Oktoberfest in Helen
When: 6-10:30 p.m. Thursdays, 6 p.m.-midnight Fridays, 1 p.m.-midnight Saturdays and 1-7 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 23, then daily through Oct. 31
Saturday: Oktoberfest Parade and Tapping of the Keg Ceremony, noon, downtown Helen
Admission: $7, free Sundays.
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It's the season to don a dirndl, strap on your lederhosen, scarf down some schnitzel, and hoist a hearty stein in Helen.
For 40 years, this tiny little mountain hamlet has hosted the Southeast's largest annual Oktoberfest celebration, and over the course of the next seven weeks, more than 30,000 people are expected to make their way into the town's cavernous Festhalle to get their Gemülichkeit on.
The festivities kick off at noon Saturday with the annual parade through Helen's Tyrolean-inspired downtown. The parade ends with the ritual tapping of the keg at the Festhalle and the party begins.
Featuring authentic German music, dancing, food and drink, Helen's Oktoberfest is one of the region's most celebrated festivals and the quaint Alpine-inspired architecture of the town attracts tourists from far and wide year-round.
"Oktoberfest is certainly headquartered in the Festhalle but it's an atmosphere that permeates the whole village," says Debbie Gagliolo of Helen's Convention and Visitors Bureau.
If the rollicking scene inside the Festhalle isn't exactly your thing, the town has plenty to offer family types and teetotalers alike.
In addition to shopping and noshing through the fairytale-like village, Helen offers Charlemagne's Kingdom, a model railroad reproduction of Germany complete with an authentic glockenspiel. There are three different mini golf courses, tubing down the Chattahoochee and, of course, plenty of hiking, biking, camping, fishing and waterfall watching throughout the surrounding Chattahoochee National Forest.
"It's the time of year when everybody wants to come to mountains because we have that nice cool crisp fall air and the leaves are starting to change," Gagliolo said.
Nearby communities including Sautee and Nacoochee Village feature plenty of shopping, art and antiquing. And once you've had your fill of beer in the Festhalle, you can move on to a wine tasting at either Habersham Winery, Yonah Mountain Vineyards or Sautee-Nacoochee Vineyards, each just a couple miles from downtown Helen.
"Almost every small community around us has some kind of fall festival," says Gagliolo, pointing out the upcoming Gold Rush Days in Dahlonega, Blairsville's Sorghum Festival and the Georgia Mountain Fall Festival in Hiawassee, just to name a few.
While the mountain air and the splendor of nature in the changing season is reason enough to celebrate, for those who would rather shun the crowds and seek solitude, the region's hundreds of thousands of forested acres make for the perfect escape.
"There are ways to get here and take back roads and go into the forest and be totally alone," says Gagliolo.