Want to really see Atlanta? Get out of the airport and forget what you think you know

The BeltLine near Piedmont Park, featuring the midtown Atlanta skyline.
The BeltLine near Piedmont Park, featuring the midtown Atlanta skyline.

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 Lexingtonians feel the same. I’m intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but less so with the city itself.

Oh, I’ve done the usual: the CNN tour, World of Coca-Cola, and, before they recently closed it, the ribald revelry of Underground Atlanta. Still, navigating Atlanta didn’t come naturally to me.

The atrium at World of Coca-Cola. Kevin C Rose

I decided to remedy that on a recent trip, and I 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 Beltway, a multi-use 22-mile loop around the city that, when completed in 2031, will go a long way toward making Atlanta an urban paradise (complete with parks, greenspaces 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 fall 2012, and it was greeted with excitement by Atlantans eager to experience the “city in the forest,” as it has often been called, from something other than a car window.

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

I was at one of those businesses, the Little Tart Bakeshop, to experience homemade pastries, cheeses and jams and to meet Ryan Gravel, the brains behind the Beltway. Gravel conceptualized the project as part of his graduate thesis in architecture, and he was 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 were painted in pretty pastels, a piano decorated with bizarre Daliesque images sat under one of the overpasses as if waiting for someone to sit down and play, and every few feet, there were exotic pieces, including a metal bench in the form of a ladybug and a circle of tall cedar stilts.

While we walked, Gravel explained all that the trail will mean to this side of town. I was particularly intrigued by one offshoot he described, the Silver Comet, a trail that 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.

The stairway to the Atlanta BeltLine at the Ponce City Market in the Old Fourth Ward District. Gene Phillips

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

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

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

Leon, the 1967 classic Ford Bronco, parked in front of Ponce City Market. Gene Phillips

Beyond the Beltway

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

The Krog Street Tunnel connecting Cabbagetown with Inman Park has become ground zero for the murals, and believe me, these aren’t ordinary efforts by would-be artists trying to get their message across.

A Cabbagetown mural near the Krog Street Tunnel. Gene Phillips

You might say it is a juried art show in concrete and brick. There’s an organization overseeing all the art, and potential muralists must be invited to share their work. There are pop 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 of 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 the 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.

Food and drink paradise

Atlanta’s East Side also has captured the attention of foodies, including Anthony Bourdain and James Beard judges. But if you’re thinking that 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.

The food here is called “campfire cuisine,” and you can maximize the 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.

A view of the Midtown Atlanta skyline from the BeltLine, which is planned to go around the city. Jenni Girtman

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 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 that 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