Road Trip Guide to Southwest Georgia

Discover a rich civil rights legacy, nature-based attractions, celebrated restaurants, and storied estates along Old Georgia Highway 3

Old Georgia Highway 3 through Southwest Georgia

Illustration by Brainstorm

Conceived in 1914, the Dixie Highway was the first interstate highway connecting the industrial North to the largely agricultural South. Inspired by the rise of the automobile and the fanfare surrounding the dedication of the nation’s first transcontinental road (the Lincoln Highway, which connected New York City to San Francisco), this network of roads would ultimately link Chicago and Detroit to Miami by way of parallel branches. Road improvement projects throughout the South replaced dirt byways with paved highways, and businesses catering to the influx of new travelers—gas stations, restaurants, souvenir shops, roadside amusements, and campgrounds—sprouted along the way.

While interstate highway projects in the midcentury would ultimately bring to an end the heyday of the route, portions of it have been preserved and allow today’s traveler a glimpse of the century-old byway. One such stretch, along Old Georgia Highway 3 in the state’s southwest corner, passes through pecan groves, pine forests, and wiregrass meadows, which provide ideal habitat for quail. (In fact, the region is heralded as the Quail Hunting Capital of the World.) Along the way, visitors will discover a rich civil rights legacy, nature-based attractions, celebrated restaurants, and a couple of storied winter estates dating to a time, decades before the advent of the Dixie Highway, when the area was a vacation destination for wealthy Northern industrialists.

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Albany Civil Rights Institute
Launched in the fall of 1961, the Albany Movement was the first mass civil rights committed to the desegregation of an entire community, and Mount Zion Baptist Church served as a headquarters and staging ground. Today, Old Mount Zion is the centerpiece of this museum, which tells the story of the struggle in southwest Georgia. Albany was also the birthplace of the Freedom Singers, a student quartet that performed with the biggest names in folk music, raising money for the movement. Visit on the second Saturday of the month to see performances from a new incarnation of the group led by original member Rutha Mae Harris.

The Freedom Singers at the Albany Civil Rights Institute

Courtesy Explore Georgia

Chehaw Park & Zoo
Though it offers miles of biking and hiking trails, a disc golf course, and a fishing pond, the biggest draw of this 800-acre park just north of downtown Albany is its zoo. Stroll boardwalks through hardwood forests and over cypress swamps to animal habitats pocketed along the way. More than 70 species are represented, including native alligators and foxes; exotics such as kangaroos, camels, and cheetahs; and critically endangered red wolves and black rhinos. Plan on a Saturday visit to take in feedings and keeper talks.

Feeding time at Chefaw Park & Zoo

Courtesy Explore Georgia

Flint RiverQuarium
Follow the course of the Flint River from its headwaters in Atlanta to the Gulf of Mexico, and see the creatures that inhabit its waters at this groundbreaking aquarium. At its heart lies a 175,000-gallon recreated blue hole spring, which can be viewed from above and below the surface. In addition to learning about the sky-blue springs along the Flint, visitors will spy monster specimens of resident sturgeon, catfish, and bass. (Tip: Plan a stop at Radium Springs, Georgia’s largest natural springs, just four miles south of the aquarium.)

Flint RiverQuarium

Courtesy Explore Georgia

Pretoria Fields Brewing
Stop in at the Albany taproom to enjoy a selection of farm-to-pint beers crafted with locally grown organic barley, wheat, rye, and hops. Order the hoppy but balanced Shoalie IPA, named for the shoal bass native to the nearby Flint River, or the light-bodied Brown Thrasher American brown ale brewed with Georgia pecans and local honey. Brewery tours are on tap hourly.

The Flint
Known for Southern classics and seafood, this fine-dining restaurant in downtown Albany wows with its elevated takes on ox tails, fried catfish, and gulf snapper. But Executive Chef Glenn Singfield II really woos guests with indulgent side dishes, such as cornbread dressing, gouda and cheddar grits, and the must-order Greens of Colour, featuring kale, collards, and turnip greens. For dessert, flip a coin to choose between the equally decadent peach cheesecake and bourbon pecan pie.

* For a Song
Ray Charles Plaza celebrates the legendary Albany-born musician with a life-size bronze statue at a piano, accompanied by recordings of his songs throughout the riverside park.

Merry Acres Inn
Albany’s longest-operating motel began welcoming guests in 1952, when 22 units were built on the property around the estate’s former manor house. Over the course of seven decades, the inn has grown, and the manor house, which is home to a welcoming pub, has become a community gathering place. After settling in, get to know the locals over drinks at the bar or under the hanging ferns and slowly turning fans on the two-story wrought-iron veranda.

This small town is the hub of a thriving agricultural community known for its pecans, peanuts, and cotton, as well as the annual Gnat Days Festival in May. After admiring the stately 1936 art deco courthouse, stake out a picnic table around back. Five massive oaks studded with resurrection ferns provide plenty of shade, and the walk-up Krispy Chik across the street offers chicken dinners, ice-cold pink lemonade, and must-try banana pudding.

Stroll the streets of this little hamlet and discover a couple of early 20th-century architectural gems. Inspired by Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store, the ornate, four-story Hand Trading Company was the largest mercantile in southwest Georgia at its debut in 1914 (and is currently being restored to its former glory). Next door, the town’s 1908 Carnegie Library, a neoclassical charmer, continues to welcome patrons.

Lapham-Patterson House
Constructed in 1885 as a winter retreat for a wealthy Chicago shoe merchant, this sunny yellow Victorian house in Thomasville enchants with whimsical design details and impressive craftsmanship, from fish-scale shingles and ornamental fretwork to hand-carved trim and inlaid floors of local longleaf pine. Call ahead to schedule a tour, and set aside time to visit two other downtown landmarks: the Big Oak, among the largest live oak trees in the East, and the city’s rose garden, home to more than 1,500 bushes that bloom just before the century-old rose show and festival in April.

Lapham-Patterson House

Courtesy City of Thomasville

Empire Bagel and Delicatessen
Native New Yorker John Gregory and his wife, Anna Carroll, a Thomasville local, bring the best of the Big Apple to the Rose City every morning in the form of glossy, chewy, hand-rolled bagels in an assortment of must-try flavors, including rosemary parmesan, pimento, and French toast. A wide selection of schmears, an espresso bar, and a case of baked goods (including house-made pop tarts and cinnamon rolls) seal the deal.

Bagels with Lox, tomatoes, and capers at Empire Bagel and Delicatessen

Courtesy City of Thomasville

* Great Stay
Plan on renting a vacation property in downtown Thomasville, be it a charming stand-alone cottage or a plush walkup loft (such as historic Magnolia Leaf) overlooking the red-brick streets.

Sweet Grass Cheese Shop
For lunch, indulge in dishes featuring hand-crafted cheeses from this celebrated Thomasville dairy. Start with a board featuring favorite varieties, then double down with the Big Cheese—melted Thomasville Tomme and Georgia Gouda on toasted ciabatta—or a burger with your choice of slice (or slather, should you opt for pimento). After perusing the award-winning wheels and wedges, check out neighboring retail favorites, the Bookshelf (for great reads and smart cards) and Firefly (for lovely toys, linens, and housewares).

Sweet Grass Cheese Shop

Courtesy Explore Georgia

Jonah’s Fish & Grits
This Thomasville favorite has been bringing in the crowds since opening in 2008. Owner Caleb Brown gives God the glory for his success (he named the restaurant after the wayward Old Testament prophet); patrons might credit a host of crave-worthy menu items, including creamy crab and corn chowder, sauteed shrimp over cheese grits, cornmeal-battered black grouper bites, and light-as-air hush puppies. (Plan on pre-dinner drinks next door at Liam’s, which hosts a popular happy hour in its sleek, dimly lit lounge.)

Pebble Hill Plantation
The history of this grand property spans two centuries. It began life as an agricultural plantation, then like many Thomasville properties in the late 19th century, it was transformed into a winter home and sporting estate. Guests may tour the extensive grounds, including the neoclassical main house, which was reconstructed in 1936 and contains a wealth of original furnishings and sporting art, as well as the stables, plantation store, laundry, firehouse, and dog hospital.

Pebble Hill Plantation

Courtesy City of Thomasville

This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Southbound.