The South is the land of college football as a religion, so it makes sense that the college towns here are on another level than those you’ll find anywhere else in the country. What makes a great college town is a level of pride, not just for the school and its sports teams, but for the city as a whole. It has its own culture outside of the university, particularly in those quieter summer months. And they’re worth visiting, even if you aren’t a student. There are so many great college towns in the South, but here are our picks.
Athens was only a small farming community before the University of Georgia was established here in 1785, which was placed away from Atlanta by the founding fathers who wanted to escape the city’s temptations like alcohol and women. But the school went on to be named Playboy’s #1 Party School in 2010 despite its humble beginnings. Game day may be crazy in town, but there are some top notch restaurants outside of the college scene, like Five and Ten and Trappeze. Major musical acts the B-52s and R.E.M. called Athens home and it’s become a popular filming location, recently featured in the movie The Spectacular Now.
Schools: University of Georgia, Athens Technical College, Piedmont College
Why We Love It: If you’ve ever seen the #my_athens hashtag, you can see that the people who live here, both students and locals, are immensely proud of what their city has to offer.
Photo Credits: Author, Ben M
Knoxville may not be a place that immediately comes to mind as a great college town, but once you’ve seen it turn full orange and boats lining the Tennessee River during a game, you’ll start to understand. Outside of football season, there are cheap places to catch live music and restaurants featuring vegetarian options alongside Southern favorites. The city is also located within a short drive of the Great Smoky Mountains, with hiking and adventures abound.
Schools: University of Tennessee, Pellissippi State Community College, South College, Johnson University, Knoxville College
Why We Love It: Knoxville has been described as “Austin without the hype” and we couldn’t agree more. The music scene is impressive and the city as a whole is underrated, which makes it an excellent value for visitors.
Founded in 1837, Oxford is named for its counterpart in England. It has much of the same old world academic feeling, as writers William Faulkner and John Grisham lived here. It also has one of the country’s best independent bookstores and music scenes. There’s nothing quite like seeing the students dressed up in costumes straight out of Gone with the Wind for Old South weekend, a tradition of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity. Be sure to check out Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s former residence and pose next to the oddly placed double decker bus downtown.
Schools: University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”)
Why We Love It: So little of Oxford has changed since its founding and classes still take place in buildings that have been around for 200 years, so take time to wander around campus.
The Triangle, North Carolina
Chapel Hill, along with Durham and Raleigh, forms part of the Research Triangle, North Carolina’s region of top-notch universities. Each town is impressive in its own right, but it’s hard to mention one without the others. Between the three, you’ll find the best of the state’s barbecue, as well as popular restaurants and music venues. But the competition between these schools is fierce, so be careful when it comes to choosing favorites!
Schools: University of North Carolina, Duke University, North Carolina State University, Wake Technical Community College, Meredith College, William Peace University, Shaw University, St. Augustine’s University, North Carolina Central University
Why We Love It: When you get this many universities together, there’s always something going on and in order to keep it budgeted for students, many are free or cheap.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
I never knew much about Baton Rouge before visiting, except that it was home to LSU and their mascot, Mike the Tiger. But what I soon found out was that Baton Rouge has a food culture on par with that of nearby New Orleans or Lafayette. Between the fresh produce at the Red Stick Farmer’s Market to Cajun flavors at Louie’s Cafe to the frothy and locally inspired brews from Tin Roof Brewing.
Schools: Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge Community College, Our Lady of the Lake College, Southern University
Why We Love It: As we said before, the restaurants and markets of Baton Rouge are unmatched of any other college town. You have no excuse for sticking to dining hall food!
What’s your favorite Southern college town?
All photos property of the author unless otherwise stated.