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Helen, Georgia, has a population of just 430, but it’s the third-most visited city in the Peach State. Located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this charming Bavarian-style town is home to the longest-running organized Oktoberfest in the U.S. and offers plenty of other attractions, including museums where you can learn about the history and culture of the town, vineyards and breweries, and a wealth of outdoor and water-based activities. This guide to some of the top things to do in Helen can help you make the most of your vacation. (Note: Some tours, events and attractions may be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism board before traveling.)

Attend Oktoberfest

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Oktoberfest is a tradition that traces its roots back to 1810 in Southern Germany. But if you don’t have the budget to travel to Munich to enjoy the festival, head to Helen. The town hosts the longest-running Oktoberfest in America and celebrated its 50th Oktoberfest in 2021. The festival runs from mid-September to late October or early November and gives you an authentic taste of Bavaria with food (think: bratwurst and pretzels), German beer, music, dancing and costumes. You’ll find all the action in the Helen Festhalle, which welcomes patrons in the evenings on weekdays and from 1 to 7 p.m. (on Sundays) or midnight (on Saturdays). The city’s architecture and cobblestone streets, not to mention the lederhosen, will make you feel like you’re actually in a German Alpine town. Past attendees rave about the food, beer and music, and some mentioned that going during the week can spare you from larger crowds.

Unicoi State Park

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You’ll find Unicoi State Park just 2 miles northeast of central Helen. The park is centered on Lake Unicoi, but there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy, including hiking, target shooting, zip lining, mountain biking and archery. If you prefer water activities, there are paddleboard, kayak and boat rentals on the lake, or you can swim, fish or relax on the beach. If you want to stay on-site, you can make the park your home base and camp, hook up an RV or stay in a cabin. The lodge houses a restaurant and tavern, where you can grab a meal and drink at the end of a long day. Visitors love the camping and hiking options, particularly the hike to Anna Ruby Falls, one of the most well-known landmarks in the area. Smith Creek, which winds from the falls to the lake, is a tributary of the Chattahoochee River.

Address: 1788 GA-356, Helen, GA 30545

See the area’s waterfalls

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Anna Ruby Falls is a top destination for people who love the outdoors, but it’s far from the only waterfall you can experience around Helen. Depending on your hiking experience and how much time you have, you can walk through a wildflower-covered forest to get to Raven Cliff Falls, make a 2-mile uphill climb to Dukes Creek Falls, visit the rumored site where a 16th-century piece of armor was found at DeSoto Falls or get a two-for-one experience with the trail that leads to Blue Hole Falls and High Shoal Falls, the latter of which features a waterfall that cascades over a 50-foot drop. Other waterfalls in the area include Helton Creek Falls, Chunanee Falls, Horsetrough Falls, Water’s Creek Falls and more. Avid hikers say that many of the trails are easy or moderate and great for the whole family, and you can stay anywhere in and around Helen without needing to drive too far to reach the waterfalls. Note, however, that some of the trailhead parking lots require a fee of $5 or less.

Enjoy the shops and restaurants of downtown Helen

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Whether or not you’re in Helen in time for Oktoberfest, take the chance to stroll down Main Street and take in the experience of a re-created Alpine village. The Bavarian-style architecture and cobblestone streets will make you feel like you’re in Southern Germany, and the German-themed shops and restaurants complete the experience. You can enjoy some traditional German fare like schnitzel, spaetzle, sauerkraut and bratwurst at Bodensee, The Heidelberg or Hofbrauhaus, then hit up Hofer’s for authentic German baked goods. You can also check out the variety of Christmas decorations, gifts and trinkets at the Christmas Shoppe, which visitors love for its quaintness and variety of options, as well as other shops and boutiques in town. And if you’re looking for one of the best things to do in Helen in November and December, try to time your trip with the town’s Christkindlmarkt festival. You’ll be met with unique German Christmas decorations and gifts, food, drinks, candies and more.

Tube down the Chattahoochee River

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If you’re looking for a relaxing time on the water, locals and visitors alike recommend “shooting the ‘Hooch.” You can rent tubes from Cool River Tubing for $12 each during the week and $16 apiece on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, and enjoy a leisurely float ride down the Chattahoochee River for anywhere from about one to three hours (depending on your preference for the short or long ride and the water level). There’s no need for a reservation unless there are 20 or more people in your party, and you can bring a picnic and eat at one of the company’s pavilions. Restrooms, changing facilities, showers and lockers (for a fee) are available on-site. You can also check out the Helen Waterpark, which is situated on the river and has a playground, waterslides and its own river tubing options. Just keep in mind that this is an activity for the warmer months: Cool River Tubing doesn’t open until Memorial Day. The town sits on the river and nearby lodging options include the Valhalla Resort Hotel and the Loreley Resort.

Drive the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway

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This 40.6-mile national byway winds its way through the Chattahoochee National Forest, giving you views of the mountains and valleys that make up the southern Appalachian range. You’ll be able to stand atop Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in the state, hike to some of the waterfalls along the road and even trek along a section of the famed Appalachian Trail, which stretches across more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. The byway also provides access to Unicoi State Park and Vogel State Park. Past visitors call the view from Brasstown Bald remarkable, and motorcycle riders call the byway a biker’s dream. What’s more, the byway starts and ends just northwest of Helen, so you can stay in the Georgia Alpine town.

Hike the Yonah Mountain Trail

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Yonah Mountain isn’t the tallest peak in the region, but it still offers some incredible views, making it one of the most popular hikes in the area. The out-and-back 4.4-mile trek, which starts about 7 miles south of Helen, is difficult, so consider your experience before setting out. You’ll walk through a forest filled with wildflowers, scramble over boulders and take in the massive rocky outcrops near the summit. Once you reach the peak, you’ll get a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The trail can get busy later in the day, so hikers recommend getting there early. Many called the hike strenuous but doable, especially with regular breaks, and say it’s worth it for the views. If you’re not staying in Helen, you can check out the Yonah Mountain Campground nearby, which has sites for tents and RVs.

Go wine tasting

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If the pull of German beer isn’t enough for you, go on a wine tasting tour on the Unicoi Wine Trail. Sweet Acre Farms’ wine tasting room also includes wines and beers from around the state and is located right in Helen. You can also head a mile south of downtown Helen to visit Habersham Winery, one of Georgia’s oldest and largest wineries. At Habersham, you can do a wine tasting, watch the winemaking process and peruse the gift shop for food and wine specialty items from around the world. Outside of Helen, you’ll find CeNita Vineyards and Yonah Mountain Vineyards, which are 15 minutes south of the town in Cleveland, Georgia. Sylvan Valley Lodge & Cellars in Sautee Nacoochee is an additional nearby winery option. For the best experience, take a tour from operators like North Georgia Wine Tours or Elite Excursions and Wine Tours, which can include lunch and even some additional requests if you’re celebrating a special occasion.

Ride the Georgia Mountain Coaster

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The first alpine coaster in Georgia is located in downtown Helen. You can ride alone or with a friend. To drive the cart, you must be at least 54 inches tall; children must be 3 or older and at least 38 inches tall to ride the coaster. The Georgia Mountain Coaster winds through trees at upward of 28 mph, and each car allows you to control your speed with hand pedals. Tickets cost $15 for adults and up to $12 for kids for the first ride. If you want to go again, you can purchase a half-price ticket. Visitors of all ages enjoy the alpine coaster and recommend buying the second ticket.

Address: 8409 S. Main St., Helen, GA 30545

Visit the Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound at Hardman Farm

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Before Helen became a Bavarian-inspired town, the area was home to Native Americans. The Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound is a burial mound. In a 1915 excavation, researchers unearthed 75 burials at the site (sometimes called the Romeo and Juliet Indian Mound). According to legend, the mound is the final resting place of two Native American lovers, Sautee and Nacoochee, from opposing tribes. Now, a gazebo sits atop the mound, where you can take in the sacred site. You can also take a tour of the Hardman Farm house, as well as the dairy barn, both of which were built in the 19th century. Past visitors remark that the burial mound and the home have been well preserved. If you’re not already staying in Helen, there are short-term vacation rentals and campgrounds right in Sautee Nacoochee.

Take a food tour

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If you’re a German food connoisseur, the Helen & Back Food Tours can lead you to the best food and drink that the town has to offer. The tour operator provides a few different walking tours, including a pub crawl, a German cuisine tour and even a dessert tour. Past guests have said that the guides had a deep knowledge of the food and the history of the town, and many were pleased that the food tour provided more than enough for a full meal.

Relax with a beer in King Ludwig’s Biergarten

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The Biergarten, German for beer garden, originated in Bavaria in the 19th century. During that time, the government banned brewing during the summer due to fire hazards when equipment overheated. As a result, breweries began storing their beer in cellars near a river to keep it cool during the fermentation process. Eventually, King Ludwig allowed breweries to sell beer from those areas, so breweries set up beer gardens near the cellars to offer their products. In Helen, King Ludwig’s Biergarten offers a host of beers, wines and mixed drinks, along with basic German pub food. Guests love being able to relax in the open air, but some have said the customer service can be hit or miss.

Address: 8660 N. Main St., Helen, GA 30545

Play Mini-Golf

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At the south end of Main Street in Helen, you’ll find the Alpine Mini Golf course. The 18-hole course can be a great activity for families with young kids who need a break from other activities in town. The course is open year-round, weather permitting, and it’s landscaped with beautiful gardens. There are even some tricky holes for those mini-golf enthusiasts who want a challenge. After your game, stop by the Scoop De Scoop ice cream shop, where you’ll find more than 20 flavors, as well as sundaes, shakes, floats and more. If you want options, you can also check out Bavarian Mountain Miniature Golf, which boasts the largest arcade in the area.

Helen Arts & Heritage Center

If you’re looking for cheap things to do in Helen, the Helen Arts & Heritage Center is a nonprofit art gallery, history museum and pottery studio that’s open to the public at no cost. The art gallery features local artists and switches up its featured exhibits six times a year. You can also attend art classes and workshops for a fee (though veterans are eligible for free workshops). In the history museum, you’ll learn how and why the town modeled itself after Bavarian Alpine towns, and about the history of the surrounding area. Make sure you plan your trip according to the center’s hours, though. It’s only open from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Visitors recommend checking out the center, especially if you’re looking for locally made artwork to buy.

Address: 25 Chattahoochee Strasse, Helen, GA 30545

Nacoochee Village Antique Mall

Whether you’re an antique collector or you simply enjoy learning about artifacts from the past, the Nacoochee Village Antique Mall may be right up your alley. The 7,000-square-foot mall features antiques from 50 dealers and is open seven days a week. Some visitors say it’s easy to get lost in the adventure of browsing old items and learning about their past. Others mention that it’s not the best place to take your kids since strollers are not allowed. Since Nacoochee Village is just a few minutes south of downtown Helen, you can stay at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Helen, Baymont by Wyndham Helen or any of the other properties in the Alpine town.

Address: 7091 S. Main St., Helen, GA 30545

Chattahoochee Cheese Market

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The Chattahoochee Cheese Market is a quaint local shop that features specialty meats and cheeses from all around the country and the world. You can also peruse local goods, such as craft beer, wine, honey, art and other gifts that you can bring back home as souvenirs. While you’re there, grab some coffee from the espresso bar, which uses beans from local coffee company Georgia Roasters, or order a sandwich or baked goods from the deli. Travelers love the deli and souvenirs, but some note that the cheese and charcuterie items can sometimes be out of stock or overpriced.

Address: 9697 GA-75, Helen, GA 30545

Fred’s Famous Peanuts

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Your trip to the South may not be complete with a stop by a roadside country store. Fred’s Famous Peanuts opened in 1982 and sells several homemade products that may be hard to pass up. The store offers boiled and roasted peanuts, fresh pork rinds, homemade peanut brittle, beef jerky, ciders, pickles, sauces and a variety of jellies, jams and preserves. If you’re not sure what you want to buy, snag some free samples to find out what you like. Fred’s Famous Peanuts is a favorite among travelers, many of whom rave about the store’s peanuts, pork rinds and cider.

Address: 17 Clayton Road, Helen, GA 30545

BabyLand General Hospital

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Nearby Cleveland (about 10 miles south of Helen) is considered the birthplace of Cabbage Patch Kid dolls. While the fervor over Cabbage Patch Kids has long since died down – people were so obsessed that riots broke out in stores in the early 1980s due to the scarcity of the dolls – diehard fans may still enjoy a visit to BabyLand. At the hospital, you can witness the birth of a hand-sculpted Cabbage Patch Kid or take a self-guided tour of the facility and play with some of the dolls. You can even adopt one and bring it home. You’ll also be able to see some of the earliest Cabbage Patch Kids (then called Little People) dating back to 1978. Admission to BabyLand General Hospital is free, but it’ll cost $70 or more to take a doll home with you. Visitors love the nostalgia of the hospital and say it’s a fun place to bring your kids.

Address: 300 N.O.K. Drive, Cleveland, Georgia 30528

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