Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta History Center, Stone Mountain; there are a wealth of fun, educational places to visit in Atlanta that consistently make the “Top 10” list for good reason. My family and I are regular visitors to the city’s staples, but some lesser-known parts of Atlanta should not be missed. Atlanta off the beaten path includes the natural beauty of the city with towering trees and landscapes galore. In many places around the city, these outdoor wonders are highlighted by an artistic, human touch. Here is a collection of our family favorites where nature and art collide into a synergy that can’t be missed.
Inside the Perimeter of Atlanta
Started by Monica Campana in 2010, Living Walls Atlanta campaigns for revitalization in Atlanta. Highlighting new artists every year, the organization seeks to use street art as a means to promote and educate the community about public spaces. Each year 12-20 artists are selected to paint a building or wall in a specific community. That artist immerses himself in the neighborhood for several weeks, gaining a personal connection that ultimately shines in his work. My kids always enjoy the art around town, whether we happen upon a piece or make a “scavenger hunt” of finding a specific artist.
Atlanta Beltline is still in the making, but has already begun to transform the city. The multi-use trail system connecting Atlanta’s neighborhoods is grounded on roughly 22-miles of pre-existing, but outdated rail corridor. Each year the Beltline hosts Art on the Beltline, where local artists create and display their one-of-a-kind masterpieces along the trail. Many of these exhibits become permanent features for walkers, bicyclists, and visitors to enjoy. The annual event kicks off with the much-anticipated Lantern Parade (which our kids love), as well as free tours, bicycle rentals, and much more.
Historic Oakland Cemetery
In the heart of the city is Atlanta’s oldest resting place, Historic Oakland Cemetery. It’s been made famous by its notable inhabitants such as Margaret Mitchell (author of Gone With the Wind), Robert Jones (founder of the Master’s Tournament), and Dr. Joseph Jacobs (owner of the drug store that first sold Pemberton’s Coca Cola). My family finds Oakland most endearing for its magnificent mausoleums, including four catalogued in the Smithsonian Institute’s Inventory of American Sculpture Database.
Set in and among the sculptures is another unique art form: its gardens. Originally planted without forethought to design and cohesion, they evolved over the years in the style of a Victorian Rural Garden Cemetery. I like to tell my boys that it is the epitome of the phrase, “Love tends a garden.” Historic Oakland Foundation now employs a gardens manager who selects heirloom type plants that fit the style when one needs to be replaced or an area needs enhancing.
The Goat Farm
The buildings of the Goat Farm hail from the 1880s, first as cotton-machine plants and then during WWII as a factory for ammo and mortars. The Goat Farm most recently gained fame due to the 2010 on-site filming of The Walking Dead, and the 2012 filming of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The space is actually an arts center, focusing on experimental and innovative works. Spaces include studios, exhibition halls, an on-site organic farm, an education center, a dance space, and a café/library. My kids and I delight in exploring the grounds, reading at the café, and enjoying the Saturday Food Swap. The evening performances also make a great date night.
Cascade Springs Nature Preserve
Cascade Springs Nature Preserve is a small nature sanctuary in the city that proves the adage that Atlanta is ‘A City in a Forest.’ Indications of times past show themselves at various points along the two-mile route. The park resides on Cascade Road, which was once a Native American roadway. During the Civil War, the Union Army used the same roadway to approach Atlanta and fight the Battle of Utoy Creek. Earth mounds and trenches are visible from the trail even today.
Fast forward in time: Crumbling buildings sit on the boardwalk’s edge near the parking lot, evidence from the 1900s when this preserve was the site of a small and exclusive hotel and restaurant. There was a dance pavilion under the falls, and visitors could sleep at the inn or in a canvas bungalow tent. The establishment’s draw was the natural healing springs. Today the ornate springhouse still stands at the trailhead. The door is charmingly off-center with the window, and moss grows easily around the brick and small moat. The springhouse, creek, waterfall, and easy hike make this a wonderful respite for families.
Outside the Perimeter, and Beyond Atlanta
Playable Art Park (Sandy Springs)
Seven artists designed six sculptures in the Abernathy Greenway, creating the Metro’s first Playable Art Park. Kids are encouraged to climb, crawl, jump, and explore the massive art installations. There are swings with open tops, offering riders an unobstructed view of the sky. Another piece introduces children to “negative space” with full-size human forms laser cut from a boulder. My boys’ favorite piece is the Dragonfly. This larger-than-life bug sculpture includes multiple slides of varying sizes, climbing nets – which served as the dragonfly’s wings – and plenty of nooks and crannies for climbing and hiding.
Artpark on Pine (Albany)
An old auto parts store in downtown Albany had seen better days. The roof was missing and the walls were starting to crumble. It was perfect. Not perfect for a boutique clothing store or a new coffee shop, but perfect for building Georgia’s only community-focused center that highlights local artists. Artpark on Pine is an open-air space that encourages artists to share their work. The walls amass with graffiti masterpieces and amateur experiments, and performance artists show off their talents here, as well. There is also a desire in the community to expand this unique facility with a co-op garden and contemporary art gallery. Don’t be shy; bring the kids (and your own can of spray paint), follow the posted rules, and find your inner artist.
Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Conyers)
In 2006, the Federal Government created the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Center, which protects Arabia Mountain, the South River, and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Visitors are encouraged to take a self-guided tour of the museum and visitor center, or join the monks for mass or mid-day prayer in the Abbey. The kids will love feeding the ducks at the lake, the perfect stop while taking a bike ride or hike along the Rockdale River trail. Be sure to stop in the Abbey to see stained glass created by the monastery monks, or linger in the Monk’s Bakery for a taste of fudge, fruitcake, or biscotti made on-site. Nature meets art in many places at the Monastery, but nowhere so much as it does in the Abbey Garden, which has become a recognized center for learning about the art of Japanese Bonsai. Tour the Bonsai garden and purchase Bonsai tools of the trade, as well as other unique garden decor.
Old Car City USA (White)
Imagine 34 acres of old southern kudzu and towering pines, interspersed with 4,000 vintage junks. That’s what you find at Old Car City USA, which began life as a car dealership in the 1930s and has evolved into the world’s largest classic car junkyard. Old Car USA has become a haven for photographers seeking to capture a unique southern folk art. Cadillacs, Mustangs, Fords, and more line over six miles of trails that the kids can wander. Our family experienced a rich walk back in time while enjoying it with the grandparents; it makes a perfect backdrop for a multi-generational family field trip. Oh the stories those classic cars unveil! Don’t miss a stop in the Junkyard Art Gallery in the main building. On display upstairs are over 1,000 of pieces of “cup art”(Styrofoam tumblers covered with his unique doodles), created by Dean, the museum’s owner.
Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens (Summerville)
Howard Finster was a folk artist of “sacred art” and minister from Summerville. He has been called both “the grandfather of Southern Folk Art” and “the Andy Warhol of the South,” producing over 46,000 works of art. Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens is the place he chose to display his works in order to continue inspiring others after his passing. The kids and I spent several hours at the Garden, enjoying whimsical ghost paintings, and gigantic sculptural towers of old bikes and televisions. You might be more familiar with his work than you think; his art graces the cover of REM’s Reckoning album, as well as Little Creatures by Talking Heads.