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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Atlanta a National Geographic Traveler ‘Place of a Lifetime’


National Geographic Traveler lists Atlanta's trees among its greatest features — one that landed us on the magazine's list of "50 Places of a Lifetime." These trees and runners are in Piedmont Park. AJC file photo

The October issue of National Geographic Traveler details “50 Places of a Lifetime,” and there’s Atlanta, hoisted up with natural beauties, ancient cities and little-known islands.

We’re one of only seven U.S. sites in this latest round, the only major city among them. We’re on the map with the island of Molokai, Hawaii, forests in California and Oregon, the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, the Piedmont of Virginia, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.


Sweet Auburn Springfest 2009. AJC file photo

I can’t help but think: why us? I don’t disagree — this city has been key to happiness in my lifetime — but Atlanta never makes a list of beloved geography without New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Seattle. (This new list is an expansion of an older project, which did include some other large cities.) So…why?

In exactly the response one expects a National Geographic publication to give, it first mentions our trees — “magnolias, dogwoods, Southern pines, and magnificent oaks.” Of course. They are pretty, aren’t they?

Then comes history, neighborhoods, Southern charm, art, shopping and architecture. (Highrises? “Sexy,” they say.) Atlantic Station, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola get a nod. The magazine seems to appreciate that Buckhead, East Atlanta Village and Virginia Highland are wildly different, but fun to visit.

Manners, sugar water and greenery did not decide our place on this list. I have to believe it’s because of the fun to be had here, a dynamic variety different from a forest, mountain, island — and other cities.

An accompanying essay by Emory University Associate Professor Lynna Williams gets into more specifics — CNN, Piedmont Park, Oakland Cemetery, Lenny’s Bar —  while admitting Atlanta’s “eternal love affair with its own bright future.” Atlanta is a place, she writes, where people “come in search of of past-as-prologue, and find it tucked into the modern city.”


Oakland Cemetery. AJC file photo

I noticed this list posted at Decatur Metro, along with the astute observation that Atlanta’s “‘must visit’ attributes really aren’t things you can buy tickets to, but must experience collectively.” So true.

It seems National Geographic Traveler collected our very best features and presented them for travelers to pop in,  mark it off the list and leave with a panda T-shirt. (Sexy.) It’s not going to teach us anything.  Just try the quiz — you’ll get 100 percent, too.

The written introduction to the city acknowledges our size but not the traffic;  race, but not racism; political diversity, not division. We know it’s not all soft light, poetry and drawl-soaked chit-chat, but I love to read about the city this way. I like the reminder that all this is my place in this lifetime.

Is Atlanta among “Places of a Lifetime” for travelers? When you have visitors, what are the sites and activities they must see and do? Share your thoughts in the comments.

149 comments Add your comment


September 18th, 2009
10:22 am

Again, the usual Atlanta-bashers are out, and revealing their lack of knowledge about the city. One complains that Piedmont Park is not accessible, due to lack of parking and transit access. I thought everyone had heard by now about the large new parking deck which opened several months ago, after considerable public controversy. As for transit, it’s easy. Take MARTA to the Midtown station, walk east 3 blocks (passing some excellent restaurants on the way), and there you are.

Then we are told that Atlanta’s botanical garden is not as large as the one in St. Louis. Size isn’t everything, and when it comes to quality, the ABG is considered one of the nation’s leaders, especially for its orchid center (funny, if we had the largest botanical garden, and bragged about it, these same people would be sternly lecturing us on our obsession with “bigness”!). The ABG is also one of only two gardens in the US featuring the Henry Moore exhibit (the NY botanical garden was the other). See it.

We’re told “the art museum suffers from a lack of art”. Well it’s true the High got started late, and lacks the volume or quality of European paintings found in many other US cities. That is a source of disappointment to me. But to peddle that as the entire story of visual art in Atlanta is misleading. The High’s collections are continuing to grow, with smart acquisitions in contemporary art, photography, and folk art. Its exhibition schedule leans a bit too heavily on blockbusters, but there are smaller, more scholarly shows there as well – you just have to pay attention. But the most revealing phrase was “the art museum” -as if the High was the only art museum in Atlanta. I’ve met a number of people who think that. I take them to the Carlos Museum, and they always say “I had no idea there was anything in Atlanta like that!” There are superb shows at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, MOCAGA, Spelman, Oglethorpe, MODA, and several galleries. Atlanta is also an important theatre town. There’s an energy here that’s lacking in some older American cities, which may explain why the population of some (e.g., St. Louis) has decreased, while the city of Atlanta’s population has increased by 25% in the past two decades (from 400,000 to over 500,000).

This population increase in the CITY will come as a surprise to anyone who believes that “everyone has moved 35 minutes north of the city”.

I liked the comment by Matt C.: “Everyone that thinks this city is scary…turn off the news and go outside and meet your neighbors.” Community involvement makes a big difference in one’s appreciation of the city. There’s plenty of work to be done here, on transportation, on expanding the park system, on improving arts facilities, etc. – get involved.


September 18th, 2009
10:21 am

Atlanta’s best features are its weather, terrain, affordability and skylines (notice I didn’t say hospitality). Those you can find in many other places. Yes, there’s more to do here than in Akron or Boise or any other 3rd-rate city, but Atlanta doesn’t compare to the world-class cities in this list. It is a second-tier city that needs to grow in cultural, political and social ways. Why do I live here? Because for me the mix is better than just about any other place, yet I see it growing too much in the wrong ways as it aspires to be on these “best international” lists. I fear we’ve thrown out the baby with the bath water.


September 18th, 2009
10:19 am

I moved to Atlanta in 1982, from the North. I thought it was the most beautiful, friendliest city I’ve ever seen or lived in. Trees, green grass, blue skies, friendly people, beautiful skyline downtown, and that sweet southern tea. (nothing like it) but somewhere after the Olympics, the city seem to change. I didn’t mind the change that much, except for the southern hospitality seemed to start fading. Unfortunately, 2.5 years ago, the economy forced me relocate back north. I do miss it. I still read the AJC everyday.


September 18th, 2009
10:18 am

I’m sorry to sound smart-assy, but “ghetto of a lifetime” might be a more appropriate title for the City these days. Atlanta has taken a steady decline over the 20+ years I’ve lived here. Sprawl, traffic, smog, and the daily round of teens in SUVs who think sticking an AK47 in someone’s face is a “fun” way to make some money. Calling Atlanta the “Place Of A Lifetime” is like calling Detroit “Mayberry, USA”. Sorry. I just want some of whatever it is they’re smoking at National Geographic.


September 18th, 2009
10:16 am

These people who live in ATL and are making cracks on it just need to leave. I’ve been trying to move to ATL now for several months.

Atlanta has a lot to offer. It is a green city, has wonderful weather, great parks, not 1 or 2 but 3 skylines, world class shopping, a subway system, hundreds of concerts a year, Fox Theater, UnderGround, Lenox, Perimiter, Midtown and the list goes on and on! I LOVE ATLANTA and I can not wait to move there! ATL ROCKS!

Da Mick

September 18th, 2009
10:14 am

I’ve lived in Atlanta since the mid-70s, and I have to say that for me, except for the trees, most of what was absolutely wonderful and charming about the city is gone, mostly by way of the wrecking ball. The result of “progress” in this town appears to be rows of corporate cookie-cutter establishments that I can barely make out as I drive by, because there’s always someone driving right on your butt, wherever you are. The road traffic and congestion is insufferably stressful, and basically makes me want to just get where I’m going, which is usually out of the city as fast as possible. Have to agree with other posters here about the city government though. I think Shirley has tried, but the conditions she was left by the criminal who preceded her with are more than one person can change overnight or over eight years. The city government is deep in nepotism, and needs someone who is willing to clean house to really bring on positive progress.


September 18th, 2009
10:11 am

I’m with KW – “Delta is ready when you are.”

I would bet that the majority of the petty little folks ripping on our fair city haven’t done or seen much beyond their own big box shopping centers and wouldn’t know what to do with a visitor beyond driving by the Big Chicken.

I’ve lived in several big cities and spent considerable time in others (Washington, Chicago, NYC, San Fran, etc). While I enjoyed my time visiting/living elsewhere and took advantage of what those towns had to offer, I can promise that they have more than their share of rude people, racism, poverty, crime, drugs, and all other social ills that plague metro areas.

Get out and SEE your city. Piedmont is a lovely place to visit, and not just for festivals. Been to the Botanical Gardens? Taken a tour of Oakland Cemetery? News flash – the Cyclorama has nothing to do with bicycles…check it out.

Oh Phu-leez, squidward

September 18th, 2009
10:10 am

Atlanta in the top 50, internationally!? WTF?

You gotta be kidding. Was this written by someone who’s never been on a plane? Atlanta shouldn’t even finish 1st in the state of Jaw-jaw.


September 18th, 2009
10:08 am

Skyscrapers piercing an emarld canvas from downtown to Midtown to Buckhead to Sandy Springs and Perimeter/Dunwoody. There is really no other place like it. Yes, we do have too many bad actors, but all major cities do. If you are overly fixated with YBMs(Young Black Males),yes, you will miss out on great things this city has to offer.


September 18th, 2009
10:07 am

I have lived in Atlanta for 32 years. Many times, I have thought about leaving for greener pastures but I realized every major city has similar negative issues. Our biggest challenge has consistently been the overriding perception that it is unsafe to be out and around, particularly at night, in the downtown/city center. This MAY be slowly changing, but not nearly fast enough for our own good. While common courtesy in this country seems no longer to be common enough, at least here that doesn’t seem to be as big an issue (except I-85 at rush hour).