A Guide to Athens, Ga., the Classic City

ATHENS, Ga. — Sure, head out to Clayton Street on the typical Saturday night after a University of Georgia football game and say, “There’s nothing to do in this town.”Yeah, right.

But what about Sunday and those other 40 or so weekends a year where there is no football game?

Don’t fret, you’re in luck. Athens is home to a lot more than the University of Georgia. It’s a wealth of attractions, culture and history.

History

Its name alone implies that the city must be old (The city was named after Athens, Greece, which was home to Plato’s Academy).

Unlike many other cities in Georgia, Athens boasts a handful of Antebellum houses, many of which are open to the public.

The Taylor-Grady House, on Prince Avenue, an example of Greek Revival architecture, built circa 1844, is open for tours Monday-Thursday from 9a.m.-5p.m., but give them from 1-2:30 p.m. to grab a bite to eat. For information or to make a reservation, call (706) 549-8688.

The Upson House on Prince Avenue, also Greek Revival, built in 1847, is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Admission is free.

The Ware-Lyndon House, an Italianate-designed house built in 1856 by the first mayor, served as the city’s first recreation center. There is no cost to tour the house, which is open from noon until 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The Wray-Nicholson House on Hull Street, built circa 1825, now houses the UGA Alumni Association. The house is open during regular business hours (9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday). For information, call (706) 542-2251.

But there’s a lot more history in Northeast Georgia within a short drive of Athens.

About 25 miles from downtown is the Crawford W. Long Museum in the Jackson County city of Jefferson.

On March 30, 1842, Long stepped into the history books when he used Ether as a surgical anesthesia. His legacy lives on at the museum that bears his name, which can be visited Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. General Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children 3-12.

In nearby Winder, you’ll be going to jail. The old county hoosegow that now serves as a museum, that is.

If you don’t want to get locked up, visit when it’s open from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, and staffed by volunteers, the museum offers a primer into the founding and evolution of this fast-growing county on the fringes of metro Atlanta and Athens.

Every February, learn a little about the country’s founding at a ceremony in honor of Revolutionary War battle of Kettle Creek . The battle was fought on Feb. 14, 1779, in the Wilkes County city of Washington.

Take a historic stroll

In the warmer months of the year, one can easily walk through downtown Athens and enjoy many of the city’s historical structures and a few of the more quirky attractions. Outside of downtown, there are plenty of walking tours in some of the Classic City’s more historical neighborhoods.

In front of City Hall is a treasure of the War Between the States, the Double-Barreled Cannon.

Designed by Athenian John Gilleland, the Double-Barreled Cannon was built at a local foundry in 1863 and designed to thwart any union attack on the Classic City. The idea was to load a cannon ball into each of the barrels; the balls were to be connected by a chain. Perhaps good in theory, the design was a flop; it was never fired during a battle.

A little more serene in nature is the Tree That Owns Itself, located at the corner of Dearing and Finley streets. Around the turn of the 20th century, UGA benefactor George F. Peabody deeded the tree to itself. Though the tree died circa 1942, the present-day incarnation of the Tree That Owns Itself was born out of an acorn from the original tree.

Sports

Sports and Athens. Hmm. How about UGA football?

OK, sure. But ponder this question. Is there any sports-related activity to do in Athens that is not UGA related?

Absolutely.

From walking trails to golf courses to amateur baseball, sports and Athens go hand-in-hand.

For starters, buy a new pair of walking shoes. The Athens area is full of a myriad of walking trails, enough to get that heart pumping.

Begin by heading over to the Memorial Park and Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail and enjoy the 80 acres of land, sea and animals. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. until dusk.

Next to Memorial Park is the Fred A. Birchmore Nature Trail, named for the Athens native who built it and who was the first man to bicycle around the world.

Then, try the North Oconee River Greenway, a 3-mile, multi-use concrete walkway. With these type of attractions, it’s up to you to decide how fast — or slow — to walk.

Like bikes? Every year in late April, the Athens Twilight Criterium comes to town. Gene Dixon founded the race in 1980, which was the first nighttime bike race in the country in over 60 years. As a part of the National Cycling Calendar, the event attracts some of the nation’s top cyclists to Athens.

The Athens Pirates, a team made up of college players, brings baseball to Northeast Georgia every summer. The team competes in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League, and its roster includes players from more than a dozen colleges. For more information, log onto http://eteamz.active.com/athenspirates/.

The Northeast Georgia city of Royston is home to one of the greatest players to ever step onto the baseball diamond: Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb, the Georgia Peach.

Born Dec. 18, 1886, in Narrows, Ga., located near Royston, his name still looms large throughout much of Northeast Georgia. Cobb broke into Major League Baseball in 1905 with the Detroit Tigers and finished his career with a .367 batting average. The legend of the Hall of Fame player lives on at the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston.

Except for holidays, the museum, which includes memorabilia, is open Monday-Friday from 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. For more information, log onto http://www.tycobbmuseum.org/

OK, so a guide to sports in Athens wouldn’t be complete without at least one UGA-related attraction: The Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall Sports Museum.

The museum derives its name from a pair of legendary UGA football coaches, Wallace Butts and Harry Mehre. The facility, occupied since 1987, features displays of UGA athletic memorabilia. Admission is free and is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday from 2-5 p.m.

Music

Perhaps the only thing more synonymous with Athens than college football is music. The home of R.E.M. and the B-52s, among many more, live music is still very much a part of present-day Athens. A walk down Clayton Street on the average night is proof of that.

In May, it’s the annual Hot Corner Celebration, described as “a celebration of Athens’ early center of black commerce.” The celebration includes food, speeches and, f course music.

And if the calendar reads June, it’s time for AthFest, a three-day festival in downtown Athens that launched in 1997. The best part: a small fee covers a lot of music.

Beer & Wine

Wine only comes from Napa Valley, Tuscany and, of course, France. Right? Wrong.

About 30 miles from Athens, in the fast-growing town of Braselton, is Château Élan Winery & Resort. In 1985, the resort’s first wines were released and today, the winery offers wine tasting every day and a host of other events throughout the year. A self-guided tour, Monday-Friday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., is free and wine tasting is $5. Tours on Saturdays and Sundays, with a guide, are $5. After you convince your friends to come to Athens, check out the deluxe or executive tour options.

But the resort isn’t all French. In 1997, Paddy’s Irish Pub — which was shipped from Dublin and reassembled at the resort — opened.

In April, the suds flow at the annual Classic City Brew Fest, a time when visitors can taste dozens of beers from around the world at the annual event. In 2006, the event was held at the Foundry Park Inn, rather than at the Classic Center. Tickets sell for about $20 in advance.

Furthermore, a walk through downtown Athens reveals plenty of local watering holes. Local breweries, including Terrapin Beer Co. and Cooper Creek Brewing, also call Athens home.

Railfanning

Like trains? You’re in luck.

A major rail line passes through Athens and within a 30 mile or so drive in any given direction, there are a handful of historic depots worth checking out.

When you’re “driving down the Atlanta Highway” toward Winder, the road parallels the heavily-used CSX main line. Stop in the charming town of Statham for some close up vantage points of freight trains and when the action slows down, stop by the circa 1912 train depot for some antiquing.

Continue west along Atlanta Highway to Winder, where the 1910 Seaboard Air Line train depot today serves as the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce headquarters. Next to the depot, which is on Porter Street, is Gainesville Midland No. 208. The 1930 2-10-0 (wheel configuration) steam locomotive – known as a decapod – was donated to the city of Winder in 1959. Another decapod is on display in downtown Gainesville and a Gainesville Midland 2-8-0 retired steamer is on display outside of Jefferson High School in nearby Jefferson.

Once back in Athens, head out Georgia Highway 72 toward the tiny town of Hull. Like Atlanta Highway, this thoroughfare also parallels CSX’s main line. There are plenty of places to stop and watch some train action.

Believe it or not, you can hop a train without jumping into the next open boxcar.

Amtrak passes through Gainesville and Toccoa twice a day — once north and once south. A little farther away, in the Gwinnett city of Duluth, the Southeastern Railway Museum is home to dozens of old railcars and railfans of all ages can hop on board a train. Hours vary depending on the season.

The great outdoors

Museums too stuffy? Not to worry, Northeast Georgia is home to plenty of state parks and other scenic getaways.

Walk along the nature trails on the 313-acre State Botanical Garden of Georgia, located along the Oconee River south of Athens. For information, call (706) 542-6138.

In Winder, head to Fort Yargo State Park and enjoy the serenity of this 1,814-acre wonderland and also take in a little bit of history at the Old Fort, built in a the late 18th century by settlers who sought protection from the Indians. At times during the year, volunteers conduct living history displays, dressing up in authentic 18th century garb.

Take a step back in time and visit the longest-tenured, “original-site” covered bridge, located in Comer. Watson Mill Bridge State Park, home of a 229-foot long bridge spanning the South Fork River awaits exploitation. For information, call (706) 783-5349.

In Royston, there’s Victoria Bryant State Park, home of streams, trails and wildlife. For the sports fans, there’s also a golf course. For information, call (706) 245-6270.

Looking to get wet? Good news, a pair of great lakes are an hour’s drive away.

Both Lake Lanier in Gainesville and Lake Hartwell in Hartwell offer the weary city-dweller a respite from the daily grind, and a chance to enjoy swimming, boating, fishing and camping.

Both lakes were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

For information about Lake Hartwell, call (706) 376-8756; for Lake Lanier, call (770) 932-7200.

Shopping

Got some cash burning a hole in your pocket?

It goes without saying there’s plenty of shopping in downtown Athens. Drive 40 minutes north to Commerce and hit the Tanger outlet malls. Everything from pottery of all shapes and sizes to shoes for any occasion to stylish clothing to food delicacies awaits the shopper.

With a little imagination and minimal planning, the Classic City and the surrounding area offers plenty of quick getaways and breaks that won’t bankrupt the budget. So the next time someone asks, “What’s there to do in Athens?” Any answer — other than “nothing” — will do.

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About Todd DeFeo 1269 Articles
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is the owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and Railfanning.org.