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Explore Small-Town Charm in Georgia

Some of Georgia’s most compelling stories can be found in its smaller cities and towns.

Georgia is home to the largest city in the South and a string of lovely coastal destinations, all of which get plenty of attention. But the state also boasts dozens of smaller places with quaint downtowns, antebellum architecture and fascinating history.

A tour of Georgia’s charming small towns takes groups from the mountains in the northeast to the rivers of the southwest. Along the way, travelers find Civil War stories, Native American culture, a former state capitol and a bounty of beautiful architecture.

This itinerary begins in north Georgia and includes five small and historic destinations as you travel south through the state. Groups could easily fit this trip into three full days or stretch it out to five to allow more free time and relaxation at each site. The itinerary can also be easily expanded to include visits to Atlanta at the beginning and Savannah at the end.


Destination #1 Rome

Highlight | Cherokee History

Northwest of Atlanta near the Alabama border, Rome sits at the confluence of the Coosta and Oosanaula rivers. In addition to plenty of waterfront vistas, the town features a vibrant college campus and a rich Native American history.

Groups can learn about the Cherokees that once inhabited the Rome area by visiting the Chieftains Museum. The museum is in the former home of Major Ridge, a notable Cherokee leader during the Trail of Tears period. Exhibits at the museum deal with the Cherokee removal, the life of Ridge and 19th-century Native American life and customs.

From there, groups can visit Berry College, said to be the world’s largest contiguous college campus. The campus is home to Oak Hill and the Martha Berry Museum complex, which preserves the historic home of the Berry College founder and her family members.

While you’re there: Groups can enjoy the river scenery on an excursion aboard the Roman Holiday Cruise Boat. The 45-passenger vessel departs on sightseeing cruises from downtown Rome.


Destination Helen

Highlight | Old World Charm

In the mountains of northeast Georgia, the town of Helen channels the spirit of European alpine villages. Though the area was once home to Cherokee bands and, later, settlers seeking gold and timber, today it has found its place as a mountain getaway, complete with cobblestone streets and Old World charm.

The scenic setting makes a great backdrop for shopping. Many groups spend free time in downtown Helen exploring local crafts and products available at the Village Shoppes and the local Artisans Market. Numerous small, local restaurants offer lunch stops along the way.

Travelers can also take advantage of the mountain setting by exploring Anna Ruby Falls, located in the Chattahoochee National Forest. A short walk from the visitors center takes guests to see the base of the waterfall and the confluence of two local creeks.

While you’re there: A short distance from Helen in Sautee Nacoochee, the Folk Potters Museum introduces travelers to the tradition and skill of mountain pottery practiced in the area. Groups can watch live pottery demonstrations and have discussions with folk artists.


Destination Madison

Highlight | Architecture Enclave

Due south of Athens and due east of Atlanta lies Madison, a small Georgia town with big bragging rights. Madison was founded in 1807 and boasts more than 100 antebellum homes, most of which have been restored to their original splendor. Budget Travel magazine has named Madison one of the 16 most beautiful villages in the world.

Visiting Madison is all about admiring the architecture. Groups can start at Heritage Hall, an 1811 Greek Revival home known today as “the antebellum dame of Madison.” The next stop is the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, which is housed in a Romanesque Revival red-brick building that originally served as one of the South’s first public elementary schools.

For a real treat, plan your tours to coincide with the Spring Tour of Homes, Churches and Gardens, or the Holiday Home Tour in December. Both are among the largest home tours in Georgia.

While you’re there: Enjoy the high-end shopping, dining and hospitality in downtown Madison, which includes hip historic hotels, gourmet restaurants and numerous boutiques.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.