“As you may know, 150 years ago the father of urban renewal passed through our town,” says the guide from Peachtree Trolley tours in downtown Atlanta. “When he left here we had a chance to start over…” She’s speaking ruefully, sarcastically, of course.
In 1864 – exactly 150 years ago – Yankee General William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground on his infamous March to the Sea, a story told in Atlanta native Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War novel, and later Hollywood classic, Gone with the Wind. But Atlanta, as is its wont, rebuilt. And it has kept building and rebuilding ever since. Today, Georgia’s capital is the ninth largest city in the United States in terms of population (5.2 million), HQ to some the most prominent corporations in the world, Coca-Cola and CNN among them and home to the busiest airport on the planet, Hartsfield-Jackson. True, most passengers fly in and straight out again, but that’s a mistake.
I was on a five-day, two-city tour of the South – three days in Atlanta followed by two in its happening cousin, Nashville, Tennessee, three-and-a-half hours’ drive north – and I began with a 90-minute trolley tour of Atlanta’s historic downtown. While people think of Georgia as mint juleps and hoop skirts, Atlanta was a rough-and-ready railroad town from its founding in 1837. “An island of industrialism in the drowsy sea of Southern society,” one northern newspaper described it, in a review of Gone with the Wind.
You can see the rail tracks on the trolley tour, but downtown is mostly modern high rises of glass, steel and concrete. Prominent is The World of Coca-Cola museum, where the secret recipe (created by Georgia native Colonel John Pemberton, and first sold at Jacob’s Pharmacy, a few blocks away, in 1886) is said to be stored in the vault. Around the corner, Ted Turner’s CNN Studios, founded in 1980, looked somewhat dated for our hyper-media age. “Locals called it the Chicken Noodle Network when it started and said it would never succeed,” said the guide. “Then came the Gulf War and the rest is history…”
Turner bought the Atlanta Braves baseball team, too, and Turner Field baseball park looms into view. “The Braves became known as America’s Team,” said the guide, “because they were shown on CNN all the time!” A nice touch: 265 seats are sold for one dollar each game – the cheapest in Major League Baseball.
We arrive in historic St Auburn, and another icon in the great American story: the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site. MLK was an Atlantan of course, graduate of the city’s prestigious historically black college, Morehouse, and some 35 acres around his childhood home here make up the precinct, including the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. King is buried here, too, and exhibits include dedications to other global civil-rights icons Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
A trolley tour is a good way to get your bearings, but I returned later to see a couple of highlights on foot, including Oakland Cemetery, in the leafy neighbourhood of Grant Park, just east of downtown. Some 70,000 people are buried here, including Margaret Mitchell, golfer Bobby Jones and 6,900 Confederate soldiers – 3,000 of them in unmarked graves. Giant tombs and mausoleums spread for six acres on lawns and under moss-hung oaks. I expected a formal, almost religious reverence, but Oakland is in effect a giant public park – and a lot of fun. Jones’s grave is dotted with golf balls, and I popped across the road for a margarita at the aptly named Six Feet Under, one of a score of animated rooftop bars overlooking the cemetery. “You should come for Tunes from the Tombs,” said the bartender. Sure enough, one of the city’s major music festivals takes place among the graves (June 14 this year).
I couldn’t locate Margaret Mitchell’s tomb, but she wrote her Pulitzer-winning epic at 900 Peachtree St, a few miles north in Midtown. A three-storey Tudor Revival building, it is now the Margaret Mitchell House museum. I joined a tour with another garrulous southern guide.
It turns out the building was a 10-unit apartment block when Mitchell moved in to number one with her husband, John Marsh, in 1925. Much of the original furniture is on display, although there’s no writing desk – largely because there’s hardly any room for one. I wondered how she did it. She wrote the book while recovering from a car accident and initially had no intention of publishing it. Six months after its publication, in 1936, it had sold a million copies. Three years later the premiere of the movie was held at the Loew’s Grand Theatre – a few blocks down the very same street. It was the greatest premiere of all time – some one million people coming to the city for the three-day party.
Atlanta is not all history and war, of course. Justin Bieber, Elton John and several hip hop stars have homes here (or are looking to), and trendy areas with great bars and restaurants wagon-wheel out in all directions.
I hopped in a cab (download the Uber app for quick service, pretty much a necessity in such a sprawling city) and made my way to West Midtown and the delightfully named Goat Farm, a collection of crumbling red-brick buildings that look like General Sherman had got hold of them. The producers of The Hunger Games clearly think so, too. The complex – in reality a cutting-edge art, dance and live music space – doubled as the setting for District 12 in the film franchise. West Midtown is home to a burgeoning food scene, too, with restaurants such as JCT Kitchen, The Optimist and, most famously, Bacchanalia, a fine-dining gem in a former meatpacking plant helmed by the chef Anne Quatrano.
The most talked about new development in the city, though, is the Atlanta BeltLine. Make that “new old” development. An abandoned freight rail line that runs around the city, it is being turned into a tree-lined cycle and pedestrian path – the largest urban redevelopment project currently under way in the US. When complete it will encircle the entire city, connecting 45 neighbourhoods. I made my way to the completed Eastside Trail section on my final morning, as the southern sun emerged. Condos, shops and restaurants are springing up all along its course and joggers, cyclists and hip young parents with strollers turned it into a festive promenade.
I got lost in the maze-like rooms of Paris on Ponce, a vast emporium of retro goods, crammed with art deco furnishings, old music posters and assorted Americana. Standing opposite, within the loop, a once-abandoned Sears, Roebuck and Co building is being turned into a vast retail, restaurant and residential space – partly inspired by London’s Borough Market. But my favourite stop was Parish Foods & Goods, a market-themed New American eatery in a former pipe factory. I had Eggs Benedict and the best Bloody Mary of my life on its outdoor deck, while watching the world go by. I overheard one young couple at a nearby table argue that they should have bought property on the BeltLine before the prices went through the roof. Too late, people, too late.
Nashville beckoned, 250 miles away. On the way, less than an hour north of Atlanta, in Cartersville, is the Booth Western Art Museum (boothmuseum.org) the largest permanent exhibition of Western art in the US. The sleek, glassed-in complex, the brainchild of an anonymous local millionaire art collector, stands out here – it would not be out of place on London’s South Bank. Paintings and sculptures from some 200 American artists, including the great landscape painter Maynard Dixon, are displayed in galleries dedicated to the West, the cowboy, the Civil War and more. There are also stagecoaches and rifles on display, and a section on cowboy literature and movies. It included, much to my surprise, some original Andy Warhol prints of John Wayne.
The sight of so many cowboy boots at least prepares one for Nashville, although these days Music City is a far cry from the hokey town portrayed in Robert Altman’s classic 1975 film, Nashville. Indeed, these days it’s frequently rated as one of the coolest small cities in surveys by glossy travel magazines. It’s home not only to a vibrant music scene – rockstar Jack White lives here and has his label, Third Man Records, here – but a culinary scene every bit as exciting as that in Atlanta or Charleston.
The charm of Nashville is that it’s small (and friendly) enough to feel familiar after a day, yet fused with such a creative energy that you’re stumped for choice on what to do. As with Atlanta, a significant factor in its growth has been young professionals moving here from New York and other northern cities. I spent my first night at 3rd & Lindsley, a neighbourhood bar and grill where country star Vince Gill and a group of legendary session musicians performed a variety-style show, singing country, swing, bluegrass and rockabilly hits and originals. They called up friends from the audience to perform, and it dawned on me: this is a town where songwriters are as common as schoolteachers.
Jack White is not the only non-country music star in town. The hit TV show Nashville starring Hayden Panettiere has added to the city’s mainstream American appeal, as has the reality show American Pickers, about two travelling collectors of antique Americana, which is based here. I visited the American Pickers showroom in Marathon Village, a collection of reclaimed warehouses on the east side of town, where they sell everything from antique jukeboxes to vintage Marlboro cigarette signs.
The store next door was a cake shop. Behind that was a distillery making legal moonshine. Across the road was a vintage-car showroom. There’s something so alive, real and exciting about the South right now.
Later, I hit the honky-tonks – the rowdy live country-music bars on neon-lit Broadway, downtown, where numerous stars, from Waylon Jennings to Garth Brooks, have earned their stripes.
The acts can be hit and miss, but at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge I watched a young fiddle player named Michelle Lambert do a heart-wrenching version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene; then she surprisingly set fire to her fiddle during a wild, foot-stomping rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia. If she’s not famous by 2015, I’ll eat my ten gallon.
Then again, perhaps she is just doing what they do here – working hard and living well.
British Airways (ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com), US Airways (usairways.com) and Delta (delta.com) all operate direct flights from London Heathrow to Hartsfield-Jackson airport, Atlanta. Flight time is around nine hours.
Car hire is available from Avis (avis.com) at the airport.
Public transport is an efficient and cheap way of getting downtown from the airport– the fare for the 20-minute train journey is just $2.50 (£1.49). Taxis can cost up to $30. Check itsmarta.com.
More information on Uber, the taxi app, is at uber.com.
Atlanta’s city BeltLine trails connect the city’s parks and open spaces, which are available for use on foot or by bike. (http://beltline.org).
Driving from Atlanta to Nashville takes around four hours using the I-75 and the I-24.The Booth Western Art Museum is around 45 minutes into the journey. Alternatively, connecting flights for Nashville are available from Atlanta from Delta (delta.com) and take around an hour.
Tours and trips
Downtown tours of Atlanta are available from Peachtree Tours (thepeachtreetrolley.com).
Audley (audleytravel.com) offers an 18-day Dixie Dreaming fly-drive holiday including Atlanta and Nashville.
American Sky (americansky.co.uk) offers a Gone With the Wind 14-day fly-drive holiday including Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans and Memphis.
Grand American Adventures (grandamericanadventures.com) offers a 12-day Deep South and Delta Blues escorted tour including Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis.
Titan Travel (titantravel.co.uk) offers an eight-night Southern Musical Medley escorted tour, including Nashville and Memphis and beginning in Atlanta.
–Daily Telegraph (U.K.)