Athens is one of the oldest cities in Alabama, founded way back in 1818. It originally went by the name of Athenson but was later renamed after the ancient city in Greece.
It is well-known as an early railroad and cotton city, with a rich heritage which has become a haven for history lovers.
With a superb selection of Civil War sites, museums and Antebellum structures, it exudes southern charm, has several nature parks nearby, and offers a wide range of activities for all to enjoy.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Athens:
1. Alabama Veterans Museum & Archives
The museum is located in the heart of Downtown Athens, Alabama and hosts a vast collection of artefacts spanning eras from the Revolutionary War until the present day.
Discover military uniforms, weaponry and medals, and listen to quotes and stories from people who lived through it all.
The museum is one of Alabama’s top attractions with guided tours, gift shops and a monthly coffee morning where locals and visitors can swap their own stories.
Hosting an average of 10,000 people each year, it’s an attraction not to be missed if staying in or passing through Athens.
2. Isom’s Orchard
The farm first started growing cotton on its land over 100 years ago, and today, the 259 verdant acres are still abundant, not with cotton, but with fruit.
It doesn’t matter which season you visit Alabama, there’s always fresh fruit ripe for the picking.
Whether you fancy sampling crisp apples, juicy peaches, plump plums or blueberries, you are sure to leave with full bags.
During autumnal months, bring the kids to raid the fabulous pumpkin patch, and don’t forget to try a mouth-watering cider slushie before you leave.
3. Joe Wheeler State Park
Nestled on the shores of Wheeler Lake, approximately 22 miles from Athens, Alabama, is scenic Joe Wheeler State Park.
Surrounded by emerald forests, with waterfront lodges, an 18-hole championship golf course, hiking trails and restaurant, you can easily spend a few days exploring the area.
Tennessee River runs through the park, dividing it in two.
It attracts anglers throughout the year, who arrive to fish for catfish, bass and bream.
If you’re feeling energetic, you can meander along the superb hiking and mountain biking trails, or simply sip a glass of beer or regional wine at the riverside restaurant.
4. Athens Saturday Market
Each Saturday, the Athens Market springs to life in the city centre.
Helping to support local businesses, it allows artisans, farmers and creatives to come together and procure their wares to locals and tourists.
Visitors can enjoy browsing for fresh produce, baked goods and arts and crafts, and on specific days throughout the year there’s barbecues and live music too.
5. The Richard Martin Trail
Outdoor adventurers and nature lovers will enjoy a day exploring The Richard Martin Trail.
Located just outside Elkmont, 10 miles north of Athens, the trail boasts a range of activities to suit all ages.
On your travels, you’ll see refurbished old railcars, an historic depot, and abundant flora and fauna.
You can cycle, hike or horse-ride, as the trail takes you through homesteads, over bridges and past scenic cotton fields.
There are several notable places of interest to discover, which include Civil War battlegrounds, memorials and wetlands flush with wildlife.
6. Antebellum Trail
The Limestone County Antebellum Trail, takes you on a walking or driving tour through the cities of Athens, Mooresville and Belle Mina, showcasing delightful homes and buildings from the post-Civil War era.
Visitors can venture inside some of the buildings during opening hours, including Mooresville Post Office and Athens State University.
Although this is a self-guided tour, if you wish to find out more about the Antebellum homes and their patrons during your travels, you can purchase an audio CD which relays local history to you from Athens-Limestone Visitors Centre.
7. Robert Beaty Historic District
Robert Beaty was an Irish immigrant who came over to America and originally settled in Virginia.
He arrived in Athens, Alabama in 1818, when he purchased land to develop, and along with John Coffee, John D. Carroll and John Read, he became one of the founders of the city.
Robert Beaty Historic District is home to Athens earliest buildings, which showcase a variety of changing architectural styles from Greek Revival and Federal, to Italianate, Spanish Colonial Revival and Victorian designs.
The district is now part of the National Register of Historic Places and shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Athens.
8. Point Mallard Water Park
If you’re travelling with children and touring the Athens area during summer months, you could spend a fun day at Point Mallard Water Park.
This fabulous park, 19 miles south of Athens, is perfect for a family day out.
Home of America’s First Wave Pool, several flume slides and a scenic lagoon, you can splash around and soak up the sun from dawn till dusk.
If you don’t want to engage in anything too energetic, you have options too.
Simply float along the Lazy River, relax on the man-made beach or head to the picnic pavilions for something to eat and drink.
9. Southern Gayles Golf Course
Golf fanatics touring Alabama have their pick of pristine championship courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, however, if you’re staying in Athens and don’t wish to venture too far, you could play Southern Gayles golf course.
This fun par-72 course has over 6700 yards of golf from the longest tees, and includes a driving range, putting green and snack bar.
It’s open to the general public, so you can stop and play whenever you feel like it.
10. Big Spring Park
If you don’t want to travel too far, and fancy a family picnic or leisurely walk, Big Spring Park is the place to be.
With plenty of grassy and shaded areas there’s a pond with ducks and two large fountains in the center.
You can challenge friends or locals to a game of tennis or enjoy a picnic in the pavilion with fresh produce purchased from Athens Saturday Market.
Younger visitors aren’t left out at Big Spring Park either, there’s a fun playground which they can let loose in and run around for hours.
11. High Cotton Art
Let your creative side flourish at High Cotton Art in Downtown Athens.
The fabulous art incubator offers space for artists and creatives to unleash their talents with myriad art events, educational classes and gallery space.
Pack up your paint brush and your imagination, and venture into the studio.
You’ll meet new friends and be able to explore new diverse methods and techniques alongside like-minded individuals in a warm, friendly atmosphere.
12. 306 BBQ
Founded in 2011, this family-owned eatery in Athens caters to those who adore authentic Southern style BBQ. With slow-cooked barbecue meats and home-made side orders, this friendly restaurant will have you coming back for more.
All meats are dry rubbed prior to being slow cooked on a bed of hickory wood.
Their beef, poultry and pork dishes are so succulent and well-spiced that it doesn’t even need sauce, but they do offer special dip if you want to enhance flavours further.
If you’re feeling hungry try the full slab of ribs or whole chicken, alternatively for a lighter bite, opt for salads and fluffy loaded jacket potatoes.
13. Houston Memorial Library and Museum
Houston Memorial Library and Museum was once the home of Governor George Smith Houston, a prominent figure and citizen of Athens.
Following his passing, his estate donated his home to the city on the instruction that it be used as a museum and public library.
It is now the flagship building of the Athens Historic District, showcasing vast reading materials, historic furnishings and photographs.
The building is open for public tours and caters to special events.
14. Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
One of the many birding locations in Alabama, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is like a holiday resort for winter and migrating birds.
With over 300 documented species present at the reserve, including Bald Eagles and Whooping Cranes, there’s plenty of opportunities for keen ornithologists.
Bring your binoculars, and you could be observing Northern Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers during your trip.
The wildlife refuge is just 23 miles south of Athens, making it the perfect place for a day trip.
So, pack a picnic, your walking shoes and camera, and enjoy a day in the beautiful Alabama wilderness with plenty of feathered friends!
15. U.G White Mercantile
If you’re after the perfect souvenir or a gift for a loved one, head to U.G White Mercantile in Athens.
This old-world gift shop epitomises a shopping experience of old Alabama.
Since 1917, this store has catered to cotton mill workers, farmers and developers, who used to purchase everything from cast iron skillets to horse drawn plows.
Today, visitors can enjoy browsing clothing, candy, gifts and kitchen items for the home.
So, if you’re feeling nostalgic, pop into Downtown Athens or Huntsville and discover this old hardware store turned giftshop, you won’t be disappointed.