I love exploring the small towns in my home state and am often on the lookout for things to do in Ohio. So I was thrilled when I was invited to explore this small southeastern town just south of the Hocking Hills region. Athens, Ohio has everything that appeals to me when I’m looking for things to do- public art, great architecture, historical attractions, quirky finds and amazing food.
Athens has been suggested to me for years as a place to visit. Until recently, it was one of those destinations that I planned to explore, you know, someday.
Well, let me tell you. That day finally arrived and I’m a bit upset with myself that it took me so long to experience this charming southeastern Ohio town.
Athens has everything that appeals to me when I travel- public art, great architecture, historical attractions, quirky finds, and amazing food.
Yep, Athens has all that and so much more, but the best part is that Athens is right here in my home state of Ohio! Which means, now that I know how amazing Athens is, I can visit again and again. I’m hoping that’s sooner rather than later.
Things to do in Athens, Ohio
Kennedy Museum of Art
100 Ridges Circle
This museum is housed in Lin Hall, which was once the administrative building for the Athens Lunatic Asylum, now known as The Ridges. You’ll hear about The Ridges again, as much of my visit was unintentionally focused around this property that once encompassed over 1,000 acres of land.
The Kennedy Museum of Art is the only portion of The Ridges that is now open to the public. The art museum is free and contains a permanent exhibit of southwestern art and welcomes traveling and special exhibits throughout the year.
Check out the website to find out information about the current exhibit.
Passion Works Studio
20 E. State St.
Passion Works Studio is truly a hidden gem in Athens. This collaborative art studio for adults with developmental disabilities is a place where everyone fits in regardless of ability and showcases everyone’s strengths.
The work created at Passion Works is visible throughout the community with the colorful newspaper boxes and cigarette butt boxes located in downtown Athens. When I stopped in they were hard at work on creating pieces for the Nelsonville Music Festival.
I had the opportunity to speak with several of the artists as they worked. I even purchased a couple of pieces of art. The artist of one of the pieces I purchased shared that the proceeds from the sale of his piece go to benefit the Audubon Society which is appropriate since the painting is of feathers.
I also purchased a Passion Flower which seems to be the signature piece for Passion Works. Known as the official flower of Athens, Ohio, the Passion Flower is also the result of a collaborative effort. It takes six people three weeks to complete a single Passion Flower.
Dairy Barn Arts Center
8000 Dairy Lane
Originally built in 1914, the Dairy Barn was constructed to be exactly what the name says it was- a dairy barn that housed the cows that provided milk to the residents of The Ridges.
In the 1970s, the state of Ohio decided to demolish this barn and others that were on the property. A group of citizens united to try to save them and succeeded in stalling the demolition of the dairy barn. The barn was then gifted to the people from the state, with the agreement that they would hold an art exhibit within one year of acquisition. This agreement led to the founding of Quilt National, an international juried exhibit of contemporary quilts, making the Dairy Barn the birthplace of quilting as an art form.
Ten-thousand dollars had been raised to secure the barn which was then used to clean up the facility, slowly turning it into an art gallery.
In addition to the exhibits, the Dairy Barn has digital, ceramics and fiber art studios where workshops and classes are held throughout the year, as well as skill-building opportunities for current artists. The Dairy Barn is also a popular venue for weddings and parties. Happy Hour workshops are held weekly on the patio with live music.
In the fall of 2018, the Ora Anderson Trail opened on the property. Named after the founder of the Dairy Barn Arts Center, the trail winds through the nearby forest, with interpretive plaques featuring the poetry of Ora Anderson.
100 Ridges Circle
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Athens Lunatic Asylum (one of its many names through the years), operated from 1874 until 1993. Over the years, it housed tens of thousands of patients, from Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD to women going through menopause to children, to those suffering from tuberculosis, alcoholics, and as the years passed, yes to violent criminals.
Many of the patients housed on the property never returned home, and have been buried in one of the cemeteries on the grounds which are accessible via a short hiking trail.
The architecture of the building is incredible. The architect, Levi T. Scofield was a prominent architect and sculptor, his work includes the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield and the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Cleveland.
Interior tours are not available currently, but the Southeast Ohio History Center offers a two-hour walking tour of the grounds on the second Saturday of each month.
Guests will learn about the history of the property, see one of the cemeteries, find out why there was once a resident alligator, and take a stroll along lover’s lane.
Tours cost $20 a person for those 12 and over and must be booked in advance as they fill up quickly. You can reserve your spot at athenshistory.org.
Southeast Ohio History Center
24 W. State Street
Before or after your tour of The Ridges, you should make it a point to tour the Southeast Ohio History Center to continue learning about the mental hospital and view the other exhibits.
Current exhibits include quilts from the Civil War era made by local women, a beautiful photography gallery with portraits by Elise Mitchell Sanford depicting local women as someone they admired as a child, and the feature exhibits include artifacts from Athens Lunatic Asylum.
Some of the key pieces include nursing uniforms donated by a former nurse, the tool that doctor Walter Freeman used to perform over 200 frontal lobotomies between 1953 and 1957, and a painting by Billy Milligan, who is probably the most well-known patient in the facility. Billy is the first person to raise a defense of insanity due to multiple personalities. Rather than receive time for burglary and rape, he was sentenced to 10 years in the mental hospital. It’s been rumored for a couple of years that Leonardo DiCaprio would star as Billy Milligan in the movie, The Crowded Room, although a release date has yet to be set.
The museum also has a genealogy department where visitors can research their heritage and an impressive gift shop with the usual t-shirts, stickers, mugs, and unique items like replicas of old-fashioned toys.
Where to Eat in Athens
331 Richland Ave.
Cutler’s Restaurant is conveniently located within the Ohio University Inn and Conference Center and is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. Though it is one of the more popular restaurants in town, we found reservations weren’t necessary since we arrived rather late in the evening. You’ll find indoor seating, outdoor seating, and a cross between the two in solarium seating.
We opted for the latter since rain was in the forecast. Our server was lovely and very helpful as we ordered a charcuterie board to start, along with a glass of Debonne Moscato – and lemonade for my niece of course. We regretted our decision for an appetizer as soon as our main entrees were delivered to our table. One look at the generous portions and we knew we’d be hard-pressed to finish our meals.
I ordered the Southern Ravioli, a creamy dish of pasta, Andouille Sausage, crawfish, and roasted onions and mushrooms. While the Southern Ravioli was certainly tasty, after one bite of the Cheesy Penne Gratin with chicken that my sons’ girlfriend ordered, I briefly regretted my decision. My niece ordered the Impossible Burger Melt, a Vegan option. We opted to skip dessert as we couldn’t possibly eat another bite.
17 W. Washington St.
We were told the best coffee in Athens is Donkey Coffee and since my niece loves coffee, we had to check it out. I admit the Vanilla Chai Latte I ordered may have been the best I’ve had. Yet one more reason to visit Athens again.
The cute, eclectic shop with cozy spaces and art on the walls is built on community and free trade. Donkey Coffee serves as a space where all are welcome to visit and linger while sipping coffee that supports families around the world.
Visit in the morning for espresso to help you wake up, and return in the evening for open mic night, featuring performances from poetry to prose to local bands.
8 N. Court St.
With bellies still full from our late meal at Cutler’s the night before, we opted to skip breakfast and grab pastries instead. From Donkey’s Coffee, we headed to Fluff Bakery. From cupcakes to scones, we found plenty to tempt our taste buds. I opted for a Peanut Butter Nutella scone which paired well with my chai.
Fluff is an explosion of color with art adorning the walls and tables. It was in Fluff that I spotted the first Passion Flower which is known as Athens’ flower.
Fluff also serves breakfast, lunch, and brunch, though we arrived a bit early because we planned to fit in a hike before our official first appointment.
O’Betty’s Red Hot
15. W. State St.
Probably my favorite of the Athens restaurants we visited, O’Betty’s Red Hot is unique and eclectic, a gem tucked away in downtown Athens. At O’Betty’s, you’ll find a variety of hot dogs topped with anything from lettuce and tomato to baked beans to coleslaw in interesting combinations, each named after a burlesque dancer. Make sure to order some of the hand-cut French fries- they are amazing!
Inside the restaurant, there’s a hot dog museum with hundreds of items on display.
There are also a few other places to eat that were recommended to me during my visit:
Sol Island Bar & Grill
700 E. State St.
South Floridian and Caribbean Island influenced cuisine in a fun, family-friendly environment. They are currently offering take out, delivery or dine-in. Find more information here.
6 W. State St.
This hip Mexican-inspired restaurant with vegan and gluten-free options was so highly recommended that I may have to plan a trip solely for the experience of eating at Casa Nueva.
Bagel Street Deli
27 S. Court St.
Where to Stay in Athens, Ohio
Ohio University Inn and Conference Center
331 Richland Ave.
I stayed at the Ohio University Inn and Conference Center. Rated as the top lodging property in Athens, this hotel didn’t disappoint.
My room was a King Suite on the first floor and featured a living room with a separate bedroom and two doors leading to the terrace outside, which was steps away from Cutler’s Restaurant and the outdoor pool. The room was incredibly comfortable and spacious and I would definitely stay there again.
If you prefer, you’ll also find quite a few Airbnb options in Athens as well.
More things to do in Athens if you have time
Take a Hike
There are several places to hike in Athens. I experienced a small portion of The Ridges Trail which begins across from the Dairy Barn. Stroud’s Run State Park is also a popular option.
Check out the Murals
The coal miner’s mural, “Without Labor, Nothing Prospers,” was painted on the side of Lucky’s Sports Tavern in 2015 by Chris Stain, a visiting artist at Ohio University.
The mural honors the region’s coal mining past which is of interest to me. My own great-grandfather was a coal miner in Athens County. Sadly, he passed away long before I was born, having died in the mine.
Continuing our search for murals, we found one at Stimson Avenue and East State Street, thanks to Instagram. The artist was putting on the finishing touches when we drove by.
Enjoy the Architecture
The Courthouse, the Athena Cinema, and the Armory are a sample of the buildings that caught my attention downtown.
Take a walk on the Ohio University Campus
We didn’t have time during our visit, but the Soldiers and Sailors Monument caught my eye. Standing just inside the gateway of Ohio University, the monument was erected to honor the men of Athens who fought in the Civil War.
Stroll through a cemetery or two
The Ridges has several trails. One trail leads through the cemeteries where those who died while patients of the insane asylum are buried.
The headstones of many of the graves are marked only with a number, but a group is working to add proper markers to identify the deceased. Though detailed records remain, the process is slow going because permission must be granted by an existing relative.
To learn more about Athens, Ohio, or to plan a trip of your own, visit AthensOhio.com for more information.
More Things to do in Southeastern Ohio
More Things to do in Ohio
Resources for your Visit to Athens
Have you been to Athens? What would you suggest as something that MUST be experienced in the area?
© 2020, Tonya Prater. All rights reserved.