Travel Trip Atlanta Museums
Dorie Turner  /  AP
Charlotte, N.C., resident Tammy Loudermilk, right, taking a photo of Michelle Marbry standing in the fountain at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park.
updated 12/15/2009 9:15:42 AM ET 2009-12-15T14:15:42

New York City has Times Square. New Orleans is known for the French Quarter, and in San Francisco, camera-toting tourists flock to Fisherman's Wharf.

Now, city leaders in Atlanta hope to add Centennial Olympic Park — and the growing roster of museums dotting it — to the list of popular urban tourism corridors.

The downtown district, once home to rundown buildings and dark streets, was transformed in the mid-1990s into the town square for the 1996 Olympic Games. Now the 21-acre park is bordered by the world's largest aquarium, the international headquarters for CNN, the World of Coca-Cola, a children's museum and the National Museum of Patriotism.

In the next five years, three new museums will open around the park — the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the National Health Museum and the National College Football Hall of Fame (which is moving from its current location in South Bend, Ind.). And the Georgia Aquarium will premiere its $100 million dolphin wing.

Meanwhile, a private investor is considering opening a pirate museum on the park, capitalizing on a surge in the popularity of swashbuckling culture thanks to Disney's ubiquitous "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise.

"It is really spectacular," said William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Whether you're coming for college football or with kids or just with your spouse to relax, we've really got this wonderful compact set of assets at the park that really gives you a starting point."

With the museums have come other improvements to the district: restaurants like Boston's famous Legal Seafood, nearly 15,000 hotel rooms within walking distance and the disappearance of the seedy strip joints that once ruled the area.

Want to visit the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library or the King Center? How about the Wren's Nest, the historical home of Uncle Remus author Joel Chandler Harris, or the Margaret Mitchell House? All are just a short train ride from the park.

On a recent warm afternoon, Michelle Marbry, 23, and Tammy Loudermilk, 39, took photos by the Olympic ring fountain at Centennial Olympic Park. They had just arrived an hour earlier from Charlotte, N.C., for a conference in downtown Atlanta.

"It's beautiful," Loudermilk said. "There's such an advantage that you can come to one place and it's all right there."

Nearby, Amanda McGovern and her family stared at sharks and touched sting rays at the Georgia Aquarium. The family traveled the 215 miles from Hendersonville, N.C., for an overnight trip and a visit to the aquarium downtown.

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McGovern's two children — 2-year-old Destiny and 3-year-old Reagan — were looking forward to exploring one of the playgrounds at Centennial Olympic Park before the family headed back home.

"We're only in town for a day, so when we finish, we don't have to go all the way across town or get on transit," McGovern said, looking at the museums around the park.

Much of the most recent evolution started in 2001 when Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus announced he wanted to build the world's largest fish tank in Atlanta. He envisioned creating a district like Harbor Town in Baltimore, which began with the National Aquarium.

Since the aquarium opened in 2005, it has brought in nearly 11 million visitors and spurred up to $4 billion in construction downtown.

"We'll end up one day where tourism will be synonymous with the city of Atlanta," Marcus said in a recent telephone interview. "We have a lot going for us here."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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