Overnight in Athens

A short drive for a long list of fun
Written by Jennifer Colosimo | Photography courtesy of UGA Ice Dogs; Emily Hall; Rinne Allen; Graduate Hotel

I’ve been to Athens a million times. Not only did I spend five years there as a full-time student, but I spent the few years after graduation loyally returning for game days, spring weekends and summer nights. After that phase, and now that we’ll admit to being (semi) Grown-Ups, we jump at the chance to find reasons to hop on 316 and head back east to the red and black burrow. More than a year has passed by since our last trip and rumors of renovations, new restaurants and a season of less students have passed through our social media feeds, so my husband and I decided it was time to revisit and see what one of our favorite cities has to offer someone not looking for power hour.

DSC_8197What to Do
Our baseline excuse to visit downtown Athens in the winter was to see the streets lit up by tiny twinkling lights. Every bar and restaurant-dotted street of downtown – Broad, Clayton, College and Washington – boasted sparkling trees, creating a romantic glow along otherwise boisterous sidewalks. Since football (especially this year) was far gone from campus, the choices are a growing basketball team or the little known ice dogs, who scrape skates down at The Athens Classic Center.

We chose the latter, and discovered a tiny, die-hard community dressed in UGA jerseys, chanting in unison and banging on the glass every time one of our players scored. It’s a small, club-team atmosphere you’d expect, but with emotions as strong as those found between the hedges – and even a girl on the team. Tickets are cheap, games are often and if you bring the family, you can purchase skate passes to hit the ice yourselves after the buzzer blows.

the_national-interior_rinneallenthe_national-pizzette_rinneallenWhere to Eat
The best part about choosing ice hockey as your spectator sport of choice is that you’re already downtown come dinner time. This is where the decisions get hard, because for a town built around boys and girls on a budget, there is some serious good eating to be done. Staple favorites still in business are Amici for pizza and wings, The Globe for local-inspired pub fare and The Grill for late-night fried food staples.

We made reservations at The National – a cozy kitchen off the indie theatre, Cine, with a famous chef and notoriously good grub. Start with the crispy brussel sprouts drizzled in an herbed sour cream sauce, but then squeeze in room for one more appetizer – one of the crispy, light pizzettes. The menu is seasonal, but for these cold, winter nights, get comfy with the soul-warming Hanger Steak or the melt-in-your-mouth Pork Shoulder and Chorizo. Pair it with a glass of the Couer de Terre Pinot Noir, and you’ve got a meal made in heaven – and one worth the entire drive to Athens, if you did nothing else.

Do something else though – We opted out of the in-house dessert for a drive up to Five Points. Here, hardly any of our old hangouts still exist, but a new spot surprised our taste buds. The Pine is a spirits-heavy spot with light bites and a short menu that ends in just two, simple desserts. We opted for the S’mores, which come steaming in a mini cast iron pan with perfectly charred marshmallows over rich, melted chocolate and grahams. We ate right out of the pan – and would have licked it, if it hadn’t still been hot.

Daytime diner? We loved brunch at Heirloom Café. It’s off the downtown path, off North Chase Street, and offers all-day dining with that Prince Avenue (a.k.a “the locals”) side of town touch. We chose everything with the word Pimento Cheese in it, sampled still-warm chocolate chip scones and groaned over delicious sausage and creative quiches. Their cocktail list and main menu look incredible, but it’ll be hard to give up the anticipation over those breakfast food phenoms next time we’re there.

Where to SleepDouble-Queen-QueenIronworks-Coffee-2Even the hotels have changed in the Classic City. Whereas we used to recommend calling the Best Western months in advance to ensure a room, now a slew of higher-end lodging awaits your reservation. Whether the Hilton Garden Inn in the heart of downtown, the new, hip Hotel Indigo just blocks from Washington Street or The Graduate Athens (formerly, The Foundry Park Inn) on the corner of Dougherty and Thomas Street (walkable to The Classic Center), you’ve got a trendy place to rest your head – no matter how much sleeping you plan to do.

The Graduate opened in October with retro, student-body-inspired decor of brighter colors and funky prints. Other than these internal facelifts, not much about the rooms have changed. You’re still fighting for parking and listening to wedding and event-goers race to their rooms, but the conservative green and whites are finally gone. Plus, the property has created a new lobby, coffee shop and lounge that serves us creative cups of comfort you can enjoy sofa-side, or take back to your room. The main perk is that this hotel choice is still one of the most affordable (without defaulting back to the Best Western) and walkable to everything available downtown. With the sparkling lights in full glory and the restaurants giving you reasons to order course after course, that walk isn’t a bad idea.

More Good Go-Tos | Shop used, new and fun books at Avid Bookshop on Prince Avenue; Sip coffee and read local papers (or people watch) at Jittery Joe’s downtown; Sample seafood at the brand-new Marker 7 in Five Points; Carb-load outside at Big City Bread; Clink beers upstairs on the heated patio of All Good on Clayton Street.

Plan your own trip via visitathensga.com