How to celebrate Oktoberfest in the North Georgia mountains
Alpine-inspired shops in downtown Helen — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks
Before the 1960s, the North Georgia mountain town of Helen could best be described as sleepy. It faced a decreasing population and a slowing economy, especially after highways and faster routes were created. So the local leaders began brainstorming ways to bring in tourism. And that wild idea led to Helen becoming home to the country’s longest-running Oktoberfest celebration, drawing over 200,000 visitors each year.
Georgia’s Alpine village
Oktoberfest tents in downtown Helen — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks
In 1968, three Helen businessmen had lunch in town and discussed how to get travelers to stop through town. It was along a scenic detour off the major highway and had nearby state parks and the Chattahoochee National Forest.
“The gentlemen were trying to figure out how to revive Helen and they had been stationed in Bavaria,” says Renee Green, executive director of the Helen Chamber of Commerce. “Lucky for us, one was an artist.”
The artist, part-time Helen resident John Kollock, took inspiration from the Bavarian villages he’d experienced during his time in the military. He brought out the sketches he’d created while stationed there and created new watercolors incorporating the concept into Helen’s existing downtown.
The business owners quickly agreed and, a week later, the work began. Facades with the gingerbread house-like woodwork were added onto hotels, fast food restaurants and shops.
America’s longest-running Oktoberfest
Helen’s Festhalle at night — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks
The following year, the town held its first Oktoberfest, drawing upon the customs of the first Oktoberfest in 1810 in Munich. It involved locals driving around with a keg of beer to avoid the police – since the town didn’t yet have legal sales of alcohol.
By 1971, the celebration was in full swing, held at a small German restaurant. It soon expanded into even larger venues to accommodate the crowds. The efforts paid off and within a few years, Helen became an essential detour for travelers going to the Great Smoky Mountains, which straddle Tennessee and North Carolina.
After a year off during the pandemic, 2021 is the official 50th anniversary. Helen’s Oktoberfest runs for eight weeks from September to November, with events on both weekends and weekdays. A permanent Festhalle is home base for the festivities, hosting traditional dancing and two live bands nightly, including Füssen, who has played every year since 1985.
Inside the tent, revelers can purchase wurst, sauerkraut and other snacks along with German and American beers. There’s a parade that kicks off the first weekend of the month-long event and, unlike other Oktoberfest celebrations, the event is family-friendly.
Beer and brats
German fare at Bodensee — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks
An important part of any Oktoberfest celebration, whether in Germany or the United States, is the food. It’s the iconic favorites like bratwurst, pork knuckle, pretzels and beer. But, believe it or not, Georgia isn’t just known for “Southern food” like fried chicken, but also has traditional dishes from the country.
The restaurants in Helen are unique because, while the German theme started as a marketing gimmick, there are now ten authentic German restaurants in only two square miles. Experience the Bavarian flavors year-round at Hofer’s, a bakery and restaurant started in 1991 by Horst and Gerda Hofer of Schwabach, Germany. The bustling café is known for its apfelküchle, a dish made of battered apples topped with cinnamon and whipped cream.
Bodensee Restaurant takes its inspiration from one of Bavaria’s most beautiful lakes and crafts “Old World German” dishes like goulash, spaetzle and schnitzel. Harold and Terry Link opened The Heidelberg in 1980, naming the restaurant after their hometown. While the Links no longer own the restaurant, it’s still one of the best places in town for year-round live music and German cuisine, including bratwurst and German potato salad.
How to experience Helen Oktoberfest
Dancing at the Festhalle in Alpine Helen during Oktoberfest — Photo courtesy of Alpine Helen White County Convention and Visitors Bureau
Plan ahead to have the best experience at Oktoberfest in Helen. On most days, there’s a fee to enter the Festhalle, so carrying cash is recommended. Expect to spend $8 on weekdays and $10 on Saturdays. It’s free to enter on Sundays and always free for children and active or retired military.
While many people dress up in traditional trachten, including dirndls and lederhosen, it’s by no means required. There are shops in town selling everything you need if you do opt for the attire.
While Helen is an easy day trip from Atlanta, less than two hours by car, it’s also nice to spend a few nights in the area. Accommodations book up quickly, so you might have better luck on weekdays. Valhalla Resort Hotel is one of the best in town and is within walking distance of the Festhalle. Unicoi State Park is a 15-minute drive from downtown and has two- and three-bedroom cabins. The park also has access to hiking trails.
Give yourself time to explore Helen and its surrounding areas. Anna Ruby Falls is one of the area’s most beautiful waterfalls and is accessible via a paved trail. Nearby wineries like Yonah Mountain and Habersham provide tastings and sell bottles to take home.
The Sautee Nacoochee Center and the attached Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia provide added context into the Native American history of the region, early life in Helen and folk art traditions.