Gainesville lies in northern Georgia’s Hall County, roughly 55 miles northeast of Atlanta.
The ‘poultry capital of the world’ was founded by European-American settlers in the early 1800s as a mule camp, and has been known as Gainesville since 1821. It is named after a general in the War of 1812 against Great Britain.
Gainesville has been attracting tourists since at least the 1850s, and even more so since the creation of Lake Sydney Lanier one hundred years later.
Beside its natural sights, the city has a wealth of other attractions within easy reach, so let’s check out the best things to do in and around Gainesville.
1. Lake Sidney Lanier
Named after the Georgia poet, Lake Sidney Lanier was created by damming the Chattahoochee River in the 1950s.
Its finger-like projections create more than 1,000 km of stunning shoreline, which are visited by somewhere in the region of 10 million people each year.
They come to sail across its waters, try their hand at water sports including jet skiing, and enjoy the white sand beaches of the resort and waterpark.
During the winter months, the islands in the lake are decorated with about 6 miles of Christmas lights, which together form the largest animated lightshow in the world.
A drive through display of the lights incorporates a Christmas village, amusement rides, and live nativity scene.
2. Northeast Georgia History Center
This centre is better thought of as a museum, dedicated to preserving the history of this corner of Georgia.
Its artefacts and historic buildings date back 11,000 years, and include a wooden cabin built in the eighteenth century that was once the home of an important leader of the Cherokee nation, White Path.
Next to it is a historic blacksmith shop, while inside exhibition spaces include one called the Land of Promise, which tells the story of the people of the region from its earliest times to the present day.
There’s also a folk-art gallery, and the Northeast Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
3. Smithgall Arts Center
Operated by a local not-for-profit organisation known as The Arts Council, the Smithgall Arts Center is at the heart of Gainesville’s arts and culture scene.
It is a multi-disciplinary space which occupies a former railway depot dating from 1914.
Its small permanent collection of art inside and sculpture by nationally-important artists in the surrounding garden are just part of a broader arts syllabus.
Other attractions here include an annual jazz season, theatre performances, and summer concerts.
4. Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
Ringing Gainesville to the north and west, the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest is less than an hour by road from the city.
A region of untouched wilderness, it is a forest that climbs the hills and mountains which stretch northwards towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A haven for native species as diverse as bobcats and black bears, it attracts hikers and nature lovers from far and wide.
In addition to more than 700 km of hiking trails, including the start of the Appalachian Trail, the national forest also contains Georgia’s highest point, Brasstown Bald, and the tumbling waters of Anna Ruby Falls.
5. Alta Vista Cemetery
Located just outside of downtown Gainesville, the Alta Vista Cemetery is the final resting place of several of the region’s most important sons.
Among the elegantly carved grave stones here you will find that belonging to James Longstreet, a famous Confederate general, alongside 100 veterans of the American Civil War.
There are also the grave sites of Jesse Jewell, who helped make Gainesville the poultry capital of the world, two former governors of the state of Georgia, and astronaut Manley Carter, who sadly died in a plane crash in 1991.
6. Crawford W. Long Museum
This museum space’s many exhibits are focused around the actions of one man, who you may not have even heard of – a doctor by the name of Crawford W Long.
However, his medical discovery on the site of the museum in 1842 revolutionized medicine forever.
It was Dr Long who realised that the chemical ether could be used as an anaesthetic, preventing patients feeling pain (for the first time) during surgical procedures.
Displaying many of his personal items, the museum also acts as a great introduction to life in the southern states of the US in the period immediately before the Civil War.
It also includes the Pendergrass General Store, which is the only pre-war business structure that survives in Jefferson, half an hour from Gainesville.
7. Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Gainesville
Gainesville is surrounded by Georgia’s fantastic natural landscapes. A great way to learn more about them is at the Gainesville offshoot of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.
For instance, there are a number of short woodland walks within the grounds, that bring the state’s native species of plant and animal to the attention of visitors.
The ‘Forest Pond’ is decorated with water lilies, making it an attractive place to spend a few minutes just behind the garden’s visitor centre.
But even just following the woodland promenade pathway from the entrance to the visitor centre you’ll come face to face with a huge range of flowers and other natural wonders.
8. Downtown Drafts
Downtown Drafts is one of a number of craft beer bars that are springing up across northeast Georgia.
Not only family-run but also family-friendly, its tap house atmosphere is a welcoming space to sample beers created by breweries in the nearby area as well as those further afield.
It has a regularly rotating beer menu, but you can be sure you’ll find everything from IPAs to milk stouts among their 25 or so current offerings.
Even if you’re not a beer aficionado, their downtown location makes it easy to pop in at pretty much any time to check out their selection of gourmet sauces, snacks, and glassware.
9. Quinlan Visual Arts Center
The second of Gainesville’s cultural hubs, the Quinlan Visual Arts Center is able to date its foundation to 1946, making it the oldest arts organisation in Georgia north of Atlanta.
While the Smithgall Arts Center is multi-disciplinary, the Quinlan is dedicated to the visual arts, in other words, sculpture and works on paper.
An even more important space after it was expanded in size in 2004, it contains five different galleries which together host at least seven exhibitions each year.
Its remit means its exhibitions span all media, from photography to modern impressionism.
10. Splash Zone
Splash Zone is a small outdoor water park comprising part of the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center.
Suitable for all ages, it contains two twisting body slides which rise to a height equivalent to a three-storey building.
There are also smaller slides that can be enjoyed by younger children, drop buckets, and other interactive water elements.
With plenty of space to sit in the shade of an umbrella, Splash Zone includes shallow child-friendly pools.
The centre more widely contains a four-lane warm up pool, ten-lane competition pool and a fitness centre.
11. Scale model of the solar system
If you’re exploring the sights and sounds of downtown Gainesville, you might well come across one of the sculpture-like monoliths that begin with the sun at Downtown Square.
Each waist-high stone monolith is topped with a model of one of the objects of the solar system created to scale. They are also spaced out at the correct distance to one another according to the same scale.
The silver sphere representing the sun is close to a metre in diameter. Dwarf planet Pluto, on the other hand, is almost invisible.
Just under two miles in total length, the model stretches to the shores of Lake Sydney Lanier.
When considered as a whole, the model takes in several parks and open spaces along the way, in addition to facts that will trigger an interest in astronomy in any visitor.
12. Beulah Rucker Museum
The Beulah Rucker Museum sits within a building constructed in the late nineteenth century that is recorded on the United States’ National Register of Historic Places.
It tells the story of its namesake, Beulah Rucker Oliver, an African-American lady keen to improve the lives of those in her community through education.
The first museum in the region to focus on the heritage of African-Americans, it details important moment’s in Oliver’s life, and during her times more generally.
13. Piedmont Hotel
Exploring a very different aspect of north Georgia’s history is the museum of the Piedmont Hotel.
The three-storey structure wrapped in traditional southern states verandas was owned and run by General Longstreet and his much more famous second in command, Robert E Lee.
Today, its rooms are dressed as they would have been during the hotel’s heyday.
They are dedicated to the life of Longstreet, who is an increasingly controversial figure because of his support for the confederate cause.
Its artefacts and archive photographs span the hotel’s history, including visits by the future President Woodrow Wilson, who’s daughter was even born within its clapboard walls.
14. North Georgia Garden Trail
The North Georgia Garden Trail consists of a route that takes in 26 different public gardens in and around Gainesville.
Chosen for their natural beauty and historic significance, the trail includes mature woodland, gently-running streams, and flowerbeds bursting with colour.
Among them are Gainesville’s Linwood Nature Preserve, a 13-hectare sanctuary for wildlife and old growth forest with a few miles of walking trails.
Other sites include the Monarch Mountain Stop Pollinator Garden at Amicalola Falls State Park.
This garden is an important feeding station for monarch butterflies as they complete their annual migration from the Canadian border to Mexico.
The garden is roughly an hour northwest of Gainesville.
15. BabyLand General Hospital
Our final recommendation for things to do in Gainesville is a hospital that is surely like no other on Earth.
Located in Cleveland Georgia, around 25 minutes from Gainesville, the hospital is the birthplace of each and every one of the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Inside the hospital, visitors are able to witness the extraordinary sight of live cabbage patch births, before exploring the 250 hectares of Cabbage Patch Land in the grounds around the hospital.
Needless to say, should you fall in love with one of the individually finished kids, the adoption team is on hand to help complete the necessary paperwork!