Atlanta International Airport has been the world’s busiest hub since 1998, with 100 million passengers going through its terminals each year, connecting the city to the world, driving the booming economy, and making it the No. 3 destination for domestic travelers (behind just Orlando and Chicago). One reason Atlanta is a favorite to visit is its smooth-running, fast, and clean MARTA subway and bus system. My wife, Sandra Wells, and I bought the 4-day unlimited pass for $21 each in October and were amazed at how easy it was to get around. Thanks to that and Delta’s early arrival, we were able to cram a lot more into our time there at a relaxed pace than we would in most big cities (the airline is headquartered there and deserves the top marks it gets from customers).
Our guiding principle in travel is that we don’t waste time on shopping or dining, since almost any reader’s nearest big city has similar offerings. We focus on the historical or cultural aspects that are unique, treating each destination like we will never come back again. Atlanta had so many good options, we were unable to include some, like the Center for Puppetry Arts (with Jim Henson’s collection) and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Others would want to add the College Football Hall of Fame or the World of Coca-Cola.
King, Carter, and CNN
For $1 each way, you can take the streetcar that connects downtown with the 39-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Alas, the National Park Service Visitor Center was being remodeled, but we were able to see the excellent film on his life that played at the temporary center in the historic firehouse. We went on a guided tour of the home where he was born (a reminder of how many modern conveniences we take for granted), heard recordings of his most important speeches at the church where he preached, and visited the King Center, which had timelines for the careers of both Dr. King and Coretta Scott King and which carries on their work. Nearby are their gravesites illuminated by an eternal flame.
More than making up for what we had expected to do there was the 3-hour Civil Rights Tour http://civilrightstour.com led by Tom Houck, who dropped out of high school to work for the NAACP, SCLC, and other organizations 1965-71, as well as serving as the King family’s driver, resulting in his own imprisonment and beatings. A video features prominent members of the movement, such Andrew Young and John Lewis, sharing their experiences. The tour is also a glimpse into the history of African American Atlanta that makes it really essential to understand the city. A statue of King has now been placed at the state capitol to help offset the statues of leaders of the Confederacy. To liven things up, Eartha Sims rides along to sings civil rights hymns and gospel favorites in between the commentary.
The Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov can be reached by the 16 Noble bus that leaves from a stop next to the Five Points MARTA station and is well worth a visit, regardless of one’s political views (he remains one of our most underappreciated leaders for reasons explained in The Other Side of the Story by press secretary Jody Powell; there’s a cautionary lesson for Democrats about Teddy Kennedy’s primary fight). Visitors are inevitably impressed by his amazing story, from being a protégé of Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, to peanut farmer, governor of Georgia, and the achievements and crises of his presidency, including the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the SALT II nuclear treaty, Iran’s seizure of American hostages, the creation of the Energy Department to help cope with rising oil prices that fueled inflation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the human rights campaign, and normalization of relations with China. Inarguably, he has been one of the most important ex-presidents in U.S. history, with fascinating exhibits on what he and First lady Rosalynn have accomplished, especially ensuring free elections in emerging democracies and delivering treatments for neglected diseases around the world.
The CNN backstage tour was entertaining and eye-opening, showing the challenges of the pressure to deliver news instantly, while maintaining rigorous fact-checking standards, which is what distinguishes real journalism from fake news.
Civil War, Art, and Fish
The biggest surprise of our visit was the Margaret Mitchell House, where the author wrote Gone With the Wind, whose film version won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture which, adjusted for inflation, is the biggest grossing domestic movie of all time, with the equivalent in ticket sales today of $1.79 billion (Star Wars is No. 2 at $1.58 billion). Because the story centered on Atlanta, the premiere was held there, drawing one million fans, and the exhibits about that and the making of the picture are fascinating, as is Mitchell’s personal life. The gift shop features all kinds of fun items, including the museum’s newsletter, The Scarlett Letter.
The Atlanta History Center is in the northern suburb of Buckhead (there is no longer a shuttle, so exit the station, take the 110 bus to Roswell, then walk a few blocks down West Paces Ferry, past the Whole Foods; many locals don’t know how to get there). It was a rainy day, so we decided not to visit the gardens and restored homes, but the museum is first class, especially on the American Civil War (although it cites the outdated statistic on total deaths of 620,000, when a reevaluation makes it likely 785,000 died, equivalent to the impact on today’s U.S. population of nearly 8 million in just four years). The outstanding array of well-preserved artifacts, dioramas, photos, and timelines are powerful and helpful. But the most important section is on the post-war period, as Reconstruction gave way to the Jim Crow era, when African Americans had many of their hard-won rights revoked until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and the new voter ID laws in some states are a blatant attempt to do that again).
We’re not normally eager to go to contemporary art museums because they usually those featured rarely show talent, except for creating bizarre junk. But the High Art Museum has well-regarded collections of 19th and 20th century decorative objects, so we thought we’d take our chances. When the doors of the elevator to the Skyway Level opened we were wowed by Anish Kapoor’s large convex arrangement of mirrors, which results in a kaleidoscope of colors and strange audio effects, depending on where we stood. We also especially loved Ashley Bryan’s far-out puppets, which draw on African materials and traditions.
If there is one thing it is worth going to Atlanta just by itself it is the Georgia Aquarium. We’ve been to half a dozen others and thought we had seen everything, but this one is not only the largest in the U.S., it has so many extraordinary things to see (including frolicking beluga whales, the sea lion and dolphin shows, and a 4D film on sharks) that the AAA guidebook is correct in recommending spending at least five hours there.
Make a point of going through Atlanta Airport on your next trip elsewhere and spend a few days at what is one of America’s best destinations.
Trusted Travel Agent: Sandy Doumani, LUXE Travel 310/780-1888
Choosing What To See: www.Atlanta.net, AAA Georgia handbook, and Tripadvisor.com visitor rankings
Affordable Tickets: Many attractions are included in CityPASS http://www.citypass.com
Recommended Hotel s: The RITZ CARLTON has a well-reserved reputation as one of the premier luxury hotel groups and the one in downtown Atlanta http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/georgia/atlanta has one of the city’s best gourmet restaurants, AG; it is also located in walking distance to the Philips Arena (home to the NBA’s Hawks and WNBA’s Dream), the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (NFL’s Falcons), and many other attractions.
The AC HOTEL in downtown Atlanta http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/atlar-ac-hotel-atlanta-downtown/ close to the Georgia Aquarium and CNN, is a chic new place with minimalist design that positions itself as having all the really necessary amenities for even a residential stay, including free Wi-Fi, ample counter space in the bathroom, an on-site gym, a pool, and large, comfortable lounge.