The South’s Best College Towns 2020
This South's Best category always gets Southerners fired up, even though most of us don’t even live in these towns anymore. Nevertheless, we all hold a special nook in our hearts for our alma maters, which is undoubtedly where the passion for this contest stems from.
Southerners take education, amongst other things, quite seriously. “Other things,” being football season and restaurants that serve cult-status pimiento cheese and access to insane amenities like the Great Smoky Mountains and Savannah’s River Street. That’s how these college towns became the South’s Best.
And as much as we’d like to say that these votes are *surely* attributed to the academic excellence of whichever college town won your vote…we aren’t thick. We know your intentions, your motivations. It’s more likely you were swayed by the quality of life each college town offers, based on a unique mix of quirky traditions, charming downtown streets, a robust town culture, a killer food scene, and more. You voted because you’d bet money that your college town is more fun than whozit’s college town, any day.
This one’s for the students, teachers, alumni, and locals. It’s for the hard partiers, the studious intellectuals, the trailblazing townies, and everyone in between, from the locals to those who come back into town only once a year. Here are the top 10 college towns in the South as voted on by our readers.
10. Knoxville, Tennessee
Most people know Knoxville for two things: The University of Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains. (It’s nestled in quite the handy spot.) The city has seen more than a decade’s worth of revitalization, including the trendy Daylight Building behind Market Square—with lofts, retail, and restaurants—and the bustling Market Square Farmers’ Market. But let’s not forget the social circle that is the Vol Navy—UT fans who travel the Tennessee River and anchor at the docks outside Neyland Stadium to tailgate before games.
9. Tallahassee, Florida
Seminole pride is something you’ll feel all over Florida’s capital city. Florida State University is located close to the downtown district, and students take advantage of the proximity to restaurants, bars, Greek life, and the nearby Rez, a waterfront recreational park located on Lake Bradford. Students can access it for free and enjoy everything from kayaking to sand volleyball to picnicking.
8. Clemson, South Carolina
The easiest way to measure the passion that students, staff, alumni, and locals feel toward this college town? Walk around on any given Friday, which is when everyone is expected to dress in Clemson orange. It’s called “Solid Orange” Friday, and it’s taken quite seriously. Then head to the beloved Esso Club, a sports bar housed in an old gas station that sits in the shadows of Death Valley, for its signature "Build Your Own" Bloody Mary bar. You'll find walls covered by Clemson Tiger memorabilia and lots of alumni saddled up at the bar.
7. Tuscaloosa, Alabama
There’s an elephant in the room, literally, that we might as well address from the jump, and that’s the matter of two little words: Roll Tide. Football is everything here, don’t be mistaken—as in, Bear Bryant, Nick Saban, Joe Namath mania. Beyond Bryant-Denny Stadium, you’ll find more soulful snippets like the story behind Alabama’s biggest superfan, the late Walt Gary. Go home with an iconic burger from Rama Jama’s, the town’s beloved old-school diner, and a souvenir cup from Gallettes, home of the famous “Yellowhammer” cocktail. Hint: It’ll knock you right over.
6. Auburn, Alabama
It’s best to kick things off with an ice-cold glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade from Toomer’s Corner, an old-fashioned soda fountain established in 1896, beloved by students and locals alike. Toomer’s is also the best spot to catch the post-game street celebrations after an Auburn Tigers victory. One of the most surprising things about this rural Alabama college town? The food scene—from David Bancroft’s farm-to-table Acre (get the pimiento cheese and the sweet corn donuts and the goat cheese guacamole) to train-station-turned-brasserie Depot. (Locals love the shareable gumbo pot!) It’s hard to go hungry down on the Plains.
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5. Savannah, Georgia
It might not be fair to label this coastal gem a college town, but here goes. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is one of the top design schools in the nation, and if we could spend four years living and learning on the cobblestone streets of this historic city, which has charm for miles, we wouldn’t think twice. You’ll find SCAD students’ artwork all over the city, everywhere from coffee shops to famed public squares like Forsyth Park. It’s a college town, but also one of the South’s best cities...so of course it made the South’s Best list.
4. Oxford, Mississippi
Whether you’re heading to a tailgate at The Grove, stepping into the tomato sauce-infused air of primo pizza joint Saint Leo, or roaming the dust-tinged aisles of Square Books, you’ll instantly get it. This place has it going on. Oxford is super Southern. It has been home to the likes of William Faulkner, John T. Edge, and Eli Manning. And it knows how to throw a dang good party. (Ask anyone.) Hotty Toddy!
3. Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Chapel Hill presents itself as the tidied-up version of a crazy old college town. The city, one-third of The Triangle, along with Durham and Raleigh, is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—referred to as a “Public Ivy”—and a next-level restaurant scene, which includes renowned cocktail bar The Crunkleton; Andrea Reusing's first restaurant, Lantern; daytime staple Neal's Deli; and Southern cooking at fabled Mama Dip's Kitchen. From there, a pretty good basketball team (kidding!) adds just the right amount of collegiate chaos.
2. Charlottesville, Virginia
Hugging the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville is the college town equivalent of everyone’s overachieving older sister. The nearby Shenandoah National Park offers over 500 miles of trails, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail; Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, Monticello, is located just 15 minutes from the University of Virginia; and downtown is packed with an impressive number of restaurants-per-capita (now that’s something a Southerner likes to hear). Get a hike on the books, a healthy dose of history, and a hefty glass of hard cider. See? Overachiever, indeed. Fuel up with breakfast at one of the town favorites, Bodo’s Bagels or MarieBette Café and Bakery.
1. Athens, Georgia
It was voted the South’s best college town for many reasons, not that it particularly cares which one put it over the top. Athens is too cool for that nonsense. Head downtown for over 100 bars, restaurants, and shops—emphasis on bars!—including historic music haunts like the Georgia Theater and 40 Watt Club (where everyone from R.E.M. to The B-52s got their start). Hungry? Hit up Weaver D.’s for the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat, Mama’s Boy for one handsome biscuit sandwich, and White Tiger Gourmet for the Barbarella barbecue sandwich.