It’s easy to forget that Athens, Georgia, is located in the state’s smallest county. It’s an antebellum town in renaissance, teeming with a creative culture you might not expect to find in a city its size. Sure, there’s football—oh, is there football—but look beyond the storied hedges of UGA’s Sanford Stadium and you’ll discover so much more.
See the Sights
Beauty and charm are easy to come by in the Classic City. The state’s official art museum (georgiamuseum.org) and its botanical gardens (botgarden.uga.edu) are here and free of charge. If architecture and history are your thing, you will enjoy touring the beautiful antebellum homes in Athens, part of the 100-mile Antebellum Trail (antebellumtrail.org) that takes visitors through cities that escaped General Sherman’s fiery march at the end of the Civil War.
Art and football fandom collide in the “We Let the Dogs Out” public art project, which resulted in more than 36 colorful bulldog statues popping up around town, standing four feet tall and each decked out with its own unique personality and appearance. The Flower Power Dawg at Jittery Joe’s Coffee, the Chic-fil-a Dawg, Terrel Archie Jackson Dawg, and more are waiting for you to snap a selfie.
Gone to the Dawgs
Named after the classical Greek center of higher learning, Athens is home to the University of Georgia, incorporated in 1785 as America’s first chartered state college. Its campus is steeped in history and tradition. Students and alumni hold in high regard a nearly 160-year-old iconic arch that borders the school’s historic North Campus. Legend has it that undergraduates who walk beneath the cast-iron structure won’t graduate on time, so the path around it is well tread.
The school’s game-day traditions are just as meaningful. There’s the roaring chant to “Call the Dawgs” at kickoff, and the ringing of the chapel bell late into the night after every victory. Throngs of UGA fans, wearing the classiest of game-day getups, meet up for the Dawg Walk pep rally in the Tate Center parking lot, cheering on the players as they march to Sanford Stadium on a pathway lined by the UGA Redcoat Band.
Don’t forget about Uga, the school’s white English bulldog mascot, who is so beloved that he has his own game-day vehicle and posh, air-conditioned doghouse on the field. His nine deceased predecessors are interred in one of the end zones.
Georgia fans are as passionate about tailgating as they are their canine celebrity. Over 100,000 people ascend on campus on Saturdays in the fall, arriving well before kickoff to claim their spot. Myers Quad is a great place to start. The combination of its beautiful green space and close proximity to the stadium makes it a prime location for ESPN’s College Gameday when they come to town.
The nearby South Campus parking deck is another popular tailgate spot. That’s where you’ll find the South Deck Dawgs, a group of dedicated fans who began tailgating at the location in 1999, before the deck was even built. Their group has grown from 10 to up to 200 over the years, staying organized with a blog and menu that everyone follows. The time of the game determines the main course, from breakfast casseroles to whole hogs.
Alane Waddell is an original founding member of the South Deck Dawgs and has been tailgating with her husband for 31 years. “I have tailgated at almost every SEC school, and each school has its own vibe,” says Waddell. “Of course, I love Athens the best. The campus is so pretty, with the grassy areas and large shady trees, and we can spread out. Most of us have gone to UGA, or a spouse or a child. It’s in our blood.”
Don’t worry if it’s not in yours—Southern hospitality is alive and well in Athens. Show up in red and black, and you’ll be welcome at every barbecue and Bloody Mary bar in town! This is SEC tailgating at its finest.
School of Rock
If there’s one thing Athens loves as much as the Dawgs, it’s music. Rolling Stone named the Classic City to its list of best college music scenes, and The New York Times called it “live music central.” It’s where legendary bands like R.E.M., Widespread Panic, the B-52s, and the Drive by Truckers got their start.
Catch a show at one of Athen’s acclaimed music venues while you’re here. You might just stumble onto America’s next best band at the internationally-known 40 Watt Club (40watt.com). 40 Watt has played host to musical guests spanning all sorts of musical genres, from Snoop Dog to Nirvana, since opening in 1978.
That same year, the Georgia Theatre (georgiatheatre.com) debuted in a historic building that had previously been a YMCA, music store, movie house, hotel, Masonic Temple, furniture company, and Sears Roebuck—all before 1935. When the music venue began holding shows by emerging and established bands, it continued the 100-year-old building’s tradition of being an Athens anchor.
It’s no surprise that when it went up in flames in a devastating fire in 2009, the community raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild. Bands like the Zac Brown Band, who cut their teeth at the historic theatre, hosted benefit concerts to support the revitalization.
Today, the Georgia Theatre is a state-of-the-art music venue, sporting world-class features and a breezy rooftop bar perfect for catching a show, incredible views, or a UGA game on TV. No matter where you end up in Athens, you’re likely to experience some of the best live music in the Southeast.
Athenians know a thing or two about beer. After all, this is the town that is said to have more bars per capita than anywhere else in the country. Until recent years, Georgia had some of the strictest brewery laws in the country, but the state passed a bill in 2017 that allows direct sales at breweries and distilleries, and the beer community hasn’t looked back since.
Check out Terrapin Beer Company (terrapinbeer.com), the city’s first brewery. Founded in 2002 by John Cochran and Spike Buckowski, Terrapin quickly made a name for itself in the brew world when its Rye Pale Ale won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver just six months after opening. Stop by the tasting room on a Thursday for $3 Pint Night or go behind the scenes on a free brewery tour. Be here in September for RecFest 2019. This inaugural blow-out will celebrate what Athens does best—“beer, music, and the great outdoors.”
Fans of the Marvel comic film series “The Avengers” will want to pay attention to this next bit. Athen’s Creature Comforts Brewing Co. (creaturecomfortsbeer.com) makes an appearance in the movie “Avengers: Endgame” when Thor is seen sipping the award-winning brewery’s most popular beer, Tropicália IPA.
If your appetite gets the best of you, check out Academia Brewing Company’s (akademiabc.com) culinary brewpub, inspired by the academic heritage of Athens. Nosh on dishes that pair deliciously with beer and dishes made deliciously with beer. Don’t miss the extensive ale sauce options, from Teriyaki Sriracha Ale to Beer BQ.
Rounding out the brew scene is new kid-on-the-block Athentic Brewing Company (athenticbrewing.com), scheduled to open on August 24. It will be the first in Athens to offer self-serve taps in its tasting room. If you guessed that the name comes from the brewery’s hometown, you’re right. It celebrates the unique culture of the Classic City.
“Because things are always changing, it’s easy to be creative,” says Kimberly Wise, an Athentic spokesperson. “There are people here wanting the next new thing, and people who are willing to be more adventurous because they don’t know if they are staying.” She says Athenians thrive on the creative atmosphere of the city. “It is one of the reasons we named the brewery Athentic. We feed off of all the positive aspects of the town, but also strive to add to the town that we love.”
Like Biscuits and Gravy
A place this passionate about beer better know good food too, and Athens does not disappoint. This small city is big on flavor. In-the-know folks from Atlanta have been making the 90-minute drive to the Classic City ever since local chefs started popping up on the pages of their favorite food magazines.
From The Expat, a charming French-American bistro in the Five Points neighborhood, to The Grill, a 24-hour diner known for its burgers and feta fries, there is something to satisfy any appetite in Athens. Legendary vegetarian restaurant The Grit is an Athens mainstay, pleasing even the most committed of carnivores with its hefty entrees.
If you’re willing to wait in line, breakfast and biscuits at Mama’s Boy are a must. A Southern town wouldn’t be worth its salt without a place to enjoy a down-home meal. If fried chicken and collards are calling your name, find your way to Weaver D’s on the edge of downtown. The iconic soul food landmark opened in 1986 with the slogan “Automatic for the People,” which inspired the name of a Grammy-winning R.E.M. album.
Foodies make the pilgrimage to Five & Ten, a fine-dining spot owned by James Beard award-winning celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. Acheson has earned a great deal of recognition for his fresh take on Southern food, and alumni of his flagship restaurant have gone on to open their own successful establishments around town, including Maepole, Pulaski Heights BBQ, The National, and Seabear Oyster Bar, to name a few. The latter was named one of the “greatest restaurants around the globe” by Conde Nast Traveler three years ago—an accolade that’s almost too good to be true for a seafood restaurant located 200 miles from the ocean.
It’ll take more than a weekend in Athens to hit every restaurant on your list, but what’s wrong with trying? So start planning your escape to this gem of the Deep South. Come for the football, and stay for the incredible food, history-making music, and captivating culture.