Lonely Planet Writer

College Football Planner: ATLANTA

Is football just a game? Hunter S Thompson knew the answer. He entitled his suicide note "Football Season is Over" and shot himself on the first game day without football in 2005. He was talking pro football -- the passion is actually much deeper in the college ranks, where church deacons on occasion rip the t*sticles off opposing fans in bars.

And college football is back! For the season, I'll be writing Game-Day Planners for the world's greatest TV show, ESPN's College Game Day. The goal is treat towns like South Bend, College Station, Norman and Tuscaloosa as not just a site for gridiron, but as worthy destinations in their own right. The first up is an easy sell, Atlanta -- a neutral site for Alabama and Virginia Tide this Saturday. My tips for game-day experience is on ESPN's College Game Day site, the following suggests one alternative for the full weekend.

Meanwhile, if you have contrary views -- or care to say that ACC towns are better tourist destinations than SEC ones, check out the new "College Football Is My Life" group on Lonely Planet.
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--> Game pick? Alabama 27, Virginia Tech 9
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Get to Atlanta early enough to squeeze in Georgia Tech’s favorite dining spot, Junior's Grill, which keeps football keepsakes (like a chunk of the goal post from the 1980 national championship win over Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl). After the sweet tea washes down the collard greens, consider masterpieces other than spread offenses that cover 80 yards in 50 seconds at the city’s excellent High Museum of Art, which is just finishing up a three-year exchange with Paris’ Louvre museum with 91 pieces focused on the idea of “masterpiece.”

Afterwards drive, cab or take the MARTA south a stop to peek into Atlanta’s Gone with the Wind origins (hint: really good bait to get non-football fans to come to town). At the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum you can see the small apartment she wrote the book in the late 1920s. The building’s been restored after a 1994 fire – it’s lovely, nothing like the description the author had for it: “the Dump.”

For dinner, drive eight miles east to the funky suburb of Decatur, with classic homes and a great eating/drinking scene. Reserve ahead for a table in one of Atlanta’s most famous contemporary southern restaurants Watershed. It was co-founded by Indigo Girl Emily Saliers in 1998 and run by chef Scott Peacock who frequently talks about the salt-water soaked fried chicken and flaky biscuits to the likes of Martha Stewart and The Today Show.

After a meal, see where the Indigo Girls and John Mayer got their start at Eddie's Attic, one of the city’s best venues for live folk and acoustic music.

The day after the game, one local’s advice to dodge the Labor Day crowds is “go out on Sunday mornings when everyone’s in church.” Set the alarm to get up early, pick up some food
(Highland Bakery in the Old Fourth Ward has fresh bagels), then take Ponce De Leon Ave (Hwy 78) 15 miles east out of the city to Stone Mountain Park. You’ll see it coming – it’s the world’s biggest chunk of exposed granite, the centerpiece of a 3200-acre park with rides, campgrounds, hiking trails and the Confederate Memorial, a relief of Robert E Lee and the gang that actually dwarfs Mt Rushmore in scope.

The park starts filling up after 10am – and more so for its 9:30pm light show – so it pays to get here by 9am (some hardy locals hike up it every morning after 6am!). Pay the $10 parking fee and hit the free trail 1-1/2 miles up the mountain and have a breakfast looking out over the Atlanta skyline.

Return to Atlanta and head to Sweet Auburn, the heart of the city’s African American history. The area’s most famous son is Martin Luther King Jr, and a national park site here looks back onto the life of the civil rights leader who preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church (closed for renovation). There are plenty of eating options on nearby Edgewood Ave, including the historic Sweet Auburn Curb Market (food court with fried catfish sandwiches, jerk chicken, smoothies).

Try to time your visit – and with reserving ahead – to take a five-mile bike tour of Atlanta’s side streets with Atlanta Bicycling Company. The “leisure” one manages to reach up-and-coming neighborhoods like Little Five Points and Virginia Highlands, with stops for sweetened ice tea and ice cream.

Many of Atlanta’s finest restaurants (and some bars) take Sunday nights off. So after cooling off at your hotel, get local. Virginia Highland’s rising, laid-back hood is filled with boutiques and good eating choices (“it’s like a mini Athens” – Georgia, not Greece – per one resident). Manuel’s Tavern (404-525-3447, 602 N Highland Ave) combines the best of all worlds: beloved by a varied group of locals (including codgers and kids) since 1956, with fat burgers on toast ($6) and plenty of beer drinking.