7 Reasons to Drive to Madison, Georgia

Dude ranches, must-hit stops on Georgia's Antebellum Trail, exciting annual festivals, and more await visitors in this underrated East Georgia town.

Georgia's Antebellum Trail in Madison, Georgia
Georgia's Antebellum Trail in Madison, Georgia | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Georgia's Antebellum Trail in Madison, Georgia | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Gas prices are finally starting to go down a bit, so now is the perfect time to go on a mini road trip. While we can’t stress just how much we love Atlanta, it doesn’t hurt to get out of the city and explore the rest of Georgia every once in a while, whether that means heading north for Blue Ridge or Helen or hitting 85 South to visit LaGrange. On the off-chance that you’ve already heeded our advice and hit all of those places, don’t worry because we’ve got another low-key destination ready for you: Madison, Georgia.

Located about 60 miles east of Atlanta, this small, picturesque spot is widely touted as the town that General Sherman refused to burn during the Civil War. While the history of the area’s preservation is a bit more complicated than Sherman randomly deciding to spare it on his historic fiery destruction of Atlanta, it is the key to why Madison looks so vintage. The city—which sits in the Atlanta-Athens-Clarke-Sandy Springs Combined Statistical Area—is renowned for its brilliantly preserved Antebellum architecture, and it also boasts an impressive amount of art and cultural attractions. With unique lodging options, year-round events, and plenty of open-air activities also on Madison’s brag sheet, you won’t regret making that one-hour drive. Here are all of the reasons why you need to pack your bags and drive over to Madison, Georgia at once.

Southern Cross Guest Ranch
Southern Cross Guest Ranch

It’s the perfect place for a relaxing getaway

Once you arrive in Madison, you’ll immediately feel like you somehow traveled back in time. Its gorgeous historic architecture and Southern charm will leave you speechless, and fortunately, its lodging options are just as inviting. There’s the Brady Inn—an 1885 Victorian bed and breakfast that’s both nostalgic and cozy with modern amenities—for those looking for the true Madison experience. If you want to enjoy a more luxurious stay, however, look no further than the James Madison Inn & Conference Center, a lavish four-star hotel in the historic Madison district. For an even more unique lodging option, consider staying at the local dude ranch—Southern Cross Guest Ranch—where you can rest up in an elevated guest ranch and maybe even do some horseback riding too. Regardless of where you choose to stay while visiting, you’ll definitely find serenity in Madison, and just in case you need a little more time to yourself, check out two of the local spas—ZEN Relaxing Wellness Center and Pure Bliss Spa & Shop.

Steffen Thomas Museum of Art
Steffen Thomas Museum of Art

There’s so much rich history and culture there

One of the main reasons why Madison is one of Georgia’s most important tourist locations is because it has been able to successfully preserve much of its history over the last century-and-a-half. When visiting, you’ll be in awe of its classic Antebellum architecture, especially when it comes to historical buildings like Heritage Hall, Rogers House, Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, and Rose Cottage—all of which are popular stops along Georgia's Antebellum Trail and open for tours daily. The community in Madison also has a rich arts and culture scene, and you can get acquainted with countless local artists—as well as attend special social events and take an art class or two—by visiting the Madison Artists Guild Gallery & MAGallery. You can also extend your foray into Madison’s arts and culture by exploring the Morgan County African-American Museum, the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center’s permanent exhibitions, the nearby Steffen Thomas Museum of Art in Buckhead (Buckhead, Georgia, not Buckhead Atlanta), and the Madison Historic Cemeteries, which are locally known as “Madison’s oldest Art Museum” for its ornate grave art.

It’s one of Georgia’s most notable filming locations

Over the last several years, Atlanta has practically become the Hollywood of the east coast, but the state’s capital isn’t the only Georgia city that’s been getting love from movies and TV shows. Madison also has been the filming location for countless film projects, including Selma, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Live, Little Darlings, and more recently, movies like Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and American Made. While you’re visiting, take yourself on a cinephile-friendly self-guided tour through Madison’s coolest film locations, from Morgan County Courthouse (Goosebumps and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II) to Bonar Hall (The Originals and Vampire Diaries).

Visit Madison, GA
Madison-Morgan Meander | Visit Madison, GA

There are plenty of fun outdoor activities

If you’re looking for something to do, there’s no shortage of fun outdoor and open-air activities. Guests staying at the Southern Cross Guest Ranch can kill two birds with one stone by going horseback riding on one of the attraction’s daily trail rides, and even if you decide to go with another one of Madison’s cozy lodging options, you can still schedule a ride at the ranch here. Those looking to fish or go boating on the Apalachee River can hit up Apalachee Bait Shop, and if you’d rather go on a waterfront adventure featuring a smaller body of water, the Hard Labor Creek State Park is just 15 minutes northwest of Madison. Cyclists—or anyone who’s down for a breezy, carefree car ride—can enjoy the Madison-Morgan Meander, while walkers and joggers can explore a beautiful scenic path at Round Bowl Spring Park. After you visit Madison and fall in love with its gorgeous outdoor scenery, go ahead and plan another trip for next year because the highly anticipated Georgia Safari Conservation Park will open up there in the fall of 2023.

Ricardo's Kouzzina
Ricardo's Kouzzina

Madison also has a nice selection of restaurants and bars

Rest assured, there will also be plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from when you visit Madison. For a quick and fresh meal, you can grab breakfast and lunch from the cafe at Farmview Market, and you can also head over to the deli at Madison Produce. If you’re a die-hard barbecue lover, Crowe’s Open Air Bar-B-Que has you covered, and if you’re not yet sure what you want to eat, you’ll undoubtedly find something appetizing from Town 220 Restaurant and Ricardo’s Kouzzina’s vast seafood, pasta, and steak offerings. Madison is also the home of the original Amici Italian Cafe—which has some pretty killer wings, pizzas, and calzones—but if you’re craving some delicious and more elevated Italian cuisine, look no further than Dolce Caffe. Lastly, it wouldn’t be a proper getaway without a bar or two, so when you’re ready to (responsibly) have a drink or two, hit up The Sinclair and Hart And Crown Tavern—which both have a nice selection of beer, wine, and signature cocktails to choose from.

Visit Madison, GA
Saturday in the Park | Visit Madison, GA

Downton Madison has exciting events and festivals year-round

Regardless of when you plan on visiting Madison, there’s bound to be something fun happening once you get there. The Downtown Madison area is known for hosting several festivals, concerts, and community events throughout the year, and most of them are free. In April, the community comes together to celebrate the arrival of spring at the annual Madison Fest, and in July, local music lovers head to Town Park for the two-day Firefly Festival. Once summer is over, there’s Saturday in the Park, a fun BYOB dance party at Town Park, and later in the fall, there’s the epic, mouth-watering Chili Cook-Off & Fall Festival. Downtown Madison also hosts a free holiday parade and Caroling By Candlelight event in December, which is perfect for families or couples looking for a romantic winter getaway. Whenever you hit the road to visit Madison, just make sure you check here for the most up-to-date information on all of the happenings in the downtown area.

Athens, Georgia
Athens, Georgia | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

You’re less than 30 miles away from Athens

While Madison, Georgia is most certainly cool enough on its own to merit a road trip there, you can’t overlook the fact that it’s also pretty close to another one of the undisputed best cities in the state: Athens. The two Eastern Georgia cities are less than 30 miles away from each other, so you’ll be able to take advantage of that close proximity and go on a fun detour to a college town filled with fun activities, breweries, and more. While you’re there, make sure you check out our guide to all of the fun things to do in Athens, too.

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Joshua Robinson is an Atlanta-based contributor for Thrillist.