I’ve lived in Atlanta for most of my life and have become a professional at having fun with hardly any money. Experiencing the my city doesn’t have to be expensive, as there are plenty of free and cheap things to do in Atlanta. Start by downloading the Scoutmob app on your iPhone, which offers 50% area restaurants and shops as well as organizing exclusive events around town like tequila tastings and cocktail classes.
Atlanta is blessed to have some stunning outdoor spaces free and open to the public. Piedmont Park is Atlanta’s answer to New York’s Central Park and is 189 acres of wide open spaces, including a public pool, walking trails and a lake. Centennial Olympic Park is smaller in size, but is located next to the central tourist area, surrounded by the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca Cola. This park is the site for many events and concerts, not to mention the famous Olympic Fountains that you’ll find children playing in every summer. Oakland Cemetery is a more offbeat “park” of sorts, where locals go for runs through the brick paths past the graves of Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell and golf legend Bobby Jones.
Since much of the Martin Luther King Jr. sights are government or privately owned, they are free to visit. You can purchase tickets for special tours, but otherwise, the King Center for Nonviolent Change, Ebenezer Baptist Church and MLK National Historic Site are all free and open to the public.
There are plenty of events around Atlanta, most of them free. The Dogwood Festival every spring has booths of local businesses, music acts, artists and food stalls. Pick up a copy of Creative Loafing or search online to find out what’s going on during your visit.
Most Atlanta attractions have some sort of loophole that makes them cheaper on certain days. At the High Museum of Art, tickets are half priced after 4 pm on Thursdays, ending up being $10 for adults. World of Coca Cola offers free tickets if you’ve acquired enough Coke Rewards points from purchasing their beverages. Otherwise, tickets are $16. The Atlanta History Center, which also includes the Swan House, Smith Family Farm and Margaret Mitchell House, offers combined tickets for all their attractions for $16.50. The Georgia Aquarium offers free tickets for Georgia residents on their birthdays. For everyone else, basic tickets are $35 for adults and go up from there. Zoo Atlanta has partnered with local libraries to give a free family pass to Georgia residents who are library members. They also have discounted tickets for students, seniors and military, but general admission is $22 for adults. Touring the CNN Center will cost $15 for adults. Many of these attractions are included on the City Pass, so if you plan on doing three, you might as well get the pass.
Eating and Drinking
In the last few years, Atlanta has become a food truck mecca with daily events throughout town as well as the Atlanta Food Truck Park on Howell Mill Road, a full-time home for the fast food spots. King of Pops is a local favorite, where you can get freshly made popsicles for under $3, which you’ll be glad to have if you visit in the summer. Sister restaurants Fellini’s Pizza and La Fonda Latina are two cheap eats found throughout the city, offering pizzas by the slice and Spanish, Mexican and Cuban fare, respectively. Noni’s Bar and Deli, Victory Sandwich Bar and HD1 are also reasonably priced restaurants that offer an atmosphere without breaking the bank. And of course, you can’t beat the classic eats at The Varsity. See also: Atlanta’s Best Cheap Eats in Southern Living.
When it comes to drinking, you can expect to pay around $5 for a quality beer and upwards of $7 for a nice cocktail. Thankfully there is no shortage of breweries in town, where you can sample the offerings for less than $10. Sweetwater, Red Hare, Red Brick and Monday Night offer tastings, as well as food trucks, cornhole and bocce and live music.
I can’t say much about budget accommodation in Atlanta as I live here. My advice leans towards what it is in every other city, which is CouchSurfing and using apartment rental sites like AirBnB. There is a hostel in town, but I can’t attest to it’s quality. You can find cheap hotels further out of town in the suburbs if you have a way to get into the city.
Atlanta doesn’t have a well-organized public transportation system like you find in other cities like New York or London. Instead there are a handful of train lines that don’t extend much past “The Perimeter” and buses. Driving is even more of a pain, so when possible, take MARTA. Purchase a Breeze card, which you can refill like an Oyster card.
The city is currently constructing a streetcar line that will run from the Centennial Olympic Park area to Sweet Auburn near the Martin Luther King Center, but it won’t be up and running until June 2014.
If you’re looking for a cheap way to get into town, try budget airlines like Southwest and AirTran, as well as deals from Megabus.
Go vintage or pre-owned for shopping excursions rather than hitting mega-malls like Lenox, Phipps Plaza or Atlantic Station. Little Five Points is a great place to start, with vintage shops like Junkman’s Daughter, Clothing Warehouse, Rag-O-Rama and Buffalo Exchange all around the corner.