One Day in Atlanta - A 24-Hour Adventure

Last week was a travel first for me. I boarded a plane bound for Atlanta only to turn around and come home less than 24 hours later. Despite Anthony Bourdain crafting an entire TV series around long layovers, one day trips filled with commando style exploration aren't exactly my kind of thing. Atlanta, on the other hand, is my kind of thing, and while this poster child for urban sprawl doesn't make it easy to see much in a single day, I was able to march through this city like General Sherman on horseback thanks to a few helpful tips I picked up along the way.

Atlanta Skyline

Where To Stay

The biggest challenge with a one day trip to Atlanta is the city's size. Atlanta is huge, and also boasts some of the worst traffic in America. The running joke is that rush hour on Friday starts Thursday afternoon and lasts until 2am on Saturday. If you're not careful, a big chunk of your 24 hour stay can easily be wasted crawling along on I-85. The city's mass transit, known as MARTA, can help in this regard, but with just two rail lines serving all of Atlanta, it's not exactly the most efficient system in the world. For these reasons, choosing where to stay on a short trip to Atlanta is especially important.
Atlanta Traffic
See what I mean?

There are essentially three main areas of Atlanta that I'd recommend as home base for a short visit. The Downtown and Midtown districts are pretty much the heart of the city and also provide the best access to MARTA if you're like me and traveling without a car. There are a wide range of options for hotels in both areas from just about every major chain imaginable. For this visit, I skipped all of the big names and instead booked a room at The Georgian Terrace, easily the most historic hotel in Atlanta. The Terrace is located right on the imaginary border between Midtown and Downtown, and is directly across the street from the famed Fox Theatre, as well as a short walk from the nearest MARTA station.
Fox Theatre and Georgian Terrace
Dinner and a show, perhaps?

Also in Downtown you'll find the Omni Hotel at CNN Center, which is an ideal location for visiting some of the biggest attractions in Atlanta. Like many downtown areas, this part of Atlanta more or less shuts down at the end of the business day, so don't expect to find much in the way of food or entertainment once the sun goes down. For that, you'll want to shack up in Midtown, which over the last several years has become the hot spot in Atlanta. The Four Seasons and Loews Atlanta anchor the hotel offerings in the area, and you'll find no shortage of options for food from some of the most renowned chefs in town.
Omni CNN Center
How many hotels have a TV station inside?

Before Midtown came along, Buckhead was considered the place to "be and be seen" in Atlanta, and today remains a popular destination in the city. Staying in Buckhead is a little tougher logistically without a car, but it can definitely be done. I'd suggest booking the W Buckhead, which is less than a block from MARTA and who's Acura Car Service will take you anywhere in the area within a 3 mile radius. MJ and I have done this twice before with good success, but if you're only in town for one day, Buckhead's location will limit how much of the city you can feasibly explore.

What To Do

The first stop on my whirlwind tour of Atlanta was the area surrounding Centennial Olympic Park. It's here that you'll find some of the most popular attractions in Atlanta, such as The World of Coke the Georgia Aquarium, and CNN Center. Out of the three, the Georgia Aquarium is the one attraction I wouldn't miss on a short visit to Atlanta. This is not your grandfather's aquarium, and can easily be explored with just a few spare hours. Since I was short on time, I decided to skip the paid attractions in favor of a slow stroll through the park, which is one of few surviving relics from Atlanta's hosting of the 1996 Olympic Games. The lawns aren't a bad place for a nap either.
World of Coke Atlanta
A-T-L spells refreshment.

Next I decided to hop back on the MARTA and visit an attraction that I've overlooked for years: the Martin Luther King Jr Historical Site. The civil rights leader and his wife are laid to rest at this memorial just east of downtown, which is also the site of his childhood home. In addition, a museum chronicles Dr. King's impact on the world from his early years at adjacent Ebenezer Baptist Church to that fateful day in Memphis. It is truly a moving experience, and one that shouldn't be missed even on a short visit to Atlanta. It's worth noting that if you're visiting without a car, the walk from the MARTA station is longer than it might seem and though a neighborhood that could make some uneasy. I'd consider flagging a cab from the MARTA station to the memorial.
Martin Luther King gravesite Ebenezer Baptist Church

For those that would rather spend a full day at one attraction, as opposed to bouncing from one site to the next, there's always Six Flags Over Georgia or Stone Mountain Park. The Southeast's version of the Six Flags amusement park chain is perfect for those looking to get their roller coaster on, even if it does lack any discernible connection to the city of Atlanta besides a few rides with "Georgia" in the name. On the other hand, Stone Mountain is one of the most famous sites in Atlanta and makes no hiding of its southern roots. This is evident from the giant sculpture of Confederate war heroes carved into the side of this "mountain" which is really nothing more than a giant slab of granite. Take a ride on the cable car, or get in your workout for the year by making the climb, but whichever you choose the view from the top is worth the cost of admission. Keep in mind that in both cases, you'll definitely want to have a car to visit Six Flags or Stone Mountain.
Apparently, giant rocks can be beautiful.
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Where To Eat

If you only have time for one meal in Atlanta, have it at The Varsity. Now, a significant portion of Atlantans just rolled their eyes in disgust, and that response is totally understandable. The Varsity is pretty much terrible - both for you and in general - but there are few places in town that are more quintessential Atlanta. I have never visited Atlanta without making at least one stop at The Varsity, and even though on this trip it meant having chili dogs and onion rings at 10am, that streak is still alive. A word of warning: If you're asked "What'll ya have?" I'd suggest you know the answer...
The Varsity Atlanta
Rain or shine, The Varsity is always a good decision.

After a full day of exploring, I was in need of an afternoon snack, so I stopped in at another icon of Atlanta: Glady's and Ron's Chicken & Waffles. Yes, that Gladys, and her legendary version of Chicken & Waffles is by itself worth taking the Midnight Train to Georgia. From her location on Peachtree Street, The Empress of Soul also serves up a full menu of classic southern dishes, right on what some might call The Main Street of the South.
Gladys and Ron's Chicken and Waffles
How's that for a snack?
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Before you write off Atlanta as being filled with greasy chili dogs and waffles paired with chicken wings, you should know that this city is becoming one of the hottest foodie destinations in the country. Places like Empire State South and Two Urban Licks - a personal favorite of mine - are great examples of Atlanta's rapidly growing food scene. One that has lured some of the biggest chefs in the country to head south and test the unknown waters of this budding culinary juggernaut.
Two Urban Licks
Smoked Salmon Nachos and Beef Empanada at TWO Urban Licks.

Just as quickly as I had arrived, it was time to board MARTA for the ride back to the airport. Atlanta is far from the easiest place to tackle in a day - especially without a car - but thanks to a little planning I was able to check off several of the highlights of this great city in less than 24 hours. To see it all would take far more than a day, and in spite of numerous weekend trips, there are still many corners of The ATL that MJ and I have yet to discover. Chances are, however, that after your own short visit, Atlanta will definitely leave you wanting more.

Enjoy Your Stay