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18 Best Things to Do in Athens, Georgia

Athens is a mid-sized city in northeastern Georgia and the location of the state's public research university: The University of Georgia. As with many university towns, there is an emphasis on art and culture in the community. Athens, GA, has museums, art galleries, performing arts, beautiful wedding venues, and a spectacular botanical garden. Here are the best things to do in Athens, Georgia.

1. Downtown Athens

Athens, Georgia, in the northeastern part of the state, may seem like a sleepy mid-sized city when in fact it has a vibrant and exciting downtown core. The downtown of the city is where its government offices are located, as well as churches of several different denominations. For shoppers there is a wealth of opportunities; there are many clothing stores as well as antique shops, shoe stores, and jewelers.

Art lovers can spend their time browsing galleries and studios. The restaurant district is here and offers dozens of different restaurants and cafes. Most are grills offering fine Southern cuisine, but there is international fare here as well: Indian, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, and Italian. There are clubs and lounges in Athens' downtown to enjoy until the wee hours of the morning.

2. Athens Institute for Contemporary Art

The Athens Institute for Contemporary Art is a non-profit and entirely volunteer-run art space housed in a renovated warehouse a mile from Athens' city center. It shows four curated exhibits of contemporary art annually, many of which highlight the local art scene and regional artists.

The majority of its other shows have political and socially conscious themes; past art exhibits have focused on homelessness, democracy, the use of fossil fuels, environmentalism, and consumer culture. When not being used to house curated art exhibits, the museum space is used for private art shows, musical concerts, theatrical performances, and film screenings.

160 Tracy Street, Unit 4, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-389-5450

3. State Botanical Garden of Georgia

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia is affiliated with the University of Georgia and has over 300 acres of blooms, shrubs, and trees. There is a tropical conservatory housing plants from the world's warmest climate zones and a greenhouse that propagates plants from seeds and seedlings. The medicinal garden contains specimens of plants that have been used to cure ailments since ancient times, while the shade and native gardens are filled with a riot of azaleas, camellias, and wildflowers.

A heritage garden is home to plants that were popular in earlier times, when cross-breeding and genetic modifications were unknown. The gardens have broad pathways for wheelchair access and an additional 5 miles of hiking trails. Educational programs bring visitors into contact with plants and instruct them in the finer points of gardening.

2450 S. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-542-1244

4. Things to Do in Athens, GA: Bear Hollow Zoo

Bear Hollow Zoo is a zoo with a difference. It rescues local animals with physical health problems, provides them with excellent housing, food, and veterinary care, and shows them to the public to raise awareness about the animals that live in the area. The zoo charges no admission and is set in a woody part of Memorial Park with lots of shade and picnic tables for lunch after viewing the animals.

Among the mammals at the zoo there is a black bear, a bobcat, a white-tailed deer, a Virginia opossum, and a river otter. There are birds: a bald eagle, a barred owl, a great horned owl, a red hawk, and a wild turkey. Birthday parties at the zoo include a custom tour and an animal encounter. School field trips may be booked with or without a picnic shelter for the group.

293 Gran Ellen Drive, Athens, GA 30606, Phone: 706-613-3616

5. Big Dogs on the River

Big Dogs on the River is a kayaking service in Athens, Georgia. From Big Dogs, visitors are taken on a 15-minute ride to kayaks berthed on the Middle Oconee River, from where they can kayak back to their car. The kayak trail on the Middle Oconee is 3.5 miles long and takes most riders approximately two to three hours to paddle.

Single or tandem kayaks may be rented, and lightweight aluminum paddles are provided. The Middle Oconee River is easy paddling, with a few shoals to break up the ride. Upon return to Big Dogs, kayakers will be assisted out of the river and may make use of the facilities, which include restrooms, picnic tables, grills, a volleyball court and horseshoe pitch, and satellite TV.

2525 Atlanta Highway, Athens, GA 30606, Phone: 705-353-6002

6. Birchmore Trail, Athens, Georgia

Birchmore Trail is a mile-long pathway through an urban hardwood forest which winds through ravines, alongside a creek, passing over bridges and next to the Great Wall of Athens. The Great Wall of Athens was built by Fred Birchmore, the local man for whom the trail is named.

Mr. Birchmore is a local legend: a college professor, community leader, ornithologist, and aviator who cycled around the world and completed his 200-foot long wall while in his 70s. The Birchmore trail is open to foot traffic only; bicycles are not permitted on the trail. The trailhead is in Memorial Park in Athens.

293 Gran Ellen Drive, Athens, GA 30606, Phone: 706-613-3616

7.Things to Do in Athens, GA: Double-Barreled Cannon

The double-barreled cannon is an historical oddity and can be seen in the park in front of city hall in Athens, Georgia. It was built in 1862 by John Gilleland, a Georgia dentist and mechanic, and presented to the Confederate forces, which wisely turned him down. On its first three experimental firings by Gilleland, the weapon knocked down a stand of trees, tore up a cornfield, killed a cow, and knocked down a chimney.

None of these unfortunate victims of the cannon fire were anywhere near the intended target. It never saw military use and now rests in front of Athens City Hall, still pointing towards the enemy North, as Mr. Gilleland intended.

Corner of Hancock and College Avenue, Athens, GA

8. Georgia Food Tours, Athens, Georgia

Georgia Food Tours offers two different packages: a bicycle agricultural tour and a restaurant and brewery tour. The restaurant tour takes visitors to three different restaurants in downtown Athens, where sample menus are tasted and where the diners can talk to owners and chefs and learn about how the food is prepared.

The agricultural tour takes cyclists out to the rural edge of Athens and introduces them to hard-working and passionate organic farmers, giving the visitors a chance to see the livestock and the fields from which their food originates. Farm-baked goodies at each stop make the trips a culinary delight.

200 College Avenue, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-338-8054

9. Georgia Museum of Art

The Georgia Museum of Art is affiliated with the University of Georgia and is the state's official art museum. It has a large permanent collection of over 8,000 pieces and also has exhibits from galleries all around the world. It has a fine collection of American art from the 19th and 20th centuries, featuring works by Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, and Georgia O'Keefe; American, European, and Asian works on paper; Italian Renaissance paintings; and a growing number of examples of Southern decorative art and folk art.

The museum is committed to education and has monthly family days comprising gallery tours with hands-on art, offers school field trips, and has summer day camps for children. In addition, the Georgia Museum of Art has a fine gift shop and an excellent café.

90 Carlton Street, Athens, GA 30602, Phone: 706-542-4662

10. Georgia Museum of Natural History

The Georgia Museum of Natural History is part of the University of Georgia and works in cooperation with that institute's Natural History Department. It aims to collect, educate, and research in the areas of anthropology, geography, geology, botany, plant pathology, and entomology and its collections in those areas are the largest in the state.

Exhibits of indigenous Georgia fish, insects, mammals, and zoo-archeology specimens fill the museum and there are photo archives of southeastern birds and southeastern reptiles and amphibians. Touring the museum is free and there are outreach education programs for all ages. One of the primary focuses of the museum are the freshwater fish species of Georgia, one-third of which are listed as endangered.

East Campus Road, Natural History Building, Athens, GA 30602, Phone: 706-542-1663

11.The Georgia Theater

The Georgia Theater is a live music and event space in Athens, Georgia. Newly renovated after a devastating fire in 2009, the theater offers great seating, two balcony levels, excellent acoustics, and an open-air roof area with a bar serving alcohol beverages and food and with comfortable seats.

The Georgia Theater hosts all kinds of musical acts; past performers include Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson, Warren Zevon, the Dave Matthews Band, and John Mayer. Locals come here to watch University of Georgia football games on the theater's big screen. There is a nice art gallery in the foyer, with works for sale by local artists.

215 N. Lumpkin Street, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-850-7670

12. Lyndon House Arts Center, Athens, Georgia

The Lyndon House Arts Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing Athens area residents with excellent cultural opportunities. It has exhibits of local and national art all year round, in a variety of media. Arts Center members can take advantage of the open studio, which offers workspace and tools such as a kiln, a potter's wheel, a loom, and a darkroom.

There are workshops regularly as well as classes in art for both children and adults. Adults may attend classes such as enamel jewelry making, drawing, printmaking, and pottery. Children's classes are more general and are designed to give youngsters an overview of art media. The annual Deck the Walls sale gives area residents an opportunity to purchase local art for Christmas gift-giving.

293 Hoyt Street, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-613-3623

13. Morton Theatre

The Morton Theatre is a performing arts venue hosting dramatic, musical, and dance performances, and is also used for special events such as seminars and weddings. The theatre has a rich history and is the oldest surviving vaudeville theatre in the United States.

It was built in 1910 by a prominent African-American businessman named Monroe Bowes “Pink” Morton and during its first performance, a piano recital, was attended by both white and African-American citizens. The theatre has hosted such greats as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith and was used as rehearsal space for local acts R.E.M. and the B-52s. The theatre was renovated in 1987 after decades of disuse and continues to bring live performances to the residents of Athens.

195 W. Washington Street, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-613-3770

14. Sandy Creek Nature Center, Athens, Georgia

Sandy Creek Nature Center is a 225-acre plot of woodland and wetlands with hiking trails, wheelchair-accessible trails, a planetarium, and an excellent visitors center. The four miles of trails bring visitors into contact with a great variety of flora and fauna, including frogs, snakes, turtles, and armadillos.

An 1815 log house near the visitors center is open monthly for those wishing to look indoors. The visitors center is filled with exhibits of live animals such as reptiles, amphibians, and water creatures, in both freshwater and saltwater aquariums. The nature center offers many educational programs, including fishing, night-time searches for amphibians, and guided trail walks.

205 Old Commerce Road, Athens, GA 30607, Phone: 706-613-3615

15.What to Do in Athens, GA: T.R.R. Cobb House

Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb was an Athens lawyer, politician, author, and finally Confederate officer during the American Civil War, in which he died at the Battle of Fredericksburg. His home on Hill Street in Athens was built in 1834 and given to him as a wedding present by his father-in-law in 1844. As Cobb's wealth grew, so did the house.

The relatively modest Greek Revival property was expanded into an octagonal shape with the addition of new wings. It remained in the Cobb family until 1873, when his widow sold it; it has since been a fraternity house, a boarding house, and a diocesan office. The beautiful antebellum house is open for guided tours and does a particularly fine educational tour for class groups learning about American history.

175 Hill Street, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-369-3513

16.Taylor-Grady House, Athens, Georgia

In the years after the American Civil War, no one worked more feverishly to re-integrate the Confederate States with the Union than journalist and orator Henry Grady. Despite his standing as a white supremacist, his work was pivotal in reunification.

The Grady home was built in the 1840s in the Greek Revival style and is a magnificent mansion as well as the perfect backdrop to the many weddings and social events that are held here each year. Guided tours of the home may be taken with guides well versed in history and school groups are very welcome. Guests are also permitted self-guided tours; there is a small gift shop at the home's exit.

634 Prince Avenue, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-549-8688

17.The Tree that Owns Itself

In a quiet residential area in Athens, Georgia, stands a fine white oak tree that owns itself. The tree sits on the land that was once owned by Colonel William H. Jackson, a professor at the University of Georgia. His love for this tree was such that he deeded it 8 feet of land from each of its sides in perpetuity; no attempt has ever been made to move the tree or to comply with Colonel Jackson's whimsical desire.

The original tree was felled by a windstorm in 1942, but replaced with a sapling from one of its acorns in 1946. Philanthropist George Foster Peabody paid for an enclosure for the tree. Visitors who enjoy historical oddities should drive down the cobblestone streets for a look at the world's only tree to own itself.

Corner of South Finley and Dearing Streets, Athens, GA

18.Ware-Lyndon House, Athens, GA

© Courtesy of Tombaky - Fotolia.comThe Ware-Lyndon House was built in 1850 for local physician Edward Ware, who, in 1880, sold it to Athens druggist Edward Lyndon; the house is named for both men. Built in the Italianate style, it is the only surviving home in the once extremely fashionable Athens district of Lickskillet.

In 1939, the City of Athens purchased the house and extensively renovated it in the 1960s. Today it is an interesting stop for history lovers, filled as it is with period furnishings and decorative arts. The house also has a history room with displays honoring the original owners of the house and its place in Athens history.

293 Hoyt Street, Athens, GA 30601, Phone: 706-613-3623

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