- Distance from Atlanta: 72 miles
- Best time: Year Round
- Best for: Girl's GetawayArts and CultureFood and Wine
Just an hour's drive from Atlanta, the lively college town of Athens has always been a beloved destination among music fans, with a thriving live music scene and noteworthy bands including the B-52s and R.E.M. getting their start there. But of late, Athens' culinary and arts scenes are hitting their stride. A bumper crop of talented chefs is innovating with creative farm-to-table concepts, while new galleries and studios (even a pop-up or two) are at the heart of an exciting, up-and-coming arts scene. At the same time, mainstay cultural icons, including the Georgia Theatre and Georgia Museum of Art have unveiled splendid renovations. These are our picks for the best restaurants, galleries, and places to enjoy live music. –by Blane Bachelor
1 Get your first taste of Athens at neighborhood hangout Normal Bar (1365 Prince Avenue, (706) 548-6186) with signature cocktails made with freshly squeezed juice, boiled peanuts for $1 a bowl, and a laid-back ambiance that's perfect for easing in the weekend. Grab a spot at the cozy bar, which is made from reclaimed wood, or enjoy your libations (the American Mule, made with ginger beer, vodka, and lime and grapefruit juices is excellent) al fresco on the back patio.
2 Dig into Athens' thriving farm-to-table scene at Farm 255, one of the city's top restaurants to specialize in local, seasonal, and sustainable dishes sourced right from its own farms. Located in a beautiful old warehouse, the restaurant serves up excellent cheese and butcher boards that are made for sharing, followed by dishes like housemade fazzoletti pasta and legendary grass-fed burgers that let the fresh, local flavors shine.
3 For an iconic way to experience Athens' legendary live music scene, take in a show at the Georgia Theatre. The building, which has been around since the late 1800s, was nearly destroyed by a fire in 2009, but it's returned to its former glory (though scars from the fire can still be seen on some of the brick walls). If you're in the mood for lounging instead, grab a drink on the beautiful rooftop bar.
1 Start your day at another popular farm-to-table restaurant, the Branded Butcher, which works its specialty—charcuterie—into its creative yet unpretentious brunch menu in dishes like eggs Benedict with pastrami. If you're leaning toward lunch, other recent menu items have included a pulled pork sandwich and a corndog.
2 A hidden gem in Georgia that will delight art enthusiasts, the Georgia Museum of Art is a remarkable venue for a city of Athens' size. A $20 million, 30,000-square-foot expansion was unveiled in 2011, adding more space for permanent collections, which concentrate on American paintings and include works of such icons as Georgia O'Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth. Another plus? The suggested donation is a mere $3.
3 For a mid-morning caffeine break, pop into Athens' most popular coffee shop, Jittery Joe's, which has earned a cult following in the South. Their coffee makes a great gift too, so stock up while you're in the spacious tasting room.
4 Lunch today is at the Last Resort Grill, a former music venue from the 1960s where famous names like Jimmy Buffet, Leon Redbone, and Townes Van Zandt once performed. Fried green tomatoes is the signature dish on this Southern-centric menu, which also includes Low Country mussels, salmon and grits, and pecan-crusted blue trout.
5 Kick-off your afternoon with an independent film at Athens Cine, a historic building that dates back to the 1940s. Have a glass of wine in the bar before taking in an indie flick or a classic film like Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, a recent screening.
6 Just like locally brewed coffee, Athens loves its locally brewed beer, namely Terrapin, whose brewery is open for tours from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Saturdays. You'll learn about the brewing process, taste some brews and, most likely, see some live music, too.
7 Dinner is at 5&10, helmed by Athens' most celebrated chef, Hugh Acheson (he's a Fodor's Travel Tastemaker), and considered by foodies as one of the top restaurants in the South. Start with a "snackie" such as pimento cheese and candied bacon on crostini, or oysters on the half shell, before moving onto sumptuous entrees that include Low Country stew and 5&10 Pasta, with San Marzano tomatoes, housemade ricotta, basil, arugula, and prosciutto. The three-course prix fixe menu, available on limited reservations daily, is one of the best deals in town at $30.
1 An Athens staple for years, Big City Bread Café is the ideal spot for a lazy Sunday brunch, with a cheerful, tree-shaded outdoor patio and a friendly crowd. Tuck into mouth-watering French toast or a choose-your-cheese omelet, or simply add fixins' to one of the heavenly biscuits.
2 Fueled from brunch, you'll head next to Agora Vintage, a quirky shop that stocks a hodgepodge of antique and vintage clothes, jewelry, furniture, and, of course, music memorabilia. Pick up a couple of old-school albums for some unique wall art—the perfect souvenir from your trip.
3 For one last dose of art before heading home, check out the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art, or ATHICA, which hosts regular exhibitions and events that celebrate contemporary art. The large warehouse space is located in the Chase Park Warehouse District, an emerging urban arts hub of recording studios and artists' studios, just about a mile from downtown.
Where to Stay
The LEED-certified Hotel Indigo, located right downtown, will appeal to any art-loving, urbanite traveler, with a chic, modern vibe and unique local touches like framed concert posters from Athens in each room (rates from $162). The outdoor patio of the on-site Madison Bar & Bistro, which features a fire pit and reclaimed wood elements, is a wonderful spot to relax with a glass of wine.
Tuck into plenty of Southern charm at the cozy Foundry Park Inn & Spa, built as a replica of a 1820s row house with spacious, comfortable guest rooms (doubles from $160). In addition to an on-site spa, the property also has a restaurant and its own music venue, the Melting Point, a fun gathering spot to enjoy libations and live tunes.
When to Go
Since Athens is a college town, Athens' rhythms tend to revolve around the University of Georgia's school calendar. If you'd rather visit when there aren't so many students around, time your visit during spring break or the summer. Fall weekends when the UGA football team is at home are especially hectic, and reservations for hotels and restaurants are often booked far in advance.
In February, wine enthusiasts gather for Athens Wine Weekend, with tastings, seminars, and other wine-centric events. Another popular spring event is the Twilight Americana Music Festival, which features up-and-coming and bigger names in music. This year's event, which runs from April 25-28, coincides with the Terrapin Twilight Criterium, a circuit-style race in which some of the best cyclists in the South and beyond tear laps around downtown.
During the summer, music fans flock to the downtown AthFest Music and Arts Festival, which is usually held in early June and showcases regionally and nationally recognized Athens music. The festival also includes a half-marathon that benefits AthFest Educates, an organization dedicated to music and arts education.
How to Get There
By Car: From downtown Atlanta, it takes about an hour and a half, depending on traffic, to reach Athens. At the time this story was posted, the quickest route to Athens involved a road closure (GA-316 near Lawrenceville), so the next best option is to take Ponce de Leon Avenue east through Decatur, when it will turn into Scott Boulevard/East US-78/Stone Mountain Freeway. Make a slight right as the road forks and follow the signs for Athens, continuing about 7 miles on US-78 E. Then, continue east on GA-10 for about 43 miles before turning right to merge onto GA 316-East/US-29 North, continuing on Epps Bridge Parkway and then US 78-Business East. From there, take a right on South Milledge Avenue and a left onto Baxter Street to arrive in downtown.