Lying roughly 75 miles northeast of Atlanta, Athens sits on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rich in southern charm, it has a leafy suburban feel even in its Victorian-era downtown area.
A town since at least 1806 (although its police force didn’t come into being until 80 years later), Athens grew rich off the back of its cotton mills. The birthplace of both REM and the B-52’s, it has long had a great music scene.
Though the cotton industry is long gone, the town continues to thrive, largely thanks to its college population. Coming in at somewhere around 35,000 students, it ensures there’s always something new to do.
Georgia is my home-state, I’ve lived here my whole life. And of course I’ve traveled around and have been to Athens several times. Here is my list on the 15 best things to do in Athens, Georgia.
1. Georgia Museum of Art
Run by the University of Georgia, the oldest university in the United States, this gallery has been the official state art museum since 1982. I recommend spending at least 2 hours here.
As Georgia’s premier arts space, the museum has a collection of 12,000 works. They range between Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings from Southeast Asia.
However, the focus of the collection is American paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including a significant collection of African American works.
Begun after a donation of 100 paintings in 1945, the museum’s walls are permanently hung with some of the US’s most important recent artists, including Georgia O’Keefe, known for her paintings of New Mexico.
2. State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Another institution of the University of Georgia, the State Botanical Garden spans more than 125 hectares along one bank of the Middle Oconee River.
Split into 11 distinct areas, there are around 5 miles of nature trails. There are also a series of paths that wind between the fountains of the formal garden and the cotton and tobacco plants of the Heritage Garden to name just a few.
A relaxing and colorful place to visit at any time of year, greenhouses protect its more delicate tropical plants, while a Hummingbird Trail marks 21 spots most frequented by these delightful creatures.
3. Downtown Athens
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Downtown Athens is the oldest part of the town, but remains the hub of modern-day Athens.
The area is dotted with elegant structures that combine British Victorian-era building practices with local designs typical of the southern United States.
Among them, the City Hall building of 1904 is perhaps the most grandiose. Its domed clocktower acts as a symbol of the town.
The stores in and around the downtown district in many ways encapsulate the city as a whole, offering everything from vintage finds to designer handbags.
The area also hosts a large range of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.
4. The Tree That Owns Itself
The Tree That Owns Itself is, well, a white oak that local legend has it maintains legal guardianship over itself and the ground within 2.5 metres of its trunk.
Though lost in the passage of time, the story seems to begin with a man by the name of William Jackson, hence the tree’s alternative name of the Jackson Oak.
The son of a former governor of Georgia, William is said to have gifted the tree ownership of itself as a way of protecting it, though legal scholars say no such law exists.
You’ll find the tree, alongside a plaque, on Dearing Street.
5. Terrapin Brewery
One of many small craft breweries in Athens, Terrapin sits in a modern building filled with shining stainless steel.
What makes a visit to the Terrapin Brewery all the more special is the fact that it’s a working brewery, with free tours taking place around the brew masters creating the latest batches of their unique beers.
You can try (and of course buy) them on site, in addition to a number of souvenirs of your time in Athens, such as special pint glasses.
If you’re into interesting beers, look out for the likes of the RecreationALE local IPA (India Pale Ale), and the passionfruit, orange and guava-flavoured Luau Krunkles. But be warned, the latter comes in at 6.5% alcohol by volume.
6. The Athens Double-Barrelled Cannon
Georgia was one of the confederate slave-owning states that ceded from the union, leading to the American Civil War.
A delicate and difficult time in the history of the United States, there was a scramble to invent new weaponry which might help the cause, including the double-barrelled cannon.
One of the few existing examples, the Athens cannon sits in front of the entrance to City Hall. Never used in anger, as it was deemed highly dangerous even by the standards of the time, it is one of Athens’ more unusual sights.
Its mouths face north, as a continued sign of southern defiance against the historic states of the union.
7. Sandy Creek Nature Center
The Sandy Creek Nature Center provides access to an area of Athens never built upon, offering an insight into the region’s local flora and fauna.
It covers around 90 hectares of untouched landscapes, containing 5 miles of walking trails.
Its education center has a variety of hands on exhibits suitable for children and adults, as well as aquaria with indigenous animals, and a planetarium too.
To make the most of the landscapes around the center, we recommend taking the 3-mile multi-use trail from the University of Georgia, which is known as the North Oconee River Greenway.
8. American Football
A solid American Football town, there’s no better way to get under the skin of Athens than by attending a game for yourself.
The local team are the Athens Bulldogs, and you’ll see their colours of black and red (as well as a variety of bulldog statues) all over town.
First playing in 1892, this college team play their home games in Sanford Stadium, an arena that would have many European sports teams weeping in jealousy.
Beyond the action on the gridiron, games are an excuse to experience the tailgate, when fans pull up outside the stadium for impromptu barbeques and beers before game time begins.
9. Amicalola Falls State Park
The land just outside of Athens is known for its majestic vistas, with Georgia’s Springer Mountains the southern end of the six-month and 2100-mile-long Appalachian Trail, made famous by Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods.
However, you don’t need to reserve half a year in order to enjoy these natural delights. Amicalola Falls State Park, part of the larger Chattahoochee National Forest, has a number of woodland footpaths that lead visitors to these beautiful falls. They cascade more than 200 metres over rocks down the mountainside.
The park lies around 2 hours northwest of Athens.
10. Live Music
When it comes to live music, Athens has no shortage of venues, and you can be pretty confident you’ll be able to find something taking place whatever the day of the week or month of the year.
Anyone in the town who knows their stuff will point you in the direct of the 40 Watt Club, which has been nurturing talent for almost 50 years now.
The historic Georgia Theatre concert hall straddles the divide, by hosting big names in its main space and bands with no pedigree at its rooftop bar. Elsewhere, The Foundry is another similar space blending craft beer, soul food, and great music.
Roughly 62 miles north of Athens is Helen, a town which has the feeling of somewhere several thousand miles away in Germany’s Bavaria.
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Helen has been deliberately constructed to resemble a village of southern Germany, complete with steeply-pitched roofs, wooden balconies, and (carved) bears.
And though Helen may be a little kitsch to some, it does provide the perfect base for exploring all the Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer.
Bring a swimming costume, and you can go tubing down the Chattahoochee River, while bring a bike and you can spend the day getting muddy among the many specially-designed trails.
12. Music History Walking Tours
Ever wondered where REM played their first gig? Or where the B-52’s got booed off stage? Then you should join one of Athens’ Music History Walking Tours.
Alternatively, guide yourself around its most famous sites, including the Morton Theatre. This is one of America’s first black owned and run entertainment spaces.
Rivalling Nashville in neighboring Tennessee for musical heritage, these street tours have no shortage of anecdotes.
And while tours tend to be quite heavily focused on the antics of the members of REM, who still live on and off in and around the town, there is plenty here to keep all music fans entertained.
13. Dahlonega Gold Museum
The Dahlonega Gold Museum is actually two attractions in one, since its exhibition space is housed within the oldest surviving county courthouse in Georgia.
This relatively small red brick building on the main square of Dahlonega dates from the 1830s. It contains mock-ups of the original judges’ deliberation chamber, court house (where films are now screened), and the jury room.
That said, the main attraction of the museum is the relics it contains from America’s first gold rush. Among its displays, visitors will find panning equipment, gold coins, and even gold as it’s found in nuggets.
The museum is about 1.5 hours from Athens.
14. Wolf Mountain Vineyards
On the southern edges of the Chattahoochee National Forest, a similar distance from Athens as Dahlonega, is Wolf Mountain Vineyards.
Producing award-winning handcrafted wines, the vineyard was founded in just 1999, making it one of America’s newest.
Producing only a few thousand cases of wine each year, tastings take place in a light and airy bar area. The cask room and wine cellar can also be visited.
Following traditional French styles in their winemaking, the vineyard blends a number of European grape varieties to create something unique to Wolf Mountain.
15. Oconee Hill Cemetery
Although cemeteries might not usually be high on your list of attractions when visiting a new city, an exception should be made in Athens.
The Oconee Hill Cemetery is a historic one, and as a result has tombs and gravestones rich in the Victoria fashion of intricate carving and ironwork.
A paradise for photographers, and a beautiful place to take a respectful stroll, it dates to the middle of the nineteenth century.
It is located opposite the University of Georgia campus, which visitors are also free to explore.