Atlanta’s great outdoors
Written by Jennifer Bradley Franklin
With Qatar Airways launching flights to Atlanta on June 1, travel writer and long-time resident Jennifer Bradley Franklin shares insider tips on out-of-doors exploring in The Big Peach.
It’s easy to see why visitors use Atlanta’s nickname – ‘Hot-lanta’ – thanks to its famously balmy weather. While locals cringe at the moniker, the sun-drenched city offers myriad opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors.
Atlanta is known for being hot – on fire, even. As a decisive final blow to the Southern states during the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman burned much of the city to the ground in 1864. But the city is now home to the world’s busiest international airport, a thriving culinary scene, a burgeoning film business, world-class shopping, and so much more.
Thanks to its nearly year-round warm weather, opportunities to get outdoors and be active abound. A favoured first stop is Piedmont Park, the 76-hectare urban park just north of the city centre. Created in 1895, the park was partially redesigned in the early 1900s by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York’s Central Park. Its lush rolling hills include paved paths – popular for walking, running, rollerblading, and biking – as well as off-leash dog parks, Lake Clara Meer, a swimming pool, and playgrounds.
Adjacent lies a stunning display of flora and fauna at Atlanta Botanical Garden. Twelve hectares of both native and exotic plants are meticulously landscaped and tended, with an eye towards conservation and education. Guests should wander the Kendeda Canopy Walk, a 183m-long skywalk, suspended 12m in the air. The walkway, woven through historic poplar, hickory, and oak trees, offers an overhead view of leafy woodlands below. Bordered by Atlanta’s skyscrapers, the verdant gardens and orchid houses feel like an urban oasis.
One of Atlanta’s proudest recent achievements is the creation of the BeltLine, an in-progress multi-use trail using existing historic rail track encasements encircling the city. History buffs may know of the city’s past as the railway hub of the Southern USA, a fact which earned it the name Terminus (before it was called Atlanta). Some portions are complete, with wide paved paths, bordered by green space, while others, though rougher, are hikeable. The BeltLine has become a favourite of cyclists, as well as those who favour a stroll between restaurants and shops in Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward, and Midtown. For a free show of skill, stop by Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark, designed for ’boarders of all levels.
A favourite way to cool off and soak up some sun is river tubing down the Chattahoochee River, which winds through the Westside of Atlanta (and forms part of the border of Alabama and Georgia, before flowing through Florida into the Gulf of Mexico). Shoot the Hooch is the only outfitter directly on the river in Atlanta, offering rafts, canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, and stand-up paddleboards for rent. No matter which mode of transportation you choose, the chilly, sparkling waters are typically gentle enough that even water novices feel comfortable. If a view of the river – without actually being in it – is more appealing, the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell is a must-see. Comprising 51 hectares of native plants along the river, the centre draws 100,000 visitors annually. Guests of all ages can hike along woodland and wetland trails and get up-close views of native birds of prey, including rescued eagles, hawks, vultures, and owls.
Hiking in and around the city is a popular way to get a bit of exercise and experience Atlanta’s outdoor charms. Just northwest of town lies Kennesaw Mountain (551m). There are more than 24km of hiking and running trails, winding through what was once the site of a contentious Civil War battle. Visitors can select easy hikes or more strenuous ones across mountaintops, battlefields, and forests; either way, they’ll be treated to glimpses of historic monuments, stunning skyline views of Atlanta, and near-endless natural beauty. On the eastern side of the metro area is Stone Mountain, a quartz ‘mountain’ and Georgia’s number-one attraction. The carving on the steepest side of the mountain depicting Civil War figures Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson is the world’s largest bas-relief. Hike the two-kilometre trail (or take the Skyride aerial tram) to the top of the rock for spectacular panoramic views of Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs, including the aforementioned Kennesaw Mountain. Make a day of it in Stone Mountain Park, where all manner of family fun awaits. Tour the antebellum plantation, ride the scenic railroad around the mountain, hop aboard 1940s-era amphibious Army DUKWs for a land and water tour of the park, and watch the world’s longest-running laser show, which uses the mountain as a screen.
Georgia, of which Atlanta is the capital, is known for its rich agricultural diversity, fostering its varied cuisine and drawing top culinary talent. Enjoy the farming life in a decidedly upscale way at Serenbe, an idyllic 365-hectare farm-based community on the southern edge of Atlanta. There is a three-hectare certified organic farm, preserved forests, wildflower fields, two waterfalls, quaint boutiques, local art galleries, and restaurants, includingThe Hil, offering fresh-from-the-farm dishes. Visitors can opt to stay at the Inn at Serenbe, a luxury guest house designed for connection with nature.
Atlanta is known for its deep musical roots, producing artists such as The Indigo Girls, CeeLo Green, and Alan Jackson, to name only a few. Culture and the outdoors come together at the city’s oldest outdoor music venue (opened in 1944), Chastain Park Amphitheater. It hosts world-renowned musicians – with genres from rock to blues to country to soul – each year from April to October, and guests are able to pack a picnic basket and enjoy an evening of music under the stars.
Finally, feeling the wind in your hair takes a high-speed turn at the newly opened Porsche Experience Center. Guests are taken through the paces and hairpin turns of the 2.5km handling track by a Porsche Drive Coach in one of 75 new-model cars.
No matter how you choose to embrace the outdoors in Atlanta, the city’s myriad activities and famous signature Southern hospitality can help ensure you enjoy your stay.
King of Pops
When you’re outdoors soaking up Atlanta’s intense rays, it’s a singular pleasure to cool down with an icy popsicle. King of Pops is undisputedly the reigning favourite. The brand began with tiny freezer push-carts – complete with eye-catching rainbow-hued umbrellas – selling pops in parks around the city. Creative flavours like Coconut Latte, Tangerine Basil, Blueberry Lemongrass, and Chocolate Sea Salt are still available via cart service, as well as from a newly opened window in Inman Park.
Queen of Cream
If sweet summertime could be distilled into one incredible bite, this might be it. Ice-cream chef Cora Cotrim keeps it simple; the only ingredients you’ll find in the base of this treat are cream, milk, and sugar. Tuck into her whimsical Old Fourth Ward parlour for ultra-fresh flavours like Blood Orange Creamsicle, Kaya Macaroon, and Gooey Maple Pecan.
Heart & Soul (Food)
Atlanta is one of the South’s culinary capitals, boasting global fare including stellar Japanese, South African, Basque, and much more. However, guests will want to explore true Southern fare here. Start at The Colonnade, an unpretentious ‘meat and three’ restaurant serving its near-famous soul food since 1927. JCT. Kitchen’s al fresco rooftop gives guests a taste of upscale Southern food and the spectacular Atlanta skyline. The chicken and dumplings are a perennial favourite here. A modern approach to traditional Southern cooking is the name of the game at Empire State South, where James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson makes local ingredients sing.
Atlantan Kristen Hard has elevated her chocolates and confections into an art form. She uses a ‘bean to bar’ method, carefully selecting and working with growers in South America before creating the dark and complex chocolate for which she is known. Pick up chocolate bars, truffles, and caramels, or stay for a cup of decadent sipping chocolate. 1046 North Highland Avenue, +1 404 892 8202
Ponce City Market
This lofty industrial building (formerly Atlanta’s City Hall East, built in 1926) is easily the city’s buzziest shopping and dining destination. The expansive food hall boasts a mix of grab-and-go and dine-in restaurants, including those by culinary all-stars Linton Hopkins, Anne Quatrano, Sean Brock, and Hector Santiago.
675 Ponce de Leon Avenue NE, +1 404 900 7900
The St. Regis Atlanta
For an elegant place to retreat from a busy day exploring, the city’s top luxury hotel is a perfect choice. It’s tucked in the well-heeled Buckhead neighbourhood, just steps away from high-end shopping at The Shops Buckhead Atlanta and elegant restaurants including Umi, King + Duke, and Atlas.
88 West Paces Ferry Road NW, +1 404 563 7900
Founded in 1889, Zoo Atlanta is now home to more than 1,300 animals from around the world. Giant pandas, African lions, western lowland gorillas, and Sumatran tigers are just some of the favourites.
Center for Puppetry Arts
See a show that will delight the kids and wander the world’s largest collection of puppets and artefacts from Jim Henson’s private collection – of The Muppets and Sesame Street fame. A recent US$14 million renovation has made the museum better than ever.
World of Coca-Cola
This fun museum is an homage to Atlanta’s – and the world’s – most prevalent soda. See the 4D theatre, pose with the polar bear mascot, and taste more than 100 Coca-Cola products from around the world.
Distance: 12,055 km
Flight Time: 14 hours, 55 minutes