What’s that you say? Summer’s already half over (more, if you’re a schoolkid, sigh …) and you’ve already used up all your vacation time or big-bucks travel budget?
So long, long weekend in New York, where you might’ve biked through Central Park and scored tickets to “Springsteen on Broadway.” Au revoir, Paris, where you never got to feast on fine food and art.
Say hello to Suwanee instead. That’s right, if what you want is a city worth “traveling” to, then look no further than this Gwinnett County city of 19,000 people and nearly as many sculptures.
OK, that’s an exaggeration … sort of. Suwanee’s commitment to public art is just one reason as many as 300,000 visitors annually flock to this bustling-meets-tranquil spot some 30 miles north of Atlanta.
If you’re looking for a place to play tourist for a day right in your own backyard, check out our guide to things to do and see and eat and even pluck in Suwanee.
Any city worth visiting has a central spot where locals and tourists gather for big events and shop, sightsee or just hang out. Think Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. Or — gulp! — Times Square in New York.
In Suwanee, it’s Town Center, a public-private development located a couple of miles off I-85 at the intersection of two major roads, Buford Highway and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road. Yet, thanks mostly to the 10-acre park at its heart, Town Center feels worlds away from hustle-and-bustle. Anchored by Suwanee’s soaring, glass-fronted City Hall at one end and a terraced amphitheater at the other, the park includes the largest interactive fountain in Gwinnett County (the “Big Splash”), most of the public art pieces featured in the current “Suwanee SculpTour” (see “Theater/arts” section below) and even a Zagster bike sharing station (there’s a second station in Suwanee Creek Park, and member riders get the first three hours free).
The park hosts many of the 40 special events Suwanee puts on each year — everything from Georgia’s largest craft beer festival and the WoofStock pet festival to an annual August concert that this year also celebrates Town Center’s 15th anniversary with the Gin Blossoms as headliners. Meanwhile, on Tuesday nights, a runners club and a cornhole league both meet in the park.
Ringing the park are three connecting walkways with shops and restaurants. Definitely worth a stop: Suwanee’s Welcome Center, where you can find information on things to do in and around town, purchase fun Suwanee items and even stroll through an art gallery of sorts with works by North Gwinnett Arts Association members and others. It’s located just off the park at 3930 Charleston Market Street.
From Town Center, cross Buford Highway to take a pedestrian tunnel into circa 1871 Old Town. Primarily residential, it also features a handful of retail and offices housed in well-preserved buildings, a historic red caboose beside railroad tracks, the public library and PlayTown Suwanee, a kid-friendly spot with a castle, climbing wall, picnic area and more.
Town Center, 330 Town Center Ave., Suwanee
On July 27-28, “Broadway in the Park” returns to Town Center Park for free performances of “Aladdin Jr.” and the opening act of “Ali Baba.” This annual event is put on by Suwanee Performing Arts, the umbrella organization for Suwanee Ballet, the Sounds of Suwanee a cappella singers, an acting troupe and an improv group. These youth-based groups stage their own shows and perform at town events throughout the year.
Meanwhile, Suwanee has gone all-in on public art. It has a Public Arts Commission and encourages developers to voluntarily commit 1 percent of their total project costs to art installations. The city pledged to do the same, and the dramatic “suspended sculpture” it commissioned for City Hall is a must-see.
In 2011, Suwanee launched the first “SculpTour,” leasing 15 statues from their creators for display around town and holding a public vote on which one the city should buy. The fifth SculpTour runs through next March, with 18 pieces displayed in and around Town Center Park. Meanwhile, the city has purchased numerous SculpTour pieces, and local businesses have bought or commissioned others.
These and other pieces in Suwanee’s “permanent art collection” — such as “Remembrance,” which incorporates a damaged, twisted relic from one of the World Trade Center towers — are displayed around town. Printed guides are available inside City Hall or online at suwanee.com. Free audio guides, including artists discussing their pieces, are available for iOS and Android via Otocast (otocast.com).
With busy commercial corridors along Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Suwanee has an abundance of eateries. That includes pretty much every chain you can think of, but also some special spots favored by locals, AJC dining experts and others:
Ippolito’s. Enjoy classic and specialty Italian dishes with a view of Town Center Park. 350 Town Center Ave. 678-985-4377, ippolitos.net.
Brown Bag Deli & Cafe. Good breakfast and deli fare to eat in or enjoy in the nearby park. 340 Town Center Ave. 678-682-3496, brownbagdeliandcafe.com.
BonBon. Favorite foods like chicken, wings and pizza cooked with a delicious Korean twist. Try the donkkaseu, a tasty take on breaded and deep-fried pork loin. 3131 Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road. 678-482-7555.
Cinco Mexican Cantina. Judges deemed its short rib taco best in town in a recent Suwanee magazine contest. 1500 Peachtree Industrial Blvd. 678-541-0645, cincorestaurants.com.
Qebaptore — A Bite of Europe. The specialty here is doner, a sort of seasoned kebab meat (chicken, beef or lamb) served in a variety of salads and sandwiches. Or try the “Melted Specialty Cheese,” which comes topped with a cooked egg. 315 Peachtree Industrial Blvd. 678-926-3525, qebaptoreabiteofeurope.com.
Once again, all the familiar retail and service names are here. But so are these more specialized shops.
Town Center Music. Everyone from aspiring students to pros in need of a tuneup stop by this store that also sells instruments and accessories. Besides hundreds of guitars and drum sets, owner Aaron Brown has a wall of colorful, highly pluck-able ukuleles for sale. 4072A Suwanee Dam Road. 770-831-7936, towncentermusic.com.
Rocket Fizz. Get in touch with your inner kid at this shop offering over 1,000 different types of candy, including nostalgic brands. Plus some 400 varieties of soda, from regional to offbeat flavors (coffee cake, mustard, dirt) to blends named for Jimi Hendrix (“Hey Joe Root Beer”) and Kim Jong Un (“Doomsday Lemonade”). 340 Town Center Ave. 678-765-8818, rocketfizz.com.
Parsons Gifts & Cards. This chic shop carries Vera Bradley, Alex & Ani and Lilly Pulitzer products, candles and chocolates, Georgia-themed and gourmet food items and clever tea towels and pillows. Plus the perfect souvenir from your trip: a “Real Housewives of Suwanee” T-shirt! 1500 Peachtree Industrial Blvd. 770-271-7735, parsons-suwanee-ga.com.
Back to nature
You almost can’t turn around in Suwanee without tripping over one of 10 city parks (including the 4-mile, hard surface Suwanee Creek Greenway) — plus three additional parks that are part of the county system.
But only one is home to a community garden. And now to a community orchard as well.
Located at White Street Park in Old Town, the first public orchard in the Southeast officially opened last October. An outgrowth of the neighboring 76-plot organic community garden — it’s officially known as “Harvest Farm” — the orchard is planted with dozens of edible fruits, from peach and apple to banana and kumquat in the tropical area. There are also a children’s lawn and play area, a birdhouse and other features. It is free and open to the public to use. (Both Harvest Farm and orchard are volunteer-maintained. Additional information is available at harvestfarmsuwanee.com.)
Harvest Farm and Orchard, 752 White St., Suwanee.