For years I thought of Macon as a place to drive past on the way to Florida. Then my son and daughter-in-law moved there, giving me good reason to exit I-75 and see what the town had to offer. Quite a lot, as it turns out: music, history, good food, and a calendar-full of festivals. Add the fact that it’s less than a four-hour drive from Greenville, and you have the makings of a great weekend getaway.
Macon sits in the state’s center at the intersection of I-75 and I-16, about 85 miles south of Atlanta. Georgia’s sixth largest city, Macon is the retail, educational, medical, and cultural hub of a primarily rural region. In 2016, the Convention and Visitors Bureau unveiled a branding strategy to attract new residents and businesses as well as tourists. It takes guts for a city to brand itself “where soul lives,” but Macon backs it up.
For one thing, it has a legitimate claim to be the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, soul, and Southern rock. Few cities have contributed as much to twentieth-century American music as Macon, which helped launch the careers of Otis Redding, Little Richard, James Brown, and the Allman Brothers Band (ABB), among others.
I knew a little about this legacy, considering I grew up on Southern rock. My first significant date with my high-school sweetheart (now my husband for more than 40 years) was an Allman Brothers concert—back before the untimely deaths of founding members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. So I knew our first visit to Macon would have to include a trip to “The Big House,” the Allman Brothers Band Museum.
In 1970, Oakley and his wife rented the two-story, 18-room house, and for the next three years it was home (or crash pad) for Duane and Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, and other band members and their extended families. Today, it houses an extensive collection of band memorabilia—concert posters, Duane’s first guitar, Betts’s handwritten lyrics to “Blue Sky,” the yellow dress worn by Oakley’s daughter on the back cover of Brothers and Sisters, the band’s first paycheck, and a pool table owned by Gregg and former wife Cher.
Instrumental in the founding and rise of ABB was Phil Walden, Macon-based agent, music producer, and founder of Capricorn Studios, the recording label for a host of other Southern rock groups, such as Wet Willie, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Elvin Bishop. The label disbanded in 1979, and the Macon studio remained vacant for years. It’s now being resurrected, thanks to a major downtown development project and a partnership with Mercer University. Mercer is raising funds to restore the studio to the business of making music and sharing the story of Capricorn and Macon’s music heritage.
But there’s more to Macon than music. The city is serious about its history, boasting more than 12 historic districts, 6,500 structures on the National Register of Historic Places, engaging museums, and a prehistoric national monument.
Part of the National Parks Service, the Ocmulgee National Monument is said to have seen 17,000 years of continuous human habitation. American Indians came here to hunt Ice Age mammals during the Paleo-Indian period, and different Native American cultures occupied the land for thousands of years. The park includes five and a half miles of trails, an indoor museum, and ceremonial mounds constructed more than 1,000 years ago. Each fall, Macon welcomes the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration, one of the largest Native American gatherings in the Southeast, featuring arts and crafts, dancers, storytellers, and history reenactors.
The Tubman Museum is the largest museum in the Southeast dedicated to preserving and sharing the story of African-American art, culture, and history. Named for Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and humanitarian who escaped slavery and then led dozens of others to freedom, the Tubman has become a key educational and cultural resource for the broader region. In 2015, the museum moved into a new 49,000-square-foot facility housing a signature mural depicting the journey from Africa to America, an inventors gallery showcasing the contributions of African-Americans, and numerous permanent and traveling exhibits featuring local history, folk art, and black artists of Georgia.
Sports history takes center stage at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, which has inducted more than 400 Georgia athletes to date—Hank Aaron, Bobby Jones, Angel Myers-Martino, Walt Frazier, Evander Holyfield, Nancy Lopez, and Jackie Robinson, to name a few. Built to resemble a stadium, the 43,000-square-foot museum is the largest state sports museum in America, with more than 3,000 artifacts, rotating exhibits, a research library, and a theater.
Perhaps the city’s most surprising draw this time of year is the 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees, a number that makes the several thousand or so around the Tidal Basin seem paltry. Legend has it that a local realtor, the late William A. Fickling Sr., found a wild cherry tree—a rare species in the South—in his yard, but was unaware of the treasure until a business trip to Washington, D.C., years later. He learned to propagate the tree and shared cuttings with friends and neighbors. Eventually, other cherry tree lovers took up the cause, and now the town transforms pink for several weeks each year.
The city celebrates the season with a 10-day Cherry Blossom Festival, March 16–25 this year, attracting thousands of visitors. The event’s hub is the Festival at Central City Park, with midway rides, exhibits, shows, a series of tribute band concerts, and a grand-finale fireworks show. The weekend’s free Mulberry Street Arts and Crafts Festival features hundreds of vendors and a food truck court, but take my advice and go early. This extremely popular event draws thousands, and the lines at the food trucks get longer by the minute.
So, next time you’re rolling down I-75 South, do yourself a favor and take the Macon exit. Florida can wait a couple of days.
This year, the Cherry Blossom Festival will feature performances by The Eli Young Band, Chaka Khan, and Southern rock group Charlie Daniels Band. You can download a Cherry Blossom Trail map for a self-guided tour, which begins at the Visitors Center and winds through some of the most vibrant neighborhoods. 794 Cherry Street Macon, GA. (478) 330-7050, cherryblossom.com
Named one of the top meat-and-three joints by the Wall Street Journal, not much has changed at H&H Restaurant, a Macon institution since the young Allman Brothers Band members were adopted by founders Inez Hill and Louise Hudson. Soul food and Southern favorites still dominate the breakfast and lunch menu, and the quality still shines. (478) 621-7044, handhsoulfood.com
Burgers and sandwiches get most of the attention at The Rookery with names like the Allman Burger and the Little Richard Pennimelt. But ask about the creative daily specials, and save room for decadent milkshakes. The Jimmy Carter features peanut butter, banana ice cream, and a slice of bacon, while the one named for brother Billy adds a dash of bourbon. (478) 746-8658, rookerymacon.com
Upstairs (and upscale) from the Rookery, Dovetail focuses on seasonal availability and area food products. Favorites include blackened catfish, sorghum BBQ glazed pork chops, and Gulf grouper. Stay for Saturday and Sunday brunch. (478) 238-4693, dovetailmacon.com
As Miss Anne’s Tic Toc in the 1940s, the Tic Toc Room was the site of Little Richard’s premiere and performances by other Macon greats. The menu includes Osso Buco, lobster ravioli, prime steaks, and inventive small plates like chived lobster and crab dip with plantain chips. (478) 744-0123, thetictocroom.com
NuWay Weiners is the place to go if you need to feed a crowd on a budget. One of the nation’s oldest hot dog stands, it’s been feeding Maconites for more than a century and now has eight locations. Hot dogs are the star, and breakfast platters, burgers, and sandwiches round out the menu. nu-wayweiners.com
The 1842 Inn, named for the year it was built, is an elegant bed-and-breakfast with 19 guest rooms, antique furnishings, a daily hospitality hour, homemade cookies in the parlor, and fresh flowers in the rooms. (877) 452-6599, the1842inn.com
PinStrikes opened its Macon location in 2016, bringing a mega-entertainment venue with much more than bowling—24 high-tech lanes, a video arcade, laser tag, bumper cars, billiards, a 24-foot rock climbing wall, and balladium (a loud and frenzied foam ball battleground). (478) 812-8655, pinstrikes2.com
During winter months, the Macon Centreplex, home to the Macon Mayhem hockey team, opens its doors to the public for ice-skating. Skaters with a Mayhem game ticket stub get a discount on admission. (478) 803-1593, maconcentreplex.org/coliseum/
For families and nature lovers, Amerson River Park is 180 acres of woods, meadows, and seven miles of trails alongside the Ocmulgee River. There are picnic areas, a playground, and a launch for canoes, kayaks, or a two-mile tubing excursion in warm weather. (478) 803-0484, maconga.org/listings/amerson-river-park/4262/