Visiting Atlanta for sports isn’t a new concept for me. My first visit came in 1996 for the Summer Olympics. My second visit was in 2003 for a weekend of baseball fun with the Atlanta Braves. I’ve been in town for a Georgia Tech football game, in addition to the non-sports weekend getaways Stacey and I have made through the years. But this weekend trip would be different. It was all about experiencing the city for an Atlanta Hawks game. So how did we spend our Atlanta NBA road trip weekend? Let me count the ways.
Atlanta is one of the great American sports cities, not just because of being home to the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NFL and NASCAR. The city has hosted many major sporting events through the years, from the Summer Olympics to the Super Bowl, SEC football and basketball championships, NCAA Final Fours and much more.
What I discovered on our recent visit to Atlanta, is that the city’s Downtown makes all of this possible. There is so much going on in Downtown Atlanta to keep visitors busy for a weekend. The close proximity of the Georgia Dome to the Georgia World Congress Center and Phillips Arena, not to mention the neighborhood’s thousands of hotel rooms and various family attractions make it a good base for a visit.
Someone could visit Atlanta for an event at Phillips Arena and actually not walk outside for days. We stayed at the Omni Hotel at CNN Center, which is attached to the CNN World Headquarters and Phillips Arena. I would never recommend someone visit a city and not venture out to experience the local scene, but a day of fun could be possible without ever leaving the CNN Center.
Let’s recap how our family enjoyed our Atlanta NBA Road Trip weekend.
Watching an Atlanta Hawks game at Phillips Arena was the reason for this trip. We’ve attended many NBA games, but only at our home arena of FedExForum in Memphis. So my NBA experiences are solely based on the Memphis Grizzlies. It just so happened that we watched the Grizzlies take on the Hawks, so we were there as visiting fans. Maybe that wasn’t the best way to experience the game, but then again it showed me how friendly the Hawks fans are. Maybe since the drive from Memphis is less than six hours, there were a number of Grizzlies fans in attendance. And if their experiences were anything like mine, they’d all say how delightful, courteous and energetic the Hawks fans are.
When we walked into the arena, it was more than an hour before tipoff. So we had plenty of time to walk through the large team store (there seemed to be a few throughout the arena) and enjoy the children’s activities they had going upstairs in the concourse. I didn’t buy anything from concessions other than beer and cotton candy, but the prices seemed to be pretty typical. I paid $7.50 for a 16-ounce Bud Light draft and the same price for a 12-ounce bottle of a locally brewed Sweetwater IPA. I liked how the vendor selling the cotton candy in the seats took credit cards. It’s a small touch, but an important one for me.
I’m not sure if it’s because these two teams don’t have a heated rivalry, but I thought the fans throughout the game weren’t as loud as I would have expected for a game matching two potential playoff participants. I’m not a fan of loud and over-the-top player intros., which makes it odd that I feel it was a little lacking during this game. That sort of thing is different from team to team and even game to game. But I thought they could have gotten a little louder than the arena actually did when the players were introduced.
I thought it was a wonderful touch that they let the children on the court after the game to shoot free throws. I’ve experienced kids running the bases after select baseball games, but I’ve never heard of basketball or football teams letting children on the playing surface. Colby got to get a few player autographs, have a fun interaction with Harry the Hawk and watch an entertaining basketball game. But he says his favorite part of the night was running on an NBA court.
Big ups to the Atlanta Hawks for doing a small but significant promotion to make the little fans happy. I felt Phillips Arena and the Atlanta Hawks were very accommodating to families. Everything about the in-game entertainment and promotions was family friendly, meaning nothing too PG13 and worse from the music, dancers or crowd.
There are a lot of great activities outside of Downtown Atlanta, but the city center has enough going to keep families busy for a long weekend. With Centennial Olympic Park at the heart, the CNN Studio Tour, Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola and an awesomely large Ferris Wheel are all within sight. Instead of trying to jam all of those activities into one day, we split them up over Saturday and Sunday. And on both days we ventured outside of Downtown to visit the High Museum of Art, and do some shopping in Little Five Points, Midtown and at IKEA, proving that family travel can include some fun things for the adults too.
After breakfast Saturday we spent a couple of hours at the High Museum. It has a great permanent collection that includes art starting in the Renaissance and going through modern Europe and American art. There was a large representation of 1800s European masters as well as American artists from the 1800s and early 1900s.
The museum also had a large variety of American furniture from the 1800s and 1900s, which probably makes sense with Atlanta being such an important city in the design world. There was also a Western art exhibit going while we were there.
After the High we spent some time in Little Five Points before driving the two miles back downtown where we parked the car at the Omni and went over for our pre-booked CNN Studio Tour.
Reservations aren’t a requirement but they are recommended. We enjoyed seeing the newsroom and checking out the studios used at CNN and Headline News, but I’d recommend going during the week if possible to increase the chances of seeing a live broadcast.
On Sunday, we started the day with a two-hour visit to the Georgia Aquarium. We decided to leave after two hours and not visit the whole facility so that we’d keep from having a grumpy boy on our hands. I think three hours is needed to properly see the property. It really is massive.
While Stacey shopped, Colby and I spent the afternoon playing in the Olympic ring fountains in Centennial Olympic Park and visiting the World of Coca-Cola. Colby loved the park, but wasn’t as game for Coca-Cola fun. I’m not sure if it’s because all the Coke nostalgia probably makes sense for older fans of the brand, or the fact Colby doesn’t like soda. He was a trooper and sampled a few beverages, but not as much as I did. I enjoyed World of Coca-Cola and wish I could have spent a little more time there without Colby.
On all of my trips to Atlanta, I’ve stayed about half the time in Buckhead and half the time in Downtown. I prefer Downtown for a few reasons: I have no need to go to Buckhead; there is plenty of shopping, nightlife and restaurants in Midtown, Virginia-Highlands and Little Five Points that I have no need to fight the traffic to get to Buckhead. But Downtown also is a great place to get lower hotel rates on the weekends. There just isn’t as much demand for the rooms at that time. And the location of Downtown is perfect for what we like to see in Atlanta. The neighborhoods with the shopping and food scenes we like are no more than three or four miles away. And for this visit, we were in town for a game.
I can’t say enough about the location of the Omni Hotel at CNN Center. We could walk from our room to the game without leaving the building. That totally blows my mind and is worth repeating: we didn’t go outside after the game to get to our room. No issues with parking. We didn’t have to walk in the cold or rain. No need for a coat. I could go on and on about the positives to having an arena and hotel attached, but I can guarantee that I will never attend an event at Phillips Arena and not stay at the Omni.
The hotel’s friendly staff, abundance of rooms (there are more than 1,000), plenty of space for children to roam in the CNN Atrium, a nice hotel bar serving several local beers, a reasonably priced breakfast buffet in the restaurant, its own coffee shop (and a Starbucks in the CNN Atrium), and clean and spacious rooms make this hotel a winner. Colby loved the great view of Centennial Olympic Park from our 20th floor room.
We aren’t attached to hotel brands. Sometimes we stay in apartments, sometimes we look for bed-and-breakfast inns. One trip I might book a room through Priceline, and the next I go for a nice boutique inn. This was our third stay with Omni Hotels and I will say I’m getting closer to claiming loyalty to the brand.
We love the food scene in Atlanta. But traveling with our son on this visit meant we weren’t going to be heading to all of our favorite spots that make more sense for adults out on a date than parents with a child. But that didn’t keep us from one of the city’s hotspots we’ve been meaning to try: Two Urban Licks. And it didn’t disappoint.
In addition to that fantastic dinner, we had Saturday brunch at Highland Bakery and Sunday lunch at The Varsity. Before the game Saturday we decided on Taco Mac. It’s nothing to write home about, but it is a local chain with a sports bar feel, possibly the best beer selection in town and really solid wings. And most importantly, it’s located next to Phillips Arena.
For the adults
So I mentioned that we did some shopping. Stacey can never go to Atlanta without at least a little shopping. Our son isn’t a big fan of it, so he and I avoided the chore mostly. We did spend a few minutes in the cool thrift shop Rag O Rama in Little Five Points. It probably helped that he found a cool Celtics jersey to buy. And as I already mentioned, Stacey visited IKEA for a couple of hours while Colby and I hit the park.
How did I get my adult time? Well, we didn’t split off as much as we have on previous trips. But I did find that the Porter Beer Bar has a dining room and children are welcome during the day. So we had Saturday lunch there while I was able to sample a couple of local beers.
Atlanta turned out to be a great start to our NBA Road Trip series. We enjoyed experiencing one of our favorite American cities with our son for the first time. We’ve stayed in Downtown but have never really experienced all the neighborhood has to offer. There is so much for families to experience in Downtown Atlanta. We enjoyed the game and would happily return to Phillips Arena. The Omni at CNN Center is a solid base for a visit to Downtown Atlanta, especially if a Hawks game is in the cards.
A special thanks to the Atlanta Hawks, Omni Hotels, Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and CityPASS for assistance in making this trip a success. Stay tuned for visits to Memphis and New Orleans in March.