Saturday, December 9, 2023

This Small Town in Georgia Is Modeled After a Bavarian Village — With German Food, a European-inspired Christmas Market, and the Longest-running Oktoberfest in the U.S.

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Northeast Georgia is a region known for its quaint mountain towns, claiming places like Dahlonega (Travel + Leisure’s best small town for wine, beer, and spirits), Blue Ridge, and Helen, a Bavaria-style gem with endless charm. Similar to Leavenworth, Washington, Helen’s German-inspired identity grew from a need for tourism following the decline of the lumber business. In 1969, the town rebranded into the destination it is today. 

“All the storefronts, restaurants, and hotels have architecture designed to remind you of Germany,” says Lisa Pitman, owner of The Christmas Shoppe. This festive nature is also reflected in the town’s events and annual celebrations. Every fall, Helen hosts Oktoberfest, encouraging visitors and locals alike to engage in a variety of classic German traditions. And come winter, Helen wholeheartedly embraces the magic of Christmas. “My favorite part of the holiday season in Helen is the small-town Christmas vibe,” says Donja Long, owner of Elite Excursions & Wine Tours. According to Ralph Hofer of Hofer’s Bakery & Cafe, a Helen staple, you can expect a ton of lights and holiday decorations.

No matter when you choose to visit, though, there’s plenty to discover in this alpine village. Read on to find out the best things to do, see, and eat in Helen, Georgia.

Top 5 Can’t Miss

  • Book a suite at Valhalla Resort, where you can experience mountain relaxation in its many forms. 
  • Get your fix of German food at The Heidelberg or Hofer’s Bakery & Cafe.
  • Participate in Helen’s Oktoberfest, the longest-running Oktoberfest celebration in the U.S.
  • Get your holiday shopping done at Helen’s traditional German market, Christkindlmarkt.
  • Spend an afternoon popping in and out of local shops, including Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen and Betty’s Country Store.

Jan Retter/Getty Images

Best Hotels & Resorts

Valhalla Resort

One of the most luxurious places to stay in Helen, Valhalla Resort welcomes guests to its suites, bungalows, private villa, and spacious townhome in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In between hikes and trips to downtown Helen, just two miles away, spend your days relaxing at the spa, playing golf or bocce ball, and brushing up on your tennis game. The property also has several dining options, including The Staghorn Grill, Sky Bar, and the Caledonia Dining Room — so you only have to leave the property if you really want to. 

The Castle Inn

If you’re interested in staying in downtown Helen, consider The Castle Inn. Described as an “old English style inn,” the property is right on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, within walking distance of most things in Helen. For an extra-special trip, reserve the Castle Suite, which features a full kitchen and a patio view of the town and river.

Lucille’s Mountain Top Inn & Spa 

Lucille’s Mountain Top Inn & Spa is the definition of a mountain retreat, complete with unparalleled views, a full-service day spa, and cozy accommodations. The inn doesn’t allow children under the age of 14, guaranteeing you’ll experience peace and quiet during your stay. Room rates also include a full breakfast for two and dessert in the evenings. 

Geoff Johnson/Visit Georgia

Best Things to Do


Oktoberfest is huge,” says Hofer. Taking place in the Helen Festhalle from early September through the end of October, the celebrations include “lots of German music, German beer and food, and many people dressed in German clothing — lederhosen, dirndls, and alpine hats with pin collections displayed proudly,” explains Pitman.

Georgia Mountain Coaster

Hofer says the Georgia Mountain Coaster is an “awesome experience for all ages.” Billed as the “first alpine coaster in Georgia,” the attraction is located in downtown Helen, so you can’t miss it. There’s no need to purchase tickets beforehand; just walk up to the window. Tickets start at $10 for children and $17 for adults for the first ride, and the second ride is half-price. 

Anna Ruby Falls at Unicoi State Park

When spending time in northeast Georgia, it’s important to take advantage of the region’s access to the great outdoors. Not sure where to start? Pitman recommends visiting Anna Ruby Falls at Unicoi State Park. The approximately one-mile out-and-back trail usually takes 30 minutes to complete, giving you plenty of time to check out other trails and activities in the area. 

Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race 

Helen is the starting point for the “South’s oldest balloon event” and the only long-distance hot-air balloon race in the U.S. “The Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race is always really cool to see,” says Hofer, who recommends experiencing the all-day affair if you’re in town on May 30. Along with the competing balloons — which head in the direction of I-95 — around 20 balloons will fly locally, and the public can help with inflations, join a chase crew, or take a ride in a tethered balloon. 

Christmas in Helen

The state of Georgia may not be synonymous with a winter wonderland, but Helen dresses to the nines for the season — starting with the annual Lighting of the Village. “The day after Thanksgiving is the Lighting of the Village. It reminds me of Whoville; the mayor makes a proclamation in the middle of the Town Plaza, then flips a switch and all the lights in the village of Helen turn on,” says Pitman. Other events include Christkindlmarkt on the Marktplatz, where you’ll find gifts, decorations, and various sweet and savory treats, and the annual Christmas parade, which takes place this year on Dec. 9. 

Geoff Johnson/Visit Georgia.

Best Shopping

Nora Mill Granary 

“Wandering through downtown Helen is a great shopping experience,” says Hofer, who also recommends checking out the Nora Mill Granary, slightly down the road from the center of Helen. The operational gristmill has been around since 1876, and visitors can stop in the Nora Mill General Store to purchase the granary’s grits, cornmeal, pancake and waffle mixes, as well as other “old-fashioned” products, like candy, jellies, and cast-iron cookware. 

The Christmas Shoppe

“The downtown area has many shops offering everything from sweets to clothing, jewelry, and gems,” says Long. One of these stores is The Christmas Shoppe, where you can pick out all kinds of ornaments, like hand-painted Austrian eggs, from Memorial Day weekend through Christmas Eve. 

Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen

If you’re visiting Helen for the first time, Pitman suggests making a stop for candy and fudge at Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen. Those with a sweet tooth will be in sugar heaven, surrounded by gourmet pecan and peanut brittle, chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate pretzels, and more sweet delights. 

Betty’s Country Store

Betty’s Country Store is the perfect place to stock up on all of your weekend essentials — fresh produce, deli items, specialty beer, wine, and baked goods. The shop has been a stalwart town character for more than 40 years, so you’ll get a true taste of Helen on each visit.

Geoff Johnson/Visit Georgia

Best Restaurants

The Heidelberg 

“Everyone should visit some of the German food establishments… while in Helen,” says Long. That includes The Heidelberg, a three-floor restaurant, pub, and music hall on N. Main Street. The menu is filled with all the classics — giant pretzels, sausages, and schnitzel specialties — so you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave full and satisfied.

Hofbrauhaus Restaurant

Hofbrauhaus Restaurant, located on the Chattahoochee River, is another option for hearty meals, particularly if you want your entree paired with a waterfront view. When the weather cooperates, enjoy your beer and meal on the pet-friendly patio (although dogs must be leashed). 

Hofer’s Bakery & Cafe

For what Hofer calls a “real German experience,” stop by Hofer’s Bakery & Cafe, where he and his team whip up freshly baked bread and pastries as well as Wiener schnitzel, spaetzle, and other German favorites. The bakery and cafe are open year-round, but guests can also spend time at the biergarten — which hosts live music during Oktoberfest — on weekends from May through early November. 

Muller’s Famous Fried Cheese Cafe

You’ll want to arrive hungry at Muller’s Famous Fried Cheese Cafe, a spot that serves German and Czech cuisine, and, yes, fried cheese. Choose from items like a fried cheese sandwich, a fried cheese kebab, or French brie stuffed with ham. Not a fan of dairy? The extensive menu provides ample non-cheese options, too.

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Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Helen depends on what you’re looking to experience, though spring and fall are favorites among locals. “Other than the festival times, I always tell people to come to Helen in April and May before schools let out. The town has beautiful landscaping and flowers, the weather is perfect, and the crowds haven’t arrived yet,” says Hofer. Long agrees, adding that “fall leaves offer a beautiful landscape to view while touring the area.” Plus, she says, “There’s just something about the atmosphere during Oktoberfest that measures to no other festival I’ve ever visited.”

How to Get There

Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) are the closest major airports to Helen. You’ll need to rent a car to drive the remaining 108 miles from GSP and 96 miles from ATL; both journeys typically take around two hours, barring any traffic delays. 

How to Get Around

While you’ll most likely have a car, you won’t need it to explore the downtown area. “Walking is the best way to see all Helen has to offer,” says Pitman. Main Street is the primary thoroughfare through town, and it’s home to many of the destination’s restaurants, stores, and inns.

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