Want to really see Atlanta? Get out of airport, forget what you know

Crowd of people watching the Whale Sharks at the viewing theater of the Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium. (Gene Phillips)

Crowd of people watching the Whale Sharks at the viewing theater of the Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium. (Gene Phillips)

ATLANTA — I’ve always joked that when I die, whether I go to Heaven or Hell, I will have to change planes in Atlanta. I suspect that many of us who live in the south feel the same. I’m intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but am less so with the city itself.

Oh, I’ve done the usual — the CNN tour, Georgia Aquarium, and before they recently closed it, the ribald revelry of Underground Atlanta. Still, navigating Atlanta was not something that came naturally to me.

I decided to remedy that on a recent trip, and chose as my base of exploration, the city’s newly revitalized East Side. Much of the area had, over the years, been given over to industrial sites, which in turn, had been abandoned. So, just what is it that has once again turned the tides of fortune for Atlanta’s East Side?

In a word — the BeltLine, a multi-use, 22-mile loop around the city, which when completed in 2031, will go a long way toward making Atlanta an urban paradise (complete with parks, green spaces and public art), or at least a metropolis as welcoming to cyclists and walkers as it is to motorists.

The two-mile East Side Trail was the first segment to open in the fall of 2012, and was greeted with overwhelming excitement by Atlantans eager to view their “City in the Forest,” as it’s often been called, from something other than a car window.

I began my own odyssey at the Krog Street Market, a renovated warehouse which had at one time been home to the studios of Tyler Perry. It’s now home to an eclectic mix of local businesses, from jewelry makers and chocolatiers to flower sellers and restaurateurs.

I was at one of those businesses, the Little Tart Bakeshop, to try their homemade pastries, cheeses and jams and to meet Ryan Gravel, the brains behind the BeltLine. Gravel conceptualized the project as part of his graduate thesis in architecture, and he would be my walking companion on a portion of the trail.

While I walked, I also gawked — at the public art lining both sides of the trail. I could have been in an outdoor art gallery: railroad overpasses painted in pretty pastels; a piano decorated with bizarre Daliesque images siting under one of the overpasses as if waiting for someone to sit down and play, and other exotic pieces, ranging from a metal bench in the form of a ladybug to a circle of tall cedar stilts.

We talked while we walked and gawked, and Gravel explained all that the trail will mean to this side of town. I was particularly intrigued by one off-shoot he described, the Silver Comet, which continues into Alabama where it connects to the Chief Ladiga Trail, that state’s first rail-trail project.

All too soon we arrived at our destination, the Ponce City Market. In the largest adaptive re-use project in the Southeast, the 2.1 million square-foot former Sears-Roebuck warehouse has been redeveloped into an epic urban market.

Ponce City Market exterior. (Handout/TNS)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

In addition to local retailers and six James Beard Award-winning restaurants (yes, I said six), the multi-level marketplace also features apartments and lofts. My favorite part of the market, however, was the rooftop Nine Mile Station, an elevated beer garden/casual restaurant with sweeping views across Atlanta from Buckhead to Downtown.

Following an outdoor picnic accompanied by a beer flight (the Founders Green Zebra — ale brewed with watermelon and sea salt was terrific), I headed over to the adjacent Skyline Park, and tested my skill at all manner of old-time carnival games.

It’s easy to see why Ponce City Market has become a rallying point for people citywide.


Beyond the BeltLine

Another neighborhood that has put the East Side on the map is Cabbagetown, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While lauded for its architecture — an eclectic collection of Victorian, Romanesque, Bungalow and Craftsman styles — it is the street art that really defines the area.

The Krog Street Tunnel that connects Cabbagetown with Inman Park has become Ground Zero for the murals, and these are not your ordinary efforts by would-be artists trying to get their message across.

You might say it is a juried art show in concrete and brick. There is an organization overseeing all the art and potential muralists must be invited to share their work. There are op art murals inspired by Andy Warhol; visionary murals inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien and Hieronymous Bosch, and amusing murals inspired by Stan Lee and his vintage comic books. An afternoon spent exploring and photographing all of them is time well spent.

More time well spent would be hopping aboard an ATL-Cruzer for an Eastside Electric Car Tour. The guided 90-minute tour showcases both the scenic vistas and historic significance not just of Atlanta’s East Side neighborhoods but of those that adjoin them, including Inman Park and the Old Fourth Ward, home to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site.


A Food and Drink Lover’s Paradise

Atlanta’s East Side has also captured the attention of foodies from Anthony Bourdain to James Beard judges. But if you’re thinking the cuisine might be too high-falutin’ for you, think again. This is Southern cooking raised to the highest level. You won’t find anything better than the fried chicken and pimento cheese fritters at Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, the first outdoor-oriented restaurant/bar to open on the BeltLine Eastside Trail.

They refer to the food here as “campfire cuisine” and you can maximize the campfire experience by grabbing one of the outdoor lawn chairs overlooking the Trail. Camping has never been more fun.

Things are a bit more formal at Kevin Rathbun Steak, recognized by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of the best steakhouses in America. By all means, have one of the six prime cuts of beef, but there are other items on the menu that should not be missed.

As an appetizer, try the Sonoma Jack Cheese-Pecan Fritters with red pepper jelly, and for dessert, you’ll have a hard time choosing between the Warm Georgia Peach Crisp and the Banana Pudding Baked Alaska.

If you like music with your dinner, head to Venkman’s in the Old Fourth Ward. Jazz, Bluegrass and rock are on the menu along with dishes such as chicken and green onion dumplings and mussels with burnt lemon and rosemary.

For funkier feasting, head to Victory Sandwich Bar (Anthony Bourdain did) for a VLT and a Bourbon Slushee, or to King of Pops, where the flavor calendar rotates monthly. The chocolate sea salt is the best seller, but if you really want to go crazy, opt for the pineapple habanero popsicle.

All too often, Atlanta is dismissed as a soulless, sprawling megalopolis – an artistic desert lacking in charm. A city of concrete canyons and a corporate mindset. After my last visit, I discovered nothing could be further from the truth……you just need to know where to look.


(Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at pnickell13@hotmail.com.)


Where to Stay: Hotel Indigo Atlanta Midtown. While not on the East Side, this boutique property is conveniently located in the city's Arts District, just across the street from the famous Fox Theater and next door to the venerable Georgian Terrace Hotel where the cast of Gone With the Wind stayed during filming.

Hotel Indigo is a melange of vibrant crayon-box colors in both the guest rooms and public areas, which are also papered with posters from Broadway shows. The bar is a hip gathering spot for guests and locals alike, and the pet-friendly property even has a resident pooch, Indie. ihg.com

FYI: atlanta.net