Sizzling with subculture, simmering with flavors, alive with green spaces and studded with iconic Civil Rights landmarks, Atlanta rewards visitors in all the right ways. But Georgia's capital is just the gateway to the myriad delights on offer in the largest state east of the Mississippi.
Georgia rolls from coastal swamps through rich, red-soiled farmlands and peach orchards to the sprawling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, putting endless adventures within easy day-tripping reach of Atlanta. And that's not even counting the other fun-filled cities within two hours drive, from Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama to Chattanooga in Tennessee.
With Georgia's year-round mild weather, day trips are a 365-days-a-year activity. While northern states are shivering under a blanket of snow, Georgia still has great weather for exploring, with daytime temperatures that hover around 60°F. Even the hiking is good in winter – not too frosty, and with excellent views as the hilltop forests lose their curtain of leaves.
Whether you're seeking cutting-edge art encouters, backcountry hikes, award-winning wineries, Civil Rights landmarks, legendary live music, or even a miniature mock-up of Bavaria, here is our pick of the best day trips from Atlanta.
A beery, artsy and laid-back college town, Athens has an extremely popular football team (the University of Georgia Bulldogs), a world-famous music scene, a busy restaurant culture and engagingly diverse nightlife. The university fuels Athens' youth-oriented culture, ensuring an ever-replenishing supply of young bar-hoppers and concert-goers in the walkable downtown area. The hometown of the B52s and REM is the small town with big city spirit.
Highlights for visitors include the Georgia Museum of Art – a smart, modern gallery where brainy, arty types hang out to study while art hounds gawk at modern sculpture in the courtyard garden and a tremendous collection from American realists of the 1930s. Or head to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia with its winding outdoor paths and a socio-historical edge.
Last but certainly not least, plan your trip around a show at the legendary 40 Watt Club. Athens' most storied joint has lounges, a tiki bar and $2.50 Pabst Blue Ribbons. The venue has welcomed a generation of indie rockers to its stage since REM, the B-52's and Widespread Panic owned this town, and this is still where the big hitters play when they come to town.
How to get to Athens, Georgia: It's only an hour and 15 minutes to Athens from Atlanta by car, and not much longer on the regular buses that connect the two cities.
North Georgia Wine Country
The Appalachian foothills north of Atlanta are an increasingly respected viticultural region, thanks to the ultra-quaffable wines produced around Dahlonega. There are more than a dozen wineries to choose from, many with breathtaking mountain views, live music or patios that are perfect for whiling away an afternoon. Pull up a stool and a spitoon in Dahlonega to sample the best of the region. Downtown Courthouse Square is an attractive mélange of wine-tasting rooms, gourmet emporiums, great food, countrified shops and foothills charm.
Wine-tasting in the surrounding vineyards is on the rise too. Frogtown Cellars is a beautiful winery with a killer deck where you can sip libations and nibble cheese. It bills itself as the most awarded American winery not in California, which we can't confirm, but the wine does go down a treat with a mountain sunset. For a more low key experience, Three Sisters is a wonderfully unpretentious vineyard where Cheetos, overalls and bluegrass tunes – or posher cheeses and great views – pair just fine with the wine.
Meanwhile, Wolf Mountain Vineyards lures a hip and trendy 30-something crowd to its gorgeous, 30-acre winery that frames epic sunsets over Springer Mountain from its tasting-room terrace. Top wines like its méthode champenoise 100% chardonnay Blanc de Blanc and crisp and fresh Plentitude (an unoaked chardonnay/Viognier blend) are the way to go.
How to get to Dahlonega: It's a two-hour drive to Dahlonega and surrounding wine country from Atlanta. You can also get here by taking a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train to North Springs station and catching an Uber from there.
Providence Canyon State Park, Georgia
You might not expect Grand Canyon-style landscapes within an easy drive of Atlanta, but that’s what you’ll find at Providence Canyon. Sometimes described as Georgia’s "Little Grand Canyon," this 1003-acre state park is something to behold. Geological evidence indicates this area was once the bottom of the sea, but the canyons you can see today were formed by natural erosion after farmers dug poorly thought-out ditches through the soft sedimentary beds.
The otherworldly formations include 150ft gullies with beautiful layers of orange, red, purple and pink sediment. Visitors can explore via a variety of hikes, including an easy rim trail with spectacular views over the canyon, plus longer trails on the canyon floor. Keep your eyes peeled for resident armadillos, deer, raccoons and butterflies.
How to get to Providence Canyon State Park: It's two hours and twenty minutes from downtown Atlanta, give or take traffic.
Chattanooga has charisma to spare. With world-class rock climbing, hiking, cycling and water-sports, it's one of the South's best cities for outdoor fun. It's lovely to look at too: just check out those views from the Hunter Museum of Art in the Bluff View Art District! It's also remarkably eco-conscious, with free electric buses, miles of well-used waterfront trails, and pedestrian bridges crossing the Tennessee River. It's all a far cry from the 1960s, when Chattanooga was slated as America's dirtiest city.
The city was a major railway hub throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," originally a reference to the Cincinnati Southern Railroad's passenger service from Cincinnati to Chattanooga, and later the title of a 1941 Glen Miller tune. The Tennessee Aquarium physically and metaphorically anchored downtown's revitalization in the 1990s, followed by family-friendly developments like Ross's Landing & the Passage and Coolidge Park across the river.
Chattanooga's eminently walkable downtown is a maze of historic stone and brick buildings featuring tasty gourmet kitchens, craft breweries and distilleries. Sparky neighborhoods like the increasingly lauded Southside District keep things interesting, with the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, Flying Squirrel – a hip bar that has its own boutique hostel right next door – and the annual MainX24 festival.
How to get to Chattanooga: You can reach Chattanooga in two hours driving due north on I-75 from Atlanta, baring any unexpected traffic jams.
This hilly, shady city, founded as an iron mining outpost, is still a busy center for manufacturing – many Birmingham residents work at Mercedes Benz USA in Tuscaloosa – but visitors are more interested in the university and college buzz and the excellent dining and drinking scene. The past also resonates strongly in Birmingham, thanks to the city's pivotal role in the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
The downtown Civil Rights Heritage Trail begins at Kelly Ingram Park – where you can see powerful statues recalling police violence against peaceful protestors. Be sure to stop at the Civil Rights Institute to add context to your walk. The 16th Street Baptist Church is worth a visit, too; it was a gathering place for organizational meetings and a launchpad for protests in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s, before being targeted by a deadly Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963.
Experience another side of Birmingham at the famous Sloss Furnaces. From 1882 to 1971, this was a pig-iron producing blast furnace and a cornerstone of Birmingham's economy. Today, instead of a wasteland it's a National Historic Landmark, a red mass of steel and girders rusted into a Gothic monument to American industry. Quiet pathways pass cobwebbed workshops and production lines that make for extremely atmospheric photos. Once a year this post-industrial playground becomes the setting for Furnace Fest, a music-packed weekend that pulls bands like Taking Back Sunday and Further Means Forever.
How to get to Birmingham: The drive from Atlanta takes two hours and 20 minutes by car; the journey is possible by train but much slower.
This kitschy, Epcot-style Alpine playground was dreamed up in the 1960s by a few local business people seeking to revitalize their backwater town. In 1969, local businesses and carpenters got to work – with help from a local artist with German roots – transforming this former mill town into the self-proclaimed best little German town in America.
Surrounded by the bucolic Appalachian foothills, Helen is an ideal springboard for trips to Anna Ruby Falls and Unicoi State Park, for hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, or floating the Chattahoochee River. Or you can just stick around to enjoy the "Appalachian" charm at spots such as Catch 22.
How to get to Helen: Helen is 86 miles northeast of Atlanta by car following Hwy 19 S; allow two hours.
Alabama's capital is a knot of forested streets, red-brick architecture and lonely railways, attached to a few government buildings and a cobblestoned downtown. With a few exceptions, most of the main points of interest here are tied to the Civil Rights movement, in which the city played a key role.
In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, launching a bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr, then pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This action ultimately desegregated city buses and galvanized the Civil Rights movement nationwide, helping to lay the foundation for the Selma to Montgomery protest marches of 1965.
One of the country’s most important sights is just a short drive along I-85. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the first-ever tribute to the more than 4000 known victims of lynching in the United States. The 800 monuments each mark a county where a lynching took place, and the nearby Legacy Museum puts this awful history into modern content.
How to get to Montgomery: Allow two hours 20 minutes to reach Montgomery from Atlanta by car.
Pasaquan, Buena Vista, Georgia
Fans of unusual photo ops and outsider art shouldn’t miss Pasaquan, a unique art space near Buena Vista. After having visions in which he was chosen by “people of the future” to depict their culture of peace and love, self-taught artist Eddie Owens Martin (1908–1986) turned his mother’s 19th-century farmhouse into a psychedelic wonderland over the course of three decades. The site – which includes six buildings – is an explosive, rainbow-hued fusion of African, pre-Columbian Mexican and Native American motifs.
How to get to Pasaquan: You can drive to Pasaquan from Alanta in two and half hours.
GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail, South Carolina
Rails to Trails projects have produced beloved recreational opportunities across the US, and this 19-mile trail that runs from charming Greenville to quaint Traveler’s Rest is one of the best. Joggers, cyclists and families can be found enjoying this relatively flat, shady greenway, which links a chain of parks and green spaces.
A walk here is a great way to enjoy the mild Georgia weather, and it's well worth the trip out of Atlanta to experience this thoroughly relaxing slice of the South. Stop at Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery to grab a picnic to munch on the way.
How to reach the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail: The drive to Greenville from Atlanta takes around two hours 40 minutes.
Blue Ridge, Georgia
Cutesy and wildly popular, Blue Ridge was founded in 1866 as a railroad junction and its historic depot, rebuilt in 1906, still sits across from its postcard-perfect Main St. This little town draws hordes of fans in summer for its charming linear downtown studded with restaurants, bars, antique shops and locally owned businesses.
While it's hard to believe it was once promoted as the "Switzerland of the South," Blue Ridge is easy on the eye and offers more quality distractions than other North Georgia towns. Amongst other things, this is Georgia's trout capital and fly-fishing in the surrounding countryside is a big draw year-round. The town is often considered Atlanta’s backyard – a hotbed for wealthy Atlantans to lay down roots with a second home in the mountains.
Popular day hikes around Blue Ridge include Falls Branch Falls, a half-mile round-trip waterfall hike that's part of the Benton MacKaye trail system, and Long Creek Falls, a 2.4-mile round-trip hike on a section of the Appalachian Trail. At Lake Blue Ridge, 1.5 miles from downtown Blue Ridge, you can rent kayaks and paddleboards at Morganton Point Recreation Area from April through October.
Kids will love the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. Starting from the historic downtown depot, this scenic-railway ride takes you along 1886-laid tracks to the quaint sister towns of McCaysville in Georgia and Copperhill in Tennessee, winding along the bank of the Toccoa River (check the schedule online).