Travel

16 Actually Cool Things to Do in Athens, Georgia

From history tours to local breweries, there's so much to do in Athens.

The Georgia Museum of Art
The Georgia Museum of Art
The Georgia Museum of Art

Thanks to the University of Georgia football team’s performance in the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship, Atlanta is no longer the only championship-winning city worth visiting in Georgia. Athens is only about an hour and a half north west of Atlanta, and although it is highly regarded as the home of the Dawgs, it’s so much more than an awesome college town. Athens is actually one of Georgia’s most predominant cultural hubs outside of Atlanta, as it boasts iconic historical establishments like the Morton Theatre (one of the first, and still operational, vaudeville theaters in the United States), plenty of great bars, and an array of phenomenal eateries. Add in art institutions, gorgeous outdoor recreation areas, and a rich music scene, and there’s undoubtedly something for everyone to enjoy, so regardless of why you’ve got your eyes on Athens, check out these 16 actually cool things to do once you get there.

Go biking on the Firefly Trail

Downtown
Athens isn’t just a famous college town where you can expect to party and hit up bars-it’s also a place where you can enjoy some much-needed fresh air. In addition to recreation areas like Sandy Creek Park and the North Oconee River Greenway, the Firefly Trail really stands out as a great place to go walking, running, and-if you’re up for it-biking. A rail-trail that’s still in the process of expanding, the Firefly Trail first opened in 2017 as a 14′-wide, concrete trail along the historic Georgia Railroad. When it’s finished, it will stretch on for 39 miles, but as of right now, there’s still plenty of trail ready for you to get some good cycling in the next time you visit Athens.

Marie/Flickr
Marie/Flickr
Marie/Flickr

Embark on an eccentric history tour

Multiple locations
If you’ve never visited Athens before, then it’s only right that you get acquainted with its history, which dates back all the way to 1806. Considering that it’s been around for 220+ years, there’s a lot of quirky monuments and interesting places to explore, from the faulty Athens Double-Barreled Cannon from the Civil War era, the tree that (somehow?) owns itself, the breathtaking Taylor-Grady House, and so much more. If you’re only interested in a select few historical highlights, you can definitely embark on a self-guided tour as an excuse to explore the city, but if you want a more thorough understanding of Athens, check out the Historic Athens Welcome Center for fun experiences like the Historic Athens Heritage Shuttle Tour.

Dig through the crates at one of Athens’ many record stores

Multiple locations
As a city that boasts a plethora of historical monuments and one hell of a music scene, it’s only fitting that Athens is the home of several physical music stores. Hunt down both obscure and mainstream finds for your record collection at locally owned shops like Wuxtry Records, The Record Booth, Low Yo Yo Stuff Records, and more.

Spend a day on Lake Chapman

Sandy Creek Park
Another great way to appreciate Athens’ beautiful outdoors is to spend the day on Lake Chapman. Accessible via Sandy Creek Park, Lake Chapman offers plenty of lakefront activities, from fishing and picnicking to boating. If you want to bring your boat out, that’s fine as long as it’s an electric or non-motorized watercraft, and there are also canoes and kayaks available to rent for $8/hour on the weekends from Memorial Day weekend to Memorial Day weekend.

Georgia Football
Georgia Football
Georgia Football

Cheer on the Dawgs… duh

If the Dawgs are playing, put on your red-and-black finest and head to one of the many, many bars downtown to watch Coach Smart jump up and down on the sidelines. If you’re lucky enough to actually have tickets, make sure you get to the stadium early to beat the rush of stumbling college students yelling “Go Dawgs!” at every possible moment.

Bar hop to your heart’s content

Downtown
Did I mention Athens has a ton of bars? Because it does. More than any one person should reasonably have access to. Aside from huge football game nights, they typically don’t have covers, so you can spend your money on what really matters. Highlights include Bar South, Flanagan’s, and Silver Dollar, As I’ve said before, Athens is a college town, so on weekends expect to be surrounded by students, and sometimes their parents?

Creature Comforts
Creature Comforts
Creature Comforts

Tour the local breweries

Downtown
As you might expect from a city with multiple blocks dedicated almost exclusively to bars, Athens also has incredible breweries. Creature Comforts and Terrapin are centrally located , while the Southern Brewing Company is more northeast, and Akademia is closer to Bogart. Take a tour of one — or all of them.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

See a show at the Georgia Theatre

Downtown
Some may think it’s just a glorified concert hall, but the Georgia Theatre has hosted national stars like Wu-Tang Clan, Tyler, the Creator, The xx, and Drivin N Cryin. Decked with a stunning Broadway-inspired sign out front, the Georgia Theatre is a stunning venue that’s definitely worth the price of admission (get your tickets in advance!). And if amazing music isn’t enough to win you over, there’s also a rooftop bar that serves up legitimely delicious snacks like BBQ sandwiches, bánh mì, and pretzel bites.

Celebrate Taco Tuesday

Multiple locations
It’s Tuesday. You just got off of work or out of class. You don’t have anything to do. So make use of your time and inhale some tacos and margs at one of Athens’ many Mexican restaurants, like Agua Linda, La Fiesta, Tlaloc, or Taqueria La Parrilla.

Athens Farmers Market
Athens Farmers Market
Athens Farmers Market

Support Athens businesses at the farmers market

Bishop Park and Creature Comforts
If you’re looking for a place where you can shop sustainably in a delightful communal setting, check out the Athens Farmers’ Market. It’s open from March 5 through December 17 on Saturdays at Bishop Park, and from April 6 to November 23, the Athens Farmers’ Market will also be open at Creature Comforts Brewing. Vendors this season include Sundance Farm, R&R Secret Farm, Eno’s Baked, and Grands Designs, among many others.

IntrinsicVision/Shutterstock
IntrinsicVision/Shutterstock
IntrinsicVision/Shutterstock

Up your Instagram game at the Botanical Gardens

University of Georgia
Although not as grand as the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia still has plenty to offer — like lighter crowds and free admission. Definitely force your friends to take pictures of you staring intensely into the camera with a field daffodils and peonies in the background. But there are other ways to spend your time here. See what events are coming up at the garden here.

The National
The National
The National

Take a food tour

Citywide
Athens has a vast food scene. USA Today even named it one of the South’s most underrated food destinations in 2017. Skip the chains and hit up some of the locally owned favorites instead: classics include The Grill (go here for a retro diner experience, but expect a wait on the weekends), Last Resort Grill (yes, grills seem to be a trend), Clocked (get the Bayou Burger and thank us later) and Cali-N-Tito’s. In town for a special occasion and don’t feel like waiting an hour for a table at Last Resort? Try the crawfish etouffee at George’s Lowcountry Table, shrimp and grits at South Kitchen + Bar or chow on some Mediterranean-inspired dishes at The National.

The Georgia Museum of Art
The Georgia Museum of Art
The Georgia Museum of Art

Slowly nod your head at really old art

University of Georgia
Thanks to the Georgia Museum of Art, even art aficionados have something to look forward to when visiting Athens. Yes, it’s on UGA’s campus (I’m sorry), but it’s in East Campus where you’ll really only see athletes, hyper middle schoolers on field trips, and the weary souls who have to trek from there to central campus where most classes are held. Plus, admission is free. Check out current and upcoming exhibits here.

Appreciate the history of Morton Theatre

Downtown
Morton Theatre is a must-have on any Athens to-do list because it’s one of the first and still active vaudeville theatres built, owned, and operated by an African-American in the United States. During its prime, its stage was graced by musical acts like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith. Today it serves as not only a historical landmark, but also a venue for concerts, dance performances, and other community events. Check out the events calendar to see who will be performing while you’re in town.

Athens GA bulldog statues
Athens GA bulldog statues
Athens GA bulldog statues

Find every single one of the Dawg sculptures around town

Citywide
Some of the fun stuff to do in Athens is related to UGA and well, this is one of those things. Riding or walking around town you may start to notice bulldog statues painted with different colors and designs. Each one is made of fiberglass and identical in height. These pups were first installed by the Athens-Oconee Junior Women’s Club in 2003 and have been sites of many selfies since. Now it’s your turn to find them all 30 of them, like Pokémon. You won’t win a prize or anything, but you will gain the satisfaction of seeing some pretty darn cool pieces of art.

Bear Hollow Zoo
Bear Hollow Zoo
Bear Hollow Zoo

Bond with animals… from afar

Bear Hollow Zoo
Bear Hollow isn’t your typical zoo. Many animals housed there are classified as non-releasable, meaning they have encountered physical or behavioral challenges and would be unable to survive by themselves in the wild. Some of the animals you’ll see include American Black Bears, bobcats, a Bald Eagle, and some pretty intense-looking owls. Just don’t stare too hard.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Kristen Adaway is a former staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @kristenadaway.

Joshua Robinson is an Atlanta-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @roshrisky.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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