Story by Muriel Vega
Every fall, more than 2 million tourists descend on a Bavarian village in the North Georgia mountains to celebrate Oktoberfest.
But back in the late 1960s, Helen looked a little different as a former logging town on hard times, with nary a pitched roof or lederhosen to be seen.
The town has a rich history, shared with both the Cherokee Indians and the early gold-chasing settlers, before tapping into the area’s timber and growing a temporarily successful lumber industry.
In the winter of 1969, a group of local businessmen started brainstorming about ways to attract tourists to the fading town’s Main Street, a route to the nearby Appalachian Trail. The team connected with local artist John Kollock, who took inspiration from his military service in Germany while sketching Main Street’s revamp.
Later that year, Kollock’s vision transformed plain concrete buildings into a village fit for the European Alps. A law was also passed that any merchants needed to follow the Main Street’s architectural requirements to remain “in character.”
The Bavarian gamble paid off. Helen, which now has nearly 600 residents, is the third most visited city in Georgia behind Atlanta and Savannah.
As you drive up Ga. 75 (not to be confused with I-75) about 90 minutes from Atlanta, Helen’s main street reveals itself. You’ll see national food chains such as Huddle House and Wendy’s on the right, housed in Bavarian-like buildings with bright red trims and roofs. Cross the bridge over the Chattahoochee river and you may feel like you traversed the German border.
Stroll down the alley next to Alpine Pretzel Haus and feel like you’ve entered a Brothers Grimm fairy tale at Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen, where the fudge and peanut brittle reign supreme. Farther down, the Old Bavarian Inn offers authentic German food like beer cheese, bratwurst, pretzels, potato pancakes and more. Stock up on lederhosen and beer steins at the nearby gift shop.
You’ll easily spot the traditional German Christmas store, the Christmas Shoppe, by the bright red sleigh in front of it and a real-life windmill directly across the street. Nearby stands the largest pitch pine tree in the state of Georgia — often decorated with string lights during the Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas market, in December. The Shoppes of White Horse Square feature pitched roofs, blue trim, and waving German-flag-colored umbrellas that invite visitors to the Biergarten, artisan market and more gift shops.
With more than 200 specialty and import shops and restaurants, Helen’s kitschy charm attracts tourists throughout the year, but Oktoberfest serves as Helen’s annual coming out ball.
Running from Sep. 6-Oct. 28, Oktoberfest embraces the spirit of “Gemütlichkeit,” a German sense of genuine friendliness encouraged by the rows of long communal tables inside the Festhalle, or community center.
Founded in 1970, the self-proclaimed longest Oktoberfest in the world invites waltz and polka players from across the country to perform for visitors eating traditional German fare and knocking back beers in in boot-shaped mugs as servers wear the traditional German dirndl costume. A different traditional band plays each weekend, with 2018 performers including Euro Express, Squeeze Box, Alpenmusikanten and multiple accordionists.
On Sept. 8, the Oktoberfest parade descends on Main Street, similar to its counterpart in Munich, with large floats, motorcycle groups, local school bands, decorated city government vehicles, Corvette clubs and more. The parade, attended by thousands, is followed by the “tapping of the keg” at the Festhalle.
Save yourself from the heat and blasting sun following the parade by grabbing a spot at The Troll Tavern and Restaurant. The restaurant has food options beyond German cuisine, and a riverside seat will provide a view of hundreds of visitors drifting by on their neon-colored tubes and floats.
Thanks to Helen’s creative revitalization, every fall the hills come alive with the sound of oom-pah music.
Helen Oktoberfest. Helen Festhalle, 1074 Edelweiss St. Helen, Ga. helenchamber.com
The first public parking lot is available after the bridge crossing, but bring cash, as most public lots near the main street don’t accept plastic.
Oktoberfest admission costs $8 during the week and $10 on Saturdays, but attendance is free on Sundays.