The 7 best weekend trips from Atlanta Georgia

While you might be happy scouring through the gritty treasures of urban Atlanta, lift your eyeline from the asphalt and you’ll be surprised to discover myriad natural wonders awaiting just outside of the city limits. There’s the Smoky Mountains to the North, the Atlantic Ocean to the South and lakes all around, making Atlanta a fine jumping-off point for adventurers and nature lovers alike. If you just want to get away, the Highlands or the shores of Lake Oconee provide luxury relief overlooking mountains and forest, while the New-Urbanism community of Serenbe brings small-town life into the 21st century. If you’re stuck choosing between north or south, read on for our rundown of the best weekend getaways from Atlanta.

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Atlanta | Photo: Ibuki Tsubo

Atlanta, Georgia

Flanked at either end by both mountains and sea, Atlanta has all manner of appeal for local and international vacationers. Take just a half-day out of town and you’ll soon find yourself salted from the sea breeze or breathing alpine air, touching down at Georgia’s best beaches, historic towns, luxury resorts and more. Before you leave Atlanta for calmer zones, however, be sure to enjoy the joys of the capital.

A sprawling city of six million with a name in film production and black liberation, Atlanta is a city that rides under the radar; too cool for media attention, too hot to be ignored. The city’s hip-hop underbelly is what’s depicted in Donald Glover’s TV hit Atlanta, but the city is a real chameleon boasting a robust economy that props up a booming arts industry and the preservation of historic neighbourhoods as well as over 343 forest parks and wild spaces. Get your fill of Atlanta’s quirky and artsy spaces, exploring the city’s museums, theatres and arts districts by day and its bars and music venues by night.

A Southern city through and through, Atlanta doubles down on regional cuisine and culture, while also pushing for progress at every moment. Locally born son of a preacher man, Martin Luther King Jr remains a legend in Atlanta, as a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and a hero for African Americans across the country. Visitors can find his legacy live on in the historic Sweet Auburn district, a site marked by the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site. Coast through this leafy city stopping at hip hangouts and cosy cafés, filling up on pecan pie, fried chicken and New American cuisine like it’s your last day on earth. And if it’s not? Then follow any road out of there, on any of our day trips from Atlanta, to see Georgia (and the surrounding states of South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida) from myriad different angles.

Atlanta | Photo: Kyle Sudu

Photo: Ronny Sison

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The historic district is Savannah’s biggest draw, expressly for its 18th and 19th century antebellum architecture and a number of elegant public spaces shaded by moss-covered oaks

1. Savannah

Get a funky playlist ready for the four-hour drive from Atlanta to Savannah (or simply take a short flight), swapping the hustle of Atlanta for the romance of Georgia’s most charming old city. The historic district is Savannah’s biggest draw, expressly for its 18th and 19th century antebellum architecture and a number of elegant public spaces shaded by moss-covered oaks.

There are 22 civic squares across the entire city with Oglethorpe Square and Monterey Square being two of the most beautiful, while Forsyth Park, Wormsloe Site and East River Street are also popular spots to hangout. Of the many things to do in Savannah, strolling the cobblestone streets in search of historic landmarks, haunted graveyards and Civil War Sites is a strong choice, breaking at a large number of restaurants, cafés and shops along the way. Those staying in Savannah can book at a historic bed and breakfast or opt for something a bit more trendy downtown. From your base you’ll be able to explore gay Savannah more easily, finding the most LGBT-owned businesses (boutiques, galleries and bistros) concentrated around River Street. Once you’ve seen Savannah, allow time for a short drive to Tybee Island (see no. 4) for fun in the sun around Tybee Beach pier and pavilion.

Savannah, Georgia | Photo: Ashley Knedler

2. Jekyll Island

Second in our list of weekend getaways near Atlanta is Jekyll Island, some five hours from Atlanta by car. Part of the Golden Isles of Georgia, attached to the mainland by the 520 causeway, Jekyll Island is an accessible retreat filled with beaches, marshes and wild landscapes a world away from urban Atlanta. Though parts of the land have been ‘lost’ to country-club golf courses and shopping centres, the authenticity of Jekyll Island remains, making the high humidity of Georgia suddenly seem more bearable.

A visit to the Georgia Sea Turtle Centre is one of the top things to do in Jekyll Island, allowing you to witness sea turtle rescue first hand (on summer nights) while learning of the local wildlife and nesting habits. Driftwood Beach nearby is a great place to fill the afternoon from there, finding smooth branches for macramé hangings, instagramming the landscape or napping under the palms. More than that, Jekyll Island is actually home to 15 kilometres of shoreline. Of these, the best Jekyll Island Beach is a toss-up between Great Dunes, South Dunes, Glory Beach and St Andrews, the latter at the wild southern tip of the island. Alternative ways to spend the day include visiting the Hollybourne Cottage, Horton House and the Mosaic Jekyll Island Museum, to learn of the history of the Golden Isles.

Jekyll Island | Photo: Zach Reiner

Photo: Kindel Media

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Seen from most vantage points in the city, the Great Smoky Mountains call to us from far in the distance, enticing us north for our third getaway Atlanta. The most visited national park in America, split between western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, here the ethereal blue mist lies low among the ridges, establishing the setting for a weekend of hiking, stargazing and camping across 520,000 acres.

Access the park’s five main entrances via Asheville, the perfect resting point prior to your Smoky Mountain trek, around 90 minutes’ drive from a number of trailheads. The park is free to enter but certain areas can get crowded, especially in the afternoon. Come early to avoid the people, first seeing the epic waterfalls at Deep Creek, tackling the 7-kilometre loop trail or floating leisurely down the creek on a tube. Though human history makes its marks in these parts – specifically the pioneer community at Cades Cove and the ancient Cherokee site protected under the Qualla Indian Reservation – it’s the great wildlife that really owns the space. Cataloochee Valley is one of the areas where local wildlife abounds, with the highest chance of seeing 900-pound elks roaming the meadows nearby.

To stay the night, there are a ton of Great Smoky Mountain National Park camping sites to choose from, ranging from backcountry (accessible only via hike) to horse camps (accessible by car), most offering at least primitive facilities and running water. Then, once you’re done exploring the park, enjoy the drive back to its fullest along the beautiful Little River Road.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Photo: Chad Madden

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A popular spot among Atlantans since the 1800s thanks to its palm-studded coastal scenery, Tybee Island remains the summer go-to for both relaxation and lively entertainment

4. Tybee Island

Though often combined with a trip to Savannah, Tybee Island stands as a destination in its own right, particularly if you’re looking for beach getaways within five hours of Atlanta. A popular spot among Atlantans since the 1800s thanks to its palm-studded coastal scenery, Tybee Island remains the summer go-to for both relaxation (Mid Beach) and lively entertainment (South Beach). Despite having to climb 170 steps to the top, the Tybee Island Lighthouse and Museum rewards visitors with panoramas over the island, while the Marine Science Centre teaches local ecology in reach of a number of beach trails. For a day out in miniature, go north to Cockspur Island, seeing the lesser-visited Cockspur Lighthouse and Fort Pulaski National Monument.

Tybee Island | Photo: Timothy Perry

Tybee Island Lighthouse | Photo: Linda Gerbec

5. Chattanooga, Tennessee

The next adventure to complement our Atlanta vacation is to Chattanooga, over in Tennessee. Though crossing borders, the journey from Atlanta to Chattanooga takes less than two hours by car and offers a bunch of treats on arrival. Being based between the Tennessee River and the Appalachians, many of the attractions here are outdoor-focused, though there’s also the Tennessee Aquarium, various museums (including the African American Museum and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum), theatres and music venues for rainy days.

If the weather allows, however, get hiking in Prentice Cooper State Forest or go caving beneath Ruby Falls or within Raccoon Mountain Caverns. After a full day adventuring, head back to Chattanooga proper (the 4th largest city in Tennessee) where a mix of college town fun and Southern charm provides the perfect backdrop for the city’s active gay scene. Gay Chattanooga residents largely live downtown or in the Brainerd District, though gay clubs and bars are scattered around the whole city. The morning before heading back to Atlanta, rise early to walk or cycle the Tennessee Riverwalk ending with a picnic brunch at Seven State Viewpoint and the elevated Rock City Gardens.

Chattanooga | Photo: Kelly Lacy

6. Lake Oconee

Just an hour east of the big city, halfway to Augusta, Lake Oconee is the understated pearl of the region, hidden away in the wilderness and – as yet – unbeknownst to the masses. After driving the 100 kilometres direct to the lake, sign yourself up for any number of adventures, stopping at Oconee Wild Watersports for a jet ski or boat rental or even opting for a round of golf over at Great Waters Golf Course. After a full day of water and little white balls, the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee awaits on the lakefront to give guests the legendary service it is known for, across the spa, private patios, beach and infinity pool. Enjoy a cosy night beside the fire pits, leaving the kids at the Ritz Kids Centre if necessary. On the way back to Atlanta from Lake Oconee, break up the journey with a stop at downtown Greensboro for museums, theatrical arts and thrift stores all in one place.

Photo: Ashlyn Ciara

Photo: Guney Ozgur

7. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Leaving Georgia for one last jaunt in the South, we move to Hilton Head Island, a four-hour drive from Atlanta (or a 90-minute flight) on the southernmost tip of South Carolina. Hilton Head’s bicycle paths trace around 20 kilometres of sandy shoreline, allowing for leisurely weekend breaks exploring nature preserves, historic sites and beaches on a shoestring. If keeping to a budget is not the first priority, however, consider chartering a boat or cruising around the island (kayaking is also an option), accessing Coligny Beach Park and Hilton Head Beach from the water. At both popular spots you can enjoy gazebos, swing chairs and even WiFi, with the wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and beach paths connecting the beach to Coligny Plaza and the town centre.

Move from the beach to get the best choice of restaurants, cafés and shops, making time to visit the Harbour Town Lighthouse and maritime museum located beside Sea Pines Resort in the south. This section of the island is the more upscale area, offering high-end boutiques, an 18-hole golf course and the Coastal Discovery Museum all surrounding the glittering marina. Sunset is said to be the ultimate time on Hilton Head when the skies turn a pretty pink and the bars spill out with alfresco drinking and dining. For sunset and dolphin cruises, depart from Harbour Town docks, a central point in easy reach of souvenir shops, ice cream joints and more. Though Summer is peak season on the island, visiting later in the year around September is a smart move to avoid the crowds while still getting a good dose of vitamin D.

Hilton Head Island, SC | Photo: Jake Johnson

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Atlanta, Georgia | Photo: Joey Kyber

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