25 Best Things to Do in Athens (GA)

Source: Wikimedia / Richardelainechambers | Public Domain

Athens, Georgia is an archetypal college town with abundant cultural offerings.  Just under 70 miles northeast of Atlanta, the city began its growth in the early nineteenth century as merchants clustered around the state’s flagship university.

The cotton industry helped drive economic growth over the next hundred years, as rail connections linked Athens to other southern regional capitals.  Today, aside from the powerhouse university, the city is known for its influential music scene and eclectic art galleries, energetic nightclubs, and trendy southern dining.

Interactive Map of 25 Things to Do in Athens, GA

Source: Map data @2022 Google

1. The University of Georgia Campus

The University of Georgia Campus
Source: Wikimedia / Coxonian | CC0 1.0

Although a visit to Athens offers a wide range of activities, the University of Georgia tops the list for most.  Founded as the state’s first public university in 1785, the beautiful main campus covers over 750 acres, situated just south of downtown Athens along the western side of the Oconee River. 

The grounds are so verdant that the entire campus holds the title of arboretum, with its own “walking tour of trees”.  The university features many attractions, from an active Performing Arts Center to the Horticulture Trial Gardens. The UGA Special Collections Library holds a rare book collection and a number of rare manuscripts. 

2. Sanford Stadium

Sanford Stadium
Source: Flickr / ikwildrpepper | CC BY 2.0

In terms of out of town visitors, Athens’ largest draw is to Sanford Stadium, which deserves a separate mention from the university.  Home to the Georgia Bulldog football team, this venue regularly hosts over 90,000 fans during the fall season. 

Massive green hedges of Chinese privet separate the seats from the field, a barrier that has held strong for decades, other than an infamous storming of the field after a victory over Tennessee in October 2000.  Average ticket prices top $150 for the Bulldogs’ home games.  Visitors who want to check out the stadium without the crowds can schedule a visit through the university’s visitor center.

3. Downtown Athens

Downtown Athens
Source: Flickr / alans1948 | CC BY 2.0

Downtown Athens welcomes visitors with excellent walkability and plenty of options for daytime exploration and evening fun.  Pleasant storefronts and art galleries line the sidewalks north of Broad Street, with sidewalk cafes catering to tired shoppers.

Fans of live music are in for a special treat, as the city prides itself on a history of blockbuster talent. R.E.M., Widespread Panic, and the B-52s all got their start on these streets, and the beat goes on.  As visitors might expect, the downtown area also provides opportunities for dancing and and drinking, with a number of highly regarded craft breweries such as Creature Comforts , Terrapin Beer, and Southern Brewing Company. 

4. State Botanical Garden of Georgia

State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Source: Flickr / Clayton Shonkwiler | CC BY 2.0

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia is located right by the university campus.  The 313-acre site includes a wide variety of gardens and trails.  Visitors can enjoy its tropical conservatory, flower garden, international garden, children’s area, and gift shop. 

A heritage garden contains plants with specific historical ties to Georgia, such as peaches, peanuts, and tobacco.  Visitors report a peaceful atmosphere, with breathtaking walks through the grounds, including plenty of space to find a quiet corner.  For an extra treat, explore beyond the cement walkways to follow leafy woodland trails and make new discoveries.

5. The 40 Watt Club

The 40 Watt Club
Source: Flickr / Kevin | CC BY 2.0

If Athens was the source of American New Wave music, then the 40 Watt Club was its ground central.  Home to such powerhouse bands as R.E.M. and the B-52s, the legendary venue originated from the loft of Pylon drummer Curtis Crowe. Jam sessions, parties, and underground concerts transitioned into a bustling nightclub in the early 1980s.

Having hosted groups as diverse as Nirvana, Run-DMC, the Black Crowes, and The Killers, the 40 Watt Club is still thriving in the revelrous atmosphere of this energetic college town.  Visitors can expect an outstanding slate of top and up-and-coming bands, along with an excellent sound system and a large, accessible bar.

6. The Georgia Theatre

The Georgia Theatre
Source: Flickr / dolbex | CC BY 2.0

Having begun its life as a local YMCA in 1889, the Georgia Theatre served as Athens’ classiest movie theater for much of the period between 1918 and 1976.  Since then, with a brief return to showing films in the 1980s, it has provided an elegant venue for bands like the B-52s, Pylon, and R.E.M. to showcase their talents. 

The Police played there in 1979 during their first U.S. tour.  Homegrown Athens band Widespread Panic filmed their mini-documentary “Live at the Georgia Theatre” in 1991, directed by Billy Bob Thornton.  Visitors report standing room only crowds, so it may well be worth it to show up early.

7. Attend AthFest

Attend AthFest
Source: AthFest

June is a wonderful time to visit Athens, Georgia.  Each summer fans of music and art congregate downtown for live concerts, an outdoor Artist Market, and a kids’ area to enjoy the festival’s eruption of sight and sound.

For those looking to enjoy the local nightlife, Athfest’s Club Crawl moves the celebration into more than a dozen nightclubs to keep the party going.  It is common for over a hundred bands to take part in the annual event.  All outside activities are free, but those who want to join the Club Crawl will need to purchase a wristband for entry.

8. House Museums: (The Taylor-Grady House, Ware-Lyndon House…)

House Museums
Source: Wikimedia / Gwringle | CC BY-SA 3.0

With numerous homes dating back to its early nineteenth-century beginnings, Athens is an excellent place to tour historic residences.  As the oldest residence in Athens, the Church-Waddel-Brumby House makes a perfect start to such an exploration.

Restoration work has renewed the home to its 1820s style, when it served as the home of University President Moses Waddel.  The home now houses the Athens Welcome Center.  Other prominent historic house museums include the Taylor Grady House, and the T.R.R. Cobb House.  Visitors looking for an even more extensive journey back in time can find more of Athens’ thirty-six national register historic sites within easy reach of downtown.

9. Georgia Museum of Natural History

Georgia Museum of Natural History
Source: Pixabay / 2211438 | CC BY 2.0

For travelers interested in nature, the Georgia Museum of Natural History offers eleven different collections, from Arthropods to Zooarchaeology.  Over 320,000 preserved fish reside in the facility.

The museum is a working research center at the university, so visitors are not able to explore at will.  However, the public exhibition gallery provides an informative snapshot of the varied specimens available at the site and a chance for travelers to immerse themselves in the natural world.  Those looking for a more in-depth visit can arrange a special tour to delve further into the collections.

10. Georgia Museum of Art

Georgia Museum of Art
Source: Pexels / Clem Onojeghuo | CC BY 2.0

As the official art museum of Georgia, the Georgia Museum of Art holds a permanent collection of American paintings from the last two centuries, along with additional works from Europe and Asia.  In total, the 79,000 square foot facility contains over 10,000 objects.

Temporary exhibitions of world-class art rotate through the museum on a regular basis, so it is worth scoping out the current offerings on the museum’s website.  The galleries are open to visitors from Thursday mornings through Sunday afternoons.  Travelers appreciate the free admission, the quality of the permanent collections, and the diversity of the temporary exhibits.

11. Sandy Creek Park and Nature Center

Sandy Creek Park and Nature Center
Source: Flickr / Nate Shivar | CC BY 2.0

Set among 782 acres just a few miles north of town, Sandy Creek is Athens’ premier outdoor recreational area.  The site facilitates a wide variety of sports, including disc golf, basketball, volleyball, boating, fishing, and swimming.  The park surrounds Lake Chapman, an artificial lake created in 1977 after the construction of a flood-control dam on the Oconee River.

The site more than doubled in size in 1981 after the state established a greenway to connect the part to the Sandy Creek Nature Center.  The Nature Center offers visitors a chance to see native animals outdoors in the wild and a collection of captive animals from around the world.

12. The Tree that Owns Itself (the Jackson Oak)

Jackson Oak
Source: Wikipedia / Bloodofox | Public Domain

Located in the heart of downtown Athens, the Jackson Oak is a local tree with a famous history.  In 1890 local newspapers reported a strange real estate transaction between Colonel William Jackson and a white oak tree.  Col. Jackson deeded the land for eight feet around the tree in each direction to the tree, itself. 

The “tree that owned itself” subsequently became a source of local pride.  The original tree collapsed in 1942, but was so beloved that the local community replanted a “son” of the tree on the site from a sapling grown from one of its acorns.

13. R.E.M. Murmur Railroad Trestle

R.E.M. Murmur Railroad Trestle
Source: Wikimedia / Michael Rivera | CC BY-SA 4.0

When local Athens band R.E.M. debuted their 1983 album “Murmur,” the cover featured a railroad trestle overgrown with kudzu.  Located on the east side of the river across from downtown Athens in Dudley Park, the community has fought to save the trestle site from developers since the 1990s.

Visitors can currently reach it via a short hike along a lovely little trail, but the future of the trestle may still be in doubt.  For now, it is a treasured local landmark, and offers both a connection to musical history and great views of the Oconee River, so visit while you can!

14. Five & Ten Restaurant

Five and Ten Restaurant
Source: Five & Ten Restaurant

Celebrity chef Hugh Acheson is originally from Ontario, Canada, but he has become a fixture in his wife’s hometown of Athens Georgia since opening the Five & Ten restaurant in 2000.  Having been a judge on “Top Chef” and other prominent cooking shows, Acheson brings an international flavor to the southern cuisine served up at this top-notch Athens eatery. 

Set in a historic house with courtyard seating available outside under the trees, Five & Ten patrons rave about the ambiance and outstanding gourmet Southern food.  Space is also available for private parties and events.

15. Georgia Antebellum Trail

Georgia Antebellum Trail
Source: Flickr / Bruce Tuten | CC BY 2.0

Athens is the northern starting point for the scenic Antebellum Trail, which winds through seven historic towns in north-central Georgia.  Visitors looking for a day trip from Athens can head south along the trail to Watkinsville, where there is time for a visit to the Eagle Tavern Museum, a former stagecoach stop in the early nineteenth century.

After checking out Watkinsville’s antique shops and visiting the picturesque Elder Mill Covered Bridge, travelers can head back to Athens for the evening.  For a weekend adventure, continue south to Madison, Eatonton, and Milledgeville, the next stops on the trail.

16. World of Wonder Playground

World of Wonder Playground
Source: Pexels / Anthony | CC BY 2.0

For kids in need of exercise and adventure, World of Wonder (WOW) delivers. Set in the larger Southeast Clarke Park, the playground features many fun areas: a climbing wall, two-story spinner, and a three-story slide tower.  Ten separate slides and swings for all ages are available, including swinging park benches. 

A Biba-enabled playground offers an augmented reality experience that goes beyond your average park equipment.  Located a couple of miles to the southeast of Athens, Southeast Clarke also offers a dog park, skate park, tennis center, and walking paths.  Open from 8:00am on weekdays and 9:00am on weekends, the park closes at sunset every day.

17. Lyndon House Arts Center

Lyndon House Arts Center
Source: Pexels / Adrianna Calvo | CC BY 2.0

The Lyndon House Arts Center serves the community through art exhibits, events, and classes.  Art-related activities are always on offer for visitors who want to develop their creative side, with studio rentals available for longer-term projects. 

A gallery shop is on-site to bring your favorite pieces home.  Visitors noted the wide selection of local art and highly informative staff members.  The connected Ware-Lyndon Historic House Museum provides guests the opportunity to explore an 1840s Greek Revival home with period furnishings and artifacts with special relevance to the history of Athens. 

18. Stegeman Coliseum

Stegeman Coliseum
Source: Wikimedia / Ianmccor | Public Domain

Although football is the biggest sports draw in Athens the University of Georgia Bulldogs basketball team boasts a large fan base, too.  Stegeman Coliseum is their home court.  Located in the center of the UGA campus, the venue seats over 10,000 fans per game.

It was originally constructed in 1964 but has undergone multiple renovations since that time.  The arena also hosts concerts, and other sports, and was the site of gymnastics and volleyball competitions for the 1996 Olympic Games.  Visiting fans report that parking is convenient, and that staff keep the facilities exceptionally clean.

19. Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall

Butts Mehre Heritage Hall
Source: Wikimedia / Coxonian | CC BY-SA 4.0

For University of Georgia sports fans, Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall is a must-see destination.  The massive complex is home to locker rooms, training spaces, coaches’ offices, and the UGA Athletic Association Headquarters. Built in 1987 and named for two former football coaches, the ultramodern facility is keyed toward impressing potential athletic recruits but is also open to the public. 

Historic showcases display awards, trophies, and memorabilia from the university’s past sports accomplishments.  Butts-Mehre adjoins the university ticketing office and the Georgia Bulldog Club, a fundraising arm of UGA sports. Tours of the facility are available from 8:00am to 5:00pm on weekdays.

20. Oconee Rivers Greenway

Oconee Rivers Greenway
Source: Flickr / popofatticus | CC BY 2.0

Visitors who like to bike, hike, walk, or run will gravitate to this pleasant greenway.  A network of interconnected trails winds along the east bank of the North Onconee from Sandy Creek Park to downtown Athens.  For hikers, 5.1 miles of natural surface trails offer a connection with local flora and fauna.

8 miles of concrete trails are open for multiple purposes, and bikers can cruise along the river, university campus, and Pulaski Heights, past a historic railway depot.  Eight different trailheads offer multiple entry points with parking, three of which have restrooms available.

21. Rush Athens Trampoline Park

Rush Athens Trampoline Park
Source: Reshot / kevis mulchan | CC BY 2.0

A ten-mile drive west from town will take you to Rush Athens Trampoline Park.  The facility includes two dodgeball courts, the main jumping area, foam pits, a basketball section, and even a ninja court.  Visitors can buy tickets at the door, but on weekends the staff recommends advance purchase.

Parents who are not jumping can enter for free to keep an eye on their bouncing youngsters from courtside or the parents’ lounge.  Rush Athens also hosts fitness classes and private events.  All ages are welcome.  Visitors especially recommend it for a fun rainy-day activity.

22. Five Points Neighborhood

Five Points Neighborhood
Source: Wikimedia / Richardelainechambers | Public Domain

Athens’ walkable Five Points neighborhood can be found at the southwest edge of the University of Georgia campus.  With an average age of 44 years old, this busy area of town mixes historic homes with student housing, maintaining a keen sense of community despite the distinctive mix

Bookshops, bakeries, and antique line South Milledge Avenue and South Lumpkin Street, offering a pleasant and quaint atmosphere for sidewalk shopping.  For an old-fashioned lunch counter, head to ADD Drug Store.  Five Points Bottle Shop and 5 Points Growlers serve up craft beers for refreshment. 

23. Normaltown

Source: Flickr / daystreamin’ | CC BY 2.0

Drawing its name from the State Normal School operated there around the turn of the twentieth century, Athens’ Normaltown neighborhood has a hip, eclectic vibe and lots of outdoor living space.  Check out the Saturday farmer’s market for fresh produce or visit one of the quirky shops along Prince Avenue. 

From coffee shops to hardware stores to barbecue joints, travelers will appreciate Normaltown’s range of unique locally owned enterprises.  In the south section of Normaltown, Athens Regional Park allows locals and visitors a chance to get off the pavement and relax outdoors.

24. Georgia Square Mall

Georgia Square Mall
Source: Pexels / Isaiah Samuel | CC BY 2.0

Georgia Square Mall lies to the west of Athens along Business Highway 78.  The two-story shopping center hosts department stores such as Belk along with dozens of smaller retailers.  Since its opening in 1981, the mall has attracted shoppers from Athens and around the region.  Visitors report a broad selection at the food court, and plenty of room to park. 

The mall occasionally hosts events such as job fairs and seasonal displays.  Although online retailers are increasingly challenging traditional shopping malls for consumers’ attention, the Georgia Square Mall continues to offer visitors the opportunity to explore the sensory explosion of a traditional American super-mall.

25. Classic City Tours

Classic City Tours
Source: Flickr / alans1948 | CC BY 2.0

Known among locals as the “Classic City”, Athens has much to offer visitors.  The energetic downtown, the University campus, the graceful historic homes, and the many parks and outdoor spaces in and around Athens present so many choices that some travelers may wish for guidance on how to approach it all. 

That is where Classic City Tours comes in.  Available via the Athens Welcome Center as free downloads, these six self-guided walking or driving tours are designed for visitors interested in Athens’ musical history, historic homes, the university campus, African American sites, and more.