See the best of Atlanta — its outdoor recreation, arts, science museums and live entertainment — without spending a dime. Now that’s a cheap family vacation.
Atlanta, Georgia earns its celebrated reputation as the capital of the south. Award-winning museums, parks, arts, great food and historical neighborhoods round out the offerings for Atlanta family vacations local and visitors who play within its sprawling boundaries. Despite its top notch amenities and rank as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country, there is still plenty to do for free. Start with a walk through Atlanta’s rich history.
A (Free) Walk through History
The Martin Luther King Center (404/526-8900; 449 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30312) was founded by Coretta Scott King in 1968 to preserve her husband’s legacy. Exhibits are dedicated to showcasing King’s teachings and nonviolent movement for peace, justice and equality. The grounds are also the final resting place of the Kings. Over at his birth home on 450 Auburn Avenue, visitors can peruse family artifacts, dishes, and period furniture. The King Center is open seven days a week from 9am to 5pm with extended summer hours until 6pm.
The historic African-American area along Auburn Avenue is referred to as the ‘Sweet Auburn District’. Because of Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation, the African American community set up businesses, congregations, and community centers in Sweet Auburn. The area, once home to prominent, rich African-Americans, includes landmarks such as the Rucker Building, Atlanta’s first African-American owned building. Today, the Sweet Auburn district is a National Historic Landmark.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at Georgia’s government at work with a free tour of the Georgia State Capitol (404/656-2844; 206 Washington St SW, Atlanta, GA 30334), open Monday through Friday. Visitors can opt to linger in the heart of Georgia’s government with a free self-guided tour of the State Capitol Museum. The museum preserves Georgia’s history with exhibits, artifacts, historic flags, and artwork. Hours for tours vary by season and contnigent on political activities at the capitol. Check the website for current times.
To see where Governor and First Lady Perdue hang out off hours, head to the Governors Mansion (404/261-1776; 391 West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, GA 30305-1099) for a free tour on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays between 10am and 11:30am. Docents in each room educate visitors on self-guided tours about the collection and history of the Mansion. The 18-acre estate was completed in 1968 and houses antiques from the Federalist Period.
Foodies should ask about Holly Chute, the mansion’s current Executive Chef. Over the years, Chute has cooked for Governor George Busbee, Governor Joe Frank Harris, Governor Zell Miller, Governor Roy Barnes, and Governor Sonny Perdue. The Mansion also boasts a vegetable garden brimming with tomatoes, snap beans, okra , zucchini, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and winter cabbage. The Executive Chef gathers the organic veggies for family meals and political parties.
Atlanta’s Great Outdoors
In East Atlanta’s Grant Park, take a walk through the city’s first municipal cemetery — an antebellum landmark — the historic Oakland Cemetery. Kids will appreciate it if you to make a stop at the playground, sit in the gazebo with a picnic, or stroll by the pond. Grant Park was a gift to the city of Atlanta in 1883 from Lemuel P. Grant and is the city’s oldest park.
A zoo was established in the park during 1889, followed by a Cyclorama depicting historical events in 1893. John C. Olmsted (whose firm also designed Central Park in New York City) was given the arduous task of designing Grant Park and turning it into a viable recreational facility and public gathering place. The oldest city park in Atlanta, Grant Park also hosts live entertainment and events throughout the year.
Stop at Piedmont Park (10th Street and Piedmont Avenue) and have an impromptu picnic with items found at the farmer’s markets, open on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm at the 12th Street entrance, from June through October. The expansive park also houses summer concerts, events, festivals, and live entertainment. The park also regularly hosts free Cardio Kids sessions, free Greenmarkets, and free gardening workshops. Check their website for a schedule of upcoming events.
You can also learn more about Atlanta’s future development with a free Belt Line Tour through the park. The BeltLine will connect greenspace, trails, public light rail transportation and more through 22 miles of once-abandoned and historic railroads. Aside from getting a free education on Atlanta’s future infrastructure, the 3-hour tour takes you through some of Atlanta’s historical neighborhoods, including the historic West End. Check the Piedmont Park website for a list of current tours and times.
For a day of hiking or leisurely strolls, try the 65-acre Fernbank Forest with undisturbed, mature mixed Hardwood forests. Open year-round, the forest provides a historic insight to Georgia’s vegetation. Most of Atlanta’s original vegetation has been farmed or destroyed by development since the 1860’s.
The on-site Fernbank Museum also hosts bird walks, educational strolls, and Fernbank Family Forest Walks throughout the year. Walks are free with a paid admission. Locate the path from the Fernbank Science Center at 156 Heaton Park Drive (678/874-7102).
Check out the Robert L. Staton Memorial Rose Garden at Fernbank Museum for a free look at nearly 1,500 rose blossoms. Staton grew the garden to share his expertise and knowledge on growing roses in Atlanta’s climate. The garden is open during daylight hours and is the perfect way to end a day of hiking.
Have a picnic lunch or cool off with a cold Coca-Cola at Centennial Olympic Park. The park features music at noon events, jazz performances, educational family fun day and more. Or let the kids splash in the Fountain of Rings or the Children’s Playground. Take note of the bricks scattered throughout the park complete with people’s names and dates. The 686,000 inscribed bricks were part of a fundraising effort to build the park. Locals bought the bricks and had their names forever cemented right in the park. There’s even a brick finder at the information center so locals can find their bricks. The park helped revitalize the neighborhood and provide a gathering spot to celebrate the 1996 Olympics hosted in Atlanta.
The outdoors is almost free outside of town, too. Hike a granite mountain, let the kids play in the expansive lawn, and tour the grounds at the historic Stone Mountain Park (770-498/5690). Stay after sundown and watch a spectacular laser light show set to all your favorite songs dance across the face of the mountain. The mountain features three Confederate heroes carved into the mountain. Greet Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” on an 825-foot-long wall and covering 583 acres. You can hike right to the top and look over Georgia at 1,683 feet above sea level. There is a $10 parking fee for vehicles with 14 passengers or less.
Window-Shopping at Atlanta’s Shops & Museums
Teenagers will want to stop at the eclectic and funky Junkman’s Daughter (404/577-3188; 464 Moreland Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30307) in Little Five Points. Window shop for bizarre, funky, and quirky gifts you won’t find anywhere else. Parents take a look at Wax n’ Facts (404/525-2275; 432 Moreland Ave N.E., Atlanta, GA 30307) for new, old, and offbeat records. This formerly gritty, quickly gentrifying neighborhood still retains some of its bohemian charm.
The Atlantic Station in midtown has so much going on, it has its own zip code. The area is a unique community with on-site apartments, stores, restaurants, and more. Window shop at Dillard’s, American Eagle Outfitters, Old Navy, Ikea, and more. Or check out ongoing free movies at their free Movies and the Market showings. See their online calendar for upcoming events. The restaurants also offer regular wine tastings and trivia nights.
Art lovers head to The Museum of Contemporary Art (404/881-1109; 1447 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, GA 30309) on the first Thursday of each month for free admission. The museum was the first of its kind to specifically feature Georgian artists. Regular museum hours run Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm and closed on Sunday and Monday.
On the edge of the Fernbank Forest, the Science Center (678/874-7102; 156 Heaton Park Drive, Atlanta, GA 30307) is free year-round. Or take the kids to see a planetarium show projected on a 70-foot diameter project dome for just $4 adults and $3 kids, students, and seniors. You’ll also see nearly 10,000 stars on the Zeiss V projector. If you want to skip the film, head straight to the free Fernbank Observatory housing one of the largest telescopes in the southeast — a 36-inch Cassegrain reflector and a 30-foot dome. You can watch the stars from the telescope for free every Thursday and Friday from 9pm to 10:30pm.
If You Have Some Money Left, Some Favorite Cheap Eats
You can’t expect the family to sightsee without a good meal. Start the morning with a hearty breakfast on a budget at West Egg Cafe (404/872-3973; 1168-A Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, GA 30318) for pancakes, eggs, tofu scrambles, cheese grits, and world famous Coca Cola cupcakes. Price range from $5.25 to $10 or more for full breakfasts, lunch, coffees, sodas, and baked goods.
Have a burger, fries, and shake at the biggest drive through in the world, The Varsity (404/881-1706; 61 North Avenue, Atlanta GA 30308). Chili cheese dogs, onion rings, Frosted Orange, fried pies, and more. A ‘naked hog dog’ currently costs under $1.50. Feed the family against a backdrop of the Georgia Tech campus and housing.
Over in the family friendly neighborhood of Candler Park, Radial Cafe (404/659-6594; 1530 Dekalb Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30307) serves up omelets, grits, breakfast fare, vegan options, burgers, sandwiches and more for about $6 on up. Walk through the neighborhood afterward and look at the traditional Atlanta bungalows, shops, and boutiques on McLendon Drive.
For a night out on the town just for grown-ups, head to the Peasant Bistro (404/230-1724; 250 Park Avenue West, Atlanta, GA, 30313). Although not on the cheap, the mouth-watering menu is the perfect splurge for duck confit, braised short ribs, mussels, fine wines, and their famous cheese grits. On Thursday nights, step in for $4 martinis and live jazz.
If You Have More Money, Some Favorite ATL Splurges
If you think a family night out at the ball park is too expensive, look for $1 nights in the Upper Reserved section to see the Atlanta Braves play at Turner Field. The Braves Museum, located right inside the ballpark, also offers special free admission days. The museum features over 600 Braves artifacts including the train car the baseball players once traveled in, memorabilia, and photos.
For a special splurge, grown-ups should check out Martinis and IMAX on Friday nights at the Fernbank Museum from 5:30pm to 10pm January through November. Enjoy live jazz, cocktails, and an IMAX movie. Tickets run $12, but you can skip the movie and pay a cover for the music for $7 each.
Zip through the city on a Segway tour with City Segway Tours (877/SEG-TOUR; 50 Upper Alabama Street, Suite 256 Atlanta, GA 30303). See historic Atlanta, go on a ghost tour, explore the Sweet Auburn District, and more with an expert, entertaining guide. If you’re a little nervous about riding on a Segway, don’t be. The staff lets guests practice in a safe, traffic-free area beforehand. Most riders find the process to be fun, intuitive, and safe.
Take the kids on a trip to a museum that will captivate their imaginations. The Center for Puppetry Arts (404/873-3391; 1404 Spring St. NW at 18th, Atlanta, GA 30309) features a museum full of puppets, including a collection from legendary Jim Henson. Kids will marvel at Big Bird, Rowlf the dog, and Swedish the Chef. Shows are (obviously) super kid friendly and a little whispering or whimpering won’t bring glares. Take your little ones to see Old McDonald until September 11, 2016. Non-member tickets for for a show, Create-a-Puppet Workshop and Museum, children 2 and under who sit on their parents laps can see the show for free start at $20.50. See the Museum for free on Thursdays from 1pm to 3pm.
If your kids love marine life and want to see the Atlanta Aquarium (404/581-4000; 225 Baker Street, Atlanta, GA 30313), take a Shark Themed Family Tour — behind the scenes. Guests see a live coral reef, observe whale, sand tiger and black-tipped reef sharks from the top of the tanks, and more. Prices start at $35 a person, more extensive behind-the-scenes tours with penguins, a stop at the animal clinic and more starts at $50 a person.
For more information on Atlanta, Georgia, and what it offers by way of tourism, free events, and low-cost family options, visit www.atlanta.net.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.