Atlanta: A Whirlwind Weekend With MARTA

Discovering  the city by Subway

By Jaclyn C. Stevenson

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

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, and more recently, ‘Hotlanta.’ 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 a pulsating nightlife.

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 the MARTA directly to CNN Center from the airport, for under $2; 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.

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

CNN Center’s 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.

several shops and restaurants. It’s also directly adjacent to Phillips Arena, home to the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers and a popular concert venue; the Georgia World Congress Center, a convention center of epic proportions; the Georgia Dome, home venue for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, and the now world-famous Centennial Olympic Park. 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 walk through CNN Center (the media tour was full for the day, but it is recommended), with just a short pause to watch the headlines of the day in center court on the massive screen overhead, brought me to one of MARTA’s primary stops (the first stop on the West line, W1).

After buying a token for $1.75, I was off, but a word to the wise: MARTA doesn’t make change, so make sure you have small bills if you’re taking a short trip; otherwise, you’ll have a pocketful of tokens to take home as souvenirs.

That said, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Most recently, MARTA opened two new stations along the north line, Sandy Springs (stop N10) and North Springs (N11). In December 2000, MARTA also began implementing new rail cars and buses into its fleet. The new rail cars feature sporty blue interiors, new floor coverings, digital scrolling interior signs and other enhancements.

Dine and Dash

It didn’t take long to get 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.

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

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.

Like all major cities, Atlanta is not without a Hard Rock Café, either, and it too has its own local flair thanks to Hotlanta’s 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 Woodruff Arts Center boasts this massive sculpture depicting a man holding the earth, but look closely – he is made up of hundreds of small people.
The Woodruff Arts Center boasts this massive sculpture depicting a man holding the earth, but look closely – he is made up of hundreds of small people.

The city has plenty of restaurants and bars unique to Atlanta, however. Gladys Knight has her own restaurant – the inexplicable Gladys Knight and Ron Winan’s Chicken and Waffles (N3), also located on Peachtree Street. Dantes Down the Hatch (N7), a fondue bar modeled to look like the hull of a ship, is a popular spot for visiting celebs and often requires reservations at least four hours in advance (and 48 hours if you plan to have the chocolate fondue dessert.)

Twist and Shout (and eat, and drink)

One of Atlanta’s hippest hang-outs, Shout (N5), is part of the Here to Serve Restaurant Group, which also owns and manages the equally well-known Twist, Prime, Noche, Goldfish, and That’s a Burger, all in the city. With its rooftop bar and central location Midtown, though, Shout is fast becoming the place to be.

Atlanta-based restaurant critic and blogger Steakhead, who edits Atlanta Eats and has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, said Shout is indeed a draw for the beautiful people.

“It’s probably best known foodwise for its sushi,” he said, “but the crowd is definitely the ‘in’ party crowd – well dressed.”

When I visited, a costume party was in full swing, and ‘dressed,’ let along well dressed, weren’t the words that came to mind. I was greeted at the door by a cherub wearing little more than wings and Carmen Miranda – both with Shout martinis in hand.

Steakhead also suggested checking out some of Atlanta’s trendy tapas bars. “Loca Luna (N5), tucked away just off Peachtree and 6th, is not far from Shout,” 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.”

Piedmont Street is a great walk, and a great place to take in some of the old and new architecture in Atlanta.
Piedmont Street is a great walk and a great place to take in some of the old and new architecture in Atlanta.

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

Tapas, Thai (at Thai Chili in Colony Square, N5), and a few tall ones did indeed keep me stuffed to the gills all weekend, and therefore in need of some Southern-inspired cardio.

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.

Scarecrows in the Garden happens every October at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.
Scarecrows in the Garden happens every October at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

The garden hosts a number of events annually, such as the SunTrust Concerts in the Garden, an intimate outdoor musical event featuring nationally acclaimed musicians. With the stunning Fuqua Conservatory and the Atlanta skyline as the backdrop, the series is presented in June, July and August.

Later in the year, the annual “Scarecrows in the Garden exhibit,” sponsored by area businesses and held throughout October, places ghoulish works of art across the grounds, and includes nighttime strolls, and a once-weekly Fest-of-Ale, featuring beers of Georgia.

Also currently featured are the breathtaking, blown-glass sculptures by internationally renowned artist Dale Chihuly, which have been incorporated seamlessly into the living exhibits.

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 World of Coke, and Cyclorama, a large, cylindrical painting depicting some major points in Atlanta’s history.

A quick shuttle ride from the same stop can lead to a Braves game at Turner Field, or to Zoo 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 the 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 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.

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.

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