Two weeks is all it takes to fall in love with the southern state we call home.
Wondering what to do in Atlanta? What to do in Georgia? Here are our top picks for a get-to-know-Georgia tour, whether it’s your first-ever visit, a deeper exploration of a previous vacation destination, or even your home state
By Hope S. Philbrick
My friend Hans recently traveled from Sweden to Atlanta for a visit. It was his first trip to Georgia and America’s Southeastern region, his first visit to the United States in 25 years.
Planning Hans’ visit gave me an opportunity to show off my adopted home state, really leverage what I’ve learned during the 20 years I’ve lived in and explored Georgia as a travel writer. My husband and I love Georgia, but it doesn’t seem appear near the top of many bucket lists. Here was an opportunity for me to prove to an avid traveler that the state is a great place to visit—not just once, but for multiple returns, too.
I set reasonable parameters. We’d never spend more than four hours in the car—to ensure we’d see more than a windshield view and maximize time for activities. This would mean missing some Georgia treasures, including Okefenokee Swamp, but tough decisions needed to be made: Two weeks is not enough time to see everything Georgia has to offer. We’d save on costs whenever possible. We’d need to see a cross-section of Georgia to get a real feel for it, from cities to rural areas, the mountains to the coast. We’d enjoy Southern cuisine, because duh! Serious yum! We’d keep busy yet leave time to relax, since the trip was primarily intended as a vacation.
The trip was a whopping success. Since we all thought that the itinerary tested well, I’m sharing it here in hopes that you’ll want to visit Georgia, too, and it will help simplify the planning process. Whether it’s your first visit to the state or you’ve lived here all your life, I hope you get inspired to explore Georgia.
Intro to Georgia: Two-Week Itinerary
-Arrive at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
-Enjoy personal driving service to your host’s* home. Your visit will be least expensive if you are staying with a friend.
*If your host is super cool, she’s already compiled an elaborate well-researched playlist of Georgia songs on her smartphone and will play selections from it during the drive home from the airport, starting with the state song Georgia On My Mind performed by Ray Charles. It’s the state law that you have to listen to that song at least once during your stay. Not really. But do it anyway. Also, The Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band. If you’re going to complain about the awesomeness that is the Georgia playlist, it’s legal for your host to drown you in Coca-Cola. Not really. But bless your heart.
Alternately, rent a car, ride MARTA or take a taxi to the hotel, inn, bed and breakfast, or cabin of your choice. If you don’t yet have a friend in Atlanta, of course accommodation options abound, from national brands to one-of-a-kind treasures. If your flight arrives late, you may want to stay near the airport the first night; consider Kimpton Overland Hotel.
-Hans arrived late in the evening. If he’d arrived in time for dinner, we’d have treated him to a proper Southern feast at our home. Alternately, if dining out is preferred, consider Polaris or Sun Dial Restaurant, Bar & View for impressive 360-degree views that really say “Welcome to Atlanta!” If you want to keep closer to the ground for dinner, consider White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails or South City Kitchen, or another restaurant reviewed here. Do not go to either of the twee “southern” “historic” restaurants downtown; grownups deserve much better.
-Breakfast at Waffle House, a regional icon that launched in 1955. Eating here is more about the experience than the cuisine. Stick with the waffles. If you decide to try grits for the first time while here, do not decide you hate grits; this watery instant mush is not a fair representation of what grits can be when quality stone ground product is used and skillfully prepared.
-Get acquainted with Georgia’s flora and fauna at Dauset Trails Nature Center, Atlanta Botanical Garden, Callaway Gardens, Chattahoochee Nature Center, and/or the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
-Picnic lunch or try a diner or barbecue place along your drive route.
-Optional driving tour of Buckhead, Brookhaven, College Park, Chamblee, Decatur, Marietta, Roswell, and/or other Atlanta area communities.
-Dine seated among locals at Kaleidoscope Bistro & Pub. The Kaleidoscope burger is arguably the best burger in Atlanta (so far). Also recommended: fried chicken, shrimp & grits.
-Optional evening activity: Enjoy a curated tasting of your hosts’ bourbon collection. Alternately, visit Southern Art & Bourbon Bar, The Lawrence, Holeman & Finch Public House, Staplehouse, The Sound Table, or Bar Margot for a nightcap.
-Visit Fernbank using CityPASS. The museum delves into Georgia history starting with dinosaurs. It also offers hands-on science exhibits, an urban Piedmont forest, and an IMAX theatre with the biggest movie screen in Atlanta.
-Picnic lunch or try Chick-fil-A, a Southern fast-food favorite founded in May 1946.
-Visit DeKalb Farmers Market. The 140,000-square-foot food lovers’ mecca boasts an eye-popping variety of top-quality, value-priced fresh food products as well as packaged and made-from-scratch goods. It’s my personal favorite thing about living in Atlanta. Hans says: “DeKalb Farmers Market is a sprawling, inviting feast for the eye and mind. I didn’t know it could be so much fun just wandering, looking, reading labels, selecting food to buy.”
-Enjoy dinner at home featuring Georgia Grown ingredients cooked on the Big Green Egg, a kamado grill company that’s headquartered in Atlanta. Or enjoy dinner at your pick among the restaurants at Ponce City Market, a historic mixed-use community hub focused on artisanal food, fashion, residential lofts and tech office that connects directly to Atlanta’s popular BeltLine trails. Ponce City Market is urban-cool relevant revitalization and the dining options are like a who’s who among Atlanta’s top restaurateurs.
-Optional evening entertainment: Delve into American history while watching a movie such as Lincoln on Netflix.
-Explore Downtown Atlanta using CityPASS:
- CNN Center invites visitors for a behind-the-scenes peek at how the world’s largest news organization operates.
- Georgia Aquarium ranks as the city’s top attraction and as the nation’s top aquarium. It contains more aquatic life than any other aquarium in the world.
- World of Coca-Cola celebrates the world’s best-known beverage brand, which was invented in Atlanta in 1886.
- Centennial Olympic Park was built for the Summer Olympics in 1996. It’s free to visit the 21 acres that are adjacent to the museums
“At CNN headquarters we arrived just in time for the morning’s breaking news,” says Hans. “I loved every bit of Georgia Aquarium, from the layout with the big central court to the different aquariums going in different directions. World of Coca-Cola was unforgettable, too, in a different way. They present the vault with the secret recipe as some kind of holy grail and the whole visit is to be submerged into the advertisements, slogans and the secret of the vault. The souvenir shop was almost the best part of the tour, as big as a Swedish supermarket, with every possible kitchen gadget and piece of clothing you could think of with the magic words inscribed.”
-Optional: Lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill (a restaurant co-owned by Ted Turner, founder of CNN), The Varsity (the downtown Atlanta location has stood as the world’s largest drive-in since 1928 and is the world’s top-selling single outlet for Coca-Cola!), or another restaurant of your choice.
-Dinner at home, or visit the Marietta Square followed by dinner at Chicken & The Egg, or visit Avalon in Alpharetta and enjoy dinner at Brine Seafood Shack.
-Optional evening entertainment: Enjoy a nightcap at Brick Store Pub in Decatur.
-Visit and hike Amicalola Falls State Park, which boasts an 8.5-mile hike to the official start of the Appalachian Trail. The park’s namesake waterfall tumbles 729 feet, nearly five times the height of Niagara Falls! The park offers several different hike routes (from easy to challenging) to reach the picturesque view.
-Optional: Stop to shop at Premium Outlets of Georgia in Dawsonville.
-Alternate: Visit Roswell to eat, shop, walk trails, and/or tour historic homes.
-Dinner at home or dine out to feast on more Southern cuisine at Table & Main, South Main Kitchen, Buckhead Diner, Wisteria, or JCT Kitchen.
-Optional evening entertainment: Watch a movie filmed in Georgia, such as Hidden Figures on Amazon Prime.
-Visit Covington (where hundreds of shows and movies have been filmed, including The Vampire Diaries and The Originals).
-Lunch at Mystic Grill.
“The vampire world was new to me,” says Hans. “And I was glad to straight away be introduced to the pointed wooden stakes [at the Vampire Stalkers’ corner shop], the only way to kill a vampire. I dared having lunch at Mystic Grill, which features in The Vampire Diaries. A hearty, very enjoyable lunch in a nice atmosphere, happily void of vampires during our time there. The whole town of Covington is a movie set in a way, with picturesque streets lined with lovely historic homes of different styles for a feel like the end of the 1800s. Grab a free Home Tour brochure from the Visitors Center and walk the streets to take it all in.”
-Optional add-on: Visit Madison. Maybe even go horseback riding.
-Dinner at home or dig into ethnic cuisine at Food Terminal, Havana Sandwich Shop, or Desta Ethiopian Kitchen. Or take your pick among the dozens of ethnic eateries along Buford Highway in DeKalb County or Koreatown in Gwinnett County. Several ethnic restaurant options are reviewed here.
-Optional evening entertainment: Watch an episode of The Vampire Diaries and/or The Walking Dead on Netflix, hit shows that were/are film(ed) in Georgia.
-Visit Zoo Atlanta using CityPASS.
“Zoo Atlanta is big, spread out, and perfect for a big part of a day,” says Hans. “I liked the primate section the best with all its vantage points, viewing areas and observation platforms. In a new section of the Zoo there’s a part with Georgian animals, most of them being snakes and frogs.”
Optional Alternates or Add-Ons: Visit the state capitol building, Gone With The Wind author Margaret Mitchell’s former home, Atlanta History Center, Fox Theatre, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, and/or The Wren’s Nest.
“On the way to the zoo I walked past the rambling Historic Oakland Cemetery and found Margaret Mitchell’s grave site,” says Hans. “A charming memorial is nearby: A tiny little sculpture, weathered and worn. It was “Tweets”, the mockingbird. The sculptor was asked to make a small sculpture of a mockingbird, but he didn’t know how they looked so instead made a little lamb. I kept on walking all the way downtown to take the MARTA public transport from there.” Hope warns: It’s quite a long walk from the Zoo to Downtown, so you might prefer MARTA. It’s a more reasonable walk to/from the Zoo and the King Memorial MARTA station.
-Alternate: Spend the day exploring Cartersville (home of the first Coca-Cola billboard!) or Senoia (where “The Walking Dead” is filmed).
-Enjoy dinner at home or at Gunshow, Bistro Hilary, Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails, or another Georgia Chef-driven restaurant that tempts your taste buds.
-Hike or bike Red Top Mountain State Park, just 45 minutes north of Atlanta. The park offers pretty views of Lake Allatoona, a 12,000-acre lake that’s popular for swimming, water skiing and fishing. Hans says: “It’s full of trails and quite a few steeper hills and gullies waiting to be explored.”
Kayak Sweetwater Creek State Park, the Georgia State Park that’s closest to the Atlanta metro area. The park offers two paddling trails: one in Sweetwater Creek and the other in the 215-acre George Sparks Reservoir. Bravely paddle through the tunnel: It leads to a different ecosystem with calmer water, taller grasses, and even different wildlife; you might even spot a great blue heron (we did).
-Enjoy dinner at home or at any of the restaurants suggested above that you haven’t tried yet or want to revisit.
-Drive to George L. Smith State Park for a two-night stay in a cottage (that you reserved in advance). Note that this park is located in a rural part of the state where restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Plan to bring your own food and beverages. Cottages have full kitchens.
-Time permitting, stop to tour Macon along the way.
-Enjoy lunch in Macon. Options abound!
-Explore George L. Smith State Park after checking in.
-Spend the evening relaxing in your cottage.
-Spend the day enjoying the state park, including a kayak tour with Mill Pond Kayak. Georgia offers LOTS of great kayaking opportunities, but this one is the most unique that I’ve found (so far) within four hours of Atlanta.
“It’s a wonderful little park with the 412-acre lake as the focal point,” says Hans. The lake is a big cypress swamp, created when the mill house was built and the creek was dammed. The old wooden mill house sits across the dam wall and it was a sawmill, a cotton gin and a grist mill. We stayed in a very cozy, well-appointed, newly refurbished cabin. Then we met up with Wesley Hendley of Mill Pond Kayak for a whole afternoon of kayaking the pond. We didn’t see any other kayakers and it was one of the most enjoyable nature experiences of my whole life. The cypresses with their fat, swollen root balls just above the waterline are truly wonderful. It’s an otherworldly experience. Navigating the narrow, winding ways in between all the cypresses is so much fun. It’s quiet and a haven for animals. During our kayaking we saw osprey, egret, heron, anhinga (resembling a cormorant), plus wasp nests to be wary of, and an alligator that kept an eye on us, floating along like a log with eyes.”
-Breakfast at your cottage. Check-out and depart George L. Smith State Park.
-Drive to Savannah.
-Along the route, stop for lunch at a barbecue restaurant of your choice. Hans says: “On the way to Savannah, along smaller country roads, we treated ourselves to a southern barbecue at Uncle Shug’s in Brooklet. That was part of my insight into southern cuisine and I always looked forward to the next installment in this tasty series.”
-Check into your reserved cabin for a stay at CreekFire Motor Ranch. Hans says: “While in Savannah we stayed at Creek Fire Motor Ranch, about 20 miles from downtown. It was very nice as we had a comfortable cabin with all sorts of nook and crannies, including a loft with a low ceiling where I slept. CreekFire had its own lake and it was a perfect home away from home, where I also could go for a jog and admire the new-to-me big R.V.’s and camper vans.”
-Dinner in Savannah. Options abound!
-Visit Historic Downtown Savannah. Stop by the Visitors Center on River Street to pick up free maps and brochures then wander where you want to go. If you prefer a guide and/or the chance to rest your feet, hop on and off an Old Town Trolley Tours ride. If you’d enjoy an adventurous tour, try Segway of Savannah.
Hans says: “Savannah is a true gem and you can wander its streets and squares for days on end. The historic district is one of the largest in the country and it was one of the first planned cities in America. Walking the streets, constantly arriving in new squares that all had their own personality was a good way of enjoying the city. Everywhere the buildings were different, had different styles, and each square was different. Besides the architecture, the most striking about Savannah is all the alleys and live oaks, draped in Spanish moss. All 22 squares had live oaks shading fountains, statues, gardens and paths. Some favorites were the fountain in Lafayette Square, the big Forsyth Park with its fountain, and Chippewa Square where Forrest Gump sat on a bench and waited for the bus. The old warehouses along the Savannah River stand as reminders of the days when it was one of the biggest cotton ports in the world.”
-Snack at Leopold’s Ice Cream.
-Dinner in Savannah. Options abound!
-Check out of CreekFire Motor Ranch and drive to Tybee Island.
-Kayak the marsh with Sea Kayak Georgia. It’s a completely different experience than the previous paddle! Safety first: Never kayak the Lowcountry marsh without a local guide! Hans says: “We had another whole morning of paddling, now among small islands and narrow channels nestled in the marsh grass off Tybee Island. The vegetation was wild, untamed and with a mix of cabbage palms, some low palms, cypresses and pines.”
-Squeeze as much into your last day in Atlanta as possible, being sure to include any last-minute shopping needs. We went to Costco, a camper dealership to look at R.V.s and trailers, a Vietnamese restaurant for bubble tea, Whole Foods, and more.
-Optional activity: Walk the Atlanta BeltLine.
-Optional evening entertainment: Watch a classic Southern movie such as To Kill A Mockingbird on Netflix
“One aspect of Georgia that I enjoyed was all the different foods,” says Hans. “It seems every restaurant with self respect in Georgia manages to do their fries in a different manner and it seemed an excuse for trying many of them out! During my two weeks I also visited Ethiopia (I loved the Ethiopian food at Desta, including the strange sponge style injera bread) and Cuba (Little Cuba restaurant on a cold evening, where you felt as you were in Cuba and just waited for the big steel Cadillac’s of the 1950s to stop outside) and a very decadent Sublime Doughnut breakfast. I’m glad I’d been on a decent run before that breakfast! That was probably the morning when my run had taken me to Tibet, as I went past Dharma Jewel, a Tibetan monastery; I’ve discovered that they run classes, too. Another item on my list for next visit.”
Hope says: “Visit a food writer and you can expect lots of food experiences!”
-Depart for Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a.k.a. ATL, the world’s busiest airport. Averaging more than 240,000 passengers and nearly 2,700 arrivals and departures every day, it serves as the gateway to 151 domestic and more than 80 international destinations in 52 countries. Waiting for your flight out of Atlanta is like a lingering goodbye to keep Georgia on your mind: The airport’s retail, dining and service lineup includes several region-inspired concepts that convey the look, feel and spirit of the local area. The Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal, a 40-gate expansion completed in 2012, houses over 20 vendors and services, including shopping, dining, spa and sleep accommodations.
-Begin plans for your return trip to Georgia 🙂
Hans’ visit ran Saturday through Saturday. Verify that venues are open before finalizing your itinerary details. Travel during the winter or spring seasons for minimal crowds and lower prices. By planning day trips in and around Atlanta the first week, we minimized the need for hotels. (This approach also meant that my husband worked every day that first week but was still able to us for dinner and evening entertainment; he scheduled vacation time off the second week.) Visit when school is in session for the lowest Odds of Encountering Children.
This itinerary doesn’t mention restaurant options for every meal, since we packed several picnics and snacks. If you need more restaurant ideas, search here.
BONUS: Enjoy Georgia Anywhere!
Before or after your visit, read works by Georgia writers, including A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Conner; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe; and many more. Find a list of Georgia authors here and here. Plus, you can always trust Deep South Magazine for Southern book recommendations.
Lots of movies are about and/or were filmed in Georgia. Gone With the Wind, is an obvious classic based on the book by Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell. Some more recent movies filmed in Georgia include but are not limited to Identity Thief, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Hidden Fences, Fried Green Tomatoes, Forrest Gump, Ray (about Georgia musician Ray Charles), Get On Up (about Georgia musician James Brown), The Help, 42, Founder, and Driving Miss Daisy.
Here’s a round-up of Georgia’s music history and scene exploregeorgia.org/music.
– Photo Credits: market courtesy Your DeKalb Farmers Market; Covington Square courtesy Georgia Department of Economic Development; CNN Center courtesy CNN Studio Tours; pandas courtesy Zoo Atlanta; alligator and kayakers courtesy Wesley Hendley/Mill Pond Kayak; CreekFire courtesy CreekFire; marsh kayaking courtesy Visit Savannah; Atlanta Westin/Skyview, Coca-Cola, Uncle Shug’s BBQ by Hans Egefalk; remainder © HSP Media LLC. Click on any individual image for specifics about it.
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion. Thanks to CityPASS and to CreekFire Motor Ranch for hosting.