Here’s a pro tip about Athens, Georgia: Unless college football tugs strongly at your soul, stay out of town on fall Saturdays. Six to eight weekends a season, throngs of Bulldog faithful fill Athens up, making a seat at one of Athens’ notable restaurants hard to secure. Hotel rates soar as well, if you’re lucky enough to score one. Instead, visit in the off season: Try summer or the week after Christmas; or make sure the University of Georgia Bulldogs are playing one of their many Southeastern Conference opponents on an away field. Find a quiet couple of days, and Athens is as good as yours.
On weekends, Athenians are found outdoors. Cyclists fly through our streets in large packs, headed for country roads just outside of town. Runners and walkers convene at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (2450 S. Milledge Ave.), where marked trails skirt the Oconee River, climb hills, and cut through Georgia’s horticultural jewel. Before heading back to town for a late breakfast, stroll through the conservatory to inspect the collection of tropical flowers.
Grab coffee, a scone, or a sourdough boule at Independent Baking Company (1625 Lumpkin St.) on your way back into town. A few spots are worth stopping for breakfast — Little City Diner (135 Cherokee Rd.) or Ideal Bagel Company (815 W. Broad St.) are two examples — but saving room for lunch and dinner is a smart move.
Outdoor markets are the two busiest spots in Athens on Saturdays. At the Athens Farmers Market (Bishop Park, 705 Sunset Drive.), organic produce, grass-fed proteins, and community attract many. What seems like the whole town mills about drinking coffee from our beloved 1000 Faces and ordering sausage biscuits from Farm Cart. The market runs from 8 a.m. until noon. On Wednesdays, a slightly scaled-down market pops up at Create Comforts (271 W. Hancock Ave.), Athens newest craft brewery, for a stretch from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. A tour of the brewery pairs well with one of Farm Cart’s delicious burgers.
Across town, the J&J Flea Market (11661 Commerce Rd.), the region’s biggest outdoor flea market, bustles as hundreds peddle antiques, oddities, and trinkets. Filing through the market’s many rows and warehouses takes time, so rest up by stopping for lunch at Mi Tierra, an authentic and ridiculously amazing taqueria housed in one of the market’s covered bazaars.
Northeast Georgia is home to some of the best Mexican food in the state, thanks to the influx of Mexican and Central American immigrants to the area. Locals have their favorites staked out, and mine inside the city limits is Tlaloc (1225 N. Chase St.). A hand-painted character on the window urges, “Let’s Get Drunk!” But don’t. Not yet. Fill up on carnitas, pupusas, and a sope.
The Five Points neighborhood offers a quiet afternoon of strolling and shopping. Condor Chocolates (1658 S. Lumpkin St.) is the cacao passion project of chef and Athens native Peter Dale. Specializing in bean-to-bar chocolate sourced directly from Ecuador, Condor is a favorite spot for an afternoon pick-me-up. Try a sipping chocolate or an affogato, a scoop of house-made gelato bathing in a shot of fresh-pulled espresso. Armed with a sugar buzz, Five Points housewares and antique shops await. Try Archipelago Antiques (1676 S. Lumpkin St.) and BMA at Home (1662 S. Lumpkin St.).
Normaltown, a small commercial hub on the outskirts of downtown, is increasingly the nightlife destination for locals. Bound by historic neighborhoods on each side, Athenians opt to walk to Normaltown’s relatively new establishments for cocktails and bar food, rather than braving the undergraduate hubbub of downtown.
Hi-Lo Lounge (1354 Prince Ave.) is a go-to for fans of sports, craft beer, and comfort food. Taps change frequently here, and the bottle selection revolves just as quickly, often focusing on complex stouts and funky flavors. The kitchen pumps out baskets of french fries, fish and chips, reubens, and deliciously topped hot dogs. With a handful of TVs tuned to football or baseball to entertain, while away the afternoon here
Just a few doors down is the Old Pal (1320 Prince Ave.), as new to the neighborhood as Hi-Lo. Cocktails are the specialty at Old Pal, so try the spot’s namesake cocktail, a boozy stirred drink of rye, campari, and dry vermouth, or let the bartenders recommend a bourbon. Exposed brick walls and dimmed lights make the Old Pal just right for quiet conversation.
Hugh Acheson’s flagship restaurant 5&10 piles up the press clippings, but the National (232 W. Hancock Ave.), run by protege Peter Dale, is a real jewel in Acheson’s growing restaurant menagerie. Dale’s focus is the Mediterranean, incorporating flavors of North Africa, Greece, and Spain with Southern ingredients. Skip a table and sit at the bar, where you can sip vermouth and order patatas bravas and for a moment believe you’re in Barcelona. After dinner, a movie awaits. Cine (234 W. Hancock Ave.) is just next door with the latest art house films.
If there’s any energy left in you, the Georgia Theater (215 N. Lumpkin St.), rebuilt to new glory after a gutting 2009 fire, beckons you with amplification. Most nights of the week, it’s likely a national, regional, or top local talent has been booked.
Try to accomplish all this in one trip to Athens. Then imagine what it’s like to live here.
Where to stay: Try Hotel Indigo (500 College Ave.) or Graduate Athens (295 E. Dougherty St.). A number of AirBnBs are worth exploring. Set your browser to www.visitathensga.com for a complete list of hotels.
Photos by AJ Reynolds // Story by Andre Gallant