Why You Should Visit Athens, Georgia, The South's Best College Town 2020
This cool-kid town is a mosh pit of iconic bands, collard greens, and Bulldog pride.
It’s a random Tuesday night, and a line is already forming on the curb outside the Georgia Theatre. Two backpack-laden students walk past, talking about their midterms. An older couple ducks into Last Resort Grill nearby, in search of praline chicken. A man zooms past on a unicycle. Welcome to Athens.
It’s the home of the Dawgs, the old stomping ground of beloved rock bands, and keeper of a bar-per-capita stat that could induce the spins (over 70 bars in a square mile). Athens is a place of many attitudes, and which version you get depends on when—and where—you meet this very cool town.
There’s nostalgia in the dim light and sticky floors of historic music haunts like the 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre. Echoes of old friends still permeate the thick, beer-shrouded air in these venues that once hosted Michael Stipe’s distinctive songs, The B-52s’ signature funk, and even Pylon’s jangly under-ground rock.
There’s soul wafting from every kitchen as you breathe in the telltale aromas of the famous fried chicken at Weaver D’s; the hangover-curing biscuits at Mama’s Boy; and the Frogmore stew at 5 & 10, Hugh Acheson’s flagship.
There’s pride in the prodigious shadow of Sanford Stadium, where the hedges aren’t just smart landscaping and the mascot isn’t just a dog. The stadium is home, and Uga is a rock star.
And there’s optimism in locals’ eagerness to turn tired spaces into shiny, happy new faces. An old tire company is now a favorite brewery and farmers’ market. A kudzu-covered former cotton warehouse returns as an arts district.
What doesn’t change? The Waffle House on West Clayton Street. The Tree That Owns Itself, a quirk respected even by the local government. (Go read the plaque.) The old-fashioned root beer floats at ADD Drug, a landmark since 1961. Athens is a blend of everything that makes the South diverse and weird and unpredictable; laid-back and loud; rooted and rebellious.
Up All Night
With well over 100 bars, restaurants, and shops hugging the small and walkable city-style blocks, Athens’ historic downtown is more alive on an average Monday than many towns are on a Saturday night. Daylight hours see UGA college students filing in and out of various cafes, such as the coffee shop/bar hybrid Walker’s Coffee & Pub, as locals pop into shops like Archer Paper Goods (a stationery lover’s heaven).
Once the sun goes down, innocent errands turn into late-night shenanigans. Spontaneous souls could end up dancing at the pop-up silent disco wearing big glowing headphones next to dozens of strangers; watching an indie film at Ciné, a nonprofit art house opened in an old tire-recap building; or sipping at the bar of Manhattan Cafe next to a dude reading a Cormac McCarthy novel while others sway in the back corner next to an ancient jukebox with handwritten track cards.
A straight shot down Prince Avenue from downtown Athens, Normaltown is where you’ll find the townies. The old-school strip of storefronts is now frequented by the impossibly cool. Bars here—The Old Pal, Hi-Lo Lounge, and Normal Bar—are the grown-up, hipper version of those downtown. Automatic Pizza serves up slices in a retro former gas station, and White Tiger Gourmet hawks melt-in-your-mouth barbecue in a 100-plus-year-old location that once housed a grocery store.
You might hear whispers of a beer so good that they don’t dare let it out of Georgia. Über-popular Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in the old Snow Tire Company building is the fount.
The beer in question is Tropicália, a citrusy little number with hoppy notes and apparently a certain cachet. Due to production constraints, it garnered a cult following—borderline mania—when it was first released in 2014. A few years later, the frenzy reached all the way to Atlanta and the production crew of box office monster Avengers: Endgame—then to Thor himself.
“It was all kind of mind-boggling,” says cofounder and brewmaster Adam Beauchamp. “One of the directors basically started sending his production assistants to chase down the trucks when it was really difficult to find. They were buying fridge-full amounts of it for everybody on set, including these big stars like Chris Hemsworth.
Staples like the fruity springtime Athena Paradiso and the easy-drinking Classic City Lager stock all the bars, restaurants, and frat houses throughout town.
The late-night dining scene here is also legendary, from street hot dogs at one of two dueling carts—old rivals that sit on either side of the same block—to the signature feta fries at The Grill.
Before you know it, 3 a.m. rolls around. Last call. Not at the bars—those closed an hour ago—but at Little Italy, a pizza dive serving up hot slices bigger than your head. But the fun stops at 3. That's when the guy behind the counter starts hollering for everyone to get out.
Automatic For The People
Step inside Wuxtry Records, and nostalgia hits you like an old Tom Petty song. Suddenly, it’s 1976, the year this place opened, right before the Athens music scene went wild.
The oldest still-operating record store in Georgia, Wuxtry has been in business for over 40 years, refusing to give up on vinyl, even when CDs took over the market. When records came back in vogue, the small store on East Clayton Street downtown was still packed with crates and crates of it.
This is where the future members of R.E.M. hung out. Lead guitarist Peter Buck even worked there for a short time. “He was my Neil Young coach,” says Bertis Downs, longtime advisor and friend of the band (or “the guys,” as he calls them). He also knew Bill Berry, R.E.M.’s drummer, from the time they spent together on UGA’s concert committee. “And then all of a sudden, boom, they’re in this really popular band.” That’s an understatement.
WATCH: 2020 South's Best College Towns
It was Downs who approached Dexter Weaver, owner of local restaurant Weaver D’s, to ask if R.E.M. could use his catchphrase as one of their most famous album titles: Automatic for the People. Sound familiar?
For Weaver, the tagline is about being quick to please his customers. His slogan traveled all the way from the lime green cement walls of a soul food joint to the top of the charts. “And then, a year later, when the guys were nominated for a Grammy, we got Dexter and his sister to come to the Grammy Awards as R.E.M.’s special guests!” Downs hoots.
You won’t meet a church lady or frat boy from the past three decades who hasn’t had a meal at Weaver D’s. “White or dark meat, baby?” asks Weaver from behind the counter. He opened the restaurant in 1986, and it’s all about the chicken, followed by homemade macaroni and cheese, collards or green beans (something healthy, for goodness’ sake), and the essential corn muffin. You can easily see how this place would inspire an album name. It’s that special.
“All of the great things in my life started when I moved to Athens,” says Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers, which got started here in the 1990s and still considers Athens home. What called Hood to Athens in the first place? “R.E.M!” he cracks. “That’s what it all boils down to, right? The music.”