Celebrate the Charm and Whimsy of Helen During its 50th Anniversary
In 1969, travelers passing through the North Georgia Mountains could stop in the small town of Helen, Georgia. This drive-through town was just that: A town to drive through. Originally incorporated in 1913 and named after the niece of the town’s developer John E. Mitchell, Helen was just another lumber town in the mountains. As the lumber industry dwindled, the town began to fade into obscurity and Helen found itself dying.
That is, until the residents came up with a plan to transform Helen into a Bavarian-inspired village. Fifty years ago, following the vision of Helen artist John Kollock, the businessmen of Helen added gingerbread trim to buildings, cobblestoned alleyways and tiny touches to give the little town in the mountains an alpine look.
Stepping Into Bavaria
When I first moved to Alpharetta from the Boston area, a friend suggested a visit to Helen, promising me a taste of Bavaria in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Heading up to the mountains on a picturesque fall day — the kind where there isn’t a cloud in the blue sky, leaves are turning into fiery colors and the humidity of summer has finally relinquished its hold — I had no expectations other than enjoying the company of a friend on a Saturday. I didn’t expect to see Bavaria.
Today, Alpine Helen is very much alive and well, featuring German cuisine, horse-drawn carriage rides, charming gift shops and a lively atmosphere. Having traveled around the Alps in France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria, I found the recreation of an alpine town center to be spot on.
We arrived hungry, so as I looked around in awe of the gingerbread construction, we knew German food was a must. Heidelberg German Restaurant, the first one in town, is the heart and soul of Main Street. This isn’t a tourist trap: this is authentic German fare in a can’t-miss blue-and-white building. When owners Harold and Terry Link honeymooned in Helen, they fell in love with the area, as it reminded them of their hometown: Heidelberg, Germany. Spanning across three stories, the Heidelberg features a German pub, the Bierhimmel Music Hall and a dining room with a menu straight out of southwestern Germany. Here you can feast on a variety of sausages, hearty meat dishes, spätzle, and, of course, schnitzel, which is my absolute favorite and a must-have whenever I travel to Europe. There are nine different schnitzel offerings, but I stayed true to the original, which was done as well as I could find across the pond.
Sipping and Shopping
After filling up on schnitzel and beer, we strolled along the square and shopped in an eclectic array of local stores. This isn’t the place for brand names and designer labels. This is home to local artists’ handmade goods, such as Southern Comfort Quilts, Tim’s Wooden Toys and Hickory Flat Pottery. There are candy stores, ice cream shops, bakeries, jewelers, glassblowers, Christmas shops — something at every turn. It’s easy to spend hours getting lost in the shops, or at least for the women to get lost in the shops while the men get lost in the biergarten.
Our day wasn’t just about the shopping, however. We decided to enjoy a wine tasting at Habersham Vineyards & Winery, which has been operating in the mountains since 1983 — one of the oldest and biggest wineries in Georgia. Our tasting included five samples (and a souvenir glass), and as we discovered Helen is also home to Helen Wine Company and nearby Cleveland’s CeNita Vineyards and Yonah Mountain Vineyards, we realized this town is also ideal for a wine-tasting weekend. Beer lovers can do the same with Blauer Wolf Brewery and Cleveland’s Tantrum Brewing Company.
To properly enjoy imbibing during a getaway, stay at one of the many hotels in Helen and make a weekend of your visit. The Helendorf River Inn, in the heart of downtown, is on the banks of the
Chattahoochee with balconies providing views — an ideal spot. If you go, bring a swimsuit to enjoy the indoor heated pool.
Still, Helen is less than two hours from most north Georgia locations, making a visit an easy day trip that feels like you’ve left the country for much longer. Since my first visit, I make a point to return every year to take in the charm and kitsch, and there is no better time than while Helen celebrates its 50th Anniversary. To plan your getaway, please visit www.helenga.org for brochures, maps and coupons available during your stay.
To learn more about a day trip to Helen, visit Alpine Helen / White County Visitors and Convention Bureau or call 800-858-8027.