Tom Otley gets a dose of American pop culture in the form of fizzy drinks, TV studios, modern art and retail therapy
Atlanta is a strange city to get a handle on, not least because the Downtown area has no obvious centre, and there are few shops you can wander around while you get your bearings. Throw in a notable lack of taxis and a public transport system designed to whisk you out of the city as quickly as possible, and it’s no wonder it takes a day or so to realise the charms of the place.
In fact Atlanta is a city of districts, most of which are only a short drive from Downtown but too far to walk to. The best advice is to rent a car, but for this tour we’ve assumed you are only in town for a short time and are walking or using the MARTA (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) rail system.
Start at Centennial Olympic Park, which is next to the giant Georgia World Congress Center and the Philips Arena, home to the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. The park is a big and fairly featureless place, so head down the slope towards the well signposted Georgia Aquarium, next to which you’ll find your second stop.
2. World of Coca-Cola
You have to try this most commercial of all Atlanta’s tours – one of the main attractions of which is sitting in a mini movie theatre and watching adverts from yesteryear. Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 in Atlanta and there are several displays with artefacts dating back to the time – although, disappointingly, I saw no evidence to back up the popular apocryphal story that the drink was originally laced with cocaine.
There are more than 1,200 items on display, including vintage bottles in every size and shape and a 1939 Coca-Cola delivery truck from Argentina. Cynicism is gradually swept away by the sheer enthusiasm of the tour, though the compulsory introductory animated film in the “Happiness Factory Theatre” is aimed squarely at the under-eights.
If you are looking for a sociopolitical analysis of this worldwide phenomenon, you are in a minority – some three million visitors have been on the tour in the past three years and most have come to watch the fully functioning bottling line that produces an 8oz individual glass receptacle of Coca-Cola for each and every guest, and get their picture taken with the Coca-Cola polar bear.
Best of all, you get to sample some (or all) of the 60 soft drink products that Coca-Cola makes for markets around the world, such as Fanta, Oasis and Sprite. The shop on the way out contains enough merchandise to make up for every trip you’ve promised to bring something home and failed. Entry is US$15. 121 Baker Street; worldofcoca-cola.com; tel +1 404 676 5151.
3. CNN studio Tour
Next up, and just down the road, is the CNN Center. CNN was the first 24-hour cable news channel and is still probably the best-known. The studio tours are well organised and give you a glimpse of both the news floor and how some of the effects are created onscreen – you can have your photograph taken reading the bulletins and there is a demonstration of how the weather is beamed on to a blue screen, which is very interesting.
It’s a highly slick tour so don’t expect much in the way of spontaneity, and security is tight – my group was followed around by a security guard to stop us straying from the route. But it’s a good way to pass an hour if you’ve spent the past 20 years watching the channel in your hotel room. Entry is US$13. Open daily 9am-5pm; tours depart every ten minutes. 1 CNN Center; edition.cnn.com/tour/atlanta; tel +1 404 8272 300.
4. High Museum of Art
Take the metro four stops from Peachtree Center to Arts Center. Founded in 1905 as the Atlanta Art Association, the High Museum of Art has more than 11,000 works in its permanent collection. The Richard Meier-designed building has a new extension by Renzo Piano and displays an astonishingly rich anthology of 19th- and 20th-century American art, significant holdings of European paintings and decorative work, a growing collection of African-American art, and plenty of contemporary work.
On show this month until June 20 is “The Allure of the Automobile”, which presents 18 of the world’s rarest and most brilliantly conceived cars ranging from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, including masterpieces by Bugatti, Duesenberg, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Ferrari. “European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century”, on from June 5 to August 29, is a critical survey of Western European decorative arts and product design from the turn of the 21st century. It includes furniture, lighting, glass, ceramics, and metalwork, ranging from familiar mass-produced objects to limited-edition luxury goods by designers such as Philippe Starck and Marc Newson, and rising talents such as Marcel Wanders and Tord Boontje.
Entry is US$18. Open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm (Thurs until 8pm; Sun from 12pm). 1,280 Peachtree Street; high.org; tel +1 404 733 4400.The gallery, plus five other attractions including Georgia Aquarium and the Inside CNN Studio Tour, can be accessed using the Atlanta City Pass for US$74. Visit atlanta.net/citypass
5. Jimmy Carter Library and Museum
Jump back on the metro to Five Points and take the 16 Noble bus for 15 minutes to your next stop. If your memories of Jimmy Carter are more to do with his post-presidential life as a peace campaigner (a role that has seen him awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), this exhibition might redress the balance, not least since it is a highly entertaining and informative journey through not only the past 100 years of Georgia’s history, but also that of the US.
The museum reopened after a US$10 million redesign in 2009 and now features the Carter Post-Presidency exhibition, including his Nobel prize, and details of some of his foundation’s work, including monitoring 76 elections worldwide.
There’s a replica of the Oval Office and lots of videos including a “Live a day in the life of the president” screening, depicting everything from the 5.30am wake-up call through to all the difficult issues Carter had to face. The memorabilia is fascinating and the 14 hectares of grounds, with sculptures, a rose garden, waterfalls and a Japanese garden, are beautiful (although overlook Downtown). 441 Freedom Parkway; jimmycarterlibrary.org; tel +1 404 865 7100. Entry is US$8. Open Mon-Sat 9am-4.45pm (Sun from 12pm).
6. Lenox Square and Phipps plaza
All that should keep you occupied but if you have any time left for shopping, these two malls (owned by the same developer) out towards Buckhead have all the stores you could possibly want from a US city in one convenient air-conditioned mall – worth bearing in mind if you are here in summer or winter.
The list of shops in Lenox Square includes Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Louis Vuitton, as well as Burberry, Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, Cartier, Kiehl’s and Ralph Lauren. Phipps Plaza, close by, has Nordstrom, Belk, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Jimmy Choo and Juicy Couture, as well as a 14-screen cinema. Visit simon.com