Known as the “Peach State” for its plentiful supply of the tasty fruit introduced by Franciscan monks in the late 1600s, Georgia is renowned for its stunning scenery and picturesque small towns. Rich in history, the best of these communities are home to well-preserved historic districts that have borne witness to some of the country’s pivotal historic events, from the early pioneer days through to the country's first gold rush and the Civil War period.
Fortunately, many of these fascinating historic districts are within easy reach of larger historic cities such as Savannah and Augusta, making them ideal places to visit in Georgia for fun day trips and weekend getaways. Find out more and be inspired by this list of the best small towns in Georgia that have historic districts waiting to be explored.
Located an hour’s drive east of Atlanta, Madison is perhaps the luckiest small town in the USA. Established in 1809, it was fortunate to have been spared by Union General William Sherman during his infamous Civil War march southward. Dubbed "The Town Sherman Refused to Burn" as a result, Madison today serves as a shining example of Georgia’s surviving antebellum charm and rich history.
Wander the Madison Historic District and you’re in the heart of an impressive collection of over 350 preserved buildings dating from the 1800s. Highlights include the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, built in 1895 as a schoolhouse and now a hub for arts and exhibitions. The Heritage Hall, an exquisite Greek Revival-style home constructed in the early 1800s, offers a peak into the opulent lifestyles of the old Southern gentry.
Milledgeville owes much of its fascinating history to the fact it was once Georgia’s state capital. Founded in 1803 and named after the then Georgia governor, Milledgeville’s historic downtown boasts broad streets that are wide enough for a four-horse carriage to turn. The grand Old Governor's Mansion dominates this picturesque townscape and served as the residence of Georgia's governors from 1838 to 1868. Built in the High Greek Revival style, this elegant mansion can (and should) be toured.
The stunning Gothic Revival St. Stephen's Episcopal Church is another important Milledgeville landmark to visit, as is the Central State Hospital, once the world’s largest mental asylum in the world.
Known affectionately as the "City of Roses" for its more than 1,500 rose bushes, Thomasville should rank high on your list of the best places to visit in Georgia. Situated near the Florida-Georgia border, this charming old town was founded in 1825 and boasts grand Victorian homes, oak-lined streets, and a lively historic downtown. Highlights include the iconic Lapham-Patterson House, a well-preserved example of Victorian architecture known for its asymmetrical design and fish-scale shingles. Another key landmark is the Thomasville Rose Garden.
Created in the early 1900s, it’s here you’ll find the majority of the town’s famed rose bushes, which burst into spectacular displays of color every spring. They’re also celebrated at the annual Thomasville Rose Show and Festival, an event held each April since 1922. Try to also visit the town’s Big Oak, a majestic live oak tree dating back over 330 years,
Set in the scenic foothills of the North Georgia Mountains 65 miles northeast of Atlanta, Dahlonega was founded in 1832 just a few years after the first major US gold rush occurred here. The life and times of these first settlers and early prospectors are preserved in the Dahlonega Gold Museum. Housed in the oldest surviving courthouse in Georgia, this fascinating museum provides a detailed history of the gold rush era with period artifacts as well as a collection of original mining equipment.
Picturesque Dahlonega Public Square, surrounded by historic buildings, remains the heart of the town’s historic district and is fun to explore on foot. Nearby attractions include the Consolidated Gold Mine which offers fun guided underground tours.
Georgia’s most southerly town, St. Marys is located on the state’s Atlantic coast a stone’s throw away from the border with Florida. Rich in maritime and early American history, St. Marys’s historic waterfront district is where to start your exploration. Highlights include St. Marys Submarine Museum, dedicated to the history of submarines and particularly emphasizing the city's proximity to the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base; and, just a five-minute walk away, Orange Hall, a grand Greek Revival home featuring period furnishings and exhibits highlighting life in coastal Georgia in the 1800s.
St. Marys is also the gateway to the state’s Cumberland Island National Seashore, and the waterfront serves as the launch point for ferries to the park and Cumberland Island where the ruins of Dungeness, the Carnegie family mansion, await exploration.
Named after the famous Italian city because it, too is built on seven hills, Rome, GA, is located at the confluence of the Etowah, Oostanaula, and Coosa Rivers just 70 miles northwest of Atlanta. Founded in 1834 after the forced deportation of the region’s native populations, the city grew quickly as a major cotton growing and trading hub. Today, the Between the Rivers Historic District features many well-preserved 19th-century buildings.
Highlights of a visit include the picturesque Rome Clock Tower on Neely Hill. Built in 1871, it’s open for public tours and boasts excellent views over the town and the surrounding countryside. Another historic site, the Chieftains Museum, formerly the home of Cherokee leader Major Ridge, provides a sobering insight into the tragic history of the Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears.
The Final Word
With their rich histories and well-preserved architecture, the best small-town historic districts in Georgia are a delight to explore. Whether you live here or are only passing through, or maybe even researching the Peach State’s history online, be sure to use this list of Georgia’s best small towns with important historic districts for ideas and inspiration.