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Atlanta is the South's undisputed gay capital and number-one relocation destination for most of the region's gay men and women, many of whom come from small towns to flee oppression. These "immigrants" give the city its down-home feel, often making it seem smaller than it is, with their warm and welcoming attitude toward visitors. Riding the futuristic MARTA monorail system past the towering glass buildings of such industry giants as Coca-Cola, CNN, IBM, and Nabisco creates a city-of-the-future impression; the man seated next to you wearing a short-sleeve dress shirt and tie, and offering tips on the best barbecue in town, provides a sort of comforting contradiction. What it lacks in the quickness and cleverness of northeastern cities, Atlanta makes up for in the warm and outgoing nature of its people. Having played Host City to the 1996 Olympic Games assures its ranking as a major world city for years to come. Not bad for a city that was held in a 117-day siege by General Sherman in 1864 and burned (90 percent) to the ground.
With its sprawling neighborhoods, a rental car might seem like the obvious choice, but a multi-day MARTA pass (www.itsmarta.com) and comfortable shoes are a practical alternative -- especially for short stays. The rail system, which runs to/from the international airport, roughly forms a plus sign that comes within a few blocks of most major attractions and crosses at Five Points downtown. (Stops on each leg are labeled N, S, E, or W to match compass directions, so it's easy to navigate. Buses or cabs fill in the gaps in the spokes, i.e. East Atlanta.) To the north, Midtown's concentration of gay bars, shops, and restaurants make the gay scene manageable sans auto. South of downtown, gentrifying Castleberry Hill has a lively monthly ArtStroll (www.castleberryhill.org) and numerous gay-owned businesses. East Atlanta and its eastern neighbor Decatur also pop with gay activity, with the latter being particularly lesbian-friendly.
When celebs are in town, The Four Seasons (75 Fourteenth Street N.E.; 404-881-9898 or 800-819-5053; www.fourseasons.com/Atlanta; $410+) in Midtown -- an ultra-luxe 51-story neo-classical hotel/residential property -- is their address of choice. 2007 heralded a total makeover of the 244 guestrooms and the arrival of a 12,000-square-foot full-service spa. The 54-seat lounge with mahogany bar and baby grand provides a chic cocoon for a nightcap.
It's as if the sun is always shining inside the Hotel Indigo (683 Peachtree St. NE; 404-874-9200; www.hotelindigo.com; weekends $129+, weekdays $189+), thanks to its lime, bright blue, and picket-fence white palette that feels like a Ralph Lauren beach cottage; plus, it's location is hard to beat: across from the historic Fox Theatre on the south side of Midtown. For style on the swankier side, check out The Glenn Hotel (110 Marietta St. NW; 404-521-2250 or 866-40GLENN; www.glennhotel.com; $229+), downtown's first boutique property (and smoke free), where eye-popping orange room accents and a South Beach-worthy rooftop bar with one of the best city skyline views amp up the buzz.
For a great gay-friendly location on a budget, The Granada Suite Hotel (1302 W. Peachtree St.; 404-876-6100; www.bestwestern.com; $109+) is hard to beat; it's located across the street from the N5 Marta station (one stop from Midtown's gay epicenter), and one block from the High Museum/Woodruff Arts Center. Floral bedspreads and paisley carpet are easily overlooked when WiFi and a daily hot breakfast buffet are complimentary. (Renovations are under way as of early 2008 to modernize the décor.)
Day 1: Going Gay the Midtown Way
At gay ground zero, 10th and Piedmont, get a caffeine fix and your bearings at Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse (991 Piedmont Ave.; 404-607-0082; www.outwritebooks.com), which bills itself as a "gay visitor's center," and is stocked with local LGBT publications.
Tara, Atlanta's most famous mansion, doesn't exist. However, "Gone With the Wind" fans can get in touch with their inner Scarlett at the two-story brick Margaret Mitchell House & Museum (990 Peachtree St. NE; 404-249-7015; www.gwtw.org) where the author penned her Southern opus.
When the sun is shining, the front patios fill at gay-popular Einstein's (1077 Juniper Street; 404-876-7925; www.einsteinsatlanta.com; $9-19), and its sibling down the street Joe's on Juniper (1049 Juniper St.; 404-875-6634; www.joesatlanta.com; $8-14). Einstein's takes the more upscale approach with an interior of zebra-patterned booths, warm woods, and pearly mosaic accents, while Joe's goes the wooden pub table and beer-sign route to accompany its casual American fare; both are hot spots on the Saturday/Sunday gay brunch circuit. For dessert, stop at gay-owned Chocolate Pink (905 Juniper St. NE, Unit 108; 404-745-9292; www.chocolatepink.com) for out-of-this-world hand-painted chocolates, petit fours, and mousse cakes that melt in the mouth. Pricey, but worth it.
Work off lunch in the 180 gorgeous green acres of Piedmont Park (Piedmont Avenue at Fourteenth Street), where you'll find gays bicycling, rollerblading, playing tennis, strolling, and flirting. The upper portion of the park, near the lake, has long been known as Homo Hill. Art lovers will want to beeline for The High Museum (1280 Peachtree St. NE; 404-577-6940; www.high.org), a striking geometric white structure built to worldwide acclaim by Richard Meier and enhanced in 2005 by Renzo Piano that houses the Southeast's finest art collection. Looking for total relaxation instead? Join the queer A-listers at gay-owned Blue Med Spa (190 10th St.; 404-815-8880; www.bluemedspaonline.com) for an afternoon of pampering.
Grab a NYC-style cocktail in the cool, mixed setting of Kat's Café (below Helmet hair salon; 970 Piedmont Ave; 404-347-2263) before splurging on the modern French cuisine at Trois (1180 Peachtree St.; 404-815-3337; www.Trois3.com; $24-31), an elegant open-kitchen outpost with tall white-curtain-draped windows from sizzling Atlanta restaurateurs Bob Amick and Todd Rushing.
After a costume change, it's off to Blake's on the Park, a local institution for gay cocktails and people-watching. The upstairs/downstairs layout with separate entrances allows for split personalities to feel at home: go casual in the lower level or sip martinis and nibble on a late-night snack from the chocolate leather stools on the totally renovated top floor. Local LGBT musicians play on Thursday nights. Dance addicts head to glam WETbar (960 Spring St.; 404-745-9494; www.wetbaratlanta.com) afterward for an eye-candy-rich scene.
Day 2: Neighborhood Watch
Southwest of downtown (S1/Garnett stop on Marta), once-derelict Castleberry Hill -- a federally recognized historic district crammed with railroad buildings and warehouses -- has become a hotbed for artist-fueled gentrification (and gay residents are at the forefront). A destination unto itself, the Hill's gay-owned No Más! Hacienda (180 Walker St. SW; 404-215-9769; www.nomashg.com) and No Más! Cantina (404-574-5678; www.nomascantina.com; $9-20) combines a shop overflowing with handcrafted home furnishings from 300 Mexican artisans with an adjoining -- and delectable -- Mexican restaurant that shares the same artsy decor.
Head east from Five Points for the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District (several sites along Auburn Avenue N.E. between Jackson and Randolph streets), central to any Atlanta visit. The district is devoted to the life of the slain civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and comprises the King Library and Archives; his tomb in the middle of a reflecting pool behind his home church, Ebenezer Baptist Church; The King Birthplace; and The King Center (449 Auburn Ave., N.E.; 404-526-8900; www.thekingcenter.org), which displays films and memorabilia related to his life.
Take a spin through funky-boho Little Five Points (not to be confused with Five Points) for some eclectic shopping as well as hipster fashion courtesy of Wish (447 Moreland Ave. NE; 404-880-0402; www.wishATL.com) before heading to tree-lined Decatur, Atlanta's second-oldest municipality and home to a sizable lesbian and gay population. Indigo Girl Emily Saliers co-founded Watershed (406 W. Ponce De Leon Ave.; 404-378-4900; www.watershedrestaurant.com; $16-25), where Chef Scott Peacock puts his tantalizing Southern stamp on shrimp grits, roast chicken, and fresh fish. The airy restaurant, formerly a gas station, also has a superb wine list.
Make like a local with cocktails at Birdi's (115 Sycamore St.; 404-371-9906; www.birdisonthesquare.com), a three-level brick bar/casual restaurant/live music venue on Decatur Square that draws a mixed crowd, or the friendly East Atlanta gay joint Mary's (1287 Glenwood Ave.; 404-624-4411; www.marysatlanta.com), which hosts rollicking karaoke nights. Legendary lesbian bar My Sister's Room (1271 Glenwood Ave.; www.mysistersroom.com) left its long-running Decatur home and now resides a few doors down from Mary's.
Day 3: Be a Big 'Ol Tourist!
Head downtown to the city's must-see Georgia Aquarium for aquatic encounters that will thrill even die-hard landlubbers. It's not only the world's largest aquarium, but also the home to whale sharks, the biggest fish on earth -- and a new program allows guests to swim or dive with them in their 6 million gallon tank. Next door, the New World of Coca-Cola (121 Baker St. NW; 404-676-5151; www.woccatlanta.com) is a Willy Wonka-esque museum of cola culture that features mountains of memorabilia and a "tasting room" where visitors can sample all the company's soda products. Visit the next century of communication by touring the CNN Center (Marietta Street and Centennial Olympic Park Drive; 404-827-2300; www.cnn.com/studiotour). Sorry, Anderson Cooper not included.
When you want a heaping serving of Southern food and Southern hospitality, check out gay-friendly Mary Mac's Tea Room (224 Ponce de Leon Ave.; 404-876-1800; www.marymacs.com; $9-18), serving homestyle dishes since 1945. It's just down the street from the The Fox Theatre (660 Peachtree St. NE; 404-881-2100; www.foxtheatre.org), a 1929 Moorish/Egyptian/Art Deco masterpiece and the second-largest operating theater in the country after Radio City Music Hall.
Head back to Midtown for a final night out and a final helping of sumptuous Southern cooking, but this time done with contemporary flair (aka New South). Bustling South City Kitchen (1144 Crescent Ave; 404-873-7358; www.southcitykitchen.com; $16-23) is tops in that category with its perfectly seasoned fried chicken, gouda mac-n-cheese, and whole catfish. If you're feeling particularly countrified, stop by Hoedowns (931 Monroe Drive; 404-876-0001; www.hoedownsatlanta.com), the city's festive gay western bar.
Stone Mountain Park, an easy 17-mile drive northeast from Atlanta on U.S. 78 (take Exit 8; www.stonemountainpark.com), is the South's answer to Mount Rushmore: the world's largest exposed mass of granite, on which one face is sculpted a giant (165 by 72 feet) bas-relief of three Confederate heroes: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and General "Stonewall" Jackson. The ambitious can climb up the mountain's western face on a single hiking trail; for an easier trip, a cable car system leaves from the visitors' center. The far-reaching view from the top of the mountain at sundown is particularly romantic; the top of the mountain itself, however, seems otherworldly, almost how one might imagine the surface of the moon.
Nightly at 9:30 p.m. from May 24 through Aug. 10 (and select times/dates April-early May and late-August-October), a dazzling laser light show is projected onto the mountain accompanied by a blasting rock soundtrack. On summer nights the viewing green is packed with picnicking families eating fried chicken. Despite its bizarreness at times, the whole trip is fun for a warm summer's night with a picnic dinner.