HELEN—There is a special feeling you get when you are in this Bavarian-style town nestled in the Georgia mountains. A warm feeling in your belly that makes you tingle all over. It is called beer.
This town is famous for serving German beers behind every door. It’s also famous for Bavarian architecture, Appalachian views, and some truly breathtaking tattoo parlors.
But wherever you go someone is always selling beer. Even when visiting, say, the men’s room, where they sell five-dollar pints from vending machines in each stall.
It’s a tourist-driven town with shops that advertise things like 101 flavors of hot sauce, body piercing, CBD oil, and deep fried Twinkies.
The nearby vistas of the Chattahoochee River are serene. So is the earthshaking noise from gangs of thundering motorcycles riding Main Street like the allied forces invading Europe.
Even so, I found many nearby scenic views pretty enough to inspire a hymn like “Beulah Land.” Which, since we’re on the subject, is a song I have performed at more funerals than I can count.
When I was a kid, our small church only had a handful of singers to choose from for funerals, weddings, baby dedications, and 4H competitions. You had Maude Tolbert, a proud grandmother of six who’d been tone deaf since the Lincoln administration. And Robert Vanderbilt, whose repertoire consisted of three songs: “He Touched Me,” “There’ll Be No Thorns In His Crown,” and “Are You Rapture Ready Or Will You Burn In Hell?”
So I sang a lot of funerals. The most requested song was always “Beulah Land.” I learned to sing it when I was a kid. It never fails to make me cry. And looking out at this Appalachian valley, I understand the lyrics a little better.
So there isn’t much to do in Helen unless you plan on visiting a beer palace or getting an elaborate pectoral piercing by a man named “Snake.” Many tourists opt for both.
But the town is kind of cute. Every structure, including fast food joints, features Bavarian architecture. Wendy’s, for instance, looks like a Swiss chalet. In the restaurants you almost expect waitresses to speak German. But they don’t. Most have accents like Reba McEntire.
“You oughta see Helen during Oktoberfest,” says one waitress. “Folks from Europe come because they like our festival better than Germany’s.”
Admittedly, I don’t know much about Oktoberfest, but the waitress says she doesn’t either since nobody who attends Oktoberfest can remember anything about it after it’s over.
Tourism is the main industry here. Half the visitors are Atlantans who enjoy a getaway from the hustle and bustle.
“We come because it’s quirky,” says one Atlanta retiree. “And at least in Helen we’re not dealing with Atlanta’s *&$@# highway construction.”
He’s right. Atlanta has been undergoing highway construction since the end of the Revolutionary War. When I was a kid, we lived in Atlanta for a hot minute. I remember my uncle taking us to see the famed highway-department bulldozers that were supposedly in the final scenes of “Gone With The Wind.”
It’s hard to believe that long ago Helen used to be an average logging town. It was, to put it literally, a run-of-the-mill town. Until they hit hard times and almost faded into oblivion.
In 1969, the town made a bold move to resurrect itself by redesigning the downtown into a South German village with high-pitched roofs and ornate eves. It was a risky move. Maybe even a little crazy. But it worked.
Today, tourists come from all over the world for festivals and attractions. Especially during cold weather. I am told that as soon as the leaves change color, Helen is nothing but busy.
One of the highlights of the year is the “Southern Worthersee,” a Volkswagen and Audi event modeled after a famous auto tour in Austria.
Helen also has famous Christmas lights, art festivals, and obscene amounts of day-tourists wearing cutoff jean shorts and tank tops made entirely from fishnet. And as if that isn’t enough, last year they filmed a Hallmark Channel movie here.
They have a Mardi Gras parade too. It’s not a huge event. The locals gear up in the off-season every February to throw a Germanic Mardi Gras that Helen’s residents take seriously.
“Most people think Mardi Gras comes from New Orleans,” says Phil, local historian, dressed in lederhosen, drinking a Hefeweizen beer. “Actually, American Mardi Gras started in Mobile. But earlier religious celebrations predate even America.”
“Carnival,” as it turns out, is a festival that was around a long time ago. In Germany, for instance, they celebrated “Winter Karnival” centuries before Mardi Gras.
It was a time of merrymaking before Lent—the ancient religious observance wherein early Christians demonstrated their faith by giving up social media for six whole hours.
Historically, Germans called this festival “Fasching.” Phil says it is an important celebration. They still carry on this tradition in Helen. Phil can hardly wait. In fact, Phil gets so excited talking about it that he has to go fetch a dry pair of lederhosen.
After Helen, my wife and I are told to drive up Highway 356 to Unicoi State Park for more spectacular views. The park doesn’t disappoint. It stretches for 1,050 acres and features a lake topped with icy mountain fog. And without a doubt it is stunning.
Even during this cold weather, I am warm all over for some reason. In fact, I am so overcome that I begin to weep. Yes, weep. And I can’t help but stare at this Appalachia, humming through tears, “Beulah Land, I’m longing for you…”
Then my wife shoves me and says, “That’s it. No more beer for you.”
Bill Fowler - January 3, 2020 7:35 am
There is a similar pretend Bavarian village in the state of Washington. It is called Leavenworth, and here is a link to some data: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leavenworth,_Washington.
Elaine - April 2, 2021 10:50 pm
Go visit Helen GA. It’s absolutely wonderful. So relaxing
Amy Elizabeth Tucker - January 3, 2020 11:51 am
We stayed in Unicoi Park during a holiday weekend and the park is so nice. The traffic to get into and out of Helen, not so much 🙂
Sharon - January 3, 2020 12:14 pm
We live in Cleveland GA, about 6 miles south of Helen. There are about 3 million tourists who visit Helen annually (and most travel through Cleveland to get there!). Tubing on the Chattahoochee River is a huge & fairly inexpensive family attraction. We love living here – it’s a lovely little mountain town. Thanks for visiting the area!
turtlekid - January 3, 2020 12:37 pm
Well, now you can cross Helen, Georgia off your bucket list. I took a van load of church ladies there many years ago. It was a nice trip, and when I locked the van keys inside, a friendly policeman opened the door for us. Nice memory.
D.T. Wright - January 3, 2020 1:21 pm
Y’all really should check out Dahlonega, Georgia on you way back south. It’s beautiful, historical and loaded with Sean of the South fans.
faith - January 3, 2020 3:55 pm
North Georgia is beautiful, isn’t it? The touristy bits don’t compete all that successfully with the mountains, although they surely do try. Air quality is good, better than the beer.
Anne Godwin - January 3, 2020 4:43 pm
I’m thankful that you continue to share your observations about people and life in general. You truly have a gift! I visited Helen and the north Georgia mountains often when I lived in Atlanta. Thanks for the memories…
Linda Moon - January 3, 2020 4:57 pm
I’ve been to Helen, Georgia and Unicoi State Park. Mountains anywhere in the continental United States give me special feelings….like good libations and good vibrations….good vibes, both. The less there is to do in Mountain Towns, the better. Pike’s Peak is the best of them all for me from the Appalachians to the Rockies. Hum along with Mark O’Connor and Yo Yo Ma to the Beautiful Appalachian Waltz, Sean! And keep humming and longing for Beulah Land, too!!
Shelton A. - January 3, 2020 5:31 pm
You have a very wise wife. Listen to her.
Edna Barron - January 3, 2020 6:00 pm
I’ve never been there, but it sounds beautiful. You have a super day, hugs, Edna B.
Marylin Anderson - January 3, 2020 6:29 pm
Sean, I love Beaulah Land, too. I sang it in the choir several years ago at the Baptist church where I was a member. It made me think of my grandmother and brought tears to my eyes. I want it sung or played at my memorial service, along with other favorites. Guess I had better write that down somewhere since I won’t be around to tell them.
We plan to be in Georgia in July. We will add Helen to our travel plans.
Marylin Anderson - January 3, 2020 6:37 pm
Sean, I love Beaulah Land, too. I sang it several years ago in the choir at the Baptist church where I was a member. It made me think of my grandmother and brought tears to my eyes. I hope to include that song and some other favorites in my memorial service. Guess I should write that down somewhere since I won’t be around to tell them. 😊🎶🎶
We will be in Georgia in July and will add Helen to our travel plans.
Mona Downs - January 3, 2020 8:22 pm
My friend, who is also named Phil, goes to Helen, GA once a year for the Corvair convention they hold. He always stops in to this little shop that makes candy and buys me Chattahoochee Snappers. We think of them as Turtles but that name must be trademarked. Anyway, they are 10 times better thanTurtles so if you ever get a chance to go back to Helen, get a Chattahoochee Snapper, you won’t regret it.
Carol - January 3, 2020 8:27 pm
Your a hoot. And a funny drunk !!
You know the kind that get all mushy and meloncoli (sp)!!
They sing and cry a lot. !! 😩😟😔
Love ya !
Bill T - January 3, 2020 8:57 pm
“In the restaurants you almost expect waitresses to speak German. But they don’t. Most have accents like Reba McEntire”. That was what I thought 20 years ago before there was a Reba. First time there was in our motor home on the way home from Niagara Falls and second time for a gathering of military folks that fly space available on military planes. After living in Germany for 6 years and going back as a tourist (yes I like Germany, Switzerland and Austria) over ten times, I have to say I was disappointed. Pasteurized beer and bratwurst made in south Georgia just doesn’t taste the same. And the accents of the frauleins in drindl. But it is nice for what it is. Oh, and my Presley ancestors were from that North Georgia area.
Clark Hining - January 3, 2020 10:36 pm
My wife and I and another couple stayed in a B&B there once. The owner was a woman who thought she was Betty Boop!
Come down through Carrollton on your way home and we’ll tell y’all all about it.
Ann - January 4, 2020 12:14 am
Sooooo refreshing….I have never been to Helen…..but just recently (again)..experienced the prehistoric Atlanta @#$& construction ….thank you😂😂
Ann Williams - January 4, 2020 1:51 am
Is Betty’s Country Store still there? When my husband and I visited years ago it was his favorite place to eat lunch and he always had to get some hoop cheese to bring home. We also enjoyed the Christmas shop.
Jenny Young - January 4, 2020 2:20 am
When my husband & I were first married we lived in Chattanooga. We spent our first wedding anniversary (1988) in Helen. I don’t really remember beer but I guess it was there even then. We played alot of mini-golf. I remember the scent of honeysuckle was so luscious, especially at night.
I came home with a big river rock, it’s been a door stop (& a big toe stop) for over 30 yrs. And we bought a hand carved Christmas candle that we never lit because we didn’t want to ruin it….a few years ago I tossed it because it melted in storage.
that's jack - January 4, 2020 4:19 am
I like Helen. I musta been there a few times. I think once when hiking the Appalatchain Trail we went in for Bavarian Kentucky Fried Chicken, and more Bavarian Ramein Noodles.
Helen is a very interesting place to visit.
Sherry & jack
Jerry - January 4, 2020 9:37 am
I visited Helen many years ago and remember it, just as you describe. I enjoy your writing! Jerry in Columbia, SC.
Bridgette Godwin - January 4, 2020 10:03 am
Pretty cool going on google to read and the first headline news is where you live,Good ole HELEN,GEORGIA ,gotta love it.
Ericka - January 4, 2020 5:25 pm
We just had our first trip to Helen, GA last week and it was wonderful. We visited Anna Ruby Falls and enjoyed visiting the shops, restaurants and of course making a stop at Betty’s. We will definitely return to Helen!
Julie Cox - January 4, 2020 7:09 pm
We live about an hour south of Helen and make regular trips up there..We go hiking and rent cabins .. Beautiful area of the state ..Betty’s store is the best ..Hoop cheese and biscuits…
Lana Jones Barbaree - January 9, 2020 3:04 pm
Lol. Been there and agree that once is enough.
Ann G. Perry - February 8, 2020 5:02 am
My husband and I have been (once) to Helen. We stayed in a sweet B&B and had some really good food at various restaurants. We hiked to Ruby Falls and the day we went there, the fog had turned the mountains into a winter wonderland! About Beulah Land – first time I ever heard it, I cried so hard I had to pull off the road! Would love to hear you sing it! Can’t wait to see you when you get to Trussville!
Janet L. Allison - February 8, 2020 9:58 am
GA native here. Live just a little S of Helen.
Hope to see you at your book signing in Lawrenceville!
Mary Hicks - February 8, 2020 9:10 pm
My sister’s, all five of us, our Mother and myself went here several years back. We loved it, except when one of the sisters locked the keys in the van!!! It was freezing cold, but the shops were warm. Had to get a locksmith out and he got us fixed up!! God bless him. Also went to Dohlenega and ate lunch up on a varenda. It was a wonderful trip. Thanks again Sean. God bless you and Jamie.
Lera “Ginny” Main - February 17, 2020 8:57 pm
I moved to Helen in 1974? I worked as a waitress at a little Bavarian restaurant I can’t remember the name of! The Kublers owned it.
Left for a bit and moved back and worked at Hayloft Pub where I met my husband of 43 years!!
The area was beautiful and not developed . Wonderful memories!❤️❤️
Gary Bangle - June 12, 2020 1:11 pm
You can’t make everyone happy so don’t try. North Georgia is beautiful and a lot of places to visit. You must go and see for yourself and find the place YOU LIKE BEST. Take in the history of it. It’s been several years that I was in North Georgia and now it is time to go back.
Beth Steen - September 4, 2020 12:28 am
There’s a lack of social distancing and mask wearing. I was approached by a parking attendant at my car window that was not practicing CDC Guidelines. I’ll be tested for COVID-19 next week.
Gary Bangle - March 27, 2021 5:21 pm
Helen Ga. Is a different kind of town. German style but still American. A lot of things to do in and around Helen. You make your choices what can I do. ENJOY EVERY BIT OF IT. LOTS OF THINGS TO DO SO DO IT. You are your travel agent. HAVE FUN. Stay for several days.
H - October 11, 2021 5:34 am
Wow…. Kind of out of the loop, huh?
The Audi/Volkswagen Car show has been cancelled for years now. So, I guess it’s been a while since you visited Helen.
I’ve lived all my 30 years in this area and still haven’t met anyone called Snake in Helen — weird. We are also on the look for $5 pint machines. Draw a map next time, as locals we’re get stiffed on what we pay if you found this while visiting.
I get the satire but it’s lacking the wit.
Good post though, good try.