Tucked away in northern Georgia, between Atlanta and the Tennessee border, is a destination bubbling over with Civil War history, folk art, talented chefs, and relics of one of the world’s most iconic brands. I spent a week exploring the backroads and foothills of this region to uncover its hidden gems. Here are ten of my favorites:
1. Booth Western Art Museum, Cartersville
Home to the largest permanent exhibition space for western art in the country, Booth Art Museum in Cartersville is like stepping into a western film. Featuring galleries of contemporary western American, historic western, and Civil War art along with two actual stagecoaches (one with bullet holes in the side) and a mural with every U.S President in the 20th century, Booth offers a rare look at early American life. Take a few hours to wander its halls, and be sure to check out the rotating exhibits upstairs. When I visited, they were displaying an exhibit from the personal family photographer for the Kennedy family, Jacque Lowe.
2. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, Summerville
You would never guess that the home of one of the world’s most famous folk artists would be fun on the outskirts of a small town of 4,000 residents. That’s exactly what you’ll find in Summerville, where visionary artist Howard Finster created over 46,000 pieces of artwork in his home, Paradise Garden. Walk the grounds and you’ll find inspiration on all sides in the form of fountains, pathways lined with precarious items, and countless murals painted on walls, signs, cars, and just about any canvas Howard could get his hands on. A preacher by trade, Finster started painting at the age of 59 after a voice coming from his thumb told him to. He took this as a sign from God and the rest is history. Today, there’s not a major museum in America that doesn’t own a Finster as part of its collection.
3. Old Car City, off Highway 411 near White
On the side of Highway 411 near the town of White lies the world’s largest classic junkyard, Old Car City. Over 4,000 classic cars including ’67 Mustangs, ’40 Ford pickups, ’68 Chargers, and everything in between rest in peace across seven miles of trails woven through the Georgia forest. Old Car City started out as a dealership in 1931 and is still family-owned to this day. The current owner, Dean, is a character and happy to share the history of the place, and even a few ghost stories from over the years.
4. World’s first Coca-Cola wall sign, Cartersville
Painted on the side of a pharmacy by a syrup salesman in 1894, the first-known Coca-Cola wall sign ever painted can be found in Cartersville and is seen as an icon of advertising and southern heritage. If you look closely, you’ll see the “i” in “Drink” was missing originally and added in later…spelling is hard. The south loves its Coca-Cola and just about every town I went to was home to a museum of Coca-Cola artifacts. If you told someone from Georgia that Coca-Cola cured cancer, they’d probably believe you.
5. Barnsley Resort, Adairsville
Sixty miles north of Atlanta and hidden within the trees is the Barnsley Resort. Dating back to the pre-Civil War era, remains of the 19th-century, Downing-style estate are still standing today and the geometric, manicured gardens have been restored to their original form so guests can relive Godfrey Barnsley’s 1840 vision for his wife’s new home, Julia. The resort itself offers updated luxury amenities and is laid out like a traditional 19th-century English village complete with a manor and church, along with beer gardens, outdoor fire pits, and an award-winning golf course to complete the blending of past and present.
6. Rose Lawn Museum, Cartersville
Home to famous southern preacher Sam Jones—the “Billy Graham of the 1800s” as the locals like to call him—the Rose Lawn Museum in Cartersville is a beautifully restored Victorian mansion and amazing example of traditional southern architecture. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the museum is still home to many Jones family heirlooms and gets its name from the 200 rose bushes planted by Sam’s wife, Laura, outside. Fun fact: Ryman Auditorium in Nashville was originally built to entice Sam Jones into making the trip from Georgia to preach four times a year.
7. Rome, Rome
Rome, Georgia is a hidden gem of a town and worth a visit. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Rome offers natural beauty and southern charm that’s second to none. Check out the historic clock tower and its painted murals of the town’s history, and venture up the 109 steps to the top for a 360-degree view of the surrounding rivers and hills. Broad Street is full of boutique shops, bars and restaurants. For the best desserts around, go to Honeymoon Bakery and have an eclair…they’re to die for. For the best local bar and beer selection (they have over 75!), have a pint at Riverdog Outpost overlooking the Etowah River. If you really want to explore the area, check out Rolater Park just outside of town in Cave Springs with its limestone cave and natural spring. If you bring a water bottle, you can fill it with fresh spring water flowing from the spring below—though you just might have to wait in line behind a few locals doing the same thing!
8. Western and Atlantic Railroad Tunnel, Tunnel Hill (north of Dalton)
If you want witness Civil War history firsthand, check out the Western and Atlantic Railroad Tunnel and Museum. Located north of Dalton near the Tennessee border, the tunnel was completed in 1850 and was a vital supply route during the war. The infamous Great Locomotive Chase, in which soldiers from the Union army stole a locomotive from the Confederates and fled north, destroying everything they could in their path, came through the tunnel on its way to Chattanooga. Next to the tracks is the Clisby Austin House, which is where General Sherman planned the Atlanta campaign. Visitors can tour the house, which is full of Civil War era furniture, artwork and décor. There are even blood stains on the original wood bench in the kitchen from when the house served as a hospital during the Battle of Chickamauga.
9. Pine Mountain Gold Museum, Villa Rica
Discover the story of “the forgotten gold rush” at Pine Mountain Gold Museum outside of Villa Rica. It’s here that gold was discovered in 1828 and miners flocked to make their fortune. It’s also where the gold panning methods used in the more famous Sierra Nevada gold rush were perfected; in fact, most of the miners who traveled west to California were from Georgia. Who knew! Today, the grounds have been restored and offer interactive activities like panning for gold, riding a mini train around the mine, and a museum tour, making for a great place to bring the kids.
10. The food, everywhere
As a California native, and with this being my first trip to the south, I expected a lot of grits, bacon and fried everything everywhere I went. There was plenty of that, and it was glorious, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of restaurants focused on offering fresh, organic and healthy food. Some favorites included Cyra’s in downtown Dalton serving up delicious organic fare. The head chef, T.J., collaborates with the horticultural class at the local high school, which delivers him fresh produce each day. Bob of Bob’s Brick Oven Pizza, housed in a non-descript building in a gas station parking lot, grows his own organic lettuce and herbs, harvesting them just minutes before they’re on your plate. My favorite was Brown Dog Eatery in Carrollton, offering Cajun cuisine including po’boy sandwiches, shrimp ‘n grits, and one of the most amazing dishes I’ve ever tasted: grilled catfish with crawfish etouffee and collard greens. Dalton Distillery was another gem, where the father-and-son team was brewing moonshine using a 100-year-old family recipe.
For more on northern—and the rest of—Georgia, visit exploregeorgia.org.