Athens comes alive when school’s in session

Of course the town isn’t dead in the summer, but the University of Georgia students bump up the amplitude
Photograph by Andrew Davis Tucker, University of Georgia

In 1801 Daniel Easley sold the 633 acres of wilderness that eventually would become the University of Georgia to John Milledge for $4,000. In the years that followed, the city of Athens sprung up on chunks of the land that were sold off by university trustees to finance academic buildings. Athens evolved into a center of textile manufacturing, and wealthy plantation owners and aristocrats flocked to the city to educate their offspring and enjoy the culture and society encouraged by the university.

Now, just as then, Athens is a product of the unique symbiosis between town and college. It sits at the intersection of its own history and the vibrant indie-rock grittiness that gives the modern city much of its flavor. It’s a place that values its individuality but breathes in and out with the seasons of the university; Athens certainly isn’t dead during semester breaks and holidays, but it feels empty and expectant, as if waiting for students to return. And when they do come back, and downtown fills with hipsters in flannel and sorority girls in improbably high heels, the Classic City feels most alive.

Where to find the best…

Coffee shop for studying
Two Story Coffeehouse
The first floor of this converted two-story home in Five Points is perfect for those who like to study amid the warm buzz of conversation and coffee grinders. But serious academics head upstairs: Vintage desks, floor pillows, and a whiteboard turn the space into a haven for last-minute test prep. 1680 South Lumpkin Street, 706-850-5422

Coffee shop for coffee
Mismatched furniture, exposed brick, and tabletops crafted out of reclaimed wooden doors are all part of an atmosphere that invites you to curl up with a steaming latte and a novel—or linger to listen to live music. 237 Prince Avenue, 706-353-3050

Mama’s Boy Restaurant
In addition to a down-home atmosphere—orange juice served in canning jars, chandeliers made of recycled bottles—Mama’s Boy serves the best biscuits in Athens and has a following of breakfast devotees to prove it. 197 Oak Street, 706-548-6249

Place to go for dinner when your parents are paying
Last Resort Grill
Linen-draped tables and a quietly sophisticated menu filled with progressive twists on Southern favorites—salmon and grits, anyone?—made with seasonal and local food make this former music venue a favorite for celebrations and dinners when Mom and Dad are in town. 174–184 West Clayton Street, 706-549-0810

Dinner—when you’re paying
The Grit
An Athens staple with good reason. The Grit’s inexpensive vegetarian fare and decadent (but mostly vegan!) desserts served in charmingly quirky dining rooms convert even the most die-hard carnivore. Plus, heaping portions mean dinner usually provides enough leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. 199 Prince Avenue, 706-543-6592

Essential place to take out-of-town friends
The 40 Watt Club
The legendary home base for many of Athens’s most famous acts—including Pylon, R.E.M., the B-52s, and Neutral Milk Hotel. 285 West Washington Street, 706-549-7871

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.