First, there's the food. And then there's more food. (Hope you're hungry.)
Atlanta will overwhelm you, the first time you are here—there's not really much that can be done about that. It's too big, it grew too far, too fast, it goes everywhere; like too many cities, it has funny ideas about who should live where and why and how, it complains bitterly about traffic but won't use the public transportation it has spent billions of dollars building and maintaining over the years—in short, Atlanta is messy, it is American, about as American as they come. Also, once you know why and where and what, it is a terrific city to visit.
It's getting past that learning curve—out of the car, for starters, at least for a few minutes at a time—that's the hard part. If you can do that, in Atlanta, you can go anywhere. That wasn't always so, to be fair; Atlanta has spent years running away from its older, historic heart, to places where pedestrians were never part of the plan. In recent years, however, the trend has reversed, stunningly so—now, we are to the point where you can actually spend a terrific day exploring some of the city's most interesting neighborhoods (home to some of the city's most interesting food, right now), without doing very much driving at all. For goodness' sake, you could even just leave the car behind and walk. Ready to go? And eat? Let's explore.
Leave downtown. Despite all best efforts, downtown Atlanta is still probably the last place you want to spend a lot of time, trying to make sense of the city—grab one of the new Atlanta Streetcars that inch their way through the traffic and out into the city's Old Fourth Ward—the cost is just $1. When you see the old Ebenezer Baptist Church—yes, that one—you've arrived at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, and may now hop off. Besides being one of the most crucial destinations for anyone looking to learn more about the Civil Rights Era, the Old Fourth Ward, one of Atlanta's most historic, has lately become very popular with Atlanta's coolest crowd.
Eat your way out. Neighborhood main drag Edgewood Avenue is where you'll find some of Atlanta's top tables, at the moment. There's BoccaLupo, with its inventive pasta dishes. Also, you have Staplehouse, which has appeared on many a best of list for good reason, with its adventurous menu and accessible energy—it's first come, first served for the full menu at the bar, for example. Further up, One Eared Stag is a big-hearted neighborhood hangout that's also not-so-secretly one of Atlanta's best restaurants right now. For casual visitors, however, the area's true culinary charm reveals itself at the heaving Krog Street Market, a well-curated food hall and restaurant collection, just a couple of blocks up. From Chinese cooking to BBQ to sea salt caramel ice creams, its all here, though the reason many people fight their way into the market parking lot on weekends is the food at Richards' Southern Fried, not to mention great cocktails (and food!) at the civilized, sit-down Ticonderoga Club.
Take a walk. Handily, Krog Street is located right next to Atlanta's growing BeltLine project, a spectacular, multiple-use trail that's effectively become a car-free shortcut through some of the most popular neighborhoods in town right now. Once you've eaten up, hit the trail—if it's a sunny day, just follow the large numbers of people who are headed in that direction. While not quite so showy as, say, the High Line Park in New York City, the project has had a very similar impact on the areas that surround it—a quick detour off the trail takes you into fashionable Inman Park, where the all-day café, Bread & Butterfly, is like a Southern lady's fantasy of what Paris must be like. Want something a little more off the beaten path? Just before the BeltLine disappears underneath Freedom Parkway, jog up the hill for a drink and a snack at Victory Sandwich Bar, an all-day haunt for a hipper crowd.
Dive into the next market. Just before the trail crosses Ponce de Leon Avenue, ditch, and head to the left. Don't worry about missing the turn for the Ponce City Market—it's only one of the largest buildings in Atlanta. What was once a Sears & Roebuck concern is now a beautifully-executed mixed-user crammed full of offices, shops and one very impressive food hall. Stop in at El Super Pan for a medianoche and a side of tostones with aioli, get a bunch of fried chicken from Hop's, push the boat out with oysters and champagne at W.H. Stiles Fish Camp, or just break for a creamy capp at Hugh Acheson's Spiller Park Coffee. Don't leave without heading up on to the market's rooftop, where you'll find a beer garden, an 18-hole mini-golf course and big city views.