As Athens, Georgia, prepares to host its 35th Twilight Criterium (April 24-25)—an annual celebration of cycling, music and libations—the time is right to reflect on this Southern incubator for extremes.
The home of the University of Georgia (founded in 1785), is small by city standards, but it’s loaded with the big cultural offerings of a metropolis. Art and music and top-end dining can be found on every street corner. It’s eccentric. Gritty, tattooed waiters serve by day and play into the night on stages scattered across downtown. And it’s conservative. Arguably no place defines the idea of the classic Southern U better, and preppy fans fill the streets every fall to cheer on the Bulldogs.
UGA and the 1980s music scene (R.E.M., the B-52s) put Athens on the map, but this town has, in recent years, made a habit of capturing the nation’s attention for its forward-thinking citizens, its slate of groovy festivals and its vibe, which, by any standard, simply oozes cool.
Athens, like any burgeoning hotspot, is constantly changing. The selections below, however, give first-timers and Classic City veterans a list spots that stand the test of time.
1. The Grit
Photo via thegrit.com
A quick walk from downtown, brings you to Athens’ trademark vegetarian eatery—a place that even wins over dedicated carnivores. The Grit (199 Prince Avenue) embodies what Athenians love about their city. Exposed brick peeks out from behind a weathered layer of paint. The walls are covered with local art—if there’s one word that really describes Athens, it’s local—and the front, glass cases are stocked with selection of some of the best cakes and pies in town. Standouts here include the black bean chili, creamy falafel nuggets, Thursday night’s Indian feast plate and the Golden Bowl, a mound of brown rice and sautéed tofu topped with nutritional yeast, vegetables and melted cheese. The wait here can get long, so avoid tricky times like peak Sunday brunch hours and Friday evenings.
2. Manhattan Cafe
Photo: Spenser Simrill
The Athens bar scene falls under two categories: college spots overridden with patrons testing their freedom, or hipster bars with better quality drinks served in actual glasses. Manhattan (337 North Hull Street) is the exception. This low-key cocktail bar just turned 20 and attracts patrons of all ages and sensibilities. Perhaps it’s because it exudes such a comfortable vibe. The chandeliers and metal lanterns are dimmed and hang from a black ceiling with toy bunnies. The space is adorned with vintage chairs—not kitschy, just real—and the jukebox in the back corner features classic hits that are handwritten on paper cards. For folks in the know, Manhattan is an all-in-one spot: a place to dance in the corner AND move between intellectual conversations. And, you won’t have to travel too far for drunk munchies (or at all) since Manhattan sells microwaveable White Castle burgers and offers free popcorn.
3. 40 Watt Club
It’s no secret that Athens is a music town, and the 40 Watt (285 West Washington Street) was instrumental in putting the Classic City on the map. Today, as it approaches middle age, the 40 Watt is still going strong and puts on an event almost every night, whether it’s a sold-out Sylvan Esso show on a Monday, a Modern Pin-Up performance or Athens Battle of the Bands. At a maximum capacity of 500, this venue, adorned with a massive disco ball and glowing Christmas lights, may not draw stadium-sized acts, but playing on its stage is still a local musician’s rite of passage.
4. Wuxtry Records
Opened in 1976, Wuxtry Records (197 East Clayton Street) is Athens’ go-to record store. Occupying three rooms, Wuxtry specializes in vintage and contemporary records and comic books. The main area on the bottom floor houses the most formats of music, selling records, tapes and CDs by local and favored musicians. Head outside and you’ll find Wuxtry’s annex, which holds the sale records and posters, to the left. Bizarro Wuxtry, the last component of the trinity, is an explosion comics, toys and cheeky books. Basically, it’s a wonderland for your inner child.
Athens’ independent movie theater, Ciné (234 West Hancock Avenue) is a mix of contemporary favorites and critically acclaimed dramas alongside gorgeous animated films and the occasional Bad Movie Night (usually featuring Tommy Wiseau’s The Room). Ciné’s environment is intimate and the concession stand features a bar. Additionally, Ciné is heavily involved in Athens’ art scene, and often donates wall space for galleries or hosts literary readings in its extra room. Check Ciné’s showtime schedule here.
Sarra Sedghi is a freelance writer and magnet collector based in Athens, Ga. She runs an Athens-centric travel blog for locals, and mostly tweets musings on junk food and whatever she’s watching on Netflix.