With so much to do in Atlanta, it’s hard to need a reason to venture outside the perimeter —much less beyond the horizon of the surrounding cities. Fortunately for those looking to explore away from the hustle and bustle of in-town ATL, we’ve got a healthy mix of day trips for all. From some of our favorite nearby cities and stunning state parks to more off-beat destinations, there’s something here for everyone.

Athens, GA

Drive time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Definitely already on many Atlantans’ radars, Athens is definitely worth a (re)visit. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the collegiate exuberance, buzzing downtown and always grooving music scene. Start downtown, an area bedecked with bars and shops aplenty, and work your way from there. Find unique reads at Avid Bookshop, a cold beer at Creature Comforts Brewing Co., or walk along Firefly Trail, a converted railroad track in town. We love lunch at The National for Mediterranean fare with a menu driven by local Georgia produce, or World Famous for anything from fried green tomatoes to pork buns and lettuce wraps. There are so many spots to choose from, finding a good bite to eat isn’t hard. If you can, try to see a show somewhere while you are in town, even if it turns your day trip into a weekend getaway (we’ve got an extensive weekend itinerary here.)

We promised day trips, but it’s hard to visit Athens without catching some local tunes before you leave. We love catching a show on the Georgia Theatre rooftop. Image: Eileen Schaeffer

Though we feel Athens’ quaint vibe is a major plus, there’s no shortage of pubs, museums, bookstores and more to capture your attention for a day (or two!) Image: Lindsay Ferrier

Chattanooga, TN

Drive time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Spin the compass in the other direction, and head north to Chattanooga. This riverside city nestled in the mountains is as picturesque as it is full of activities. Check out the 13 miles of the Riverwalk, stroll around the Southside and scout out restaurants and shops, or make a stop at the Hunter Museum of American Art. The Tennessee Aquarium is also one of the best, so whether you’ve got a gaggle of kids to entertain or not, it’s an incredible experience. For a great meal, check out The Bitter Alibi, a local fave that serves mean cocktails and an eclectic menu as well, or head over to the North Shore and get your meat on at Beast and Barrel. If you have time and a sunny day in front of you, taking a spin up the Incline Railway is a little touristy but really beautiful. Most importantly, make sure your Chattanooga visit involves at least a little outdoor time. Whether you bop from shop to shop or actually get out on the water —we hear the cycleboats are actually super fun— Chattanooga is as scenic as they come. For a few more tips on the outdoor activities, shopping, festivals and more that Chattanooga has to offer, be sure to take an in-depth look here.

When in Chattanooga, spending time along the river is a must! Image: Nooga.com

Helen, GA

Drive time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

If you’re looking for something a little smaller but with just as much personality, try Helen, GA. This Bavarian village tops many Georgians’ lists of day trip destinations due to it’s unforgettable charm and photo-worthy views. On a day with warmer temps, your best bet to cool off after taking in the sights of the town is to hop in a tube and meander down the crystal headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. Those without swim trunks should explore the Nacoochee Indian Mound, the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, or sip their way through the many vineyards and wine tours available. Hiking through the Unicoi State Park wouldn’t be a bad idea either — the  twin waterfalls of the Anna Ruby Falls can be accessed through the park. After a jam-packed itinerary of your choosing, it’s probably best to stay on theme and refuel with some of the hearty German fare Helen has to offer. Bodensee Restaurant comes highly recommended, and there are several sampler platters that offer a variety of wursts, potato salad, spaetzle and sauerkraut for the full experience. For more casual ambiance, Hofer’s is a German-style bakery and biergarten serving all of the German hits and some incredible baked goods as well. You may want to grab a couple of freshly baked pretzels for the road! The Alpine architecture, Blue Ridge Mountains, museums and more make Helen an idyllic day-long escape — though we wouldn’t blame anyone for opting for a longer visit.

The Bavarian vibe of Helen is something everyone should experience! Image: Juliana Freeman

Providence Canyon State Park — Lumpkin, GA

Drive time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

A hike in Providence Canyon State Park, known as “The Little Grand Canyon,” will make you feel like you’ve traveled more than just a few hours from Atlanta. Over 1,000 acres containing numerous sandstone canyons and more than 10 miles of hiking trails make this the perfect day trip for the outdoor enthusiast. The craggy landscape was sadly created due to irresponsible farming practices in the 1800s, with runoff carving vast gullies through the soft Georgia sandstone. However, today it is one of Georgia’s most beloved state parks and a unique hiking experience from what you will find in much of the Southeast. Find the trail that’s the right level for you, pack a picnic and head on down.

That lighting on the sandstone is breathtaking. Image: Leslie Peterson

Not your average view! More than 10 miles of hiking trails make Providence Canyon the perfect day trip for the outdoor enthusiast. Image: Lou Kellenberger Photography

Paradise Garden — Summerville, GA

Drive time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

One of our more unusual destinations is Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia. An elaborate garden created by folk artist Howard Finster, every inch of the grounds are bejeweled with found objects, glass, mirrors, beads, marbles and painted works. Thousands of sculptures and art adorn windows, walls, entire buildings, mountains of ancient bicycles and more. The creation of the gardens is attributed to Finkler’s visions he reported being sent from above. The devout artist created nearly 50,000 works of art in his lifetime, and the prolific nature of his artistic journey can be easily seen on every surface of the gardens themselves. A surprise, post-gardens lunch find is The Vineyard, a vegan and vegetarian café and juice bar offering a seriously flavorful menu with rotating favorites — the perfect stop before the drive back home.

The mirrored, elevated room is one of our favorite parts of the garden. Inside, floor, ceiling and walls are adorned with mirrors. You’ll feel like you’re standing on nothing, and it makes for a great selfie!

Everywhere you turn on the grounds there are expressive works of art and quirkily rendered biblical verses and quotes from Finkler himself. You could seriously spend hours here.

Etowah Indian Mounds — Cartersville, GA

Drive time: 50 minutes

Our quickest jaunt from Atlanta takes us to the Etowah Indian Mounds, a partially excavated and well preserved architectural site. History buffs can view the six earthen mounds, the ancient plaza and village site and more. Artifacts on display in the museum paint a picture of the rich culture of the Mississippian people — the site is one of the best preserved Native American cultural sites in the Southeast. A serene nature trail following the Etowah River is the perfect spot to take in the sights and also see a replica of the type of V-shaped trap used to catch fish.

Amicalola Falls State Park — Dawsonville, GA

Drive time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Our final destination is yet another Georgia state park. Can you sense a trend? Georgia is beautiful! Amicalola Falls State Park is truly the perfect quick hiking getaway from Atlanta. Just an hour and a half away, the 800+-acre park is filled with numerous trails, a stocked reflecting pool for the anglers and the tallest cascades east of the Mississippi River. The name Amicalola, which is Cherokee for tumbling waters, is more than appropriate. Those searching for a little more than just a hike, might want to check out the zip line as well. Don’t forget this stunner of a state park — pack a lunch, throw on some hiking shoes, and take advantage of this easy escape from the busy Atlanta streets!

Enjoy your day, wherever your adventures lead.


Find more amazing travel destinations — for day trips and beyond — in our travel section