The reputations of Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, are well-deserved for their historic landmarks, cuisines, and Southern hospitality. But the Peach State is much more than the two cities. There are dozens of small towns and communities to explore for those looking for a different, more local experience and slower pace.
Within a few hours’ drive from the two major cities, you can be in charming towns in the mountains, by the coast, the marshy swamp, or the red clay hills. Each of these six destinations has been chosen for its incredible restaurants, lesser-known landmarks, and exceptional hospitality. Here are our six favorite small towns in Georgia to explore.
Americus sits three hours south of Atlanta. The town’s rich historical architectural design, boutique shops and hotels, range of eateries, and overall small-town vibe make this a perfect base to explore Sumter County. A vintage 1949 train connects many of the historic small towns in South Georgia, and Americus is the ideal first stop on the route. Weekend train rides run to places like Plains, where President Jimmy Carter grew up, and Leslie, a town lined with beautiful dogwoods. The hamlet of Andersonville is also a short drive from Americus and home to a notorious Civil War prisoner of war camp with an incredible museum and interpretive center.
Americus’ food scene is unique. From home-cooked traditional Southern fare to five-star restaurants, there’s a vast range of excellent dining options. Cafe Campesino, in particular, is worth a visit for their outstanding range of coffee from around the world and homemade pastries and sandwiches. For more formal dining Rosemary and Thyme Restaurant delivers. Located inside the historic Windsor Hotel, it has an ambiance of a Victorian dining room and serves dishes like balsamic glazed pork chops and regional fish in white wine sauce. Locals hang out after hours on the hotel’s balcony at Floyd’s Pub, named for the hotel’s former bellman.
The town also has excellent shopping. For antiques, local crafts, jewelry and home décor, you can lose an afternoon rummaging at The Maze. If you are in town on the first Friday of the month, local businesses are invited to come together to the store to showcase and enjoy local products and art.
Music lovers can’t miss the “Classic City” of Athens, also located only an hour and a half from Atlanta. It has played an essential role in the careers of bands like R.E.M. and The B-52s. Venues like The Georgia Theatre, a 1935 movie theater, and the 40 Watt Club still host up-and-coming acts most nights of the week.
The city is home to some offbeat attractions like the world’s only double-barreled cannon and the most beloved residents, an oak called the Tree That Owns Itself. The stately tree was deeded to itself by a resident, protecting it for future generations to enjoy.
Eating out in Athens is a joy, and the restaurants have a reputation that stacks up against the best of Atlanta. Chef and TV judge Hugh Acheson made his home here, opening his flagship restaurant Five and Ten. Other award-winners and classic favorites include Weaver D’s, a favorite of members of R.E.M., and Last Resort Grill, with its decadent shrimp and grits. Athens has also become somewhat of a beer town, starting with Terrapin Beer Company, founded in 2002. Since then, five more have opened their doors, including the wildly popular Creature Comforts Brewing Company.
If the mountains are calling, Clayton in Rabun County is the place to be. The bustling downtown of eateries has earned Clayton the unofficial title of “Farm to Table Capital of Georgia.” A couple of venues stand out, but you won’t go wrong if you come to this mountain community to eat. Fortify is known for pizza and a celebration of local produce, while Grapes and Beans have delightful sandwiches and an incredible wine selection. The town is also close to many wineries, so basing yourself here and exploring the regional vineyards makes a great day out.
The area was also home to the original moonshine operators, and you can take a guided tour of the town’s legal distillery, Moonrise Distillery, and learn about their whiskey, bourbon, and fruit brandies. After you’ve enjoyed a dram or two, you can visit one of Clayton’s more quirky roadside attractions, Goats on the Roof, where goats roam across rope bridges and accept food from a pulley system. The shop below sells delicious homemade fudge and nitro ice cream to round off the afternoon.
Clayton is close to many hikes for all levels of expertise and fitness. The hike to Tallulah Gorge is particularly spectacular. It reaches depths of 1,000 feet and is one of the most beautiful landmarks in Georgia. They have limited permits to reach the gorge floor, so it’s worth calling in advance. Otherwise, you can admire it from a rim hike.
Dahlonega is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and was the site of the first major gold rush in the US in 1829. Gold is still a massive part of the culture of this region and town, and you can wade into the local river in search of a nugget, pan at active mines, including Crisson and Consolidated, or learn about the industry at the Dahlonega Gold Museum.
The town is also at the center of an AVA wine region, officially designated in 2018. Among the highly praised vineyards are Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Montaluce Winery, and Cavender Creek Vineyards. When it comes to eating, for great family-style Southern dishes, head to The Smith House. Their fried chicken, green beans, and macaroni and cheese are the epitome of Georgian home cooking. And if you’re in a hurry to go panning for gold and prefer a quick bite, The Picnic Cafe and Dessertery does a great breakfast, sandwiches, and ice creams.
Georgia’s Lake Country, which includes human-made Lake Oconee, is a popular getaway for city dwellers. At its core is Greensboro, which has the picture-perfect charm you’d expect from a Hallmark movie, complete with the local newspaper office and antique shops.
While this charming small town may seem like an unexpected location for Thai food, Laman Bai Thai Kitchen has some of the best in the state. Try the larb pork salad before heading to The Yesterday Cafe for dessert for the world-famous buttermilk pie. Greensboro is also home to Oconee Brewing Company, a craft brewery with an ample patio space where you can enjoy one of their New England IPAs or Belgium-style farmhouse ales outdoors.
For those who enjoy a round of golf, the course on the shore of Lake Oconee, Reynolds Lake Oconee, is expansive and stretches over 300 miles of shoreline. On the grounds is the resort Ritz Carlton Reynolds Lake Oconee, which has an award-winning spa — a perfect place to relax after a long day of golf.
When in Greensboro, a quick detour to neighboring Eatonton is worth it to visit the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, which honors writers from this region like Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, and Joel Chandler Harris.
For the last century, visitors have flocked to the South Georgia town of Thomasville for its annual Rose Show and Festival in spring. A tradition since 1922, the town comes to life celebrating the rose and other flowers in its various flower shows, parades, and artisan markets. If you are visiting outside of the festivities, you can still enjoy the impressive groundskeeping and flora at the Thomasville Rose Garden. Thomasville is also home to a famous oak tree, appropriately named Big Oak. The tree is over 327 years old and has attracted notable visitors such as President Eisenhower.
The town prizes its locally owned eateries and artisans. In one block, you can sample the Thomasville Tomme, an aged, raw cow’s milk cheese at Sweet Grass Dairy; a comforting cup at Grassroots Coffee; and fried green tomatoes at Jonah’s Fish and Grits.