With the holiday season upon us, travelers are hopping on sleighs looking for a white Christmas, driving into the mountains for snow and paying a pretty penny for the cabin life. But just down the road from the mountains, winter in Atlanta is silently one of the best family destinations for the holidays. Sure, you may not find snow, but your fa-la-la-la family can enjoy copious winter activities and attractions without feeling like your wallet burned a hole in your pants. This best-kept secret we’re sharing is that Atlanta’s winter break hotel prices roll back when business conventions aren’t happening, leaving rooms at four-star hotels (like the Omni Hotel at CNN Center ) for only $99 a night! So head south this winter (or north for Floridians) and enjoy our top tourist picks for winter in Atlanta:
- Garden Lights At Atlanta Botanical Garden: The holiday season blooms at night during Garden Lights at Atlanta Botanical Garden. Nestled high in the oaks, hundreds of dazzling lights and snowflakes rise above the 40-foot Canopy Walk. The base of the old oak forest is home to colorful frog and butterfly sculptures and a large face with bright hair flowing to the fountain. As you stroll the grounds, carolers sing Christmas tunes and dozens of LED-lit “orchestral orbs” are synched to holiday music, a perfectly choreographed ballet light show. Other areas spark imagination, including a walk through the Radiant Rainforest in 100% humidity (goodbye winter jackets!). A splattering of tiny green LED lights across the darkened orchids and tropical plants makes you believe there are eyes everywhere. Kids will surely choo-choo-choose to watch model trains chugging through the depot or see the vegetable garden come to life with giant illuminated cornstalks. For parents, have a night-cap with beer or wine sold across the park and leave room for dessert! Just by the oversized fire pits, get some s’mores kits to roast marshmallows – a huge hit with the kids. Who are we kidding? They were a big hit with us too!
- Georgia Aquarium: Dolphins, manta rays, and whale sharks, oh my! One of the world’s largest aquariums offers the most up-close creature encounters from the marine life you love to the misunderstood lake-dwelling alligators. Most of the aquarium is one-of-a-kind, especially Dolphin Tales, a dolphin acrobatics show for which you’ll want to line up early (really early). Experience the thrill of sharks swimming by, for those not afraid to “get in the water,” by gliding through an observation tunnel to see these fearsome predators. Feeling hungry? Like, piranha hungry? Head over to the River Scout exhibit for feeding time and watch ravenous piranhas go into a feeding frenzy, leaving only bones behind for the scavenger fish. With more than 100,000 creatures from tropical fish and seahorse filled coral reefs to the kelp beds used by sea otters for playgrounds, there are two special exhibits that stand out. The most unusual experience at Georgia Aquarium is the ability to swim with the largest fish in the ocean – the whale shark (it’s neither a whale nor a shark, discuss). For those looking to stay dry and away from an enormous plankton-eating gentle giant, spending time in visual play with the ever-so-curious beluga whales and penguins in Coldwater Quest will bring winter cheer to all.
- Piedmont Park: Sometimes the best part of a winter day is just taking in the outdoors. Piedmont Park, in downtown Atlanta, is a reprieve from the busy city around it. With fall leaves all over the hilly grounds, it’s the perfect place to make “leaf angels” or have a good old-fashioned leaf fight (i.e. gathering as many leaves as possible before dumping them on an unsuspecting kid or parent). The December air welcomes bocce ball, basketball, and tennis players while runners, dog walkers and cyclists use the winding trails. No doubt that this is a local experience, so if you don’t travel with a Frisbee or soccer ball, trust Southern hospitality to welcome you into someone else’s game. For small kids, the park’s two playgrounds can entertain (i.e. tire out) the little ones.
- College Football Hall of Fame: December is bowl season and playoff time for football fans nationwide and one of Atlanta’s newest attractions is the perfect place to visit at that time. Loaded with relics of your favorite football team and unique interactive exhibits, you can learn about the history of college football while singing your school’s fight song karaoke-style. For the young men and women who’ve being on ESPN’s Game Day, this is your chance to get behind the sports desk and predict your team to win the big game. Ever been told you have a face for radio? Then step into one of the recording booths and call the play-by-play for some of college football’s most historical plays. But the real action at the CFB Hall is the Skill Zone. Lace up your shoes and line up to kick a field goal, test your throwing accuracy, and your agility through the obstacle course.
- Krog Street Market: Nestled away among warehouses, Krog Street Market is a local gem unknown to most tourists. Housed within a 1920’s warehouse, Krog is one of the “world’s best new food halls” offering a unique market for meats, produce, fresh flowers, beer, dining and desserts. Open until 10 p.m. on weekends, grab a cold craft brew from Hop City Bar and BYOB to get a casual meal from one of the many walk-up restaurant counters ranging from fresh organic food to southern-style barbecue. Atlantans with a sweet tooth have found safe haven here with our personal favorite, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. The boutique creamery offers incredibly unique combinations: churro, bourbon-salted pecan, brambleberry crisp, sweet potato pecan praline, sweet corn spoon bread and so many more that you might as well get a double scoop.
- Zoo Atlanta: Tucked away in the ‘burbs, Zoo Atlanta is a fair-sized zoo with a traditional, community feel compared to the modern aquarium nearby. The charm of the park is a small but scenic part of its success. For most, the infinite charm of Lun Lun, Yang Yang and their young panda cub twins fulfills the visit. For our family, watching the playful Gorilla youngsters, Andi and Anaka, had us laughing with “oohs” and “aahhs” for almost an hour. With a hands-on petting zoo and ride-aboard mini-train, the KIDZone helps break up the day while keeping kids connected to nature. Amidst the size of the city, the comfort of the zoo and the closeness to African beasts and wild cats provides an escape from the concrete jungle.
- Holiday In Lights at Centennial Park: Looking for a quick holiday activity in the heart of downtown Atlanta? Olympic Centennial Park hosts its annual Holiday in Lights through the first week of January. The park turns into a winter wonderland with thousands of lights, giant Christmas trees, and winter displays. The best part: it’s completely free to the public. Kick off your boots and stop by the ice skating rink to show the family how you glide, twirl, and jump like an Olympic ice skater – that’s retired. ($12 admission per person for a 90-minute session).
- Christmas in the Grove: Head out to the Atlanta suburbs for a lesser-known and local taste of holiday spirit. Open through January 1, this privately owned house is decorated with more than 115,000 lights choreographed to holiday music! Ride through and tune your radio to 87.9 FM to hear the music from the comfort and warmth of your car or brave the cold in the front yard looking at the 20-foot superstar tree, the 19-foot mega tree, spiral trees, leaping arches, the LED snowflake wall, illuminated candy canes and snowflake projectors. Share your holiday spirit by helping the homeowners are raising money for ALS, the gift will warm your heart.
- Day Trip to Snow Mountain at Stone Mountain Park:
To guarantee a white Christmas in Atlanta, head back out to the mountains on a day trip to Snow Mountain at Stone Mountain Park. An artificial winter wonderland, kids and grown ups race down the hill for snow tubing, including single or giant family size snow tubes. The kiddie zone provides all of the supplies you need to make your own Olaf (Frosty, the snowman kids used to know, has been replaced by Disney), snow angels or a snow fight! The kids tubing and sledding slopes are a perfect size for toddlers looking for winter fun. While at Snow Mountain, stop into Stone Mountain’s Christmas Village to enjoy the view more than anything else. Millions of holiday lights set the stage for a musical nighttime parade featuring Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, Santa and a sing-a-long train that creates a wholesome holiday experience.