The birthplace of music giants like R.E.M. and Widespread Panic and the home of the University of Georgia’s flagship campus, Athens is the perfect small-town getaway. From Victorian homes dotting shady tree-lined streets to craft breweries to some of the best live music venues in the Southeast, the city offers plenty of activities for visitors traveling on a quick day trip from Atlanta or opting for an extended weekend stay.
Food and drink lovers can spend their time sampling top-rated local beers at Creature Comforts and Terrapin breweries or dining at acclaimed restaurants like Hugh Acheson's Five & Ten and The National. At the same time, nature enthusiasts will enjoy hiking and swimming at Sandy Creek Park or strolling through the manicured botanical and horticultural collections at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Hearing live music at the historic Georgia Theatre, visiting the Georgia Museum of Art, and shopping local vendors at the Athens Farmers Market are among the top 12 things to do in Athens.
Stroll Through the State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Operated by the University of Georgia, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia is home to eleven distinct botanical and horticultural collections. Highlights of the 313-acre property southwest of downtown include a shade garden with magnolia and dogwood trees, an annual and perennial garden with ivy, juniper, and dahlias, and five miles of color-coded trails that wind through wetlands, a floodplain forest, and the riverbanks of the Middle Oconee River. There's also a 2.5-acre children's garden, complete with a treehouse, fossil wall, edible garden, and other interactive events. Admission and parking are free, though a small donation is suggested for visitors.
Catch a Show at the Georgia Theatre
John Mayer fans may recognize the interior of this downtown Art Deco-style theatre. It’s where the former Georgian filmed the video for his hit “No Such Thing.” Other musicians who’ve made stops here? The Police, the Alabama Shakes, Beck, David Byrne, Run the Jewels, the Dave Matthews Band, and Gregg Allman. While the theatre was badly damaged in a fire in 2009, it’s since been fully restored and hosts local and touring musicians of all genres, and it's not uncommon to see local musicians among the crowds. Be sure to purchase tickets in advance and arrive early to grab drinks and dinner on the theatre’s rooftop restaurant, which offers stunning views of downtown Athens.
Sample Local Beer
As a college town, Athens is home to several notable bars, so it's no surprise the city also has a thriving craft beer scene. Creature Comforts has a taproom and brewery downtown, where visitors can take a tour and then sample flights or enjoy drafts and bottles of the brand's signature beers like the citrusy Tropicália IPA as well as seasonal releases and cocktails, all in a restored 1940's-era warehouse. Terrapin Brewing Co. offers a short facility tour and sample flights, beers on tap, branded merchandise ranging from hats to dog leashes, and several special events like live music at its facility on Newton Bridge Road. Other local breweries open to the public include Southern Brewing Company and Akademia.
Visit the Georgia Museum of Art
Founded with 100 significant American paintings by Hoer, Warhol, Wyeth, and others, this small museum operated by the University of Georgia now has African pottery, Japanese woodblocks, Italian Renaissance paintings, and American decorative arts among the 13 galleries in its permanent collection. The museum also hosts several special exhibitions from multimedia and interdisciplinary artists and regular film screenings, gallery talks, art workshops, yoga classes, and lectures. Note the gallery is only open Thursdays through Sundays, and admission is free.
Play at Sandy Creek Park
This 782-acre recreational area north of the city and surrounding the 260-acre Lake Chapman offers a variety of outdoor, family-friendly activities from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. every day of the week except Monday. Hike or walk along 20 miles of trails through lakeshore and scenic hardwood forest, play a round of disc golf, swim or fish from public beachfront, or ride horses on the designated equestrian trail. The park also has a boat ramp, off-leash dog parks, basketball and tennis courts, picnic areas, and kayak and canoe rentals. Admission is $2 and free for seniors 65 and over and children under four.
Visit the Georgia Museum of Natural History
The state of Georgia has some of the country's most diverse plant and animal life, all on display at the Georgia Museum of Natural History. Explore fourteen different collections ranging from archeology to paleontology and a photography guide of Southeastern birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The museum is free and open on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Take an Athens Music History Tour
From R.E.M. to Widespread Panic and the B-52's, Athens has long been a hub for contemporary music. Take a self-guided or hosted tour to learn more about the city's most significant spots, from Weaver D's Fine Foods, a soul food restaurant whose slogan, “Automatic for the People,” was adopted by REM, to Oconee Hill Cemetery, where notable Athens musicians are buried, including Widespread Panic’s Vic Chesnut and the B-52’s Ricky Wilson. Other tour highlights include the 40 Watt Club, Wuxtry Records, the railroad trestle in Dudley Park featured on the back cover of R.E.M.’s 1983 debut album "Murmur," and the Morton Building, which housed one of the country's first Black-built, owned, and operated vaudeville theatres and is still open today.
Shop and Eat in Downtown Athens
Bordered by the University of Georgia to the South, Dougherty Street to the north, Pulaski Street to the west, and Foundry Street to the east, downtown Athens is the city's commercial, entertainment, and nightlife hub. Start with shopping at the trendy women's boutique Cheeky Peach or for vintage threads at Dynamite Clothing, thumb through records at the independent record store Wuxtry's (fun fact: both Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Danger Mouse worked behind the counter here), or settle in with a cup of java at local coffee chain Jittery Joe's. Then dine on small plates at chef Hugh Acheson's Mediterranean-inspired spot The National, enjoy happy hour at the more low-key Seabear Oyster Bar, or eat classic diner fare at The Grill, which is open 24/7. Finish the evening with a show at one of the area's many music venues like the Georgia Theatre, Classic Center, or 40 Watt.
Visit the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art
The Athens Institute for Contemporary Art (ATHICA) is an independent, non-profit gallery dedicated to local, national, and international contemporary artists. The gallery presents seven exhibitions annually and hosts guest performances, lectures, children's events, artist lectures, and other events. Think modern dance performances, contemporary photography, poetry readings, and more, all housed in the repurposed Leathers Building on Pulaski Street, across the railroad tracks and a few blocks from downtown. Admission is free, and the gallery is open Wednesday through Friday during current exhibitions only, so check the gallery website before your visit.
Bike and Hike Through Nature at Oconee Forest Park
Located behind the University of Georgia's intramural fields, this 60-acre nature preserve is both a hand-on research and educational laboratory for the college's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources as well as a public park. Bike or hike through miles or dirt and gravel trails in a 100-year old forest populated by oak and hickory trees, tulip poplars, and a 15-acre lake. Bring binoculars to spot birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat, or sign up for one of the university's nature classes. Trails are dog-friendly (on leash only) and open daily from sunrise to sunset. Note there is an ADA accessible boardwalk and bridge located at the parking lot near the tennis courts.
Attend a Show at the Morton Theatre
One of the country's first Black-built, owned, and operated vaudeville theatres, the Morton hosted acts like Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington in its heyday. The now historic landmark is still operating, offering regular events ranging from musical theatre productions to film documentaries to dance performances from local arts organizations. Check the events calendar in advance to book a ticket.
Shop at the Athens Farmers Market
Held at Bishop Park on Saturday from early May through mid-December, the Athens Farmers Market features more than 20 local vendors selling everything from seasonal produce and meat from nearby farms to pressed juices, hand-made pasta, and fresh-cut flowers. Grab a cup of java from 1000 Faces Coffee or a sweet or savory snack from Holy Crepe while strolling through the stalls, which also include a rotating list of arts and crafts artisans offering ceramics and textiles, paintings, soap, jewelry, and apparel. The organization also hosts an annual holiday market in December, which features local vendors and artists, live music, and other seasonal events.