The South's Best College Towns
What Does it Take To Be the Best College Town?
While these college towns top our preseason poll for reasons beyond the gridiron, we won't judge you for making an end zone rush to visit.
Best College Town Criteria:
- A population under 200,000 (thus excluding favorites like Austin) so that the school has an incredibly strong impact on the town.
- A lively local scene with good, affordable restaurants, independent boutiques, and support of the arts.
- A dedicated and active alumni base.
- A healthy dose of Southern charm.
Did we miss your favorite? Add it to the comments section.
Charlottesville 101: Rolling vineyards, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the redbrick Downtown Mall–it's easy to see why so many students graduate from the University of Virginia and stay put.
Why It Made Our List: iPads and laptops have replaced satchels and quills, but students still sign honor codes, dress up for football games and vie for coveted spots in secret societies at the university Thomas Jefferson founded in 1819.
Don't Miss: Jefferson's contributions, such as The Lawn, where 54 peer-selected students forgo modern conveniences for the honor of living in 18th-century buildings. From town, walk the wooded two-mile Saunders-Monticello Trail to Monticello.
Home of the Virginia Cavaliers
Book a table at The Local in the Belmont quarter. Order comfort foods like dry-rubbed pork chops with crispy sweet-potato fries.
Sure Beats the Dorm: Students check their parents into The Boar's Head Inn (pictured) in hopes they'll pick up the tab for bottles of Virginia wines served on the outdoor patio overlooking the property's lake.
Coach's Report: "Students shake off finals with comfort foods like grilled cheese on sourdough at The Virginian restaurant (434/984-4667)"–Coach Mike London
Chapel Hill, NC
Chapel Hill 101: From outdoor cafes and public art murals to formal colonial residences fluttering Stars and Stripes, the University of North Carolina's hometown is classic Americana.
Why It Made Our List: Think of this city as one big food festival where farmers, chefs, and diners all come together in the name of local ingredients and Southern cuisine. Culinary events take over downtown streets and James Beard Foundation Award-winning chefs like Andrea Reusing think local. At her Lantern restaurant on West Franklin Street, she serves up Asian-inspired dishes.
Don't Miss: The Pig, a whole-hog barbecue joint owned by former Reusing-staffer Sam Suchoff, whose homemade frankfurters are a fresh take on what might as well be the official state food.
Home of the North Carolina Tar Heels
Extra Credit: Satisfy your sweet tooth with a scoop of gelato–24 flavors, such as caramel fleur de sel–at the cheerful coed favorite Sugarland (pictured).
Sure Beats the Dorm: A stay at the 185-room The Carolina Inn is like a night at a museum. Hand-painted French wallpaper adorns some first-floor walls; a painting of the property by UNC alum Jeff MacNelly hangs in the opulent lobby.
If You Do Go for a Game: Before kickoff, watch Tar Heel players and cheerleaders parade down Franklin Street, past the campus' 1897 Old Well and into the stadium.
Coach's Report: "The Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery is the place to pregame or celebrate a big win. It overlooks the main business district and has great food." –Former Coach Butch Davis
If heaven is full of artists and hipsters, it will probably be something like Athens, where the downtown's designated historic area is also a music and culture hub. From there, the city fans out to incorporate other neighborhoods, notably Five Points, known for its mix of old Georgia mansions, upscale restaurants, and frat houses.
Why It Made Our List: Athens is to music what the Cannes International Film Festival is to movies–a breeding ground for artists. Just ask Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who got his start here.
Home of the Georgia Bulldogs
Extra Credit: Snag a corner table at Five & Ten, where chefs Chuck Ramsey and Hugh Acheson turn out seasonal dishes worthy of their own theme songs. Or refuel on fried chicken and cornbread at Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods (706/353-7797).
Sure Beats the Dorm: The modern Hotel Indigo may stand out from the historic district blocks away, but the 130-room LEED Certified property is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
If You Do Go For a Game: It's not uncommon in the South for mascots to be so revered that they are eternally memorialized. Fans leave flowers by the marble vault on the stadium's south side, the final resting place for UGA I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII.
Coach's Report: "Any visitor must take a photo in front of the Arch separating downtown from campus. Tradition still holds that freshmen are forbidden to walk under it." –Coach Mark Richt
Knoxville 101: There are big-city amenities and a handful of skyscrapers, but Knoxville feels like a low-key small town, where life revolves around the Tennessee River, a historic market square, and all things Big Orange.
Why It Made Our List: It's a serious football town with a laid-back mountain vibe thanks to its proximity to the Smokies. Mark your calendar for two top festivals: the BaconFest and the annual Knoxville Brewers' Jam.
Don't Miss: More of the Volunteer State's natural bounty, such as heirloom tomatoes and local honey, at the Market Square Farmers' Market. Across the square, sit under tin ceilings at The Tomato Head, serving hand-tossed pizzas topped with primarily organic ingredients.
Home of the Tennessee Vols
Extra Credit: Interiors are kitschy, but King Tut Grill (865/573-6021), decked out with Mardi Gras beads, has a cult following for its feta-filled Greek salads and theme nights.
Sure Beats the Dorm: The Oliver Hotel is quirky, with retro-chic accents in otherwise minimalist bedrooms. Downstairs, take a seat on a leather banquette, with an old-fashioned cocktail in the Peter Kern Lounge.
If You Do Go for a Game: Hundreds of boats raft the Tennessee River together on game days. If you can't score an on-board invitation, watch the VOL Navy tailgate party dockside from the over-the-water Calhoun's on the River (pictured), with a Smoky Mountain Brewery ale in hand.
Coach's Report: "My family and I love Knoxville. It has a great combination of big city culture with the community feel of a small town."–Coach Derek Dooley
Bryan/College Station, TX
College Station 101:
While Texas A&M dominates the town of 90,000, Northgate and the historic district in downtown Bryan are the area's social hubs, where students and residents head out for pizza and a night of two-stepping.
Why It Made Our List: Whether you're sipping a Lone Star at one of the 26 bars or strolling past art-and-music stores on Bryan's Main Street, it's easy to see how Aggieland's country-western heart has long inspired alums like actor Rip Torn.
Don't Miss: The wood-paneled Dixie Chicken, where a caged pet rattlesnake competes for attention with Death Burgers topped with hot sauce. You'll pledge allegiance to the Texas flag after oak-smoked brisket at Martin's Place Barbecue (979/822-2031).
Home of the Texas A&M Aggies
Extra Credit: Discover A&M's next music legend on First Fridays, when residents tap their feet to free bluegrass, jazz, and country performances at haunts like the Palace Theater stage (979/209-5528).
Sure Beats the Dorm: La Salle Hotel (pictured) by Magnolia Hotels erected in 1928 and has been a city treasure since its shout-out in Lyle Lovett's 1986 hit "This Old Porch."
If You Do Go for a Game: Even if you're a rival, it's worth attending a midnight Yell Practice at Kyle Stadium, where Yell Leaders lead the crowd through a series of Aggie Yells in preparation for the next day's game.
Coach's Report: "Stop by Former NFL player and Aggie alum Mark Dennard's Wings 'N More. I often do a radio show there on game weekends."–Coach Mike Sherman
The United States Naval Academy and St. John's College anchor this small capital city with a stunning waterfront, rich boating culture, and proudly preppy residents. Experience the town as it's meant to be seen–from the Chesapeake–by booking a sailboat tour or taking a water taxi to Restaurant Row, where visitors head to Carrol's Creek Waterfront Restaurant for Maryland's famous crab cakes and harbor views.
Auburn University pride is palpable throughout this football-focused town. Granite plaques honoring athletes, coaches, and administrators embed downtown sidewalks, and the phrase "War Eagle!" translates into the perfect reply for any situation. Stop by Toomer's Corner, named for 115-year-old Toomer's Drugs, a place that's famous for fresh-squeezed lemonade. We're told it's what God drinks on game days.
The home of Virginia Tech, in the New River Valley 45 minutes from Roanoke, feels blissfully off the grid. Hokie campus–a 2,600-acre green dotted with stone buildings and ancient oaks–meets downtown on College Avenue. Try local brews like Peachicot Blonde Ale and listen to live music at Top of the Stairs, a dive bar discreetly located in a charming white building.
**Readers' Choice Winner**
Blacksburg, VA was voted the best college town in the South by our Facebook fans
Three schools border this hip downtown–Columbia College, Stephens College, and the University of Missouri, said to be home to the first homecoming celebration. Mizzou alums return each year and flock to neighborhoods like the North Village Arts District, brimming with art galleries, music venues, and indie film houses, such as Ragtag Cinema.
Just minutes from Charlotte, Davidson College's home on Lake Norman combines a small-town feel with the convenience of big-city amenities. Residents ride bikes down flower basket-lined streets, and such merchants as Debra Caudle of the 60-year-old Soda Shop(704/896-7743), known for its pimiento-cheese sandwiches and black-and-white milk shakes, greet customers by name.
Thanks to a slew of music venues and bars run by Razorbacks, central Dickson Street is the town's life force on the weekends. It also connects the University of Arkansas to the revitalized downtown, where streets are blocked off on Saturdays for the 60-stall Fayetteville Farmers' Market.
The town may be best known for the University of Florida's bevy of National Championships, but visitors shouldn't miss the historic downtown, where a new breed of cafes/bars, such as The Bull, serve up Gatorville's first local brews from Swamp Head Brewery.
Home to Southwestern, the Lone Star State's first university, Georgetown is a popular Hill Country destination thanks to its Victorian architecture, central park and square, and restaurants like the diner-style Monument Cafe on South Austin Avenue (512/930-9586). Try the fried organic-chicken sandwiches or the blueberry pancakes, fresh off the griddle and onto your breakfast plate.
Beyond West Virginia University's campus along the Monogahela River, the focus in this town is the great outdoors. Those interested in adventure-lite activities can stroll along the Rail Trails or hike and bike on nearly 50 miles of trails in the Coopers Rock State Forest, just 15 minutes away. White-water rafting on the Cheat River is only 45 minutes away for visitors seeking a wetter thrill.
Courthouse Square is at the culinary and cultural heart of this quintessential college town, the stomping ground of great minds past and present (William Faulkner and John Grisham, to name a few), and the birthplace of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Claim a balcony table at chef John Currence's City Grocery to sip craft cocktails and watch Ole Miss students mingle in the lively hub below.