Sure, Athens, Georgia, is home to Georgia's flagship state university and SEC sports teams. But for decades, the little mountain town has been the site of indie musicians, several of whom became stars. The B-52s, R.E.M, Widespread Panic and other bands found the atmosphere nurturing and creative.
Unlike other music-oriented cities, it doesn’t feel forced and it hasn’t become “corporate.” Whether you just love attending live music concerts or you’re a musician yourself, Athens is a welcoming place.
Where to stay
Graduate has a few locations in college towns throughout the country. They seek out and re-purpose interesting building sites; in this case, a former foundry. Their rooms are cleverly decorated in every aspect like a fantasy of what college was like in the early 1960s. There are vintage photos, an old-fashioned Princess phone, plaid, UGA mascot bulldogs. The magnetic room keys are old college id cards.
But Graduate isn’t about starving student deprivation! Beds are large and comfy, indie cult beauty brand Malin & Goetz toiletries are in the bathroom. Pets under 75 lbs. (!) are welcome. There’s a free shuttle that will take you to sites inside a three-mile radius. Onsite is a café, a spa and – true to the Athens story – live music and local bands perform in the main foundry building at night; the cover charge is waived for hotel guests.
Live music at Athens' The Foundry
What to do
Sure, this is an SEC college town that takes its sports very seriously. Keep that in mind when scheduling your trip!
Head to the Athens Visitors Center to book the Music History Walking Tour. Local music magazine editors and musicians have put together the sites and stories; parties of 5 or more can get a local legend like Paul Butchart to guide you. You’ll get access to the vast array of venues — some past, hidden and closed, as well as present — where acts such as the B-52s, R.E.M. and Widespread Panic got their start and Southern Culture on the Skids, GWAR and the Plasmatics nurtured their early careers. You won’t just learn about tunes and partying, though; interesting subjects like Town and Gown dynamics, as well as Civil Rights–era race relations — with the “Race Acts” that came through Athens — are also highlighted.
At nighttime, there are almost countless venues to see all kinds of local and indie bands, like the iconic 40-Watt Club. Everything’s pretty much within walking distance (though the area is hilly), so you can definitely do some serious bar hopping.
On the outside of town is a facility for musicians set up by the parents of a young, talented man who committed suicide. Nuçi’s Space lends instruments, hosts suicide prevention meetings, and offers rehearsal rooms, recording equipment and low-cost healthcare.
The University of Georgia’s Special Collection Archives has everything from cool costumes to celebrity instruments to great audio-visual holdings, all accessible for free.
Take a piece of music history home! Wuxtry Records has vintage records, posters and t-shirts at very reasonable prices.
What to eat
Whether there’s a show going on or not, the rooftop at the Georgia Theater is definitely see — with spectacular downtown views — and be seen. It’s open starting around lunch and has a full bar, food, locally roasted coffee.
Creature Comforts is a brewery in a warehouse that’s popular with young professionals and upperclassmen of Athens. Their year-round selection has a classic lineup, while they also have seasonal beers with luscious flavors including ingredients like coffee, coconut, cocoa nibs and exotic fruits.
In the heart of downtown is funky yet elegant Last Resort Grill. Exposed brick and floor-to-ceiling windows make you feel like you’re visiting a friend’s home. They specialize in local, Southern flavors with a twist, using traditional methods like open fire, grilling, brining, pickling and preserving. Fried green tomatoes were served with grilled red onions and ranch dressing. They have a great selection of cocktails, including the delightfully odd “Garden Bubbly”, which had Prosecco and carrot-beet shrub.
South Kitchen + Bar can be a great date night or get-together of friends who either want to dress up or dress down. Hey, it’s a college town! The ambiance of this former ballroom is beautiful, yet laid back with copper stools. They’re doing upscale Southern food reimagined, like duck fat tater tots with blackberry mustard, bacon ranch, or sweet red pepper dip. There are lots of plates that beg to be shared, as well as several vegetarian and vegan offerings.