We recently returned from three days spent in Atlanta, which turned out to be a fantastic city for a family vacation. We stayed in Buckhead (about a 20 minute drive from downtown Atlanta) at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites. Our room was a large two bedroom, two bath suite with a kitchenette. The hotel is a good option for those on a budget; there are many grocery stores nearby and rates include a buffet breakfast. Here's how we spent our time:
Day 1: We got an early start for our visit to Zoo Atlanta. Because my daughter is a panda fanatic, we visited them first. The zoo currently has three pandas and we were able to watch them eating bamboo, playing, and sleeping. Near the panda exhibit is a great little panda gift shop with stuffed pandas, panda postcards, and other panda memorabilia. While the pandas are the most popular zoo resident, there are plenty of other animals to see, both the usual (elephants) and the unusual (the naked mole rat). The zoo is a great size for younger kids; there's plenty to see but it's not overwhelming. Before lunch, we took time to ride the zoo train and the endangered species carousel. We brought our lunch to eat in the picnic area, but many concession stands are available. For dinner we tried the OK Cafe in Buckhead. There's no children's menu, but kids can split a "blue plate special" and get free refills of sweet tea.
Day 2: Another early start to visit the new Georgia Aquarium. It's definitely worth getting up early for; we had the place almost to ourselves for a couple of hours. We visited the Ocean Gallery first. It's the most popular exhibit, consisting of a walk-through tunnel where you are surrounded on all sides by sea life. The whale sharks are the big hit here, Atlanta is the only aquarium in the country to house them and they are amazingly huge and graceful. The kids also loved the sea lions, beluga whales, and the multiple touch tanks. To save money, you can buy combination tickets to the zoo and aquarium. Afterwards we headed over to Centennial Olympic Park to see the Fountain of the Rings. The kids enjoyed the two playgrounds and splashing around in the fountain. There are several fountain shows daily, when the water display is set to music.
Day 3: On our last day in Atlanta we had lunch at Mary Mack's Tea Room, a southern style restaurant justifiably famous for its fried chicken. The restaurant is very popular so expect a wait if you go at peak times. The kids enjoyed the coloring sheets and filling out their lunch orders on a pad of paper. Afterwards, we spent a few hours at the Atlanta Botanical Garden where the kids enjoyed the poison dart frog tanks in Fuqua Conservatory). There's also a great children's garden with tunnels to run through, an enormous watering can to play "Peter Rabbit" in, a wood play structure, and (of course) loads of beautiful flowers.
Travel hints: You may be able to get by without a rental car here if you are staying mostly within the downtown area and willing to use public transportation. We chose to rent a car for convenience. If you want to visit other popular attractions like the CNN Center or The World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta offers a City Pass where you pay one discounted rate to get into several attractions. You'll need to do the math to figure out if it makes sense for your family.