South's Best College Towns
September 9, 2019
We’ve selected some of our favorite small towns, some true hidden gems of the South. We looked for schools beloved by their fan bases and their alumni, and schools exploring truly exciting academics and research that promise to reach the wider world. We defined “small town” as a city of 350,000 people or less: places in which the college is a driving force in the character of the town.
There’s something magnetic about a college town. Lazy days on the quad followed by homemade ice cream in the town square; the excitement of game day punctuated by school colors draping the city streets; the chance to bump elbows with the leaders of tomorrow over a cappuccino at the local coffee shop. A small town can be a fabulous place to study (there’s plenty to do without big-city distractions) and an idyllic place to live. Small college towns are also among our very favorite places in the South to visit. A weekend trip can bring all the pomp and circumstance of football season in the South, an afternoon spent in charming boutiques and lovely historic theaters, and maybe a picnic on the green. It can be a lovely place to reconnect with family, a spouse, or even with yourself.
Huntsville, AL: University of Alabama Huntsville
Going to school in Rocket City has its advantages. With NASA in town and research opportunities galore, Huntsville offers the academic and training advantages of much larger cities with small-town benefits like a low cost of living and tons of charm. Situated in the Tennessee River Valley, Huntsville is a city of natural beauty. From its mountains to the Tennessee River, it’s a great place for swimming, hiking and fishing. University of Alabama Huntsville takes full advantage of these research opportunities; they’re also the home of the only NCAA ice hockey team in the South.
When visiting Huntsville, check out the huge selection of antiques at Railroad Station Antiques Mall, and be sure to tour Lowe Mill, the largest privately owned arts facility in the country. At the mill, grab a big Mason jar full of Piper & Leaf tea, made in-house with locally grown fruits and herbs. Round out your trip with a visit to the fascinating Burritt Museum, where historical interpreters interact as they would on a 19th-century farm, or hike in beautiful Monte Sano State Park.
Enjoy the taste of the town at Chef James Boyce’s fine dining restaurants—Cotton Row, Commerce Kitchen, and Pane e Vino Pizzeria—where inspiration from the past meets modern influence. You’re likely to find students enjoying Tex Mex at Little Rosie’s Taqueria; lined up in front of El Cazador 2 (a.k.a. “Taco Bus”), a permanently parked Blue Bird bus; or enjoying beer and house-made gelato at Sam and Greg’s.
St. Augustine, FL: Flagler College
History has never been more charming than it is in St. Augustine. The nation’s oldest city is home to museums, historic homes, statues, and memorials; it’s also home to Flagler, a private college with gorgeous Spanish architecture and tons of reading nooks for studying or talking with friends. The student-faculty ratio is fantastic (16 to 1), and teachers are likely to bring class outside for a session on the lawn when the weather is nice. Because the bay and the beach are nearby, Flagler has developed a great coastal environmental science program; and views of the water don’t hurt the scenery, either.
Take in Old City by walking down St. George Street; you’ll find shopping and snacking opportunities to satisfy anyone. Students love fueling up on coffee and pastries at The Bunnery Bakery and Café, and Schmagel’s Bagels has been keeping Flagler students stocked up for over two decades. Grab a quick bite at Flagler favorite Burrito Works Taco Shop, or plan a lovely sit-down meal at The Floridian, dedicated to local ingredients and "innovative Southern fare for omnivories, herbivores, and locavores.” Be sure to grab a sweet treat from Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops, named for their flagship store on St. Augustine’s Hypolita Street, and round out your visit with a tour of the fort, Castillo de San Marcos.
Auburn, AL: Auburn University
Life on the Plains has a lot going for it. Great academics, incredible school spirit, active Greek life, and a strong athletics program make Auburn University a hot spot for Southern students looking for the ideal college experience. Want to be an Auburn Tiger for the weekend? Be sure to catch a game—shout “War Eagle” and get a high five from Aubie, then grab a lemonade at Toomer’s Drugstore, right across the street from Samford Hall.
You're sure to bump into students lining up for breakfast sandwiches at Big Blue Bagel or grabbing a quick lunch at Tacorita. Enjoy top-shelf bourbon and fantastic Southern food at The Hound, started by Auburn alums, and check out Acre for fresh, modern twists on classic Southern food like Seafood Gumbo and Grilled Salmon Salad.
With a little extra time, take the 10-minute trip to Auburn’s sister town of Opelika and sample craft ice pops and wonderful coffee from The Overall Company, or search for treasure at Resurrect Antiques, a delightfully quirky and well-stocked antique store. Once you’re off campus, embrace the outdoors: Fish or swim on Lake Martin, or venture onto the hiking trails at Chewacla State Park. Students who want a taste of a bigger city love that Birmingham, Atlanta and Montgomery are all close by.
Florence, AL: University of North Alabama
The University of North Alabama has one of the most affordable tuition rates in the U.S., making it a great option for students looking for strong academics, small class sizes, and a focus on faculty mentoring. Outside the classroom lies the small town of Florence, where creativity is prized and strong artistic streaks run deep.
The music of the nearby Shoals flows into Florence, and you’ll find live music nearly every weekend, especially at First Fridays, when the town shuts down Main Street for a monthly street fair featuring musicians and artists. Music festivals like the W.C. Handy Music Festival bring hundreds of artists to the streets, and Shoals Theater showcases incredible work. Music lovers can enjoy music and a meal at On the Rocks pub or FloBama Music Hall.
Local clothing designer and textile artist Alabama Chanin runs a fantastic café, The Factory, that adjoins her workshop, and local artists and locally sourced food make Court Street Market a must-visit—be sure to swing by Cafe Woodpecker while you're there. If nature is more your kind of art, Florence has hiking and swimming opportunities in spades: play in the fountains at River Heritage Park or escape in the beauty of Wildwood Park.
Students get caffeinated at Rivertown Coffee and grab food at Rice Box or Rosie's Cantina between study sessions. Try a beer pairing at Wildwood Tavern, and don't miss Odette's for Alabama-grown ingredients, incredibly Southern cooking, and the best burger in town. To round out the trip, grab ice cream from Trowbridge's, a Florence institution.
Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama
Some say T Town has all it needs in the Crimson Tide: legendary football games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, some of the best fans a team could ask for, amazing tailgating, and a friendly “Roll Tide” everywhere you turn. But the town, and the school, have a lot more going for it than just sports—even though Alabama’s baseball, gymnastics, and basketball teams consistently bring in fans as well. Alabama students are serious about their studies and downtime, too.
Tuscaloosa lives by football, but there’s more to enjoy in this town full of natural beauty. Embrace the great outdoors at Lake Tuscaloosa or the Black Warrior River; you’ll find hiking trails and opportunities to get in the water all over the city. Visit the Alabama Museum of Natural History, the Paul W. Bryant Museum, and the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art. Or just walk down The Strip to find music, shopping, and great places to eat.
Between classes, students are likely to grab burgers at Rama Jama's, burritos from Pepito's, or Chinese food at Swen. You'll find a good Southern brunch complete with biscuits and gravy at Waysider, or a wonderful sit-down meal at DePalma's Italian Cafe. Since it would be it would be a shame to visit Tuscaloosa without sampling some great Alabama barbecue, take your pick from Dreamland, Archibald & Woodrow’s, Jim N Nicks, Full Moon, Moe's BBQ, Dickeys, and more.
Danville, KY: Centre College
Centre is a school that focuses on getting graduates out in the world with a job. They guarantee four-year graduation with research or internship opportunities; 85 percent of students study abroad at one of eight programs throughout the world, and 97 percent of students have a job or are getting an additional degree within a year of graduating. It’s no wonder alumni support their college and reportedly give back at the highest rate in the country.
The small town of Danville is a cozy haven for the discipline and studiousness of students at Centre. Consistently rated one of the best and most historic main streets in the nation, what Danville lacks in size it makes up for in picturesque charm. Catch a show at the Pioneer Playhouse, an outdoor theater and campground. Students hang out at The Hub Coffee Shop and enjoy craft beers at Bluegrass Pizza; you'll find them grabbing fajita nachos and pitchers of margaritas at Guadalajara (a.k.a. “the Guad”) or Italian at Freddie’s. After a day in Danville, enjoy a lovely meal at Cue on Main, or sample some of the 70 different bourbons at Old Owl Tavern in neighboring Harrodsburg.
Come in the fall for the Constitution Square Festival, visit nearby Shaker Town, and attend a horse race in nearby Lexington or Louisville to make your trip complete. Danville is a haven for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities; its two-lane roads and city parks are ideal for cycling and running.
Conway, AR: Hendrix College and University of Central Arkansas
Home to both Hendrix College, a private college where students can design their own majors, and the University of Central Arkansas, Conway is a gorgeous Arkansas town that’s full of charm and old-fashioned fun; downtown Conway is dotted with locally owned shops and restaurants. Go in early summer to celebrate Toad Suck Daze, a combination carnival and street party that brings out the entire town.
Meet up with students at Zaza’s; the wood-fired pizza and gelato are town favorites, and it’s owned by Hendrix alumni. Also popular? Cheese dip from the Stoby's drive-thru and Greek food from Blackwood's Gyros & Grill. Enjoy a fantastic meal with fresh ingredients and wonderful prime rib at Mike's Place. While you’re in Conway, visit Pickles Gap Village, a surprise tourist attraction featuring a petting zoo, sweet shop, and burgers from Al's BBQ & Burgers. For a bigger city experience, Little Rock is a short drive away.
Rome, GA: Berry College
Gorgeous forests, lakes, and mountains gives students at Berry College a great view when they look up from their books, and small class sizes and individual attention from faculty lead to a personalized college experience. And “pastoral” isn’t just a catchphrase at Berry; the college raises dairy and angus cows, as well as other animals, in the bucolic setting for their stellar animal science and education programs.
When they’re not on campus, students make themselves at home on Broad Street, the heart of Rome’s downtown that’s packed with history, local shops, mom-and-pop restaurants and a historic clock tower that houses paintings and a small museum. Pick up camping gear at Blue Sky if you’re planning on hitting the trails (a great idea in Rome). Don’t skip a trip to Jandy’s for frozen yogurt, Harvest Moon Café for dinner and drinks, and Honey Moon Bakery for pastries and from-scratch specialty cakes. For a long, leisurely meal, try La Scala, Mediterranean-inspired food made with local ingredients. Film buffs will love visiting during the annual Rome International Film Festival, when the streets are brimming with undiscovered cinematic treasure. Students love that Rome is close enough to Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Alabama to make weekend getaways a snap.
Dahlonega, GA: University of North Georgia
Nestled in the north Georgia mountains—near Blood Mountain, Springer Mountain, and the Appalachian trailhead—is Dahlonega, Georgia, home to the University of North Georgia. UNG is one of six military colleges in the U.S., and its popular ROTC program means visitors are likely to see the juxtaposition of cadets drilling and while other students relax or play Ultimate Frisbee.
Beautiful waterfalls, rivers, and lakes make Dahlonega well worth a visit. This is a town that loves celebrations; it plays host to festivals throughout the year, including the popular Gold Rush Festival in the fall. Dahlonega is the site of the country’s first gold rush, and its significance is celebrated with a museum and tours of the old mines. After touring the mines, get dinner at Smith House, and ask to see the original mineshaft, complete with a gold vein in its sidewall, in their basement (it’s open to visitors).
Find fantastic seafood inspired by North Carolina's coastal cuisine at Back Porch Oyster Bar. Drink specials and pub food are served up all day, and even late, at Shenanigans. Round out the trip with a stop at The Fudge Factory, a second-generation candy shop that's called Dahlonega home for over 30 years.
Jackson, MS: Millsaps College
Students looking for fantastic academics, a thriving Greek system, and the chance to study surrounded by natural beauty find a home at historic Millsaps, a college dedicated to creating strong citizens through the Socratic Method. Students are encouraged to get involved in the greater Jackson community through programs like Wellsprings, where students help in local schools.
Jackson produced many literary giants—like Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, and Richard Ford—and jazz and blues music is in its blood. Find fantastic music everywhere in Jackson: Queen of Hearts and 930 Blues Cafe have played host to many of the greats and are featured on the Mississippi Blues Trail, Ole Tavern on George Street features local musicians, and Thalia Mara Hall is a gorgeous historical venue that still puts on incredible performances.
Visit Fondren, Jackson's art district, where you'll find pizza and ice cream at Sal & Mookie's, local produce at Rainbow Coop, and coffee at Sneaky Beans or pasta at Basil's. Try burgers and homemade banana pudding at Feathered Cow, wonderful pub food at Hal & Mal's, and don't forget Keifer's, where one taste of the famous feta dressing has students and tourists flocking back for more.
Oxford, MS: University of Mississippi
The University of Mississippi is a world-class school with solid academics; it’s also home to one of the strongest football traditions in the South. A visit to Ole Miss isn’t complete without “groving,” cheering on the Rebels from elaborate tailgates set up in the Grove, a shady and beautiful 10-acre area that serves as the heart of campus on game days.
The balance of elegance and enthusiasm in the Grove (some of the tailgate tables have flower arrangements and chandeliers) echoes the spirit of Oxford, a city with a robust arts scene. Festivals like the Oxford Conference for the Book, the Double Decker Arts Festival, and Oxford Film Festival showcase local and national art. Catch incredible performers like Art Garfunkel at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, or hear favorite authors speak at Square Books. And you can’t go wrong with Southern food: Oxford favorites include pastries from Bottletree Bakery, Ajax Diner for soul food and cocktails, and Proud Larry’s for drinks and great music.
Davidson, NC: Davidson College
Nearly 25% of the student body at Davidson competes in Division I sports; although the school is small, they take their “Davidson versus Goliath” roll to heart when it comes to competition. Most students live on campus and develop tight bonds with each other and connections to the city of Davidson.
Near the growing metropolis of Charlotte, N.C., Davidson is an old-fashioned small town that’s as charming as it is inviting. Almost all the shops in town are unique and locally owned, and you’ll find new things to love and fun treasures everywhere you turn. Enjoy the flavors of the new culinary South at Kindred and Flatiron. Kindred is family-owned with a completely seasonal menu and focus on local sourcing. Flatiron (owned by Davidson graduates) shares that outlook, introducing traditional cooking techniques in creative new ways, promising a "big-city culinary experience."
For more than half a century, The Soda Shop has welcomed students from campus; you'll find nostalgic favorites like house-made egg salad and pimento cheese. Students love Summit Coffee Co.'s Basecamp, providing coffee, beer, wine, live music, and a place to study or read, and you’re sure to find a favorite new novel on the shelves at Main Street Books. For a meal with a view of Lake Norman, try steak at Mickey & Mooch or Mexican food at The Prickly Pear.
Boone, NC: Appalachian State University
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Appalachian State University is home to students who love to be active in the Boone community, a creative small town filled with folk art and bluegrass.
From shopping on King Street to dining at local restaurants that serve delicious Southern food and plenty of organic and vegan dishes, there’s plenty to do in the walkable downtown of Boone; barn dances and live bluegrass music aren’t unusual. Boone is also an outdoor paradise, with hiking and sightseeing on the Blue Ridge Parkway, great views at Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain, and the attractions at Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West theme park.
For breakfast and coffee, try fresh-baked bread from Stick Boy Bread Company, breakfast specials at Boone Bagelry, or the "Extreme Appalachian Breakfast" at Melanie's Food Fantasy. Stay fueled for a day of sightseeing with an organic smoothie from Hob Nob Café or coffee and dessert at Espresso News. Relax with a signature burrito from Black Cat or with a sandwich and a beer at Our Daily Bread. And for a fantastic dining experience inspired by the town’s namesake, check out the home-cooked food at Dan'l Boone Inn.
Greenville, SC: Furman University
Close to both the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, Greenville is a paradise for college students who can’t decide between the mountains and the beach. Bookworms looking for a break between study sessions will find an outdoor escape at Falls Park or the Paris Mountain State Park; with scenery so stunning, it’s no wonder the students of Furman love their college, and their town, so much.
All around downtown Greenville, you might spot tiny statues around your feet—these are the bronze Mice on Main, small sculptures based on the book Goodnight Moon. See if you can spot them all! Perk up with coffee from Coffee Underground (it has been in Greenville for over 20 years) or Spill the Beans, a coffeehouse and creamery with a great view that’s right by the entrance to Falls Park. You’ll find students grabbing nachos or burgers at Chicora Alley, eating sushi at Thaicoon Ricefire & Sushi Bar, or enjoying a beer at Barley’s or Smoke on the Water. Trappe Door serves local food and beer from around the world with a Belgian influence. And although the building that houses Soby’s is over 100 years old, their food is modern and very Southern.
Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee
Students at the University of Tennessee are serious about their academics; it’s one of the country’s biggest public research institutions. But anyone who’s seen a Tennessee Volunteer get rowdy in Neyland Stadium, shout “Go Big Orange!” or sing “Rocky Top” knows this is a school that knows how to let loose and fight hard in addition to studying.
It’s easy to find something happening in Knoxville, especially in Old City or Market Square. Catch a show at The Square Room or at beautiful historic theaters like Bijiou Theater or The Tennessee Theater (hop on the free trolley to get from place to place). World's Fair Park is perfect for a picnic or a guided walk; it has lovely fountains and the impressive Sunsphere, originally designed as the symbol of the fair. Nearby attractions are also wonderful: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg are all close and family-friendly destinations.
If you’re looking for great meals, check out The Strip (also known as Cumberland Avenue) or Market Square, especially on First Fridays of every month. Try handcrafted donuts from Makers Donuts, coffee (sometimes with live music) at Old City Java or The Golden Roast, and impressive seasonal desserts from Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop. Students order huge burgers from Gus's Good Time Deli and plan dates at Copper Cellar, a Knoxville institution. Stop by Tomato Head for proof that eating healthy can be delicious; you might just catch some life music, or even a poetry reading.
Murfeesboro, TN: Middle Tennesse State University
Music is king in Murfreesboro (it’s only half an hour from Nashville, after all), and Middle Tennessee State University is no exception; its well-respected recording program is part of what’s helping to grow the city’s reputation as a respected music town. The reputation is helping to make Murfreesboro the fastest-growing city in Tennessee, but the city still brims with small-town charm. Finding a music venue to enjoy a live show is a snap, and campus is filled with students singing and playing instruments together. Find live music in the park, at restaurants, and at the annual Main Street JazzFest, put on by MTSU’s School of Music.
Great Tennessee food is easy to find, and students gravitate toward it as well. Find MTSU scholars with their plates piled high with Mexican food at Camino Real or Oscar's Taco Shop, digging into inexpensive Greek food at Opah or Gyro Tabouli, or grabbing a quick dinner of barbecue at Slick Pig BBQ.
Visitors will love the Southern Cajun flavors at The Blue Cactus Cantina, enjoying fine food in Greek style at Parthenon Grille, or dining on classic Southern food at Five Senses. For a bit of fun, visit the Tolkein-inspired Green Dragon Public House, where conversation and food take priority and where kids have their own Hobbit Bar.
Georgetown, TX: Southwestern University
As the first institution of higher learning in Texas, Southwestern University takes its roll as a leader seriously, especially in its commitment to green initiatives: They’ve signed an agreement with the city that they’ll meet all electrical needs using wind power, and they’ve made a fleet of Pirate Bikes available for ridesharing for anyone on campus.
It’s easy to take it easy in Georgetown, a town with bed and breakfasts and antique stores aplenty. During Market Days (every Saturday of March through December), the town square bursts with 70 booths from local artisans, and local residents mix with college students and tourists. The Blue Hole is great for swimming, or you can cool off with a relaxing lunch and a drink instead, if that’s more your style. Student favorites include Dos Salsas, Hat Creek Burger Company, and Burger University, where the meat is never frozen and each meal is made from scratch. Monument Cafe is a fantastic roadside cafe that has its own organic market and grows much of its own produce. And anyone looking for a faster pace will find Austin just 30 minutes down the road.
Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary
William and Mary is the second-oldest college in the country (three U.S. presidents were educated here), and their place in history is obvious from a walk down their streets: The campus joins with Colonial Williamsburg, complete with gorgeously preserved architecture, historical sites aplenty, and historic characters who converse with tourists. The college even has its own Historic Campus that’s been restored to its 18th-century look.
The campus isn’t all history, of course. Students hang out in the yard throwing Frisbees and talking about class, catch classic movies at the Kimball Theater, listen to concerts in the Sunken Garden, and take trolley rides for free with student IDs. They study in coffee shops, too—although their baristas are as likely to be dressed in garb from the 1770s as they are to be wearing modern-day aprons. Williamsburg isn’t just about Colonial days, either: Return to (another) bygone era with the classic soda shop at Retro's Good Eats or the self-described greasy spoon Five Forks Cafe.
Visitors will love the gift shops and restaurants of Merchants’ Square and excellent fine dining at Blue Talon, Fat Canary, Opus 9 Steakhouse, and Trellis Bar & Grill. Students are more likely to be found getting coffee at Aroma’s, grabbing a pizza (made in-house with imported Italian flour) at The Crust or enjoying drinks at The Green Leafe Cafe. No matter what, don’t leave Williamsburg without trying an incredible sandwich from The Cheese Shop or picking up Virginia peanuts at The Peanut Shop for the trip home.
Savannah, GA: Savannah College of Art and Design
Artists looking for education and inspiration find exactly what they’re looking for at Savannah College of Art and Design in the historic, gorgeous and (reportedly) haunted city of Savannah. Student artwork is all over the city, from the walls of coffee shops to galleries to public parks like Forsyth Park. The college is housed in renovated buildings throughout the city, from an old railroad station to a synagogue, and the walkable town is incredibly picturesque and filled with beautiful gardens and statues and cobblestone streets. You’ll find fantastic shops and restaurants on River Street, and both small boutiques and high-end labels on Broughton.
Savannnah is full of unique dining options: Get traditional Southern fare at the famous Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, find wonderful Italian at Corleone’s, say hello to SCAD students working at Gryphon tea room, or even tap into your inner swashbuckler at the themed Pirate House. Get your caffeine fix at The Sentient Bean or Foxy Loxy's (where great coffee is served side-by-side with a Tex-Mex menu); find fresh and environmentally responsible menu options at Butterhead Greens Cafe, or grab a quick and fresh meal to-go at Zunzi's. No matter what, be sure to get a cool treat from Leopold’s Ice Cream; it’s close to campus, and a favorite of both locals and students.
Fests and celebrations are common in Savannah; Revival Fest, Jazz Festival, and Savannah Music Festival are favorites, and the city comes absolutely alive each year for St. Patrick’s Day events that are so large the entire city (and travelers from all over the world) participate.
Lexington, VA: Washington and Lee University
Graduates of Washington and Lee tend to be dedicated alumni, coming back in droves for homecoming, and even putting down roots in Lexington, a community that seems to welcome college students, families, and retirees equally. History buffs love seeing sites like Lee Chapel and the home of Stonewall Jackson; those more fascinated with nature will appreciate the Maury River, Goshen Pass preserve, and the House Mountain trails.
Fantastic restaurant experiences are plentiful in Lexington: Red Hen showcases farm-to-table dining with new menus every day, The Southern Inn has been in business for more than 80 years because of its dedication to service, and Bistro on Main fills up with reservations early, especially on Parents Weekends. Visit the tasting room of local roastery Lexington Coffee, stop for a drink at The Palms, and while you're in town, plan a visit to Hull’s Drive-In for the ultimate throwback movie night.
Winter Park, FL: Rollins College
In so many ways, school in Winter Park is picture-perfect. Spanish-Mediterranean architecture and a view of beautiful Lake Virginia make studying outside almost a necessity. Students are attracted by small class sizes, strong academics, and the promise of Fox Day, a surprise holiday when classes at Rollins are cancelled just because the weather looks too nice to stay inside.
Across the street from Rollins is Park Avenue, where you’ll find charm to spare, all the yummy food and great boutiques you could ask for, and even a welcome mat for your pup—most restaurants allow pets on their outdoor sidewalks.
Students like to grab smoothies at Power House Café, where you can add bee pollen or ginseng to a smoothie, or they go for the comfort food with pizza at Venus Pizzeria. Luma on Park, featuring upscale local food and artisanal producers, is a favorite for date night and visits from parents, as is Prato: Italian food with an emphasis on simplicity and creativity, incorporating modern cooking techniques. And if the paradise of Winter Park ever seems like not enough, Orlando’s downtown is close by.