The 10 best day trips from Atlanta

When Atlanta locals want a quick getaway, they often look to north Georgia for respite. Driving to most of the small towns or state parks at the base of the Appalachian mountains will take two hours or less, and makes for a nice change of air. But you don’t even have to go that far to get away – there are lesser-known spots on the outskirts of Atlanta’s metro area that can still make you feel like you’re a world away.

If you’re looking for a day trip outside of the ATL, most of these cities will be easier to reach with a vehicle – one of the downsides of the Atlanta metro is its dependence on cars. But some of Atlanta’s commuter cities have enough to see and do to fill a day and then some, so the journey’s always worth it. No matter the distance, here are 10 day trips from Atlanta that you can experience with a drive that’s two hours or less.

1. Get outdoors at the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Site 

Travel time: 25 minutes

Metro-Atlanta’s best kept secret for hiking is Arabia Mountain, a former granite rock quarry that’s now a National Heritage Site. Observe wildflowers breaking through cracks in the hard granite surface as you hike on a landscape that some say mimics the surface of the moon; the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Site also encompasses the metro area’s only monastery. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit is a community of monks who have lived off the land since 1944, even building their own church, and visitors are welcome to walk the property to enjoy quiet reflection. End your visit with a stop at the restaurants and small businesses in downtown Lithonia, where the buildings and sidewalks were constructed from local granite quarries.

How to get to Arabia Mountain from Atlanta:

Public transportation will take you within about 2.5 miles of the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Site. Take Marta’s Blue train line to its easternmost stop, then catch the 116 Redan Road bus to its final stop at Stonecrest Mall. From there, walk 30 minutes on the paved PATH trail to the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Center.

Dive into farm-focused good cooking at The Marietta Local © Shutterstock / Jeri Bland

2. Bring an appetite to Marietta

Travel time: 25 minutes

The Chattahoochee River is the life force of metro Atlanta – it’s the source of water in our homes – but locals also appreciate “the ‘Hooch” for its recreational opportunities. Head to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area outside of Marietta to hike the East Palisades Trail that follows the bank of the river. Keep an eye out for the elusive bamboo forest, a favorite photo spot for locals. 

After you’ve worked up an appetite on the trail, head to downtown Marietta – the town is bustling with local businesses and restaurants, and it’s the perfect place to go on a food tour (or design one of your own). Make sure you don’t miss the modern American dishes at Spring and the farm-to-table classics at The Marietta Local. End your visit with a stroll around Marietta Square, a park with a central fountain that’s perfect for people-watching.

How to get to Marietta from Atlanta:

Take Marta’s gold train line to the Arts Center Station, and then transfer to a CobbLinc RAPID bus heading north to the Marietta Transfer Center. 

3. Learn about Indigenous and natural history in Cartersville

Travel time: 45 minutes

Visit a historic town of the Muscogee people at the Etowah Mounds State Historic Site – here you’ll see where the town’s chief lived, where the community held religious ceremonies and where they buried their dead. The park has a trail that weaves through the mounds and then follows the Etowah River. 

Learn more about the natural history of Cartersville and Georgia at the Tellus Science Museum – check out the planetarium and a children’s exhibit that’s a hit for toddlers and teens alike. Finish your visit with a trip to Cartersville’s historic downtown, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Grab a southern meal at Table 20, known for its hyper-seasonal menu, and then cross South Museum Drive to see the Coca-Cola mural, the world’s first outdoor advertisement for Coke.

How to get to Cartersville from Atlanta:

Public transportation doesn’t go from Atlanta all the way to Cartersville. The closest stop is in Acworth, about 15 miles south of Cartersville. There are companies that offer private tours with round trip stops between Cartersville and Atlanta.

A creek cuts down a hillside along a wooden staircase in Amicalola Falls State Park
Revel in the natural beauty on display in Amicalola Falls State Park © Shutterstock / JayL

4. Explore the North Georgia mountains in Dahlonega

Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

The country’s first gold rush wasn’t out west to California, but down south to the mountain town of Dahlonega in 1849. Today, visitors can learn about that history at the Gold Museum, or even tour an old gold mine. When you’re ready to enjoy the natural beauty of the north Georgia mountains, head to Amicalola Falls State Park. The park has one of the region’s most popular hiking trails, an easy hike to Georgia’s tallest waterfall. Before you head back to Atlanta, check out some of Georgia’s best agritourism sites: B.J. Reece Orchards is a favorite apple-picking farm with a farm store, plus hayrides and a massive trampoline for kids to enjoy amidst the rolling hills of north Georgia. 

How to get to Dahlonega from Atlanta:

Dahlonega is too far north of Atlanta to reach it by public transportation, so you’ll have to drive and hire a private tour company to take you. 

5. Move to the music in Macon

Travel time: 1 and 25 minutes

Macon is the hometown of iconic musicians including Otis Redding, Little Richard and the Allman Brothers, and this city in middle Georgia is the perfect place to get into the state’s music history. Start with a quick tour of the Douglass Theatre, one of the few remaining venues from the Chitlin’ Circuit of the early 20th century, and then cross MLK Boulevard to visit the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Capture the sound of southern rock at the Museum at Capricorn, then step into Studio A where Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers recorded music. Grab lunch at H&H Restaurant, a favorite soul food stop of the Allman Brothers, where you’ll want to save room for dessert.

How to get to Macon from Atlanta:

If you’d rather not drive through unpredictable traffic on I-75, there are several private bus companies that offer roundtrip rides between Atlanta and Macon.

Drone Aerial of Downtown Chattanooga TN Skyline, Coolidge Park and Market Street Bridge
Dive into outdoor and cultural adventures in Chattanooga © Getty Images/iStockphoto

6. Get to know Chattanooga from the inside out

Travel time: 1 hour and 45 minutes

Visiting Chattanooga could easily fill a weekend, especially for outdoor enthusiasts who want to take advantage of all the great hiking options around and just outside of town. But if you only have a day to spare, start with a ride that’s especially popular with kids, the Incline Railway route up Lookout Mountain. Next, take a cavern tour at Ruby Falls, unless you’re uncomfortable in tight spaces – there are some sections in the cavern where tour groups have to squeeze by each other. Round out your day trip by learning about Chattanooga’s old Big Nine district, which was once a music destination that was on par with Memphis’ Beale Street.

How to get to Chattanooga from Atlanta:

Driving is the easiest way to get to Chattanooga from Atlanta, but there are bus companies that have roundtrip options for a day trip.

5. Enjoy the museums and gardens of Athens

Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

The oldest public university in the country, the University of Georgia is a big part of Athens, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Start your visit to the Classic City with a stroll through UGA’s north campus, the most historic and picturesque part of the university. If you see people walking around the wrought-iron arch that connects campus to downtown Athens, know that they’re following the superstition that it’s bad luck to walk underneath it before graduation.

While downtown, make sure you stop by the Georgia Theatre, which has hosted live shows from famous Athens artists like R.E.M., Widespread Panic and The B-52’s. Stop by the Georgia Museum of Art to examine more than 18,000 pieces of art in its permanent exhibit, then enjoy the beauty of nature with a walk through the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

How to get to Athens from Atlanta:

There’s no public transportation to go between these two cities, but Greyhound and Megabus both offer roundtrip routes.

7. Enjoy a day on the water at Lake Oconee

Travel time: 1 hour and 19 minutes

Although Lake Lanier is the most popular lake in Georgia, Lake Oconee near Eatonton is the second largest lake in the state, and it’s ideal for a more leisurely day trip. Boat and jet ski rentals are available, but if you prefer to be near the lake rather than on it, the area has great spots for bird watching and sunbathing too. Once you get your fill of Vitamin D, visit the Georgia Writers Museum to learn about famous Georgia writers including Eatonton’s own Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple. Finish the day by checking out Rock Eagle, a bird-shaped stone effigy made by Native Americans about 2,000 years ago.

How to get to Lake Oconee from Atlanta:

Public transportation doesn’t reach Lake Oconee from Atlanta, but there are private tour companies that you can book to travel between the two cities.

9. Race and relax near Braselton

Travel time: 45 minutes

The closest winery to Atlanta is Braselton’s Chateau Elan, and visiting the 3,500-acre property makes for a relaxing getaway. Stroll by the muscadine grape vineyards and enjoy the many different wines they make on the property. When you’re ready to dial up the excitement, visit Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, which is within earshot of the winery. It’s known as one of the best road courses, and hosts events such as Motul Petit Le Mans and Drift Atlanta. If you don’t come for the cars, stay for the groundhogs who live near the track and occasionally poke their heads out to get a glimpse of the action.

How to get to Braselton from Atlanta:

Public transportation from Atlanta doesn’t reach Braselton, so if you’d like to avoid driving, you’ll need to hire a private transportation service.

10. Get a European vibe in Helen

Travel time: 1 hours and 35 minutes

People visit Helen when they don’t want to travel far, but they want to feel like they did. Walking along Helen’s cobblestone-lined streets feels like you’re walking through a tiny village in the south of Germany, partly thanks to the fact that the city goes all out for its Oktoberfest celebrations. Visit The Troll Tavern and Cafe International for traditional German bratwurst and schnitzels. Before you leave this Bavarian-style mountain town, take a thrill ride on the Georgia Mountain Coaster, the state’s only alpine coaster.

How to get to Helen from Atlanta:

Public transportation doesn’t extend from Atlanta to the north Georgia mountains, but there are several private tour companies that offer transportation. Some companies offer wine tours that take visitors to Helen and its nearby wineries. 

Keep planning your trip to Atlanta:

Build out your itinerary with these top 15 things to do in Atlanta
Keep your budget in line with these free things to do 
Get oriented with this guide to Atlanta’s best neighborhoods

This article was first published Aug 28, 2020 and updated Jun 14, 2024.

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