Atlanta: A Whirlwind Weekend With MARTA

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Atlanta
Panoramic shot of Midtown Atlanta over Lake Clara Meer in Piedmont Park featuring the Active Oval and Knob Hill. 2021, Gene Phillips, Courtesy of ACVB & AtlantaPhotos.com

Discovering the city of Atlanta by Subway

By Jaclyn C. Stevenson

Updated March 2022

The MARTA map shows how simple Atlantas rail system is to navigate. Photos by Jaclyn C. Stevenson
The MARTA map shows how simple Atlanta’s rail system is to navigate.  Jaclyn C. Stevenson photos.

MARTA doesn’t mind if you call her easy. In fact, it’s what she’s aiming for.

MARTA, or the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, is Atlanta, Georgia’s rail and bus system, and locals do indeed refer to the system in the female sense (as in: ‘Here she comes!’ when the train speeds around a corner toward the station).

But this lady is also a gracious host. She gets you where you want to go, and places you hadn’t considered, with both speed and style.

MARTA is one of the most economical ways to see the city long referred to as the Gateway to the South. Indeed, Atlanta has risen in recent years to become one of the most culturally diverse and architecturally vibrant cities in the U.S., complete with stellar cuisine, sights to be seen, and pulsating nightlife.

The Atlanta Streetcar is Atlanta’s newest transportation option. The 2.7-mile loop makes 12 stops that connect Centennial Olympic Park with the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and nearby neighborhoods east of Downtown.

Streetcar provides safe, convenient, and timely service. It gives travelers a way to explore downtown Atlanta. They run approximately every 10 to 15 minutes. The fare is $1 for a one-way trip, $3 for a one-day pass.

So Much to See…

I arrived in Atlanta for a long weekend by plane in the early afternoon and took a taxi from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to the Omni Hotel at CNN Center (about a $30 ride). What I didn’t know at the time was that I could have taken MARTA directly to CNN Center from the airport, for $2.50; but the cab trip did afford me the chance to see the city’s skyline and take in its modern, unique design – seen as much in street lamps as it is in skyscrapers.

CNN Centers center court a place for eating shopping and catching up on the headlines of the day.
CNN Center’s center court, a place for eating, shopping and catching up on the headlines of the day.

I was first introduced to MARTA at CNN Center, one of the busiest hubs in Atlanta and home to the news media juggernaut, as well as several shops and restaurants.

It’s also directly adjacent to State Farm Arena home to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and a popular concert venue; the Georgia World Congress Center, a convention center of epic proportions; Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS’ Atlanta United.

The home of Coca-Cola is not far off in the distance, identifiable by that ubiquitous red logo atop its headquarters.

 So, Who’s MARTA?

So, it was with a (Diet) Coke in hand that I began my exploration of Atlanta by rail. A quick walkthrough CNN Center, with just a short pause to watch the headlines of the day in center court on the massive screen overhead, brought me to the first stop on the West line, W1.

Fare is $2.50 for a one-way trip and must be added to a reloadable Breeze Card. The Breeze Card is a long-term use card. The card is meant to be kept for future use and reloading. A new card costs $2.00.

The system is one of the simplest and most easily navigable in the country. Two main lines run east to west and north to south, meeting at the main station at Five Points.

Olympic Park is a lasting reminder of the 1996 Olympic Games but also a quiet safe place for families.
Olympic Park is a lasting reminder of the 1996 Olympic Games, but also a quiet, safe place for families.

The rail system is fully integrated with the MARTA bus system, connecting rail to bus at all stops, and is large enough to accommodate several travelers during busy periods, while still small enough to allow for easy traveling and few missed stops.

Headlines on the Screens

MARTA stations also allow travelers to read the day’s headlines on digital screens, and are largely clean and safe – MARTA police monitor each stop.

A number of improvements made to MARTA in the last decade are apparent, beginning with those spurred by the 1996 Olympics Games.

At that time, according to the Atlanta Board of Tourism, MARTA added seven miles of rapid rail and three new stations to its north line and purchased 56 new, handicapped-accessible buses for the games, at a cost of $350 million.

In December 2000, MARTA began implementing new rail cars and buses into its fleet. The rail cars feature sporty blue interiors, new floor coverings, digital scrolling interior signs, and other enhancements.

In 2023, MARTA will begin introducing new railcars. They are part of MARTA’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) along Hank Aaron Drive through Summerhill. The inside of the railcars will offer more seating options, spacious areas for luggage, charging stations, and a digital system for maps and service information wrote 11 ALIVE News.

AtlantaCentennialOlympicPark2019 1
Panoramic of Centennial Olympic Park at Blue Hour from Museum Tower in Downtown Atlanta. 2019, Gene Phillips, Courtesy of ACVB & AtlantaPhotos.com

Dine and Dash

It didn’t take long to get a handle on MARTA’s simple North/South, East/West lines, which join in the center of the city at Five Points. Atlanta is also a great walking city, so with MARTA spurring me along to the various hot spots in the city – Midtown, Buckhead, and Little Five Points among them – I set out first in search of some of Atlanta’s greatest eats.

My exploration began with dinner at McCormick and Schmicks (W1), a white-tablecloth restaurant specializing in seafood, including a raw bar menu offering shellfish from eastern and western shores.

It was here that I got my first taste of southern hospitality – the wait staff was friendly and accommodating, and quick to recommend Atlanta’s signature drink – the Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea) named for the legendary golfer.

Throughout the weekend, with pages from the Atlanta Restaurant Guide in hand, I was able to visit a wide range of restaurants, including casual spots such as Jock and Jill’s (there are 12 locations across the city) which has great brew on tap and fun, White Castle-inspired mini-burgers, and Houlihans (N5), which, although a national chain (one of its busiest locations is in Boston’s Faneuil Hall) is a popular watering hole for Atlanta’s downtown crowd. Houlihan’s also offers, among other lunches, a great ahi tuna, and banana salad.

The author samples the Atlanta Hard Rocks signature dish Margarita Popsicles.
The author samples the Atlanta Hard Rock’s signature dish- Margarita Popsicles.

Like all major cities, Atlanta is not without a Hard Rock Café, either, and it too has its own local flair thanks to pervasive hospitality and party-on attitude. Located on Peachtree Street (N1) along with scores of other nightspots, cocktails made with Peachtree schnapps are a specialty, and the signature dish at the Atlanta Hard Rock is the Margarita Popsicles, served on a bed of cinnamon toasted pita chips.

The city has plenty of restaurants and bars unique to Atlanta, however.

Atlanta-based restaurant critic and blogger Steakhead, who edits Atlanta Eats and has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, suggested checking out some of Atlanta’s trendy tapas bars.

“Loca Luna (N5), tucked away just off Peachtree and 6th,” he said, “It’s the best tapas in Midtown and also a very fun place,” he noted. “There’s live music, and an open-air dining area.”

I checked out Table 1280 at the Woodruff Arts Center and Ola (no longer in business). These bars allow for great drinks and a casual atmosphere, as well as unique dishes like fried plantains and cucumber sandwiches, with a kick.

Zoom and Bloom

Atlanta Botanical Garden 5
ACVB Marketing | Lily Leiva

From the CNN Center station, I took the MARTA due North to the Woodruff Arts Center stop in Midtown (N5, just one train change!), providing access to the arts center that includes Atlanta Symphony Hall, the Atlanta College of Art, and the High College of Art.

From there, I took off on foot for shopping at Colony Square and down Piedmont Street, home to historic southern mansions and new, architecturally intriguing high-rises (N4).

Piedmont Street also leads from the arts center to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a sprawling, indoor/outdoor garden showcasing both domestic and exotic plants and flowers.

The garden hosts a number of events annually, such as Atlanta Blooms. This event, from March 1 to April 30, celebrates the growth of hundreds of thousands of flowers including tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths.

On Earth Day, April 22, the garden will be hosting fun and entertaining family activities to celebrate nature and plants all around.

Just a few stops South, back to central Five Points, MARTA delivered me back to the expansive shopping and entertainment hub of Atlanta – Underground Atlanta. The Martin Luther King Memorial (E2), is only two stops east of Five Points, as well.

Fast Lady

Thanks to MARTA, I got to peek at most of these attractions, as the system allows for some extensive exploration of Atlanta in a short period of time, without the detriment of sore feet, hefty cab fares, or unsafe traveling conditions.

It also allows for easy arrivals to and departures from the city; after three days of stress-free gorging, exploring, and even getting lost via MARTA (hint: Little Five Points is a little hard to find. But what is travel without some wandering?), I boarded the rail for a final trip from CNN Center to the airport. It was a hot day, and my final image of the city was children playing in the fountains of Centennial Olympic Park.

MARTA left me directly in front of the terminal that would deliver me home to the Northeast, and as the doors closed behind me and my luggage, it was evident that although she’s the love ya and leave ya type, MARTA does her best to make sure you’re never left wanting, but ready for more.

Discover Atlanta here.

Jaclyn C. StevensonJaclyn C. Stevenson is a full-time writer and photographer based in Lenox, Massachusetts. Hailing from a long line of adventure-seekers, she specializes in travel, business, pop culture, the arts, and other slices of life. www.writerjax.com.