When you think of quaint Bavarian villages, the state of Georgia is probably the last place you’d associate with images of fairy tale-style houses and cobblestone streets. But you’d be wrong. Meet the town of Helen, Georgia.
And the way this tiny Southern town came to be the huge tourism hotspot of lederhosen, pretzels and beer steins is quite interesting, and certainly unique.
Set among the Appalachian foothills, Helen is a town with deep Native American roots, formerly home to the Cherokee Indians. It’s also home to the historic England Gold Mine, a site that was extensively mined during the early 1800s, when the gold rush started in this very area – not in California as commonly believed.
A Bit of History
The discovery of gold in the town of Dahlonega (Cherokee for “Yellow Money”), only 5 miles from where Helen sits today, destroyed the lives of the Cherokee Indians in that area. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson began drafting the Indian Removal Act. That paved the way for the forceable removal of the Cherokees of the Dahlonega area from their land in 1838.
The gold miners eventually moved on to California. The civil war that ended in 1865 left the area of Helen mostly untouched. But as a defeated confederate state, the Reconstruction following the war took its toll on all of Georgia. Anarchy ruled during the Civil War Reconstruction period.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the area came back to life, thanks to the forestry business, and the town of Helen came to exist in 1913.
The 50s and 60s brought a new decline to Helen. Demand for lumber was down, thanks to the rise of plastic. And the Chattahoochee National Forest that had brought tourism, no longer seemed as big a draw. So in 1968, the town leaders of Helen got together and proposed to turn the city of Helen into a Bavarian village.
A Whole New Town
And with that, formerly plain old Helen became a famous destination city. So famous, in fact, that this small town with less than 600 residents is the third most visited city in Georgia after Atlanta and Savannah.
Helen’s leaders didn’t just go for a quick makeover. Helen sports Bavarian storefronts, cobblestone streets, German street names and, perhaps the most German thing of all: a standardized color scheme. Granted – perhaps not necessarily one you actually find in a lot of Bavarian villages.
The change of Helen was almost an overnight success. By 1976, the Federal government even sent economic experts to study its incredible revitalization. And so now you can visit a typical German town in the midst of history-laden Cherokee country. Innsbruck Street meets Chattahoochee River.
A Tourist Empire
Helen accommodates close to 3 million visitors a year. Pretty impressive, considering the town’s size of about 2.11 square miles. Of course, much of that traffic centers around annual festivals, of which Helen has many. Another large part of the visitors come just for the day. But if you’re looking to spend a few days exploring America’s deep South while staying in Bavaria, you’ll find plenty of options.
After all, it’s Georgia – plenty of room around the town itself gives you ample accommodation choices, from campgrounds to Bed & Breakfasts, condos, hotels, motels and cabins.
Because of many other towns, parks and nature preserves within about a half-hour driving distance, Helen can offer a plethora of recreational activities all-year-round.
Outdoor lovers can enjoy fishing, camping, horseback riding, rock climbing and, of course, lots of hiking. The incredibly beautiful area of Helen features an impressive number of trails and waterfalls to visit. Enough trails to not experience crowding, despite the large number of visitors each year. You can also go river-tubing, visit the waterpark, or do some zip-lining.
Various locations in and around Helen offer gold-panning experiences and mini-golf courses. One of those is part of the Helen Amusement Park. With its offering of go-karts, a tilt-a-wheel, miniature train and boat rides, that attraction is mostly of interest to families. Overall, Helen is a welcoming location for families.
Art, Culture and Food
If you’re looking for art and culture, you can explore a number of galleries featuring paintings, pottery, glass, or photography. Check out museums ranging from the expected, like gold-mining history, to the unexpected – a museum of gourd art. A little outside of town, you’ll find a model railroad museum with a miniature rebuild of Germany’s terrain and architecture.
Obviously, there are plenty of restaurants and bars of all types in Helen. Of course, there’s the typical Hofbrauhaus. A must for any Alpine recreation in the U.S.
Additionally, you can enjoy German-themed walking tours, but will also find Mexican, Southern barbeque and Italian restaurants. And every business, even the local Wendy’s fast food restaurant, has a Bavarian look to it.
You can visit the year-round Christmas shop, the Glassblowing Shop, or a lavender farm. And if you’re a fan of Gone with the Wind, visit Scarlet’s Secret, a civil war museum selling related collectibles.
Last not least: events. Of course, no Bavarian village can make do without an Oktoberfest and a Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market). But asides from those, Helen brims with activities and events.
Year-round, you can pick from open air concerts, folk dance and art classes, vineyard trips and the annual wine festival, behind-the-scenes trips to the zoo, and much more. In the spring, you can visit the annual Bear on the Square art and music festival in nearby Dahlonega. In May, you can sample your way through the products of dozens of Georgia winemakers at the annual Wine Fest.
Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race
One of Helen’s greatest events is the annual Helen to the Atlantic Air Balloon Race & Festival in June. Cancelled in 2020 for the first time in its history, it is the South’s oldest, and the U.S.’ only long-distance air balloon race.
In order to win the race, balloons need to reach Interstate 95, anywhere between Maine and Miami. The shortest possible distance is 225 miles, but there are obstacles, challenging the skills of the pilots. For one, the balloons can only go the same speed and direction as the wind. This means the pilot must find the right altitude for best speed and direction for the flight. It takes 2 days on average for the winner to cross the finish line. For the festival visitors left behind in Helen, there are tethered balloon rides and overall festival events.
While there are some changes to Helen’s routine due to the pandemic, the town is open to those who dare. But even if you’ll just want to pick a road trip destination for next year, you might want to check out Helen, Georgia’s website for details on accommodations, events, and businesses. Staying in a Bavarian village while being able to explore Native American history undoubtedly makes for a great vacation.