So much more than Bryant Denny's backdrop.

Advertisement
Bama Theatre, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Credit: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is well-known for one thing: It’s the home of The University of Alabama, and possibly even more than that, The University of Alabama’s football team. But as anyone who’s traveled to or lived in Tuscaloosa knows, it’s much more than Bryant Denny’s backdrop. Whether you’re visiting Tuscaloosa to watch the famed Crimson Tide play, passing through on a road trip, or experiencing what the city is like on a non-football weekend, there’s plenty to see, do, eat, and drink while you’re there.

WATCH: 2020 South's Best College Towns

For a Caffeine Break

When you’re traveling, you’ll undoubtedly need a pick-me-up. These local spots will do just the trick—and then some.

Heritage House Coffee & Tea

This comfy find is beloved by college students and locals. You can visit either location and find cute trinkets and gifts, an impressive coffee menu, and a more extensive breakfast and lunch menu than your average coffee joint. Heritage House is filled with antique pieces and mismatched wooden chairs and tables that make it feel like home. Treat yourself to something sweet or pick from plenty of healthy options on the menu.

Monarch Espresso Bar

University of Alabama alumni and husband-and-wife duo Paul and Audrey Vermilyea returned to Tuscaloosa a few years after graduating to open Monarch Espresso Bar, a cool coffeehouse where you best believe you’ll want to Instagram something. All of the specialty drinks are named after their friends, which is just one personal touch that shows the love that goes into this place. The most unique thing about Monarch, though, is that it also has a Bed & Breakfast loft space. Its location is ideal for walking around downtown.

Brunch and Beyond

If you haven’t hopped on the brunch bandwagon yet, Tuscaloosa is a delicious place to start. Whether you’re craving homestyle grits and biscuits or an Instagram-worthy Bloody Mary, T-Town prioritizes the most important meal of the day.

Avenue Pub

A local favorite for brunch, lunch, or dinner, Avenue Pub is the perfect blend of upscale and laidback. The cocktails are creative, the recipes are fun iterations of comfort food classics, and the atmosphere is casual enough for a group of friends but cool enough for a first date. At Avenue Pub, forget your go-to drink order and try one of the signatures. My personal order is The Gin Mill, but the Blackberry Smash is always a close second. Whatever time of day you visit, arrive hungry. At brunch, the Chicken Biscuit & Gravy and Huevos Rancheros are divine, and you’re practically required to order the Thai Nachos at lunch or dinner. When in doubt, Avenue Pub’s Bacon Burger will never—ever—disappoint.

The Historic Waysider Restaurant

This is the second time I’ve bragged about The Waysider on SouthernLiving.com (Read the first instance of praise here). This well-loved breakfast spot, nestled in a crimson cottage, was frequented by legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. You can sit at his preferred table and order his regular, country ham. If you want a Southern-style breakfast that tastes like Mama’s, here’s your destination.

FIVE

Although FIVE, appropriately named for the number of items on its selective but delectable menu, is popular at dinnertime, its Sunday jazz brunch is the way to go. Live music, artistic décor, and a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar make for a groovy Sunday fun-day. If you visit on a Sunday in September, their burger (complete with homemade bacon relish) is only $5. In the mood for a mocha instead of a mimosa? Pop next door to FIVE Java, the restaurant’s cozy coffeehouse.

Rama Jama’s

If you’ve ever attended an Alabama football game, you’ve seen Rama Jama’s. Located literally a few feet from Bryant Denny Stadium, this memorabilia-covered restaurant serves comfort food like biscuits (with all the fixins’), burgers, fries, hot dogs, and milkshakes. The chalkboard menu is full of affectionately named items like the “17 National Champ Burger,” the “SEC Champ Breakfast,” and the “Ain’t Nothing but a Winner Polish” hot dog. If you like to sleep in, don’t worry: They’ll be serving breakfast all day.

301 Bistro, Bar, & Beer Garden

This former 1912 railroad passenger station has been home to dozens of businesses over the years, but it’s finally found a seamless fit in 301 Bistro, Bar, & Beer Garden. For those with an eye for design, the impeccable renovation and décor of this historic venue warrant a visit, but everyone else should go for the food. Visit the beer garden on a warm evening to share a charcuterie board or giant pretzel with friends, or come to Sunday brunch for live jazz music, custom cocktails, and re-imagined Southern favorites like shrimp and grits and fried green tomato-eggs Benedict.

Casual Fare

Grab a quick bite or stay a while at these local all-stars where you’ll instantly feel like you belong.

Heat Pizza Bar

It didn’t take Heat Pizza Bar long to become a household name in Tuscaloosa after opening in 2015. With an outdoor patio that backs up to downtown’s Government Plaza, Heat is in a prime location. Their exclusive pizzas are something I actively miss about Tuscaloosa, especially the Thai Chicken. They’re the perfect size for sharing with a friend, but I recommend getting several for the table so you can sample different options. I’m usually not one to order salad at a pizza joint, but it would be a mistake to overlook the salads at Heat. Since the pizza is the main event, they didn’t have to go all out on the salads—and yet they did. The Spicy Kale Cobb is my go-to. If I get into how amazing the signature cocktails are, you probably won’t believe me considering I’m making this restaurant sound too good to be true. But order a Cucumber Smash, Strawberry & Peach Runner, Buffalo Soldier, Vodka & Basil Gimlet, First Lady, or Wall Street and tell me I’m wrong.

Innisfree Irish Pub

If you’re trying to avoid the college scene, we’ll admit: You probably shouldn’t “Head to the Free,” as one of Innisfree’s slogans reads on t-shirts and hats around campus. But have one bite of a chicken finger, French fry, or wrap dipped in their Irish Gold sauce, and you’ll want to stay forever. Innisfree is at its best in the spring and summer, when you can sit on its spacious patio and take your time eating, drinking, and watching sports. I started to make a list of what to order (Pub Fries, The JT Wrap, any of the hot dogs, Messy Chips, chicken fingers, a Sabanade drink, the Irish Mary…), but I was well on my way to listing out the whole menu.

City Café

Located in charming downtown Northport, City Café has been THE destination for an old-fashioned meat ’n three since it opened in 1931. Anticipate a line if you arrive during peak lunch hours. But don’t worry: It moves quickly and, to no surprise, politely. City Café serves a mean breakfast, too, but lunch is the headliner. You won’t believe the amount of food you’ll get for less than $10, so your wallet won’t mind finishing your Southern-style meal with a slice of pie that tastes like Grandma’s. I know “tastes like Grandma’s” is cliché, but City Café can actually live up to the pressure of that descriptor.

Hooligans

Right next to Innisfree, some of the best comfort food in town is being made (extremely fast, at that) in an unsuspecting white building with red awning. Welcome to Hooligans, the little restaurant that makes Alabama alumni nostalgic with random cravings for the seasoned crinkle fries, burgers, and tasty Mediterranean food that you wouldn’t guess could be hiding in Tuscaloosa. Although they have salads on the menu, for the full Hooligans experience, trust us and don’t think about calories once you get there.

BBQ

As is the case for many cities in the South, there’s good—even renowned—barbecue to be had in Tuscaloosa.

Archibald & Woodrow’s B-B-Q

Anyone who knows barbecue knows that Archibald’s does it right. Located in a cinderblock building in Northport, Archibald’s has been serving their famous hickory-smoked ribs since 1962, while keeping the business in the family. Archibald’s has been recognized nationally countless times, and with one bite of those ribs, you’ll understand why.

Big Bad Wolves

Unfortunately for BBQ fans, you can only get Big Bad Wolves on game day in Tuscaloosa. The upside to getting your Big Bad Wolves fix just a few times a year? It’s that much more of a treat when you get it. Big Bad Wolves sets up next to The Houndstooth on The Strip. Their specialty is barbecue nachos, and many Alabama students refuse to miss them on a game day. Order your nachos however you prefer (I like to add jalapenos and a generous amount of sauce), and they’ll be delicious, but remember this: It’s cash-only. There’s no greater sadness than walking away from the smell of fresh barbecue because you don’t have any cash on you.

Dreamland Bar-B-Q

If you’re from Alabama, you’ve probably been to a Dreamland location before, but did you know the original is just south of Tuscaloosa? Locals swear the barbecue simply tastes better when it’s served from the small restaurant that John “Big Daddy” Bishop opened in 1958, the same year a guy they called “Bear” began coaching football. To get the full Dreamland experience, dunk the plain white bread brought to your table in Dreamland’s famed sauce, order a slab of ribs, and finish with banana pudding.

Fine Dining

Tuscaloosa is a relaxed city, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get fancied up from time to time. These restaurants are prime for date night or a family celebration.

Evangeline’s

Dim the lights for a romantic dinner at this secluded restaurant tucked away from all reminders you’re actually in a college town. With a menu featuring local produce and decadent seafood options like crab cakes, scallops, and shrimp and grits, Evangeline’s always delivers on elegance. Equally snug and chic, Evangeline’s should be your white-tablecloth destination in Tuscaloosa.

River

Located unsurprisingly right on the Black Warrior River, River makes use of its view with abundant outdoor seating. Drop by for happy hour on the water and sample appetizers like flatbreads and roasted oysters from the wood oven or make a dinner reservation and choose between fresh land and sea options sourced from local farms. Yet another place to add to your Tuscaloosa brunch bucket list, River serves up must-try Southern offerings like beignets with espresso cream, butter pecan pancakes, fried oyster Benedict, and a smoked chicken Hot Brown on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Chuck’s Fish

Though Chuck’s now has several locations (and counting), Tuscaloosa is the original. Coastal Southerners are often wary of ordering seafood in landlocked cities, but all the seafood at Chuck’s is fresh from the Harbor Docks market in Destin, Florida, which shares an owner. You can’t go wrong ordering the fresh fish of the day or panéed chicken, but it’s almost impossible to go to Chuck’s and order anything but sushi. After you clean off an appetizer of Uptown Shrimp—required coursework—head straight to the sushi menu. If you’re dining as a pair, I recommend going upstairs to the sushi bar for a front-row seat. Always ask for the not-so-secret secret sushi menu. Even if you close your eyes, point to a random roll, and order it, you’ll never be disappointed.

The Side by Side Restaurant

This modern restaurant is connected to the Embassy Suites hotel downtown, but don’t presume you’ll find a cheesy chain. With a great bar, outdoor seating, and tons of natural light from expansive windows, The Side by Side, much like its menu, just feels fresh. Using local produce from surrounding farms, the menu changes with the seasons, so you’ll never get bored with monotonous options. The Side by Side has a generous happy hour from 4-7 p.m. on weekdays (even Friday!), where you can try small plates and $1 oysters.

Lively Libations

It’s no secret that a college town will have an array of dive bars, but Tuscaloosa has a few treasures where the grown-ups will enjoy a drink as well.

Catch 22

When it comes to cocktails, Catch 22 is Tuscaloosa’s authority. It’s the kind of bar where you can give the bartender a faint idea of what kind of drink you’re in the mood for, and he’ll bring you something you’ll fall in love with. Catch’s unique draw, though, is the line of gallon jars behind the bar, each one filled with vodka distilled with various fruits and vegetables. Fruity, refreshing, and even slightly bizarre (pickle vodka is a favorite), these distilled liquors take every cocktail to a level your local bar can’t match.

Carpé Vino

If wine is your choice drink, you’ll somehow find a way to spend hours in this cozy downtown shop. Schedule your own group wine tasting, join in on a planned formal tasting, or sample via staff recommendations while you’re perusing the endless rows of wine. Carpé Vino’s experienced staff loves teaching people about wine, and you and your friends will leave with new bottles for your collection and tons of grape knowledge. Forgive the pun.

Loosa Brews

We weren’t going to leave out our friends who prefer pints. While “craft beer emporium” might seem like enough to convince you to hop over (another pun, apologies) to Loosa Brews, it also has an arcade, pinball parlor, and ping pong. Choose from 63 beers on tap to enjoy while you’re there and fill up a growler to take home. If you have someone in your crew who isn’t a beer fanatic, Loosa has a package store with wine, too. Since opening in 2014, Loosa has quickly become a Tuscaloosa essential.

Alcove International Tavern

Alcove might be the closest thing to a literal hidden gem in Tuscaloosa. You could drive by this small bar and never realize it. But once you do discover Alcove, you’ll keep coming back. Alcove opened in 2009 as the city’s first smoke-free bar, and the sentiment clearly resonated with loyal customers. We’ve talked spirits, wine, and beer, but if you’re looking for a laidback, comfortable scene to grab any of three post-dinner, you’ve managed to find a true hidden gem in Alcove.

Session Bar

Though it just opened in fall 2019, locals are already loving Session Bar, which they say fills a gap the city needed. A cocktail bar that prides itself on also having great options for the wine drinkers in your crew, Session has an upscale feel with a casual atmosphere. The menu rotates every few weeks, so you can look forward to tasting seasonal options and new creations each time you go. Sit on the patio and relish a view of downtown’s busiest street or snag a seat at the beautiful marble bar.

Recreation and Sight-Seeing

I promise there's more to do than eat and drink in Tuscaloosa.

Shopping

You might see college kids walking to class in what appears to be pajamas, but we promise: There is good shopping to be done in Tuscaloosa. For ladies’ fashion, check out Effie’s, Canterbury Clothiers, and Duke’s. Guys can’t miss Christopher Mobley, The Shirt Shop, and The Locker Room. The whole family will enjoy a trip to The Pants Store, and if you need some UA gear, The Supe Store’s two locations have you covered. Antiques fanatics, make a pitstop at Adam’s Antiques & the Potager in adorable downtown Northport, and if you need a cute gift, Kyle Fine Stationery has so much more than thank-you cards.

Kentuck Art Center and Festival

The University of Alabama isn’t the only campus worth seeing in Tuscaloosa. Up the road in downtown Northport, you’ll find the Kentuck Campus, where anyone (not just art-lovers) will be amazed by what’s going on. With five buildings that inhabit artists’ studios, galleries, a classroom, a store, the Courtyard of Wonders, and a Big Red Dog—his name is Rusty, not Clifford—there are endless things to do and see at Kentuck. There are free Art Nights the first Thursday of each month and consistent exhibitions to see throughout the year, but if you’re in Tuscaloosa in October (October 10-11 for 2020), you must go to the Kentuck Festival of the Arts. With more than 10,000 visitors from across the country each year, hundreds of artists and exhibitions, live music, kids’ activities, food trucks, local craft beer, and if you can believe it, even more, there really aren’t any events that rival the Kentuck Festival—even an Alabama football game.

The Riverwalk

The Tuscaloosa Riverwalk is a must-see for anyone visiting the city. About 4.5 miles long, you can walk, run, or bike the gorgeous trail that runs along the Black Warrior River. There are benches throughout for you to stop and take in the scenery, and there’s even a playground for the kids. You can even rent paddleboards at one of the docks to see the river from a different perspective. On the Riverwalk, you’ll find the Tuscaloosa River Market, which hosts a farmers’ market every Saturday morning.

Entertainment

If you want to see a live show during your time in Tuscaloosa, check out who’s playing at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater first. On the banks of the Black Warrior River and just blocks from the nightlife of downtown, the amphitheater is ideal in the spring and fall. Speaking of downtown, those with a love of the arts should catch a show, ballet, play, or movie screening at the historic Bama Theatre. Around the corner, Tuscaloosa’s Government Plaza will host the sixth annual Live at the Plaza event this summer. Every Friday in June and July, with a few select dates in the fall as well, a local band will play in the Plaza.

Moundville Archeological Park

A bit south of Tuscaloosa, Moundville Archaeological Park is an extremely interesting historical jewel. One of the nation’s most revered Native American heritage sites, Moundville Park is 326 acres total, some of which is covered in flat-topped mounds built by the Mississippian people centuries ago. A mound might not sound all that intriguing, but these colossal natural structures are a sight to behold. Visit the park’s museum to learn more about the site’s history, take a walk on the nature trail, or plan your trip around the Moundville Native American Festival in October.

Tuscaloosa Civil Rights Trail

The Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History & Reconciliation Foundation’s Civil Rights Trail is an extremely powerful experience. See historic sites and share awareness for the Civil Rights milestones in Tuscaloosa. Click here to see the full brochure for the trail, which includes a detailed history of each of the 18 stop’s stories and people. You’ll see places like Capitol Park, where the ruins of the building from Tuscaloosa’s brief stint as Alabama’s Capitol in the 1800s sit, the Paul R. Jones Museum, the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center, and locations where boycotts, marches, and both triumphant and heartbreaking events occurred. This trail is truly the most important thing you can do with your time while in Tuscaloosa.

For the Kids

Children’s Hands-On Museum

Don’t take the term “hands-on” lightly. Your kids will get an immersive and interactive experience at the Children’s Hands-On Museum in downtown Tuscaloosa. With three floors, 25 exhibits, and special events, every family member from newborns to great grandparents will learn something new at this colorful museum. Check out upcoming events here, but stop by anytime for an educational, fun experience.

Mercedes-Benz Visitor’s Center and Plant Tour

If you have a car-obsessed kid (or let’s be honest, spouse), you should see the only Mercedes-Benz Museum outside of Germany, which happens to be in Tuscaloosa County. Not only do you get a look at the history of the iconic brand, but you can take a tour of the manufacturing plant that’s on site. Get information for both adventures here.

Snow Hinton Park

You might not think an average park is worth a visit on vacation, but if you have thrill-seeking little ones, Snow Hinton Park has a structure they’ll squeal over. Snow Hinton is home to a towering 38-foot slide, which has been billed the Southeast’s tallest slide. What makes the slide even more fun (or scary, depending who you ask)? You reach the top of it by climbing a massive ropes course. 

On Campus

Sure, one goal of this article was to highlight the things that Tuscaloosa has to offer other than The University of Alabama. But visiting the city without stopping by campus is like going to a theme park just to walk around: You’d miss the main attraction.

The Historic Spots

The University of Alabama is the oldest public university in the state, with inaugural ceremonies on April 12, 1831. One building still there today, Gorgas House, was part of the original campus. Ten years later, the President’s Mansion was built, and in the 1860s, The Little Round House was constructed. These three original buildings are all must-sees if you’re a history buff in Tuscaloosa. The Gorgas House is now a museum, and you can find tour information here. All of these buildings border the University’s Quad, which is a beautiful green space that's worth a walk (Warning: The squirrels are not afraid of you).

You can’t miss Denny Chimes, the 115-foot bell tower on the quad. Dedicated in 1929 to then-University president Dr. George H. Denny, the stunning structure is surrounded by The Walk of Fame. Since the late 1940s, captains of the football team have stamped the cement at the foot of Denny Chimes with their hand and footprints. Fans can see legendary names like Ken Stabler and Joe Namath, as well as more recent famed players like Derrick Henry and Reggie Ragland.

Across the Quad, you’ll find the Alabama Museum of Natural History inside a pretty yet unassuming historic school building. The kids won’t realize that a giant dinosaur skeleton hangs from the ceiling just upstairs, along with thousands of other specimens. See hours and current events and exhibits here.

For the Football Fans

The Walk of Fame mentioned above is just the beginning of the football-related history on campus. If you get the chance to actually attend a football game in Bryant Denny Stadium, get a Denny Dog, sing “Rammer Jammer” at the end of the game, and have a blast with a close-knit group of 101,821 buddies. But if you visit on an off-weekend or during the spring or summer, the enormous stadium is a still a sight to behold. Plus, you have to see the Walk of Champions, where giant bronze statues of national championship winning coaches watch over a walkway paved with their titles and the years they won. The team and coaches enter the stadium via the Walk of Champions every home game, reminding everyone how Title-Town earned its nickname.

Football fans have to pay a visit to the Paul W. Bryant Museum, which is filled with artifacts, memorabilia, videos, archives, and more devoted to the history of University of Alabama’s iconic football program. Plan your visit here.

Woods Quad Sculpture Garden

Just off the University’s main quad is another, smaller, quirkier one. Surrounded by school buildings for the College of Arts & Sciences, Woods Quad isn’t just a pretty green space: It’s an art exhibition. The most famous of its sculptures is “Goldie 1971,” a giant, rusted, fallen robot created as a tribute to Alabama’s iron industry. Goldie is the most-Instagrammed guy in the garden, but art-lovers will be amazed by the range of sculptures they find in this tucked-away spot on campus.

University of Alabama Arboretum

This University-sponsored space isn’t on campus, but if it’s a nice day outside, you should plan an outing here. Not only does the arboretum have walking trails with different sections like a wildflower garden, an experimental garden, and a children’s garden, but it also has an inspiring mission. Focusing on biodiversity in Alabama, the arboretum is also a scientific institution involved in research, teaching, and conservation. Read more about the arboretum’s mission here and view hours, location, and print a trail map for your visit here.

Miscellaneous Bucket List

These next few items don’t fall under a single category because they are one-of-a-kind experiences in Tuscaloosa. If you want to get the real local treatment, mark these off your to-do list on your next trip.

Quick Grill

The bad news: At certain (or most) hours of the night, Quick Grill will have a line of college students teetering outside of it. The good news: They’re there because the food is worth standing in line for. The tiny cinderblock building that’s dwarfed by a CVS and Publix on either side is easy to overlook on the busy Strip right off campus, but when it comes to late-night eats in Tuscaloosa, Quick Grill is king. You can order burgers, kabobs, and falafel, but the main attraction is the Messy Fries. Plan to go out big in Tuscaloosa, if only to devour a to-go box of Messy Fries on your way home.

Nick’s in the Sticks

The name isn’t a joke. Open since 1953, Nick’s in the Sticks is off the beaten path, and once you get to that path, you still might miss the crimson building. When you walk inside, though, you’ll feel like an actual local (and one that’s off your diet). As soon as you sit down at your table, you’re brought a basket of warm biscuits. Order the signature Nicodemus to drink but watch out—one of them does the trick. Though Nick’s menu is full of classic comfort food items, you’d be a fool not to order a steak. Share onion rings, fries, and loaded baked potatoes with your friends, and bask in the warm glow of neon beer signs and Southern hospitality.

Have a Yellowhammer at Gallettes

You might have heard that the yellowhammer is the official state bird of Alabama. You’ve more likely heard that The Yellowhammer is the official drink of The University of Alabama. Sure, you can try to recreate the magic recipe at home, but nothing will ever top a Yellowhammer from Gallettes on The Strip, right off campus. They’ve been making them since 1976, and with a drink that popular, we leave you with a word to the wise: They go down easy.

This might be a lot to process, but so is a trip to Tuscaloosa. Even die-hard Auburn fans have fallen in love with the city’s charm, and I have a feeling you might, too.