Athens, GA is a college town that loves the Bulldogs. But, there’s way more to this ‘burg than football Saturdays, especially if you love music.
A Short History
Native Americans have lived in the area now known as Athens for centuries, perhaps dating back 1,000 years. When Europeans landed in present day Georgia, tribes of native peoples were spread throughout the area. White Europeans called these people Creek because they lived near waterways.
Disease killed 90% of the native population and broken treaties as well as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 resulted in most Native Americans being killed or forcibly removed to land west of the Mississippi River.
In 1785, the Georgia Assembly chartered the University of Georgia. By the early 1800’s Athens was a hub for the manufacture of textiles. Nearby plantations, bolstered by the use of forced African labor, supplied the raw cotton to the textile factories of Athens. By the start of the Civil War, African slaves made up almost half the population of Clarke county. In the whole of the county there was only one free black person in all of Athens. During the war, Athens mills churned out uniforms for the Confederacy.
Athens escaped relatively unscathed during the war, no major battles were fought here. After the war, African Americans flocked to Athens and a significant black middle class emerged.
Spurred by the University, Athens grew quickly throughout the 20th century. In the 1970’s & 80’s, Athens was a cultural hotbed, especially in the DIY, indie music scene. Bands like the B-52s, R.E.M., and Widespread Panic gained national attention. Later, artists like Danger Mouse and Drive-By-Truckers got their start in Athens. The 40 Watt Club, which opened in 1979, is famous for being the place where many of these bands honed their early performing chops. The venue still hosts shows in Athens.
Being a college town, Athens is flush with places for vegetarians and the veg-curious to eat
You wouldn’t expect to find a good Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant in the same Georgia strip mall as a lingerie shop and a plasma donation center. But, there it is, sitting in an unassuming spot in Athens; Mannaweenta.
Named for the owner’s daughter and meaning “food you desire,” Mannaweenta serves traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean food like Yemmiser Wot and Atakilt Alitcha. My favorite dish is Ater Alitcha made from yellow split peas, vegetables and spices (garlic, ginger, curry powder, and herbs). The way to enjoy it is to take a piece of Injera (spongy Ethiopian flatbread) and use it to scoop up the Ater Alitcha. If you’re not a fan of Injera, you can order your veggies with rice instead.
Mannaweenta isn’t exclusively vegetarian; they have several meat dishes on the menu. But, if you are vegetarian, all the vegetable dishes are vegan.
Mannaweenta also makes legit Ethiopian coffee (for only two bucks!). Know that Ethiopian coffee is strong (not espresso strong, but still, quite strong). Sugar is served with the coffee, which is traditional in Ethiopian coffee, but I like it straight. Manaweenta makes the coffee to order, even grinding the beans themselves. So, don’t expect your coffee to come out quickly like in a coffee shop. In fact, we order the coffee with our meal and it usually shows up when we’re finishing up, so it’s a good idea to get some tea or water or something else to drink while you’re eating. For us, it works out perfectly because we get to sip some coffee after our meal. Also, don’t guzzle down the last little bit or you might swallow the sentiment at the bottom of the cup; that’s the way Ethiopian coffee is made.
The Grit is the grande dame of vegetarian dining in Athens. Kate Pierson of the B-52s is a fan. Michael Stipe is rumored to be a co-owner. And, 40 Watt Club owner Barrie Buck recommends it to musicians playing the venue looking for a good meal.
The atmosphere is super caj with an open dining area inside the renovated industrial brick building and a few tables outside by the busy street.
The menu at The Grit is solid. Anything with the tofu cubes is good (lots of nutritional yeast!). I like the vegan rueben, too. There’s also a daily specials board with interesting items.
The service can be hit or miss. But, that’s to be expected. After all, most of the waitstaff are students or musicians and some can (on occasion) seem disinterested. UPDATE: After almost 40 years, The Grit closed for good at the end of 2022. Very sad.
Drinking in Athens
With 40,000 students staying up late to, *cough* study *cough* the morning arrives awfully early. Luckily, Athens is blessed with lots of good places to get a jolt of caffeine.
Jittery Joe’s is a local institution. Their first location was next to the 40 Watt Club, so local musicians like R.E.M’s Michael Stipe often stopped by. JJ’s roast their own beans daily in a Quonset hut on Barber Street and have several locations in town. This location often hosts pop up events and food trucks.
Jittery Joe’s also supplies their beans to several other local coffee shops like Donderos‘, where you can get some pre-packaged food, including lots of vegan/vegetarian offerings.
Other good spots that roast their own beans include 1000 Faces Coffee and Sweet Spot Coffee.
But, one thing I’ve notice not just in Athens but all over the South is that espresso is a no-go. Sure, almost every coffee place offers it, but it’s always disappointing. I’ve yet to have a shot of espresso anywhere in Georgia that isn’t bitter and sour (a result of not grinding the beans fine enough and extracting too long). That said, get a cup of coffee and you’ll be happy.
Athens sports a fine selection of breweries and craft beer bars. My top choice is Creature Comforts, as much for the atmosphere as the beer itself. Housed in a former tire shop, the space still has vestiges of this past like the Michelin sign on the roof.
Creature Comforts has a full range of beers. Some of my favorites include the Nitro Stout and the Seven Year Anniversary Blend which is also a stout but aged in whiskey barrels with coffee and maple syrup added. It has quite a kick and you really get the flavor of the whiskey from the barrels.
Terrapin Beer Company started the craft beer craze in Athens and is a good spot to visit. They regularly host concerts at their taproom.
If you want to sample craft beers from all over Georgia and around the world, the Trapeze Pub has dozens on tap as well as a good selection of bottles and cans. It’s also nice that this gastropub put some thought into their handful of vegetarian selections.
South Kitchen + Bar is run by the same folks as Trapeze. They have a fine selection of beers and a more sophisticated menu.
Things to do in Athens, GA
Music Walk of Fame
The Athens Music Walk of Fame is a relatively new addition to town, celebrating the longstanding music scene and wide range of artists who have called Athens home. In 2020, ten inductees were honored with a plaque installed in the sidewalk of a 2 block area of downtown defined by Pulaski Street, West Washington Street, North Lumpkin Street, and West Clayton Street. Also within that 2 block area are the famous music venues The 40 Watt Club, The Georgia Theater and the Morton Theater. There’s even an app that tells you about each artist as you approach their nameplate.
Artists honored range from bluesman Neal Pattman to early 20th century composer and African-American spiritual preservationist Hall Johnson to rock acts like the B-52s and R.E.M.
If you want to dig deeper into the musical history of Athens, the folks at visitathensga.com have made a detailed map (available in Google Maps or PDF download). It focuses on the sites of the 70’s & 80’s (think R.E.M., B-52s, Pylon era) but there are a few important spots from earlier decades, too. Essential.
Kate Pierson of the B-52s told me on my podcast about how the band formed over cocktails in an Athens Chinese restaurant. While the B-52s kicked down the door for Athens musical acts, they didn’t stay in town long before relocating to NYC and dominating the world with their quirky and kooky danceable hits.
R.E.M., on the other hand, stayed and played in Athens much longer, becoming synonymous with the town.
Songs like “Losing My Religion,” “The One I Love,” and “Man on the Moon” made them one of the most popular bands of the 80’s and 90’s.
Of course, they didn’t start out playing to tens of thousands of fans in sold out stadiums. In the beginning, they were one of many bands made up of students at the University of Georgia.
There are several sites in Athens that are a must for R.E.M. fans to visit.
Michael Stipe met Peter Buck while shopping for LPs at Wuxtry Records where Buck worked. Stipe and Buck became friends when they found they both liked the music of bands like the Velvet Underground, Television, and Patti Smith. The two soon found compatriots Mike Mills and Bill Berry and formed a band.
The record shop still stands on E Clayton in Athens and continues to sell new and used vinyl as well as CDs. They’ve also got memorabilia from Athens alt-rock glory days like a window filled with vintage DIY R.E.M. posters.
Sister store Bizarro-Wuxtry on College Ave. sells comics, toys and other hard to classify merch.
St. Mary’s Steeple
On April 5th, 1980, R.E.M. played their first ever show in the chapel of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, which had been converted from a house of worship to a arts and events space (Peter Buck lived there as well).
In 1990, the chapel and church were demolished to make room for construction of condominiums. Only the St. Mary Steeple is left standing. The Steeplechase Condominium owners, per the deed, were required to keep up the maintenance and structural integrity of the so-called R.E.M. Steeple.
A fire at “Rick the Printer” next door in 2011 caused the city to examine the steeple more closely and determined that it was in danger of collapsing. The city informed Steeplechase Condominiums to stabilize or demolish the structure.
In 2013, Nuci’s Space, a local suicide prevention non-profit, acquired the steeple from the condo owners. Through donations and fundraisers, the steeple was rehabilitated and stabilized. About 2,000 bricks were removed from the steeple during the rehab process and Nuci’s Space is selling them to fund operations.
It’s easy to visit the steeple, just park in the condo’s parking lot. The steeple is also visible from the street. You can’t go inside the steeple, though.
The next door building that housed Rick the Printer is a landmark of sorts as well. Many bands, including R.E.M. printed flyers here. It was also a hangout for students and arty types, especially since Rick brought the first espresso machine to Athens in the 70’s! Unfortunately, it appears the that there was no recovering from fire; the building is abandoned.
40 Watt Club
The 40 Watt Club is right up there with iconic American music venues like The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, CBGB’s in New York, and The Metro in Chicago.
The club got its start in 1979 when it was the rehearsal space for legendary Athens band Pylon. Drummer Curtis Crowe dubbed the spot at 171 College Ave. the “40 Watt Club.” They hosted underground (read unlicensed) shows before moving to 101 College Ave. and opening as a legal club. The Side Effects played the first show at the 40 Watt Club. Earlier that year, The Side Effects opened for R.E.M. at their now famous first ever show at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
The 40 Watt Club championed local music, giving the scene a performing outlet and helping to sustain the musicians. R.E.M., Love Tractor, Vic Chestnutt, and Pylon played the club regularly in the early days. Touring acts like Nirvana, X, and Sonic Youth along with countless others also played there.
The club moved locations several times in the 80’s and even closed for a while before being acquired by Barrie Buck (Peter’s first wife).
In 1991, Buck moved the venue to its current location on W. Washington. The 40 Watt Club continues to support Athens bands as well as national acts.
Local bands who have long outgrown the 500 person capacity of the 40 Watt often return to play. The B-52s played their 25th anniversary show there in 2002 and Drive-By Truckers have 4 shows scheduled for 2022.
Georgia Railroad Trestle
The most iconic image of the 80’s Athens music scene is the Georgia Railroad Trestle that graced the back cover of R.E.M.’s first LP “Murmur,” released in 1983.
But, the trestle itself dates back 100 years prior, to 1883 when it was built to get trains across Trail Creek and the Oconee River to downtown Athens. One year after the release of “Murmur,” the railway was abandoned and the trestle left to rot.
In 2000, demolition on the trestle began but public outcry halted its destruction and the trestle was purchased by the county in 2001. Since then, various plans have been floated to preserve or demolish the structure, but none were approved.
Then, in 2019, the Athens-Clarke Commission approved the Firefly Trail project. Under the plan, the middle part of the trestle would be kept intact. The ends would be replaced with a steel arch support system. This would allow the bridge to connect to a proposed pedestrian-cycling trail that would connect to downtown Athens and run along the abandoned rail line.
While it is sad to see that part of the trestle will be removed as part of this project, I think that making the trestle part of a walking/bike trail is a great idea. I’d love to stroll on top of the trestle whose image was on an LP I spent so much time listening to in college.
Weaver D’s was just a little chicken joint in Athens when Michael Stipe wandered in and asked proprietor Dexter Weaver about using his slogan “Automatic for the People” as the title for the group’s next album. Negotiations ensured, Dexter got paid, and R.E.M.’s 1992 release was one of their most popular records.
Dexter’s restaurant grew in popularity as well, but the recession following the housing crisis hit him hard. So hard, in fact, that he almost closed the place in 2012. Luckily, he persisted and Weaver D’s is still open today.
The 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theater are the two major music venues in Athens.
The space occupied by the theater was originally the Athens YMCA, built in 1889. In the early 1900’s, the building went through several incarnations as a Masonic Temple and Sears store. The Georgia Bulldogs even played their basketball games here from 1905-1911.
In 1977, after many years as a movie house, the building was sold and converted into a concert hall. The B-52s played the Georgia Theater in 1978 (renting the space themselves) and The Police played the venue in ’79. Local bands Pylon and Widespread Panic have also played the Georgia Theater.
But, the most famous show that almost no one in town saw took place on October 16th, 2001. A few people had shown up to see the movie “Our Song” by former Athens resident Jim McKay. They were surprised when R.E.M. along with touring members Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow, walked onstage and performed a 15 song set that included “Losing My Religion,” “Man on the Moon,” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The band were in town rehearsing for annual Bridge School Benefit Concert scheduled for that weekend at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA.
A fire severely damaged the theater and collapsed the building’s roof in 2009. Extensive restoration and renovations caused the venue to be closed until 2011. Since reopening, the Georgia Theater has hosted national acts like Willie Nelson and Run the Jewels as well as hosting events for local artists. After shows, the rooftop is open for food and drinks.
Georgia Bulldog Statues
The Athens-Oconee Junior Women’s Club started the “We Let the DAWGS Out!” program in 2003 to raise money and awareness for local charities and artists. Fiberglass bulldogs (the mascot of the University of Georgia) were painted by local artists. The themes varied, but all the colorful pups are unique in their own way. There’s even one called the Covered Bridge-Trestle Dawg that honors the famous Georgia Railroad Trestle in Athens.
A dozen of the statues were auctioned off in 2010 with the $25,000 in proceeds benefitting AIDS Athens (now known as Live Forward).
Since the original installation of Dawg statues, several others statues have popped up around town. There are now a few dozen and there’s even a Google Map if you want to try and see them all. But, I like the delightful surprise of stumbling upon one while waking around the city.
Alpharetta is a wealthy town about a 90 minute drive from Athens (40 minutes from Atlanta). It would be easy to dismiss Alpharetta as just another cookie-cutter Atlanta suburb, but doing that would mean missing the very nice Downtown Alpharetta Historic District.
This area is a mixed-use development with townhouses and single family homes next to shops and restaurants.
If you visit, you’ll need a car. Alpharetta isn’t connected to Atlanta mass transit (although there’s been talk of a rail line) and there’s not even bus service to the town. Once there, however, the downtown Alpharetta section of town is compact and easily walkable.
Sad news: Voga Gelato in Alpharetta has closed. Their Atlanta location remains open.
The first time I visited Alpharetta, the last thing I expected was world-class gelato. But, Voga Gelato is legit. Yes, they import their ingredients from Italy, but I’ve had lots of bad gelato from places that make the same claim.
Voga does everything right. The gelato is smooth and creamy and doesn’t have ice crystals, a sure sign that the gelato has been sitting around too long. The flavor is balanced, not too sweet, not too milky.
You can also get a fine affogato or espresso. Yes, it’s a tad pricey, but when you’re getting the best, you need to pay for it.
Just up the street from Voga is the friendliest coffee shop ever, Valor Coffee. In fact, the folks who work here are so friendly it almost made me defensive. But, that’s on me, not them. After living on the east coast for a good portion of my adult life, I developed a wariness towards the uber-friendly.
By the time I finished ordering our cortados with oat milk, I felt like the barista John and I were best friends. And that’s the mission at Valor, to uplift both customers and the folks working there. Even if a cynic like me occasionally wanders in.
The coffee, by the way, is terrific. The folks at Valor carefully source and roast their beans. But, see my note about espresso in Georgia above. Stick with the coffee or get your espresso with some frothy oat milk.
There is an airport in Athens (Ben Epps Airport) but there are no commercial flights. So, if you’re coming from out of town, you’ll probably fly into Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL). From there you can rent a car and drive to Athens, about 90 minutes away.
If you don’t want to rent a car, there is Greyhound service from Atlanta to Athens. But, it’s not convenient. You need to take MARTA from the airport to Garnett Station (about 15 minutes) to get the bus to Athens. The problem is, there’s only two buses a day going to Athens. And, once you arrive in Athens, the Greyhound station is 6 miles outside of town. You’ll need to take a local bus (45 minutes) or an Uber (20 minutes) downtown. Much better to rent a car, if possible.
Downtown Athens is quite compact. Even Dudley Park is only a 20 minute walk from downtown. The area is mostly pedestrian friendly.
Like any college town, parking can be an issue. This is especially true on football Saturdays. There are a few parking garages downtown, the one at 125 W. Washington is probably the most convenient if you can’t find on street parking. Parking meters are free on Sunday!
Athens Transit runs the bus service in town. 20 routes connect all parts of the city. Fares are $1.75 for a single ride (free transfer) and free for students, children, and senior citizens.
Index of Things to do in Athens, GA
Music Walk of Fame
Series of plaques commemorating Athens artists
Pulaski Street, West Washington Street, North Lumpkin Street, and West Clayton Street, Downtown Athens, GA
Music History Walking Tour
Self-guided tour of Athens famous music spots
40 Watt Club
World-famous club hosted many gigs from R.E.M., the B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, Vic Chesnutt, Olivia Tremor Control, Five Eight, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jucifer, Drive-By Truckers, of Montreal, The Whigs, Maserati, and more.
285 W Washington St, Athens, GA 30601
Larger concert venue in Athens
215 N Lumpkin St, Athens, GA 30601
St. Mary’s Steeple
All that remains of the site of R.E.M.’s first show in 1980
396 Oconee St, Athens, GA 30601
Georgia Railroad Trestle
Famous as the back cover photo of R.E.M.’s “Murmur” LP
220-270 S Poplar St, Athens, GA 30601
Dozens of statues of the UGA mascot dot the town.
Google map of bulldog statues in Athens, GA
Oconee Hill Cemetery
Final resting place for many prominent people from Athens including legendary guitarist Ricky Wilson of the B-52s
297 Cemetery St, Athens, GA 30605
Indie movie house
234 W Hancock Ave, Athens, GA 30601
Index of Places to Eat & Drink in Athens, GA
Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant in an unassuming strip mall
1055 Gaines School Rd #107, Athens, GA 30605
Ted’s Most Best
Pizza joint with paninis and subs, too. Veg. options.
254 W Washington St, Athens, GA 30601
Athens institution has been roasting their coffee beans and serving cups since 1994.
Several Athens locations including roastery at 425 Barber St., Athens, GA, 30601
1000 Faces Coffee
Small batch roaster with a rotating list of beans on offer.
510 N. Thomas St. Athens, GA 30601
Sweet Spot Coffee
Small roastery and smoke shop (dude!)
149 Oneta St. Athens, GA 30601
Rustic coffee shop and bakery has Jittery Joe’s and 1000 Faces beans.
590 N. Milledge Ave., Athens, GA, 30601
Craft brewery housed in an old tire shop(!)
271 W. Hancock Ave. Athens, GA 30601
Terrapin Beer Company
Athens brewery also has a location in Atlanta
265 Newton Bridge Road, Athens, GA 30607
Southern Brewing Company
Taproom just north of downtown to sample their fine beers
231 Collins Industrial Blvd., Athens, GA 30601
Gastro pub with dozens of craft beers on tap
269 N Hull St, Athens, GA 30601
South Kitchen + Bar
Run by the same folks as Trapeze with a more sophisticated menu
247 E Washington St, Suite 101, Athens, GA 30601
Restaurant with fine selection of wine and beer
1235 S Milledge Ave, Athens, GA 30606
Famous for their “Automatic for the People” sign
1016 E Broad St, Athens, GA 30601
Friendly coffee shop in Alpharetta
44 Milton Ave, Alpharetta, GA 30009
Index of Shopping in Athens, GA
Five Points Bottle Shop
Athens best liquor store and bottle shop. Hosts fun and educational events, too
1655 S Lumpkin St, Athens, GA 30606
Used record shop where R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Michael Stipe first met
197 E Clayton St, Athens, GA 30601
Sister store of Wuxtry Records selling comics, toys and other strange stuff.
225 College Ave, Athens, GA 30601
Athens Farmers Market
Saturday farmers market in Bishop Park
705 Sunset Dr, Athens, GA 30606
Index of Places to Stay in Athens, GA
Quirky retro hotel and short walk from downtown
295 E Dougherty St, Athens, GA 30601
500 College Ave, Athens, GA 30601
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.