Explore Atlanta: Free and Off the Beaten Path

The question that pops up in my inbox every so often from people coming to visit Atlanta for the first time — What is there to do?

There’s the standard list that includes the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke and CNN Studios, which are all adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park (free). There is also the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the High Museum, the Fox Theatre and Zoo Atlanta. I’m certainly not saying these places aren’t worthwhile, especially catching a show at the Fox or the Garden’s holiday lights, but for me, visiting a new city isn’t just about seeing  the major tourist spots. I like to experience the city just by walking around, and quite honestly, I find that harder to do in Atlanta because of limited public transportation, interstates chopping up the city and the need for a car. So while locals probably won’t find many surprises on this list, visitors may come across something different. Plus, all those places above charge admission. For a single person to see all of those sites, he is looking at spending more than $100 in admission fees. So here are some options to consider adding to your itinerary — some of them are even free!

1. The Martin Luther King Center  First things first– I know this isn’t “off the beaten path.” But it is a pretty significant piece of Atlanta’s history AND the parking and admission is free. Tours of the birth home are also free, but they run on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s advisable to get there early on weekends and holidays.


IMG_69032. The Atlanta BeltLine   The BeltLine is a free multi-use trail that is still under construction along the old rail line and circles the city. Some sections are complete and ready to use. If you only have time to check out one part, I recommend the 2-mile Eastside Trail, which has a large portion of works from Art on the BeltLine. At the Irwin Street end you can pop over a few blocks to check out Krog Street Tunnel and Krog Street Market. Along the way you will pass the Historic Fourth Ward Park and the skate park, Ponce City Market and end up at Piedmont Park.

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3. Street Art  Living Walls is an annual conference on street art and urbanism. The resulting murals are all over the city. I highly recommend downloading the Living Walls app onto your phone. It’s free and can be used to locate the works. It will also alert you if you just happen to be in the vicinity of one.

Living Walls mural by Gaia, Nanook and Doodles
Living Walls mural by Gaia, Nanook and Doodles

Also check out the Cabbagetown neighborhood, site of the Forward Warrior Project.

Forward Warrior mural by Greg Mike, Cat Lanta, Corey Davis and Big Teeff.
Forward Warrior mural by Greg Mike, Cat Lanta, Corey Davis and Big Teeff.

When you finish there, you can head over to item #4, which is right across Boulevard.

4. Historic Oakland Cemetery  Founded in 1850, this stunning cemetery and park is the final resting place of famous names such as Margaret Mitchell and Bobby Jones and the site of festivals and concerts. You can walk around for free or pay to take a tour.
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5. The Vortex  There are two options for dining at the beloved burger joint. One is located in Midtown and is attached to the Laughing Skull Lounge, a charming small venue to catch a stand-up-comedy show. The other is the one with the landmark 20-foot laughing skull entrance in the eclectic neighborhood of Little Five Points. If you choose L5P, be sure to check out Junkman’s Daughter while you’re there. Note: both locations are bars and patrons must be 21 to enter.

Feeling brave? Order the signature cocktail the Skull Crusher which is so generous with the liquor you are limited to two (and you get to keep the glass) and a Bypass Burger with two grilled cheese sandwiches as the buns.

7. DeKalb Farmer’s Market  Decatur’s world market has been around since 1977. Peruse the items you won’t find in your local grocery store and have a meal in the “restaurant” (more of a hot bar with seating) which prepares international food fresh daily.

8. Buford Highway  This road and multi-ethnic community spans several counties and is the address of countless family operated restaurants and businesses. The dining options –Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican, etc. — are endless. Google “Buford Highway restaurants” and you will find multiple articles with recommendations. If you have a chance, stop by the Buford Highway Farmers Market, which has been around since 1984.

9. East Atlanta Village  EAV is one of my favorite in-town neighborhoods. A meal at Argosy, a drink at the Flatiron, a band at the Earl, weirdness at the Graveyard Tavern and so much more.

By Shaun Thurston on Argosy wall in EAV
By Shaun Thurston on Argosy wall in EAV

10. Doll’s Head Trail   The easy hike in Constitution Lakes Park is full of unique (and creepy) found art. Visitors are welcome to contribute, but are asked to use items found in the park.

photo by Catherine McElroy
photo by Catherine McElroy

11. CDC Museum  Calling all Walking Dead fans. The CDC scenes in the show were not filmed at the actual CDC in Atlanta. If you want to see where they filmed the exterior shots, you’ll have to head north on I-75 a few miles from the actual CDC to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. But if you are interested in the real CDC, you can visit their museum for free. Note: Security measures require ID and a car inspection upon entering the campus. Guided tours should be booked in advance.

12. Jackson Street Bridge  This is one of the most popular spots to get a shot of the skyline. It’s also recognizable as the skyline shot of Atlanta used in The Walking Dead. Drive over it to check it out and keep an eye out for nearby street parking so you can get a shot of your own. There will likely be other people present, especially at sunset.

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13. Breweries  Despite the fact that local breweries face an ongoing struggle fighting oppressive legislation of the industry in Georgia, they sure are managing to brew some good beer. The biggest name is Sweetwater, but it certainly isn’t alone. Eventide, Orpheus, Red Brick and Monday Night are just a few of the options inside the city, plus several more operating in the suburbs.

14. Atlanta Roller Girls  The Braves are ditching the city for the ‘burbs and Falcons tickets + beer = mad expensive. Check out roller derby at the Yaarab Shrine Center instead. It’s fun, it’s casual, it’s BYOB!

15. Castleberry Art Stroll  This free, self-guided tour takes place on the second Friday of every month. A map will guide you to each gallery location hosting an art installation, and the local shops and restaurants are open for businesses.

As always, I love suggestions. What do you think is a must-see for visitors in Atlanta?

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