IT is called the Classic City because of its
name and its neo-Classical-style buildings, but Athens, Ga., might as
well be known as Live Music Central. Home to 30,000 University of
Georgia students, who make up a third of the town's population, and a
healthy contingent of artistic-minded residents, Athens has always been
something of a cultural haven. Its reputation as a cutting-edge music
scene took off in the early 1980's after two homegrown bands, R.E.M.
and the B-52's, hit the big time. The town has produced waves of fresh
local acts and a growing number of live music sites since. Even if the
music is not to your taste, the stately homes, lovely university
campus, eclectic restaurants and sleepy Southern atmosphere provide
plenty of other reasons to spend a few days in Athens. A trusty guide
is Flagpole Magazine, a free weekly that lists restaurants, bars, clubs
and, of course, live music. ABBY GOODNOUGH
1. True Grits
Drop off your bags at your hotel and make a beeline for the Grit (199 Prince Avenue), a highly affordable vegetarian restaurant beloved even by diehard meat eaters. Try the delicious Grit Staple: pinto beans, brown rice and minced red onion optionally topped with diced vegetables and melted cheddar cheese. To look like a regular, add a generous splash of hot sauce. Grab a Grit blondie for a take-out dessert and you are primed for a night out.
2. Opening Act
Head to the Georgia Theater (215 North Lumpkin Street), a movie house turned popular music spot that features local and out-of-town bands. Recent acts have included the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to Sound Tribe Sector 9, a Santa Cruz group that mixes live music with electronica.
3. Blending In
Stroll around the corner to the Flicker Theater & Bar (263 West Washington Street). The bar (separate from the art-house theater) has a mellow atmosphere, with comfortable couches, candle-lighted tables and the work of local artists on the walls. For a nightcap, proceed to the Manhattan Cafe (337 North Hull Street), frequented by artists and musicians who appreciate its vaguely seedy aura. Try a local favorite cocktail: Maker's Mark and Blenheim's Ginger Ale, a peppery soda made in South Carolina.
4. Breaking Bread
Have a leisurely breakfast at Big City Bread (393 North Finley Street), a laid-back bakery specializing in a wide range of fresh breads and pastries. Grab a newspaper and sit at one of the picnic tables on the front terrace, nursing a coffee and listening to the songbirds that provide constant background music in Athens at this time of year.
5. Deep Roots
Make a pilgrimage to the oddest landmark in town: the Tree That Owns Itself. A large white oak at the top of South Finley Street, the tree is the descendant of an oak that was so cherished by its owner, Col. W. H. Jackson, that he deeded it to itself in 1832. A plaque at the oak's base is inscribed with the original words of the deed, which gives the tree ''entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides.'' The Junior Ladies Garden Club planted the current oak when its parent was felled by a storm in 1942, and have nurtured it ever since.
6. The People's Lunch
Drive to the edge of downtown for a down-home lunch at Weaver D's (1016 East Broad Street), an Athens institution that figures into musical lore. The sign outside the white cinder-block building reads, ''Automatic for the People,'' summing up the business philosophy of the owner, Dexter Weaver. R.E.M. liked the phrase enough to make it the title of its 1992 album. A hearty, deeply satisfying meal of fried chicken, collards, macaroni and cheese, and sweet-potato soufflé fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg came to $10.91, including two sweet teas.
7. Roam if You Want To
Walk off the pounds browsing through the shops lining Clayton Street. Helix (146 East Clayton Street), an eclectic gift shop, has hand-made pottery and jewelry. Heery's Clothes Closet (184 East Clayton) is the boutique of choice for Southern belles and University of Georgia sorority girls. At Frontier (193 East Clayton), delicate beeswax candles decorated with pressed dried flowers cost from $25 to $30. Buy a local band's CD from the vast music collection at WuxtryRecords, (197 East Clayton), where Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. first met. For a pick-me-up, walk down College Avenue to the Blue Sky Coffee (128 College Avenue). Afterward, check out the double-barreled cannon in front of City Hall, touted as the only one of its kind in the world. Cast in a local foundry in 1862, it was designed to fire two balls connected by a chain but proved a flop because both balls could not be fired at exactly the same moment. Legend has it that the cannon killed a cow during a test fire in a local field, after which it was promptly retired and donated to the town.
8. Singing Before Supper
The Last Resort Grill (184 West Clayton Street), a former music club that served up great Southern music (Townes Van Zandt, Leon Redbone, Doc Watson) now serves up haute cuisine, Athens style. Start with the fried green tomatoes battered in cornmeal and served with vidalia-bacon dressing ($4.50), then try the grilled Atlantic salmon on a bed of grits with caper cream sauce ($13.95) or the fresh farmed North Georgia trout dusted with pecan flour, blue cornmeal and walnuts ($12.95).
9. Listening Into the Night
Walk around the corner to the famous 40 Watt Club (285 West Washington Street), named for the lone bulb that lighted the club's first location. A lot of local bands have cut their teeth here, but the cavernous club also attracts well-known alternative acts from other parts of the country. After a set or two, go to the Caledonia Lounge (256 West Clayton Street), a more intimate site popular with the late-night crowd.
With your ears still ringing, stumble over to the Grill (171 College Avenue), downtown's 24-hour diner. Order fries and a milkshake and watch the hipsters come and go.
11. On Sale: Everything
Grab a caffeinated beverage of choice at Go Coffee (297 Prince Avenue), and drive eight miles north on Commerce Road to the J&J Flea Market. Buy a bag of boiled Georgia peanuts to munch while browsing through rows of vendors hawking everything from antiques to live chickens to tube socks.
12. Sunday Special
The popular new spot for brunch is Five & Ten (1653 South Lumpkin Street). Brunch is served Sundays only, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The current menu features lemon soufflé pancakes ($6), and shrimp and grits with andouille sausage ($12). Food & Wine magazine recently voted its chef, Hugh Acheson, one of the 10 best in the country.
13. Southern Flowers
Restore your peace of mind at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (2450 South Milledge Avenue), a 313-acre preserve brimming with native plants, trees and flowers a few miles south of Athens. A highlight is the gently sloping Shade Garden, with azaleas, flowering dogwoods and magnolias. There are also five miles of nature trails, with scattered benches and tall trees providing shade from the hot Southern sun.
is 70 miles from the closest major airport, Hartsfield International in
Atlanta. The most convenient downtown hotel is the Holiday Inn (197
East Broad Street) at the tip of the University of Georgia's north
campus. The room rates start at $92 but can vary depending on the time
of year. There are also some smaller inns and bed-and-breakfasts, but
they tend to be farther from the action. You can easily navigate the
downtown area, where most of the shops, restaurants and music sites are
situated, by walking. But you will need a car to get to the State
Botanical Garden, the flea market and some of the restaurants. For
information on lodging and other things to do in Athens:
www.flagpole.com or www.athens-georgia.com.