With an energetic metropolitan population of more than five million people, Atlanta is one of the most dynamic communities in the country. State capital of Georgia, and world headquarters of that flagship of American culture, Coca-Cola, it’s the financial and cultural heart of the “New South.” Despite the city’s sprawling scale, its people are gracious and welcoming, so much that they could seem like walking parodies of Southern hospitality—if they weren’t so darn sincere.

Atlanta began as a railroad junction (its original name was simply “Terminus”). That early streetscape has been preserved and restored in Underground Atlanta (404/523-2311), a warren of shop fronts underneath the center of the modern city. Abandoned in the 1920s, the buildings were restored in the 1980s as a shopping and entertainment district. On the northwest edge of downtown, building on the efforts of the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta has developed Centennial Park as its new center, with the Georgia Aquarium (404/581-4000, daily, around $40), the western hemisphere’s largest aquarium, alongside a showcase for the city’s most successful product, World of Coca Cola (800/676-COKE—800/676-2653 or 404/676-5151, daily, $17), recently joined by the ambitious Center for Civil and Human Rights (678/999-8990, daily, around $19). The surrounding area holds the world headquarters of another Atlanta product, CNN, along with the Georgia World Congress convention center, the Georgia Dome sports arena, and Georgia Tech university.

On the northwest side of downtown, the powerhouse Atlanta Braves (tickets 800/745-3000) play at the new SunTrust Park.

Across the wide I-75 freeway, a half mile east of downtown, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site (450 Auburn Ave. NE, 404/331-5190, daily, free) sits at the heart of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. The four-block area holds many important landmarks in the life of Dr. King: his birthplace (501 Auburn Ave.); the restored Ebenezer Baptist Church (407 Auburn Ave. NE), where he, his father, and his grandfather all served as pastors; and his tomb, emblazoned with the words “Free at Last, Free at Last,” sitting on the grounds of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (called the King Center, 449 Auburn Ave. NE).

Atlanta’s main museum district is six miles north of downtown, in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood, where the Atlanta History Center (130 W. Paces Ferry Rd. NW, 404/814-4000, daily, $16.50) is a don’t-miss introduction to the city, the state, and the South in general.

Practicalities

Atlanta’s airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the busiest in the country, is a dozen miles south of downtown, at the junction of the I-85 and I-285 freeways. The usual rental cars, taxis, and shuttle vans are supplemented by the extensive network of Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) trains. The I-75/I-85 freeways cut through the center of the city, while the I-20 freeway skirts its southern edge. Sliced by freeways and spreading in a low-level ooze of mini-malls, housing tracts, and traffic jams, Atlanta’s outlying areas are impossible to make sense of, but the downtown area is compact and manageable. Seemingly every other thoroughfare includes the word “Peachtree” in its name, so check twice before getting completely lost.

Midtown Atlanta has a couple of nice places to stay, including the Hotel Indigo (683 Peachtree St. NE, 404/874-9200, $109 and up), a historic 1920s building upgraded to boutique status by the InterContinental chain, in a handy location across from the landmark Fox Theatre. The adjacent Georgian Terrace (659 Peachtree St. NE, 404/897-1991 or 800/651-2316, $159 and up) is spacious and full of character.

East of Midtown and about two miles northeast of downtown, the lively Virginia-Highland district has Atlanta’s best restaurants, cafés, and bars. Atlanta landmark Mary Mac’s Tea Room (224 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, 404/876-1800) has served traditional Southern food (fried chicken, peach cobbler, and sweet tea) since 1945. A large, lively (and just a little bit seedy) 1930s-style café, the Majestic Diner (1031 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404/875-0276) is open daily 24 hours for great waffles, burgers, and endless cups of java. In between these two landmarks, check out the Ponce City Market (675 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE) food hall and amusement center, or take a stroll along the adjacent BeltLine, an evolving pedestrian and cyling path that forms a 22-mile loop around the heart of the city.

The Varsity (61 North Ave. NW, 404/881-1706), near Georgia Tech alongside I-75, is the world’s largest drive-in, serving up good junk food: chili dogs, onion rings, and more Coca-Cola than anywhere else on this earth. Farther north, within a mile of each other off I-85, are two more Atlanta landmarks: Carnivores and blues fans flock to Fat Matt’s Rib Shack (1811 Piedmont Ave. NE, 404/607-1622), while The Colonnade Restaurant (1879 Cheshire Bridge Rd., 404/874-5642) has been serving Southern food since 1962 (at the current location, at least—the original location opened in 1927).

After dark, enjoy an alfresco movie at the Starlight Drive-In (2000 Moreland Ave. SE, 404/627-5786, $9, $1 under age 10), four miles southeast of downtown. Double features are shown every night, rain or shine, with the first movie starting around 7:30pm.

The usual barrage of tourist information can be had from the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau (233 Peachtree St. NE, Suite 1400, 800/285-2682 or 404/521-6600).