Even veteran travelers can discover new, fun, interesting experiences in towns that they have visited over and over. Popular destinations such as Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Charleston and others still have secrets for adventurous spirits to unlock.
Atlanta’s Centennial Park District (CPD) came into existence as the crossroads between events for fans visiting the 1996 Summer Olympics. Since then, it has been synonymous with athletics in Atlanta as the home of the many sports venues past and present. While the Omni Coliseum and Georgia Dome now been demolished to make space for new developments (although you wouldn’t know about the latter coming down if you only watch The Weather Channel), and the Braves have packed up their bats and gloves and moved out to the northwest perimeter of town to the new Suntrust Park, there are still plenty of reasons to visit the Centennial Park District for sports and other activities.
Easily walkable and accessible via MARTA and streetcars if you don’t feel like hoofing it, the CPD features plenty of opportunities for sightseeing, shopping, entertainment, dining, drinking and family fun. If you used to drive into town for a baseball game and spend the night near Turner Field but now you don’t cross inside the I-285 loop, here’s what you’re missing out on.
The iconic Omni Hotel at CNN Center looms over Centennial Park and has been a popular destination for travelers since opening its new 28-story tower in 2003. Connected to the CNN Center as well as Philips Arena and the Georgia World Congress Center, the Omni is right in the middle of the action.
More intimate is the newly remodeled American Hotel Atlanta Downtown – a Doubletree by Hilton, which opened as a new concept late this fall. It’s still a Doubletree, so you’ll get your Hilton Honors points and your warm cookie when you check in, but the rest of the experience is completely novel for a chain hotel property.
The original American Hotel on the spot was one of the first integrated hotels in Atlanta when it opened in 1962 and was integral in helping to bring the Braves to Atlanta from Milwaukee by promising that visiting teams could all stay in the same place near the stadium instead of having to split up into two hotels. The hotel played host to many civil rights leaders including several visits by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was the site of Jimmy Carter’s announcement of his run for presidency. Other famous guests through the years have included Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
The recent remodel has restored The American to its mid-century glory, with decorative touches like historical photos hanging on the walls of the lobby, information video screens embedded within vintage television cabinets and retro mini-fridges in each of the 315 tastefully appointed guest rooms.
The Cloak Room, the lobby restaurant and bar, takes on a Cold War spy theme with photos of JFK and Kruschev decorating the entryway, a red phone that plays Kennedy’s public speeches during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and cocktails named after famous fictional spies ranging from James Bond to Maxwell Smart. Breakfast is served in a special room tucked behind the lobby, while lunch and dinner in the Cloak Room feature inventive dishes crafted using ingredients from local farms in lieu of the typical yawn-inducing fare served at other chain hotels.
Centennial Olympic Park is the centerpiece of the district, a 21-acre green space, which hosted medal ceremonies during the 25th Summer Games and still draws millions of visitors every year to take self-guided tours, enjoy a summer concert series and fireworks on the Fourth of July. The park is currently being remodeled to create even more open grassy areas for visitors to stroll around in the middle of this urban oasis.
The College Football Hall of Fame and Chik-fil-A Fan Experience houses almost 100,000 square feet of exhibits dedicated to the history of the South’s favorite sport. The facility features a 45-yard football field for kids to run around on, interactive attractions and a hi-def theater showing classic game films. There are also monuments describing the careers of the hundreds of inductees who represent the cream of the crop in college football.
Both college and pro football players compete at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the Atlanta Falcons and Chik-fil-A College Kickoff as well as hosting the NCAA Football Championship game, men’s basketball Final Four and Super Bowl all in the course of the next year. A true engineering marvel, the stadium hosts behind-the-scenes walking tours seven days a week when there’s not an event scheduled. While you might think that touring a stadium is an odd way to pass a couple of hours, this special experience includes visits to the locker rooms, luxury boxes, the playing field and sky bridges, which offer sweeping views of downtown Atlanta.
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On your tour you’ll discover fascinating facts such as that if you stretched out the 1,100-foot hi-def halo board that rings the inside of the stadium’s roof, it would be taller than the tallest building in Atlanta, and that unique “Oculus” retractable roof can convert the stadium to an open-air configuration in about 10 minutes. Costing about $1.6 billion to construct, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the first Platinum LEED-certified stadium in the country, with special attention paid to energy efficiency and sustainability. And 4,000+ solar panels on top of the parking garage generate enough power to lower the stadium’s electricity bills by 29%, but that still means it costs more than $10,000 a day to keep the lights on.
Despite the massive scale and cost of the stadium, the management intentionally avoids gouging fans on concessions at events. As part of their “fan first” pricing policies, soft drinks are only $2 with free refills available from fountains around the concourses, a hot dog will run you only $3, and you can buy a draft beer for just $5. With more than 30 restaurants and bars, including outposts of some local fan favorites like Fox Brothers BBQ and Chik-fil-A, there’s something for everyone’s taste at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (And yes, the Chik-fil-A is still closed on Sundays, even when the Falcons are playing at home.)
The Philips Arena is another state-of-the art sports and entertainment events venue located right next door to both the stadium and the CNN Center. Currently undergoing a two-year renovation to bring fans even closer to the action, Philips has also taken it upon themselves to really up their food and beverage game. They hired Executive Chef Joe Schafer away from Bacchanalia, a popular Atlanta restaurant, to run the entire culinary program at the arena. The talented young chef is responsible for completely revamping food and bev operations including developing new menus for the various clubs, suites and concession stands in the venue.
As part of the $192.5 million renovation of Philips Arena, the councourses have been opened up to offer 360-degree access to fans so that they will have many more choices for dining and drinking. Schaefer has introduced new restaurant-quality dishes like sweet tea-brined fried chicken fingers and issued the directive that all sauces and dressings will now be made in-house by professional cooks. He’s even added fun exotic little touches like Texas BBQ grasshoppers at one of the snack stands. They’re actually not bad at all. Really!
There’s plenty to see other than sports in the Centennial Park District, and you can get a great view of most of it from the Skyview Atlanta Ferris Wheel, an attraction that carries visitors more than 20 stories in the air during a four rotation trip that lasts about 15 minutes. There are 42 climate-controlled pods that hold up to six people, including a special VIP gondola with a glass floor that offers breathtaking aspects of the park below. The VIP gondola is also fitted with what are called “Ferrari-style seats.” The Skyview is open seven days a week as long as the weather is hospitable.
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Speaking of monumental attractions, the Georgia Aquarium is one of the largest attractions of its kind in the world. Staffed by hundreds of employees and thousands of volunteers, the aquarium features thousands of aquatic animals in multiple exhibits that hold more than 10,000,000 gallons of fresh and salt water in all. Their most popular animals are four huge whale sharks, Beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, penguins, otters, sea lions and majestic manta rays.
In addition to animal shows and demonstrations throughout the day, you can also sign up for a backstage tour of the facility that will show you the inner workings of the operations. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a penguin taking a walk down a basement hallway. Plan at least 4-5 hours to see the whole shebang.
History buffs, and really anyone, should make it a point to visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a powerful experience that links the American Civil Rights movement with the struggle for human rights around the world. Touch-screen exhibits share the history of the movement and the individual stories of courage of those who fought and fight for freedom.
There’s so much more to do in and around the Centennial Park District in addition to these large venues and attractions. You can play retro video games at GameX, enjoy some fine German pilsners at Der Biergarten, discover everything you ever wanted to know about the South’s favorite soft drink at The World of Coca-Cola or watch your teams play at STATS sports bar. Performance venues like the Tabernacle can fill your nights with music played in a striking venue that was built as a church in 1911.
As much as people complain about the traffic in Atlanta, it just makes sense to park your car once and spend a weekend exploring the dynamic Centennial Park District. Hopefully you’ll have so much fun that the drive home will seem like a breeze!
To learn more about the Centennial Park District, visit centennialparkdistrict.com.
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