The South's Best College Towns 2022

Athens, Georgia
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

It takes more than the presence of an academic institution to make a place a college town. So what makes a college town so special? Based on this year's list of winners, it could be any number of "it" factors: charming squares, inspired food scenes, and spectacular natural surroundings, to name a few.

When it comes down to it, there's only one thing that all these towns seem to share—and that's your devotion to them. Inviting streets and cool music venues be darned, these are the best college towns in the South because they're your college towns. You know that each time you step foot on campus, whether it's every football season or once in a blue moon, it'll still feel like home. And that certainly earns a place the distinction of being the best. Here are the South's 20 Best College Towns as voted by you, our readers.

01 of 20

20. Norman, Oklahoma

Sooner Theatre Norman Oklahoma
Courtesy of VisitNorman

The University of Oklahoma's campus offers two of the area's main attractions: the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the nation's largest university-based museum; and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, where visitors can see works by the likes of Ansel Adams, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O'Keefe. There's fun to be had off campus too; picnic or camp at Lake Thunderbird State Park, or explore Historic Campus Corner, where dozens of shops, restaurants, and bars fuel community between OU students and Norman residents.

02 of 20

19. Durham, North Carolina

Duke University Chapel in Durham, NC
Robbie Caponetto

Tobacco titans first put this corner of the Triangle on the map, but it's a newer wave of engaged creatives and innovators who have since molded Durham into the energized place it's become. The town's invigorated spirit is on full display at the Durham Hotel's lobby restaurant, where you're just as likely to find locals as tourists.

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03 of 20

18. Winston-Salem, North Carolina

wake forest university winston-salem
Getty Images

The place that gave us Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Texas Pete hot sauce is as entrepreneurial and imaginative as ever. In 2021, we declared the Demon Deacons' hometown a "City on the Rise," thanks largely to Innovation Quarter, a downtown research district that comprises 1.6 acres of green space, 5 academic institutions, 90 companies, and 20 miles of connected greenway.

04 of 20

17. Fayetteville, Arkansas

fayetteville arkansas
Getty Images

We'll start with its obvious charms: location, location, location. Tucked in the hills of the Ozark Mountains, Fayetteville is a town whose approach to hospitality is as wide-open as the expansive views that surround it. Steps from the University of Arkansas' hilltop campus is Dickson Street, the heart of the place, where establishments like George's Majestic Lounge, the oldest and longest-running club and live music venue in Arkansas, delight townies and students alike.

05 of 20

16. San Marcos, Texas

San Marcos River Paddleboarders
Courtesy The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

A river runs through this Texas Hill Country haven just 30 miles southwest of Austin. In addition to tubing, swimming, or fishing its crystalline waters throughout their time in school, Texas State students jump into the San Marcos in their caps and gowns following graduation. The town's distinction as Mermaid Capital of Texas only heightens its degree of watery enchantment.

06 of 20

15. Columbia, South Carolina

Columbia, SC
DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

Even Clemson fans would have to (begrudgingly) admit that the University of South Carolina's campus is the jewel of the state's capital city. Green is the only color you'll see more of than garnet and black: The Gamecocks' home turf is an award-winning urban forest, with 7,000 trees, several lush gardens, recreational greens, and a greenhouse to boot. Off campus, explore Riverbanks Zoo and Garden or the South Carolina State Museum.

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07 of 20

14. Annapolis, Maryland

Overview of Annapolis, Maryland
Tara Donne

This historic coastal enclave isn't a typical college town, but perhaps that's to be expected as the U.S. Naval Academy isn't a typical college. Situated on the Severn River, the stately Beaux Arts-style campus is just a short walk from Main Street, where 18th-century brick shopfronts play host to an inviting mix of restaurants and shops. And don't forget St. John's College, whose campus sidles right up alongside the Naval Academy. Each year the "Johnnies" challenge the Midshipmen to a croquet match that draws in spectators from miles around; winner takes home the Annapolis Cup and bragging rights.

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08 of 20

13. Tallahassee, Florida

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee FL
Michael Titus/Florida State Parks

Home to Florida State and Florida A&M, Tallahassee is also known as a prime retirement destination. With its impressive array of state parks (Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park pictured), its dynamic assortment of craft breweries and local eats, and its vibrant art scene, it's easy to see why the Panhandle gem attracts residents of all ages.

09 of 20

12. Lexington, Kentucky

Lexington, KY
Robbie Caponetto

The Wildcats may claim Lexington, but the Bluegrass town is likely better known for its equine population. Site of famed Keeneland racetrack, the "Horse Capital of the World" draws equestrian enthusiasts like moths to a flame. Bourbon is king here, too, thanks to nearby distilleries like Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace. That said, March Madness devotees will deem basketball the main draw; the University of Kentucky boasts the most successful NCAA Division I basketball program in history.

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10 of 20

11. College Station, Texas

College Station, Texas
Danny Lehman/Getty Images

When it comes to school spirit, you'd be hard-pressed to find a place that does it quite like College Station—perhaps because Texas A&M's student population of nearly 73,000 largely dominates the town. The night before every home game, some 25,000 fans gather at Kyle Field for Midnight Yell, where the school's "yell leaders" (five upperclassmen elected each year by the student body) and the band guide the crowd through a series of cheers and regale them with university folklore.

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11 of 20

10. Gainesville, Florida

Gainesville, FL University of Florida
Bryan Pollard/Getty Images

The hometown of the Gators has a lively and historic downtown, where arts and culture take center stage. Catch a play at the Hippodrome Theater or join a free line-dancing or figure-drawing class in Bo Diddley Plaza. Nature-centric activities, like Florida Museum of Natural History's Butterfly Rainforest and the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, round out the town's offerings.

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12 of 20

9. Baton Rouge, Louisiana

LSU Lake in Baton Rouge, LA
Courtesy of Eddy Perez/LSU

Louisiana's riverfront capital city takes its fun seriously. From LSU tailgates where revelers cook in so-called 'Cajun microwaves' to live-music venues that highlight Zydeco and the blues, there's no shortage of ways to let the good times roll in Baton Rouge.

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13 of 20

8. Oxford, Mississippi

the square oxford mississippi
Visit Oxford

Consider the pageantry of its sprawling oaks, chandelier-decked tailgate tents, and immaculately dressed football fans, and it's no wonder The Grove at Ole Miss has become synonymous with the town. But Oxford is also home to celebrated cultural institutions, like Rowan Oak and Square Books, as well as culinary ones, like Saint Leo restaurant, which was named a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2017.

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14 of 20

7. Tuscaloosa, Alabama

tuscaloosa university of alabama
Visit Tuscaloosa

Forget saying hello… the only pleasantry you'll need to know here is "Roll Tide." With 18 national college football championships to the University of Alabama's credit, it's hardly surprising that the town roars to life on Saturdays in the fall when fans descend on Bryant Denny Stadium. Even so, there's plenty to savor in the off-season; think concerts at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater and hickory smoked ribs from Dreamland Bar-B-Q's flagship spot.

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15 of 20

6. Knoxville, Tennessee

Knoxville, TN
SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images

A self-declared "nature-loving-adventure-seeking-artsy-kinda-town," this multihyphenate destination in the footprint of the Great Smoky Mountains offers something for everyone, from dining and shopping in historic downtown to exploring within its expansive Urban Wilderness adventure area. Of course, you can't talk about Knoxville without a tip of the coonskin cap to the Vol Navy, a floating tailgate that makes good use of the university's riverfront digs.

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16 of 20

5. Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville, VA
Courtesy Jane Haley/UVA Public Affairs

As far as these towns go, Charlottesville can claim an embarrassment of riches. Beyond the requisite collegiate hallmarks (beloved bagel spot, sticky-floored bars, late-night pizza), there are plenty of reasons to stick around after graduation: The University of Virginia campus and Monticello together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site; the pedestrian-friendly Downtown Mall is home to dozens of shops and restaurants; and a short drive will deliver you to Shenandoah National Park or Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards.

Plan your visit.

17 of 20

4. Clemson, South Carolina

Clemson University South Carolina
DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

The football faithful will tell you Clemson's magic lies in Howard's Rock (players rub it for good luck before every home game), but the Upstate town's true powers of enchantment belong to its natural surroundings: It's tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and nestled along Lake Hartwell.

Plan your visit.

18 of 20

3. Auburn, Alabama

Auburn, Alabama
Robbie Caponetto

Called the "loveliest village on the Plains," the Alabama town attracts attention these days for its burgeoning food scene, which celebrates everything from slow-smoked brisket at Bow & Arrow to steamed bao buns at The Irritable Bao. And you can't talk about Auburn without mentioning its penchant for rolling Toomer's Corner with toilet paper after any home victory. Homesick Tigers can even catch a glimpse of the beloved block at any given moment via a live web stream.

Plan your visit.

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2. Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The Old Well on University of North Carolina Campus in Chapel Hill
Robbie Caponetto

The nation's first public university is a place steeped in tradition. Each year, on the first day of classes, students superstitiously sip from the campus's historic Old Well to manifest good grades. Perhaps just as recognizable to Tar Heels as that charmed rotunda is the Blue Cup (yes, it's capitalized) from beloved downtown watering hole He's Not Here.

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1. Athens, Georgia

Athens, Georgia
Robbie Caponetto

There's plenty of excitement to be found between the hedges at Sanford Stadium, but the energy here reverberates well beyond the privet. Athens is a music lover's heaven; bands like Widespread Panic and R.E.M. were born here, and the historic Georgia Theater's concert lineup is always stacked. The food scene's nothing to sneeze at, either; just ask anyone who's ever had fried chicken from Weaver D's.

Plan your trip.

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