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Visit a 'distinctive destination,' just down the road
Athens' art, culture and architecture get it named to national list
0122Athens
Restaurant patrons enjoy a drink along Clayton Street, one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Athens. The streets are lined with historic buildings with unique shops and restaurants.

Road trip!

Athens is an easy destination for a day trip from Hall County and other North Georgia communities. Here’s an idea of places to stop by when you’re in town:

Places to explore
Memorial Park, 93 Gran Ellen Drive; 706-613-3580
Take a walk around the duck pond or stroll through the little zoo on the grounds, where bears and otters play

State Botanical Garden of Georgia, 2450 Milledge Ave.; 706-542-1244
Herbs, flowers and shaded walkways, plus a really large staghorn fern

ATHICA, 160 Tracy St., Unit 4; 706-208-1613
Converted warehouse space that now houses a funky contemporary art gallery

Lyndon House Arts Center, 293 Hoyt St.; 706-613-3623
An art gallery and historic home that’s open for the wandering

Need a bite?
The Grit, 199 Prince Ave.; 706-543-6592
Vegetarian fare from this Athens institution; if you’re coming into town on U.S. 129, it’s on the right before Prince Avenue ends.

Clocked, 259 W. Washington St.; 706-548-9175
Burgers, grilled sandwiches and tater tots — how can you go wrong?

Five Star Day Cafe, 229 E. Broad St.; 706-543-8552
Southern fare that’s done a bit more healthy

Need a snack?
Big City Bread Cafe, 393 N. Finley St.
Open until midafternoon, this indoor/outdoor cafe has baked goods and locally-brewed coffee

Red Eye Coffee, 297 Prince Ave.; 706-369-6850
Serving up custom-brewed coffee and gelato in a renovated Coca-Cola bottling plant

Just down the road from Gainesville lies one of the country’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Athens, located a quick drive down U.S. 129 from Hall County, joins cities from across the country to receive this honor. In choosing the towns, the National Trust cited their “dynamic downtowns and stunning architecture ... and commitment to historic preservation.”

Amy Kissane, director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, said the award highlights not only the work of preservationists but also of the entire community’s dedication to diversity and culture.

“The designation is basically an acknowledgment that Athens has been successful in preserving its historic character, but I also think what’s great about the award is it’s a distinctive destination,” she said. “We have attractions and things of interest that — like our music, like our art, like the university and a lot of the activities that go on there — that the historic resources are the foundation of.”

Athens’ downtown is a designated historic area, with a grid of streets lined with early 20th century stone buildings. There are 16 neighborhoods listed on the National Historic Register, along with several also designated as a local historic neighborhood, too.

To see a sampling of Athens’ architecture, visitors can drive along stately Prince or Milledge avenues, where old Greek revival-style homes still stand (although many as fraternity or sorority houses today). Or, head into the local neighborhoods such as Boulevard, which run parallel to Prince Avenue, where Southern Gothic homes and rambling front porches still dominate the landscape.

But it’s the combination of architecture and culture that keeps Athens hopping, Kissane said.

“A lot of towns might have great museums or great history, but the combination of the historic character and the rehabs we’ve had over the year, with that attraction, make it a one-of-a-kind place.”

Building rehabilitations that have benefitted Athens include Cine Bar-Cafe, an indie movie theater and concert space that opened last year in an old tire plant alongside The National, a restaurant. Coupled with nightlife spots like the venerable 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre, both in historic buildings, the downtown area hosts a vibrant nightlife that coexists within historic architecture.

The application for the award was compiled by the Heritage Foundation, the Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Athens Welcome Center, Kissane said, and the organizations are planning events throughout the year to celebrate. The application included reference letters from residents such as Bertis Downs, longtime manager for the rock band R.E.M., the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and Michael Thurmond, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor.

Other cities named to the National Trust’s list include Bristol, R.I.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Hot Springs, S.D.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Santa Fe, N.M.

And ultimately, Kissane said, the award reflects the people of the community, too.

“I think it’s also a tribute to the creativity of this community,” she said, citing other projects such as Canopy Studios, a trapeze studio housed in a rehabilitated warehouse. “We don’t always win our battles — not everyone thinks government should make people preserve their buildings. But I think by and large, the majority of people in this community do care, and they show it.”

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