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Friday, August 12, 2011

Atlanta in a weekend

Oh, you just read that headline and thought "No way. You can't do Atlanta in a single weekend." And you'd be right. But you can do five major tourist attractions in two days with children - although it will be a whirlwind. This plan is specifically for a weekend trip to the city's main tourist attractions, but it can always be modified for longer stays. It's good for any point of the year, but Labor Day weekend is coming soon. There's also a short break mid-fall, and the Christmas holidays to come. The cheapest and most efficient way to carry out this plan is with an Atlanta CityPass. Emerson and I used them this summer and it was fabulous!

Friday - Hello, Hotel
The last thing anyone wants to do is fight traffic for two hours before a full day of activities. I suggest you drive up to Atlanta just after work on Friday. If you're like me, you crash at your parents' house - and your mommy cooks an enormous breakfast Saturday morning, yay! But if you aren't fortunate enough to have the convenience of friends or close family with whom to bunk, I suggest grabbing a hotel on the MARTA line.

There are lots of great choices downtown: Hipster hangouts like the W Hotel and Hotel Indigo; business style hotels like the Westin and the Marriot; and super cool boutique boudoirs like Twelve Atlantic Station and Artmore. I recommend Glenn Hotel for chic city living (and their SkyLounge rooftop bar), the Hyatt for core service and location, and there's a Hampton Inn that is a good value for budget travelers.

Me. Want. Martini. Now! Hello, SkyLounge. I love you.

Regardless, if you leave Augusta by 5 p.m., you can be there by 7:30 p.m., which either puts you right smack in the middle of dinner service or - if you filled up from the drive-through - gives you just enough to time to throw down your gear and hit the pool for a couple of hours.

Check out the downtown Atlanta dining guide available here. Yes, there's a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, but that's a chain you can hit in a lot of cities. And it's not significantly different than The Chop House at the Augusta mall.

I recommend: Dua Vietnamese Noodle Soup, Thrive and - oh, wait, you have kids. Just go to Landmark Diner. It's good food, at a good price, with some panache. A little touristy, but fun.

It's like the 50s threw up in here.
Saturday - Waterlogged
Saturday is all walking. Lose the sandals, chuck the Chuck Taylors and get out your sneakers. Pack a cooler bag with snacks and drinks, or you can expect to mortgage your house to buy munchies. I usually just treat the cooler bag as my purse, except due to the prevalence of liquids and crumbs, I stick my electronics in Ziploc bags. I also pack a change of clothes for each kid (yes, in ziploc bags). You might need it - we did. Okay, so the bag is heavy to begin with, but it lightens as the day goes on.

8:30 a.m. - Start towards the Georgia Aquarium, but stop on the way at the CNN Center to get tickets for the 4:30 p.m. tour. It will only take a minute or two, and they often sell out of tickets by noon.

8:45 a.m. - You want to get to the Aquarium before it opens for several reasons. First, there is usually a line. It's the largest aquarium in the U.S., so it's quite the tourist attraction. Second, you have a bit of a hike to get there - just ask the concierge for directions. Trust me, they know. It's best if you cut through Centennial Olympic Park. It's a little confusing, but ask any City of Atlanta police officer, and they'll point the way with a friendly smile. Third, you don't want to miss feeding times. They're updated daily. Try for the seals, penguins and otters. You will find yourself squealing at the abundance of cuteness - and I mean you, Dad!

The aquarium is a huge place with lots to explore, but the highlights are: Ocean Voyager, with the famous walk-through tunnel and whale sharks; the beluga whales, penguins and touch pool in Coldwater Quest; and the touch tank in front of Georgia Explorer, with bonnethead sharks and sting rays. There's a two-story playground beside that, so expect to lose your kids for a while. Despite the Aquarium's size, children only have attention spans of so long. So let them lead you around. Likely, they'll be ready to go in a couple of hours.

Petting sharks is freaking cool. That is all.

Noonish - Take a walk back to Centennial Olympic Park. Let the kids run around like maniacs in the park and its playgrounds and have a picnic or buy some grub from Googie Burger. If it's hot, let them run through the fountains. They'll dry off quickly enough. If not, make 'em wait until after your next destination.

This does not come close to the crowds mid-summer. It was insane.

1 p.m. or so - Walk back through the park and play the free mini-golf course adjacent to the World of Coke museum. Then grab your tickets from the digital kiosk and step inside. To be honest, this was my least favorite of the tourist attractions we visited, but it was still pretty cool. You'll only kill a couple of hours, at most in here, but don't miss the 4D theater and the tasting room. I am now obsessed with locating a local source for Kinley Bitter Lemon soda - but it's not sold the U.S. Didn't the Geneva Convention outlaw torture?


4 p.m. - Back through the park up the hill to the CNN Center you go where you'll start your tour with a ride up the world's tallest freestanding escalator. It's in the Guinness Book. A quick note: They are crazeballs about security. Leave your Leatherman tool back at the hotel - and even if you have a permit for that concealed weapon, people, you're not getting it inside this tour.

Although the building is also home to Cartoon Network, the tour is about the behind-the-scenes production of news at CNN Center. Emerson and I didn't make it but about 20 minutes into our tour before I realized she just was not feeling it. Frankly, she was distracting other people enough that I thought it best to abandon ship. Six years old might be a tad young. I'd recommend no younger than 8 years old. However, she did thoroughly enjoy the gift shop. Unfortunately, my wallet did not.

From this perspective, it does not look impressive. Trust me, it is.
5:30 p.m. - You're done for the day, and probably ready for a meal. With smaller kids, after such a big day, I recommend delivery pizza and pool time. Older kids might still be raring to go, though. Your options are limitless, but consider hopping MARTA to Atlantic Station for some dinner, shopping and a movie. Or you might take the train to Lenox Mall for a similar experience. Alternately, you could try to catch a show at the Fox Theatre or a smaller local venue like the 14th Street Playhouse.

Sunday - Choices
Pack your cooler bag/purse again. You're going to need it.

On the CityPass, the three attractions from Saturday are fixed. But the last two tickets in the pack give you a choice between the High Museum of Art or Fernbank Museum of Natural History, and between Zoo Atlanta or the Atlanta History Center. The High Museum is the only attraction available directly from the MARTA train. The others require a relatively painless bus transfer. To be honest, I recommend checking out of your hotel as you leave, and driving to these attractions. They're pretty close together, but parking can be craptastic. Just depends. But you can always park at a shopping center and catch the bus again.

We chose the Zoo and Fernbank, and we drove. That was taking a chance, because I am the getting-lostested person you'll ever meet. However, since I can triangulate the position of both of these joints relative to Little Five Points (and I recently figured out how to work the GPS software on my phone [too bad I didn't do that before we went to Gatlinburg]), it didn't worry me.

9 a.m. - Arrive at the Zoo. Hopefully. I don't know what the buses do, so good luck to you on that. Because everything is outside, you want to start early. It gets hot quickly. Invest in an all-attractions armband for the kids. At $8, it's worth it for unlimited carousel rides, train rides, bounce-house time and rock climbing. And instead of going to the left with everyone else, go to the right and start at the kids' area. Hit the playground and rides first, so they don't nag you about it the entire flippin' time. Plus, you'll pretty much have the facilities all to yourselves. No lines. Emmie climbed up and rappelled down that rock wall for almost an hour straight. I tried to climb it three times... Mommy down! Massive fail! No good! Luckily, there were many benches nearby on which I could recuperate and shout encouragement to Emerson.

Harder than it looks, people. Don't laugh at me!
Now, you might think you should continue to the right - but no! Go back to your left because you want to see Meerkat Manor. And if you wait too long in the day, they'll go underground to hide from the heat. There is lots to see here, of course, including shows and other activities, but the biggest attractions for us were the pandas, the big cats and the petting zoo. I swear, if zoos were smarter, they'd skip the expensive exotic animals and just keep goats. There was no end to the entertainment! We did love to see the tigers around feeding time, though. I was really happy there was an inch of bulletproof glass between us, 'cause that cat was pissed off.

So cute!
Noonish - You're getting hungry. Have a picnic from your cooler bag in Grant Park (where some of "The Walking Dead" was filmed) - or enjoy the dining on site. We like Wild Planet Cafe because their kids meals are not a terrible deal at all, especially since Wild Planet's menu features all-natural, free-range, hormone-free chicken tenders and grilled chicken and all-natural, nitrate-free hot dogs. But, you might also be done with the Zoo, depending on your kids.

You can hop the bus back up Boulevard to Six Feet Under, or get closer to your next destination by dining in Virginia-Highland or Little Five Points. Try Noche or YEAH! Burger in Virginia Highlands; or take your chances in the ever-changing dining landscape of L5P. Do I sound bitter? That's because I am. I'm still pissed that Teaspace closed down 10 years ago, along with La Fonda Latina and Bridgetown Grill. Heck, I still miss African Brown Bag from the 1980s. Anyway, Vortex is always solid with an entertaining cast of characters, but the smoking laws make it 18+. Savage Pizza is good, but it's just pizza... Meh, stick with Va-Hi for dining. Noche has the best service - ask for Kelli.

Lobster taco, chicken empanadas, fried green tomatoes!

2 p.m.-ish - Fernbank is only open until 5 p.m. on Sundays, so this is about as late as you want to get there. Notice the giant dinosaur bronzes outside? That's your clue that the building holds a lot of awesome. It's not the American Museum of Natural History, but it's pretty great.

In the laaaaand of the looooooost!
There is lots to touch and play with in here, so even the smallest kids will enjoy it. Plus they show rockin' cool movies in their IMAX Theater! Highlights of the museum include Giants of the Mesozoic (dinosaurs are kewl), Sensing Nature and their rotations of special exhibitions. When we tried to go, it was during their extremely popular "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids exhibition." We couldn't even park. Atlanta police were directing traffic. It was crazy. But their next exhibition is on Darwin, and then they do their annual Winter Wonderland, which is always lovely.

The swamp walkthrough is just one interactive exhibit.

5-ish - You're most likely done, and ready to hit the road. If you leave now, you can be back in Augusta before 8 p.m. And you could do that by hitting the drive-through. BUT! Why are you leaving Atlanta without a little Varsity love? They'll bring it right to your car, ya know. You'll have the No. 2, add slaw, with onion rings and extra ketchup on the side. Have a Coke to drink. Don't bother with the F.O. (Frozen Orange). It tastes like... childhood memories sent through a factory, reconstituted with preservatives, packaged and mass-marketed. Like "Stand By Me," but with a happy ending where they don't see a dead body but instead all get first kisses and frickin' luck dragons. But I digress... Point is, I guess, that I am the only native Atlantan who does not like the Frozen Orange. Sorry, Varsity. I still love you.

If you don't feel like heading back towards downtown, you could put some asphalt behind you and stop for a bite just outside of the city. Since you'll be coming back down Moreland Ave. to hit I-20, you could stop in L5P for dinner. I scoff at your efforts to park, though.

Another choice is to head to the area surrounding Stonecrest Mall off Turner Hill Road in Lithonia (about 20 minutes from the Moreland Drive entrance onto I-20). They have Gladys Knight's Chicken & Waffles! The other is to hoof it double-time to Social Circle and catch the Blue Willow Inn's famous Sunday dinners (about 40 minutes from the Moreland Avenue  entrance onto I-20). You know you want some fried green tomatoes!

Want even more asphalt? Stop just off the interstate in Greensboro, Ga., for some fast food. Take ya 60-90 minutes, depending on traffic.

9-ish - You're back in Augusta. Unpack your toiletries, leave the rest for tomorrow. Hope you had fun!

Now sleep. You have earned it.


  1. Hi Stacey! Great post! If you want to share your Atlanta story and photos, CityPASS has a new travel community called City Traveler. Other travelers are always interested in what other people experienced. You could win an IPad...

    Thanks! :)