Going Out: Worldwide; 48 hours in ... Atlanta

The sprawling city of Atlanta is a tantalising mixture of old and new, its Deep South history a vivid backdrop to the new skycraper skyline.
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Atlanta is a dynamic city in the throes of re-inventing itself. Don't expect the Old South portrayed in the film Gone With the Wind: the city is trying to shrug off its "Confederate and plantation" past. Look instead for hints of life as it will be in the new millennium and marvel at the futuristic buildings.

Beam down

British Airways and Delta Airlines fly non-stop from Gatwick every day; Delta also flies from Manchester. Half a dozen other airlines will get you there via other points in the US. Expect to pay pounds 250 for indirect flights and about pounds 50-pounds 80 more for non-stop travel, so long as you book through a discount agent - and book after the Christmas rush.

Get your bearings

From the air, Atlanta sprawls untethered into the horizon (it encompasses 6,150 square miles) and its size can be overwhelming. But acquaint yourself with public transport (taxis are almost non-existent) and Atlanta will feel do-able.

Areas to focus on include Downtown/Midtown Atlanta (can be covered on foot), Buckhead (glitzy hotels and shopping malls), Virginia Highlands (eclectic) and Little Five Points (alternative).

Check in

Unlike its cavernous, anonymous neighbours in the Downtown district, the Ritz-Carlton (00 1 404 659 0400) seduces with its muffled luxury. Rooms are spacious and the service is subdued (always a plus in America).

Ansley Inn (00 1 404 872 9000) is a handsome brick Tudor mansion now used as an affordable bed and breakfast. It features oversized bedrooms furnished with Chinese porcelains and antiques.

Barclay Hotel (00 1 404 524 7991) is cheap and central; its Celebrity Cafe is known for its tasty waffles and fried chicken.

Take a ride

Atlanta is home to the world's longest escalator - at Ted Turner's CNN Centre, headquarters of the international Cable News Network and Headline News. The escalator ride marks the start of a 45-minute tour of this broadcasting empire.

For a more dramatic look at Atlanta, catch an elevator: the lift at the downtown Hilton Hotel will whip you up to its elegant roof-top restaurant on the 30th floor.

Take a hike

Once a popular meeting place for the Klu Klux Klan, Stone Mountain park now attracts anyone fancying a stroll or a cappucino at the top of its 825 feet-high "mountain". This 3,200 acre area houses a reassembled plantation, a museum, Civil War exhibits, two golf courses, a beach, a lake, a zoo, a paddle-wheel riverboat, a skylift and endless shops and cafes.

Lunch on the run

Mary Mac's Tea Room at 224 Ponce de Leon Ave serves traditional Southern home-cooking to a mixed clientele of business folk, manual workers and lunching ladies. A basket of biscuits, corn-bread, rolls and whipped butter is offered to anyone who sits down. Specialties include fried catfish and banana pudding. A pianist wanders in at whim to play songs harking back to old Southern times. Service is kindly but eccentric: guests write down their orders with a blunt pencil. Located downtown.

Cultural afternoon

The Centre of Puppetry Arts houses a collection of more than 200 hand, string, rod and shadow puppets from around the world, as well as characters from the Muppet Show (Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy). PuppetWorks, a hands-on exhibit, allows visitors to have a go. Shows are held twice-daily. "Stories" range from Shakespearian drama to "adult-theme" productions. Closed Sunday.

For an alternative dose of culture, visit the Road to Tara Museum for a trip back to the days of slavery, 19-inch waists and civil war. This is the place where Margaret Mitchell first presented the completed manuscript of Gone With the Wind to her publisher. The house has had a checkered history; several years ago it was the target of an arson attack when Mitchell's book was deemed "racist". Mitchell's defenders rubbish such claims.

An aperitif

Theme bars are unavoidable in Atlanta. Dante's Down the Hatch, in Buckhead, follows the shipwreck theme: descend into the lower decks of a "ship" to find a muggy underworld with a wharf front, live crocodiles and hideously expensive beer.

Trader Vic's in the Hilton offers a trip into a Polynesian mystery world, where cocktails can be served hot, and "lovers' drinks" the size of a washing-up tub give any early-evening "sundowner" a festive air. Stuffed turtles on the wall and fish carcasses complete the effect.

Demure dinner

Nestled in between skyscrapers and on the edge of a "difficult" district, Mumbo Jumbo (00 1 212 404 523 0330), a restaurant serving contemporary American food, has a vibrant, sexy atmosphere. The bar is loud and rude, with deep red chairs and plenty of discreet corners. The restaurant itself flickers with flames from the giant grate. Food is exquisite and boldly presented (we enjoyed the rabbit, venison and chocolate souffle). The wine list is excellent. Dress for the evening - and dress hot!

Early hours

Slip into the Ritz for a late-night Martini and live jazz. The drinks are artworks: blue with a slice of yellow in a skin-thin glass, or a perfect white ball suspended in nothingness. Voices are low and belong to an older, richer set, apt to leave large tips.

Sunday morning: go to church

Atlanta's Auburn Avenue was an exciting place to be during the heady days of the 1960s. Its churches and meeting halls gave Civil Rights leaders a venue from which to make speeches. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, 200,000 people marched down Auburn Ave. King's body is there now, encased in a raised white-marble tomb in the middle of a "meditation pool" with the inscription "Free at last".

Next door to this courtyard at the Centre for Non-Violent Social Change is the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Three generations of Kings have preached from its pulpit. Every Sunday morning a service is held to which visitors are made especially welcome. The Gospel singing and the sermons are rousing but long - expect to be there for up to three hours. The service starts at 10.30am.

Bracing brunch

There is no better place to sample carrot pancakes with apple sauce and maple syrup, or eggs, bacon and hash browns, than the Flying Biscuit Cafe (00 1 212 404 687 8888), a lively neighbourhood meeting place in Little Five Points. People-watch to while away the half-hour wait for a table (unavoidable at any Sunday brunch venue in Atlanta): there will be families and clusters of elderly "frats" enjoying a re-union, alongside heavily tattooed, dreadlocked locals.

A walk in the park

Swamp your senses with the heady scent of orchids or the lulling humidity of a conservatory in Atlanta's botanical garden. Even in winter, the gardens have a bleak, empty charm: there is a Japanese garden with a bridge and goldfish pond, a fragrance garden for the blind, and a dwarf- and rare-conifer garden. Scattered across paths and lawns are an eccentric selection of sculptures, ranging from a giant turquoise frog sitting on a bench, to the more traditional fairy-fountain figures.

The icing on the cake

To enter a madcap dream which somehow evolved into reality, make a point of going to see a show at the glamorous Fox Theatre, still used for Broadway shows, rock concerts and dance performances. This hair-raising building was originally built in 1929 for Atlanta's Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (a Masonic order), but was purchased by movie mogul William Fox when the Order ran into financial difficulties.

The interior is reminiscent of a Moroccan fortress: there are minarets and chandeliers, copper-clad onion domes, watchtowers, lancet arches, and a huge bronze marquee over the entrance. Most spectacular is the "sky" ceiling - a midnight-blue dome with soft floating clouds and twinkling stars.