In the north Georgia mountains, visitors can stand on the highest point in the state, hike to gorgeous waterfalls in state parks and national forests, and learn about the Georgia Gold Rush. But in Helen, a different kind of experience awaits travelers. Transformed into a Bavarian-style village in the 1960s, Helen offers an opportunity for visitors to experience authentic German food, architecture, and culture while still enjoying typical outdoor recreation.
My road trip through the north Georgia mountains began with a couple of days in Clayton at Black Mountain State Park. Next, I traveled along US Highway 23 through the Tallulah Gorge and detoured into Toccoa. Then, finally, I traveled into Helen.
It’s one of the few destinations I’ve ever visited that made my jaw drop.
Every building in town exhibited Bavarian-style architecture. German food was plentiful. Hiking to a waterfall was a peaceful escape, and tubing the Chattahoochee was a fun excursion. Find out about all the things you can do with a weekend getaway to Helen – the Alpine Village of Georgia.
How Helen Became the Alpine Village of Georgia
Helen is a young town. It wasn’t founded when the Cherokee allowed early settlers to build the Unicoi Turnpike through their land, it wasn’t founded during the Georgia Gold Rush in the early 1800s, and it wasn’t founded during Reconstruction after the Civil War. Helen was founded in 1913 when John Mitchell, a surveyor from St. Louis, laid out the town for a lumber company.
For nearly fifty years, Helen thrived as a lumber town. Connected to the outside world by a railroad, the town was a center of commerce in the north Georgia mountains. But as demand for lumber decreased, the sawmills were abandoned, and the town faced a steep decline.
In 1969, local businessmen Pete Hodkinson, Bob Fowler, and Jimmy Wilkins met at the four-year-old Paul’s Steakhouse. They discussed saving the town with an initial idea of turning toward tourism. The men hired watercolor artists John Kollock to help redesign the town. Drawing from his time spent in Bavaria during the Korean Conflict, Kollock suggested transforming Helen into a Bavarian-style town in the Appalachian Mountains.
Streets were renamed – “street” became “strasse,” the English transliteration of the German word for street. The town adopted an official architectural and color style guide for new and existing buildings. Within a decade, the former lumber town transformed into the Alpine Village of Georgia.
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Go Tubing on the Chattahoochee River
On any given summer day, the Chattahoochee River quietly meanders through Helen – along with a gaggle of bright neon innertubes topped with giggling children and murmuring adults. Tubing the river is one of the most popular outdoor activities in Helen.
Cool River Tubing offers a one-hour and a two-hour ride on the river with a shuttle bus returning you to your car. Helen Water Park provides a similar tubing experience with shuttle bus, but they also have an entire water park to explore. Four water slides with twists and turns and exciting hills drop riders into shallow pools while a lazy river encircles the park.
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Play Miniature Golf
One of the interesting attractions to come out of a blending of a Bavarian village in the Appalachian Mountains is a putt putt. Helen features three miniature golf courses with various themes and guaranteed fun for an hour or two.
Alpine Golf is the only putt putt course to feature a Bavarian theme. The 18 holes wind along Main Street between flowering shrubbery and towering trees. As a nice treat, Scoop de Scoop Ice Cream Parlor is a great reward for anyone who finishes the round of putt putt.
Bavarian Mountain Miniature Golf sits high on a hill overlooking Helen. The modern putt putt course is well maintained and crisscrosses a stream built through the middle. A small video game arcade gives kids something to do on rainy days.
It would be understandable to assume Pirate Cove Adventure Golf got its start in Myrtle Beach, the Miniature Golf Capital of the World, but this chain was founded in Traverse City, Michigan. The pirate theme is evident throughout the putt putt course, complete with skeletons, treasure chests, and a cascading waterfall.
Explore the Outdoors at Unicoi State Park
Be sure to bring your GoPro camera when you explore Unicoi State Park. About a ten-minute drive from Helen, the state park features an artificial lake, outdoor recreation, and exciting adventures.
The Archery & Air Gun Range features a static archery range, a 3-D archery range, and an air gun range. At the Boat House, visitors can rent paddleboards, kayaks, and paddleboats to explore the small Unicoi Lake. Have you ever wanted to learn how to fly fish? Fly fishing classes are taught at the state park, along with several other outdoor recreation classes.
The Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure Tour is one of the most popular outdoor activities at the state park. 19 zip lines whisk people through the air up to 100 feet off the ground and 2,000 feet between stations. Nine suspension bridges connect the stations, but don’t worry – your harness is always secured using an innovative system.
Hike to Anna Ruby Falls
From the Beach House at Unicoi State Park, drive a couple of miles along a winding paved road to the Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area. Part of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest and maintained by FIND Outdoors, the recreation area features the twin waterfalls that make the stunning Anna Ruby Falls.
From the parking lot, it’s a 0.9-mile out-and-back hike to the waterfall. The hike is rated moderately easy because of the paved surface and gentle ascent to the waterfall – which, of course, means it’s all downhill coming back.
Ride the Georgia Mountain Coaster
Does the thought of racing through a narrow corridor in the forest on a tiny cart attached to a rail sound exciting? Then you might want to check out Georgia Mountain Coaster.
Carved into a hillside in the middle of town, the attraction follows a new trend of building coasters low to the ground that use the natural curves and hills of the landscape to create invigorating rides. The carts are single-person wide and feel more like sitting in a go-kart than a roller coaster. After an initial climb, the carts race through the forest at almost thirty miles per hour.
Explore the Helen Arts & Heritage Center
In 2007, the Helen Arts & Heritage Center was founded to promote local arts and crafts. Artists frequently work in the studios, including a fully equipped pottery studio. Browse the gift shop to find their work – you might find something to take home.
Take a weekend art class, explore Helen’s history at the small museum, or return for one of their annual festivals to experience more artwork from the locals.
Enjoy Thrilling Activities at Nacoochee Adventures
Nacoochee Adventures doesn’t just want to get your heart pounding while ziplining through the forests. They also want you to learn the local history, challenge yourself, and spend the night in a treehouse.
The Moonshine Canopy Tour starts with a 10-minute ride along an old logging road to the first zipline platform. The tour starts low and slow but gets faster as you connect to different lines. An optional addition to the adventure is The Intimidator – a half-mile-long dual zipline with stunning views and the opportunity to race your friends and family.
The Yonah Quest Challenge Course is a ropes course with three levels and twenty-seven challenges, all while securely fastened to an overhead safety line. But the adventure doesn’t stop there – rent bicycles from their shop and ride the Hardman Farm Heritage Trail, a bicycle trail winding along the Chattahoochee River into downtown Helen.
Spend the night on the property in one of their rustic, barebone tree houses. While not exactly hanging from trees, these rentals are about twenty feet off the ground with trees. Each cabin can sleep 2-4 people and features beds, hammocks, and outdoor fire pits.
Explore History at Hardman Farm Historic Site
In 1870, Captain James Nichols built a grand Italianate-style house at the west end of Nacoochee Valley. Calvin Hunnicutt, the second owner, used the house as a summer retreat from his estate in Atlanta. Finally, the house came into the family of Dr. Lamartine Hardman, the governor of Georgia, from 1927 to 1931.
In 1999, the home was meticulously restored using Hunnicutt’s original furniture and donated to the state. Guided tours of the house include tales of the three families to live there.
Across the street, the Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound is one of the most iconic sights in Georgia. The mound was built sometime between 1350-1600. In 1915, archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institute partially excavated the mound, discovering a burial mound. Shortly after Nichols built the house, he shaved off the top of the mound and built a gazebo – undoubtedly unaware it was a burial mound.
The Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound is not open to the public, but you can capture a great photo from the front side of the historic house.
Visit the Nora Mill Granary Grist Mill & Country Store
You won’t be able to miss Nora Mill Granary – the old building is located directly beside the Unicoi Turnpike just minutes from Helen. Built in 1876, the original 1,500-pound burr stones are still used to produce pancake mixes, flour, grits, and anything that uses flour or wheat.
Learn about the history of the grist mill, see the machinery in action, and browse through the country store. Be sure to peek outside behind the mill to see the Chattahoochee River churning over a small weir dam built to provide waterpower to the mill.
Do Some Local Shopping
The heart of local shopping in Helen is located around the intersection of North Main Street and Chattahoochee Strasse. Local artwork, clothing, and goods fill the display windows in Swiss German Plaza, Helen Central Plaza, and shops lining the streets.
Gift shops filled with tourist trap souvenirs are a dime a dozen, located about every fifth storefront throughout town. But if you dig deeper, local stores are a hidden surprise. Tim’s Wooden Toys is the North Pole of Helen, where Tim Bramlett handcrafts toys in his shop. At Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen, the smell of freshly baked candies wafts through the air, started by David and Janet Jones in 1973. Lindenhaus Imports brings the best home décor and gift items straight from Germany to their small shop – clocks, stein mugs, pillows, and artwork are a few examples.
Do you enjoy authentic German-style beer? At Alpine Brew Store & Bottle Haus, you can browse hundreds of imported beers and mix and match six-pack cases to take home with you.
Visit the Local Wineries
Ironically, although Germany is known for its beers, Helen has no breweries. However, there are wineries, and I feel like that’s a good close second best.
Habersham Vineyards & Winery started in the 1970s with a 30-acre vineyard in nearby Clarkesville. Since then, they have added a second vineyard and opened a tasting room at the edge of Helen. Sample any of their wines in a flight, order by the glass, and browse their selection of imported cheeses for the perfect pairing.
In 2019, Tom Slick, owner of Habersham Winery, expanded the family business with Creekstone Vineyards and Winery. The tasting room is located inside a gorgeous French-style mansion on a hill above the Hardman Farm State Historic Site. While sampling their wines, be sure to walk outside to enjoy the stunning view of nearby Yonah Mountain.
Those who wine together stay together. Just a year after their marriage, Matthew and Lindsey Vrahiotes began work on building Sweet Acre Farms Winery in Gainesville, forty-five minutes south of Helen. At their tasting room in Helen, visitors can sample their wines in flights or buy them by the glass or bottle when you find one you like.
Attend the Annual Oktoberfest
In 1971, Helen held the first Oktoberfest – a celebration of German-style beer, brats, music, and lots of Lederhosen. It’s the longest-running Oktoberfest in the country, spanning several weeks throughout September and October.
Live music fills the air around the quiet town during the festival, restaurants cook up special meals, and vendors travel into town with their German-inspired arts and crafts. Thousands of people every week squeeze into the tiny town for a chance to experience one of the most authentic Oktoberfest celebrations in the US.
Where to Eat
The Alpine Village of Georgia is more than just storefront facades and street names. It’s also the food. Bratwurst, schnitzel, and sauerkraut are served at many of the restaurants in Helen. But don’t fret if you’re not a fan of German-style food – you’ll also find steaks, burgers, and pizza at local eateries.
But first, coffee.
JumpinGoat Coffee Roasters draws its name from the unverified origin story of coffee – an Ethiopian goatherder’s flock became hyper after eating coffee beans. Sourcing the best coffee beans from around the world, the folks at JumpinGoat roast the coffee in Helen and serve it up freshly ground in every coffee drink. The small coffee shop is located in an old building beside Nora Mill Granary – take the coffee outside to enjoy it by the Chattahoochee River.
Yonah Coffee and Café offers good coffee, but they really shine with their made-to-order breakfast menu certain to get your day started right. The café features a very small indoor seating area in the middle of town.
Kartoffelpuffer, Kartoffelsalat, Jägerschnitzel. You’ll see a lot of German language on the menus. But don’t fret – translations are available. Most of the menus explain the German dishes in plain English, and if not, the wait staff are excellent at explaining it themselves.
When Horst and Gerda Hofer took decades of experience operating bakeries and came to Helen, they built one of the most authentic German experiences in the town, Hofer’s of Helen. They imported furniture from Germany and hired a world-famous muralist to decorate the interior. Now operated by their son, Ralph Hofer, the restaurant has the largest German food menu in town.
Harold and Terry Link were born in Heidelberg, Germany. In 1976, they honeymooned in Atlanta – and took a fateful day trip to Helen. In 1977, the couple opened The Forge – now called The Heidelberg. With sandwiches, schnitzels, and German delicacies, you’ll find one of the most authentic menus at this restaurant. Sit inside on comfortable chairs and enjoy the white brick walls and hardwood floors, or get a table outside in the small plaza.
Located “under the bridge,” The Troll Tavern & Restaurant offers one of the best views with a German meal in Helen. German fare includes a bratwurst platter and Weiner schnitzel. But their burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, and entrees include American fare, creating a diverse menu.
Hofbrauhaus Restaurant offers a more secluded dining option about five minutes from the middle of town. Located along the Chattahoochee River, diners can enjoy views of the river with an outdoor table. The menu is evenly split between German and American-style foods, along with a good selection of appetizers, desserts, wine, and beer.
Zdenek Muller has a culinary degree from an institute in Prague. When he came to Helen, he opened Muller’s Café and developed a menu featuring German and Czech-style foods. Enjoy authentic, savory meals inside at comfortable tables on hardwood floors, or get a seat outside at picnic tables on a balcony overlooking the town.
Across the river from The Troll Tavern, Café International divides their lunch and dinner menus between fares from France, Italy, Germany, and America. The selection is relatively small but savory. Enjoy the meal with a table overlooking the Chattahoochee River.
In 1969, Pete Hodkinson, Bob Fowler, and Jimmy Wilkins met at the four-year-old Paul’s Steakhouse. From that fateful meeting, the Alpine Village of Georgia was born. Ironically, you won’t find a single German meal on the menu. But you will find amazing steaks, chicken, and fish meals. Paul’s Steakhouse offers the best view of the Chattahoochee River from indoor seating in Helen through large picture windows high above the river.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn an eatery called Cowboys & Angels Restaurant and Bar doesn’t have a single German meal on the menu. Instead, the restaurant has the best burger menu in Helen. Along with savory appetizers, hand-cut steaks, and pasta dishes, you’re certain to find something you like.
Alpine Brew Deck is more about the beer than the food, but both are great, with a commanding view of the Chattahoochee River from the outdoor bar. The draft list typically features a couple of German-style beers and craft beers from across Georgia. The food menu is light, typical bar food, with wings, burgers, and appetizers.
Village Crepe Haus Restaurant proves that crepes are more than just dessert – breakfast, sweet, and savory crepes fill their menu. Good for breakfast or lunch, enjoy a meal in the small indoor seating or take it outside at the Swiss German Plaza.
Nacoochee Village Tavern promises “Real pizza, real people, real good,” and they’re not wrong. Browse their menu of specialty pizzas or build your own from scratch or try a baked hoagie or panini. The tavern offers an excellent selection of craft beers on tap that rotates throughout the year.
Where to Stay
You won’t have to search long to find a great place to stay in Helen – but you will need to book early. The Alpine Village of Georgia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. If possible, try to visit mid-week during the prime summer tourism season.
The Alpine Village Inn is one of Helen’s most unique places to stay. Guest rooms are spread between four small buildings on the property. Each building is divided into two rooms on the first floor and two rooms on the second floor accessible only by an exterior staircase. Guest rooms feature two double beds or one king bed.
Red Roof Inn is an excellent choice because the motel is within walking distance to all the downtown restaurants and shopping. The motel features an outdoor swimming pool, albeit along the busy Main Street. Renovated rooms include faux hardwood floors, new furnishings, and two queen beds or one king bed.
The Heidi Motel is a surprisingly nice budget-friendly place to stay, and you can’t miss it with an iconic windmill towering over the lobby. Guest rooms are furnished with home-style bedframes, dressers, and side tables for a more relaxed feeling while you’re visiting the town. Rooms include two queen beds or one king bed – spring for a little extra to get a room with a mountain view.
SureStay Hotel by Best Western is an excellent place to stay a few nights in the middle of town. The motel features an indoor swimming pool and plenty of free parking on site. Guest rooms include two full beds or a king bed, and some of the rooms feature a balcony.
Unicoi Lodge is located at the state park about 10-15 minutes from downtown Helen. The lodge features easy access to hiking trails and outdoor activities, as well as an on-site bar. Guest rooms are gorgeously decorated with vaulted hardwood ceilings and include two full beds or one king bed.
At the end of River Street, The Riverbend Hotel offers one of the most secluded and peaceful overnight stays at a motel in Helen. During their stay, guests have access to riverfront swinging benches, grills, and picnic tables. Beautifully decorated rooms include two queen beds or one king bed.
Hampton Inn is always a great choice for overnight stays. This hotel features an outdoor swimming pool and outstanding complimentary hot breakfast in a large dining room each morning. Rooms include two double beds, one king bed, and the King Suite includes a king bed and sleeper sofa.
Black Forest Bed & Breakfast is an interesting place to stay in Helen. Rooms are connected along a shared wooden deck behind the main house. Although the furnishings and room décor are outdated, everything is well maintained and cozy. Breakfasts can be customized in the morning to fit your needs, making this an all-around great place to stay.
The Holiday Inn Express is one of the best hotels to spend a few nights in Helen. It’s a 15-minute walk to downtown restaurants and shopping from the hotel. Rooms feature two queen beds, one king bed, or a suite with two queen beds and a sleeper sofa.
The Valhalla Resort Hotel is the pinnacle of overnight accommodations in Helen. The towering hotel is located about fifteen minutes from downtown Helen at the Innsbruck Resort & Golf Club. The property includes an outdoor swimming pool with loungers, umbrellas, and a couple of cabanas. An on-site restaurant and bar are open throughout the day for guests. Rooms feature only one king bed – perfect for solo or couple travelers, not so great for the families.