Why You Need to Visit Atlanta's Suburbs and Exurbs

Headed to Atlanta? Stay in one of the booming towns ringing the city for unique stays and locavore thrills.

Photo By: Alpharetta CVB

©Alpharetta CVB

Photo By: Alpharetta CVB

Photo By: Alpharetta CVB

Photo By: Alpharetta CVB

Photo By: Alpharetta CVB

Photo By: Alpharetta CVB

Photo By: The Hotel at Avalon

Photo By: Alpharetta CVB

Photo By: Rumi's Kitchen

Photo By: Porsche Experience Center

Photo By: Porsche

Photo By: Porsche Experience Center

Photo By: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

Photo By: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

Photo By: Beer Girl

Photo By: Chick-fil-A

Photo By: Visit Sandy Springs

Photo By: Cafe Vendome

Photo By: Il Giallo

Photo By: City Springs

Photo By: Susansnaps

Photo By: Calyroad Creamery

Photo By: Southern Bistro

Photo By: Ray's on the River

Photo By: Serenbe

Photo By: Serenbe

Photo By: Marietta Convention and Visitors Bureau

A Metropolis Ringed by Cities

One of Atlanta's charms is the incredible diversity of its neighborhoods. The same holds true for the suburbs and exurb communities that surround this booming Southern metropolis. From Alpharetta north of the city to Serenbe south of Atlanta, there are a remarkable variety of experiences to have, from suburban to rural to everything in between. Staying outside Atlanta's downtown can offer a number of unique benefits from potentially lower hotel rates to more contact with Georgia's beautiful landscape and a less harried pace (as well as a respite from Atlanta's unbiquitous pay-to-park reality). Visitors looking for a little respite from a city-center experience but the experiential pleasures of a dense, busy hub of restaurants, shops and a new hotel can stay in the 86-acre Avalon community in Alpharetta, a relatively new mixed-use development that functions as a self-contained city 30 miles north of Midtown Atlanta. Use it as your home base as you venture out each day to activities or events in the city, or make it your launching pad for exploring the Georgia or North Carolina mountains if a jaunt into the beautiful regional landscape is more your speed.

Alpharetta: Big Creek Greenway

Explore this city of trees with a walk or bike ride through Big Creek Greenway, a linear park with an 8-mile paved path that passes through Alpharetta. Tote along a gourmet picnic lunch from Wildflour Cafe and gem-like pastries from Collet French Pastry Cafe or rent an electric bike from Pedego Alpharetta, a great way to keep older and younger riders on an even keel. The beauty of an electric bike, beyond the thrill factor, is you can go further and last longer, tackle hills with ease and then reward yourself with a stop at a local brewery along the way.

Alpharetta: Guac Attack

Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs have been upping their dining game in the past few years and Avalon has done a great job of attracting the city's top chefs with satellite restaurants. A local favorite The El Felix is from area star chef Ford Fry, kingpin of a head-spinning number of Atlanta restaurants. Fry taps into his Tex-Mex roots growing up in the Lone Star State with crowd-pleasing, uber-satisfying Mexican comfort food with a twist. Word of advice: you need the chili con con queso compuesto. Trust us on this.

Alpharetta: Electric Ride

Traverse even more of this Atlanta suburb with an electric bike from Pedego Alpharetta run by a charming husband and wife team. Pedego Alpharetta will rent you the whole kit and kaboodle: bike, helmet and give you a tutorial on this fun new way to explore Alpharetta.

Alpharetta: Cafe Society

Entertainment and a splendid cap to your meal in one, ask one of the Cafe Intermezzo servers for a tour of their dessert offerings and sit back for an extensive show-and-tell. This European-style coffee house smack dab in the center of Avalon has an endless selection of coffee and tea offerings as well as an impressive list of Southern and European classic cakes, pies and pastries from Black Forest cake to tiramisu, cheesecakes and crepes. Brunch and dinner options are also available, but you owe it to yourself to stop in at least for a drink and to soak in the old world atmosphere.

Alpharetta: Sit, Sip, Stay!

Atlanta's brewery scene is on fire, and Alpharetta boasts an especially lively beer destination close to the Big Creek Greenway. With its youthful, indie spirit and craft beer crazy staff Jekyll Brewing, is the perfect pre-dinner spot where you can grab a flight or test out some local favorites. Or make a day of it by sampling from a wide selection of craft beers, or by dining from one of the changing selection of food trucks that hold court in the parking lot or by joining an informative brewery tour.

Alpharetta: Get Your Produce On

This friendly, low-key downtown market is a great way to connect with locals and stock up on some foodie souvenirs. The Alpharetta Farmers' Market held Saturday mornings April-October features plenty of items to cobble together a little picnic and ample opportunity to shop for some jams, homemade wares, candles and other items to take home with you. Better still, the downtown is ringed with locavore boutiques and restaurants to grab breakfast or lunch, or find unique home goods, art and apparel.

Alpharetta: Cool Digs

If you want a scene-y, vibrant stay for your Alpharetta visit, you couldn't do better than The Hotel at Avalon, a hip Autograph Collection hotel. This stylish spot has a buzzy bar and lobby scene and a destination-worthy in-house restaurant, Atlanta favorite South City Kitchen. South City is a great way to sample smart regional cuisine if you are feeling too lazy to head beyond the hotel's oasis-like ambiance (which could happen). Situated within the Avalon community, the hotel offers extreme walkability to the great food and shopping options at this new urbanist development. An outdoor pool, in-house Starbucks, complimentary bicycles and coffee and tea in the lobby every morning, make this luxurious space feel like a cozy-but-cool home away from home.

Alpharetta: You, Only Smaller

A slightly surreal but oh-so-satisfying experience, the Alpharetta MiniMe Factory is one of only a few places in the country where you can have a 3-D ceramic replica made of yourself in 3- to 9-inch versions (see my own likeness here). Housed in a generic strip mall, there is little indication from the outside of the strange delights that await inside the MiniMe Factory. Super personable owner Reza Gian Nourali will direct you to the 3-D/360 photo room where image-capturing technology and 100 cameras and scanners will record you from every angle. Pick your favorite version of you (or your pet or up to 4 people) on the video screen and then wait three weeks for your likeness to arrive in the mail. Guaranteed, you will be unable to resist staring at your tiny self and contemplating who and what you can have rendered in miniature next.

Alpharetta: International Thrills

You wouldn't necessarily think this Atlanta suburb would be home to a vibrant, international community. But like much of Atlanta, Alpharetta is a corporate and especially, a tech headquarters that attracts a diverse, dynamic population. A visit to Avalon for lunch one day led to the happy sighting of an East Indian wedding in progress, complete with horses and colorful attire and a musical promenade down its wide avenues. No better expression of that global vibe is the Avalon outpost of one of Atlanta's most beloved Persian restaurants Rumi's Kitchen. This beautifully designed space offers indoor and outdoor seating and the kind of satisfying Mediterranean cuisine you'll want to hit more than once during your visit. Craft cocktails (the Persian Sunset with bourbon and apricot jam is a wonderful combination of Southern and Middle Eastern flavors) are an unexpected pleasure at Rumi's, but you won't want to stop there: lamb sliders, a labne appetizer and dolme (stuffed grape leaves) are great starters before you transition into the main event: succulent slow-cooked grilled meat kabobs, each served with a different saffron or lentil and raisin or orange zest and pistacho rice.

Hapeville: You've Got a Fast Car

"Our playground" is how Hapeville's Porsche Experience Center coach Chris Ivester describes the incredible 1.6 mile closed track experience at Porsche's North American headquarters in the shadow of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. "We love our noisy neighbors because nobody complains" says Ivester of the low-flying planes coming in for a landing on Hartsfield's flight path which tend to drown out even the sound of turbo engines and squealing tires. The Driving Experience is custom, from the car selected to the course chosen. Some of the possible 6 driving modules include the Launch Pad, where G-forces kick in as you test a car's pick-up power by flooring the gas for the kind of drag-racing thrill not recommended on normal roads. The Kick Plate is where you can experience the skidding-out thrills of black ice in a safe, controlled setting where a combination of polished epoxy surface and water jets (oh, and sudden pop-up fences to make things even more challenging) give the sensation of losing control so you can practice regaining it. The one-mile Handling Circuit mimics the feel of driving a twisting country road, only you are solo on this one, able to test out tight turns and experience the fun of owning the road. For car freaks and even novices, this is a one-of-a-kind experience. Check-in at the adjacent Solis Two Porsche Drive hotel and you'll have quick access to a comfortable room close-by; Iversen says some drivers are so taxed by the intensity of the experience they need a nap immediately afterwards.

Hapeville: Aerotropolis

One of only two such tracks in the United States (the other one is in Los Angeles and there are tracks in Germany, France and Great Britain), the Porsche Driving Experience is a thrill-ride for grown-ups that allows drivers 21 and over to test out a variety of driving experiences and obstacles on a safe, enclosed track where a coach is always in the passenger seat to offer guidance and driving tips. The majority of Porsche Experience Center drivers come to have an incredible day driving, but some new Porsche owners also visit for practical tips and training on how to enjoy their new baby. "This is a bucket list item" says one of the patient and racing-savvy coaches Chris Ivester, with birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions celebrated with the gift of an extreme driving experience. Each Porsche closed track is different in topography so Porsche lovers come from all over the country and world to try out Atlanta's unique circuit. The Porsche Experience Center is open to everyone as long as you have a reservation at one of the many experiences on-site, from lunch at Restaurant 356 to the Simulator Lab to a Driving Experience.

Hapeville: Take a Culinary Lap

The Porsche Experience Center is not just about the closed-track driving. A sports-car lover's heaven on many fronts, the center also boasts a chef-driven Restaurant 356 (named after the first car to carry the Porsche family name) with a seasonal menu and views of the Porsche track. You will need to show ID when you enter the center in order to dine, and be advised that if driving in on your menu at the track, no alcohol can be consumed before your circuit. In addition to 356 and a small, informal Carrera Cafe, the experience center features a Simulator Lab where you can race against your friends and younger drivers can get the Porsche experience even if they can't access the track, a Heritage Center with rotating exhibitions and displays of Porsches through the ages. An on-site Classic Car Workshop allows vintage car owners to have their Porsches serviced and visitors have the added benefit of seeing some of those classic cars on display. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the Porsche headquarters; one of many opportunities to fill a day with car-centric entertainment.

Hapeville: Car-Centric Stay

The Solis Two Porsche Drive hotel adjacent to the Porsche Experience Center, has become the go-to destination for visitors checking out the driving experience at Porsche. Part of the booming city rising in the shadow of the airport, the "aerotropolis" of Hapeville next to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—the world's busiest passenger airport—is just 20 minutes from downtown Atlanta and has a lot to recommend it for both car-crazy adults and their child companions. The 8-story hotel itself overlooks—at key vantage points—the Porsche Experience Center racetrack. The rooftop Overdrive Lounge offers the best public view by far of both Porsche and the airport and there are also 9 track-view suites. The rooms themselves are insulated with triple-pane windows from flight noise. For transportation-obsessed kids, this is a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of planes, trains (train tracks pass right in front of the hotel) and automobiles all viewable in close proximity to the property (there's even a Delta Flight Museum close-by for flight fans). For quick and easy access to downtown Atlanta, I-75 is in close proximity to Solis. You can sit on the outside patio of the in-house restaurant Apron and watch planes come in for landings and eavesdrop on visiting German Porsche execs relaxing after a day of work at Porsche's North American headquarters. To continue the Porsche tie-in, Porsche Panameras offer VIP transportation to the airport and auto artwork abounds: there are car murals in the lobby and car motif art in the 214 guest rooms. There is even an in-house Porsche themed gift shop where you can pick up a souvenir.

Hapeville: High Design Hotel

Currently the only-North American location of the four-star Solis brand, with locations in Ireland and China (and new properties coming in Qatar, Florida and Indonesia), Solis Two Porsche Drive shares an architecture firm, HOK (which also designed Atlanta's 1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium), with the equally slick and modern adjacent Porsche Experience Center. Amenity-loaded, the hotel has an indoor pool, on-site gym and free Wi-Fi and two memorable dining and drinking destinations. Overlooking both Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the Porsche Experience Center track from its open-air rooftop perch, the Overdrive Lounge has a Jetsons-meets-Space Age vibe. Chef Derrick Green's memorable bites including tuna tartare tacos you won't want to miss as well as the car-themed (when it Rome) Formula 911 cocktail featuring muddled blackberries, vodka and Combier. The equally stylish Apron restaurant also helmed by Ritz Carlton vet Green is more chef-driven and imaginative than your usual hotel spot. Apron also features a dog-friendly patio (recommended when the weather is nice), with both tables and lounge-type seating with an impressive view of the airport flight path. Green's focus on inventive Mediterreanean fare offers up nods to Greece in an oregano-infused chicken and to African foodways in a berbere-accented lamb dish with kale and a luscious, tangine-inspired farrotto. A caramel-poached golden beet salad with goat cheese mousse illustrates Green's desire to blend haute cuisine flavors and ingredients with crowd-pleasing, delicious accessibility. Cocktails and craft beer offerings are imaginative and often feature local distilleries like Old Fourth Distillery and ASW as well as Jekyll Brewery, Terrapin and Hapeville's own Arches Brewing so diners can sample some locavore flavor.

Hapeville: Beer Heaven

When in Hapeville, beer fans should check out nearby Arches Brewing to sample some of this craft beer destination's offerings including seasonal, limited edition and classic choices. And a great source for education as well as a drinkable souvenir, the bottleshop Beer Girl offers both local and international mead, beer and wine. Check in with Beer Girl to see if a class coincides with your visit.

Hapeville: Humble Pie

Hapeville is still a relatively sleepy small town in Atlanta's shadow with a growing food scene and some energetic younger voices trying to mix things up and enhance the city's foodie profile. Most of the local options are arranged on Hapeville's historic main drag, North Central Avenue. A casual, very good poké stop, Fish Bowl Poké is affordable and family-friendly and a local spot that also started the Atlanta poké trend. Volare Wine & Bistro offers a more white-tablecloth experience with solid food and good service. Drip Coffee is a bespoke coffee shop with some food offerings and Buttersweet Bakery offers delicious baked goods including cupcakes, brownies and cookies. Chapman Drug is an old school drugstore (they still deliver!) open since 1921 with an intact soda fountain for some time-tripping fun. Belly up to the counter for a milk shake or a Coke at one of that iconic Atlanta beverage company's original customers. And of course, no Hapeville visit would be complete without a stop at the original Southern institution, the Chick-fil-A Dwarf House, chicken mogul S. Truett Cathy's first restaurant, opened in 1946. Utterly quirky with a fairy tale storybook brick facade and teeny tiny red door for children to enter, the space still has a great old-school diner vibe with both table and counter service and Dwarf House-only specials like homemade pie and the Hot Brown (chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes, cheese and bacon).

Sandy Springs: City-Meets-Nature

Just north of Atlanta, this metro Atlanta community is home to one of the wealthiest zip codes in the entire country. Like much of Atlanta, Sandy Springs has a distinctive Southern-meets-international spirit. There may be as many Middle Eastern restaurants as Southern ones, and the locals are as used to sampling from a menu of sophisticated cultural offerings as they are from the bounty of nature right outside their doors. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area runs right through the area, and is a great way to beat the heat and humidity on sweltering days. Rent an inner tube from Nantahala Outdoor Center in Sandy Springs, right inside the park borders of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and enjoy a pretty spring or summer day on the water.

Sandy Springs: A Taste of Paris

More international offerings just outside of Atlanta, the French destination pastry and coffee spot Café Vendome has two locations and is filled with expats enjoying some of the best croissants, eclairs, caneles, Madelines, macarons and a French take on petit fours in the city. Run by an engineer-turned-patisserie owner, Café Vendôme is the product of extensive research into French bread and pastry-making and the kitchen is helmed by a Brittany native. Grab a locally-famous baguette on your way out, or a selection of breakfast pastries to wake up to or just enjoy lunch and pastries in-house.

Sandy Springs: That's Italian!

Il Giallo Osteria and Bar in Sandy Springs is a chef-forward Italian experience located close to all of Atlanta's action but with the unusual appeal of plenty of free parking (yes, it is a big deal in this valet- and paid parking-crazy town). Chef and co-owner Jamie Adams features fresh, homemade pasta in his open-kitchen for diners who enjoy a little cooking show entertainment with their meal. Adams' agnolotti with brown butter and sage has been featured on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, but there are plenty of other culinary delights on offer including polpette turkey and duck meatballs, a distinctive calamari studded with capers, and a short rib ravioli and a rotating cast of pasta dishes that make this a local favorite. Desserts made by an in-house pastry chef are just as notable and some of the stars of the show, including the strawberry jam and mascarpone strawberry pizza, bomboloni and a decadent hazelnut bar like a European candy bar with a haute twist.

Sandy Springs: City Springs

Part of Sandy Springs' cultural renaissance, this 14-acre $229 million combination city hall and Performing Arts Center at City Springs is being posited as a jewel in the city's arts crown. Visitors can enjoy a black box theater, an 1,100 seat auditorium and a lineup of lectures, music and performances as well as a city green with outdoor concerts and entertainment. Even cuter, City Springs boasts a very Southern "porch" at its mod glass and steel entrance complete with rocking chairs, not something you see at many city halls. A mixed-use development of apartments, restaurants and boutiques rings City Springs for plenty of pre- and post-concert offerings including another location of the French-style patisserie Café Vendome.

Sandy Springs: Cookie Central

A mother and daughter gingersnap empire that has been featured on ABC World News Tonight, CNN and The Today Show, Susansnaps is the brainchild of mother Laura and daughter Susan Stachler. Laura was looking for a cookie that would help with nausea when Susan was battling cancer. Her cookie research led to gingersnaps which the now cancer-free entrepreneur Susan produces with her mother in a variety of flavors (Cocoasnaps, Pnuttersnaps, Citrussnaps, Alohasnaps and original) in their cheerful red, white and black combo storefront and bake shop in Sandy Springs (next door to Calyroad Creamery, another great local foodie destination). Susansnaps ships all over the country, but if you're in Sandy Springs, why not stop in at the cute brick and mortar shop to try the free samples and pick up some bags or tins (good for transporting your goodies) of this locally produced delight?

Sandy Springs: Say Cheese

An unusual concept, Calyroad Creamery in Sandy Springs is both a retail shop and an artisanal cheesemaking business that produces an impressive variety of both cow and goat cheeses on-site. Visitors can sign up for a cheesemaking class, tour the behind-the-scenes cheesemaking process or just drop by for a tasting of the house-made cheeses paired with wine or have a beautiful cheese board with a selection of handcrafted cheeses, jams, dried fruit and chutneys or pickles delivered to their hotel. Personable owner Robin Schick loves to share her passion for cheese and cheesemaking and can help you put together any combo of condiments, cheese, wine and other goodies your heart desires. The shop has a curated selection of regional artisanal goods for foodies who are looking for locavore picks. Next door Susansnaps makes this little shopping area a great place to pick up an edible Atlanta souvenir.

Sandy Springs: Southern Charm

There are endless restaurants in Atlanta specializing in farm-to-table, meat-and-three, soul food and other variations on Southern fare. A homespun, unpretentious entry in those ranks is Southern Bistro, a comfort-food spot from husband and wife Nancy and Colman Goodrich who do especially well with down-home appetizers with a Southern flair like boiled peanut hummus, a solid pimento cheese served with toast points, ham and collard green egg rolls and, of course, the in-house variation on fried green tomatoes served with goat cheese and sweet pepper jelly. Don't expect fancy, cutting-edge foodie fare, but do expect good food and service at this neighborhood spot especially apropos for a quick lunch.

Sandy Springs: River Run

A reminder that Atlanta environs can suddenly go from concrete jungle to tree-filled, natural oasis in a split second, this longtime area standard and local chain, Ray's on the River is an especially worthwhile stop in good weather (i.e. spring or fall) when you can dine on crab cakes, lobster mac and cheese, shrimp and grits and other high-end spins on comfort food with a relaxing view of the Chattahoochee River. Ray's is locally beloved as a buffet-style brunch option and while the prices are high and service can be uneven, for a special, scenic meal that takes in the city's natural beauty, it can be a worthwhile stop.

Serenbe: Rural Chic

A pastoral, new urbanist development described as a "wellness community," where sustainability is a focus, Serenbe is about 40 minutes from Atlanta but a world apart in attitude. An array of beautifully built single-family homes make Serenbe a home for many, but it's also a great rustic-chic tourism destination with an onsite The Inn at Serenbe and plenty of farm, nature and cultural activities to keep visitors busy. The 1,000-acre bucolic planned community is home to farm-to-table restaurants like The Hill, The Farmhouse at Serenbe and The Blue-Eyed Daisy as well as a growing roster of smaller spots and cute retail offerings. The arts are a big part of the community, so see if your visit coincides with special Art Over Dinner al fresco meals with local creatives and check out the Serenbe Playhouse's schedule. This vanguard theater group has garnered national recognition for staging immersive theatrical experiences and fun, creative spins on the classics that often use the woodsy surroundings and outbuildings of Serenbe as stage sets.

Serenbe: Farm Fresh

The Serenbe community features an 25-acre organic farm (staffed by a comely group of earthy millennial farmers) and the local restaurants highlight the fruits of that labor. The homespun, casual Blue-Eyed Daisy does a great job in a relatively small space with delicious seasonal Southern fare. Stop by for a coffee, breakfast or lunch, or the Taco Nights and Meat & 3 dinners scheduled each week that draw local residents. A bit more upscale, The Hill is a white-tablecloth variation on that farm-to-table theme sourcing proteins and produce locally and serving lunch and dinner in a farmhouse chic, unpretentious setting. But you don't have to eat at one of those spots (though you absolutely should); there is also produce galore from April through November at the Serenbe Farmers and Artisan Market where you can watch a chef demo or listen to live music or just pick up some artisanal goodie as a souvenir of your trip to the gorgeous Georgia countryside.

Marietta: Park It Here

Like many Atlanta suburbs, Marietta has embraced its historic downtown district and bulked up food and shopping opportunities for residents who may not want to drive into Atlanta for a great meal. Downtown Marietta including Marietta Square is home to some memorable restaurants and this fall 2018 the area welcomes a new food hall Marietta Square Market, to compete with Atlanta's on-fire food halls Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market. Housed in a former repurposed historic warehouse, Marietta Square Market, a 7-minute walk from Marietta Square Market, will feature a variety of restaurants with street tacos, baked goods, burgers, ramen, bubble tea and other au courant goodies on their menus. If your Marietta travel plans can wait, Swedish cult retailer IKEA is opening a Marietta outpost in 2019 or 2020.

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