Tami Chappell  /  Reuters file
Danny Glosson holds son Colby who gets a close look at African Penguins during an early tour of the new Georgia Aquarium, billed as the world's largest aquarium. The aquarium holds 8 million gallons of water with 100,000 fish.
updated 5/30/2006 12:34:03 PM ET 2006-05-30T16:34:03

"How do I get to Tara?"

"Where are Scarlett and Rhett buried?"

"Why do you put sugar in iced tea but not on grits?"

"Just what is a grit anyway?"

Some visitors come to Atlanta looking for Old South stereotypes -- white-columned mansions surrounded by magnolias, owned by slow-moving folks with accents as thick as molasses. What they find is a lot more cosmopolitan and a heck of a lot more interesting.

When Gen. William Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground in 1864, the city rose from those smoldering bitter ashes and hasn't looked back since. Instead, it has spent the last 140 years or so building what's been described as the Capital of the New South and the Next Great International City. Atlanta's heritage may be Southern, but the current dynamic is brashly Sunbelt, and now it's straight-up economic vitality that drives this city's engines.

Atlanta is and always has been a city on the move. Longtime mayor William B. Hartsfield called it the city "too busy to hate," and the spirit of Atlanta is one of working together to get the job done. The dramatic downtown skyline, with its gleaming skyscrapers, is testimony to Atlanta's inability to sit still -- even for a minute. And its role as host for the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996 finally convinced the rest of the world that Atlanta is a force to be reckoned with -- and a great place to visit. Recent projects have only reinforced that notion. These new ventures include the $214 million, 70,500-seat Georgia Dome, which hosted the Super Bowl in 2000 and will host basketball's Final Four again in 2007, the five-million-gallon Georgia Aquarium nearing completion in 2005, and the new World of Coca-Cola coming in 2006.

Consistently ranked one of the best cities in the world in which to do business, Atlanta is headquarters for hundreds of corporations, including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, UPS, Holiday Inn, Georgia-Pacific, The Home Depot, BellSouth, and Cox Enterprises, and has become a magnet for many Internet-related companies. A major convention city and a crossroads where three interstate highways converge, it's home to the country's busiest airport. And all those convention-goers certainly find many places to spend money -- Atlanta is considered the shopping capital of the Southeast. Although the city limits are only 131 square miles, the metro area is vast and sprawling. With a population of 4.1 million and still counting, there seems to be no limit to its growth.

But commerce and development are not the only things that characterize this bustling metropolis. Its success is due in no small part to its quality of life, which is hard to beat. Atlanta is often called the City of Trees, and the streets are indeed filled with dogwoods and azaleas. The city has a small-town quality to it, with dozens of neighborhoods and parks. A temperate climate makes Atlanta a magnet for anyone who enjoys the outdoors, and the city's Southern roots ensure graciousness and hospitality. As Atlanta has grown in stature, it has attracted residents from across the continent and around the world, further enriching the city's social fabric. You'll still hear gentle Southern accents here, but at least half of Atlanta's citizens were born outside the South. Interestingly, many of these transplants find themselves bending to the local customs, saying "please" and "ma'am" and holding doors open for each other.

When H. L. Mencken came south earlier in the century, he branded Atlanta a cultural wasteland. He should visit now. Media mogul Ted Turner inaugurated CNN here in 1980, and subsequently launched Superstation TBS, Headline News, and TNT. Also in 1980, the revitalized black neighborhood of Sweet Auburn became a National Historic District, with 10 blocks of notable sites including Martin Luther King, Jr.'s boyhood home, his crypt, the church where he preached, a museum, and the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change. It is probably the major black historical attraction in the country, and in the last several years it has undergone a major revitalization and restoration.

The city is home to major art, science, nature, and archaeology museums; a vibrant theater community; an outstanding symphony; a well-regarded ballet company; opera; blues; jazz; Broadway musicals; a presidential library; Confederate and African-American heritage sites; and dozens of art galleries. Add to those leisure options such attractions as Georgia's Stone Mountain Park, a regional theme park, a botanical garden, and major league sports teams, and you have the makings of a lively and sophisticated city. The culinary spectrum here ranges from grits and biscuits to caviar and sushi. Sure, you can still feast on fried chicken and barbecue, but Atlanta also serves up cuisine from across the globe.

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Of great significance is the recent development downtown. For years, city leaders have tried to encourage central city living, and it's finally beginning to take hold as developers remake old buildings into attractive apartments and lofts. The mark of a great city is an attractive and vital downtown area where people live as well as work, and Atlanta finally appears to be headed in that direction.

Atlanta now has Shirley Franklin, the first African-American female elected as mayor of this busy city. Her vision for this heart of the New South is expansive, and she's not too shy to tell you all about it. So if it's hoop skirts and plantations you've got your heart set on, go on down to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Gone With the Wind. But if you want to visit a vibrant, energetic city that's rich in heritage, culture, entertainment, and commerce, Atlanta runs right up there with the big dogs.

WHAT NOT TO MISS WHILE IN ATLANTA

Stepping Back in Time at the Atlanta History Center. A re-created farm (with original buildings from the 1840s) shows how rural Southern folks really lived before the Civil War, and the recently restored 1928 Swan House, an estate on the property, gives a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle enjoyed by upper-crust Atlantans in the early 20th century. Kids will love the hands-on discovery areas at the history museum. Explore the walking trails after you take in the exhibits. A great look at the rich tapestry of Atlanta's past and present.

Exploring The King Center. It's an inspiring experience to visit this living memorial to a true American hero, where you'll see lots of King memorabilia and a film on his life and works. Especially moving is Freedom Plaza, where Dr. King is buried. The tomb is inscribed with his words: "Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty I'm Free at Last."

Touring the CNN Studios. The network that started around-the-clock television news lets you take a peek behind the scenes to see how it's all done.

Spending a Day at the Ballpark. Pack up the kids and take them out to the old ball game. Even if there isn't a Braves game scheduled, you can take a tour of Turner Field, which was completed in 1996 and served as the Olympic Stadium for the Centennial Olympic Games before it was converted to a baseball park.

Trekking Through Virginia-Highland. Atlanta's version of New York's SoHo, this trendy neighborhood is full of coffee bars, galleries, cafes, and funky little shops. It all makes for a pleasant stroll on a sunny afternoon.

Frolicking in the Fountain. The biggest attraction at Centennial Olympic Park is the Fountain of Rings, where young and old can get delightfully soaked on warm days. The fountain is a simple but ingenious design on the plaza floor, consisting of 251 water jets in the shape of the 5 Olympic rings. Take a deep breath and zip in and around the 12-foot water bursts, or just sit and watch the timed light- and sound-effects show, when the water bursts 35 feet into the air.

Hanging Out at the Zoo. Ever since the giant pandas, Yang Yang and Lun Lun, arrived at Zoo Atlanta, this has been one of the hottest tickets in town. You don't have to be a kid to be fascinated by the adorable duo.

Shopping at Lenox Square. One of the most popular malls in the Southeast, Lenox Square is a mecca for upscale shoppers. It's hard to visit every store, even if you spend the whole day, but many visitors think it's a worthy goal. You'll find good restaurants and great people-watching, too.

Getting a Breath of Fresh Air in Piedmont Park. Atlanta's favorite public park is fun and funky and a terrific place to watch the world go by. Take your in-line skates or pack a lunch and find a shady spot for a picnic.

Bargain-Hunting at the Lakewood Antiques Market. Crammed with everything from precious antiques to objets-de-junque, this huge once-a-month flea market is not to be missed if you're lucky enough to be in town on the right weekend.

Taking in a Chastain Park Amphitheatre Concert. Big-name entertainers perform under the stars, and everyone brings elaborate picnic fare (some people even bring tablecloths and candelabrums for the picnic table). Even the entertainers seem dazzled by the setting.

Spending the Morning at the Market. Atlanta is home to two gigantic indoor farmers markets, both jammed with locals who are shopping in earnest and visitors who are having a hard time keeping their eyes from bugging out. Choose from the DeKalb Farmers Market, which has an international flavor, and Harry's, which is a little more upscale. Each has loads of gourmet goodies you can take home or consume on the spot.

Strolling Around Oakland Cemetery. This 88-acre cemetery is a peaceful place, and its Victorian graves are of aesthetic, historic, and symbolic interest. The guided tour is recommended. Bring a picnic lunch.

Discovering the Fox Theatre. This Moorish-Egyptian palace exemplifies the glamorous movie-theater architecture of the 1920s, complete with onion domes, minarets, and a twinkling starlit sky over the auditorium.

Touring the World of Coca-Cola. Atlanta is Coke's hometown, so it's only fitting that there's a museum dedicated to the world's most renowned beverage. There's a replica of a 1930s soda fountain, a gigantic collection of memorabilia, interactive exhibits, and Club Coca-Cola, where you can sample all the beverages Coke has to offer, including many not marketed in the United States. Now located near Underground, a new 75,000-square-foot facility is slated to open in downtown in late 2006.

Relaxing in Georgia's Stone Mountain Park. Take a hike to the top of the big granite rock or spend a leisurely day taking in the diverse attractions, from a paddlewheel cruise to a living museum of Southern history. You can also choose from an array of activities -- golf, tennis, swimming, hiking, boating, and more.

Time-Traveling at Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Check out the 45-foot-long model of a Giganotosaurus, then travel back 15 billion years and experience the "Big Bang" that jump-started the formation of the universe. IMAX films are shown here, too. The museum's stunning architecture is notable.

Aquarium to Make Huge Splash -- With downtown revitalization at the top of the list for Atlanta leaders and developers, the proposal for a Georgia Aquarium was a big hit with Atlantans when announced in 2001. As the late 2005 opening nears, excitement is building about what is to be one of the largest aquariums in the world, featuring more than 55,000 animals from 500 species. Located on 9 acres next to Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium will be connected by a plaza to the soon-to-be-relocated World of Coca-Cola, opening in late 2006.

These two projects, along with Imagine It! Children's Museum, the CNN Center, Philips Arena, and the Tabernacle -- the latter two being popular entertainment venues -- should be a much-needed shot in the arm for the downtown residential and commercial markets. These developments will no doubt make the downtown area the place to be in this city, for visitors, residents, and convention-goers.

For more on what to see and do in Atlanta, visit our complete guide online at www.frommers.com/destinations/atlanta.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

Photos: Hot town rising

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  1. Capital of the South

    Atlanta was chosen as the state capital in 1868 and served as the headquarters of the Reconstruction administration. (Joseph Sohm / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Atlanta-ic ocean

    A whale shark swims in the Ocean Quest exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest. (Barry Williams / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Until justice rolls down like waters'

    The tomb of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., is reflected in the pool surrounding it. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site -- which includes King's birthplace, grave and the Ebenezer Baptist Church -- draws visitors from around the world. (John Bazemore / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. CNN city

    Pedestrians enter CNN Center, headquarters of the cable-news network. (Ric Feld / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Horse with no name

    A visitor looks at Deborah Butterfield's piece "untitled" in the High Museum of Art. (Ric Feld / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sweet Georgia brown

    Visitors enter the "World of Coca-Cola," a museum dedicated to the ubiquitous beverage. (Ric Feld / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Home of the Braves

    The Atlanta Braves take the field against the New York Mets. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Eats shoots and stays

    Yang Yang, a male giant panda, munches on a piece of bamboo in his habitat at Zoo Atlanta. (Ric Feld / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. It rose again

    Atlanta at dusk. (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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