Frank Tozier / Alamy
As a frequent traveler, I have connected through Atlanta many more times than I have been able to visit.
However, once past the sliding glass doors of Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport, I discovered a city rich in history but with a fresh eye toward the future; a place with immeasurable Southern charm, yet not stuck in its ways.
It's as if Atlanta, when burned to the ground more than 148 years ago, vowed not only to rebuild but to reinvent itself again and again. Here are the places I recommend you see.
1. The Varsity Drive-In
Brush off your saddle shoes and penny loafers. We Americans are so busy that we regularly drive through our favorite fast-food restaurants, but we've lost the charm of the drive-in, a relic of another era, where burgers and fries were served on a tray hanging off your car window. Opened in 1928, the Varsity is a huge Atlanta icon, figuratively and literally: Its downtown location can accommodate 600 cars! And, yes, there still are carhops, some who still sing the menu. A word of caution: If Georgia Tech is playing a home game, avoid the Varsity at all costs, as 30,000 Yellow Jackets head to get their share of their beloved fast food. Luckily, there's a Varsity location in the Atlanta airport that you can hit on the way home.
2. Virginia Highland
Of course you need more stuff! Atlantans have a reputation for being shopaholics with very expensive tastes, and their shopping malls offer impressive amenities, such as valet car service to get you into Saks Fifth Avenue or Tiffany's as quickly as possible. If, however, you like your shopping experience to have a little more personality (though less air conditioning), head to the Virginia Highland area, just outside downtown. Cafes and small storefronts mingle with charming bungalow homes in several winsome and walkable neighborhoods. This is browsing at its best, and the spoils range from classic Southern goods to hodgepodge kitsch.
3. Atlanta Botanical Garden
A journey for the senses. I love orchids but can't get one to live past 6 months, so being surrounded by rare species in their own tropical playground is a must for me. The orchid center is just one of the many wonderful exhibits offered here, and those with green thumbs will love its transporting collections of plants. From a garden in Japan to a cloud forest in the Andes Mountains, the Atlanta Botanical Garden lets you enjoy flora from around the world.
4. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site
Forty-five years after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his words still move a nation, if not the world, with his message of nonviolence and social change. While in Atlanta, you can visit the civil rights leader's birth home, church and final resting place. In 2011, the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church — where King was baptized and eulogized, and where he preached — underwent an $8 million renovation, and it now looks exactly as it did in the 1960s. As you sit in a pew, taking in the light cast by the stained-glass windows and staring at the wooden pulpit, it's overwhelming to think that this small church witnessed such monumental change and played such a prominent role in American history. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site also includes the King Center, the King Birth Home, Historic Fire Station No. 6 and Dr. King's Tomb. Note that the 125-year-old Ebenezer Baptist Church, which opened a more modern building across the street from the historic church, holds two Sunday morning services. All are welcome.
5. Georgia Aquarium
You can do WHAT??? Is it possible to fall in love with something that has a flat head and a gaping mouth and weighs close to 20 tons? The highly regarded Georgia Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the world (yes, Guinness has corroborated), and its aquatic campus is home to love-at-first-sight whale sharks as well as 100,000 other fish. I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say this aquarium is reason alone to go to Atlanta, mainly because of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences it offers, such as getting in the tank and swimming with the whale sharks! Or having a hands-on encounter in an interactive tank with beluga whales.
6. Buford Highway
And now for something a bit off the beaten path. Want to eat really well without going to one of those expense account restaurants Atlanta is so known for? Buford Highway is a stretch of Georgia State Route 13 that begins at West Peachtree and Spring streets, just north of Midtown Atlanta, and continues northeast through the towns of Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville. Lined with the forgotten shops and strip malls of America's shopping past, it's a hub of excellent inexpensive food from around the world. Across America, outside big cities, these strip malls are where immigrant families are following their dream of owning a restaurant. Here on Buford Highway you will find the cuisines of Vietnam, Japan, Ecuador, Sichuan China, Korea, Bangladesh … the list is deliciously endless.
Go to the trusted atlanta.eater.com for a list of well-tested favorites.