America’s Best College Football Towns
Chris Abell is a web producer and contributing writer at Travel+Leisure. You can follow him on Instagram at @buildingflavors.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Down in the Bayou, Louisianans root hard for the LSU Tigers—but that doesn’t mean they lose their Southern hospitality. Tailgating is a campus-wide party set under the sweeping live oaks, and Tiger fans know their food. Barbecue pits, shrimp boils, jambalaya—expect to find all that and more on game days. And what else can you find? A live tiger. For decades, LSU has kept Mike the Tiger on campus, where he lives in a 15,000 square-foot environment called his “habitat.” After the game, grab a burger or some Louisiana fare at The Chimes, or head downtown to stroll along the Mississippi River and check out the state capitol.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
It certainly doesn’t hurt Ann Arbor’s passion for University of Michigan football that their Wolverines are the winningest college football program of all time. But the buzz in the air this year comes from the return of former UM quarterback—and NFC Championship-winning former coach of the San Francisco 49ers—Jim Harbaugh as the team’s new head coach. While game days are certainly Ann Arbor’s most exciting, the beautiful town offers plenty else to do outside of football: Hit the free Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum (the town is an “Arbor,” after all), grab one of 90 beers at Ashley’s on State Street, or shop at the old Nickels Arcade.
Athens is one of the bigges must-visits on this list, if only because the Georgia town’s music scene is as robust as its football culture: REM, the B52s, Widespread Panic, Of Montreal, and Vic Chesnutt all got their start in Athens. Be sure to catch some live shows at the legendary Georgia Theatre (the original burned down in 2009, but with the help of fans was rebuilt shortly thereafter, complete with a new rooftop restaurant) or the 40 Watt Club. Other music to hear in Athens? The University of Georgia Chapel Bell, which rings for hours after Bulldogs victories—a common occurrence, as the ‘dawgs have enjoyed success under coach Mark Richt. The town’s population swells on game days; join the tailgating fun on North Campus, between the arch and the library, and if you don’t have a ticket to the game, the 80 or so bars in a three-block radius nearby should offer some prime viewing real estate: try Allgood, Boar’s Head, or iconic dive Nowhere Bar.
You might see an inordinate number of fedoras around town, and not because hipsters are invading the SEC. The hats are an ode to legendary Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant, who led Alabama to a smooth SIX national championships—including one with “Broadway Joe” Namath at quarterback—and donned a signature houndstooth lid on the sideline. Alabama football is a legitimate obsession here, and there are so many traditions in Tuscaloosa that you should be prepared to go all-in and do it right: Belt out “Sweet Home Alabama” and the fight song with a hundred thousand other fans before the game. Grab one of the myriad game-day-only specials, like a Yellow Hammer at the wonderfully grimy Gallette’s or the barbecue nachos from Big Bad Wolves’ BBQ. And enjoy the fact that essentially every place in town is completely plastered in Alabama paraphernalia (just Google image “Rama Jama’s bar and grill). As they say, “Roll Tide.”
Year in and year out, the University of Wisconsin consistently has the honor (?) of ranking on various Top 10 Party Schools lists. But there’s far more to Madison than college debauchery. The Badgers football team has been cranking out successful seasons and legendary players for years now: UW has played in the Rose Bowl three times in five years. Alum J.J. Watt is a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and perhaps the league’s most dominant player. Running back Ron Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, and Montee Ball set the record for most rushing touchdowns in a career in 2012. And strong football culture aside, Wisconsin’s capital is a beautiful lake city that offers delicious food in addition to scenery. After exploring the UW Arboretum, head over to The Old Fashioned for locally sourced Wisconsin fare (think brats and cheese curds). Shop the local boutiques at the open-air market on State Street, which connects the university to the state capitol, or enjoy lakeside culture and the beautiful Memorial Union Terrace. Note: when at a Badgers game, be sure to participate in the raucous “Jump Around” chants.
Columbus is a big enough city that you might not think of it as a “college football town,” but it most assuredly is—just…bigger. So much of the city revolves around the massive Ohio State University, and so much of Ohio State University is the Buckeye football team. So now that we’ve taken care of that, let’s talk about the scene. The tailgates here include restaurant-caliber food and, as one avid Ohio State fan put it, “coolers the size of a coffin.” Sign us up. If you’re not in the mood to visit raucous staples like The Varsity Club or Out-R-Inn, Columbus has plenty of other options. Restaurateur Cameron Mitchell and others have established a thriving culinary community, and the Columbus Zoo is considered one of the best in the country.
Clemson, South Carolina
You see them as soon as you pull off Route 85 and onto local roads. The orange paws are everywhere: painted on roads, covering driveways, and plastered on local businesses. The passion of Clemson Tiger Nation is undeniable and perfectly embodied by their fiery (and uniquely named) coach, Dabo Swinney, who has led the Tigers on a rapid ascent over the past several years. If you catch a game, be sure to be there before kickoff—the Clemson players touching Howard’s Rock and the Run Down the Hill onto the field has been dubbed “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.” Outside of football, Clemson offers plenty of outdoor activities: Play a round at Walker Golf Course, generally regarded as one of the top college golf courses in the nation (the par-three 17th hole is shaped like, you guessed it, a tiger paw). Fill your day with water sports at Lake Hartwell, or stroll through the beautiful South Carolina Botanical Garden. Be sure to grab a beer at the famed ESSO Club, whose name comes from its origins as a gas station and grocery store and is known as one of the best college sports bars in America.
Speaking of gas stations, Oxford visitors flock from all over to feast on the famous Chicken on a Stick (exactly what it sounds like) at, oddly enough, the local Chevron gas station’s food mart. The town is home to authentic Southern cooking—try Taylor Grocery, a catfish restaurant just south of town that does not serve alcohol but apparently won’t get too upset if you BYOB—and a rich literary history; Oxford served as home to William Faulkner (visit his former residence, the magnificent Rowan Oak), and Ole Miss law school grad John Grisham maintains a residence there. That’s not to say the town doesn’t gear up for Ole Miss game days, however. Archie and son Eli Manning both quarterbacked the Rebels, and the team is fighting to make noise in the wildly competitive SEC West. Tent after tent of tailgaters occupy The Grove, a beautiful campus park, where fans drink from red cups thanks to a quirky old alcohol law.
The turf of Boise State’s football field is an unapologetic royal blue, but Broncos fans should feel anything but. Former coach Chris Petersen (now at the University of Washington) took the university’s football team from second-tier program to national powerhouse, and current man-in-charge Bryan Harsin has continued the team’s success. What’s more, Idaho’s capital is full of natural beauty and unique culture. Take a tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary (one of the few times we’ll recommend “going to prison”), and then enjoy as much outdoor time as possible. Stroll through the Idaho Botanical Garden or take a bike ride along the Boise River Greenbelt. For the more adventurous, Sun Valley ski resort is less than three hours away.
The Oklahoma Sooners have won seven national championships and boast the best winning percentage in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) since 1936, when the Associated Press Poll was introduced. Needless to say, Norman residents are passionate about OU football. The program is rich with history—just check out Legends Lobby at the Barry Switzer Center (adjacent to the team’s Memorial Stadium), which is a sort of shrine the Sooners’ success. Get a feel for Sooner country by strolling along Campus Corner for some food, drink, and shopping. Feeling cultured? Visit the university’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, both considered some of the best university museums in the country.
State College, Pennsylvania
Now several years and two coaches removed from a terrible scandal, Penn State football is trying to respectfully move on and focus on both their winning tradition and bright future. They have plenty of Nittany Lions fans to help: Beaver Stadium, with a capacity of well over 106,000, apparently becomes Pennsylvania’s fourth-largest “city” by population on game days. Other things to do in Happy Valley? Treat yourself to some ice cream from the University Creamery (Ben and Jerry—yes, that Ben and Jerry—studied there). Hike beautiful Mount Nittany (now do you understand the mascot name?). Walk through campus and see the Nittany Lion Shrine. Grab dinner at The Tavern, and if you’re feeling rowdy, engage in “Table Wars” at Phyrst bar.
Sure, Austin has a ton going on besides football (see: SXSW, emerging tech scene, serving as the political capital of the nation’s second-largest state, Austin City Limits, Matthew McConaughey, etc.). But locals will always be quick to flash you the “hook ‘em horns” sign: Texas Longhorns football is often conversation point number one. After a few lackluster seasons toward the end of the Mack Brown era, coach Charlie Strong enters his second season at the reins and has fans hopeful. If you find yourself without a ticket on game day, catch the action with some tacos or a sandwich and a beer at Posse East, located within walking distance of the stadium. The university’s campus and the Texas State Capitol are not far apart—we recommend exploring both. For nightlife and live music (Austin is dubbed the “Live Music Capital of the World,” after all), be sure to hit Sixth Street, and burn off the night’s revelry the next day at downtown’s beautiful Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail.
South Bend, Indiana
Notre Dame football—ever heard of it? The storied program has been the subject of Hollywood films has produced legends from George Gipp and Paul Hornung to Joe Montana and Jerome Bettis. With all the history and culture, there’s nothing in college football quite like a Notre Dame home game. Tailgating goes on in the stadium’s parking lot, right in the shadow of one of football’s most famous stadiums, where “Touchdown Jesus” watches over the game from one end of the field. After games, students and young alumni like to hit “Finny’s”—actually a dive bar called The Blarney Stone; the famous pizza at Rocco’s comes highly recommended (rumor has it Notre Dame alum Regis Philbin has been spotted grabbing a slice). And while you’re there, be sure to walk around as much of the campus as you can. It’s a beauty.
Eugene has a reputation as a progressive, liberal town, so its spot on a college football list may come as a surprise to some. But the Oregon Ducks finished as national runners-up to Ohio State last year, and their former quarterback (Marcus Mariota) won the Heisman Trophy, and went second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. Their former coach Chip Kelly, who steered them to huge success, is now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Sustained success, the Ducks’ status as the jewel of Nike’s college football uniform branding (the Donald Duck throwback uniform is a classic), and the incredibly loud Autzen Stadium gameday experience have put Eugene firmly on the football map. While in town, hike or climb at Skinner’s Butte Park (there’s a great view of downtown from the top of the hiking trail) and grab a microbrew and delicious bite at Falling Sky Pour House and Delicatessen. Historic Hayward Field is also worth a visit to get a feel for UO athletics. One final reason Eugene is on this list: The movie Animal House was filmed here.
Morgantown, West Virginia
If you don’t keep up with college football, you might not realize that the West Virginia Mountaineers are now part of the Big 12 Conference, meaning they play the likes of Texas and Oklahoma. You also might not realize that they seem to belong there. The team and its high-powered offense have enjoyed great success over the past couple of decades, and residents of “Motown” love their Mountaineers. Locals enjoy riding to games in the backs of pickup trucks to join the tailgating festivities—which occur both in the stadium’s parking lots (shoot for the Blue Lot) and around town in various lots nearby. Night games are particularly intense, and one alumna says, “My absolute favorite tradition of all time is singing [John Denver’s] ‘Country Roads’ at the end of every win…no words to describe the feeling of singing it with 60,000 fans all at once.” A beautiful community in the hills along the Monongahela River, Morgantown is an underrated gem in the world of college towns. Hike Coopers Rock just outside of town for some breathtaking views, or take a drive to Blue Hole for a swim if the weather is warm enough, then try Morgantown Brewing Company for some local beers and a bite to eat.