When my husband and I moved to the state of Georgia six months ago, we were looking forward to exploring our new state. We made a list of places we wanted to visit, and one of the towns at the top of the list was Helen, Georgia. Our new neighbors and some family members suggested it because it is a small town in the northeast corner of Georgia, tucked up in the Appalachian Mountains, and has a Bavaria look and feel to it.
So one Saturday in February we set off to explore Helen.
History of Helen
The town of Helen was originally created in the late 1820s during the time of the Georgia gold rush. Yes, there really was a gold rush in Georgia! When all of the gold was gone, the town became a lumber town, and a saw mill kept people employed until all of the lumber was gone. By the early 1930s, nothing much was left in this sad and almost deserted small town.
In the late 1960s, some of the area businessmen met to try to brainstorm what they could do to improve Helen. Someone had the idea to turn it into a Bavarian town in the Appalachians instead of the Alps, an artist drew up a picture of buildings with gingerbread trim and Bavarian architecture, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As of the year 2000 census, the town officially had 430 residents, but due to the tourist population that number swells into the thousands in nice weather months and in September and October during Helen’s Oktoberfest, which offers plenty of German music, beer and delicious food. The town attracts over one million visitors each year, and I would say that brainstorming session over forty years ago was quite successful!
The drive to Helen is beautiful as you can see the mountains along the way. Tripadvisor.com has a list of the top things to do in Helen, and I was a bit dismayed to read that six out of the top ten were nature related. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, but on a February day, we were not inclined to be doing a lot outside.
In better weather, one might be tempted to stop at the Duke’s Creek Gold and Ruby Mines and pan for gold, as it is on the main route to Helen, approximately two miles before the center of town. Or you could continue past Helen for five minutes to see Ruby Falls, which is located in the Chattahoochee State Forest, both of which are in the top five things to do in Helen on the tripadvisor.com list.
Hofer’s of Helen For Lunch
Tripadvisor has a list of best restaurants in Helen as well as things to do. I did some research before we left home and decided we should have an authentic German meal in this town that looked like a village in Germany. Although there are approximately twenty four restaurants in this small town, the restaurant I chose was Hofers of Helen. This was number six on the list, but had the lunch time fare we were looking for.
Upon entering, we were mesmerized by the delicious looking pastries in the glass case to our left. Straight ahead and tucked into an old bank vault was a very small gift shop which offered typical souvenirs such as mugs and post cards, but also gifts of Bavaria including cuckoo clocks from Germany and teddy bears wearing Lederhosen.
We were seated and enjoyed the quaint old European décor of the small eating area. Waitresses in traditional German dresses waited on tables. Our waitress suggested an Oktoberfest beer for my husband which was actually quite good, but came in a much larger glass than he had expected, so I did offer to help him drink it. In spite of the fact that I am not a big beer fan, it was quite good.
For our meals, I ordered Spatzle Suppe (German noodle soup) and half a turkey sandwich. The soup had a very rich broth and was quite delicious, as was the turkey sandwich. My husband had Bratwurst with sauerkraut on a pretzel roll which he said was quite good.
I couldn’t resist trying a dessert from that tempting case in the front of the restaurant so I ordered a cream puff. I was not disappointed. It was the largest cream puff I have ever seen in my life so my husband generously offered to help me eat it. The cream was that perfect mixture of sweet and creamy so that neither taste was too overpowering. The pastry was light and flaky and added a nice contrast to the sweet cream.
Highlights of Helen
After our very filling lunch we drove back toward the center of town and paid five dollars to park for the day in a parking area that was in the middle of everything.
Number seven on the list of things to do in Helen was Charlemagne’s Kingdom. I wanted to surprise my husband by taking him there, but it was closed for the season, as were a few other shops we saw. Charlemagne’s Kingdom is a small building which houses a train display centered around a mountain with villages interspersed on platforms. My husband loves model train displays, and we were hugely disappointed that this was not open.
There is a nice little park with a creek and waterfall running through it, and because we were full from lunch and had our dog with us, we headed there first. There was a playground with benches to sit on so we spent a few minutes sitting in the sun on a hill overlooking the town. We watched horse drawn carriages bringing tourists around and it was a memorable moment to share.
Heading back toward the shops, we found a very cute area that was like what you would imagine the center of a town in Bavaria would be, with little shops and restaurants surrounding a courtyard. There were benches for people to rest on.
My favorite shop in this area was one offering items from Holland, with a very friendly shopkeeper who was from Holland herself. I enjoyed chatting with her a bit and thanked her for the bowl of water she had left outside her shop door for dogs, which my own dog appreciated.
As we meandered through town, we enjoyed the musical styling of a busker who was singing folk music accompanied by a guitar and hoping to earn a bit of money on this February day, which turned out to be quite sunny with temperatures reaching the low sixties.
I enjoyed this bench in the sunshine!
We continued walking and came to an inn with a restaurant that had a balcony overlooking the Chatahoochee River, which incidentally runs right through the center of Helen. Just past the inn is a bridge where many people were gathered, taking in the river scene and chatting with each other in the sunshine. It is a great photo spot so I took advantage of it as my husband chatted with some nearby tourists. Many people had brought along their cameras as this town is quite picturesque and even the sides of buildings had Bavarian designs painted on them.
After a few hours it was time to leave but we agreed to definitely return when the weather warms up.
I would highly recommend a visit to Helen, Georgia to experience the delights this little town offers those who want to escape for a day and imagine they are in Bavaria, with all the sights, sounds and tastes one might find there. I would suggest a visit in the warm weather of spring, summer or fall, especially in fall during the Oktoberfest to get a true feel for Bavaria without the expensive plane fare.
Photos and text by Karen Hellier
Come visit Karen’s blog at http://secondmarriageromance.blogspot.com/