Atlanta is a funny city – sprawling, full of life, and surprisingly green, you often find yourself wishing you were beating the incredible traffic on your own two feet instead of being stuck in your car. The Hotlanta Half Marathon, which takes place in early June, advertises its “hills, heat, and humidity,” three things you’ll find no shortage of as you explore Atlanta’s vibrant neighborhoods and beautiful parks. It’s a city that’s constantly in motion and constantly changing – between the masses of cars and construction, you’ll find art from street murals to the High Museum, history from MLK’s neighborhood to the Civil Rights Museum, and music from blues to folk to EDM. Walk almost anywhere on a Saturday or Sunday in the summertime, and you’re bound to run into a festival or a new brewery at some point along the way. There’s never a shortage of things to do, and as a student new to Atlanta, it was exciting to have endless options outside of school.
I found a run club early on and was welcomed in with open arms to the huge running community spread throughout the city. There are running groups on any day of the week that will take you through the different neighborhoods, from Cabbagetown and Virginia Highlands to Midtown and along the Beltline. Pop over to Decatur a few miles east and you’ll find even more folks and places to explore. I was surprised by how many parks and green spaces Atlanta has to offer, and even running along the streets, many of the neighborhoods make you feel like you’re not in a city at all.
If you’re inclined to stay on the roads, Atlanta has been putting significant effort into developing the Beltline Trail, which at its completion is set to be a 22-mile paved trail that follows an old railway corridor around the core of the city. Running along the Beltline on the east side takes you past art installations, Krog Street and Ponce City Markets, King of Pops popsicle stands, and through Piedmont Park. Connect up to the Freedom Park bike paths and you can run 17 miles one-way out to Stone Mountain Park (see below). Or, head out towards the various college campuses – Emory University and Agnes Scott College are two picturesque options. Pop over to the West Side and check out the Beltline and breweries on that end. There’s endless exploration and endless nourishment. And when you’re ready to get your feet on the trails, there are countless options, including some of my favorites:
Sweetwater Creek State Park Head west of Atlanta on I-20 and you’ll reach Sweetwater Creek, one of Georgia’s 71 state parks. There are 15 miles of trails throughout the park; take the white trail for a rolling loop past the old mill ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company, or head over the creek to the yellow trail that will take you up some steeper climbs. Feeling like a post-run dip? Pick any spot along the red trail, and the park offers boat and SUP rentals to take out on the lake.
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Most famous as a battlefield of the Atlanta Campaign of the Civil War, Kennesaw Mountain offers steep gains as well as a run through history. Most day hikers stick to the 1-mile ascent to the top of the Kennesaw Mountain for fabulous views of the city, but continue down the back side and you’ll find yourself on terrain that feels reminiscent of high country. The trails continue down along a small creek and meanders around historic monuments and through picturesque farmland. An out-and-back takes you to Kolb Farm, but each way offers a variety of short trails so the terrain is always new.
Stone Mountain Park If you’re looking for hill repeats, look no further than Stone Mountain, but watch out for the weekend crowds. The 1.3-mile hike to the top has a spectacularly steep right at the very end, complete with handrails. It’s best done during the week if your schedule allows, but if you’re a weekend warrior, beat the crowds and the heat on a sunrise jaunt. Tack on the Cherokee Trail, a 5-mile loop that circles around the base of the mountain. This is another place to rent paddle boards – REI has a rental center at the lake. Park in Stone Mountain Village and run into the park on the bike paths to save yourself some cash instead of parking in the park.
Whitewater Creek Tucked back behind a suburban neighborhood are the Whitewater Creek and East Palisades trails. They wind along the Chattahoochee River and back through a hilly forest that offers great climbs. It’s easy to get blissfully lost and easy to find your way – each fork in the trail has a map that shows your location. Follow the trails north to a small bamboo forest and overlooks of the river. Most importantly, hang out at the dog beach (instead of running?), where the water is shallow and the doggos are derpy.
For the morning, try Park Grounds for coffee (also has a dog park!) or Alon’s for coffee and a treat from their bakery. Radial Café has breakfast options for the carnivore and the vegan alike, from gouda scrambles to vegan buckwheat pancakes. Homegrown is another Atlanta favorite that uses locally grown produce for omelets and sandwiches and is also known for its comfy chicken biscuit. It’s decorated in local art, all for sale, and there’s a small thrift store in the back.
Later in the day, head to Ponce City Market, once a Sears warehouse and then a rail depot. It’s crowded and touristy but offers a wide variety of noms – Minero is your pick for burritos that include avocado, no extra charge, and are grilled in cheese (the most amazing thing, period). Grab a popsicle from King of Pops on your way out, or head to Queen of Cream for made-from-scratch ice cream. Heaven is their Deep Chocolate ice cream in a homemade waffle cone.
In East Atlanta Village, check out Joe’s for coffee, Holy Taco, or Argosy for pizza. Decatur offers Victory Sandwich Bar (also with a location on the Beltline), Community Q for BBQ (get there early), or Butter and Cream (with creative ice cream flavors).
Further out of the city is Heirloom BBQ, which fuses southern comfort food with Korean “Seoul” food. Get your fix of Mexican or any type of Asian food on Buford Highway, or head to Patel Plaza for Indian street food. For brews, check out Red Brick on the West Side with a huge variety of beers, Blue Tarp in Decatur for some wacky sours and judgement-free Jenga, or Monday Night, which has its main brewery as well as its smaller Monday Night Garage on the Beltline. Breweries abound in every neighborhood, so you won’t go thirsty.
Shop (and run some more)
Big Peach – their Midtown location has a run club on Tuesday nights and Saturday and Sunday mornings. Check out one of their other locations in the Atlanta area for more run club options.
Phidippidies – Atlanta’s first running store, and also with multiple locations. Join their women’s run on Tuesdays at the Ansley Mall location.
West Stride – on the West Side, with Wednesday and Saturday run clubs.
Highland Runners – Virginia Highland’s run store with a group run on Tuesdays.
Come hang out in Atlanta! It’s a sprawling city with hidden trails that beg to be explored, with history and art and good noms right around the corner. Hope to catch you down South!
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