What makes a town a great college town? Obviously, the presence of a quality academic institution, but also how the college is part of the community, the natural surroundings, the history, entertainment venues, food scene and the charm, all create that special college town atmosphere.
The SEC has more than its fair share of great college towns. These towns keep bringing the alums back, help recruit new students and form a special bond with all who walked their quaint streets, experienced a cool music venue, dined at their favorite local spot, hiked a nearby trail and strolled through a picturesque campus.
We rank the best college towns in the conference by taking in the factors from above and our own personal history with each of these cities. Let us know how you would rank each.
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The Horse Capital of the World, Lexington is known more for its equine population than the presence of the Kentucky Wildcats. They come for Keeneland racetrack, stay for the bourbon and may catch a Kentucky basketball game while in town.
Nashville isn’t the traditional college town, but as a large metropolitan area, the Tennessee state capital has much to offer.
Vanderbilt shares the Music City with several institutions of higher learning, including Tennessee State, Belmont and Lipscomb universities. Legendary country music venues include the Grand Ole Opry House, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and historic Ryman Auditorium are downtown, as is the District, featuring honky-tonks with live music.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
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Fun is the name of the game in Baton Rouge, home of Mike the Tiger, Death Valley and some of the most ferocious college football fans you’ll ever see. If you have not been to a tailgate and witnessed Tiger fans cooking in their Cajun microwaves, you’re missing out.
Check out magnificent sorority row on West Lakeshore Drive, which curves and meanders along the scenic University Lake on campus. No other Greek setting like it in America.
Columbia, South Carolina
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The city itself may lack that certain charm you’re looking for in a southern college town, but the University of South Carolina’s campus is the jewel of the Palmetto State’s capital. Trees, gardens, zoos and nature are some of the perks. When Sandstorm starts playing on a Saturday night in Williams-Brice, it is one of the most electric atmospheres you could ever imagine.
College Station, Texas
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School spirit is what College Station is all about.
Nearly 73,000 students dominate the town. A midnight Yell Practice at Kyle Stadium is one of the coolest traditions in college football that any fan should want to check off their bucket list. Key areas include Northgate and the historic district in downtown Bryan.
Austin Prince fires up his elephant grill while tailgating on the Alabama campus before the Alabama vs. LSU game in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Syndication: Montgomery)
There’s nothing like a Saturday in the fall in T-town, where fans flock to Bryant Denny Stadium to see the Crimson Tide, winner of 18 national championships, take the Gridiron.
In those offseason months, it’s concerts at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater and some good eating – mainly hickory smoked ribs.
(Syndication: Gainesville Sun)
You’re entering Gator territory when you step foot in Gainesville, which features an up-beat yet historic downtown known for its arts and culture. There’s nature museums and gardens, and of course there’s the Florida Gators playing in the Swamp.
Yachts dock at the Vol Navy at Volunteer Landing ahead of the Tennessee season opener game against Georgia State in Knoxville, Tennessee on Friday, August 30, 2019. (Syndication: Knoxville)
Don’t be fooled by the skyscrapers, Knoxville has a small-town feel to it with lots to offer in the Great Smoky Mountains. Historic downtown offers plenty to do in regards to dining and shopping, yet there’s no shortage of nature and wilderness to take in as well.
There’s no mention of Knoxville without talking about the Vol Navy, a floating tailgate outside Neyland.
Knoxville is fueled by the Tennessee River and its Volunteers. And how could any town not be high on a list that features the BaconFest festival and the annual Knoxville Brewers’ Jam.
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Why is it called Stark Vegas?
The story goes that the nickname–which is now a proud one for MSU fans–emerged from what was once an insult.
Critics of the town–as well as rivalry SEC sports fans–would ironically call the town Stark Vegas because of its small size, lack of culture and absence of things to do.
But we’re here to defend our Bulldog brethren and spread the word on Starkville. As the state’s “college town,” you’ll find some real Southern flavor featuring history and culture. You’ve got options – Downtown Starkville is packed with exciting culinary options and great beer. Don’t leave without dropping by the Lois Dowdle Cobb Museum of Archaeology, where you can see over 5,000 archaeological artifacts from around the world.
Johnny Cash’ song “Starkville City Jail” was inspired by his arrest in this town.
(AP Photo/April L. Brown)
Woooooooo. Pig. Sooie!
Via Southern Living:
“Tucked in the hills of the Ozark Mountains, Fayetteville is a town whose approach to hospitality is as wide-open as the expansive views that surround it. Steps from the University of Arkansas‘ hilltop campus is Dickson Street, the heart of the place, where establishments like George’s Majestic Lounge, the oldest and longest-running club and live music venue in Arkansas, delight townies and students alike.
Thanks to a slew of music venues and bars run by Razorbacks, central Dickson Street is the town’s life force on the weekends.”
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Named after the university city in England, Oxford is a charming town in north-central Mississippi. The pageantry, the atmosphere and the charm has led to the Grove at Ole Miss becoming the top spot for southern football tailgating.
Via Southern Living:
Oxford is also home to celebrated cultural institutions, like Rowan Oak and Square Books, as well as culinary ones, like Saint Leo restaurant, which was named a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2017.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
The Missouri Tigers’ football team may still be struggling to adapt to SEC play 10 years later, but Columbia, Missouri itself thrives as an SEC college town. This is the ultimate college town. Recent graduates of its three schools (Missouri, Columbia College and Stephens College) don’t want to leave either. Alums come back any chance they get to visit the hip, artsy downtown setting.
This is a football town. And the students and the locals love their Auburn Tigers.
“War Eagle” is uttered almost every sentence, statues of past coaches and players line the historic streets of Auburn. Toomer’s Corner is one of the coolest settings in American sports.
Food, specifically slow-smoked brisket, is one of this town’s great attractions.
Thousands of Georgia fans swarm downtown in celebration of UGA’s National Championship victory, the first in more than 40 years, over Alabama on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022 in Athens. The Bulldogs defeated the Crimson Tide 33-18. (Syndication: Online Athens)
Known for its music, football, and edgy culture, the Classic City is both sophisticated and charming. The Victorian-era downtown is filled with lively galleries and boutiques, while its concert venues lure international acts, and its restaurants earn raves from Food & Wine.
There’s plenty of excitement to be found Between the Hedges, but the energy here reverberates well beyond Sanford Stadium. Athens is a music lover’s heaven; bands like Widespread Panic, the B-52s and R.E.M., Drive-By Truckers were born here, and the historic Georgia Theater’s concert lineup is always stacked. Other renowned music venues downtown include the Morton Theatre and the legendary 40 Watt Club, The food scene is impressive– just ask anyone who’s ever had fried chicken from Weaver D’s.
Start the day at Mama’s Boy with a cup of Jittery Joe’s (Vince and Barbara Dooley’s favorite) locally roasted coffee and a biscuit the size of a softball.
My personal favorite, Last Resort Grill, serves upscale Southern fare. After dinner, return to Georgia Theatre’s rooftop for drinks before catching a show downstairs.
As the alums say, this place just gets in your blood and never leaves you. Nobody does it like Athens.