Most of the time when Atlantans head out on a day trip, it’s for cooler temps or leaf-peeping in the North Georgia mountains, where the Appalachian Trail and the lovely Blue Ridge Mountain range begins. But there are also a number of nearby small towns worth a visit, whether for the music, wine, movie tours, or simply their quaint town centers. Wherever you’re heading, you’ll need to get there by car. All six of the following destinations are within an hour and a half drive or less from downtown Atlanta.
Athens — In the early 1980s, Michael Stipe, who was studying art at the University of Georgia, assembled R.E.M. They played their first concert at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Oconee Street (the steeple still remains). After that, Athens became known as a music haven.
Today the town an hour’s drive east of Atlanta retains its artsy, hippy, Southern vibe, and its charming downtown center is ideal for a day of shopping, dining, and listening to live music. Check out the Georgia Theatre and its rooftop bar, the 40 Watt, or The Foundry for live tunes. For eats, try Mediterranean-inspired The National, Southwestern/Southern-inspired Last Resort Grill, or The Grit for vegetarian. Be sure to stop into local brewery Creature Comforts Brewing Co. for a tasting.
Serenbe — Can a place be too idyllic? This question may cross your mind as you pass through a hamlet of oh-so-eco-conscious new-construction homes in Serenbe, the rustic-chic wellness community set in a pine forest in rural Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, 45 minutes south of Atlanta. But then you pet a goat, ride a horse, hike through a meadow, observe fireflies in an open pasture, and forget the question.
If you want to stay the night, check into The Inn at Serenbe, where you can sip a Bramble Berry bourbon cocktail on the wraparound porch before you dine at its farm-to-table restaurant, The Farmhouse. Actually, you can do all this whether to stay the night or not. In the daytime, cycle the area’s country roads, tour Serenbe Farms, have a picnic, get a massage at the Spa at Serenbe, or hike the community’s system of trails. Or, simply visit Serenbe to take in a show by the Serenbe Playhouse, whose musicals are set outdoors. Prepare to hike through a meadow and/or forest to reach the stage.
Senoia — Fans of The Walking Dead make the pilgrimage to small town Senoia — local pronunciation rhymes with “enjoy” — an hour south of Atlanta, where much of the TV series has been filmed, plus a number of other movies. After you’ve watched “Rick” pretend-fight “zombies” on a film tour by the Georgia Tour Company, drop into actor Norman Reedus’ restaurant, Nic & Norman’s. Rumor has it he sometimes stops by. Also of note: Cutie Pies & Cakery serves extra cold milk with its delicious baked goods, and Bistro Hilary is perfect for brunch.
Dahlonega — The town to visit for banjo picking, wine tasting, and river tubing. A little over an hour north of Atlanta in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains, Dahlonega is known for its Appalachian music and has hosted free concerts and jam sessions on its square. The Crimson Moon cafe, also on the town square, hosts live acts and serves Southern comfort food. Wine country surrounds Dahlonega in the area’s countryside. Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Three Sisters Vineyards are two options on the wine trail; note that Georgia produces a fair amount of sweet wines. Perhaps the most relaxing option is to tube or kayak the nearby Chestatee River with one of the area’s outfitters.
Blood Mountain — Not as ominous as it sounds. About an hour north of Atlanta in the North Georgia mountains, the lookout at the peak of Blood Mountain’s popular hiking trail rewards trekkers with epic views across the rippling Blue Ridge Mountains and is the highest point along the Georgia Appalachian Trail. Expect a moderately steep hike packed with people that’s especially pretty during the fall. If you’re staying overnight, camp or cabin it in nearby Vogel State Park or drive to kitschy, Bavaria-inspired mountain town Helen, Georgia.
Blue Ridge — Hiking, berry picking, boating, and breathing in clean mountain air. Outdoor activities are within easy reach of mountain town Blue Ridge, an hour and 30 minute drive north of Atlanta. Visit Mercier Orchards to pick your own berries, peaches, or apples, depending on the season. There’s also a cider tasting room on site, as well as a cafe that sells just about every apple-flavored pastry you can imagine. Enjoy a day on the water by renting a pontoon, kayak, paddleboard, or canoe at the Lake Blue Ridge Marina. Or take your pick of hikes in the nearby Aska Trail System. Wrap up your day by eating barbecue in downtown Blue Ridge.