Things to Do in Athens, Georgia – Yes, There is More to See than the Georgia Bulldogs

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Athens GA aerial view with atmospheric sky

College towns across the country frequently center around the local sports team and Athens is no exception. Just over an hour’s drive from Atlanta, this charming small town makes an ideal road trip getaway. Of course, as home to the University of Georgia and the often-winning Georgia Bulldogs – known locally as “the Dawgs” – you’ll find plenty of spirited fans. But there’s much more to this charming destination in northeast Georgia.

Marking the start of the state’s Antebellum Trail of Historic Civil War Towns, downtown Athens beckons to architecture buffs. Gardening enthusiasts and anyone who enjoys beauty in nature will enjoy The State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Add to that live music venues, craft breweries, a burgeoning foodie scene, and, of course, autumn Saturday football games at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium with UGA – the world’s most famous bulldog – and you’ve just set yourself up a full itinerary. Let’s look at these and some of the other fun things to do when you visit Athens, Georgia.

Read More: Great Georgia Road Trips from Atlanta

Downtown Athens

Located just across Broad Street from the Univesity of Georgia’s historic North Campus, Downtown Athens is a charmer. The ultimate college town, Athens’ downtown area features restored Victorian-era buildings housing independent shops, restaurants, and live music venues.

More than a dozen concert venues sit within a half-mile of downtown Athens. Each venue exudes its own aesthetic and history. Significant contributions to the music scene of downtown Athens are the historic 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre.

Notable locally-owned shops include Community which offers locally sourced products and sustainable fashion creations by Athens designers. Vintage looks can be found at Dynamite Clothing and Agora Vintage. And if you’re looking for a gameday outfit in those Georgia Bulldog colors of red and black, The Red Dress is the place to go.

Downtown Athens is also known for its street festivals, plentiful eateries, and creative culture on the downtown Art Walk. At the end of the fall semester, skating at the Classic Center is a popular downtown Athens activity. In winter, the Akins Arena becomes an ice skating rink.

The Classic Center

Located in the heart of downtown Athens, The Classic Center is Georgia’s premier convention center and performing arts theatre. A hub for meetings and entertainment, The Classic Center hosts a wide range of events throughout the year. Boasting 2,071 seats, this unique venue combines a touch of big-city polish and small-town charm. Among the venues standouts is a Broadway Entertainment Series. A partnership with the University of Georgia Performing Arts Center to co-present shows has allowed The Classic Center to add numerous performances to its lineup including those by the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, Blue Man Group, and more.

Georgia’s Antebellum Trail

Known for its antebellum architecture, Athens marks the start of the state’s Antebellum Trail of historic Civil War towns that escaped burning during General Sherman’s March to the Sea. Among the homes you’ll find are the Taylor Grady House, a Greek Revival mansion, and the Church-Waddle-Brumby House dating from the early 19th century.

The Tree That Owns Itself

A beloved Athens landmark, The Tree That Owns Itself is an actual tree. According to local legend, Colonel William H. Jackon’s will deeded the tree possession of itself and all the land within eight feet of its trunk. To this day, no one has questioned the legality of that deed so this stately white oak resides at the corner of Dearing and Finley Streets at the edge of Downtown Athens. It’s the only property owner in town that doesn’t pay real estate taxes and is a must-see.

Double Barreled Cannon

Another unusual relic, Athens’ double-barreled cannon preserved from the Civil War is one of a kind. Designed by Athens resident, John Gilleland and built at the local foundry in 1863, the cannon proved to be a failure when fired as it plowed up an acre of ground and tore up a cornfield. Not worthy to be used in combat, the double-barreled cannon was presented to Athens and sits silently on the lawn of City Hall. It has also been featured in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

Lyndon House Arts Center

Located at the edge of downtown Athens, the Lyndon House Arts Center combines the past with the present. At its center is the Greek Revival Ware-Lyndon House built in 1856. The complex was later expanded to include an adjoining modern art gallery, children’s swing, studios for art classes, and festival grounds. Admission is free and exhibits include the works of local, regional, and national artists across a variety of mediums.

Georgia Museum of Art

Located on the University of Georgia campus, the Georgia Museum of Art serves as both an academic museum and the official art museum of the state. Originally opened in 1948 in the basement of the old library on the university’s North Campus, the museum has grown considerably over the years. The museum exhibits a permanent collection of American paintings primarily front the 19th- and 20th- centuries; American, Asian, and European works on paper; the Samuel H. Kress Study Collection of Italian Renaissance painting; and, a collection of southern decorative arts.

The Georgia Theatre

A cornerstone of the Athens music scene, The Georgia Theatre is part of the Downtown Athens National Register Historic District. This iconic theater has served as a live music venue since its origin in 1935 when it was built as the Elite Theater. Many musicians have played in this venue on their way to fame. The Georgia Theatre has also been featured in music videos such as R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” in 1993 and John Mayer’s “No Such Thing” in 2022.

We Let the Dawgs Out

Yes, those Georgia Bulldogs have won their share of championships but as a fan of a rival team, I’ll not focus on that. Let’s focus instead on the fun public art exhibit, We Let The Dawgs Out. First installed in 2003 by the Athens-Oconee Junior Women’s Club, the exhibit of bulldog statues is seen as a statement of Athens’ multiple personalities. The bulldogs have changed over the years with some of the originals being auctioned off for charity. But new bulldog statues have joined the art exhibit. The dawgs are now some of the most sought-after selfie spots in town.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia

One of Athen’s most-visited attractions, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia is a 313-acre preserve with nature trails, themed gardens, and a Children’s Garden providing interactive experiences. Among the themed gardens is the Heritage Garden – a collection of plants that have been important to the southeastern US. The International Garden focuses on how plants were discovered and cultivated in different places and times, including the Age of Exploration, the Middle Ages, and Native Americans.

Five miles of nature trails run throughout the garden with many following along the Middle Oconee River. A walk on the nature trails often brings sightings of local wildlife including deer, owls, turkey, and otters. Special events are scheduled throughout the year including live music performances, nature rambles, and workshops.

Black Heritage in Athens

Athen’s black heritage runs deep and there are numerous sites in town to explore to learn more about African American history. The corner of Washington and Hall Streets is known as “Hot Corner” and was an early center of black commerce. One significant landmark in Hot Corner is The Morton Theatre – one of the oldest surviving vaudeville theatres built, owned, and operated by African Americans. Big-time acts have performed in this historic place including Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. Many prominent African Americans are laid to rest at Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery. Founded in 1882, the cemetery is listed on the National Parks Service National Register of Historic Places,

Best Restaurants in Athens

From Southern comfort foods to contemporary fare, Athens’ restaurants are rising stars on the food scene. For a unique twist, The National adds a touch of Southern cuisine to Mediterranean food on a constantly changing menu. A staple and always popular go-to eatery, Last Resort Grill serves a southwestern-inspired menu while satisfying that Southern comfort food craving. Don’t miss the crab cakes with fried green tomatoes topped with a Vidalia bacon dressing on the appetizer menu.

Other popular spots include the retro diner Mama’s Boy and The Cafe on Lumpkin serving breakfast, midday lunch, and afternoon tea. This is a college town, so you know breweries are going to be among the local favorites. Two popular choices are Creature Comforts Brewing Co and Terrapin Beer.

Sandy Creek Nature Center

A 225-acre wildlife sanctuary with over four miles of nature trails, the Sandy Creek Nature Center provides access to river floodplains, wetlands, upland pine and hardwood forests, fields, ponds, and steam typical of the Georgian Piedmont. A 4,000-square-foot Education & Visitor Center includes exhibits and a planetarium and provides additional information about Sandy Creek Nature Center.

Bear Hollow Zoo

Located within Memorial Park, the Bear Hollow Zoo provides a home for non-releaseable wildlife. Current residents include black bears, river otters, red foxes, spotted skunks, deer, bald eagles, and various reptiles.

Oconee Rivers Greenway

Oconee Rivers Greenway is a local favorite for outdoor adventures. This linear park system features 3.1 miles of natural surface trails designated solely for hiking. There are also eight miles of concrete multi-use trails for non-motorized use. Oconee Rivers Greenway also provides wildlife corridors, a wetland hiking trail, and a family-friendly multi-use path.

Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, road trips, soft-adventure, camping, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru to road-tripping through the jungles of Belize, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Drop her into a landscape filled with mountains, towering evergreens, waterfalls and a glacier or two and she’ll be in heaven. But what thrills her most of all is traveling with her teenage grandkids. Terri serves on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA). She also serves as the First Vice-Chair of the Eastern Chapter for the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Terri’s publication credits include AARP, Island Soul, Girl Camper Magazine, A Girls Guide to Cars, CHILLED, World Footprints, North Hills Monthly, Alaska Business Monthly, Alaska Contractor and more. Follow her on Instagram at TrippingWithTerri.
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