Small town charm meets upscale dining, shopping in Madison

Atlanta Journal Constitution. Nov 2022.

Oak-lined streets dotted with historic homes, charming shops filled with locally made art, a park packed with families. The small Southern town of Madison is a destination preserved in history and amended with time.

Established in 1809, Madison was named for Founding Father and fourth president of the United States, James Madison. It flourished as a stagecoach stop and the commercial hub for agrarian families. Today, the city is home to nearly 5,000 people, many of them farmers, artists and small-business owners who enjoy a slower pace of life.

Recently, Madison has undergone a transformation with the opening of new retail establishments and restaurants. Located 60 miles east of Atlanta, Madison makes for a perfect day trip or a quick weekend getaway, offering a little bit of everything from one of Georgia’s largest historic districts and unique shopping opportunities, to holistic wellness treatments and exceptional outdoor activities.

Family-friendly events, festive decorations and small-town charm make Madison especially appealing to visit during the holiday season.

Town Park is lit up for the holiday season.
(Courtesy of Madison Morgan CVB)

Credit: SEEING SOUTHERN PHOTOGRAPHY

Decked out for Christmas

Madison’s town center is never livelier than during the holidays. Streets decorated with wreaths and mistletoe, homes dressed with Christmas lights and bustling holiday markets create a scene reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Festivities have already begun. Holiday Market at the Madison Artists Guild (MAGallery) is open now through Dec. 24, selling unique handcrafted items made by local artisans through. And every Saturday in November during Shop, Sip & Stroll, local retailers provide free drinks and nibbles for visitors to enjoy while they shop and listen to live Christmas music in the streets.

The Holiday Tour of Homes returns Dec. 2-3 for the first time since the pandemic. Choose from a daylight or candlelight tour to stroll inside six private historic homes decked out in holiday finery in the Madison Historic District. Proceeds from the ticket sales benefit the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, venue for the annual Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Holiday Concert on Dec. 22.

While you’re in town, cut down your own tree at Jack’s Creek Christmas Tree Farm, a 50-acre family-run farm that has been growing award-winning Christmas trees for more than 30 years. It also hosts a Grandma’s Christmas Shoppe and appearances from Santa Nov. 26-Dec. 21.

On Dec. 17-18, Hard Labor Creek State Park hosts Holiday Hayrides ($3 admission, $5 parking) complete with hot cocoa and marshmallow toasting around a campfire.

One of the highlights of Madison’s Christmas festivities is the Holiday Parade and Caroling by Candlelight on Dec. 10. Festive floats, dancers, horses, dogs, marching bands, vintage cars, choral groups and Santa Claus himself all come together at Town Park for a merry afternoon and evening celebration.

Built Circa 1809, the Rogers House has been located in downtown Madison for more than 200 years.
(Courtesy of Madison Morgan CVB)

Credit: Handout

History and Architecture

Even when it isn’t Christmas, there’s still plenty to do in Madison. With more than 350 historic structures, the Madison Historic District is one of the largest National Register Historic Districts of 19th century architecture in Georgia. Among the highlights are many grand, antebellum mansions that survived Gen. Sherman’s March to the Sea because of a “gentleman’s agreement” to spare the town.

Madison boasts three house museums open for tours, including Heritage Hall, an opulent Greek Revival-style home built in 1811 and relocated to Main Street; the more modest Piedmont Plain-style Rogers House, circa 1809; and Rose Cottage, once home to former slave Adeline Rose.

To learn more about the the town’s architecture, visit the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, which features the “Columns and Cottages: Madison’s Architectural Treasures” exhibition. For more about the history of Madison’s enslaved people, visit the Morgan County African-American Museum, located in the Folk Victorian-style home of John Wesley Moore, an African-American man born in the last years of slavery.

For a map of the Madison Historic District, stop by the Welcome Center on Main Street.

New shops and restaurants have recently opened in downtown Madison.
(Courtesy of Madison Morgan CVB)

Credit: SEEING SOUTHERN PHOTOGRAPHY

Hob Nob on Main Street

Pedestrian-friendly Main Street spans 1.5 miles through the heart of Madison. It’s bookended by Town Park on one end, and the prominent courthouse on the other, and in between the street is lined with plenty of independent shops and restaurants.

After touring some of the town’s historic homes, be inspired to decorate your own place with one-of-a-kind pieces available for purchase at Madison Markets. The 20,000-square-foot renovated cotton warehouse is now a unique indoor shopping venue selling new and vintage furniture, linens, jewelry and collectibles from more than 75 dealers under one roof. Independent dealers like Keith Fortson and Katie Hyatt, who travel to Europe to source original canvas paintings, furniture and accessories, specialize in one-of-a-kind goods.

Many of Madison’s old buildings have been retrofitted for new and trendy dining establishments. What was once Simmons Funeral Home is now Hart and Crown Tavern, a cozy British pub with original brick walls and imported art and furnishings. It’s an ideal spot to sample varieties of whiskey and Scotch, along with deep fried Scotch eggs wrapped in spicy ground pork and hearty Irish bangers and mash.

Located in a former gas station, The Sinclair is an upscale café offering all-day dining, cocktails and specialty coffee drinks. Pick up homemade muffins and pastries with your morning latte, or linger on the patio with a prosciutto and brie panini and a limoncello mule cocktail in the afternoon. Near Heritage Hall, Town 220 Restaurant serves upscale French and Southern cuisine in a bright, airy dining room with warm wood furnishings. Executive chef-owner Francisco De La Torre sources local and organic ingredients and is renowned for his herb-crusted rack of lamb dressed in mint sauce.

Farmview Market is a popular local spot for hearty Southern-style breakfast and lunch, and there’s a storefront selling a wide selection of local and organic produce, jams, spreads, honey, pickles and handmade crafts. On Saturday mornings May-September, vendors from around Georgia bring their seasonal fruits, vegetables, free-range eggs, plants, baked goods and artisan crafts to sell at the adjacent open-air Farmers Market. 

Delight in Downtime

If you want to unwind during your vacation, spend an afternoon at ZEN Relaxing Wellness Center. A wide selection of alternative and natural care providers from around Madison come together at ZEN to offer yoga, meditation, massage and holistic treatments — all under one roof. Float in a sensory deprivation tank, get pain relief with cryotherapy, detox through ionic foot therapy or simply breathe in the salt halotherapy room and clean out your lungs.

To connect with nature, book a horseback ride at Southern Cross Guest Ranch, a family-owned and operated dude ranch located about 15 minutes from downtown Madison. The ranch’s all-inclusive riding plans include comfortable accommodations, buffet-style meals, bike rentals and up to four hours in the saddle each day. The ranch’s six miles of open pastures are warm in the winter sun and the wooded trails offer shade during summer afternoons, so outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy horseback riding any time of the year.

For golfing, fishing, swimming and hiking in a wooded setting, head over to Hard Labor Creek State Park. There are fully equipped cottages and campgrounds to spend a night or two. Other accommodations in Madison include luxurious James Madison Inn located within walking distance to most attractions. Local art and Southern culture are reflected in the inn’s bright lobby and 17 distinctively themed rooms and two grand suites.

Madison’s vintage charm and modern amenities make it an ideal close-to-home destination where you can take a romantic getaway or a memorable winter vacation.


IF YOU GO

Madison is 60 miles east of Atlanta via I-20.

Things to do

Holiday Tour of Homes. 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Dec. 2-3. $30-$40. 434 S. Main St. 706-342-4743. https://www.mmcc-arts.org

Holiday Parade and Caroling by Candlelight. Dec. 10. Parade 4 p.m. Caroling 5-7 p.m. Free. Along College Drive, N. Main Street and W. Jefferson Street. 706-341-1261, Ext. 1208. www.madisonga.com/353/Holiday-Events

MAG Holiday Market. Through Dec. 24. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 125 W. Jefferson Street. 706-342-9360. https://themadisonartistsguild.org/events

Zen Relaxing Wellness Center. $35 and up. 271 W. Washington St. 706-350-5999. www.zenrw.com.

Madison Markets. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 144 Academy St. 706-342-8795. https://madisonmarkets.com

Where to Eat

Town 220. Southern inspired French cuisine in a casual setting. Entrees $18-31. 220 W. Washington St. 706-752-1445. https://town220.com

Hart & Crown Tavern. Cozy British-inspired pub and locally sourced chef-driven restaurant. Entrees $14 and up. 142 E. Washington St. 706-438-8050. https://mad-hospitality.com/hart-and-crown-tavern

The Sinclair. Upscale coffee shop and bar serving light bites. $4 and up. 298 Hancock St. 706-438-1101. https://mad-hospitality.com/the-sinclair-1

Farmview Market Café. Casual deli serving smoothies, breakfast, salads and sandwiches. $6.99 and above. 2610 Eatonton Road. 678-729-1458. www.farmviewmarket.com

Where to Stay

James Madison Inn. Luxury boutique hotel downtown. $225 per night. 260 W. Washington Street, Madison. 06-342-7040, www.jamesmadisoninn.com

Hard Labor Creek State Park. Newly renovated pet-friendly cabins with full kitchens. $165-200 per night. 5 Hard Labor Creek Road, Rutledge. 1-800-864-7275, https://gastateparks.org/HardLaborCreek

Southern Cross Guest Ranch. $115-300 per person, per night, depending on boarding and activities. 1670 Bethany Church Road. 706-342-8027, www.southcross.com

Tourist info

Madison Morgan County Welcome Center. 115 E. Jefferson St., Madison. 706-342-4454, https://visitmadisonga.com/madison-welcome-center/

~ Written for and published by Atlanta Journal Constitution. All rights reserved.

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