The American South has a lot more to offer beyond grits and good weather. Atlanta rose from the ashes like a phoenix (the city's symbol) to become a cultural center for the Southeast, jam packed with shopping, scads of art, and an incredible selection of delicious eats. In five years living here as a transplant from Miami, I've been able to enjoy some of the finer parts of our fair city, and now I'm sharing them with design-minded visitors.
- High Museum of Art: Located in Midtown Atlanta amidst Peachtree Street's Art District and the Woodruff Arts Center complex, this is the museum in Atlanta, and the leading art museum in the Southeast. There are more than 11,000 works of art here, amongst them permanent pieces from Claude Monet, Dorothea Lange, and Chuck Close.
- Museum of Design Atlanta: MODA regularly features exhibitions on architecture, industrial and product design, interiors and furniture, graphics and fashion design. Past exhibits include The Evolution of Skateboard Art, Stories in Form: Chair Design, and The Art of Bathroom Design. Since it's located just across the street from the High Museum, make a day of it and see both.
- Atlanta Botanical Garden: Thirty acres of private gardens, inspired by different landscapes, such as the Japanese Garden, Upper Woodlands, and the Fuqua Orchid Center. Take a stroll 40 feet up in the air on the 600-foot long Canopy Walk through the treetops of the Storza Woods. If you fly south for the winter, don't miss the garden's holiday light show. The Botanical Garden is adjacent to Piedmont Park, a sprawling green space in the center of the city described to non-Southerners as "Atlanta's Central Park."
- World of Coca-Cola: I know, I know. The “Coke Museum,” as it's commonly known, definitely gives off tourist-trap vibes. But the truth is the World of Coca Cola does great justice to the soft drink’s role as an American and world icon. The Pop Culture Gallery features a collection of vintage advertisements for Coca-Cola throughout the years, plus both famous and fan-submitted art inspired by Coke’s iconic logo and curvy glass bottles; the current exhibit highlights Norman Rockwell paintings. And, of course, you get to taste sodas from all around the world! Tip: skip Italy’s “Beverly,” unless you want to ruin your day.
- Fairlie-Poplar Historic District: This downtown district includes a condensed group of late 19th century and early 20th century commerical and office buildings. Architecture fiends will spot local interpretations of popular national styles, including Chicago, Renaissance Revival, Neoclassical, Commercial, Art Deco, Georgian Revival and Victorian Eclectic. This walking guide from Curbed does a great job of pointing out the highlights, including the historic hotel row and the Flatiron building (yes, Atlanta has one, too).
- Atlanta BeltLine: In progress since 1999, the BeltLine is a network of public parks, green spaces, and trails in a former rail corridor that encircles the entire city. It's amongst the largest urban redevelopment projects underway in the United States. You can walk or cycle along many portions of the BeltLine now, including the 2.25 mile Eastside Trail, which follows along Piedmont Park and through cool neighborhoods of craftsman homes in Virginia Highland, Inman Park and Old Fourth Ward. Grab a bike and see the city, with commissioned public art and not-comissioned street art lining the trail along the way.
- Little Five Points: Take a self-guided stroll around this Bohemian neighborhood on the East side of town to see the most wonderful and weird food, shopping and culture Atlanta has to offer. Inspired street art covers every spare inch of concrete, and it’s always changing. Call it "L5P" or "Little Five," but don't confuse it with Five Points, a downtown neighborhood with a similar name.
- The Swan House: What was once the 1928 Renaissance-revival estate of Atlanta royalty Edward and Emily Inman is now open for tours as a historic home preserved by the Atlanta Historical Society in the northern Buckhead neighborhood. It features many of the Inmans' original 1920’s-1930’s period furnishings.
- Historic Oakland Cemetery: If morbid adventures don't frighten you, the Oakland Cemetery is worth a trip. The 48-acre green space reflects the rural "garden cemetery" movement, with Victorian style and Gothic Revival style monuments and mausolea lining the way. Oakland is the resting place of many of Atlanta's most noted citizens, including Bobby Jones, Margaret Mitchell and Maynard Jackson. The Historic Oakland Foundation offers guided tours and self-guided walking tours of the cemetery.
- Westside Provisions District: On the Westside of Atlanta, this shopping and dining district occupies the 1910 Industrial-Gothic-style White Provision Co. building and meat packing plant. Retail in the Westside Provisions District includes showrooms from Jonathan Adler, Knoll, and FLOR and chain stores like Anthropologie and Room & Board, as well as boutiques like Atlanta MADE and Switch Modern. Don't miss Star Provisions, a "culinary dream shop" with individual cheese, wine, bread and meat markets, plus shopping for food items, gifts, and cookware.
- Paris on Ponce & Pop Marche: This offbeat French-inspired market is a collection of boutiques offering up unique art, antiques and oddities. Among the wares in the 30+ boutiques are taxidermy pieces, mid-century modern furniture, locally made eyewear, industrial gears and cranks, vintage glassware, and an entire shop, Terraria, dedicated to terrarium supplies and terrarium building classes.
- Little 5 Points: Junkman’s Daughter wears the crown for Little 5 Points shopping, as long as that crown is authentically vintage and just a little weird. Junkman’s is a two-story, 10,000-square-foot alternative superstore that’s packed shoulder-to-shoulder around Halloween. Other notable shops to pop into nearby include Criminal Records for vinyl, Rag-O-Rama for vintage threads, and A Capella Books for, well, books.
- Indie Craft Experience: Consider yourself lucky if your trip to Atlanta coincides with one of the pop-up events the Indie Craft Experience group puts on several times each year (you can always count on craft markets in June and November). Independent artists, printmakers, jewelry makers and all other sorts of artisans come together to share and sell their wares.
- Antico: The best pizzeria in Atlanta is on the Westside. Bring a bottle of wine (it's BYOB), order a handmade rustic-style pizza from the counter and sit or stand wherever there's room. Antico is always crowded, with long lines at peak times, but there's usually some space to share a table or crowd inside the kitchen.
- Holeman & Finch Public House: H&F offers up hand-crafted cocktails and impressive charcuterie just north of the city, between Midtown and Buckhead. But the real star here is the burgers, when you can get them. Holeman & Finch makes 24 — and only 24 — of their simple and classic double-patty cheeseburgers (the "Best Burger in America," according to Food Network) at precisely 10 PM each Saturday night. Get there well before 9pm to guarantee burgers for a group. You can also show up for Sunday brunch, when they don't limit the burgers to just two dozen.
- The Optimist: Atlanta is nowhere near the ocean, but The Optimist serves up such great fresh fish and oysters that locals are raving about this charming new addition to the Westside. Novices can saddle up at the connected Oyster Bar for cocktails, oysters and an education. This dinner includes with a souvenir, too; every bottle or can of beer comes with a The Optimist custom koozie.
- Empire State South: If you're jonesing for Southern food in Atlanta, try Hugh Acheson's modern approach at Empire State South. The cocktails are inventive, and the menu twists up Southern staples, like pimento cheese with bacon marmalade. Breakfast at ESS is to die for, but only served Monday through Friday until 10 AM.
- Artmore Hotel: The Artmore's location can't be beat, in the heart of Midtown Atlanta and steps from the High Museum and Atlanta's rapid transit rail, MARTA. The boutique hotel's decor is hip and modern, and the lush central courtyard is the perfect place to relax and people-watch. Grab a split level loft suite for a longer stay.
- Georgian Terrace Hotel: This isn't exactly a budget stay, but if you can swing it, The Georgian Terrace is a crown jewel in Atlanta. It overlooks the Fox Theatre and many of Midtown Atlanta's best restaurants and nightlife. It's a historic relic, too, completed in 1911 in a Beaux-Arts style. Past guests and events include Clark Gable, Calvin Coolidge, Walt Disney, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the 1939 premiere gala for Gone With the Wind.
- The Ellis Hotel: The Ellis was once the Winecoff, a historic hotel that was the site of the deadliest hotel fire in history. Rest assured, it's now been totally renovated and restored into a boutique luxury hotel that retains the historic charm of its predecessor. Centrally located in Downtown Atlanta, the Ellis offers nightly wine tastings, great service, and stellar views of the city.
(Images: Centennial Olympic Park - SeanPavonePhoto/Shutterstock, MODA via Mood Museum of Design, Little Five Points - SeanPavonePhoto/Shutterstock, Westside Provisions District, Empire State South, Ellis Hotel via Wikimedia Commons)