15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Atlanta
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Atlanta, capital of Georgia, is in almost all respects the principal center of the American South. The city was originally a military outpost, becoming an early railway junction and rapidly developing into an important commercial town.
During the Civil War, it was an important Confederate stronghold and supply base but was reduced to rubble when captured by Union General William Sherman. These events became the setting for Atlanta native Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel Gone with the Wind, which won her the Pulitzer Prize.
In recent years, Atlanta has become a major economic and cultural center and an important hub of air traffic. Internationally famed businesses, including Coca-Cola and CNN, have their headquarters here.
Don't expect to find a romantic Southern city, but rather a large and vibrant American city with Southern charm and plenty of places to visit. Its tourist attractions range from the arts to sports and include historic sites, museums, and gardens. You’ll be able to plan your visit easily with this list of the top tourist attractions and things to do in Atlanta.
See also: Where to Stay in Atlanta
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
1. Visit the Georgia Aquarium
One of the top things to do in Atlanta with kids, the Georgia Aquarium features a wide variety of marine life and some very interesting and interactive activities for visitors. The world's largest aquarium, it houses more than 100,000 aquatic creatures, including the largest in the ocean - whale sharks.
You can see rare albino alligators and watch as trainers interact with California sea lions. One unique option offered by the Georgia Aquarium is the opportunity to dive or snorkel in the tank with the sharks. To participate in the dive program, visitors must have SCUBA diving certification. For those not looking to get wet, the aquarium also has an acrylic tunnel to walk through and view fish swimming on all sides.
Address: 225 Baker Street NW, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.georgiaaquarium.org/
2. Stroll through the Atlanta Botanical Garden
The Atlanta Botanical Garden offers a lovely space with a variety of well laid out gardens, including formal flower beds and majestic trees that frame the urban landscape of Midtown Atlanta. The Botanical Garden is a great place year-round, with something always in bloom.
Spring is, of course, an amazing time with a riot of colors. Some of the highlights include the Orchid Display House in the Fuqua Orchid Center, the Winter Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Conservation Garden, and the Desert House. Two of its major specialties are the Rose Garden and the hydrangeas, each of which comprise the largest collections in the southeast.
A special garden area is designed for children, and an elevated boardwalk gives visitors tree-top views down into the forest, another popular activity for families. What you will see there depends on the time of year you are visiting, although the indoor gardens are always beautiful at any time of year.
Address: 1345 Piedmont Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://atlantabg.org/
3. Tour the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site
Two blocks on Auburn Avenue are now protected as a National Historic Site. They include the birthplace of the civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. at 501 Auburn Avenue, which dates from 1895, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church at 407-413 Auburn Avenue, in which he and his father were ministers. Free tours of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home are offered by the National Park Service.
There are several other places to go in the historic site. Immediately adjoining, in the Freedom Hall Complex, is King's grave. Between his birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church is Fire Station No. 6, which played a role in the life of the neighborhood and where volunteers tell stories of life here when King was growing up. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change is also in this area.
Address: 400 & 500 blocks of Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.nps.gov/malu/index.htm
4. Center for Civil and Human Rights
Atlanta's place in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is marked by a beautifully conceived interpretation center/museum that places this epic struggle into the greater worldwide movement for human rights.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights explores the history of Jim Crow laws with actual television newscasts, speeches, photos, videos, personal accounts, and interactive experiences that bring visitors into the struggle. Portraits and stories of their work honor men and women who lost their lives in the struggle.
The Human Rights Movement gallery carries the story into the broader picture of human rights worldwide: Apartheid in South Africa, women's rights, the rights of children and others, inspiring visitors to think about the rights of humans everywhere.
Address: 100 Ivan Allen Jr Blvd NW, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: www.civilandhumanrights.org/
5. See a Movie or Performance at the Fox Theatre
The Fox Theatre was built in the 1920s as the Yaarab Temple Shrine Mosque, with an extremely posh Arabian-themed design. It has had a varied history, with problems during the Great Depression, but has always been a much-loved landmark building since its construction. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The interior of the theater has seen considerable restoration work over the years in an attempt to maintain its original elegance, including the repair and restoration of the furniture collection to preserve its 1929 appearance.
Performances at the Fox include diverse entertainment options such as operas, ballet, rock concerts, and movies, with hundreds of performances each year. In addition to the theater, two ballrooms, the Egyptian Ballroom, and the Grand Salon, have been beautifully restored and are available for special events.
Address: 660 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://foxtheatre.org/
6. World of Coca-Cola
In 1886, a chemist named Dr John Pemberton devised a syrup designed to relieve headaches. A friend of his mixed the glutinous liquid with water and carbonic acid, and the result of the mixture soon became the world's most popular soft drink.
The World of Coca-Cola illustrates the history and triumphal progress of the world-famous drink in entertaining ways that will please all ages. A new exhibit, Scent Discovery, explores the sense of smell and the origins of various fragrances, testing your sense of smell and exploring the sources of different aromas.
Address: 121 Baker Street NW, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.worldofcoca-cola.com/
7. Walk or Run through Piedmont Park
Located just a short distance northeast of downtown Atlanta, Piedmont Park is the oldest and largest park in the Atlanta metro region. The grounds were the site of the Battle at Peachtree Creek during the Civil War.
The miles of walking and running trails through its gently rolling meadows and shady groves include a four-mile loop that passes the park’s scenic highlights, natural areas, gardens, and historic sites. Or for an intense workout, join fitness fans on Piedmont Park’s Active Oval running track.
In addition to providing walking and running trails, the park has off-leash dog parks, gardens, sports fields, a lake with fishing piers, children's playgrounds, a swimming pool at the Piedmont Park Aquatic Center, and a splash pad for children at the Legacy Fountain.
Local farmers and artisans gather on Saturdays at the Green Market, where you may find everything from fresh peaches, handmade soaps, and smoked meats to biscuits, Irish pancakes, sheep cheese, and sheep milk caramel. Look for chef demonstrations every Saturday from 11am until noon.
On Saturday mornings April through November at 11am, you can learn about the park's history on a free guided walking tour, and on the first Saturday of every month, Piedmont Park Conservancy partners with the Atlanta Audubon Society for bird walks that explore the park's many different habitats. The park also hosts various events, from musical entertainment to fitness programs.
Address: 1071 Piedmont Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.piedmontpark.org/
8. Atlanta History Center
The Atlanta History Center is a large complex that comprises the Atlanta History Museum, Centennial Olympic Games Museum, Swan House, Smith Family Farm, and the Kenan Research Center, along with a number of historic gardens.
The History Museum features changing exhibitions and a permanent collection with topics such as the American Civil War, Folk Art of the South, and various other exhibits related to the history of Atlanta.
The historic houses range in age from the 1860s to the 1920s and offer a glimpse of life during these time periods. The Margaret Mitchell House contains the apartment where Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind. The guided tour includes a look at this room as well as a brief film and exhibition on Margaret Mitchell.
The six historic gardens include both natural areas and formal gardens. The Frank A. Smith Rhododendron Garden is at its best in spring, when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom. Visitors can also see an 1860s-style garden at the Tullie Smith Farm.
Address: 130 West Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/
9. High Museum of Art
Designed by architect Richard Meier and enlarged with three new buildings designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the High Museum of Art is noteworthy both for its architecture and its extraordinary collections of art from the Renaissance to the present day. It is particularly known for its works by 19th-century French masters and an extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art.
There is also a significant collection of European paintings and decorative art, and newer additions include modern and contemporary art, photography, and African art. The museum forms part of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center and hosts an annual film series featuring foreign, independent, and classic cinema.
Address: 1280 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.high.org/
10. Center for Puppetry Arts
Inviting you to rethink everything you know about puppets, the Center for Puppetry Arts is a hands-on museum with a large collection of puppets from around the world. The Global Collection Gallery traces puppetry through four continents, and through displays as diverse as Chinese hand puppets and African rod puppets, you’ll discover the five main types of puppets and learn about some of the world’s major puppetry traditions.
The Jim Henson Collection Gallery will delight Sesame Street fans of all ages, with the world’s largest collection of Jim Henson puppets, props, and costumes. Many of the puppets from Sesame Street and The Muppet Show are here, along with figures from The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and others created by Henson’s imaginative mind.
Live shows, workshops, exhibits, and events are designed for all ages, and include the New Directions Series performances, designed for teen and adult audiences. Programs for younger audiences include themes such as Stories of Color, exploring African folktales through music and puppet building.
Address: 1404 Spring Street NW, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.puppet.org/
11. Oakland Cemetery
The Historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta began as six acres in 1850. It was originally designed as a garden cemetery. Over the years, particularly during the time of the Civil War, the site grew, accommodating those killed on the battlefield. Eventually the cemetery came to encompass 88 acres. In 1884 the cemetery stopped selling plots. Eventually this once lovely cemetery fell into disrepair as those tending the plots moved away or died.
In 1976 Oakland Cemetery was declared a National Historic Landmark and the Historic Oakland Foundation was established. In combination with the city the organization has done much work to maintain the cemetery. Today it is promoted as a historic cemetery and parkland with gardens, sculptures, and wildlife. There is even a Visitor Center and Museum Shop.
Address: 248 Oakland Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.oaklandcemetery.com/
12. Fernbank Museum of Natural History
Opened in 1992, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History portrays the nature and environment of Georgia, as well as technical and scientific phenomena with the aid of modern techniques. Some of the most eye-catching exhibits at the museum are the huge dinosaur statues at the entrance and the dinosaur skeletons in the Great Hall.
Perhaps more entertaining are the interactive displays of the "Sensing Nature." There are many other interesting exhibits on the natural history of the local landscape and cultures from other parts of the world. Even the floors are attention-getting, made of limestone tiles with embedded fossils. A huge gallery is dedicated to temporary and traveling exhibits, and an IMAX theater shows nature-related films.
Address: 767 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.fernbankmuseum.org/
13. Watch the Dancing Fountains at Centennial Olympic Park
Built for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, this public park in central Atlanta is near the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca Cola. It is the venue for weekly free concerts and for seasonal events, including the Christkindl Christmas Market and the Chinese Lantern Show.
The most popular thing to do in Centennial Olympic Park is watching the dancing fountain, with its choreographed program of water spouts and colored lights set to music. Officially known as the Fountain of Rings, its design is based on the Olympic rings symbol. When it is not “performing,” the fountain becomes a splash pad for children to play in (although it’s also a popular place for joggers to cool off in the summer).
Centennial Olympic Park offers beautiful views of the Atlanta skyline, especially from the SkyView Ferris wheel, rising almost 20 stories above the park.
Address: 265 Park Avenue West NW, Atlanta, Georgia
14. Michael C. Carlos Museum
The Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University has one of the largest collections of ancient art in the Southeast, with 17,000 artifacts from ancient Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Rome, Asia, Africa, and the pre-Columbian Americas. The ancient Egypt exhibits are particularly outstanding.
In addition to these beautifully displayed and interpreted examples of pottery, gold work, and ancient art in all media, the museum also has exceptional collections of works on paper from the Renaissance to the present, opening a window into world cultures expressed through their art.
Address: 571 South Kilgo Circle NE, Atlanta, Georgia
Official site: http://www.carlos.emory.edu/
15. Play Outdoors at Stone Mountain Park
One of the most popular places to visit near Atlanta is Stone Mountain Park, 16 miles east of the city center in DeKalb County. At its center is Stone Mountain, an 863-foot-high mass of exposed granite with a circumference of five miles. On the east flank of the hill is a now-controversial relief of the three Confederate leaders, President Jefferson Davis and his two generals, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, hewn from the rock between 1923 and 1970.
But there is much more to do here. You can climb to the top of the hill or ascend by cable car, and around it runs a 1940s locomotive on a five-mile circuit through the park. There are endurance courses of suspended rope walks and bridges through the treetops, a petting farm for small children, a land/lake tour on a 1940s Army DUKW that includes some local history, a restored antebellum plantation, and a museum with Native American artifacts and exhibits.
A dinosaur park features 20 life-size prehistoric creatures that move and roar, one of the most popular things to do for families at Stone Mountain Park.
Official site: http://www.stonemountainpark.com/
Where to Stay in Atlanta for Sightseeing
For first-time visitors to Atlanta, the downtown area is the best place to stay. Many of the main sights are located here, including Coca Cola World and the Georgia Aquarium. Below is a list of highly rated hotels in convenient locations:
- The Candler Hotel Atlanta, Curio Collection by Hilton has a prime location overlooking Peachtree Street, in a landmark building that is on the National Register of Historic Places. In the conversion to a stylish modern hotel, the artistic features, including carvings and marble lobby have been preserved. Kids stay free.
- One of the top hotels in the city is the Ritz-Carlton. This is a five-star property, with live jazz in the evenings, just a short stroll from the Georgia Aquarium.
- Just a bit north of downtown, in artsy Midtown, the Loews Atlanta, in a sleek glass tower, offers commanding views of the downtown buildings and outstanding dining option
- Across the street from the Ritz Carlton is the historic Ellis Hotel, with concept floors that include some exclusively for women and Fresh Air floors where the air is purified to be allergen free.
- The Residence Inn includes breakfast and features large suites with full kitchens, refrigerators, and a sitting area.
- The Sheraton Atlanta has recently been renovated and features a beautiful outdoor pool and patio area.
- Budget hotels in the city center are difficult to find, and the best option is to stay a short distance outside the downtown area, such as La Quinta Inn, in Paces Ferry/Vinings. The relatively new property is about 10 to 15 minutes by car from downtown.
- A little farther away, in the Northlake area, the Hampton Inn features recently renovated rooms and an outdoor pool.
- The Red Roof Plus in trendy Buckhead, about 10 minutes by car from the city center, is another good option. There is a MARTA rail station nearby with service to downtown.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Atlanta
Save Time and Money:
- If you're planning a busy schedule of sightseeing, you can save time and money by purchasing an Atlanta CityPASS in advance. This pass includes free entry into prime sites such as the Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta, and the World of Coca Cola. You can visit the attractions in any order, and the pass is valid for nine days from first use, giving you maximum flexibility to plan your itinerary. Best of all, you can skip the ticket lines, so you have more time to explore.
- For a different look at the city, try the Atlanta Zombie Film Locations Tour. Fans of "Zombieland" and "The Walking Dead, will enjoy this three-hour tour, which visits related movie locations, complete with handpicked clips and insider secrets from actor guides on the air-conditioned coach. The tours include trivia prizes and a souvenir group photo, and you can choose from three different itineraries depending on your favorite characters and scenes.
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Where to Go near Atlanta: Visitors to Georgia will certainly not want to miss romantic Savannah, with its lovely parks and streets of antebellum homes. Not far north of Savanna is historic Charleston, in South Carolina, where you can also relax on the beautiful sands of Myrtle Beach.
More Places to Visit in the South: To the west of Atlanta and only about three hours by train, Birmingham is in the neighboring state of Alabama. South of Atlanta are the long sandy beaches of Florida; the theme parks of Orlando; and Tampa, with all the beaches and water attractions of the Gulf Coast.