DesignDowntown Atlanta

A Local’s Guide to Downtown Atlanta

By April 11, 2016 No Comments
Peachtree Street Atlanta

Photo credit: David Liu/E+ collection/Getty Images


Intown Atlanta — what locals call the architecturally and historically rich neighborhoods closest to downtown — has long been in a process of revival. But with the real estate market booming back from the Great Recession and development accelerated, it seems nearly weekly now there’s word of some once neglected street corner being splashed with a buzzy restaurant, bustling food market or newly paved section of the city’s most beloved work in progress, the Atlanta Beltline.

Downtown is as much a part of this exciting resurgence as any other intown ‘hood, with spruced up parks (like the once depressed Woodruff, where people now play chess); new bike lanes; revived historic gems (e.g., the gorgeous 120-year-old Flatiron, which is being refurbished as collaborative office space for startups); and even a sleek new cultural center, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. And new restaurants are at the ready: the coming speakeasy Red Phone Booth and Neapolitan pizzeria Amalfi are set to open alongside the recently opened JP Atlanta at Hotel Indigo Atlanta Downtown, designed by acclaimed Atlanta architect John C. Portman, Jr.

All of this is to say that downtown Atlanta is on the rise. Here’s how to tap into that fresh energy:

Take in the Portman architecture. In the 1960s, Portman’s skyscraper designs (and the skywalks that connected them) were so revolutionary they put him and Atlanta’s skyline on the map. Today these mid-century icons (AmericasMart and Peachtree Center), which feature awe-inspiring, many-story atria, windowed elevators and vast skylights, are in a much-deserved process of revival, further revving up the downtown energy.

Portman, now in his 90s, designed the recently opened Hotel Indigo Atlanta Downtown, which occupies the 230 Peachtree office tower that he first designed in the 1960s. This proximity to the Peachtree Center MARTA subway station makes getting around the neighborhood — or to Hotel Indigo Atlanta Midtown one mile north — incredibly easy.

The property gleams with Portman’s signature contemporary flair — there’s a glass and steel spiral staircase in the lobby and an abstract sculpture with a water feature affronting the street. How to take in the latest in Portman architectural artistry? Have dinner at the sleek onsite restaurant, JP Atlanta. It’s meant to echo his former 1960s spot, The Midnight Sun, in style and sophistication, with mid-century-inspired touches plus dramatic contemporary art.

Visit Sweet Auburn. Civil Rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born just east of downtown Atlanta on Auburn Avenue, where he eventually became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Both his home and the church, in addition to the The King Center, are open for tours — a perfect complement to a visit to Atlanta’s new Center for Civil and Human Rights. But that’s not all there is to love in the Sweet Auburn vicinity.

For a long time, with the exception of the King house and The King Center, Sweet Auburn felt neglected, and in the last couple of decades has twice made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered historic places. In the early 2000s, however, efforts were begun to renovate the homes surrounding King’s, and in recent years, a crop of eclectic restaurants, vibrant street art and a refreshed Sweet Auburn Curb Market have made Sweet Auburn feel, well, sweeter.

So while you’re in the area touring the King legacy, pop into the Curb Market for an arepa at Arepa Mia or smoked wings at Sweet Auburn Barbecue. In fact, try any one of these culinary gems in the Sweet Auburn vicinity: Thumbs Up Diner (breakfast); Nino’s (pasta); Spice to Table (Indian with Southern flair; try the fried chicken!); BoccaLupo (pasta); Ammazza (pizza); and Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium (cocktails, irreverent folk art, table tennis).

Get on the Beltline. You’ve probably heard that Atlanta traffic is horrible, and it’s true. Perhaps that’s why the Atlanta Beltline, a rails-to-trails pedestrian path planned to encircle downtown, has been such a hit with locals, who ditch their cars to walk, jog, cycle and people-watch along the trail each weekend.

Though much of the Beltline hasn’t yet been completed, the parts that are — particularly the Eastside stretch that picks up near Auburn Avenue, off Irwin Street — are crawling with pedestrians. So if you want to experience Atlanta like a local, rent a bike, or walk the trail from the new Krog Street Market to the new Ponce City Market (both excellent sites for shopping and dining), through Inman Park and Old Fourth Ward, making sure to note the Beltline art, watch the skaters at the skatepark and lust after the quaint Queen Anne Victorian and Craftsman style homes along the way. Where to eat/drink along the Eastside Trail: Beetlecat (seafood); Bread & Butterfly (European-inspired); Parish (Southern-inspired); Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall (campfire-inspired); and Sotto Sotto (Italian).

See the Georgia Aquarium, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the World of Coca-Cola. Yes, these are tourist attractions, but they’re at the epicenter of downtown and worth the hype. Some highlights from each: Walk through a long glass tunnel beneath a seemingly vast body of water teeming with colorful schools of fish, rays and sharks; experience what it sounded like to be a civil rights protester by putting on headphones and listening to hurled insults; and taste the many iterations of Coca-Cola sold around the world. Where to eat/drink in the vicinity: Alma Cocina (upscale Mexican); Ray’s in the City (steak and seafood); and White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails (contemporary Southern). Or visit pedestrian-friendly Broad Street by the Flatiron, grab some takeout (we suggest Rosa’s Pizza), and have a picnic lunch at Woodruff Park — perhaps the best way to experience the new energy of the new downtown.