The home of the world’s busiest airport is also the heart of the civil rights movement — and much more, says Harriet O’Brien
Why go now?
The state capital of Georgia — the city of Gone With The Wind and headquarters of Coca-Cola, CNN and many other US institutions — has much to offer. It was the hub of Martin Luther King Jnr's civil rights campaigning, and more recently has become a city of gleaming skyscrapers and commercial bustle. It also exudes vitality: visit now to take in the southern sunshine and convivial welcome, and catch two major art shows at the city's stunning High Museum of Art on Leonardo da Vinci and the architect John Portman.
Fly non-stop from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester on the world's biggest airline, Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com), or on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow. Atlanta airport is the busiest in the world (averaging 250,000 passengers per day) and has a strict security policy of screening all incoming passengers from international flights. So, after proceeding through immigration and customs, you and your hold luggage will be separately checked, regardless of the amount of security at your point of boarding. This inevitably adds to the time it takes to get through this huge complex.
Downtown Atlanta is 10 miles north of the airport. The cheapest and fastest way in (and to Midtown and Buckhead farther north) is the subway, known locally as Marta (001 404 848 5000; itsmarta.com). A single journey costs a flat $2 (£1.30). Taxis cost about $30 (£20) to the Downtown area.
Get your bearings
Atlanta is a big, booming city; its ever-expanding size is a reflection of its vibrancy. The large city centre is contained within the I-285 ring road, with the tall towers of the Downtown area at its heart.
Midtown, just north of this commercial district, was once down-at-heel but has reshaped itself as a lively arts area. East of this neighbourhood, the residential district of Virginia Highland has a bohemian spirit and offers offbeat shopping and cafes. North of Midtown, the Buckhead district is the latest area of spectacular urban renewal, with tall buildings completed almost daily. Happily, for such an enormous city the major sights are for the most part readily accessible via the Marta subway.
The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, located in the Downtown district at 65 Upper Alabama Street, is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11am to 6pm, and on Sundays from noon to 4pm (001 404 521 6600; atlanta.net).
The Residence Inn Atlanta Downtown at 134 Peach-tree Street (001 404 522 0950; marriott.com) offers no-nonsense good value, with 160 generously sized rooms and kitchen facilities. Doubles from $129 (£86), including breakfast.
Those seeking respite from big, contemporary buildings could opt for The Shellmont Inn in Midtown at 821 Piedmont Avenue (001 404 872 9290; shellmont.com). This gem of an early-1890s townhouse is now a boutique hotel furnished with antiques. It offers accommodation in five bedrooms and a romantic one-bedroom cottage in the garden. Doubles cost from $175 (£117), with breakfast.
The Buckhead district offers the finest hotels. The Intercontinental Buckhead at 3315 Peachtree Road (001 404 946 9000; intercontinental.com) is one of the more luxurious, with 442 stylish rooms and facilities including spa and pool. Room-only doubles start at $179 (£119).
Two of the city's best malls are within walking distance of Buckhead subway. Lenox Square (10am-9pm daily; Sunday to 6pm) features the likes of Banana Republic and Lacoste. Phipps Plaza next to it (10am-9pm; Sundays noon-5.30pm) is smaller and more upmarket, with Versace, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
For a different outlook take Marta to Midtown stationand board bus 45 to Virginia Highland. You'll find a string of quirky shops and cafes along North Highland Avenue, including designer knitting shop Knitch at number 1044, and fashion boutique Mitzi & Romanos at number 1038.
Lunch on the run
Head back towards Midtown along 10th Street to Flying Biscuit on the corner with Piedmont Avenue (001 404 874 8887; flyingbiscuit.com). This cheerful little cafe has an epicurean all-day breakfast menu — try the Southern Scramble at $7.99 (£5.60) for three scrambled eggs served with bacon, onions, cheese and spicy greens.
A walk in the park
Piedmont Park (open 6am-11pm) stretches north from 10th Street. Locals refer to this green and pleasant space as the Central Park of Atlanta — indeed, it was designed by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of the Manhattan park. It's a great place for people-watching and offers magnificent views. The park is also home to Atlanta's fabulous Botanical Garden, which is on the northwest edge (001 404 876 5859; atlantabotancialgarden.org; open 9am-5pm daily except Monday; $15/£10).
The city's finest sight, both in terms of its architecture and its contents, is the glorious complex of dazzling white buildings known as the High Museum of Art at 1280 Peachtree Street (001 404 733 4400; high.org). The original light-filled section was designed by Richard Meier in the early 1980s and won numerous plaudits. In 2005, a major expansion by Renzo Piano was completed, the new pavilions blending beautifully with Meier's earlier work. The permanent collection traces the story of America's development through its art, from the 18th century to the present day. A large part of the complex is devoted to changing exhibitions: currently a major show of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings (until February 21), and a large display on the works of the Atlanta-based architect and artist John Portman (until April 18).
The museum is just steps from Arts Center station . It opens 10am-5pm, daily except Monday; Thursday until 8pm; Sunday from noon, admission $18 (£12).
To sample Atlanta's vibrant bar scene make for Crescent Avenue in Midtown; Front Page News at No 1104 (001 404 897 3500; frontpageatlanta.com) has live music that generally starts at about 9pm at weekends and on Wednesdays.
Dine with the locals
The hip and happening Flip Burger Boutique is slightly off the beaten track at 1587 Howell Mill Road (001 404 352 3547; flipburgerboutique.com) yet Atlanta's residents crowd in here every night. It opened just over a year ago and is, essentially, a designer burger joint concocting everything from crab burgers at $14 (£9.50) to more conventional ‘butcher's cut’ offerings at $7.50 (£5), along with creative milkshakes of liquidised pumpkin pie ($6/£4).
Sunday morning:go to church
Devote the morning to the poignant Sweet Auburn area. The name was coined by early activist John Wesley Dobbs (1882-1961) to evoke the rich African-American culture and spirit here. Catch Marta eastbound to King Memorial, cross to William Holmes Borders Drive and head north, looking west for great views of Atlanta's Downtown towers. Turn right by Liberty Baptist Church and then left down Jackson Street. Cross Edgewood Avenue and continue past the National Divine Spiritual Church to Auburn Avenue. Immediately in front of you is Ebenezer Baptist Church. Complete with soaring roof, it was built in 1999 and welcomes visitors to its Sunday services at 7.45am and 11am. You may not be in the very building where Martin Luther King Jnr preached, but you'll be absorbing the vibrant spirit of his home territory.
Take a hike
Explore the landmarks of the civil rights movement. Opposite as you leave the church is the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King served as co-pastor with his father in the 1960s (not currently open to the public). This area is now officially the Martin Luther King National Park (001 404 331 5190; nps.gov/malu). Just east down Auburn Avenue is the absorbing Visitor Center; open daily 9am-5pm; free. It offers a well-devised overview of King's life and his non-violent strategies.
King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. His tomb is across Auburn Avenue from the Visitor Center.
You can sign up at the Visitor Center for a free 30-minute tour of King’s family home, just down the road at 501 Auburn Avenue. Turn left down Hogue Street, and left again at Irwin Street. Follow Jackson Street back to Auburn Avenue. Turn right and walk towards Downtown passing the handsome Wheat Street Baptist Church, built in the 1920s, and the dramatic, grey stone Big Bethel African Methodist Church dating from the 1890s. The Apex Museum of Black History is at No 135, just beyond Piedmont Avenue (001 404 523 2739; apexmuseum.org); it opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday; Sun 1-5pm; $4 (£2.70).
Head a block south to Auburn Avenue. Any day apart from Sunday, you can visit the Auburn Curb Market at 209 Edgewood Avenue (001 404 659 1665; sweetauburncurbmarket.com; 8am-6pm). Set in a large 1823 market hall, this wonderful Atlanta institution offers delis and cafes such as Tilapia Express, where you tuck into fried whiting and French fries for $5.99 (£4).
Return to Downtown along Edgewood Avenue, passing Woodruff Park, where chess players congregate (you can borrow a set from the Park's reading room). Turn left along Peachtree Street to Five Points subway station .
Out to brunch
Engine 11 at 30 North Avenue (001 404 873 3473; engine11atl.com) is a 1920s fire station. With wooden panelling and brickwork walls, it oozes atmosphere. For $9.49 (£6.30), choose between barbecue-glazed meatloaf or a Fireman's Axe Salad with chicken and bacon.
Take a ride
Hop aboard Marta to Civic Center and you can visit the World of Coca-Cola at 121 Baker Street (001 404 676 5151; worldofcoca-cola.com) for a tour of the planet by soft drink. Basic opening hours are 10am-6pm daily; admission of $15 (£10) includes a bottle of the stuff to take away.
The icing on the cake
One more global icon: see television news in the making at the CNN's global headquarters in Downtown Atlanta at 190 Marietta Street (001 404 827 2300; cnn.com/tour). One-hour tours begin every 10 minutes daily 9am-5pm ($13/£8.50).