When one compiles a list of the best college towns in America, mention of Athens, Ga., is pretty much required. Home to the University of Georgia and roughly 115,000 residents, it's not too big, not too small. The Classic City features great bars and restaurants -- probably as good as any college town in the country -- and an incredible music scene that has produced the likes of R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal and the Drive-By Truckers, just to name a few.
Oh yeah, and Athens also features a rabid Georgia Bulldogs fanbase that knows how bring the noise on Saturdays from September through November. With LSU in town this weekend -- and an appearance by ESPN's College GameDay for the top-10 showdown -- the party should be raucous. The traveling fans from the Bayou will bring their own flair for tailgating, and the scene should be buzzing for Georgia's biggest home game of the year.
"It's always a good time when the Bayou Bengals come to Athens," said MaconDawg, managing editor of SB Nation Georgia blog Dawg Sports. "Their last trip was in 2009, and I can say from experience it was some of the best tailgating I've seen in recent memory, even if the outcome of the game did leave a gaping hole in my chest. My sense is that the tailgating for this one will be pretty epic."
The parking situation and rules and regulations vary among colleges across the nation, and at Georgia, officials are fairly uptight. A long walk from the car and restricted areas for open containers could get a bit tedious.
"The university does have some rules about tailgating," said MaconDawg, "the most important of which for visiting Cajuns are no booze on the sidewalks or in the streets, no setting up your tailgate before 7 a.m., and parking is awful around campus on game day weekends, and if you park on the sidewalk, your car may be gone when you get back to it.
"Be prepared to either arrive very early in the morning or park pretty far away. Parking near the stadium is almost exclusively by pass only. My favorite spot -- which I can't believe I'm divulging -- is along Milledge Avenue, which leads south out of Athens toward the Macon Highway. Several businesses and churches there will let you park for a reasonable fee ($10-15), it's less than two miles from the stadium, and you'll pass through a lot of good tailgating on the way, including my personal favorite spot on the lawn of the Georgia Center for Continuing Education.
"You should also try to make it over to the historic North Campus area, though be aware that if you tailgate over there, additional restrictions apply because of problems with trash and facility defacement in the past few years."
Dealing with the various negative nuances of Georgia tailgating isn't ideal, but really, no Saturday scene in a college town is perfect. But find a spot where you can linger for a while, and the shared food and drink will likely make any bad thoughts quickly slip out of mind. Doug Gillett writes about his Georgia fandom, among other things, at Hey Jenny Slater and Every Day Should Be Saturday, and he knows just how good tailgating can be in Athens. He and several friends enjoy themselves at Tent City, a tailgating conglomerate that has grown from one to five tents over the years. It's even been featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"Food is sort of complicated because everyone brings something -- an email thread usually starts up like clockwork on Sunday evening where everyone signs up to cook or bring something," Gillett said. "When we get stuck with a noon kickoff and have to start tailgating early, there'll be donuts, sausage balls, breakfast casserole, sometimes a bloody mary bar. For the later game, [fellow tailgater] Matt Tovrog will bring a grill, and he and his wife Lindsay will be the grill masters. ... Really, we just kind of do it potluck-style, and the food itself is nothing fancy; there's just a LOT of it. And nearly everyone contributes some beer, too, which means we usually end up with close to a dozen coolers of beer and other assorted beverages.
"Oh, one last thing: the trivia contest/Cherrishinski. For the later games, when we know everyone's going to be hanging out for a while, [fellow tailgater] Josh Massey puts together a trivia contest themed after that day's opponent. They're not all football questions, either; there'll be history questions, celebrity-alumni stuff, and the last time we played the Vanderbilt Commodores there was more than one question about Lionel Richie. It's not a traditional trivia contest in the sense that we don't keep score, but whoever does get a given question right gets to pick someone in the group to consume a Cherrishinski. That's basically a maraschino cherry that's been soaking in grain alcohol for who knows how long, and it is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It is, of course, named for Joe Tereshinski III, our starting QB for the first half of the '06 season and third in a family legacy of Bulldog football players."
Game day is the main event, but Athens offers plenty to keep visitors on any other day of the week or during any other time of the year. Well-known live-music venues like the 40 Watt and Georgia Theatre draw plenty of non-football fans to town -- yes, there are human beings who don't care about football -- and a great local brewery is plenty enticing for the beer nerds out there.
"The Athens bar scene is centered in downtown, north of the famed Arch on Broad Street," said MaconDawg. "Just follow the crowds, walk in the crosswalks, and don't yell at the cops. There are at least a dozen good bars to hit, and I won't even try to name them all. I will say that you can't go wrong with Trappeze, which features over 200 beers, a knowledgeable bar staff and surprisingly sophisticated bar food. Or Flanagan's, an Irish bar that's nothing fancy but is a fun place on a game weekend. You also can't go wrong with The Globe on Lumpkin, which serves 80-plus beers and 40-plus scotches. They'll all be packed, but as long as you're patient and go with the flow you'll have a helluva time.
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"While not in downtown and not a bar in the strictest sense, brewery geeks will also enjoy a trip out to the Terrapin Beer Company on Newton Bridge Road. Terrapin is consistently voted among the top craft breweries in the country, and they give a great tour."
When it comes to eats, patrons aren't just limited to standard college-bar food. There's high-end, fancy food, too.
"For fine dining, you might try either Five and Ten (on Milledge) or The National (on Hancock), both owned by celebrity chef and Top Chef TV show judge Hugh Acheson. You'll need a reservation, and even then your odds of getting in may not be great. But if you do, you'll end up telling all your friends about it.
"For more pedestrian fare, I am a fan of Transmetropolitan on Clayton Street, a funky little pizza/pasta place like you'll find in most college towns. Another favorite is the Blind Pig Tavern on Baldwin Street, a bar and grill which serves as the host of Dawg Sports' annual Sacrificial Goat Roast get-together. They feature over a dozen different burgers, as well as other standard bar fare like wings, cheese fries and fried pickles. They also have a decent beer selection, 11 beers on tap and 50-plus in the bottle."
A weekend of tailgating and hanging out in Athens: It's not the worst thing in the world. In fact, it's probably one of the best.