Atlanta as a college town?

Two metro-area students explain why this term should be among Atlanta’s synonyms
Photograph by Chriss Clark

When you think of metro Atlanta, many things may come to mind. Capital of the New South, for example. Or worst place to be a Pepsi fan. “College town” probably isn’t on your list. But the area’s 6 million residents include more than 250,000 college students, according to the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education. Each year this quarter-million-strong cohort studies at one of the metro area’s fifty-seven colleges and universities.

And while Atlanta is hardly a typical college town, its borders contain a wealth of student experiences. From the refurbished dot-com building that houses SCAD Atlanta to the picturesque quad of Agnes Scott, you can find any college vibe imaginable.

We’re both students at Atlanta-area schools, and drew on our experiences here—as well as input from dozens of fellow scholars—to take you on a tour of the city’s neighborhoods.

Georgia State University, a leading urban research school, sits in the heart of Downtown among some of the city’s most influential companies, like CNN and Georgia-Pacific. Life outside the business world is returning to the city’s heart after a pretty long hiatus, and it’s great news. Some of that rebirth is thanks to obvious additions—the murals commissioned by Living Walls and Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the 200-foot Ferris wheel—but just as important is the energy from the growing number of residents at GSU’s new dorms and the apartment buildings designed with students in mind. The Fairlie-Poplar district is home to GSU’s Rialto Center and the Tabernacle, a former historic church that hosts some of the city’s best concerts. A quick jaunt up Edgewood Avenue (it should be even quicker when the Atlanta Streetcar debuts this summer) takes you to Sweet Auburn, which encompasses the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district, and the Old Fourth Ward, which houses some of Atlanta’s coolest bars, like Church (formal name: Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium), Mother, Noni’s, and Pizzeria Vesuvius with its hidden speakeasy.

As the home of Georgia Institute of Technology, SCAD Atlanta, and the most cosmopolitan lifestyle in the city, Midtown is a place you should be familiar with no matter where you go to school. In the shadow of skinny skyscrapers, Piedmont Park is one of the best places to people (or dog) watch, and it is connected to the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, a great place to walk, jog, or bike that runs from Midtown to the Old Fourth Ward. Midtown’s nightlife offers a more sophisticated (read: adult, affluent) crowd than other neighborhoods. Flip Flops (the Ping-Pong table draws everyone), Rí Rá Irish Pub, and Frogs Cantina are a few college student favorites.

The Downtown Connector (that huge expressway that divides Atlanta in two) separates Midtown proper from the area referred to variously as West Midtown, Midtown West, or simply “the Westside.” This is where most of the Georgia Tech campus is located, and it’s just north of the Atlanta University Center. A budget-friendly favorite is Antico Pizza Napoletana, highly rated by Atlanta magazine’s critics. (We suspect its student popularity has at least something to do with the BYOB/no corkage fee policy.) Atlantic Station, a big shopping/business/residential complex, has a little bit of everything, notably H&M, a massive movie theater, Chick-a-Biddy, and BGR the Burger Joint, a fairly cheap place to grab lunch. You’ll find a Target close to an Ikea—important to know come move-in day. Not far away is the Westside Provisions District, Atlanta’s former meatpacking area, now home to dining options like Taqueria del Sol and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams as well as funky Free People, J.Crew, and Anthropologie stores.

Atlanta University Center/West End
West End overflows with history and culture in a way only Atlanta could. It is just south of the Atlanta University Center, the largest group of historically black colleges and universities in the country, which includes Clark Atlanta University, Interdenominational Theological Center, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Morehouse School of Medicine. The area is known for its cultural sites, ranging from the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries and Spelman College Museum of Fine Art to the Wren’s Nest house museum, the former home of author Joel Chandler Harris.

Emory/Druid Hills
Emory University is tucked away in the historic, mostly residential neighborhood of Druid Hills. Just beyond campus, the Emory Village business district has undergone renovation, bringing the exodus of some longtime favorites. But a few—including Falafel King and Dave’s Cosmic Subs—remain. Nearby, a development called Emory Point offers affordable dining and shopping, including Tex Mex at Tin Lizzy’s and boutique fashions at Fab’rik. A few miles away, Toco Hill shopping center is home to Maggie’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill, beloved by Emory students (and some alums) to the bewilderment of everyone else.

The small city of Decatur is a haven for beer lovers, bookworms, and foodies—and home to Agnes Scott College and satellites of colleges such as the Art Institute and DeVry. If you care about beer—or pretend you do—Brick Store Pub is your place. The menu boasts hundreds of brews, and the staff will talk about citrus undertones and piney hops all night. For a meal that’s easy on the wallet but doesn’t taste like it is, check out Raging Burrito or Victory Sandwich Bar, known for the Jack and Coke slushie and also home to the bar Paper Plane. The Yogurt Tap, Dancing Goats Coffee, and Java Monkey are other budget favorites.

If you’re in college and you go to Buckhead during the day, you’re probably shopping at Lenox Square mall. If you’re headed to Buckhead at night, you’re either wearing pastels and Sperrys and headed to East Andrews and its cluster of bars with a post-grad preppy vibe, or glammed out and planning to dance at the Havana Club or Tongue and Groove.

While it doesn’t house a college, this central neighborhood is a destination for students from all over. Yeah! Burger and Yogli Mogli make a great dinner/dessert combo and will cost half as much as an entree at Murphy’s or La Tavola Trattoria (great spots if someone else is buying!). The main drag along North Highland Avenue offers relaxed nightlife: Hand in Hand, Neighbor’s Pub, Atkins Park, and Dark Horse Tavern are favorites of students and young professionals.

Little Five Points
This bohemian enclave is the best place to shop for records or one-of-a-kind looks. Rag-o-Rama consignment shop sells Technicolor dreamcoats and leather studded boots; Cherry Bomb, a little pricier, carries brands like Wildfox and Jeffrey Campbell; and Wish offers sleek urban styles. If you are tasked with creating T-shirts for a fundraiser, go to Bang-On. The Porter Beer Bar stocks 800 brews, Java Lords serves coffee and beer, and Arden’s Garden offers healthy juices. The Vortex, with its skull-shaped entrance, pro-smoking stance, and monster burgers, is a bad-for-you, bad-boy alternative.

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.