With so much live music and history to explore in Athens, your first visit surely won't be your last. Follow this guide to must-see music venues, festivals and more points of interest.
The B-52s and R.E.M. may have put Athens on the musical map, but this charming college town is so much more than a monument to past rock luminaries. Athens is alive. It’s a thriving, changing, fertile scene that is constantly cultivating new talent.
Many transplants come to Athens as freshmen at the University of Georgia and, seduced by the Never Never Land energy of the town, end up staying long after graduation. Likewise, touring musicians flock to Athens to pay homage to their heroes — whether that’s Widespread Panic, The Drive-By Truckers, Pylon, of Montreal, Vic Chesnutt, Neutral Milk Hotel or another one of the town’s influential exports — but they often find it hard to leave. Why? Well, rent, drinks and food are cheap. There is live music seven nights a week. The service industry is accommodating to touring employees. And if you’re looking for collaborators, you don’t need to look too far; they say just throw a rock in Athens, and you’ll hit a musician (but don’t actually do that; hitting musicians is frowned upon).
So, sure, come have a Stipe sighting. Come see where musical history was made and then be inspired to create your own. That’s what this town is really all about.
Use this list to find must-see music venues, festivals and more points of interest.
The heart and soul of Athens’ music scene for over 35 years, this legendary club, through all of its incarnations and locations, has launched and supported the careers of Athens’ most beloved acts. The 500-capacity room has also welcomed some of the biggest names in music, including Nirvana, Iggy Pop, The Strokes, Snoop Dogg and countless others.
Always on the cutting edge of indie, this club consistently books tomorrow’s stars today. This is a no frills room, dark and intimate, with superb sound. Caledonia Lounge is a great place to see underground touring acts and local bands alike.
The phoenix of Southern music venues, the Georgia Theatre was reopened in 2011 after a devastating fire gutted the building in 2009. The new and improved venue is stunningly beautiful, with a state-of-the-art sound system, two spacious balconies, a rooftop restaurant and an art gallery. The world-class venue welcomes world-class entertainment, with recent headliners including Big Boi, Wille Nelson, Tame Impala, The Zombies and Widespread Panic.
A quick jaunt from downtown, this sparkling little gem hosts dance parties and live music under a twirling disco ball. On busy nights, the garage door is lifted and a hip crowd spills out onto warmly lit patio. A certain front man has been known to get a nightcap here, so keep your eyes peeled — that could be him in the corner.
This unique space offers three stages — one in the courtyard and two indoors, plus a roomy dance floor. The multi-purpose venue also serves as a production studio dedicated to producing “concert level live studio sessions.” The calendar includes open mic nights, national touring acts and comedy.
A true treasure. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, The Morton opened in 1910 as a vaudeville theatre, and is one of the oldest African-American owned and operated venues in the United States. The lovingly restored building offers pristine acoustics and hosts a wide range of performers and events.
This elegant, 2,090-seat theater is part of a larger convention center downtown and hosts everything from Broadway musicals to rock concerts. Notable music acts that have graced the stage include The Decemberists, The B-52s, Loretta Lynn, Mannheim Steamroller and Allison Krauss.
Named after owner and jazz drummer Seth Hendershot, this cozy café goes from serene study space to rockin’ club in the evenings. There is an open mic night every Monday, jazz every Thursday, and every other genre is welcome the rest of the week.
If you just want to dance the night away, Little Kings is your best bet. Weekend DJs pack the patio on warm nights and steam up the windows in the colder months, spinning Top 40, hip-hop, soul and classic rock. Bands hit the stage from time to time, too. Like most of Athens, the vibe here is laid back, quirky and unpretentious.
A short walk from downtown, this BYOB venue above the New West Records offices has the DIY feel of a house show with the sound quality of a top-notch concert hall. Opened in 2013, Normaltown Hall hosts a handful of carefully curated shows each year, but it serves as a rehearsal and event space, as well as recording studio, year-round.
The summer months are usually quiet in Athens with all the college students on vacation. But for five days in June, the streets are packed with sweaty, exuberant revelers for this homegrown event. AthFest takes over downtown with three outdoor stages, a KidsFest play area and an artists market. When the sun goes down, the club crawl begins with (mostly local) bands of all genres filling more than 10 different venues. There is also a night of comedy, music films at Ciné, a mini electronic music festival, and the Flagpole Athens Music Awards. The outdoor activities are free to attend; the club crawl requires tickets or a wristband. All proceeds directly benefit AthFest Educates, a non-profit “committed to sustaining and advancing music and arts education for young people in Athens-Clarke County.”
If you see a stage setup on College Avenue in late spring surrounded by a surprising number of tie-dye shirts, then it’s probably time for the annual Human Rights Festival, one of the town’s longest-running festivals. Social and political issues are the real headliners here, but in between speakers are always crowd-pleasing local bands playing everything from jam rock and country to jazz.
Going strong for more than 30 years, this annual fall festival features rustic Americana at Sandy Creek Park. Hosted by the Athens Folk Music and Dance Society, the Saturday event generally features two stages of music with frequent performances by singer/songwriter Caroline Aiken, old-time ballad singers Mary Lomax and Bonnie Loggins, and string band The Ale Raisersplus craft demonstrations and kids’ activities.
Located on 30-acres of farmland on the outskirts of Athens, Wildwood Revival features rock and country in a pastoral setting complete with rolling hills, mason jars of craft beer and an artisan market.
Halloween is a major event in Athens, and you’ll be the odd one out if you don’t dress up. Follow the boisterous parade to the after party featuring live music. Check the website for exact location and lineup, as it changes each year.
All you’ll see is a blur of lycra followed by a gush wind as the world’s best cyclists speed through downtown Athens in this exhilarating race. Yes, this is a sporting event, but nothing happens in Athens without music. Regardless, Twilight feels like a rock festival, with beer tents scattered around downtown and cheering throngs packed around every corner of downtown.
Roam if you want to… Curated by the Athens Welcome Center and Flagpole Magazine, this comprehensive, self-guided walking tour highlights the vestiges of Athens’ many prior incarnations. This is, after all, a town that changes often. The tour will direct you to all of the 40 Watt Club’s former locations, the house where The B-52s played their first show, and the trifecta of R.E.M. holy sites: the Murmur trestle, the Steeple (what’s left of the church where they played their first gig) and Weaver D’s (restaurant that inspired the “Automatic for the People” album title). You’ll see modern Athens through a historic lens, and what’s more, you’ll be able to better understand locals who have a habit of using shuttered businesses as guideposts (i.e. if someone tells you to take a right at Tasty World and a left a Schoolkids Records, you’ll know where to go even though neither of those places are still around). If huffing it solo isn’t your thing, you can also book a guided tour through the Welcome Center. Download the map for free online.
If you love nature as much as you love music, there really is no better place to visit than Orange Twin. Just five miles outside of downtown Athens, Orange Twin is both a record label and an eco-village run by multi-instrumentalist Laura Carter of Elf Power. This beautiful community features a farm, garden and more than 100 acres of preserved woodlands. If you’re really lucky, there will be a concert in the amphitheater. Recent performances include a magical evening with Neutral Milk Hotel. For the ultimate experience, book one of the two Airbnb spaces on the property — you can stay in the farmhouse or in a converted Blue Bird bus.
What’s a great music town without a great record store? Wuxtry Records has been around since 1976, and it offers an impressive mix of new, used and rare releases. Head upstairs for Bizarro Wuxtry, the comic book wing of the store. Peter Buck of R.E.M. worked as a clerk at Wuxtry in the 1970s and '80s, and today you might see the smiling face of local stalwart John Fernandes behind the counter (his list of credits could actually fill a record store — Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System, New Sound of Numbers, Old Smoky, just to name a few).
After two decades, this friendly music store has relocated and diversified its offerings, adding skateboards and skating accessories to its shelves of vinyl, CD, DVDs and other music goods. Make sure to pop your head in the tiny gallery tucked away in the back of the store as well. Vinyl collectors — don’t be fooled by the small storefront; Low Yo Yo has hundreds of thousands of records in warehouses. Just ask if there is something you can’t find!
No trip to Athens is complete without a stroll through the University of Georgia’s sprawling campus. The new Special Collections Library is particularly worth a visit for music fans. Spend an afternoon digging around the Walter J. Brown Media Archive, and you’ll be rewarded with rare recordings of radio shows, field recordings and performance tapes of Georgia musicians.
Touring bands and tourists alike make a point to explore the eclectic booths in this antique co-op. In addition to vintage threads and furniture, you’ll find vinyl, instruments and signed prints by local music photographer Mike White (aka Deadly Designs). There are more than 50 vendors in total, and the shop’s location near the 40 Watt Club and Caledonia Lounge means there’s a good chance you’ll run into the night’s headliners doing some pre-show shopping.
When you are inevitably inspired to start a band of your own, you’ll want to pop into this beloved artists resource center. Nuçi’s Space was created by Linda Phillips to honor the life of her son Nuçi, a young musician who took his own life. Nuçi’s Space is a non-profit organization that offers practice spaces, equipment rental, youth programs and mental healthcare for musicians. This is a scared space where artists can unwind, create and heal.
Rick Wilson's Gravesite
B-52s fans who would like to pay tribute to the band’s founding guitarist may visit his gravesite in the serene Oconee Hill Cemetery located adjacent to UGA’s lush North Campus. Wilson, the brother of B-52s singer Cindy, was born in Athens in 1953 and died from complications relating to AIDS at the age of 32. Look for the pyramid- shaped gravestone etched with the epitaph: “The breeze of grace is always blowing; set your sail to catch that breeze."