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Kids are fascinated by pandas. Americans are limited in opportunities of viewing these Asian beauties in real life. Zoo Atlanta http://www.zooatlanta.org/home.htm is one of those opportunities. Besides the panda pair and the new baby panda, kids enjoy the otters (fun to watch!), the train and carousel, and the playground. The Zoo made international news in April 2007 when it announced the opening of an interactive game kiosk in the Orangutan area, that is designed to research cognitive abilities in orangutans. It includes an orangutan friendly, weatherproof, touch screen monitor in a "learning tree," and there is a monitor in the front of the habitat for visitors to see what's happening.
The Zoo Atlanta might not be the biggest or the fanciest zoo in the world, but its quality makes up for its lack of quantity. A great feature of the zoo is http://www.zooatlantaphotos.com it is the Zoos site that has professional photographers images available, for no charge, that you can use in your own photobook. Another nice aspect is its reciprocal membership program. It honors the membership cards of a large number of zoos across America. Just make sure you pack that membership card.
It's been open for about 2 years and is still packed to the gills most days. In addition to a pretty good webpage, there is so much written on the web about this incredibly popular spot that you could spend days reading about it. Go!
Your kids will want to stand in the line to put their head into the penguin bubble. Worth the wait for childhood delight.
Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site
Visit King's tomb and Ebenezer Baptist, where he preached. See his birthplace, tour the visitor center for a history lesson. Widely thought of as an Atlanta Must See. Some of the properties are run by the National Park Service and some are run by the families, with the NPS sites being better maintained. See the website for all the info.
The garden is a lovely place to spend a morning or even an entire day. Begin in the Children's Garden, where there is an ampitheatre featuring storytellers and other scheduled programs. Visit Mr. MacGregor's Garden (from Beatrix Potter's Tale of Peter Rabbit) and crawl through the hole in the fence (just like Peter), hide in the super-size watering can (just like Peter), see the rabbits' home in a tree stump, Peter's blue coat and shoes are still in the garden where Mr. MacGregor hung them as a scarecrow. Completely charming! The Children's Garden also features a sprinkler area for the tots to cool off -- bring a towel, they may get soaked. There are magnificent rose gardens and formal gardens, Japanese-inspired garden, a woodland area, a large glass conservatory exhibit. A favorite is the Frog Baby Pond (Frog Baby refers to the sculpture, not tadpoles and baby frogs), populated by a dozen or so very large frogs. One could spend an afternoon watching the frogs! The poison frog aquariums in the conservatory are also a favorite. There often are great art exhibits installed throughout the plantings; in the past these have included Chihuly glass and Niki In The Garden, which was lovely, touchable, whimsical art. The Spring and Summer 2007 installation is of "big bugs and killer plants." To see what's current, go to the garden's website. atlantabotanicalgarden.org
The Gardens are part of Piedmont Park.
While a lot of the collection and exhibits will not be of interest to children, it is a great place to bring the kids, especially after the expansion. The Lichtenstein House will attract toddlers with its bright colors and playhouse feel. Once inside, there's a room in the Stent which is essentially a playroom with blocks, puppets and a magic marker art studio. Downstairs is the Greene Education Center where children of all ages can create their own artwork.
Center for Puppetry Arts
Go to puppet.org to see what's playing; there is usually a mix of children's puppet shows and shows for the over 18 crowd. The Center has been a family favorite for a few decades now and is popular for elementary aged birthday parties, but older kids will probably enjoy these shows, too. See a show and then build a puppet afterwards, and visit the museum. This is not the old neighborhood puppet show in someone's backyard -- sets, props, everything is highly theatrical and amazing in a way probably never associated with puppets. Any show is likely to be good but if anything is offered by Jon Ludwig, choose that.
Not a lot of "museum" here but a great place to let the kids run off steam. The underwhelmingly named "Tools for Solution" is a sprawling interactive Rube Goldberg-ish contraption where plastic balls get moved around by crane, vaccuum, drill and child. Most toddlers will gravitate to this and never see the rest of the museum. Second best exhibit is "Leaping into Learning" (sigh). There's not much "learning" but toddlers enjoy donning raincoats and playing with rubber ducks. A great place where kids are going to "learn" by mastering their spatial environment.
Street Life/Interesting Neighborhood Shopping
For teens interested in off beat shopping and a funky street scene, go to Little Five Points (on the web at L5P.com). From Criminal Records and Aurora Coffee, on through Savage Pizza (yum) and Junkman's Daughter (weird t-shirts, costumes, boxing nun action figures, spiked jewelry...), across to AbbaDabba's and Zesto's (for milkshakes) and on around the corner past Lucky Devil and Boomerang -- this is as urban funk as Atlanta offers. Sadly, the wonderful owner of I.F.O., PattiCakes, retired in 2006 and closed her kite shop, so shoppers will have to go elsewhere for Flying Objects and Grateful Dead stickers. There may be some random street musicians hanging out, but on lucky days the Seed and Feed Marching Abominable will be out shaking things up, as this is the neighborhood it calls home. (Find them at seedandfeed.org)
For a less edgy shopping and strolling experience, head to Virginia Highlands. (virginiahighland.com) For more of a whole-family oriented experience, go to Decatur (decaturga.com). There are plenty of kid friendly restaurants that teens will also appreciate, like mellow Mushroom Pizza, Taqueria del Sol, Thai Bowl, and Crescent Moon, good boutique shopping, a kid-oriented salon, and space to run wild on the Square and climb some cannons. Of the three neighborhoods, Decatur is the only one with a Marta station. (Locals call Marta "the train" fyi.)
Each of these parks provide greenspace, play space, and also host various music and arts events. Some of these events, like Wednesday lunch music in Centennial, are small. Some, like the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park, are huge. Each of these parks has either a website or a conservation group associated with it that runs a website.
Centennial Olympic Park, with entrances across from the CNN center, provides a nice chunk of greenspace, free concerts on Wednesdays, free family activities every 4th Saturday between April and September, but most notable attraction for kids is the fountain. Prepare for them to get soaked!
Woodruff Park, along Peachtree Street in the heart of downtown, is just a few acres of greenspace, benches, a fountain, and the 25 foot statue memorializing Atlanta's post-Sherman rise from the ashes. This little park is surrounded by restaurants and cafes that cater to the office crowd and provides a great place to sit and have lunch and take a look at some downtown landmarks, like the Flat Iron building, which is 5 years older than the one in NYC.
Piedmont Park is on the edge of downtown, in Midtown, bordered by Piedmont and 10th, and follows at least in part an Olmsted design. (The midtown Marta station is the closest stop to a park entrance. Walk down 10th street and buy picnic food on the way.) The Botanical Gardens, discussed above, are part of the park, but for meandering, the rest of the park is a great place to explore, play, and people watch. There's a public pool, ballfields, a dog park, 2 playgrounds, a small (11.5 acres) lake, walking trails and fields. The 10th street meadow path and the main roadway are designated for skating, biking, etc., which are not allowed on the other paths. The playground near the 12th street gate is a Noguchi design which was sponsored by the High Museum and is a pretty interesting playscape. The Saturn playground, near the pool, is one of those wooden playgrounds that became popular in the 90's, and is better for smaller kids. Word of Warning: for kids who are apt to pick up strange objects, keep a close eye on them. This is a large, heavily used, urban park and occasionally there will be used condoms, broken glass, or other dangerous objects lying around. It's not enough to spoil a visit but is something to be aware of.
Grant Park is close enough to downtown for a mention here. It is Atlanta's oldest public park. The Zoo is in Grant Park, but it also is home to the Cyclorama (definitely worth a visit with school age kids) and has a great new playground, picnic pavilions, tennis courts, lots of open space and fountains and statues to discover. Also in the park is a Confederate Army earthen fortification ("redan"); it is one of the last remaining ones located inside the city.
Getting outside with kids
There are many and various venues to enjoy the outdoors with kids. Atlanta is home to many parks and playgrounds, including Grant Park (great playground), Piedmont park, and Candler Park (playground, tennis courts, golf course, public pool). There are six "vest pocket" parks along Ponce de Leon, that provide very quiet and safe greenspace near downtown, although they are bordered on one side by a busy surface street. A bouldering field is going in there, perhaps the first one in-town. For park history buffs, these also are Olmsted designs. Playgrounds are tucked into neighborhoods all over town, everyone has a favorite so inquire with your concierge/host about ones near you, or check out the list on AtlantaParent.com. Here are two in-town favorites -- the first is in Inman Park, the Chris Sibley memorial playground, the other is in Virginia Highlands, Cunard Memorial, which is a great playground that is also near sand volleyball courts. Both of these are modern playgrounds with far more interesting equipment than just swings and slides. There is a skate park and a wheelchair access playground in McKoy Park, in the Oakhurst neighborhood of the City of Decatur; it's about a 20 minute drive on surface streets from downtown.
There are also many places to enjoy hiking and exploration. Some hiking favorites would include Sweetwater Creek (past six flags, going west on Interstate-20, follow brown signs), and Chattahoochee Nature Center and river walks, both of these provide lushly forested trails along rivers. For exploring Georgia's famous granite outcroppings, try hiking up Stone Mountain or Mount Arabia. Google searches will get you directions to any of these. At Arabia Mountain you can hike up the granite or down it. Down will take you past a ranger station through woods to a lake, old quarries, and a fun salamander pond, and also has a nice bike trail. There is a separate parking lot to go up; hikes there will reveal unique flora, natural climbing boulders, and a big sky.