10 of metro Atlanta’s most vibrant city centers—that aren’t Atlanta

Atlanta’s suburbs are getting more urban. Metro residents crave proximity to walkable city centers and are flocking to reinvigorated, historic towns like Alpharetta and Hapeville—or newly invented places like Trilith and Serenbe. Here are 10 communities with newly vibrant downtowns.

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1ALPHARETTA

Alpharetta
New and old mix gracefully in downtown Alpharetta.

Key attractions Upscale seafood house Lapeer and a downtown location of homegrown Jekyll Brewing draw crowds. A 9,000-square-foot, speakeasy-inspired entertainment hub called Roaring Social is expected to join the mix soon at the forthcoming Hamilton Hotel. Sections of the planned BeltLine-style Alpha Loop have begun to open, including a link from downtown to Avalon, located a mile east.

Housing types Options within a short walk of Alpharetta’s core are dominated by newer construction, be it modern-leaning townhouses or relatively dense single-family clusters.

Cost of living Searching for a low-cost suburban alternative? You might need to keep looking. One-bedroom rents at the aforementioned apartments, Amorance, clock in at $1,800 for about 700 square feet. Larger condos have fetched well over $800,000—and townhomes more than $1 million—in the past year.

Who lives here? Alpharetta’s been a particular hit lately with Gen Xers moving from larger, denser cities, often for jobs in the city’s blossoming tech sector. A recent survey showed just 2 percent of Alpharettans were born there.

You might be surprised Prior to the turn of the century, when Alpharetta city leaders began assembling rundown buildings and parking lots to create a town center, no significant projects had been developed here for almost 30 years.

Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Hats off to architects and developers, led by Atlanta-based Morris & Fellows, for devising a ground-up new section of downtown that invites activity while feeling mostly organic.

2HAPEVILLE

Hapeville
Hapeville has welcomed murals and public art.

Key attractions Newer points of interest include John R. Lewis Memorial Park on King Arnold Street, a skatepark at the Tom E. Morris Sports Complex, and the downtown pedestrian bridge—colorfully reimagined recently by artists Micah and Whitney Stansell—with 360-degree views.

Housing types Hapeville offers cottages built in the first half of the 20th century and Craftsman-style offerings less than 20 years old, with an injection of denser townhomes and mixed-use apartment hubs on the way. At a new 18-home townhome venture called the Clyde, as one example, two-bedroom units start at $305,000.

Cost of living For a location closer to downtown Atlanta than, say, Decatur, Hapeville could seem an under-the-radar bargain, with typical home values a hair over $200,000 and rising, per Zillow.

The Clyde townhouses in HapevilleThe Clyde townhouses in Hapeville
The Clyde townhouses in Hapeville

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Who lives here? Popular with airline pilots, airport workers, and young families seeking cost-friendlier alternatives to intown living without sacrificing ITP hipness.

You might be surprised Yehimi Cambrón’s seven-story mural We Give Each Other the World, which covers the side of a North Central Avenue building, is one of metro Atlanta’s largest.

Charm-o-meter Rating 7. Hapeville achieved “Main Street City” designation back in 2003. Now, new development and splashes of public art are lending a contemporary bent.

3LAGRANGE

Founded 1828

About the commercial center Handsomely revitalized over the past decade and a half, downtown LaGrange claims a dozen restaurants, an AMC movie theater, a picturesque fountain replicating one in France, and one of the first segments of the Thread, a BeltLine-like multiuse trail that will eventually stretch for 26 miles.

Key attractions Sweetland Amphitheatre, circa-1831 LaGrange College (Georgia’s oldest private college), and nearby Great Wolf Lodge. At downtown’s southern end, award-winning Wild Leap Brew Co. claimed a vacant tire center three years ago to become a linchpin for growth.

Housing types Homes run the gamut from 1990s-era infill to brick traditional estates designed by hallowed Atlanta architectural firm Ivey and Crook.

Cost of living Median home prices in LaGrange’s core clock in at $296,000, but century-old four-bedrooms with storybook charm can be found for less than $200,000.

Who lives here? LaGrange’s 30,500 population is steadily climbing, with international businesspeople (attracted by nearby Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia and a growing business park) and others seeking a respite from city life without sacrificing airport access.

You might be surprised Nearby West Point Lake was among the first built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifically for recreation.

Charm-o-meter Rating 9. For inimitable small-town architecture with a progressive spirit, downtown LaGrange stands out.

4LAWRENCEVILLE

Founded 1821

About the commercial center Among Lawrenceville’s many openings and mixed-use additions, the arts and cultural center has generated the most buzz recently; scheduled to open this spring, it will house a 500-seat mainstage room and Aurora Theatre, the state’s second-largest performing arts space. Like Roswell and Duluth, Lawrenceville adopted an open-container ordinance in 2019, permitting drinks to be carried in plastic cups within a limited zone.

Key attractions Dubbed “the DTL,” downtown Lawrenceville opened two new eateries during 2020’s pandemic doldrums—Ironshield Brewing and D’Floridian Cuban restaurant—to join staples such as Local Republic and Dominick’s family-style Italian. Events abound around the square, including a summer concert series. A 120-key boutique hotel, the Lawrence, is planned to open this year with architectural detailing (red brick and arched windows with mullioned glass) that echoes the past.

Housing types Restored bungalows near the square occasionally come up for grabs, but Lawrenceville’s bread and butter of late has been infill housing, especially townhomes. At one new venture, Urban Square at South Lawn, trilevel, four-bedroom units with nearly 2,500 square feet are listed for just shy of $400,000.

Cost of living In 2020, Lawrenceville’s median home values jumped about 9 percent to $254,403.

Who lives here? Younger families and empty-nesters have gravitated toward Lawrenceville’s townhomes, condos, and preserved original houses. It’s also drawing grads of nearby Georgia Gwinnett College, the fastest-growing institution within the University System of Georgia.

You might be surprised Lawrenceville is metro Atlanta’s oldest incorporated city—two years older than Decatur.

Charm-o-meter Rating 10. The town-square center of Gwinnett’s county seat hums with fresh commercial activity, all punctuated by a lovingly preserved, landmark courthouse.

5MARIETTA

Founded 1834

About the commercial center The early-20th-century core of Marietta—one of Atlanta’s largest suburbs—is home to about 50 restaurants and 35 retailers ranging from a record shop to purveyors of upscale women’s clothing, six museums, three theaters, and a host of art galleries. Commercial activity continues to expand outwardly down several side streets.

Key attractions Downtown made waves in 2019 with the debut of Marietta Square Market, an adaptive-reuse food hall with 20 food options reminiscent of Krog Street Market. Other recent additions include Glover Park Brewery, which has helped lure foot traffic down Atlanta Street, Mac’s Chophouse, and speakeasy-style cocktail lounge the Third Door.

Housing types The downtown boom has lured builders of newer subdivisions and townhome clusters within a quick bike ride of the action, while historic thoroughfares such as Church Street are loaded with well-kept, grander century-old dwellings.

Cost of living The rather steep median home price, $454,210, reflects the prevalence of larger, restored estate homes that can fetch more than $850,000. More affordable bungalows and ranches can be found further off the square.

Who lives here? Popular with young families and retirees—and, more recently, fans of the Atlanta Braves, who play ball eight miles away.

You might be surprised This past fall, Yelp and Zillow declared Marietta the number eight suburb in the U.S. for affordability with a big-city feel.

Charm-o-meter Rating 10. With its impressively preserved houses, gorgeous square, and growing slate of sophisticated culinary options, this city center is where Mayberry meets Inman Park.

6NORCROSS

Founded 1870

About the commercial center Norcross was born about 150 years ago as a railroad line’s first stop out of Atlanta, and many of the community’s boutique shops and eateries still face the active railroad tracks. These days, the historic depot is the Crossing, a family-owned steakhouse.

Key attractions With its splashpad and tiered greenspaces, Lillian Webb Park is a can’t-miss for families that acts as a gateway to Buford Highway eats next door. The Rectory, a restored building from the early 1900s, now houses the nonprofit Lionheart Theatre. For international bites, try Mojitos (Cuban), Paizanos (Italian), or the Iron Horse Tavern (English-style pub).

Housing types The city’s older sections near Thrasher Park and along South Peachtree Street are studded with Victorians and quaint bungalows that rarely trade hands, but blocks of newer houses and townhomes in the Craftsman vein are more readily available. A luxury apartment venture that opened last year, Broadstone Junction, has brought 200 rentals to just south of the commercial district.

Cost of living The median home price is $206,868, and average rents clock in at $1,491.

Who lives here? The city center’s post millennium housing stock, with prices cheaper than most of intown, makes it popular with younger couples and families seeking small-town quaintness with easy proximity to places like Brookhaven and Buckhead.

You might be surprised Gwinnett is speckled with lovely downtowns rich in history, but Norcross—once dubbed “Atlanta’s Summer Resort”—was the county’s first to earn a place on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980s.

Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Norcross’s railroad-bisected, park-laden nucleus might not be as expansive as that of some north-OTP enclaves, but that’s sort of the point.

7SERENBE

Founded 2004

About the commercial center More than 30 independent businesses call Serenbe home, including six new retailers that opened in 2020, all clustered in four quiet hamlets with specific themes, such as art and agriculture.

Key attractions Serenbe is home to five restaurants, including the Blue Eyed Daisy bakeshop and fine-dining mainstay the Farmhouse at the community’s elegantly rustic inn. All within shouting distance of nature trails, open greenspaces, and the 25-acre organic farm that helps feed the town.

Housing types It’s quite a mix, ranging from condos and cottages to large estate lots and “farmettes” for anyone seeking breathing room with up to 25 acres. More than 350 homes are finished, with about 70 more in the pipeline for 2021.

Cost of living Serenbe is remote by design, but don’t expect rural price points. Homes start in the mid-$400,000s and commonly sell for well over $1 million.

Who lives here? Seventy percent of Serenbe homeowners live here full-time. The rest are weekenders or second-home residents from as far away as Los Angeles and New York.

You might be surprised About a third of Serenbe’s 750 residents are age 35 or younger, including 150 kids.

Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Serenbe was just rolling farmland 15 years ago, so it’s hardly a hub of timeworn history. Instead, the appeal is holistic design and a dazzling range of residential architecture, from ecofriendly modern to neo-Victorian.

8STONE MOUNTAIN

Hearthstone Park
Hearthstone Park is within walking distance of Stone Mountain Village.

Key attractions A PATH trail linking downtown Atlanta with Stone Mountain Park brings droves of cyclists to the commercial center, where the Village Corner German Restaurant has been dishing schnitzel and in-house pilsner since 1974. Elsewhere, the cozy Sweet Potato Cafe, newcomers Outrun Brewing Company (with 1980s neon flair!), Stoned Pizza Kitchen, and coffeehouse Gilly Brew Bar join cultural attractions such as nonprofit Art Station, set in a former trolley hub.

Housing types Ranges from renovated, sub-$100,000 condos to country cottages in the $200,000 range. The village’s first new residential development in 20 years, Hearthstone, is building 34 houses priced from the mid-$300,000s.

Cost of living Median home prices for Stone Mountain’s city center are $191,271 and rents $1,555.

Who lives here? Creatives tired of astronomical intown prices, budget-conscious renters, and more established residents who scooped up older homes in the village and aren’t budging.

You might be surprised Stone Mountain’s granite was used to construct landmarks around the world, including Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, Fort Knox’s gold depository, and the Lincoln Memorial’s foundation.

Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Despite its troubled racial history and years of disinvestment, the village’s bones remain largely intact, and as recent entrepreneurial activity indicates, the future is bright.

9TRILITH

Founded 2016 (groundbreaking; then known as Pinewood Forest and rebranded as Trilith in 2020—think Stonehenge)

About the commercial center Located across from the nation’s second-largest purpose-built movie studio, which carries the same name and was home to many Avengers productions, Trilith is a 235-acre planned community that is expected to eventually have 6,000 residents, between its homes and apartments. The 25-acre town center will feature around a dozen local restaurants. The community is 20 miles south of the airport and technically located in Fayetteville.

Key attractions Top draws to open thus far include Piedmont Wellness Center, Barleygarden Kitchen and Craft Bar, and Hop City Craft Beer and Wine, with more than a dozen new retailers planned for 2021. Fifteen miles of walkable pathways—including a 5K loop around the property—are expected to join 120 acres of greenspace. Also in the works: a nine-screen luxury cinema and boutique hotel.

Housing types In the megaproject’s first phase, 161 Trilith homes have been completed, ranging from two-bedroom cottages to three-bedroom townhomes and five-bedroom, modernistic dwellings. A tiny homes enclave is the latest addition.

Cost of living Prices have ranged from the low $400,000s for two-story cottages to just shy of $1.5 million.

Who lives here? According to brokers, buyers in the initial phase have included actors, actresses, film-industry personnel, creators, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and families.

You might be surprised To boost the community’s ecofriendly appeal, all stand-alone houses are geothermal-powered and situated directly on parks or within one block.

Charm-o-meter Rating 7. While it’s a grand example of a master-planned community with eye-catching design, Trilith remains a relative infant. Look for it to gain steam quickly.

10WOODSTOCK

Founded 1897

About the commercial center In the early 2000s, a downtown master plan, supported with a grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative, helped transform sleepy central Woodstock into a bustling destination, where $950 million in investment has materialized in and around the downtown core. Thousands of new housing units have cropped up around Main Street, along with some 20 restaurants, helping swell the city’s 1990s population by nearly 760 percent.

Key attractions The Elm Street Cultural Arts Village is expected to produce a new gallery and pottery studio this year, following the 2020 debut of the Elm Street playground. Next door is the huge patio of Reformation Brewery and some 45 independent retailers—from spas and a local bookstore to a custom men’s clothier and an outdoor outfitter—within a one-beer walking distance in the open-container district. A free concert series at Northside Hospital–Cherokee Amphitheater, a 7,500-capacity venue covering 2.7 acres downtown, is scheduled this summer.

Housing types Runs the gamut from penthouse condos in a 2007 building with both city and mountain views to massive Craftsman-style estate homes in newer communities where plantation shutters and shiplap abound.

Cost of living In Woodstock’s city center, median home prices are $229,744, with a majority of that stock less than 20 years old. Smaller condos can be found in the very heart of town for the low $200,000s.

Who lives here? Newcomers especially are a mix of younger singles, families, and empty-nesters. An influx of international residents is beginning to diversify the food scene.

You might be surprised From a makeshift stage on Woodstock’s Main Street, President George H.W. Bush launched his ill-fated 1992 reelection campaign against Bill Clinton.

Charm-o-meter Rating 9. Cherokee County’s most populous city has evolved into an alluring mix of both old and new urban-style architecture, performance art, and nature.

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.