When the crush of urban life becomes overwhelming, one of the advantages of being an intowner is the ability to dial down to a small-town vibe within 30 minutes (assuming you've got a car). For all its suburban sprawl and endless strip malls, metro Atlanta also boasts dozens of tiny burgs scattered outside the Perimeter that each have their own character. Not every nearby podunk is worth a visit, mind you, but several are gems, with charming storefronts, quaint shops, cozy restaurants and interesting sights. Plus, because of that unpleasantness involving a certain Gen. Sherman, the only way to see antebellum homes and other examples of 19th-century architecture is to venture OTP.
For many, the primary reason to visit a small town is the laid-back atmosphere: The luxury of finding plentiful street parking without getting hassled by panhandlers when you step onto the curb; the ability to stroll lazily down sidewalks and peer into shop windows; the sense of history, of a bygone time with fewer distractions and more opportunity to sit quietly and enjoy a sunset in pleasant surroundings. Frankly, who can resist the lure of Main Street?
BALL GROUND A stone's throw from Cherokee County's northern edge, tiny Ball Ground is an oddity. Nearly every storefront on its cute main strip is filled with rocks stacked on floors, tables and shelves, the legacy of an eccentric property owner. The place must be seen to be believed. www.cityofballground.com.
BUFORD A one-time artists' colony nestled in Gwinnett's northern tip, Buford has a thriving main drag lined with galleries, shops, charming restaurants and a fascinating town museum. The downtown is bookended by a huge former tannery and the spectacular mansion built by the town's first tycoon. www.visitbuford.com.
KENNESAW While it lacks a distinct town center, Kennesaw has the General, the famed locomotive engine stolen by Union spies. The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History is a destination in itself, among this gun-loving town's other interesting historic tidbits. www.southernmuseum.org.
MADISON Considered one of the best places in Georgia to get a taste of the Old South, Madison enjoys a bustling tourist trade, thanks to its plantation-style homes, quaint town square, and dozens of antique shops and restaurants. www.madisonga.org.
MARIETTA While the city doesn't qualify as a rural outpost, Marietta's celebrated square offers escape from suburban drabness. Stores, bakeries, bars, eateries and a vintage movie theater ring the picturesque Glover Park. This is one town that doesn't roll up the sidewalks after dark. www.themariettasquare.com.
NEWNAN Anchoring the center of Coweta County just off I-75, Newnan boasts a historic courthouse, a charming town square lined with shops, and neighborhoods of stately old homes. Newnan occupies the middle ground between tourist trap and undiscovered backwater, and makes for a worthy day trip. www.mainstreetnewnan.com.
NORCROSS Like Buford farther up the rail line, Norcross is an old depot town. Also like Buford, it has a small but busy downtown strip dominated by popular restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops. www.norcrossga.net.
PINE LAKE There's no downtown here to speak of. Nor are there shops or restaurants. Rather, the appeal behind this subdivision-with-a-city-charter lies in the utter weirdness of its small 1930s-era houses, built as vacation homes around a tiny lake with a man-made beach. www.pinelakega.com.
SOCIAL CIRCLE Best known as home of the famed Blue Willow Inn, Social Circle has all the elements of a charming small Southern town: a pleasant main street; large, old homes; a scattering of shops; and, when you're through sightseeing, a great place to eat. www.socialcirclega.com.
STONE MOUNTAIN The big local attraction is the namesake rock, but the town has plenty to hold your interest for an afternoon, from restaurants and galleries to antique stores and snack shops. www.stonemountainvillage.com.