The 10 best day trips from Atlanta

DR6E1D Athens, Georgia, USA downtown cityscape.
Athens, Georgia at dusk © Alamy

If you've got Georgia on your mind, we don't blame you. From red dirt plains in the southern fringes of the state to the sprawling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains at the northern end, there's a lot to see and do. And that's not even counting all the other mid-size cities within two hours of Georgia's capital, from Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama to Chattanooga, Tennessee. All it takes is a two hour drive to reach cutting-edge art, the "Grand Canyon of Georgia" and award-winning wineries tucked away in the mountains – as well as Civil Rights history, world-famous music scenes, and even a taste of Bavaria. 

Adventure in the North Georgia mountains

If you're wondering where to begin, don't worry. We've hand-picked the top ten day trips from Atlanta that show off some of the best destinations of the inland southeast. 

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Downtown Athens, Georgia, USA © ESB Professional/Shutterstock

1. Athens, Georgia

A beery, artsy and laid-back college town, Athens has an extremely popular football team (the University of Georgia Bulldogs, College Football Playoff National Championship runners-up in 2018), a world-famous music scene, a bona fide restaurant culture and surprisingly diverse nightlife. The university – UGA – drives the culture of Athens and ensures an ever-replenishing supply of young bar-hoppers and concert-goers, some of whom stick around long after graduation and become 'townies.' The pleasant, walkable downtown offers a plethora of funky choices for eating, drinking and shopping.

Highlights include the Georgia Museum of Art – a smart, modern gallery where brainy, arty types set up in the wired lobby for personal study, while art hounds gawk at modern sculpture in the courtyard garden as well as the tremendous collection from American realists of the 1930s. Or head to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. It's truly gorgeous, with winding outdoor paths and a socio-historical edge, Athens' gardens are a gift for a city of this size. Signs provide smart context for its amazing collection of plants, which includes rare and threatened species. There are nearly 5 miles of top-notch woodland walking trails too.

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 PBRs. The venue has welcomed indie rock to its stage since REM, the B-52's and Widespread Panic owned this town and today this is still where the big hitters play when they come to town. It has recently embraced comedy as well.

How to get to Athens, Georgia: It's only an hour and 15 minutes to Athens from Atlanta by car.

Vineyard View In Georgia
Georgia's vineyards are a perfect way to spend an afternoon © chadscc/Getty Images

2. North Georgia Wine Country

The Appalachian foothills north of Atlanta are now a recognized viticultural region, thanks to the ultra-quaffable wines produced here. 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. Not only is Dahlonega a hotbed of outdoor activities, but downtown in Courthouse Square is an attractive mélange of wine-tasting rooms, gourmet emporiums, great food, countrified shops and foothill charm.

Wine tasting in the surrounding vineyards is on the rise too. Frogtown Cellars is a beautiful winery has 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. Three Sisters is a wonderfully unpretentious vineyard where Cheetos, overalls and bluegrass tunes – or fine cheese 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. Reservations required for cafe and brunch.

How to get to Dahlonega: It's a two-hour drive to Dahlonega and surrounding wine country from Atlanta. 

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Providence Canyon State Park has magnificent views at dusk © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

3. 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 nicknamed Georgia’s 'Little Grand Canyon,' this 1003-acre state park is something to behold. Evidence suggests this area was once the bottom of the sea, when this part of Georgia was covered by the Coastal Plain. The canyon we see today formed due to mass erosion over the years, as a result of bad farming practices. Now, it's a natural wonder. 

Otherworldly formations include gullies as deep as 150ft, 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 a 1-mile canyon-floor trail, and longer 3-mile and 7-mile canyon-floor trails. Keep your eyes peeled for the local residents: 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.

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Mean Mug Coffeehouse in Chattanooga, Tennessee has grown to include several locations © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

4. Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga has charisma to spare. With world-class rock climbing, hiking, cycling and water-sports opportunities, it's one of the South's best cities for outdoorsy types. It's gorgeous, too: just check out those views from the Hunter Museum of Art in the Bluff View Art District! It's also remarkably eco-forward, with free electric buses, miles of well-used waterfront trails, and pedestrian bridges crossing the Tennessee River. All this makes it hard to credit its reputation in the 1960s as America's dirtiest city.

The city was a major railway hub throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo,' which was 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. Burgeoning neighborhoods like the increasingly lauded Southside District keep things compelling, 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: It's two hours due north on I-75 from Atlanta, baring traffic jams.

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A statue of Martin Luther King at Kelly Ingram Park © Stan Reese/Shutterstock

5. Birmingham, Alabama

This hilly, shady city, founded as an iron mine, is still a center for manufacturing – many Birmingham residents work at Mercedes Benz USA in Tuscaloosa. In addition, universities and colleges pepper the town, and all of this comes together to create a city with an unreservedly excellent dining and drinking scene. The past also lurks in Birmingham, once named 'Bombingham,' and the history of the Civil Rights movement is very much at your fingers.

The downtown Civil Rights Heritage Trail begins at Kelly Ingram Park – where you can see powerful statues commemorating police violence against peaceful protestors – and includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. 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. This church became a gathering place for organizational meetings and a launchpad for protests in Birmingham in the 1950s and ’60s. During a massive desegregation campaign directed at downtown merchants in 1963, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the church during Sunday school, killing four little girls. Today the rebuilt church is a memorial and house of worship (services 11am Sunday).

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 form a photographer's dream. A small museum on the site explores the furnaces' history, and 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: 2hr 20min by car.

Helen, Georgia, USA Cityscape
German-style houses in Helen, Georgia © SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images

6. Helen, Georgia

This kitschy, Epcot-style Alpine playground was dreamed up in the 1960s by a few local business people wanting to revitalize the 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 like King Ludwig's Biergarten and Catch 22.

King Memorial Montgomery, Alabama
The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. worked, Montgomery, AL, USA © PhotoStock-Israel/Getty Images

7. Montgomery, Alabama

Alabama's capital is a skein of forested streets, red-brick architecture and lonely railways, attached to a few government buildings and a cobblestoned downtown that accrues much of the area's new investment. 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 majestic monuments, one for each county where a lynching took place, make the scale of terror obvious, and the nearby Legacy Museum makes the connection between past and present clear.

How to get to Montgomery: 2hr 20min by car.

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© Alamy Stock Photo

8. Pasaquan, Buena Vista, Georgia

Fans of unusual photo ops and outsider art shouldn’t miss Pasaquan, a unique attraction 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: 2hr 30min by car.

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Downtown Falls Park on the Swamp Rabbit Trail at sunrise ©MarkVanDykePhotography/Shutterstock

9. 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 – stop at Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Bistro to grab a picnic.

How to reach the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail: 2hr 40min by car.

Blue Ridge, GA, Georgia, Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, passenger train. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway follows the pretty Toccoa River before heading into the Chattahoochee National Forest. © Alamy Stock Photo

10.  Blue Ridge, Georgia

Cutesy and wildly popular Blue Ridge was founded in 1866 as a railroad junction (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 rife 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,' it is easy on the eyes and offers more quality distractions than other North Georgia towns. It's known as Georgia's trout capital, and year-round river and stream fly-fishing in the surrounding countryside is a big draw. 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 hike that's part of the Benton MacKaye trail system (www.bmta.org), to a double waterfall, and Long Creek Falls, a 2.4-mile round-trip hike on the Appalachian Trail. The 3290-acre, aquamarine Lake Blue Ridge,1.5 miles from downtown Blue Ridge, offers kayak and paddleboard rentals at Morganton Point Recreation Area from April through October. 

Kids will love the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, too. Starting from the historic 1905 downtown depot at 11am on most days (check the schedule online), this scenic-railway ride takes you along 1886-laid tracks to the quaint sister border towns of McCaysville, Georgia and Copperhill, TN, winding along the bank of the Toccoa River, returning at 3pm.

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