America loves its sports. On any given visit to mid-size and large cities alike, travelers are bound to see monuments to athletes, sports museums, and the jersey-wearing masses. Certain cities have built an entire outsized reputation on this dedication to sport: Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, to name a few.
And then there’s Atlanta.
Atlanta is one of just 14 cities in the US with four or more major sports teams: the Falcons (NFL), the Hawks (NBA), the Braves (MLB), and Atlanta United (MLS). The city has hosted the Olympics as well as multiple Super Bowls and college football championship games. This year, from April 4 to 6, the city is hosting the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in the Mercedes Benz Stadium. It will be the fifth time the city welcomes thousands of college basketball fans for the Final Four.
Yet when you talk to sports fans across the country, you hear a common refrain: Atlanta is not a sports town. In 2012, sportswriter Rob Parker wrote a story for ESPN where he declared, “Without question, Atlanta is the worst sports town in America.” He went on to call Atlanta “the epitome of the bottom of the barrel when it comes to fan support,” citing his 25 years of Atlanta sports coverage.
This lackluster game attendance has led to some pretty embarrassing mishaps, like when the Falcons were caught pumping fake fan noise into the stadium during the 2015 season.
Atlanta’s collective sports record doesn’t help. The Falcons became a professional football team in 1966, and it took until 2008 for consecutive winning seasons. The Falcons made it to two Super Bowls, and lost. The latest, after the 2016 season, ended in the Falcons blowing a 28-3 third-quarter lead to the Patriots. The Hawks consistently make it to the NBA playoffs but have only had eight winning seasons since 2000. The Braves have only had six losing seasons since 2000 but seem to always find a way to crash at the last minute (go back further and the team made it to the World Series five times in the 1990s but won only in 1995).
Atlanta sports can feel a little like Sisyphus, forever on the cusp of reaching the top but never quite getting there.
I went to Auburn University in Alabama, a little over an hour and a half from Atlanta, and I’d hear people from Georgia frequently lament the state of their state’s teams. Still, Atlanta remains the epicenter of professional Southern sports. On a recent trip to Atlanta, a college friend from Georgia, Cal Tinsley, put it this way: “It’s the heart of the South’s sports almost because of central location more than history or pride.”
Which is perhaps the best way to judge Atlanta as a sports town. Say what you will about the fan attendance and the records, Atlanta is the sports hub of the South, and it’s a great place to experience a championship game.
On the second Saturday in February, I took an early flight from New York City to Atlanta. I checked into the Aloft hotel downtown and made it to the closest sports bar, Park Bar, just in time to watch Auburn men’s basketball tip-off against LSU. Auburn made it to the Final Four for the first time in school history in 2019, and if we made it again, playing in Atlanta would be like playing in front of a home crowd thanks to the proximity and rabid fan base — a trip to Atlanta for an Auburn alumni typically means running into the many Auburn grads who moved there for work.
It took me about 10 minutes to remember why Atlanta is such a lovely place for anyone into college sports. The College Football Hall of Fame is here, as is the season opening college football game between a school from the SEC and the ACC (arguably the two best conferences, though which gets first depends on who you ask). Then there’s the SEC championship game, which often serves as a pre-playoff of sorts before the national playoff (three of the last five national championship teams had to first win the SEC).
It also helps that the Braves have built a culture of baseball in and around Atlanta. On an Uber ride past midnight on a Saturday, the driver was quietly listening to baseball talk radio. He told me he’s been a Braves fan since the glory days of the ‘90s, and his kid plays now. He says the future of baseball in Atlanta is bright.
“When people talk about baseball being only for old people,” he says, “it’s because they’re old. They act like all these little leagues don’t exist.”
You don’t have to have a winning team to have a culture of sports in a city. Atlanta’s sports draws are enough to qualify in themselves, something that’s clear when staring at the Olympic rings in Centennial Park, which directly face the College Football Hall of Fame. But if you need more than sports monument stops and museums, go to an Atlanta United game in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Atlanta’s soccer team regularly sets MLS fan attendance records: The top five MLS games in terms of attendance, all more than 71,000, were set at Atlanta United games.
Atlanta wouldn’t be hosting the 2020 Final Four tournament if it wasn’t a good sports town — not to mention all of the other biggest games in sports that regularly take place here. That championship atmosphere is the Atlanta sports scene that so many people from around the country come to see. Atlanta’s teams don’t have walls of trophies like Boston’s teams, and maybe there aren’t as many live-and-die-for-the-game fans as there are in Philadelphia. But there are few cities where it’s more fun to watch a championship game than Atlanta.
When you go
Mercedes Benz Stadium is the home of both the Falcons and Atlanta United. It’s also where the Final Four will play, and where the college football kickoff and playoff games happen. The stadium is downtown by attractions like Centennial Park, the Coca-Cola Museum, and the Georgia Aquarium. It is not, however, near Atlanta’s best bars and restaurants. Still, there are a few places nearby worth a visit. If you’re in the city to catch a game in the stadium, these are the places to keep in mind for where to stay, eat, and drink.
Where to stay
There are a number of affordable Airbnb options if you’re looking to stay in one of the neighborhoods outside of the city center. If you want to stay closer to the stadium in downtown and midtown, Marriott International, the official partner for the NCAA, has hotels at a number of price points as well as game experiences for Marriott Bonvoy members.
Aloft Downtown: An affordable option near Centennial Park, Aloft is pet-friendly and has a downstairs bar where you can kick off the night. The rooms are minimalist, and art hangs from the concrete pillars in the lobby. Upon arrival, you can choose to use a card key or mobile key.
Where: 300 Ted Turner Dr NW, Atlanta, GA 30308
12 Downtown: A modern hotel where each room feels like a luxury residence. Suite options include rooms with full kitchens and balconies, as well as bathrooms that rival the size of New York City apartment bedrooms. The bar and restaurant downstairs are a draw even if you’re not staying at the hotel.
Where: 400 W Peachtree St NW, Atlanta, GA 30308
W Midtown: Where to stay if you’re looking for something that’s close enough to the stadium but also near the action in the rest of the city. It’s easy to get to pretty much all of Atlanta’s hottest spots from the high-end W Midtown, but it’s also easy to find an excuse to stay on the property thanks to a spa, a chic rooftop pool, an elevated restaurant, and a downstairs lounge that’s impossibly cool.
Where: 188 14th St NE, Atlanta, GA 30361
Where to eat
Atlanta Breakfast Club: Far and away the best restaurant in the downtown area for breakfast and brunch. The servings are high quality and large, the biscuits are moist and fall apart in your mouth, and the chicken is juicy. Savory breakfast people will fall in love with the chicken and black pepper gravy (two fried chicken breasts served on biscuits and covered with gravy) while sweet tooths will be more than satisfied with the towering peach cobbler French toast.
Where: 249 Ivan Allen Jr Blvd NW, Atlanta, GA 30313
Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall: Serving brunch, lunch, and dinner, this sprawling restaurant is great for groups if the game is later in the afternoon. The theme is outdoorsy, but part of the patio is screened if you’re the type who wants the outdoors with a fan and without the bugs. The food menu changes regularly, and the cocktails range from classic to options like the Patio Punch, which comes in two sizes: one for eight people and one for 16.
Where: 684 John Wesley Dobbs Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30312
Sun Dial: Atlanta’s premier fine-dining restaurant. Perched atop the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the Sun Dial offers 360-degree views of the city while you enjoy wine, cocktails, and classic surf and turf options like tomahawk steak and sea bass. Ask for the side that looks out over the Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Where: 210 Peachtree St NW, Atlanta, GA 30303
Where to drink
Atlanta is a drinking city as much as it is an eating city. There are many bars to choose from, not to mention a thriving beer scene, and picking the right spot largely depends on which neighborhood you’re in.
The Living Room: Located in the W Midtown, The Living Room is so much more than just another hotel lounge. It’s a place to meet up for work during the day, catch a game in the afternoon, and sip on expressive takes on classic cocktails after the game but before you head out for the night. The shrimp and grits is a must even if you’re only the slightest bit hungry. As Byron, a manager on the night of a recent visit, told me, it’s a “place where the not so famous can feel famous, and the famous can feel not so famous.”
Where: 188 14th St NE, Atlanta, GA 30361
Park Bar: This bar isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind in terms of originality, but the drinks are affordable (including some local beer options), the wings have just the right amount of spice, and the game is always on multiple televisions — a combination that’s surprisingly hard to find in other downtown bars.
Where: 150 Walton St NW, Atlanta, GA 30303
Porter Beer Bar: One of the most impressive beer selections not just in Atlanta but in the United States. While it’s not tied to sports, it’s worth a stop. There are more than 800 beer options, including many aged bottles that go back as far as 2009. That may seem like an overwhelming number, but with a knowledgeable staff and incredibly affordable prices, you’ll quickly settle on one or three you like.
Where: 1156 Euclid Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30307
Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium: With this long of a name, it’s best to just call it by its nickname: The Church. This playful escape from the world around you has cheap beer and mixed drink options, and the decor is eclectic. It’s a great place to hit after a game for late-night drinks and a couple free ping pong games on the tables upstairs. Note: Probably not for anyone who might consider art that plays off religious themes blasphemous.
Where: 466 Edgewood Ave SE, Atlanta, GA 30312