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C & I love exploring unique attractions in themed villages like Tarpon Springs in Florida or Eureka Springs in Arkansas. When we learned the gorgeous pine cabin in Blue Ridge that we had booked for our Memorial Day Vacation was less than an hour away from Downtown Helen we simply had to visit the beautiful Georgian mountain town. Helen has less than 450 residents and an area of 2.5 square miles but attracts over thousands of visitors and is Georgia’s third most visited city. Popular things to do and attractions include exploring the typical Bavarian architecture, Helen’s Christmas and Oktoberfest celebrations, and river tubing in Helen in the Chattahoochee river. Visitors can rent a tube with the popular companies in town or buy their own river tube to bring along. Alpine Helen also offers a number of outdoor adventures – including some of the best hikes near Atlanta – and is officially declared Georgia’s Outdoor Adventure Destination.
Downtown Helen, Georgia – Where is it ?
Helen is a small Bavarian Appalachian village in Northern Georgia. The closest airport is located in Atlanta (flights to Atlanta are so cheap with Spirit!) and Helen is best reached by a short 1.5 hrs drive from the city. Helen is just 85 miles north-east of Atlanta City center and a perfect weekend destination for the locals. C & I rented a car from Enterprise and got a great weekend deal. We drove partly through the Blue Ridge mountains and it was a great drive – must be spectacular in Fall.
Reasons to visit Alpine Helen
Alpine Helen is a unique destination in the Appalachians and promotes itself as ‘the charm of Bavaria in the heart of Blue Ridge Mountains’. We found that description spot on – the town resembles a picturesque Bavarian village complete with gabled roofs, painted shutters, cobbled streets and festive atmosphere. Helen’s traditional German architecture, many events and things to do for all ages, Alpine cuisine – lots of brats – and German beer (including the famous 1 liter beer mugs) are incredibly popular with tourists. The town’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Appalachians and nature makes Helen a great tourist attraction.
So what exactly is a Bavarian town doing in the Appalachians?
To understand that, we need to understand the history of Helen. ‘Living on the Unicoi Road’ states that Helen was a Cherokee Indian settlement since the early 15th century. The discovery of gold in the Appalachian mountains transformed Helen into a prospering mining town in the 19th century. As time went on, the Appalachian Mountains became more famous for the wood from their trees than the minerals underneath them. Lumber industry brought the boom of the railroad and Helen changed with the times and continued prospering. However as the lumber industry slowly dwindled, Helen was a town on the decline with no industrial revival on the horizon. That could have been the end of the Story of Helen but for a group of prosperous local businessmen. In 1968, they came together and decided to transform Helen’s main street to attract passing tourists. Armed with significant restoration funds, the group hired John Kollock, a local artist, who came up with sketches and ideas to transform Helen into a Bavarian Alpine town. The idea was well-received by the locals and thus Alpine Helen was born. The book ‘Helen (Images of America) has beautiful pictures detailing Helen’s transformation through the ages. Today the beautiful south German style architecture is present on all buildings – chain outlets as well as new construction has to confirm to the Bavarian architecture rules – and is among Helen’s main attractions.
When to visit Helen and what to pack
Visiting Helen is a delight in every season. Variety of seasonal activities and the ever changing scenery makes each visit to Helen unique. Here are some tips to decide when to go.
Summer in Helen
Summer is Helen’s most popular season. River tubing in Helen, Georgia is extremely popular on summer weekends. What better way to beat the heat than float on the cool river water followed by a giant glass of German beer? Helen also has a water park if you want even more splash fun. Other summer attractions including hiking, camping are perfect to round-off a summer vacation in Helen. Summer events include Hot Air Balloon Festival and more. Don’t forget to pack swimsuits, outdoor activity sunglasses and a good quality sunscreen to ward off the sun. Also must if you are headed to Unicoi State Park – insect repellent!
Alpine Helen in Fall
Helen in Fall is stunning. Helen’s location amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains makes it a perfect place to watch the leaves change color in the Appalachians. Gorgeous pine cabins and other vacation rentals are perfect to sip apple cider or wines on a charming patio and enjoy the cool evenings with your partner. Helen also hosts Oktoberfest, the Helen Arts and Crafts Festival and many other popular events in Fall. The end of Fall is marked by Halloween festivities including corn maze, pumpkin patches, hay rides and more. The key to packing for Helen in Fall is layers. The days are still warm but the air rapidly cools in the mountains as twilight approaches. A thick sweater or jacket and cool weather accessories are essential for Fall trip to Helen.
Winter – That means Christmas in Helen!
I personally feel that Winter is the best time to visit Helen. Helen is all decked up to celebrate a traditional German Christmas with the Christmas Market or Christkindlmarkt, Festival of Trees, Breakfast with Santa and Downtown Helen Parade. many events are alos held around New Years Eve. Valentine Day draws couples to the many area attractions. Helen quiets down a bit towards the end of winter and this shoulder season is the best time for couples looking to experience the city without its usual crowds.
Spring Break in Helen, Georgia
The entire town prepares itself for the start of the busy tourist season in spring. Tubing in Helen begins to gain popularity around Spring Break as the waters warm up. Many wineries around Helen have wine tasting events; Hot Air Balloon rides are also popular during Spring Break. Helen also hosts the Spring Bierfest in April and Bavarianfest in May – both events are basically Oktoberfest on a smaller scale – think giant beer mugs, German bands, live music and dancing and Bavarian food – wurts, sauerkrauts and pretzels!
Where and how long to stay
Helen is chock-full of hotels, motels, inns, Bread & Breakfasts, luxury cabins and RV parks/campsites. C, S-Boy & I stayed in a beautiful pine cabin in Blue Ridge – it had a large patio and double hammock – and absolutely loved it. We found our cabin on AirBnB – you can get $40 off your first AirBnB reservation for a limited time using my referral link. While in town we really liked pretty building of The Castle Inn and the riverside location of Helendorf River Inn – they both had rooms with pretty balconies over the river and stunning views. Both seemed perfect for a romantic weekend. I also liked the look of Heidi Motel; they were advertising budget rates and Jacuzzi tubs! If you are headed to Helen for uber-romantic weekend, check out Black Forest B&B – splurge worthy rooms, double Jacuzzi tub, on-site spa, plenty of fishing, hiking and boating opportunities nearby and secluded location – perfect! The Unicoi State Park Lodge is perfect for those looking to commune with nature. We also saw many cabins on the way to Helen with amazing mountain views.
There are so many things to do in Helen that you need to stay for a minimum of 2 to 3 days to experience them all. That said, even a short day trip will provide a welcome change while a week long trip combining Helen with other attractions in the Appalachians will make a great vacation.
Should you visit Downtown Helen GA?
Helen is perfect for families because of the many outdoor things to do including hikes, biking trails, many waterfalls and activities like river-tubing, fishing, hunting, and zip-lining. Alpine Helen is also great for nature lovers because of its proximity to the famous Blue Ridge Mountain ranges. Motorcyclists love the winding mountain roads while both RV and tent campers enjoy the state parks in the area and other outdoor attractions. Secluded pine cabins with fireplaces and Jacuzzis are perfect for couples. Helen has a festive atmosphere and celebrates a large number of events including Hot Air Balloon Festival, ,Oktoberfest, and Christmas on a grand scale. However Helen’s economy is largely dependent on tourists and the town is touristy by nature – think in terms of ‘picturesque’, ‘idyllic’, ‘quaint’ – if you think these words are overused, then maybe Helen is not for you. However you can still visit Helen at least one – if only to determine whether you like it!
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5 Best things to do in Helen, Georgia
As C, S-Boy and I discovered to our delight, there are plenty of things to do in Downtown Helen. Time literally flies when you are in this village – there are so many things to see including the pastoral architecture, unique shops, hidden alleyways, delightful snacks and plenty of fun activities and attractions. It is especially true if you are visiting Helen for Christmas or Oktoberfest or tubing in Helen.
Take pictures and stroll along Helen’s Main Street
Helen is a postcard perfect town. The Old World style chalet architecture, large town squares, cobbled streets and picturesque shops make strolling along Main Street one of Helen’s most popular things to do . Most buildings on Main Street have tiny cobbled alleys and are beautiful to explore.
Eat some candy, fudge, peanuts, pretzels, jerky and other specialty foods
Helen’s has a number of famous specialty food shops. Fred’s is famous for boiled peanuts and peanut brittle.
Kopper Kettle Fudge has some great fudge which they make from scratch. Jerky Snack Shack has a great exotic selection; C even tried some kangaroo jerky.
The famous Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen is heaven for chocolate lovers. They have everything from candied apples, fudges, chocolates and offer LOTS of free samples.
The fudge aroma enticed us into the store and we bought a variety of their delicious fudge pops. Off course S wanted his own pop so I bought him a white chocolate covered orange fudge one. I can vouch for it, it was yummy.
Drink German beer and eat German cuisine
Helen has an extensive list of restaurants that serve authentic Bavarian cuisine. The menus are full of schnitzel, pretzels, wursts, smoked pork chops, German potato salad, apple strudel and more. The food originating from the south-German region of Bavaria might be confusing to read, understand or order but it is delicious to eat.
Servers in most restaurants are friendly and willing to answer all your questions, so go ahead and order some sauerkraut and wursts along with a chilled craft beer. We had lunch at the Old Heidelberg Restaurant and ordered wurstsamplers, schnitzels and Hungarian goulash along with German beers.
While the food was good, I especially loved the balcony seating and live German band playing in the square below. My beer was really good. Check here for a complete list of restaurants in the area.
Go river tubing in Helen at the Chattahoochee River
Helen is located on the banks of the Chattahoochee River and tubing down the beautiful winding river is one of the most popular activities. Cool River Tubing and Helen Tubing and Water Park are the two tubing companies; they both offer free shuttle transportation and life jacket along with the tube rental.
A single tube trip costs $8; alternatively visitors can opt for all-day tubing for $12 (prices as of May 2017). Wear swimsuits and sturdy shoes, purchase a push-stick for when your tube is stuck and float your way down the river. Tubing is perfect to cool down in the summer. Many picnic and lounge areas are also located along the river.
Shop for unique items on Main Street
Many gift and specialty shops are located along Main Street. Lindenhaus Imports has great handcrafted clocks and cuckoo clocks from around the world.
The Glassblowing Shop is a quaint little shop with intricate colorful glass articles. Visitors can watch the staff as they create custom articles. Nora Mill Granary and Betty’s Country Store are among visitors favorites.
More things to do in Downtown Helen
Visitors can also take a horse-drawn carriage tour around the town. Alpine mini golf course village in Helen is perfect for families. They have great gardens and ice-cream.
Some more things to do around Alpine Helen
Many of Georgia’s oldest wineries are located around Helen. They offer many wine tasting programs and specialty events. Stovall Mill Covered Bridge is a unique, well-preserved old bridge that has been vandalized by graffiti in recent times. Visitors enjoy stopping by the bridge and taking pictures. Many waterfalls and parks surround Helen. Anna Ruby Falls, a 30 min paved hiking trail in the Chattahoochee forest, and the easy Dukes Creek Falls trails with its 2 observation decks are really popular for hiking. Families love to visit Unicoi State Park which offers excellent camping facilities and Smithgall Woods State Park. The surrounding area offers numerous activities from hiking, biking, swimming and boat rentals. Helen has many hiking trails and zip lines located in nearby areas. For more things to do in Helen read the Helen Georgia Travel Guide and check here.
Christmas, Oktoberfest and other Festive Events in Helen
Helen Arts and Crafts Festival
Helen has an annual Arts and Crafts Festival every Fall.
Oktoberfest is Helen’s most widely celebrated event. Visitors come to the area to drink German beer in enormous mugs and glasses, eat German cuisine including bratwursts and kraut and listen to German music bands. Many beer gardens throughout the town attract tourists while the main Festhalle is the center of activity. Police in Helen GA are strict during Oktoberfest so walk to your hotel or assign a designated driver. Also beers on the sidewalk can earn a citation from what I hear.
Photo Credit – Helen,Georgia/Facebook
Christmas in Helen
Helen celebrates Christmas on a grand scale, just as you would expect from any Bavarian Town. The town is full of tourists in the Holiday season and advance hotel reservations are strongly recommended. The many holiday events and activities begin early in November after Oktoberfest is over and continue into the New Year. Some of the events are located in nearby areas of Cleveland and Nacoochee.
A traditional German Christmas
Christmas in Helen has a distinct German influence and is a wonderful holiday experience. The German Christmas Season follows the Advent Calendar and the festivities start after the first Sunday of Advent. So don’t be surprised if some of the many Christmas events in Helen kick off before Thanksgiving!
Annual Lighting of the Village
Christmas & Holiday season in the Ginger-bread style town is ushered in with the Annual Lighting of the Village ceremony. This event takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving and includes appearances by Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Appalachian Christmas Celebration & Pancake Breakfast with Santa
This event is held in Cleveland at the BabyLand General Hospital. BabyLand is a Southern Style Home filled with Cabbage Patch Kids and has been voted among Top Ten Toylands. The event includes Christmas Holiday decorations, Christmas carols and milk and cookies with Santa and Mrs. Claus. The event also includes lighting of BabyLand. Read more here.
Meet Santa at North Georgia Zoo
This Christmas event occurs the weekend before Thanksgiving and is a family event featuring photos with Santa Claus. Children will also get to see a miniature deer and other exotic animals.
Mistletoe Market is an indoor festive Christmas holiday market organized by the Helen Arts & Heritage Center. The market is held the Thanksgiving Weekend and sells handcrafted arts and fine crafts and also includes family fun events like face-painting, Bavarian Music, baked goods and more. Artists from all over Northeast Georgia demonstrate their arts and crafts during the event. For timings and more information, see Mistletoe Market.
Holiday Celebration & Live Nativity at the North Georgia Zoo, Cleveland
Holiday Celebration & Live Nativity Christmas event is held at the North Georgia Zoo in Cleveland, Georgia. Held the week of Thanksgiving the celebration includes live nativity, hayrides, hot cocoa and marshmallows, donkey rides and more. Visitors can also see animals under the stars after regular Zoo hours. This event is free for all visitors. For more information visit here.
Meet Santa Claus in Helen
A weekend event that starts around Thanksgiving and continues till the week before Christmas. Children get to meet Santa and give him their list of presents. This is the perfect opportunity to capture Holiday photos. For timings, see Visit Santa in Helen.
A Victorian Christmas in Nacoochee
Hardman Farm State Historic Site located in Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia has two main features – the burial site of The Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound and the Victorian Mansion built in 1870 by Captain James Nichols. During Christmas, visitors can experience a Victorian Christmas at the house. The house is decorated with period Christmas decor and costumed docents inform visitors about popular Victorian Christmas traditions. Find more information on the Farm website.
Festival of Trees
Unicoi State Park celebrates Christmas with the Festival of Trees Charity event from the weekend before Thanksgiving in November to second week in December. The event is held on the 2nd Floor of the Unicoi Lodge and includes 21 themed, decorated trees and wreaths are available for bidding. The entire proceeds go to United Way of White County. Unico Restaurants also hosts traditional Thanksgiving Meal and Breakfast with Santa including pancakes, crafts and games for kids.
Helen hosts a big Christkindlmarkt, a traditional German Christmas market, with booths selling specialty Christmas gifts, Christmas decorations, holiday candies, traditional foods, and drinks. Helen’s Christmas Market is usually held the first two weekends in December.
Helen has two Christmas Parades – the Annual Christmas in the Mountains Festival & Lighted Parade in nearby Downtown Cleveland – an old-fashioned event with Christmas carols, hot cocoa and cookies, food booths, and more and the Christmas Parade in Helen with Santa Claus, costumed characters and lit-up floats, paper lanterns, bonfires and s’mores.
Winter Break Fun and Christmas Tree Toss at the North Georgia Zoo
In this one of a kind event held at the North Georgia Zoo in Cleveland, families are invited to recycle their Christmas Trees by tossing them to the zoo animals. Children can see animals drag, eat or tear the trees and play with them.
Dropping of the Edelweiss
After Christmas festivities, it’s time to ring in the New Year. Dropping of the Edelweiss, held on New Year’s Eve in Downtown Helen includes music, dancing, party hats, party favors, food and Midnight Champagne Toast. This tickets only event is held at Festhalle and is family-friendly.
WinterFest: Arts & Trolley Tour
WinterFest: Arts & Trolley Tour is an area-wide cultural event held by the Unicoi State Park and Lodge, Helen Arts & Heritage Center and Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center. The event takes place around President’s Day. Helen Winter Art Festival by the Helen Arts & heritage Center, Fireside Arts & Crafts Show by Unicoi State Park and Sautee Nacoochee Art Festival are part of the event. All events are an indoor arts and crafts marketplace and showcase the talents of artists across Northeast Georgia. The events also includes live demonstrations.
Helen’s Hot Air Balloon Festival
Helen has South’s oldest Hot Air Balloon Festival and long distance balloon race; visitors can float over the Blue Ridge Mountains in tethered balloons. The annual event is held in June. Helen also has many other festivals including the Bavarian festival, Trout Tournament, Fasching (German Mardi Gras festival) beer tasting events and more. Get more information at Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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I visited Helen, Georgia in May 2017