Atlanta pitches what's new, but there's history, too

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Approaching Atlanta on the interstate, it's the towering skyline that visitors first see. A mix of beaux arts and modernism, the spectacle is what I expected from a city that, according to my guidebook, is the economic and cultural center of the South.

That's a heavy reputation to live up to, but Atlanta delivers. Consider the new Georgia Aquarium, billed as the world's largest aquarium: It is designed to accommodate up to six 20-foot whale sharks. The aquarium, home to more than 100,000 animals in five exhibition areas, drew 3.6 million visitors in its first year.

Sitting at the north end of Centennial Olympic Park, the aquarium is next door to the relocated World of Coca-Cola, presenting a bubbly array of Coke-related artifacts, theatrics, pop art and drink samples. It is just minutes from CNN Center, heart of the Turner Broadcasting empire.

With such emphasis on new attractions, Atlanta is perceived to be a destination that has paid scant attention to the past. Nevertheless, landmarks such as the Margaret Mitchell House and a damaged lamppost from the Battle of Atlanta exist. Visitors should head for the Buckhead district and its Atlanta History Center, the crown jewel of Civil War museums.

The center is included in CityPass and the Atlanta Tourist Loop, a low-cost bus service, that accesses this and other more remote destinations alongside the municipal rail system, better known as MARTA.

Atlanta is home to a rich African-American fabric. The pre-eminent destination is the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, encompassing the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the King birth home on Audubon Avenue. The library and archives house the world's largest collection of information on the civil rights movement as well as King's marble tomb.

Another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former President (and Georgia Gov.) Jimmy Carter, also has close ties to the city. His library and museum occupies a hilltop with splendid views of the Atlanta skyline. The facility touches upon the main issues of Carter's presidency, including energy, the environment and relations with China.

As for high art, there's no better bet than the High Museum of Art, a gleaming, white, Richard Meir-designed masterpiece. Described as both classical and ultramodern, the seemingly contradictory design elements are apt for a city proud of its past but living in the present and looking forward.

Visit www.atlanta.net/tourtravel/index.html.

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