The South's Best College Towns 2018
Musicians, artists, alumni, and students mix and mingle in Athens, the University of Georgia’s hip home base. Start your tour at the Arch, which stands between downtown and the university. There should be plenty of room to pass through the curved structure since tradition holds that freshmen are forbidden to walk under it. A short walk from campus, Athens fans out into neighborhoods such as Five Points, known for its eclectic blend of early 20th-century mansions, upscale restaurants, and college-oriented boutiques. Downtown also features some of the most famous music venues in the South, including the 40 Watt Club (proving ground for groups like the Indigo Girls, R.E.M., and the Drive-By Truckers) and the Georgia Theatre (a landmark that underwent a complete renovation after a fire back in 2009).
September is still warm enough to make you long for an ice-cold glass of lemonade on a sunny afternoon—and you won’t find a fresher version of the tart, tasty drink than the one served at Toomer’s Drugs, across College Street from Auburn University. Toomer’s Corner is the designated celebratory center of town after an Auburn football victory, and it’s not far from unique gifts at Wrapsody of Auburn and stylish women’s clothing at Ellie Boutique, both down North College Street. Dinnertime brings one of the state’s largest selections of bourbon, as well as great food, at The Hound. Or try organic specialties at Acre, known for its fresh and locally sourced Southern ingredients. And if lemonade and bourbon aren’t enough to take the heat off, escape to the cooling, cascading waters of nearby Chewacla State Park. Many an Auburn student has ventured there with the best intentions of studying for finals, only to be lured away by the relaxing call of Chewacla’s waterfall.
This hip haven sitting on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country not only serves as the state’s capital and home of The University of Texas at Austin, but it’s also one of the best cities for dancing and dining in the country. For more than 60 years, Texas legends like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and songwriter Joe Ely have taken the tiny stage at The Continental Club on South Congress Avenue. A new version of the popular Antone’s, the “Home of the Blues,” spotlights musicians like guitarist Gary Clark Jr. (who’s also a partner in the club). You can build up an awesome Austin appetite listening to all of that great music, so downtown is filled with dining spots like ATX Cocina, an upscale Mexican restaurant featuring masa tortillas that are made daily and delicious entrées such as the Chili Roasted Chicken with white mole and braised cabbage. Located closer to the university, Happy Chicks is a relatively new bar and chicken-tender place that offers 14 different kinds of dipping sauces. A block from the West Campus, a former food truck known as Don Japanese Kitchen has been reborn as a brick-and-mortar spot with donburi rice dishes that are flavored with everything from tuna to pork belly.
Baton Rouge, LA
As the state capital and home to Louisiana State University (LSU), Baton Rouge is a center of history, culture, creativity, and cuisine. The over-300-year-old city celebrates its French, Spanish, Creole, and Native American roots with a rich gumbo of food, architecture, and music. Located between University Lake and the Mississippi River, the LSU campus houses the largest university in Louisiana, with championship-winning football and basketball teams that draw huge crowds. The 34-story Louisiana State Capitol building is the tallest statehouse in the country. Its 27th-floor observation deck offers stellar views of the Mississippi River. For a delicious taste of Baton Rouge, check out the sandwiches and fresh local meats at the City Pork Deli & Charcuterie a couple of miles from campus.
Chapel Hill, NC
The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill offers one of the best foodie towns in the South, including eateries from several of the state’s most renowned chefs. Some of the best spots are found on West Franklin Street, like Lantern restaurant, known for its James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing, who serves up Asian-inspired dishes. A few blocks away, Top of the Hill (affectionately known as TOPO) features a college-spirited atmosphere, beers brewed in-house, and simple but delicious dishes such as a Thai Seared Tuna Sandwich. Meat lovers should head about 5 miles northeast of downtown to try The Pig, a whole-hog barbecue joint owned by California native Sam Suchoff, whose homemade frankfurters give a whole new (and delicious) meaning to “hot dog.” Walk off all those calories with a stroll around the university’s lovely 700-acre campus, and then rest at the landmark Old Well, a rotunda in the same location as the original well that provided water for the school when it officially opened as the state’s first public institution of higher learning in 1795. You can spend the night on campus in one of the 185 rooms at The Carolina Inn, where a painting by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial and political cartoonist (and UNC alum) Jeff MacNelly hangs in the lobby.
While azalea lovers flock to Charleston in spring, locals know that one of the best times to visit this coastal college town is during fall. Temperatures are a little cooler, autumn colors are on display, and the College of Charleston campus is in full swing. Set in the historic downtown, “CofC” (as it’s known to the students) is just a stroll away from some of the city’s most famous sights and sounds. The shops, boutiques, and restaurants of King Street as well as the elegant homes and churches of Charleston’s historic district are only a few blocks away. You can spend hours on King Street alone. Explore the three-story building that houses the famous George C. Birlant & Company, one of the oldest antiques shops in the Southeast (and originator of the cast iron-and-hardwood Charleston Battery Bench), and check out the artwork inspired by the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina at Gallery Chuma. Charleston is one of the country’s best restaurant destinations, with classics such as FIG, Hominy Grill, and Circa 1886. But discerning diners are also discovering newer bright spots like Butcher & Bee, Little Jack’s Tavern, and Rodney Scott’s BBQ. At Goulette Rotisserie and Grill, owner and chef Perig Goulet prepares succulent duck-fat fries, pork sandwiches, and grilled hanger steaks. Rappahannock Oyster Bar is housed in the Cigar Factory (now a mixed-use facility a few blocks from the CofC campus) and has fresh shellfish and seafood dishes—as well as the best rosé and half-shell happy hour in Charleston.
When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, he placed it in Charlottesville, one of the most scenic sites in the state. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and just a couple of miles from Jefferson’s home of Monticello, the bustling settlement officially became a city 69 years later, and since then, it has only gotten better. Today, the college town features some of Virginia’s best restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues, as well as a collection of nearby wineries and historic sites. Even with all the newer attractions, the university remains a highlight for visitors.
The campus, only a mile west of downtown, is home to a handful of remarkable Jefferson-designed buildings, including the Rotunda. This Pantheon-inspired structure serves as the center of Jefferson’s “Academical Village” and anchors the Lawn at the heart of campus. After a university tour, explore the Historic Downtown Mall, a pedestrian area surrounded by more than 120 shops and 30 restaurants. Start the day with a hearty breakfast at Kathryn Matthews’ Iron—Paffles and Coffee. Matthews grew up in England, and her background in baking led to the creation of the “paffle” (puff pastry baked on a waffle iron). Last year, she brought her unique treat to the edge of the Mall. Fans of a savory breakfast order the Iron Glory version served with a local egg and bacon, JM Stock sausage, Sriracha mayo, and Cheddar. A short drive away, Lampo Neopolitan Pizzeria offers unique antipasti, pies, and Panuozzi (kind of like pizza sandwiches). For a quick, filling lunch, try the Muffalata Panuozzi with prosciutto, salami, mortadella, giardiniera, and provolone.
Located in the Blue Ridge foothills less than a mile from the city, Clemson University is a big school with a small-town vibe. Covering 1,400 acres, it offers seven colleges and a National Championship-winning football team. As a major agricultural-research center, this school shares some of its down-home discoveries—like its famous Clemson Blue Cheese, which is sold on campus and in stores across the Southeast. Students and visitors work off that delicious dairy by rowing and kayaking on Lake Hartwell (right on campus) or exploring the trails that lie along the Blue Ridge Parkway about two hours north of town. Back in Clemson, you can pick up everything from sweet gourmet goodies to sturdy hiking gear at the Elkmont Trading Company, or put on a few more pounds by dining at Calhoun Corners Restaurant. Housed in a restored general store, this local favorite prepares specialties like chicken sautéed with spinach and goat cheese and a wheat berry panini filled with pimiento cheese, bacon, and tomato. Their amazing desserts include a signature Tall Cheesecake Brulee.
One of three cities (along with Raleigh and Chapel Hill) that make up North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Durham is home to Duke University, a national center for scientific and medical research. Just a couple of miles from downtown, the school’s three main campuses are spread over more than 8,000 landscaped acres that contain the notable Duke University Chapel (a gem of Gothic architecture) and the Sarah P. Duke Gardens (the ideal spot for fall-color photo ops). Like Chapel Hill, Durham’s neighbor to the west, the city has a happening restaurant scene. Find seasonal fare along with beautiful baked goods at Scratch bakery and its adjoining restaurant, The Lakewood, both run by pastry chef Phoebe Lawless. M Kokko is worth searching for downtown. Look for a sign with the outline of a chicken next door to its sister restaurant M Sushi. At M Kokko, chef Michael Lee turns out classic Korean fried chicken and bibimbap, as well as Japanese-inspired dishes like Chicken Paitan Ramen and oyakodon.
If you love scenic mountains, smoked meats, and good music, spend a few days rambling the University of Arkansas’ hometown in the northwest corner of the state. Dozens of shops, music venues, restaurants, and bars line downtown’s Dickson Street, which rocks and rolls on weekends. That road also links the university’s campus to a revitalized city center. Don’t miss George’s Majestic Lounge, a Fayetteville landmark that has been attracting some of the best bands in the country since 1927.
Bricks, backfields, and a beverage helped build the University of Florida’s home. After fires destroyed much of downtown in the 1880s, community leaders decided that red bricks were a more flameproof option than wood, and today, even some of the streets are paved with them. The brick town started booming a few years after the university (then known as East Florida Seminary) opened in 1853. It’s now a sprawling 2,000-acre campus, with downtown shops and restaurants about a mile away. Not only does the university take pride in a championship-winning football team, but it’s also the birthplace of Gatorade, created in 1965 by scientists at the College of Medicine. Before seeing a game, stop by farm-to-table Mildred’s Big City Food; Satchel’s Pizza for a deep-dish slice inside the restaurant’s restored 1965 Ford Falcon van; or The Bull, a popular pub.
How many Southern college towns can offer great dining, unique boutiques, and classic theaters—plus a rolling river and cloud-shrouded mountains? Just Knoxville. The University of Tennessee’s hometown is on the banks of the Tennessee River 35 miles north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is filled with both natural and man-made attractions. Head downtown to Market Square, a favorite gathering place for locals since 1854. Dine on authentic Southern comfort food at Tupelo Honey or freshly made salads and hummus dishes at The Tomato Head. The city also celebrates its diverse cultures with events such as the Asian Festival in August and the Hola Festival in September. From the square, take a free trolley ride to catch a flick at a restored historic venue, such as the Bijou Theatre or the Tennessee Theatre. On football weekends, venture over to Volunteer Landing Park, and watch some of the 200 boats that make up the Vol Navy gather for the mass migration to Neyland Stadium.
Set in the state’s Bluegrass region, this city is a hub for higher education and equestrian sport—home to the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Horse Park, and the beautiful Keeneland racetrack. Located about a mile from downtown, the university is a basketball powerhouse, home of the Wildcats. While you’re in the area, drive down U.S. 68 for some of the best fall color in the South, and visit the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, which features historic artifacts and restored 19th-century buildings.
Just a couple of miles southwest of downtown Nashville, Vanderbilt University is in the middle of Music City’s shopping, dining, and dancing spots. Many visitors gravitate to Lower Broadway, where classic clubs and cowboy shops such as Robert’s Western World, Layla’s, Legends Corner, Tootsies Orchid Lounge, and The Second Fiddle offer cold beer and snazzy boots not far from the legendary Ryman Auditorium. But now, lots of people travel from Vanderbilt’s compact but colorful campus and cross Music Row to reach the Gulch. The industrial area turned entertainment district features a variety of dining spots and shops. Stroll through to check out The 404 Kitchen restaurant (with some of the tastiest farm-to-table fare and one of the largest selections of whiskey in town); Station Inn music hall; and shops such as Two Old Hippies, a unique boutique that sells Nashville-style souvenirs and clothing. A few blocks away, the bustling neighborhood of SoBro (South of Broadway) offers several streets lined with music venues and pubs, as well as such only-in-Nashville attractions as the Goo Goo Shop and Dessert Bar, the Johnny Cash Museum, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
New Orleans, LA
Of course, the best party city in the country would be home to the top party school—and according to the 2018 edition of The Princeton Review, Tulane University ranks numero uno on the fun list. Just a trolley ride from all the art galleries, restaurants, bars, and boutiques of the French Quarter, Tulane’s campus is a picturesque location in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. While it’s tempting to head on over to the Quarter for a half dozen raw ones at the beloved Acme Oyster House or drop in for an afternoon-long lunch at Galatoire’s Restaurant (start with their famous Crabmeat Maison appetizer), a number of great places to eat have recently opened closer to campus. In the corner of a former Woolworth’s five-and-dime sits DTB (Down the Bayou), a new restaurant that puts a creative spin on locally sourced Cajun dishes such as veggie boudin balls made with mushrooms rather than meat, and Crawfish Stuffed Squash Blossoms with green onion mole and a chipotle-crawfish bisque. A few miles to the east, James Beard Award-semifinalist pastry chef Beth Biundo sells her custom cakes and other take-home goodies at Beth Biundo Sweets. This pastry shop offers an assortment of baked goods such as a Blueberry Basil Pound Cake and chess pie bars, as well as frozen treats like vanilla malt ice-cream sandwiches. Martin Wine Cellar is just across the street, and Biundo encourages her customers to stop by and pick up a bottle or two to go with their ice cream and cake.
A laid-back mix of literary prowess, Southern hospitality, and football fever, the University of Mississippi’s hometown has something to offer any traveler. In the heart of downtown, the Square—anchored by an 1872 courthouse—holds a collection of locally owned boutiques; drinking establishments; art galleries; music venues; and shops, including Neilson’s, which first opened its doors in 1839 and bills itself as “The South’s Oldest Store.” During football season, Ole Miss fans tailgate on 10 oak-shaded acres at The Grove. Visit William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak; shop at Square Books downtown; and check out one (or more) of chef John Currence’s outstanding local restaurants, including City Grocery, Bouré, Snackbar, and Big Bad Breakfast.
You don’t have to be an artist to visit Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), but you’ll probably feel like one when you leave. One of the top design schools in the country, SCAD puts a modern twist on the centuries-old city as its students and alumni present their artwork all over town—from the walls of coffee shops and galleries to public squares such as Forsyth Park a few blocks away from the main campus. ShopSCAD was voted one of the South’s best shops in 2017 by Southern Living readers, and it features a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, and other pieces. The school’s Trustees Theater presents concerts, dance performances, and other events, including the annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival, held in October this year. You’ll find shops, brewpubs, and restaurants along the River Street waterfront, as well as small boutiques and big-name stores on Broughton Street.
A boomtown in the 1920s, Tulsa is home to one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the country. Route 66 still runs through town, marked by popular spots like Tally’s Good Food Café, which has been serving customers for more than 30 years. A few blocks north of the famous highway, the University of Tulsa is an energy-research center as well as a leader in sustainability. The Gilcrease Museum houses the world’s largest, most comprehensive collection of art and artifacts that celebrate the American West. While you’re exploring, dine on bountiful bowls of bouillabaisse at the French Hen Bistro & Wine Bar; try great hush puppies and fried catfish at The Wild Fork; and enjoy seasonal specialties featured at The Chalkboard, a fine-dining restaurant in the Ambassador Hotel.
Home to The University of Alabama, this lively river town has been called “City of Championships.” But there’s more to enjoy in T-Town than football. Head to The Strip close to campus, and browse such shops as the Alabama Express and Expeditions. Then try a king-size cheeseburger at Rama Jama’s. Tuscaloosa has almost as many barbecue joints as championships, with the famous Dreamland leading the pack, followed by the lesser-known (but every bit as tasty) Archibald & Woodrow’s BBQ and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit.
Where else in America could you see a guy in a tricorn hat carrying on a conversation with a university student? Adjoining the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg, William & Mary, chartered back in 1693, is the second-oldest college in the country (right behind Harvard) and boasts four U.S. Presidents—as well as comedian Jon Stewart—as alumni. Locals flock to restaurants like the Fat Canary, a fine-dining spot in Colonial Williamsburg, where the changing menu might include Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Asian noodles, wild mushrooms, and napa cabbage or Grilled King Salmon with French lentils, pickled beets, goat cheese, and pesto. Grab a table at the Five Forks Cafe, a traditional American diner that makes the best and biggest burgers in Williamsburg (about 4 miles from downtown). Before you leave, pick up some souvenirs at the gift shops and boutiques in Merchants Square.