The Best Places To Go When You Need A Weekend Away From Atlanta
You can’t really, truly love Atlanta if you don’t get the heck out of town every once in a while to see what you’d be missing living someplace else. Also, you can’t mentally survive the consistently worsening Atlanta traffic and urban sprawl without finding a few new towns not too far away that offer a break from our growing pains. Nobody’s saying you should move (actually, if you moved, it might make my commute better, so maybe), but you should definitely take a weekend road trip soon that offers less big-city crazy and more laid-back relaxation. Here are nine options worth checking out.
Distance from Atlanta: 340 miles northwest; 5 hours, 10 minutes
Even if you’ve been taught to hate Ole Miss, which is understandable for someone in Georgia, you’d be crazy not to consider visiting the amazingly hip town that William Faulkner called home. First, there’s the food, which keeps residents from leaving and critics returning. James Beard Award winner John Currence has built a mini empire of restaurants, including Big Bad Breakfast, Snackbar, and City Grocery (at the latter, there’s a collard green-wrapped Mississippi redfish waiting for your mouth). Currence is also hosting the inaugural Oxford Bourbon Festival in mid-May (get tickets here), where there’ll be bourbon-themed private dinners, tastings, and an auction where you could spend a decade’s worth of vacation money on a bottle of Pappy. Get a room at the Graduate, which opened in 2015 and features funked-out vintage decor, and you’ll be in walking distance of the Ole Miss campus and other local attractions like Square Books, a 10,000-square-foot bookstore that’s always hosting author events and has a great selection of collectible books as well as a second-floor coffee shop.
WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
Distance from Atlanta: 318 miles northeast; 5 hours
That old R.J. Reynolds tobacco money may have helped build this surprisingly laid-back North Carolina city, but these days you’ll enjoy the fresh air, friendly residents, great food, and historic beauty that surrounds this town. Serious fans of upper-class lodging should arrange to stay at Graylyn, which was built in 1932 as the home for Reynolds Tobacco’s chairman. For many years, the historic estate was only available to be used by faculty and staff of Wake Forest University, but its 85 guest rooms are now open to the public. Tour Old Salem for a bewitching look at the town’s serious old-school credibility, then soak up some history at the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel, located in the original Reynolds building, which was the architectural inspiration for the Empire State Building. Aside from the central location and swank rooms, there’s also a top-floor recreation room with bowling, basketball, billiards, shuffleboard, foosball, ping-pong, and card tables. Have coffee at Krankies, then eat breakfast at Mary’s Gourmet Diner (the omelet is unbelievably good), get a phenomenal soul food lunch at Sweet Potatoes (Well Shut My Mouth!!) -- yes, that’s the restaurant’s official name -- then do dinner at Spring House, where chef and Chopped alum Timothy Grandinetti always finds time to meet guests and suggest menu specials. Also, Moravian cookies! You’ll find them everywhere and eat many.
ALYS BEACH, FLORIDA
Distance from Atlanta: 300 miles southwest; 5 hours, 10 minutes
There are beach towns, and then there are beachfront communities like Alys Beach, nestled along the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s panhandle. Purchased in the 1970s by a guy who copped the land at auction and named it after his wife, Alys is a strikingly picturesque example of New Urbanism; its white buildings influenced by the Mediterranean and Moorish architecture of Bermuda, Antigua, and Guatemala line both sides of Florida’s scenic Highway 30A, which passes through the town’s 158 acres. There are just under 30 vacation homes to rent, in the range of $300-$400 per night (or more, if you want to splurge), all of which strictly follow a similarly gorgeous architectural style and are conveniently placed near walkable pathways that lead to parks, pristine swimming pools, the white-sand coastline, and even a 20-acre nature preserve that runs through cypress wetlands. Grab espresso, coffee, pastries, and other breakfast items at Fonville Press; later, hit happy hour at Caliza for cocktails like the Porch Sipper (peach tea-infused whiskey and lemonade) and snacks like burrata sourdough toast; finish off your day with a surf and turf dinner at George’s, which offers seafood charcuterie boards and entrees like certified Angus filets & jerk-crusted gulf snapper with forbidden black rice.
Distance from Atlanta: 250 miles northwest; 4 hours
Nashville is, in many ways, Atlanta’s slower, nicer cousin, where people are genuinely cool and random amazingness can happen at any moment. Obviously, you could ruin it by spending the whole time wandering up and down Broadway or Music Row, but that’d be like taking selfies on Peachtree Street and telling everyone you’ve mastered Atlanta. Everybody loves music, though, so start your visit at Station Inn for bluegrass, or Nashville Jazz Workshop for, well, duh, and leave the country stuff for more touristy types. Nashville’s also got great golf courses, and they’re relatively inexpensive: McCabe is just $13 for nine holes on weekends and its driving range has 27 hitting stations. For more outdoor activity, walk the trails of Radnor Lake State Park near downtown, or go all Man of the Woods at Long Hunter State Park, about a half-hour outside of town. And sure, there are night clubs all around, but real locals will salute you for visiting The Gold Rush, one of the city’s oldest bars, and ordering the kind of drink that has one or two ingredients, with either a bean roll or chicken tenders to soak it up. No, it’s certainly not fancy, but that’s not why you’re here -- it’s real Nashville. Oh, and since you’re coming from ATL, and you know how much we love Nashville’s hot chicken, you might as well taste the real deal at Prince’s -- make no mistake, that’s where this whole thing started. Oh, and pancakes are big in Nashville, but you can actually make your own, right at your table, at The Pfunky Griddle. Or just hit the new location of Sean Brock’s Husk and let the serious professionals handle the cooking.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Distance from Atlanta: 305 miles southeast; 4 hours, 40 minutes
The great thing about Charleston is that you can go again and again, and have different experiences each time. Every visit continues to open up the city far beyond King Street and The Battery (which you should still at least walk through, though, because why the hell wouldn’t you?). Anyway, go on and pay for a nice room at the Francis Marion hotel, located right in the middle of town, which puts you in great position to venture in any direction -- but try to make sure that direction eventually leads to the tasting room at Westbrook Brewing, because everybody needs a good, salty gose now and then. Also, the brewery at Edmund’s Oast is now operational, so go over there and try fruit beers, session IPAs, or much stronger stuff like their 13% ABV Belgian strong ale if it’s pouring. They also have fantastic pizzas, wings, sandwiches, and other snacks. You can always head back to the OG restaurant for more upscale eats, then walk next door to Exchange, their recently-opened shop, to buy bottles for sipping. And, of course, you should go to Husk, because it’s the original location, and also Sean Brock, fried chicken, and everything else. In fact, always ask if there’s a Husk when you’re in a new southern city.
Distance from Atlanta: 84 miles southeast; 1 hour, 15 minutes
Macon is just south of ATL, and you can get there pretty easily once you get past the I-75 South traffic near the perimeter, which is definitely getting worse these days. But once you’re beyond the pressure points, you’ll enjoy knowing that you probably don’t know anybody out here, giving you freedom to do whatever you want: Explore the largest collection of African-American art in the Southeast at the Tubman Museum, watch cool kids getting their kickflip on at Central City Skatepark, visit prehistoric American Indian mounds at Ocmulgee National Monument, and drink fresh pints at Macon Beer Company as well as what’s pouring at Ocmulgee Brewpub. As for hotels, there are plenty of extremely reasonable options, but Burke Mansion is going to be your premium bed and breakfast choice.
Distance from Atlanta: 139 miles south; 2 hours, 25 minutes
Sometimes you just want to get lost in the middle of Georgia, and maybe do a little good and be a little bad. For that there’s Americus, the county seat of Sumter County and a city whose name sounds like a nation where everybody’s country (but in a good way). That way would be through spirits, since Thirteenth Colony Distilleries, maker of award-winning bourbon, rye, and corn whiskey, is located in town. Hit the links at Brickyard Plantation if you’re into golfing, or take the short drive over to Richland Rum distillery to purchase a couple bottles of Georgia-made rum straight from the source, then sample it back at your room at the Windsor Hotel. Americus is also home to Café Campesino, Georgia’s only fair trade, organic coffee company, which artisan-roasts seriously good single origin beans and blends from Honduras, Ethiopia, Peru, and other countries. The company was conceived during a trip to Guatemala organized by Habitat for Humanity, the Americus-based nonprofit that counts President Jimmy Carter, who grew up less than 9 miles from Americus in Plains, Georgia, as a supporter. Carter still leads 10am Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church there about twice a month, which you can actually attend if you plan your trip accordingly and arrive early enough to make it through Secret Service security (no later than 8:30am if you want a good seat). Since we all know the former POTUS will outlive us all, consider this visit another mark on your bucket list.
Distance from Atlanta: 328 miles southwest; 4 hours, 35 minutes
You’ve done New Orleans lots of times, and will probably do it again many more. But if you’ve never hung out in Mobile, it’s actually a pretty great alternative to NOLA. Check into The Admiral Hotel, then get out into the city and visit the Mobile Carnival Museum, which documents the fact that Mobile, not New Orleans, hosted the first Mardi Gras. Bayou La Batre, the hometown of Bubba from Forrest Gump, is a 30-minute drive away; take a selfie in front of the shrimping boats, then head back to Mobile’s Southern National. That’s where you’ll find chef Duane Nutter, who left Atlanta’s One Flew South in 2016 to start his own restaurant here on Dauphin Street, plus dishes like fried lobster tail, chicken schnitzel, thyme-smoked pork belly, and more. You know what else connects Mobile to ATL? Hank Aaron, who grew up here and whose childhood home is now a museum where you can learn more about the upbringing and family life of the groundbreaking Hall of Famer.
AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA
Distance from Atlanta: 356 miles southeast; 5 hours, 5 minutes
Watching wild horses run free on the beach of nearby Cumberland Island, Georgia, is just beautiful. Get over to this Florida barrier island and see them for yourself (from the safe distance of a boating trip). You can also spend your time here fishing for redfish, trout, or flounder in the island’s saltwater estuaries, flats, and inlets on a charter trip with Amelia Angler. As for the sand, it’s natural Appalachian quartz, with dunes as high as 40 feet in some places; you can hike or bike to the largest ones along the six-mile trail through Fort Clinch State Park. Dine on seafood at Oceanside, one of Amelia’s best beachside restaurants, and sip on local vodka and rum at Marlin & Barrel distillery. You can also learn to play Pétanque, a French game that’s like a combination of horseshoes, bowling, and bocce ball. The Four-Diamond, 1,350-acre Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort or The Ritz-Carlton are both excellent lodging choices, with the latter’s fantastic Lobby Bar offering a Smoked Old Fashioned and well-stocked humidor that you shouldn’t miss. While you’re there, have dinner at Salt, whose seasonal menu changes weekly but always features 500-plus wines. The restaurant also uses a collection of salts from around the globe, which you can purchase in the gift shop to remind you later how salty you are at having to leave.