Travel just two hours north of Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States by car to reach the Bavarian town of Helen. Helen is a tourist town that celebrates its history as a Native American cultural region, a center of the gold rush that began when gold was discovered in Georgia in 1828, a railroad town in the early 1900’s, and its eventual redesign as a Bavarian village. Beyond its cultural heritage, visitors travel to Helen for its natural beauty and outdoor activities, including river rafting and tubing; to visit wineries and antique stores in and near Helen; and to enjoy this taste of Germany in Georgia, especially during the annual Oktoberfest in the fall. Listen to the accompanying podcast by clicking on the link at the bottom of this post.
Native American Settlers
In order to appreciate all the Helen has to offer, it helps to know a little about the history of the town. The first settlers were Native Americans. Evidence of the early Native Americans can be seen just two miles outside of the city limits of Helen at the intersection of Georgia State Route 17 and Georgia State Route 75. (See Point A on the pictured map or on the Helen, Georgia, map at walkli.com.)
At this site, a Native American burial mound was found with artifacts dating to 1350 to 1600 AD. Unfortunately, the Native Americans were forced out of Georgia during the Trail of Tears in the early 1800’s.
North Georgia Gold Rush
Gold was discovered in north Georgia in 1828. This brought an influx of settlers to the area. Thousands of pounds of gold were mined in the area before the mines were depleted. One of these miners, John Martin, built a large three-story home in 1876 at what is now the Nacoochee Village Antique Mall, located about ½ mile outside the city limits of Helen. The mall, Map Point B, is open daily.
John Martin also established the gristmill, the Nora Mill Granary (Map Point C) across the street from his home. The mill is still in business today. Inside the mill, visitors can purchase stone ground grits, north Georgia honey, and many specialty items.
Behind the granary, visitors can step out on the deck to see the waterfall. Look down below the deck to see the original French Burr Mill Stone and vertical water turbine instead of a typical water wheel style mill.
Across the street from the granary, sharing a large parking lot with the Nacoochee Village Antique Mall, is the Habersham Winery (Map Point D). The tasting room is open daily. It features a large selection of Georgia wines, gourmet foods and specialty items.
After the gold rush died out in north Georgia in the late 1800s, the settlers built a sawmill and began cutting the large amounts of timber in the area. Railroads came through in the early 1900’s to haul away the timber to sell throughout the United States and to send overseas to Europe. The railroad surveyor’s daughter was named Helen, and the town got its name from her in 1913. Over time, all of the virgin timber was cut and the sawmill ceased operations.
Tourists still pan for gold today at several locations in Helen. Sometimes, they are rewarded with a small gem or tiny flecks of gold. One of these sites is located just inside the city limits of Helen on Highway 75. See Map Point E.
After the gold mining and timber industries left the area there was little to draw residents or visitors to Helen. So, in the late 1960’s, business owners decided to revitalize the town. They hired an artist, who had been stationed in Germany, to help redesign the town. He sketched the buildings with gingerbread trim and added details and colors to give the town an Alpine look.
Bavarian Helen, Georgia
Helen’s business owners embraced the idea of a Bavarian town. Today all downtown stores have been renovated and many buildings have been added to make Helen a Bavarian oasis in the middle of north Georgia’s beautiful natural surroundings.
The natural surroundings offer many opportunities for enjoying the Chattahoochee River that runs through the town, including floating down the river on tubes, zip lining, and fishing. Most of the tubing locations are located on Edelweiss Strasse alongside the river in a park area with available picnic tables, a pedestrian bridge over the river, and plenty of public parking across the street. (See Map Point F.)
Oktoberfest in Bavarian Helen, Georgia
As the Bavarian city has grown, Helen has gradually transformed itself into one of Georgia’s most popular tourist towns. The biggest celebration is Oktoberfest. In 2018, Helen will celebrate its 48th Oktober fest from September 6 through October 28, 2018. The official location is in Helen’s Festhalle (Map Poing G), but festivities and special celebrations are held at shops and restaurants throughout the town. Enjoy German music, food, drinks and dancing, including waltzes and polkas!
Continue walking on Edelweiss Strassse with the Chattahoochee River on your right and turn left on Chattahoochee Strasse. Walk about two blocks to reach the Helen Arts and Heritage Center (Map Point H) on the right. The Arts Center is a local non-profit art gallery, pottery studio, history museum, and art educational facility. Art is available for sale, as well. It is open Monday through Saturday from noon until 4:00 pm. Admission is free. Check the website for the latest updates here:
Shopping in Helen, Georgia
The main shopping area of town offers antique shops, specialty shops, and typical souvenir shops. Zu-Zu’s Petals (Map Point I) is a specialty shop selling gemstones, salt crystal lamps, and jewelry. They also sell Zu-Zu’s ginger snap tins that were sold by the National Biscuit Company, now Nabisco. Many people remember the youngest daughter in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who was named Zu Zu and nicknamed, “Ginger Snap”.
The next shop is Windmill Dutch Imports. All of the souvenirs and food items sold here are imported directly from Holland.
The courtyard in front of Windmill Dutch Imports is one of the busiest places in Helen, right in the center of town. During festivals and on many weekends, there is free live music here at King Ludwig’s Biergarten on Main Street. (Map Point J)
On the same side of the main street as the beer garden, keep walking to the right. Pass Unicoi Hill park on the right. The park is located on a small hill that looks beautiful lit up with holiday lights in winter.
Hofer’s Bakery is just past the park on the right. Bakery items include fresh baked German breads and bakery items that can be shipped worldwide. (Map Point K)
A large windmill overlooks the town just a bit farther down the main road.
Cross the road when you reach the Hofbrauhaus. You may want to stop at the restaurant for traditional German food and beer overlooking the Chattahoochee River. (Map Point L)
Walk back on Main Street toward the center of town. Stop in the year-round Christmas Shoppe at Map Point M if you are looking for specialty ornaments or Christmas decorations.
The first two weekends in December host an outdoor Christkindlmarkt directly in the center of town (Map Stop N). Vendors sell traditional Bavarian foods and souvenirs, as well as items from the north Georgia area.
Continue walking past the center of town. You will probably see at least one horse and carriage available to take you on a ride around town waiting patiently on the first street corner on the right at Map Stop O.
Continue walking along Main Street, and walk below the bridge for a great view of the river. (Map Stop P) There is a bench under the river where you can rest and watch people float down the river in the spring and summer.
Walk back up the ramp and turn right to cross the pedestrian bridge over the river (Map Stop Q). Paul’s Steakhouse on the other side of the river on the right overlooks the river. It opens daily at 4 pm, and serves the best steaks and seafood in town.
For a more casual dining experience, enjoy Paul’s indoor/outdoor Margarita Deck overlooking the river. It offers more casual food, drinks, and live music daily beginning at 2 pm. Check the current menus and operating information for Paul’s here.
If you decide you would like to stay in Helen, there are a number of mid-range hotels, mostly disguised as Bavarian buildings. The Hampton Inn has balcony rooms overlooking the river.
There are also many Alpine chalets and a luxury lodge and golf club that offer additional accommodations. In all, it is a great place for a perfect day or a perfect weekend!
For more information about celebrations in Helen, check out the Chamber of Commerce calendar here:
If you love Bavaria, as I do, you may want to check out my two podcasts featuring Munich and a Munich day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.
For more information and a special bonus story about tubing down the river, click on my podcast link below. Here is a picture of my husband’s ring that he mentions in the podcast:
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Until next time, I hope all your travel days are just perfect!