Why Dahlonega, Georgia is the Perfect Christmas Town
With the old-timey appeal of Mayberry, the quirky characters of Stars Hollow, and a laid-back attitude that's all its own, Dahlonega strikes small-town gold. Tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this easygoing community offers sweeping views and plenty to do, with hiking trails for the adventurous, an impressive collection of North Georgia wineries for weekend tours and tastings, and a historic town square with worn brick facades centered around a courthouse, which dates back to the state's early 19th-century gold rush. And while this whistle-stop feels secluded, you can easily make it here from Atlanta in about an hour and a half.
Catching this place during Christmastime is like peering into a snow globe that came to life when no one was looking. From the outside, Dahlonega is a whimsical holiday world draped in twinkling lights, with rambling horse-drawn carriages and visions of Santa Claus around every corner. But the town isn't frozen in perfection. This snow globe has been shaken up, leaving the scene brilliantly askew, delightfully mussed, and endlessly surprising.
The day after Thanksgiving, Dahlonega's Old Fashioned Christmas kicks off a month-long celebration of the season the only way it knows how: loud and proud. With a tree lighting, a hometown parade, and a festive market on Candy Cane Lane, this community isn't shy about its holiday spirit. Southerners aren't the only ones who have noticed either. The Hallmark Channel filmed one of its signature seasonal hits, Christmas in Homestead, in Dahlonega a couple of years ago.
"It just feels good," explains Tony Owens, second-generation owner of The Fudge Factory on the square. "People are caroling. We're opening our doors and inviting everyone in. There's something about smelling hot cider and toasted nuts. Our square just harks back to a different time. We have a busy Christmas season, but it doesn't feel like going to the mall. You're coming to hometown America, to Main Street."
Locals Love It
Passing by Woody's Barber Shop early on a Friday morning, you'll see every chair filled with older gentlemen getting their regular trims. Later that day, the shop's clientele starts to skew younger as cadets from The Military College of Georgia squeeze in for regulation cuts.
Across the square, the tiny Picnic Cafe & Dessertery lures in locals and strangers alike, all looking to trade in the morning chill for cups of hot coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls. After crossing the threshold (flanked by nutcrackers) and then brushing past black-and-white checkered tablecloths (all topped with mini snow globes and Santa mugs filled with sweetener packets), groggy guests can order their fare at the register. It's easy to notice the regulars, now and again laughing together as the waitress whisks from table to table refilling coffee cups, dropping off piping hot biscuits, and making conversation with customers, many of whom she knows by name. A homemade cake, flaked with coconut, sits under a glass dome on the counter. It's a snow-white dream, beckoning diners to come back for a slice.
Dahlonega is the type of place where residents can't round a corner without spotting an old friend. The shop owners play tennis together on Saturday mornings, confirming their match times as they cross paths on Friday afternoons. You'll find yourself getting more than a little nostalgic—if not from the relaxed pace (moseying is preferred to rushing in this cozy little burg) then from the genuine warmth of everybody here.
"People used to look at me funny when I walked around in my pajamas, but now they don't even bat an eye," says Kathy Aerts (referred to as "Kranberry Kathy") with a cheeky grin. She owns Cranberry Corners gift shop. On every first Friday of December, Kathy and her staff wear their Christmas pj's to work. She's appropriately clad in a black-and-red plaid set as she greets every shopper with an animated, "And where are your Christmas pajamas?"
Further along the storefronts, find the bushy-bearded proprietor of Brad Walker Pottery, who's known around the square by his colorful moniker: the Hairy Potter. If you reach out to shake his hand during the first weekend of December, you might find yourself clasping chalky white fingers covered in clay dust. "Sorry about that," Walker says, wiping his palm on his flannel shirt before extending it again. After a Thanksgiving-weekend blowout, he's replenishing his stock for Christmas crowds. "That weekend about did me in," he says with a chuckle.
On the first Saturday in December, out-of-towners start rolling in to attend Dahlonega's holiday festivities and to search for specialty gifts they would never find at stores at the mall back home—things like homemade candles, Georgia wines, and antique trinkets.
A Festive Parade
About an hour before the annual Christmas parade, the spectators start lining up shoulder to shoulder along the perimeter of the square. One after another, the floats and marchers that follow reveal what makes this town so charming. Spirited ladies from the local Jazzercise class pass by disguised as elves and performing a choreographed routine. Vintage cars roll along. Candy tossed from floats rains down over the crowd.
Santa, dressed in mountain finery, closes the show on his sleigh. Earlier in the day, anyone downtown might have caught him taking a leisurely stroll around the square with Mrs. Claus before stopping for pictures in front of the toy store. If you can imagine Santa setting up shop in the Georgia mountains, then the fur-lined cloak and rugged deer-antler walking stick sported by Dahlonega's man in red will make a whole lot of sense.
Lighting the Tree
Just after sundown, a massive fir tree in the square lights up. It happens not at the end of a countdown or striking of a clock but instead on the high note of "O Holy Night." (Well, ideally. In reality, the lights flicker to life about a breath or two after. But somehow, this little pause makes it even better.)
Afterward, the live band entertaining the crowd moves to Shenanigans, an Irish restaurant and pub right off the square, while some revelers squeeze into a nearby tavern to catch the final plays of the SEC Football Championship. There's something inherently Southern about singing carols at the tree lighting one minute and hollering at the television screen the next.
Carriages roam around downtown, filled with late-night, sweater-swathed passengers craning to catch every inch of the scenery. Right down the street, the Shenanigans crew celebrates well into the night. With white Christmas lights hanging from every wall within, the band kicking a tune around the pub's backside, and lingering partyers making merry—it's a warm, inviting scene for any passersby peering in the windows from the sidewalk.
So if holiday stress stifles your joy, Dahlonega has the antidote: moments of pure delight that will take you back to the days of your childhood. You're certain to find the Christmas spirit, whether you're riding in a horse-drawn carriage beneath twinkling lights or sipping marshmallow-topped hot cocoa and barely containing your excitement as you wait for the tree to light up. And yes, it might take just a few extra seconds.
Plan Your Trip
About an hour and a half northeast of Atlanta, Dahlonega sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the outer edge of Chattahoochee National Forest. If you'd like a stay that's convenient to downtown, try The Dahlonega Square Hotel & Villas or The Smith House. You'll also find cozy cabins and lodges just outside town—a great choice if you want to explore local trails and wineries.