Talk about the passion: A weekend in Athens, Georgia

College towns Travel

October 31, 2022

The Southern college town blends Southern grace and grassroots creativity.

by Cathy Martin | featured photograph by Jason Thrasher

If you know any Georgia alums, you know their intense devotion to their alma mater. Bulldog fans seem to have invented school spirit. 

A recent visit to Athens reveals it’s not all about football. As home to the state’s flagship university, Athens boasts cultural amenities not found in similar-sized towns. From the picturesque North Campus and stately historic sorority houses lining Milledge Avenue to grittier downtown venues where musical greats got their start, Athens is a mix of Southern grace and grassroots creativity. 

As a child of the ’80s, I knew all about Athens’ legendary music scene, where R.E.M., The B-52s and Widespread Panic all spent formative years. Then in 2000, James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson opened his first restaurant, Five & Ten, and put Athens on the culinary map. Today, many of the town’s restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops are owned by Georgia alums — who fell so hard for this eclectic town 60 miles east of Atlanta as students, they never left.

UGA North Campus, photograph by Jake Gee; Georgia Museum of Art, photograph by Georgia Museum of Art;
Georgia Theater, photograph by Elliott Anderson


Follow the Athens Music Walk of Fame to the famed Georgia Theatre. The 1,000-seat theater was built in 1935 on the site of a former YMCA and later became a concert venue. A devastating fire in 2009 shuttered the iconic theater for two years. Acts from B.B. King to The Dave Matthews Band have performed at the theater, and R.E.M. and John Mayer filmed music videos here. Even if you aren’t catching a show, you can visit the rooftop bar and take in views of the campus and city.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia was established in 1968 on the 313-acre site of a former cotton plantation. Admission is free — explore more than 5 miles of trails and eight specialty gardens, including a shade garden, an international garden and a children’s garden. A Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum housing the personal collection of garden benefactor Deen Day Sanders opened in 2021.  

The Georgia Museum of Art on UGA’s campus has rotating exhibits plus a permanent collection of American, European, Asian and African works. The works span from 15th-century Florentine painter Paolo Schiavo to modern-day Chicago artist Nick Cave. Admission is free.

Whether searching for the perfect UGA hoodie or vintage vinyl, Athens has a variety of independent shops worth perusing. Avid Bookshop in Five Points has gifts, puzzles, stationery and more. Agora Vintage (by appointment only) sells pre-loved designer handbags from Chanel and Louis Vuitton, along with shoes and clothing. Wuxtry Records, a downtown record store and comic shop, was named one of Rolling Stone’s top 25 record stores in 2010. The Red Zone has all the UGA merch your future Dawg will ever want. 

Hotel Indigo, photograph by Dylan Cross


Most lodging options in Athens are garden-variety Hiltons and Marriotts, with plenty of Airbnb rentals. For a comfortable stay within walking distance of downtown and campus — Hotel Indigo covers the bases. Opened in 2009, the hotel — a modern barn-like structure that’s LEED Gold certified (i.e. eco-friendly) — underwent a renovation of its 130 guest rooms in 2019. Rooms at the pet-friendly hotel are bright and airy with high ceilings; hardwood floors and wood accents add warmth. Madison Bar & Bistro, the all-day lobby cafe, offers ample seating and a sprawling courtyard for morning coffee or a quick bite.

home.made; Jittery Joe’s, photograph by Terry Allen; Five & Ten; Bottom: SideCar

eat + drink

For a grab-and-go breakfast, Independent Baking Co. in Five Points serves light, flaky viennoiserie including croissants, pains au chocolat, and seasonal Danish along with fresh-baked bread made from organic grains — their whole-grain flours are stone-ground and milled in-house. Look for the small painted brick building with the cheery blue trim and grab a coffee made with locally roasted beans. For a heartier breakfast, Mama’s Boy serves biscuit sandwiches, egg scrambles and Georgia peach French toast in a no-frills setting — plus a few nontraditional dishes like the chocolate cake for breakfast.  

For a light lunch or an afternoon snack, Pauley’s Crepe Bar has sweet and savory crepes, small bites like black bean hummus and deviled eggs, sandwiches and salads, plus craft cocktails, martinis and wine. Try the Bulldawg crepes —  shaved steak, swiss and caramelized onions topped with arugula and shallots in a hot-sauce vinaigrette.

At Cali n Tito’s, don’t let the line spilling out the door at lunchtime keep you away. The casual counter-service spot (cash only) serves Latin fare — tacos, chauffa and sandwiches — in a setting reminiscent of your favorite beachfront dive. Order a Cuban — the rolls are perfectly crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside — with a homemade limeade, search for an open picnic table and enjoy. 

Every town needs a good local coffee shop — in Athens, it’s Jittery Joe’s. With about a dozen locations around town, there’s no excuse to settle for Starbucks. For a midday pick-me-up, head to Condor Chocolates, owned by brothers and Athens natives Nick and Peter Dale. Indulge in bean-to-bar chocolate, brownies and truffles made at their local factory, plus Ecuadorian coffee and hot cocoa. 

Tucked in a historic home on Milledge Avenue, Acheson’s Five & Ten serves Southern dishes with a French and Italian flair. This is a place to take your time and enjoy the experience, whether dining inside, at the cozy bar or on the breezy front porch. 

ZZ and Simone’s in Five Points is a bustling corner café with an Italian-inspired menu that opened in December 2021. On the menu: Starters like crudo and grilled artichokes; pastas and pizzas; grilled branzino and porchetta. The lemon pizza (red onion, chile flakes, thyme and pecorino romano) was a bright and zesty standout. 

 For fresh, farm-to-table food in a simple setting, visit home.made, a short 2 miles west of downtown. The menu highlights what’s in season and is influenced by Chef Mimi Maumus’ New Orleans background. Next door at SideCar, expect an ever-changing menu of small plates, craft cocktails and alcohol-free drinks. 

 For Southern food with a Southwestern twist, Last Resort Grill is a downtown mainstay. On the site of one of Athens’ first live music clubs, this unpretentious eatery sources from local growers and artisans. Expect familiar dishes like Carolina crab cakes, cornbread-crusted trout and stuffed tenderloin.  SP


Winter Wonderlights at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia runs from Nov. 23 – Jan. 8. Follow a half-mile walking trail with twinkling lights, shop the holiday market, and help yourself to hot cocoa and s’mores. Tickets are $15. The university also hosts several holiday-themed performances in December, including The Nutcracker performed by the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine.

Intel of Your Wildest Dreams!


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