Budget Travel

These 10 day trips from Atlanta are as much fun in winter as in summer

Sizzling with subculture, simmering with flavors, alive with green spaces and studded with iconic Civil Rights landmarks, Atlanta rewards visitors in all of the right ways. But Georgia's capital is only the gateway towards the myriad delights on offer in the largest state east from the Mississippi.

Georgia rolls from coastal swamps through rich, red-soiled farmlands and peach orchards towards the sprawling foothills from the Appalachian Mountains, putting endless adventures within easy day-tripping reach of Atlanta. And that's not really counting another fun-filled cities within 2 hours drive, from Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama to Chattanooga in Tennessee.

With Georgia's year-round mild weather, excursions really are a 365-days-a-year activity. While northern states are shivering under a blanket of snow, Georgia still has great weather for exploring, with daytime temperatures that hover around 60°F. Even the hiking is good in winter – much less frosty, and with excellent views as the hilltop forests lose their curtain of leaves.

Whether you're seeking cutting-edge art encouters, backcountry hikes, award-winning wineries, Civil Rights landmarks, legendary live music, or even a miniature mock-up of Bavaria, here's our pick of the greatest excursions from Atlanta.

Athens, Georgia

A beery, artsy and laid-back college town, Athens has an very popular football team (the University of Georgia Bulldogs), a world-famous music scene, an active restaurant culture and engagingly diverse nightlife. The university fuels Athens' youth-oriented culture, ensuring an ever-replenishing supply of young bar-hoppers and concert-goers in the walkable downtown area. The hometown from the B52s and REM may be the small town with big city spirit.

Highlights for visitors range from the Georgia Museum of Art – a smart, modern gallery where brainy, arty types spend time to study while art hounds gawk at modern sculpture within the courtyard garden along with a tremendous collection from American realists of the 1930s. Or head to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia with its winding outdoor paths and a socio-historical edge.

Last but certainly not least, plan your vacation around a show in the legendary 40 Watt Club. Athens' most storied joint has lounges, a tiki bar and $2.50 Pabst Blue Ribbons. The venue has welcomed a generation of indie rockers to the stage since REM, the B-52's and Widespread Panic owned the town, and this is still in which the big hitters play when they arrived at town.

How to get to Athens, Georgia: It's only an hour and 15 minutes to Athens from Atlanta by car, and never considerably longer around the regular buses that connect the two cities.

North Georgia Wine Country

The Appalachian foothills north of Atlanta are an increasingly respected viticultural region, thanks to the ultra-quaffable wines produced around Dahlonega. There are more than a dozen wineries to select from, many with breathtaking mountain views, live music or patios that are ideal for whiling away an afternoon. Pull-up a stool and a spitoon in Dahlonega to sample the best of the region. Downtown Courthouse Square is an attractive mélange of wine-tasting rooms, gourmet emporiums, great food, countrified shops and foothills charm.

Wine-tasting in the surrounding vineyards is rising too. Frogtown Cellars is really a beautiful winery having a killer deck where one can sip libations and nibble cheese. It bills itself as the most awarded American winery not in California, which we can't confirm, however the wine does go down a goody with a mountain sunset. For any more low key experience, Three Sisters is really a wonderfully unpretentious vineyard where Cheetos, overalls and bluegrass tunes – or posher cheeses and great views – pair all right with the wine.

Meanwhile, Wolf Mountain Vineyards lures a hip and trendy 30-something crowd to its gorgeous, 30-acre winery that frames epic sunsets over Springer Mountain from the tasting-room terrace. Top wines like its méthode champenoise 100% chardonnay Blanc de Blanc and crisp and fresh Plentitude (an unoaked chardonnay/Viognier blend) are the way to go.

How to get to Dahlonega: It's a two-hour drive to Dahlonega and surrounding wine country from Atlanta. You can also arrive here by taking a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train to North Springs station and catching an Uber from there.

Providence Canyon State Park, Georgia

You might not expect Grand Canyon-style landscapes inside an easy drive of Atlanta, but that is what you will find at Providence Canyon. Sometimes described as Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon," this 1003-acre state park is one thing to behold. Geological evidence indicates el born area was once the bottom of the sea, but the canyons you can see today were formed by natural erosion after farmers dug poorly thought-out ditches with the soft sedimentary beds.

The otherworldly formations include 150ft gullies with beautiful layers of orange, red, purple and pink sediment. Visitors can explore via a number of hikes, including an easy rim trail with spectacular views over the canyon, plus longer trails around the canyon floor. Keep your eyes peeled for resident armadillos, deer, raccoons and butterflies.

How to get at Providence Canyon State Park: It's 2 hours and twenty minutes from downtown Atlanta, give or take traffic.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga has charisma to spare. With world-class rock climbing, hiking, cycling and water-sports, it's one of the South's best cities for outdoor fun. It's lovely to look at too: just take a look at those views from the Hunter Museum of Art within the Bluff View Art District! It's also remarkably eco-conscious, with free electric buses, miles of well-used waterfront trails, and pedestrian bridges crossing the Tennessee River. It's all a far cry from the 1960s, when Chattanooga was slated as America's dirtiest city.

The city was a major railway hub through the 19th and 20th centuries, therefore, the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," originally a reference to the Cincinnati Southern Railroad's passenger service from Cincinnati to Chattanooga, and later the title of a 1941 Glen Miller tune. The Tennessee Aquarium physically and metaphorically anchored downtown's revitalization within the 1990s, followed by family-friendly developments like Ross's Landing & the Passage and Coolidge Park across the river.

Chattanooga's eminently walkable downtown is a maze of historic stone and brick buildings featuring tasty gourmet kitchens, craft breweries and distilleries. Sparky neighborhoods like the increasingly lauded Southside District keep things interesting, using the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, Flying Squirrel – a hip bar which has its own boutique hostel right next door – and also the annual MainX24 festival.

How to get to Chattanooga: You can reach Chattanooga in 2 hours driving due north on I-75 from Atlanta, baring any unexpected congested zones.

Birmingham, Alabama

This hilly, shady city, founded as an iron mining outpost, continues to be a busy center for manufacturing – many Birmingham residents work at Mercedes Benz USA in Tuscaloosa – but visitors are more interested in the university and college buzz and the excellent dining and drinking scene. Yesteryear also resonates strongly in Birmingham, because of the city's pivotal role in the rise from the Civil Rights movement.

The downtown Civil Rights Heritage Trail begins at Kelly Ingram Park – where one can see powerful statues recalling police violence against peaceful protestors. Be sure to stop at the Civil Rights Institute to include context to your walk. The 16th Street Baptist Church is worth a visit, too; it had been a gathering place for organizational meetings along with a launchpad for protests in Birmingham within the 1950s and 1960s, before being targeted by a deadly Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963.

Experience another side of Birmingham in the famous Sloss Furnaces. From 1882 to 1971, it was a pig-iron producing blast furnace and a cornerstone of Birmingham's economy. Today, instead of a wasteland it's a National Historic Landmark, a red mass of steel and girders rusted right into a Gothic monument to American industry. Quiet pathways pass cobwebbed workshops and production lines that make for terribly atmospheric photos. Annually this post-industrial playground becomes the setting for Furnace Fest, a music-packed weekend that pulls bands like Taking Back Sunday and additional Means Forever.

How to get at Birmingham: The drive from Atlanta takes two hours and 20 minutes by car; your way can be done by train but much slower.

Helen, Georgia

This kitschy, Epcot-style Alpine playground was dreamed in the 1960s by a few local business people seeking to revitalize their backwater town. In 1969, local business owners and carpenters started work – with help from a local artist with German roots – transforming this former mill town in to the self-proclaimed best little German town in the usa.

Surrounded through the bucolic Appalachian foothills, Helen is an ideal springboard for trips to Anna Ruby Falls and Unicoi State Park, for hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, or floating the Chattahoochee River. Or just stick around to savor the "Appalachian" charm at spots for example Catch 22.

How to get at Helen: Helen is 86 miles northeast of Atlanta by car following Hwy 19 S; allow two hours.

Montgomery, Alabama

Alabama's capital is really a knot of forested streets, red-brick architecture and lonely railways, mounted on a few government buildings along with a cobblestoned downtown. With a few exceptions, the majority of the main points of great interest listed here are associated with the Civil Rights movement, where the city played a key role.

In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to stop her seat to a white man on the city bus, launching a bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr, then pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This action ultimately desegregated city buses and galvanized the Civil Rights movement nationwide, helping to lay the foundation for that Selma to Montgomery protest marches of 1965.

One from the country's most significant sights is just a short drive along I-85. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the first-ever tribute to the more than 4000 known victims of lynching in the United States. The 800 monuments each mark a county in which a lynching took place, and also the nearby Legacy Museum puts this awful history into modern content.

How to get at Montgomery: Allow two hours 20 minutes to achieve Montgomery from Atlanta by car.

Pasaquan, Buena Vista, Georgia

Fans of unusual photo ops and outsider art shouldn't miss Pasaquan, a distinctive art space near Buena Vista. After having visions in which he was chosen by “people from the future” to depict their culture of peace and love, self-taught artist Eddie Owens Martin (1908 -1986) turned his mother's 19th-century farmhouse right into a psychedelic wonderland over the course of three decades. The website – including six buildings – is definitely an explosive, rainbow-hued fusion of African, pre-Columbian Mexican and Native American motifs.

How to get at Pasaquan: You are able to drive to Pasaquan from Alanta in 2 and half hours.

GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail, South Carolina

Rails to Trails projects have produced beloved recreational opportunities over the US, and this 19-mile trail that runs from charming Greenville to quaint Traveler's Rest is among the best. Joggers, cyclists and families are available enjoying this relatively flat, shady greenway, which links a chain of parks and green spaces.

A walk here is a great way to enjoy the mild Georgia weather, and it's worth the trip from Atlanta to experience this thoroughly relaxing slice from the South. Stop at Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery to grab an open-air picnic to munch on the way.

How to achieve the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail: The drive to Greenville from Atlanta takes about 2 hours 40 minutes.

Blue Ridge, Georgia

Cutesy and incredibly popular, Blue Ridge began in 1866 like a railroad junction and it is historic depot, rebuilt in 1906, still sits across from its postcard-perfect Main St. This little town draws hordes of fans in summer because of its charming linear downtown studded with restaurants, bars, antique shops and locally owned businesses.

While it's hard to believe it was once promoted as the "Switzerland of the South," Blue Ridge is easy around the eye and offers more appeal distractions than other North Georgia towns. Amongst other activities, this really is Georgia's trout capital and fly-fishing in the surrounding countryside is a huge draw year-round. The town is often considered Atlanta's backyard – a hotbed for wealthy Atlantans to put down roots having a vacation home in the mountains.

Popular day hikes around Blue Ridge include Falls Branch Falls, a half-mile round-trip waterfall hike that's part of the Benton MacKaye trail system, and Long Creek Falls, a couple.4-mile round-trip hike on a section of the Appalachian Trail. At Lake Blue Ridge, 1.5 miles from downtown Blue Ridge, you are able to rent kayaks and paddleboards at Morganton Point Playground from April through October.

Kids will like nowhere Ridge Scenic Railway. Beginning with the historic downtown depot, this scenic-railway ride goes along 1886-laid tracks to the quaint sister towns of McCaysville in Georgia and Copperhill in Tennessee, winding along the bank of the Toccoa River (look into the schedule online).

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