20 best things to do in Atlanta: Our ultimate bucket list

Automobiles travel along John Lewis Freedom Parkway as the Atlanta skyline is shown from the Jackson Street bridge, Thursday, June 16, 2022. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Guests are coming to town, and they want to be acquainted with all that is Atlanta. What is the quintessential cuisine, the absolute attraction, and the paramount place that you must visit? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered!

1. Chow down at The Varsity. Hailing as a staple of Atlanta’s dining scene since 1928, The Varsity serves gluttonous and greasy eats like no one else. Order your onion rings and chili cheese dog inside to experience the retro vibe and All-American atmosphere, or motor through the world’s largest drive-in for a bite of quintessential Atlanta.

2. Indulge your dark side at Clermont Lounge. What began as a supper club in the basement of a local hotel transformed into Atlanta’s most beloved dive bar. Lounge with oxford-clad attorneys, high-heeled drag queens, the occasional celebrity and everyone in between. And if the clientele isn’t eclectic enough to hold your gaze, the entertainment will capture you: live music and strippers older than this 1965 institution.

3. Pencil in your order at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. Mary Mac’s is the last of Atlanta’s tearooms from the 1940s and declared “Atlanta’s Dining Room” by the Georgia House of Representatives. Savor a meat and two sides for lunch or dinner, and don’t forget the cinnamon rolls. Although Mary Mac’s uses computers like just about all businesses these days, diners still get to fill out their orders on little cards with little pencils. This should be easy for golfers, the rest of us will just have to fake it.

4. Rock out at The Tabernacle. Luckie Street’s music venue was renovated ahead of the 1996 Olympics from the building of an old church. It has changed hands many times since then, but great acoustics, an intimate space and exceptional headliners continue.

5. Improvise a trip to Dad’s Garage Theatre. The team at Dad’s Garage performs hilarious productions, both scripted and improvised. Scripted shows often bring in big talent like Tim Meadows or Scott Adsit, but the local improv artists will knock your socks off. On the downside, your face muscles will probably hurt the next morning.

The Fox Theatre is a Peachtree Street landmark. credit: file photo
File photo, Access Atlanta

6. Discover the fabulous Fox Theatre. Open today only because of the labor of love put forth by the community, the Fox Theatre is one of only a handful of not-for-profit theaters in the country. Each year, the award-winning theater hosts more than 250 shows and half a million visitors. See a show, or take a tour, but don’t miss a visit to this Georgia landmark.

7. Devour a treat from King of Pops. Fruity treats from King of Pops are what dreams are made of. They are like popsicles, only better. Chocolate sea salt finds favor among the crowds, but other sinful flavors abound like fresh peach and tangerine basil. Try one from their signature carts at a local festival, food truck park or farmers market, or head over to their shop in Inman Park just off the Atlanta Beltline for a peek at how the magic is made.

8. Savor the view at a rotating restaurant. Enjoy delicious eats and hand-crafted cocktails, with spectacular views of the city. Visit The Sun Dial Restaurant, Bar & View atop Westin Peachtree Plaza for the best view, or try Polaris, spinning above Hyatt Regency Atlanta. The iconic blue dome was a city staple in the 60s and 70s and reopened in 2014 after a long absence with spectacular cocktails and a comfortable, classy atmosphere.

9. Dress up for Dragon Con. In early fall the city morphs into a mecca of science fiction, gaming, and comic mania. What started in 1987 with a few hundred people quickly evolved into a nationally recognized event drawing over 50,000 attendees. Not available for the 4-day conference? Don your cape for the parade through downtown Atlanta on Labor Day weekend.

10. Party at Piedmont Park. Picnic on the lawn, throw a Frisbee with friends or just kick back and take in the city’s skyline. Welcome spring with the Atlanta Dogwood Festival, and usher in fall with Music Midtown, both classic Atlanta festivals that call Piedmont Park home.

11. Take a hike at Stone Mountain. 3,200 acres sit northeast of the city, with championship golf courses, campgrounds and much more. The ultimate must-do here: hiking up the monstrous granite outcropping for a view from atop the mountain. Pick a clear day for the best views and bring your camera.

12. Run the AJC Peachtree Road Race. Spend your Fourth of July with 60,000 of your closest friends in the world’s largest 10K. With such a large crowd, entrance is by lottery. You can guarantee a space, though, by becoming a member of the Atlanta Track Club.

13. Stroll around Centennial Olympic Park. Explore Georgia’s legacy of the Centennial Olympic Games at the 21-acre park in the heart of downtown. Summer brings the opportunity to splash in the fountains. Don’t leave without taking a spin on the nearby SkyView, a ferris wheel towering 20 stories above the park.

14. People watch at Little Five Points. This junction at Moreland and Euclid Avenues serves as a hodgepodge of eclectic multiculturalism. Chow down on one of the best burgers in America at The Vortex, peruse the wares at Junkman’s Daughter or Criminal Records, or grab a drink at The Porter Beer Bar or Wrecking Bar Brewpub. Whatever you do, don’t miss the signature L5P Halloween Festival and Parade, consistently voted one of the best celebrations in the country.

Visitors walk around the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta on Dec. 22, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Hyosub Shin, Access Atlanta

15. Remember the past at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Atlanta served as the epicenter of the civil rights movement, and the MLK Historic Site reminds the south of that key historical role. Visit Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King preached his message of peace, tour the Reverend’s birth home and reflect at his tomb.

16. Tour Atlanta’s biggest attractions. Play tourist in your own city, visiting Atlanta’s most beloved attractions. Stroll through the glass tunnel at Georgia Aquarium, while whale sharks and other deep sea denizens float by. Taste-test Coke products from around the world at the World of Coca-Cola Museum, or watch the playful pandas at Zoo Atlanta. While on your whirlwind tour, don’t miss Atlanta’s newest attractions, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

17. Explore the Atlanta Beltline. The Beltline, once only a dream in the mind of Ryan Gravel, now transforms the city with public parks, multi-use trails and a growing number of peripheral businesses. It’s often undersold as a walking path or a transportation initiative, but it grows – lives and breathes – as a defining piece of the Atlanta community.

18. Become a fan at an Atlanta ballgame. Go for a spring outing with the Atlanta Braves. Cheer the Hawks on at Philips Arena, Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium or celebrate fall with Falcons fever. Whatever the season, whatever the sport, there’s a game to celebrate in Atlanta.

19. See what’s in bloom at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. The winter holiday celebration at Atlanta Botanical Gardens is unmatched, with over 1 million lights exploding with color. Don’t forget the other seasons, though, from the 330,000 tulip blooms to spring, to the whimsical scarecrows of fall.

Newly restored headstones stand in Oakland Cemetery's African-American Burial of grounds Friday, June 10, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)
Steve Schaefer, AJC Freelancer

20. Walk with ghosts at Oakland Cemetery. Atlanta’s oldest resting place is famous for its notable inhabitants such as Margaret Mitchell (author of Gone With the Wind), Bobby Jones (founder of the Master’s Tournament), and Dr. Joseph Jacobs (owner of the drugstore that first sold Pemberton’s Coca Cola). Explore the magnificent mausoleums, including four catalogued in the Smithsonian Institute’s Inventory of American Sculpture Database.

This story was originally published in 2017 by Lesli Peterson and has since been updated.

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