Only in the South are college game days more celebrated than any other local event—perhaps even more so than wedding parties! So it’s safe to say that the hustle, bustle, and flow of university student life is almost always adrift within many Southern towns all across the nation, offering the area with a lively local scene of affordable restaurants, classy independent boutiques, and ample support of sports, the arts, and most of all, education.
Most of the time, you’ll also find a more than dedicated and active alumni base in and around the city—not to mention a nice healthy dose of good old Southern charm. From Texas to Florida and everywhere in between, these collegiate classics will have graduates, seasonal professionals, as well as backpack slinging coeds having the time of their lives. Here are eleven of the best college towns in the South.
11 College Towns Worth Visiting in the South
1. Austin, Texas
It is the city that loves live music—where musicians are able to perform just about anywhere, from local grocery stores to swanky outdoor venues. So for music lovers, you may very well have just discovered your new personal mecca. However, the city is also home to one the the greatest and largest universities in the world—i.e. UT Texas, which ranks highly in most of its programs and is priced competitively as one of the cheapest public schools in its class. Less than a mile from the UT Austin campus is Sixth Street, one of America’s most coveted drinking spots with bars piled high and low, making the area a blast to hang around in any day of the week. Public transit is also uber easy within town, and warm sunny days are pretty much a year round norm in the ATX. What’s more is that the city’s motto of “Keep Austin Weird” definitely holds up, which makes it the perfect place for anyone wanting to embrace who they are and what they want to be.
Chow down on some the best tacos, queso, and BBQ in the nation while jiving big name music festivals such as as Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. There are also over two hundred cozy coffeehouses and upscale concert halls to choose from, as well as awesome places to explore like the Cathedral of Junk, which allows you free admission if you make a donation of interesting glorious junk, or the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata, which is dedicated to things that may or may not exist with new collections always making their way in and out.
2. Chapel Hill, North Carolina
With nice and warm weather, as well as ample opportunities for outdoor adventures, it’s the perfect spot for anyone hoping to explore Mother Nature. Hikers will fall in love with Eno River Hiking, where you can blaze your own path through the woodlands or stick to the nature trails while taking in the beautiful Eno River State Park scenery. The city is also home to more than seven nature trails, each of various lengths so that you can choose the one that’s most appealing. If you choose to sprinkle in some water sports, head out to University Lake, rent a canoe, and spend the day out in the water and a night camping out at Jordan Lake.
What’s more is that Chapel Hill boasts some good old southern food-- lots of it, in fact. Be sure to head out to Mama Dip’s for classic fried chicken and pecan pie, or Crook’s Corner, which has been named “a temple of Southern cuisine” by Raleigh’s News & Observer. Savor some of those shrimp and grits—or how about some of their homemade honeysuckle sorbet? Foster’s Market offers gourmet old fashioned recipes with a modern twist, and you can always snag some fresh local produce at the Southern Village Farmers Market every Thursday. There’s even the Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, where you’ll have some of the best biscuits you’ll ever have. After filling up that belly, trek on out to gawk at everything from public art murals to formal colonial residences. Let’s just say that the home of the North Carolina Tar Heels is classic Americana. Don’t forget to watch those feisty Tar Heel players and cheerleaders parade down Franklin Street before every kickoff!
3. Durham, North Carolina & Davidson, North Carolina
Durham is home to not one but two prestigious schools: Duke University and North Carolina Central University. It’s also one of the vertices of the Research Triangle Park, including Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham, which acts as the home base of almost a couple hundred major companies and organizations in technology, health care, and biotech, among other research-heavy industries. Plus, the city’s well known for having "diversity, highly educated residents, affordable housing costs and large portions of young adults,” making it one of the nation’s top college towns.
Another good one would be Davidson, which is just minutes from Charlotte. It’s home to Davidson College, which sits on Lake Norman and combines a small-town feel with all the convenience of big-city amenities. Residents can ride bikes down flower basket-lined streets, as well as check out local merchants like the sixty-year-old Soda Shop, offering some of the best pimiento-cheese sandwiches and black-and-white milk shakes—not to mention super friendly staff that greet each and every customer by name.
4. Athens, Georgia
Though the city is built around the University of Georgia, where the Bulldogs reign supreme, tailgating and football aren’t all that Athens has to offer. It also boasts a superb art and music scene, with R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic, and Indigo Girls having all started out their careers by performing at venues like the 40 Watt Club. This Georgian city has also become quite the culinary hot spot in recent years, with about over sixty restaurants and nearly hundred bars in and around the downtown area.
Grab Sunday brunch at Mama’s Boy or a late-night drink at the World Famous before hitting up the Georgia Theatre or getting cultural at the Georgia Museum of Art, which celebrates and endorses diversity in art. Make sure to chow down on contemporary Southern cooking at Five & Ten, the James Beard-winner started by Top Chef’s Hugh Acheson. You can even join all the rowdy crowds during game season for the “Dawg Walk” with the school band, thousands of fans, and the the school’s live mascot, Uga.
5. Charlottesville, Virginia
It’s home to the University of Virginia, which was not only designed and founded by Thomas Jefferson himself, but is also the only college campus beautiful enough to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hence, the area’s utter attractiveness extends all the way down to the town of Charlottesville itself, where you can find brick-paved pedestrian malls perfect for shopping, dining, and gallery-browsing. Grab a cup of Joe and a currant donut at the Albemarle Baking Company before that first morning class. After lunch, slip into your running shoes for a jog up Observatory Hill. And after a long day of studying, mosey on down to the Whiskey Jar, which offers more than 125 kinds of bourbon, rye, whiskey, and scotch.
The town’s also been voted number one for intelligence, number twenty four for friendliness, and is the site of James Monroe’s home, Edgar Allan Poe’s room at UVA, as well as the infamous Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center. Do some red and white wine sipping surrounded by the rolling hills at Trump Winery, or have a picnic at Jefferson Vineyards. What’s more is that Charlottesville treats both college students and residents to affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods, as well as dozens of locally owned shops and an expansive restaurant scene, with everything from French and Thai, to Mexican and Southern recipes, all made with ingredients from local farms. Some of today's most notable entertainers, such as Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, have even often played in the area’s venues, including the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena, and the historic Paramount Theater. Bookworms can even check out the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, as well as the numerous independent bookstores in and around town.
6. Bryan/College Station, Texas
Texas A&M dominates this town of about 90,000, but the nearby districts of Northgate and the historic downtown Bryan are also popular social hubs, where students and residents alike can head out for a slice, some beers, and a fun night of two-stepping. Sip on a Lone Star at one of the twenty-six bars in town before strolling past some of the best art-and-music stores on Bryan's Main Street. Don’t miss out on the wood-paneled Dixie Chicken, where Death Burgers topped with hot sauce are a must try, or Martin's Place Barbecue, offering some of the best Texan oak-smoked brisket.
You can also A&M's next music legend every Friday during First Fridays, when locals can tap their feet to free bluegrass, jazz, and country performances at haunts like the Palace Theater stage before 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. Plus, the city[s home to former NFL player and Aggie alum Mark Dennard's Wings 'N More. What more could you ask for?
7. Knoxville, Tennessee
Once the sun goes down, there are plenty of great things to do in this lively Tennessee city. It’s nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and the banks of the Tennessee River, offering beauty, adventure, and excitement in spades, as well as a lively music scene that serves up any genre you could think of. Head out to one of the nightclubs in the Old City and Market Square areas, or over to the Vision Plaza, which offers live music every day during the week. Market Square also hosts free outdoor concerts and movies from the spring through the fall.
Recreational activities are also a breeze to find: explore an array of dog parks, flowery fields, greenways, parks, quarries, rivers, and trails—there really is no excuse to stay indoors and not take full advantage of Knoxville’s mild temperatures and sunny weather. What’s more is that there are constantly new events going on, like disc golf, Ultimate Frisbee, or rides on the Three Rivers Rambler train. Don’t forget to mark your calendars for the two top local festivals: The BaconFest and the annual Knoxville Brewers' Jam. Really, this college town is a great combination of big city culture with the community feel of a small town.
8. Columbia, South Carolina
As the capital city of South Carolina and home to the University of South Carolina, as well as Fort Jackson, this southern town is a fave amongst outdoor enthusiasts, with its Conagree, Broad, and Saluda rivers—not to mention Conagree National Park, the largest remaining stretch of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States today. Life in the outdoors is super vibrant here, sometimes even more so than in the town’s entertainment districts. There are several playgrounds, rivers, parks and gardens to choose from. Set up an afternoon picnic or spend a lazy day by Lake Murray, a scenic water playground offering boating, fishing, sailing, canoeing, swimming, skiing, and camping.
If you’d like to take a break from the outdoor fun, get a closer look at Columbia’s past by exploring historical landmarks such as the Woodrow Wilson family home, which was built by Woodrow Wilson’s parents in 1872, or the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, which has been deemed a "classic example of an elite planter's domicile” that remains well preserved even to this day. There’s also the South Carolina State House, a sprawling historical building that withstood Sherman’s 1865 march, as well as the South Carolina State Museum, which holds an astounding 70,000-plus artifacts.
9. Oxford, Mississippi
It may be a super small town—but it sure has seen some major moments in Southern history. The town barely escaped being burned to the ground during the Civil War, and in 1962, allowed James Meredith to become the first African American to integrate into the University of Mississippi, a previously all-white university, which led to major rioting but was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
Oxford is also home of Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s retreat, where he penned the classic novels like As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! For book aficionados, be sure to head on over to the famous Square to explore Square Books, where you will no doubt get lost for hours within a maze of thousands and thousands of books. You might even be able to discover autographed hardcopies by famous southern authors such as Eudora Welty! Then go grab a bite or two at Courthouse Square, the culinary and cultural heart of this quintessential college town, as well as the birthplace of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Make sure to check out John Currence's City Grocery for some crafty cocktails while watching those Ole Miss students mingle down below.
10. Gainesville, Florida
It’s home to the beloved Florida Gators at the University of Florida, one of the nation's ten largest universities by enrollment. This college town also offers plenty of places to explore, such as the Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, which houses 6,400 square feet of subtropical plants and hundreds of beautiful butterflies, and the Hippodrome State Theater. How about some outdoor fun at the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, or at one of the city's many world-class fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving locations? Don’t miss the University's Bat House & Barn before heading to the historic downtown, where a new breed of cafes and bars, such as The Bull, serve up Gatorville's finest local brews. In 2014, Gainesville was even named Florida’s second best metro location for economic and job growth (it’s also 51st in the nation!), and is also quite well known for being a sports driven town boasting a bevy of National Championships, courtesy of those mighty Gators.
Be sure to take a day trip to Alachua to pick fresh fruit or to rent a canoe before spending an afternoon on the river in High Springs. Or do some bird and wildlife viewing at Gum Root Park before hiking and mountain biking through San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, which has the perfect combination of solitude and picturesque woodlands. The options are endless.
11. Columbia, Missouri
Three schools border this hip downtown: Columbia College, Stephens College, and the University of Missouri, so college alums of all sorts return each year to flock over towards neighborhoods like the North Village Arts District, which is brimming to the tee with art galleries, music venues, and indie film houses, such as Ragtag Cinema.
Mizzou city is basically Collegetown, USA and boasts a “strong entrepreneurial scene coupled with an artistic vibe and a politically progressive undercurrent [that] makes living in Columbia, Mo. highly appealing to both college students and recent graduates," as noted by Livability.
This article was written by Pamela Chan.