Commentary

Hotlanta: One peach of a football town

As Alabama and Virginia Tech kick off the season, we take a closer look at the host city

Updated: September 2, 2009, 2:17 PM ET
By Robert Reid, Lonely Planet | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Home-Field Adventure-AtlantaCraig Jones/Getty ImagesA-Town, Hotlanta, whatever you call it, Atlanta will kick up its heels for the college kickoff game.
• Photo gallery: All that is Atlanta | Buy Alabama-Va. Tech tix | Passport: Log your game

A city fond of fancy nicknames (Hotlanta, A-Town, The City Too Busy to Hate), Atlanta is home to a proud 5 million, a friendly metropolis that's both a business center (Coca-Cola, CNN) and a low-key Southern charmer, particularly when you escape its hectic freeways for its soothing neighborhoods, great restaurants and diverse mix of locals (including Elton John).

More for the road

Road-tripping to Georgia? Check out the best drives of the South in Lonely Planet's Trips guidebook. Then check out Robert Reid's full Atlanta weekend planner.

Best college-town bar scene? Atlanta thinks its bar scene is the best of any college town -- in the South or otherwise. Do you agree? What are some favorite local bars in your town that Atlanta lacks? Give us your opinion.

Why go

Atlanta's offerings quickly fill up a two- or three-day itinerary in the quietest of times. And Labor Day weekend is going to be plain nuts, when overlapping events take over the city -- and fill its hotel rooms. No. 5 Alabama and No. 7 Virginia Tech get the Georgia Dome, but there also are Georgia Tech's season starter, a NASCAR race and three Braves/Reds games, plus Star Wars outfits and a Michael Jackson "Thriller" dance-off at 7 p.m. Sunday and the unreal sci-fi convention Dragon*Con.

Add to that the aquarium, "Gone with the Wind" sights, Martin Luther King Jr.'s first pulpit and rising neighborhoods like bohemian Little Five Points or posh Buckhead in a city that continues to eagerly revitalize itself since the 1996 Summer Olympic Games -- and, well, there's a lot to do.

But you're here primarily for the Alabama-Virginia Tech tilt, so here's what will make your home-field adventure a fine experience.

Seeing the game

The Georgia Dome is not a tailgater's paradise. Considering the limited parking, most fans stick with area bars around Centennial Olympic Park before kickoff.

All Alabama-Virginia Tech tickets for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the 71,250-capacity Georgia Dome have been sold out, so pick up tickets through StubHub! from $125 apiece.

Don't expect a hostile vibe. As die-hard Tide fan and blogger Hal Humphrey told us of last year's Alabama/Clemson game here, "We ended up drinking all day with local Georgia fans. Sure, we may fight each other on the field, but other times we just hang out and cheer for each other's games."

Five must-sees in Atlanta

  • • The view of Atlanta from the top of Stone Mountain
  • • Saturday lines for a "naked dog" at the Varsity at the Georgia Tech campus
  • • A self-guided walk around the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site
  • • Underwater walkways in the Georgia Aquarium
  • • Masterpieces off the field at the High Museum of Art

Did you know?

Atlanta, hilly Atlanta, at 1,050 feet, is the highest major American city east of Denver.

What locals say

Residents don't blush calling their city the place of the South:

  • • "People don't realize that we have people from everywhere. We joke it's hard to find someone here who is originally from Atlanta. But everyone holds some of that Southern charm." -- Michelle Scruggs, lifelong Atlantan
  • • "My favorite part is seeing the greenery of north Georgia marry into the city; it's neat to see such a big city with cedars and flowers in the neighborhoods." -- Tommy Klemis, owner of Junior's Grill
  • • "Most people are surprised by how livable and beautiful Atlanta is. It's not only a destination city for people, but a place to move." -- Robyn Elliott, Bicycling Tours of Atlanta

Sports tourist's calendar

Friday: 7:30 p.m., Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field (Buy tickets)

Saturday: 10 a.m., "College GameDay" live broadcast, Centennial Olympic Park
1 p.m., Jacksonville State at Georgia Tech, Bobby Dodd Stadium (Buy tickets)
7 p.m., Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field (Buy tickets)
8 p.m., Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, Georgia Dome (Buy tickets)

Sunday: 1:30 p.m., Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field (Buy tickets)
7:30 p.m., NASCAR's Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway (Buy tickets)

Game-day itinerary

Wake early enough for breakfast, then take MARTA to the W1 stop (one west of the central station Five Points downtown) to see what mask Lee Corso will wear during the live broadcast of "College GameDay," at Centennial Olympic Park beginning at 10 a.m.

Afterward, consider two options to fill the afternoon.

  • • Remember there's another college team in town, too. Georgia Tech hosts Jacksonville State at the lovely Bobby Dodd Stadium. (The Ramblin' Wreck has been here since 1913). Tickets are still available, starting at just $15. Get to the stadium by MARTA, but first join a Tech tradition: a "naked dog" (plain hot dog) at the country's largest drive-in diner, Varsity, by the stadium. Tech should have things in hand before the third quarter ends, giving you enough time to retrace your steps to the Georgia Dome and pop into a sports bar like Stats to see how Georgia is faring at Oklahoma State on ABC. (It'll be crazy busy, but Stats has five bars, 70 TVs, a roof deck and good food.)
  • • If two games in a day is just too much football (we rather doubt that, but perhaps you'll be in need of some air conditioning), no worries. After leaving the set of "College GameDay," you'll find more than a day's worth of non-football attractions in walking distance. Start with the Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest and one of Atlanta's biggest hits. Book a day or two ahead for a 1 p.m. time. Walkways go through underwater tunnels and allow visitors to peer up to whale sharks and manta rays. Afterward, there are a couple other attractions from which to pick. The CNN studios offer tours, but we prefer the World of Coca-Cola, around the corner to the north. It's basically a live-in ad for Coke, but it's pretty fun -- and you can hug the polar bear from the beverage company's popular ads.

By 7 p.m., head to the Georgia Dome to get in your seats before the 8 p.m. kickoff. After the tilt, try to squeeze into Stats or skip the Dome's crammed MARTA station and walk to downtown's Five Points MARTA stop (about 10 to 15 minutes by foot, slightly uphill) and ride north to the Art Center Station, near Crescent Avenue's hopping night life scene in Midtown. You'll want to shed the Tide/Hokie gear before stepping into the huge disco Opera. It's an eternal spring break at Flip Flops, with icy drinks featuring imaginative names like "Gator Hator."

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