Atlanta was the city that surprised me the most during our trip to the southern United States. I'm not a fan of The Walking Dead and did not expect much, or anything special, from this city I did not know. I only knew that I wouldn't be able to escape the many trees and mosquitoes - confirmed.
Unlike the plans for New Orleans and Miami, which were not really set, the itinerary for the state capital of Georgia (yes, we count how many US states we were in) was well defined. After all, with only three days to enjoy, there was no time to spare.
Day 1, introduction to the life and history of Martin Luther King
We arrived in Atlanta in the morning and were fortunate enough to get settled right away. This airbnb (you can register here for the platform and receive credit for a trip), within walking distance of the Martin Luther King Historic District, set the tone for our visits on the first day.
After a well-deserved rest - we had gotten out of bed at three in the morning! - we headed towards Martin Luther King Jr. National Park, dedicated to the life of the activist and the civil rights fight, closely tied to the history of the city. This was the first stop to explore the Historic District, in which several buildings of the neighborhood are integrated.
The most interesting ones are the house where Martin (whose original name is Michael ...) Luther King was born and the King Center, a set of interior and exterior spaces that invites to contemplation and introspection, and where the tomb of MLK is found.
The (free) tickets to visit the house are picked up in the Visitor Center, which should be the first stop for your exploration of the surroundings. Then, linger in the memorials and gardens and gather all the strength you can to deal with what you will see and hear about the civil movements in Atlanta and all over the southern United States.
If you are in the area and getting hungry, the Sweet Auburn Curb Market is a good choice - in addition to the traditional market with fresh produce, there are also several places to dine. The Grindhouse Killer Burgers received our seal of approval.
For those who want to see a spectacular view of Atlanta - but it's just to go there to have a spectacular panorama of the city and take a beautiful photo - or to the Walking Dead fans, who will surely recognize the skyline: if you still have the stamina to do it, go up two more streets to the Jackson Street Bridge and... come back. But it's worth it.
Day 2, from American (and global) consumerism to human rights
We had already decided that the second day would be devoted to museums. Those who know us know that we are picky about museums, but there are a few that blow us away. In Atlanta, we were going with three, and none of them disappointed us.
The first stop of the day was at the College Football Hall of Fame, a museum dedicated to the university version of American football. For me, it was just one more way that Rui had to squeeze in a little sport, and I expected nothing in particular. In fact, it's a building full of little surprises and stories - the skill zone, where you can try kicking the ball from 15 yards or making a quarterback-style pass, is just one of them.
The museum is designed to tell us the history of the game, the great rivalries, the most significant moments, the best players, and make us realize the importance of this sport in the United States. Forget an NBA game with more enthusiastic fans: College Football is where people lose their minds. Result? I left asking Rui which teams were playing in Boston on our next visit, hoping to get some live action.
After the Hall of Fame, we made a quick stop to eat at CNN's headquarter restoration area, before heading to the World of Coca-Cola. First of all, a disclaimer: I do not drink Coca-Cola. Neither does Rui, most of the time. It was not by any fanaticism for this drink that we decided that this museum was to be part of our visit.
The truth is that Coca-Cola is a key part of American and world pop culture, and there was no good reason why we did not know a little more about its history and presence. Created in a pharmacy in Atlanta, the drink we all know is the star in this "world", but it is well accompanied by other company drinks - present in a "tasting room" with flavors from around the world. Before that, there is space to know the history, the mascots, the most emblematic ads, a mini-chain of production (not working at the time of our visit due to the failure of a piece) and the safe where, they say, the secret formula is stored. Who knows.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights was the last stop of a well-filled day and, for me, the most striking. The two hours we had before the closing time of the museum were not nearly enough to take in everything we could.
In the first exhibit, dedicated to the American Civil Rights movement, with an obvious focus on the anti-segregation fights, we found the most moving exhibition. Mentions of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks are joined by stories of others who have also changed history. And the testimony of the segregationists is heard with a knot in the stomach. But it's later, in an experience designed to simulate what Afro-Americans had to endure in their restaurant protests, that we feel put to the test - a woman next to us could not stand it and left in tears.
The exhibit upstairs is dedicated to the global Human Rights movement and makes us think twice about our consumptions and our lifestyle. Despite the very Americanized view of some parts of the room, the overall perspective we get about what human rights are has an immense value. By coincidence, one of the "human rights heroes" present here is the newly awarded Nobel Peace Prize winner, Denis Mukwege (the trip was made before the announcement of the prize).
The Martin Luther King, Jr. exhibit, with many of your personal documents, becomes a bit secondary after your visit to the MLK Historic District, but it may be a good starting point if you have not yet had an introduction to the life and work of the activist.
Day 3 - Between cemeteries, parks and balls
The late afternoon and night of our last day in Atlanta were already reserved for the Braves game, but we still had to fill the rest of the time. The options were numerous: after all, the city is monstrous despite its compact center. A tour of Buckhead, a historic area but very far from downtown, was very appealing. Little Five Points, the new hip and trendy area, could also be an option. However, we decided to stay true to our roots and take a day out to stroll in parks and green areas.
The first destination of the day was the Oakland Cemetery. Founded in 1850, it is a mirror of the many faces of Atlanta, being the burial place of illustrious strangers and others, more famous, like the golfer Bobby Jones or the writer Margaret Mitchell. In the various alterations it suffered, one of the most drastic was the transfer of the mortal remains of slaves and Afro-Americans to a distinct area of the cemetery. It's just another expression of the reality of Atlanta.
The oaks that give the name to the cemetery also bring the wonderful squirrels that keep us company along the way. All it takes is more shade, on a scorching summer day, for the visit to be fantastic.
From there we headed to Ponce City Market, totally renovated and... totally hipster. The dining area is immense, but not crowded - even right at lunchtime - and allows us to replenish the calories lost in the sun. The market is also one of the entry points on the Eastside Trail, the first section of the Beltline (a project that aims to create a pedestrian and cycling path around the city) to be completed. That's where we headed - but not without first playing the colorful piano that is at our disposal. There is one more, further ahead, upon arrival at Piedmont Park.
Again, our biggest problem with the Eastside Trail is the lack of shadows. The distance From Ponce City to Piedmont Park is about 2 miles, but the heat makes it difficult to follow this old railroad. When we finally arrived, a shaded garden bench looks almost like an oasis.
Piedmont Park is one of the largest green spaces in Atlanta - a city with no lack of them - and looks like a prime location for events. Located in the Midtown area, it also has spectacular views of the city center. The problem? An unbearable smell that forced us to shorten the trip. Again, one advice: do not visit in September.
After a mini-exploration of the area, we proceed to Cumberland, where the Braves stadium is located. The bus ride takes about an hour and takes us through the middle of what looks like a bunch of forests with houses in the middle. It is a view of the typical Atlanta, where most people live, which we would not have otherwise.
The game of the Braves, that you'll be able to read about in another post, ended our days in Atlanta. And this time we could see a game outdoors without ending up with a badly sunburned nose. The only gift I got from Atlanta was two mosquito bites I will not want to relive.
The city in Louisiana was the first stop of a ten-day trip in the southern United States. This is our list of top-5 things to do if you ever visit it.
1. A street meal overlooking Mississippi
The food in New Orleans was so good that we wanted to put together a best-of on the last day. At the end of the afternoon, when the sun was lower and the weather was far more pleasant, we bought a po' boy and a couple of beignets and went to sit by the river. We were tired, we needed to rest our legs and it could not have been better. It's also a perfect way to relive everything we have done in the previous days.
2. Visit the Oak Alley Plantation
The trip takes about an hour but it pays off. The natural beauty is breathtaking and provides excellent photo-ops. But the visit is much more than that: it also has a strong cultural component that helps us imagine how life was, for owners and slaves, in the nineteenth century. It will be impossible not to like it.
3. National World War II Museum
It is one of the most recommended museums in the whole country and we can see why. Composed of several buildings, it perfectly combines digital technologies with the respect for history and detail. It has specific pavilions for the Pacific conflict and for the European conflict. One excellent detail is the ability to follow the history of a specific military - from recruitment to post-war life - that is assigned to you right after you buy the ticket.
4. Strolling in the French Quarter
Everyone has seen movies shot in New Orleans. The architecture is very interesting and the people seem to live in a neverending party. Whether you like this kind of adventure or not, you should at least take a look around Bourbon Street and its adjacent streets in the late afternoon.
5. Make the entire electric line of the St. Charles Streetcar Line
The daily pass costs three dollars and is worth it. The St. Charles Streetcar Line is the most famous and has many more tourists than the others. In addition to facilitating travel to points of interest such as Lafayette Cemetery or Loyola University in New Orleans, it is also an ongoing gazebo for the entire Garden District area.
The alarm clock rings in the morning. It's time to go to the game, a professional football game. The two sentences together are strange for us. Professional sports in Portugal - especially soccer - are increasingly nightly based. But in New Orleans, more than seven thousand miles away from Lisbon, we had not had breakfast yet and we were already thinking we couldn't be late for the game that began at noon.
We would never get there late. Usually, we like to arrive a long time before the kickoff and this time, after all the stress from when we went to see the New England Patriots, that wasn't even a question. The doors of the arena, historically important for having housed thousands of people for several days during and after Katrina, opened two hours earlier and we were prepared for it.
The transportation was pretty much straight from home. There was a tram stop a block away from the arena and it was impossible to get lost with New Orleans Saints' sweaters and props everywhere. From the outside, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome looks like a work of futuristic architecture.
The atmosphere is great. There are bands playing, but the famous tailgating is much smaller than at the Gillette Stadium. After all, people tend to use public transportation, and car parks are no more than a small space reserved for those who have enough dollars to spare in exchange for parking 100 feet from the front door.
We got in very early indeed. It was simple: we learned our lesson and there were no unpleasant surprises like the famous and desperate episode of the Foxborough's backpack. There are dozens of staff members scattered around the arena that show all the world's willingness to make our experience even more enjoyable.
We went straight to our seats. As we always go for the cheapest tickets, we already knew that we were on a top, near the last rows. When we got there, there were small towels - a common offer in American sports - to encourage the team. We looked around, absorbed the space, took some photographs and... realized that we may have arrived too soon.
It was time to go see what the arena had to offer because we have not eaten yet and wanted to enjoy the absence of queues. There was plenty of offers and we walked all the way around the arena more than once as we were gathering preferences: there were the usual nachos and hot dogs, but also Smoothie King shakes (highly recommended) and sandwiches with... crocodile sausages. Yes, at ten-thirty in the morning.
By then, the buzz was growing. The stands got crowded and several players were already warming up on the pitch. On one of the electronic screens we watched the countdown to the kick-off, as we evolve from a "damn, what are we going to do for so long?" to a "nice, we're almost there!".
The game, between the New Orleans Saints and the Cleveland Browns, is a promising one. The Saints have Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, while the Cleveland Browns put an end to a 17-game losing streak (more than one season in the NFL) the previous weekend. The team is very young, there are many people with potential but they always seem to lose their grip in the important moments.
The first half was a disappointment. There were just a few points, a lack of inspiration and uncoordinated offensive teams. The environment only vibrated when the Saints were able to advance ten yards, prompting "Move dem chains!" chants or when they started screaming the traditional "Who dat!". The first time, early in the game, was overwhelming. The acoustics were good - it was no coincidence that Beyoncé gave a concert there the day before our arrival.
The Browns threatened an upset - Tyrod Taylor passed for a touchdown almost from the midfield in the final moments - but the Saints had one final drive that clinched the win with a field goal. Browns' kicker, who missed four kicks (two extra point attempts and two field goals), preventing the Cleveland team to win, was one of the men of the match, but not for good reasons. The result? He was waived the next day.
For us, the experience was what mattered most, but some thought we were... the enemy. By chance, Sarah was wearing orange shorts (they were red, but after many laundry days... there are no miracles) that could be confused with Browns's colors. In the bathroom, after the end of the game, a woman approached her exactly because that: "What kind of color is that?! We are black and gold here!".
She was just kidding, of course. The strangest part? When we left, we still had half the day to enjoy. Only in America...
"You will now see Laura Plantation to your left... and you'll understand why you made the right choice."
The words of Rick, the driver who took us to the Oak Alley Plantation and who had just left half our group on a different plantation, left us in suspense. What the hell would be so special about Oak Alley that those aloe and sugar cane fields we saw next to us would be so obviously a worse choice?
The Oak Alley Plantation is an old sugar cane plantation, built in the nineteenth century by Jacques Roman, and today it sheds a light on the relationship between the rich Louisiana families and their slaves. In the tours, about one hour long, we are introduced not only to the family history but also to what the life of the slaves in that house was. Outside the "big house", there is also an alley of rebuilt wooden quarters that show where slaves used to sleep, with more exhibitions about this subject.
But the truth is that as interesting as the history of the house is - and it is, besides being a real punch in the stomach - that is not what makes the difference. In the same area, there are others that can be visited, each one with its peculiarity: the Laura Plantation or the Houmas House Plantation are just some examples.
What truly makes it worth the visit to the Oak Alley, and hence the "right choice", is its ... oak alley. In all, there are 28 oaks with more than 200 years that have been transplanted to their current location. From the first floor of the mansion, you have an unbelievable view of this alley, and not even the road at the end of the tunnel ruins the mandatory photography. One of the previous owners once said that this is the "most beautiful view of Louisiana" - if it is not true, we want to see the real one.
Even on a day with several tours, we managed to escape a crowded space. And the truth is that seeing the people who are there visiting, and how they interact with it and with others, is also part of the experience. It is so interesting for us to react to what we are seeing as it is to see the reaction of others as they wander through the gardens and the shacks, hearing the story of how that house was built.
Photos inside the mansion are not allowed, which only leaves us with an alternative: to recommend that you visit it, on any trip to New Orleans. The way there, from the city, takes about an hour - if you do not have a car available, there are several companies that provide tours, which already include the ticket price.
Another tip: take advantage of jet lag you'll certainly have when you arrive in the United States if you are traveling from Europe, and book the tour early in the morning. You will be awake anyway, you might as well avoid the crowds.
Travel is not easy peasy. My brain, after I began thinking about what to do on a layover of nearly eight hours in Miami, is can attest to that.
Let's break it down: to ensure the best price to New Orleans, we split our trip into two parts. First, we flew from Lisbon to Miami and then, independently, from Miami to New Orleans. This meant that any delay in the first flight, or customs, or immigration, could screw everything up - we had no safety net.
Not wanting to risk more than necessary, we decided that the best idea was to make sure that between the expected arrival in Miami and the flight to New Orleans we had... a bunch of time, there's no other way to put it. It would have seven and a half hours (a bit more, because the flight usually arrives before the scheduled time) to get out of an airplane, go through all the controls, do whatever we want, go through security again and arrive in time for boarding on the second flight.
All of this, of course, after an eight-hour flight, and a five-hour time difference.
The first idea was to go to the city center and spend two or three hours there (depending on how long it would take) walking around. It was quickly discarded because we had all our luggage with us - we like to travel on carry-on only, and we took advantage of it and paid less - and we expected a lot of heat.
After that, we decided we were going to Five Guys for lunch. It was a simple plan: to go to the Wynwood area, have lunch, and go back. And we were (at least I was) fully convinced that it was the plan we were going to follow. We just did not expect to arrive in Miami with a full stomach and too tired for a bus ride that could get close to 50 minutes. Each way.
It was only at the airport that we decided to change plans. I had read, somewhere, a text about long layover options at Miami. One of the suggestions looked like our thing: a Burger Museum, very close to the airport. I mentioned it to Rui, and it was settled.
Bags on our backs, bus tickets bought and, in a blink of an eye, we were at Magic City Casino wandering around trying to find the mentioned museum. We didn't know what to expect, so we didn't know what to look for, either. Which would not hurt if we were not melting in the parking lot of a giant casino. It was so big that there was a shuttle that taking people from the cars to the casino door - which in fact saved us, giving us a ride to a rather disguised door of an ice cream shop. In the back, there it was, the entrance to our museum.
The Burger Beast Museum is the size of a large room, no more than that. It houses the collection of the food blogger Burger Beast, who has become obsessed with burger-related and other fast food chains artifacts after he received a Burger Chef's sign. After years of collecting and keeping things at home and at the office, he was invited to show them at the Magic City Casino. And there it is, the museum we have today, a place that, together with Wall's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shop, contains more than 3000 objects.
For us, many chains and restaurants mentioned in the museum are unknown. Yes, we know McDonald's, Burger King and Arby's, but we've never heard of Burger Castle, for example. That does not stop us from being very eager to know all those places - and to eat at those prices, since many of the artifacts have menus with decades of life.
The entrance fee (10 dollars *plus* taxes, remember that detail) is worth the minutes spent inside to discover the relics of a world that, although familiar, is a long way from us. And the conversation with one of the owner's friends, just "giving a had", who tells us about the Portuguese friend who has a sustainable tourism company (he's called João, but try to understand an American saying that name) and confesses us what his favorite burgers are. «In terms of fast food chains, I think my favorite is Wendy's. And that story of not freezing the meat, which I always thought was marketing... it's really true and it makes a difference."
Appropriately, there is one on the other side of the road. And after the hunger with we grew while strolling through the museum, that's where we're going to stop. It's true, the burger is really good.
In 2017 we traveled twice to the United States: we did the California Zephyr - a train that connects Chicago to Emeryville (San Francisco) - and we fell in love with the idea of traveling through the country's rail lines - and watched a game of the NFL team I support (New England Patriots).
By 2018, we had hoped to do a mix of the two: watch a game of Sarah's team (Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin) and cross the country again from Chicago, but this time heading south, to New Orleans, with Amtrak's City of New Orleans.
We had the trip planned - including a stop in Memphis to visit the balcony of the hotel where Martin Luther King was shot, on the 50th anniversary of his death, - we created budgets and everything was set except for one detail: the NFL calendar. Green Bay is a cold place and we did not want to delay the trip. Everything went wrong: the Packers were going to start the season with two consecutive games at home and the price of the tickets represented an effort that was not worth it... for now.
We started searching for a backup plan. There were many options in sight, with multiple combinations between cities, but the choice became clearer by the day: we kept New Orleans from our original idea and decided to include Atlanta, that is "nearby." We resisted giving up on Memphis, but when we realized that the most economical way to do it was to get to the United States via Miami, we knew we would have to postpone it for another time.
The new travel plan began to draw itself. Our first temptation was to go see the prices, schedules, and duration of the trips of Megabus' buses (which have been so useful to us in the past), but there were no direct connections to Miami and we preferred the plane to not waste unnecessary time.
We had five flights in total: Lisbon-Miami, Miami-New Orleans, New Orleans-Atlanta, Atlanta-Miami, and Miami-Lisbon. On our first flight, to Miami, given the unpredictable waiting times for security, we opted for a longer stopover that would allow us to make a quick trip to the city in the afternoon.
After that, we would have four days in New Orleans, three days in Atlanta and two days in Miami Beach, just to rest (we always have a tendency to walk instead of riding public transportation and we ended up with more than 55 miles in our legs) before returning to Portugal.
We automatically decided that we were going to see an NFL game in New Orleans and that we were going to visit the latest MLB stadium in Atlanta. We kept the door open for the possibility to see a baseball game in Miami (the poor quality of the teams was not a great visiting card) and we began setting priorities in each city: to visit an old plantation and the fantastic museum of the World War II in New Orleans, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., the Centennial Olympic Park, and a «museum circuit», that included the College Football Hall of Fame, World of Coca-Cola and the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The heat was the only real problem. Unbearable in New Orleans, especially due to the humidity, and difficult to endure in Atlanta, it made us think that perhaps it had been better to postpone the trip for another month or two. It continued to be worthwhile but made it more difficult to visit each corner of each city as we like: step by step.