Going to be completely honest here, I was originally going to rank cities by how pleasant they were to drive through on your way to somewhere else. But then I was having no fun writing that, so I decided this would be more interesting.
One of the perks of being a Swim Club guy is that it takes me off campus a decent amount. About three or four times a semester, we all pile into the gigantic white CRC vans and SUVs and take four dozen kids to a neighboring city, town, or state in order to race. A perk of that is seeing the town, as well. Between that and getting to various Georgia Tech football, basketball, and baseball games over the years, and I like to think I’m pretty well educated on most of our nearby neighbors.
Before we start, I have one thing to say: I haven’t been everywhere! So if there’s a thought you have - for example: “Why is Tuscaloosa not even ranked??” - well, I probably haven’t been there. Who am I to judge a place I’ve never been, right? But I have been most places, at least the big ones.
Honorable Midwestern Mentions:
Madison - Wisconsin
It’s a little bigger than your typical college town, but the campus is nice, the school pride is strong, and the whole “between two lakes” thing is pretty cool. Also, you can buy New Glarus there, which is cool.
Champaign-Urbana - Illinois
Corn. So much corn everywhere. But there’s enough to do to stay occupied.
West Lafayette - Purdue
Didn’t get enough corn in Urbana? Well, then, West Lafayette is the place for you. It’s the most densely populated city in Indiana, an interesting distinction, but, when Boilermaker basketball is good, it’s a nice place to be.
Bloomington - Indiana
The only city I haven’t been back to within the last five years means I really can’t say much except the people were pretty nice, and things were pretty walkable. That’s about all I got in Bloomington.
Columbus - Ohio State
Yeah, this one definitely is not a college town, but it’s one of the few on the honorable mentions list I’ve been able to go to with a college age crowd, and that means I have a more accurate opinion on it than some others. The stadium was cool and large, the campus was cool and large...can we sense a theme? The strongly positive feeling I associate with it might be from winning a national championship, or it might be from a solid food scene, or it might be from having, uh, a good ice cream shop scene? Not your typical college town remarks, I’m sure.
South Bend - Notre Dame
I might take a lot of heat for this, but Notre Dame is an interesting campus, and has a great gameday culture. In fact, I’d venture to say I’d go back there even without Tech being the opponent for the day, football or basketball. As for the regular life there, well, I can only really judge it on the gameday atmosphere. But, at least when the Domer regular crowd hasn’t sold all their tickets to the away team, they tailgate well, they have strong tradition, and have a fun atmosphere for a game.
Ann Arbor - Michigan
Probably the most nuanced place in the honorable mentions. The food scene is interesting, and, well, Michigan is kind of one gigantic blue and maize miasma, so people are pretty bought in. I knock the campus on being sprawling and gigantic, but that’s probably my lingering “toured Michigan immediately after touring Tech” bias seeping in, despite having been back there since.
The Main Event
15. Tampa? - South Florida
Pro: Ybor City is a cool place to go out for dinner and hanging out. Con: it is absolutely nowhere near the USF campus. However, it was fairly close to their football stadium. But, back in USF’s favor, they have a Portillo’s right off campus! Who doesn’t love Portillo’s?
14. The Other Side of Atlanta - Emory
Just by not having a DI football program that plays miles away from campus, they beat USF. Really, I love Atlanta. Alone, it would rank far higher than some of the cities above it, but Emory begs the question: what’s special about Emory when you already go to Tech?
13. Durham - Duke
Here’s a [Duran Duran]ing sentence if there ever was one: after seeing an afternoon football game in their [choose one: high school/mausoleum/vast empty] stadium, we went to Chapel Hill for the evening.
12. Statesboro - Georgia Southern
What they lack in size, they make up for in vigor.
11. Lexington - Kentucky
It was interesting, but nothing really stuck out.
10. Knoxville - Tennessee
Anywhere you can take your boat to a sporting event is a solid option, but, much like Lexington, it was pretty regular.
9. Columbia - South Carolina
This is a place that is probably held down by my negative view of its pool and the fact that, walking around campus, everything was bisected by random single tracked train lines. However, it had an interesting downtown stretch, and I’m pretty sure we stopped by Darius Rucker’s old house, which, well, is always nifty.
8. Athens - The School in Athens
If I didn’t hate the school it is home to so much, I’d probably rank this one higher. I will give them this: they’re passionate, they have some interesting food and breweries, no matter how much their official account imploring you to purchase from chains during social distancing may imply, and there’s stuff to do in the evenings. Honestly, though, when you’re in Athens, you’re a short drive from Atlanta and Clemson, which are a better city and town to spend your time in, respectively, if you don’t want to run the risk of breaking out into a rash caused by prolonged exposure to the colors red and black while you’re at bars and restaurants.
7. Nashville - Vanderbilt
This, much like Tampa and Atlanta, is not a college town. However, it’s still an interesting place to be, if not so much when you’re on the college budget. There’s lot of options, which is nice, but it’s all on the expensive side. That said, the real Hattie B’s is the move, and Vanderbilt is a very nice campus to take a walk around, especially if it leads you to finding out the Commodores are playing a home baseball game, so you stumble upon watching the best college team on the planet demolish Mizzou. Except for that dang whistling...
6. Gainesville - Florida
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get off the highway and immediately hightail it into the Four Rivers parking lot - it was a shame that the one next to Tech closed. Perhaps that sentimental side of me overpowers the general SEC vibes of Gainesville, but it had enough to see and do to make a weekend interesting, at least more than I gave it credit for before getting there, so it was a pleasant town to spend a while in.
5. Charlottesville - Virginia
I am a man of tradition, and I must say it was very interesting to stroll along the Lawn in the evening in Charlottesville. Check out our UVA SB Nation sister site for more on that. But anyways, everything downtown, from restaurants to nightlife, was pretty self-contained and easy to get between, and the campus looked very nice in the fall, despite our football loss. In the top five, it’s towns I would look forward to going back to, and Charlottesville, well, it was a pleasant trip all around.
4. Auburn - Auburn
Much like Charlottesville, I find myself a sucker for experiencing traditional things, so that’s how I found myself at Toomer’s Corner to get a lemonade in the middle of a nice fall afternoon. They have a nice campus, and the whole experience is pretty contained, much like Charlottesville. Though the Virginian fall scenery is tough to beat, the sheer vigor of the blue and orange Tigers combined with less “I feel like I’m walking around the set of Animal House” vibes puts it above the Cavaliers.
3. Tallahassee - Florida State
I am not convinced Tallahassee is a real place. I suppose with this being ranked this high that this a good thing. Your mileage may vary.
In actuality, though, I think the Doak - which I didn’t even visit during a football game - is a humblingly vast brickwork cathedral of sporting majesty just to behold with one’s own eyes. That alone makes it worth a pilgrimage for any self respecting fan of college sports, but, out of all the cities on this list, if you’re looking for value, you’ll find the best bang for your buck in Tallahassee, even if it doesn’t have the charm of Charlottesville (not even close), the reputation of Nashville (...nope), or the cosmopolitain aires of Atlanta (yeah, no). It’s another pretty self-contained place, and a good place to have a fun time.
2. Chapel Hill - North Carolina
I had a tough time splitting hairs on the last two of these. I suppose the recency bias towards the eventual winner got in the way, but, if it’s any consolation, it is essentially a coin flip. Chapel Hill has the convenience of being close to a larger city combined with the quietness of a town, and its anchor avenue, Franklin Street, has enough shops, restaurants, nightlife, and whatnot to satisfy the most picky of people. Apparently the phrase “Football in a Forest” is popular enough to get books written about it, but the scenery is really pretty solid, and the campus is a veritable treasure trove of old architecture. But who am I kidding? You’re in town for Franklin Street. For that, you wouldn’t be wrong.
1. Clemson - Clemson
I get roasted for this opinion a lot. When I was mulling it over in my head, I wondered if Clemson was buoyed by having been there for football, basketball, and to swim, but the same could be said about Athens, and similar about Auburn, West Lafayette, and Nashville, as well. So that couldn’t be it. I realized, in my trips, be they to compete in or to watch a sporting event, Tech or otherwise, I value one thing above all else: reliability. Clemson may be a one street town, more or less, but that’s okay. It may have five bars and a handful of restaurants, but that’s okay, too. But for every time I thought about Auburn and Toomer’s, the Esso Club was better. When I thought about Nashville barbecue and hot chicken, the Smokin’ Pig on the highway into Clemson was better, too. When I thought about the monumental outside of Doak, I remembered seeing the atmosphere - despite its orange-cult-ish-ness - and the entrance and the rock inside Death Valley were even more impressive. Plus, gas was under $2.00 there before the whole “crude oil is selling for negative money” thing. I grew up in a city built on its lake identity, so perhaps Hartwell speaks to me more than the forests of Chapel Hill and Charlottesville. It’s walkable, unique, and gives off a surprisingly similar down to earth vibe that resonates with me at Georgia Tech. Or maybe it’s because they (and Auburn) just have a really old, similar looking Victorian red brick tower. But theirs don’t have neon lights! Checkmate! Anyways, I’m the last person you’d call a Clemson fan, but, well, it’s never a bad trip when swimming, football, basketball, or baseball brings me the short trip up I-85 to Auburn on a Lake.
I’m probably wrong, so feel free to tell me why in the comments below!