. The pace on Friday and Saturday nights escalates to such a degree that the streets of downtown Buckhead become all but impassable, and several roads are routinely shut down to allow for the safe passage of the stumbling masses.

Despite the regular disorder brought on by the drinking crowd, Buckhead's downtown area, generally demarked as the intersection of Peachtree and Paces Ferry Roads, remains clean and safe, and is home to many fine shops, restaurants and day spas. Arguably, both the city's best steak and finest seafood are to be found within a literal stone's throw of each other, the former lodged on the ground floor of the tallest building on Peachtree (Chops), and the latter set off by a four-story, cast-bronze salmon (some say trout) that towers over Pharr Road (Atlanta Fish Market).

As you move away from the bars and shops of ground zero Buckhead, a growing battalion of high-rise luxury apartments and condos attracts the city's most prosperous up-and-comers. Gradually, small skyscrapers are beginning to dot the landscape of Buckhead's perimeter commercial area, as office and condo space is sold at an astronomical premium.

Some things resist change more strongly than others, however, and the tree-lined neighborhoods west of Peachtree, especially along Paces Ferry Road, live on as exquisite enclaves of old Atlanta money. Just a mile down this awe-inspiring stretch of road from the rollicking, disco-themed Have A Nice Day Cafe sits the august Georgia Governor's Mansion. Many local celebrities and the families of early Atlantans make their homes in the wooded estates scattered hereabouts. A casual driving tour through these gently winding backstreets has a tendency to make one feel like a rolling prop in a pictorial out of Southern Living or Architectural Digest. The paradoxical proximity of these bucolic streets to crowded and hectic Peachtree Road is at the heart of contemporary Buckhead, and is perhaps what gives the neighborhood such wide, energetic appeal.

If you're not in a strictly business rush (and your wallet doesn't mind), the central location and frenetic activity of Buckhead make it an ideal spot to stay. World-class hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Hotel Nikko stand just steps away from the city's most elegant shopping venues in Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square Mall. And if the restaurants, shopping, and nightlife aren't enough for you, never fear. The Atlanta History Museum sits at the center of it all on West Paces Ferry Road, watching the progression, keeping careful records of Buckhead's latest transformation.


Virginia-Highland
Perhaps the city's most quietly-hip and sought-after address, the largely residential Virginia-Highland area has been called Atlanta's answer to New York's SoHo and Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue. Built up in the 1920s as a lower-middle income neighborhood, the two-bedroom bungalows that pepper this tree-lined corner of the near east side now fetch a quarter-of-a-million dollars and more.

Virginia-Highland, more commonly referred to as "the Highlands," centers on the intersection of its namesake avenues, Virginia and North Highland, and concentrates its activity around three main hubs. Other than the few square blocks directly surrounding North Highland's intersections with Virginia, Amsterdam (a half-mile to the north), and Ponce de Leon (a half-mile south), the neighborhood has remained entirely residential. The Highlands' borders are pretty well defined as Ponce de Leon Avenue on the south, Briarcliff Road on the east, East Rock Springs on the north, and Monroe Avenue on the west. Most points are within easy walking distance of the Jimmy Carter Center in Inman Park, Emory University in Druid Hills, and Piedmont Park in Midtown.

Over the past 50 years, the prevailing atmosphere has gone from staunch middle class to economically-depressed to an avant-garde reclamation phase to a solid enclave of the in-town upwardly-mobile. Today, young professional couples live alongside the older entrenched crowd that smartly held onto their now-slumping, now-booming property over the years, with a strong gay showing thrown in the mix. Although not quite as extreme as the rarefied mansions of nearby Druid Hills (where the movie Driving Miss Daisy was filmed), the Highlands have assumed a certain snob appeal, and at least a modicum of the stern protectivism that goes along with it.

High rents have banished the starving artist crowd to less demanding landlords downtown, and in their place have come a number of galleries, representing the city's best mix of modern and folk art in such establishments as the Eclectic Electric Gallery and Modern Primitive on Highland near Morningside. Although not as glitzy as Buckhead or Midtown, and thankfully so, shopping is a casual pleasure, and quirky boutiques like Metropolitan Deluxe, the Common Pond, and Providence Antiques draw a heavy window-gazing crowd throughout the week. Near the Virginia Avenue intersection, the dusty and deliberately quaint Highland Hardware is a familiar reminder of simpler days.

Young and middle-aged professionals mix easily with a mild influx of students from the nearby university in the Highlands' bars and restaurants. Again, much quieter and more casual than the scene in Buckhead and Midtown, a vibrant nightlife thrums through the laid back atmosphere at such taverns as Manuel's, a political relic from the days when City Hall was located nearby on Ponce, Dark Horse Tavern, whose three-story deck provides a nightly microcosm of the drinking crowd's let-it-be attitude, and the newly-arrived Geko Lounge, a smart tequila bar that, despite itself, can't quite manage to force its Buckhead-ish, satin-shirt concept on Highland denizens, but peaceably persists nonetheless. A few blocks north of Ponce, Blind Willie's Tavern showcases some of the city's best blues acts in an intimate cabaret setting, while, next door, stout-mad revelers pound out rousing Irish folk tunes on the wooden benches of Limerick Junction.

Reservations are a must most nights at local restaurants, and even on a Monday you're liable to have to wait for a table on the patio at Dish, the area's hippest fusion joint. Almost universally small and intimate, Highland eateries seem to set tables for two with greater frequency than for four. Your options are quite diverse, however, as highbrow places like seafood favorite Indigo Grill and contemporary Southern-influenced Harvest rub amicable shoulders with popular beer and brazier joints such as Taco Mac, Neighbors, and Moe's & Joe's.
Given the largely-residential nature of the Highlands, there's not a whole lot to see and do outside of rubbing elbows with some of the friendliest diners and shoppers in town. One standout exception, however, is the Fernbank Natural History Museum. Just off Ponce de Leon on Clifton Road, this world-class museum features displays that chronicle the geographical and natural evolution of the Southeast, many hands-on exhibits for kids, an observatory, and an IMAX theater.

The Highlands would be a great place to set up camp during any visit to Atlanta--for business or pleasure except for the dearth of public lodgings. Unless you can secure a spot at one of the neighborhood's scarce but universally charming bed and breakfasts, your best bet for greatest proximity is at one of the towering megaliths of nearby Midtown, or try the reasonable motels that surround Emory University a mile or so to the east.


Little Five Points
A few blocks to the south and east of the far southern reaches of the Highlands lies a neighborhood with more attitude per square acre than perhaps the rest of the city combined. Geographically dubbed Little Five Points, this conglomeration of second-hand shops, piercing parlors, funky bars and music venues sprang up around the corner from where Euclid and McLendon Avenues converge on busy Moreland Avenue. Since the designation "Five Points" was long-ago granted to the downtown train station where the five main MARTA lines come together, the five points formed by this busy east-side intersection assumed the moniker Little Five Points, or more tersely, L5P.

Touching on the old neighborhoods of Inman Park and Candler Park, much of the real estate in L5P is--somewhat ironically if not surprisingly--priced well beyond the range of the young rebels that flock to its commercial district. Many nicely-restored bungalows and even post-Civil War era homes line the peaceful streets nearby, including a good number of respectable bed-and-breakfasts.

Meanwhile, droves of what can best be summed up as the "alternative" crowd guard the sidewalks and street corners of the busy commercial area. Unchallenged headquarters of the local scowl crowd, you'll see a healthy cross-section of the young, rebellious, and rock-and-roll youth that Atlanta and her suburbs has to offer. Nose rings and tattoos are the rule rather than the exception, but don't be too fooled--or too intimidated--by the image. Although drugs and some of the city's seedier elements do show up, the majority of L5P's grungy crowd are students, wanna-be musicians and artists, and generally-employed residents of east side neighborhoods with a taste for loud music.

An annual summer street festival brings out in crowds from all over, as natives and neighbors come out to be reminded why they prefer the more tranquil annual street festivals hosted by both Inman Park and Candler Park. Music venues like the Star Community Bar present some of the best and most promising local bands, while the Variety Playhouse puts out a consistently strong line-up that covers the full spectrum of musical acts, from jazz to folk to hard rock and back again, including such well-known performers as blues legend Taj Mahal and the locally-favorite Indigo Girls.

You won't find much in the way of lodgings, and honestly, there's not much reason to spend the night. Similarly, good eats are plentiful in L5P, but fine dining has thus far eluded the rough-edged neighborhood. You can always grab a very good burger at the Vortex (which transforms after dark into L5P's loudest and most renowned tavern), or pull up a stool at the old-style lunch counter at the Little Five Points Pharmacy. Here and there, you'll find a few ethnic joints that are worth their salt, but the best grub within reach is at the Flying Biscuit Cafe, six or seven blocks to the east in Candler Park, where the masses line up outside on Saturdays and Sundays, waiting for a shot at the Caf?'s famous omelets and brunch plates.

Other than some funky shopping options and a glimpse into the counter-culture, the most notable attraction in Little Five stands at the neighborhood's far northwest corner: the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center and Library. It sits on several hilltop acres of gardens and ponds, the site of the camp from which Sherman observed the burning of Atlanta in 1864.


East Atlanta
Climbing out of a long period of steady decline, this is the latest addition to a growing list of gentrified Atlanta neighborhoods. As elsewhere, the process in East Atlanta is a slow one, and even as a solid collection of shops and restaurants gains a foothold in the blocks around the intersection of Flat Shoals and Glenwood Avenues, most of the surrounding area continues to struggle. Visitors to the area should not stray too far from the central business district, although it's relatively safe and continually improving as more and more youngsters who can't stomach the price tags in Inman Park or Little Five Points buy up the area's modest housing.

Your shopping options are nice, if limited, representing an interesting mix of the commercial images of Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland. You'll find a few rag-tag vintage stores interspersed with such refined outlets as Verdio House for artistic pieces and Village Wear for funky fashions. The unabashedly gay Mary's is a diminutive send-up of the thriving alternative clubs of Midtown, and seems oddly out of place. The Fountainhead, similarly, seems mislocated amid its earthy surroundings, yet draws a consistent poseur crowd. Generally, East Atlanta's watering holes lean toward the local, blue collar crowd, best typified in the long-standing and unchanged Flatiron Bar. As the area continues to attract young money, dining options will certainly expand, but for now the best choices are the Heaping Bowl & Brew, an organic-minded mixed bag of regional delights, and the popular local eatery/hangout Grant Central Pizza.


Vinings
In marked contrast to the funky, developing neighborhoods of urban renewal in the general vicinity of downtown, this trendy area has re-invented itself over past few years to become a rather enviable and affluent address. Sitting proudly at the far northwest corner of the city, just touching on Cobb County, the Vinings is largely home to folks who want to live in the city but really don't.

Condominiums, apartments, and plush home sites are going up at a remarkable rate, almost keeping pace with the soaring prices. Still, the four miles that separate this pleasant area from Buckhead are enough to keep expenses a bit more practical. New hotels are being built as well, but for the most part, visitors are still relegated to the luxury accommodations around nearby Cumberland Mall and the big-business hotels of Smyrna and Marietta.

Following the money, great new restaurants like Canoe are gaining widespread praise as they take their place alongside such re-invented local favorites as the Vinings Inn. Shopping, however, still draws the majority of traffic, mostly to Cumberland Mall at I-75 and Windy Hill Road, but also to the Vinings Jubilee center, a collection of shops and boutiques developed to resemble a town square.

You don't really club here. You may work here, shop here, and more and more, eat here. But the Vinings will always be more suburban than city, in both appearance and attitude, which, it seems, is pretty much what they've been shooting for.

Reg Redmond

 

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