America's Best College Football Towns
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Experience the Ultimate Football Fan-dom
Get ready for a UC Boulder "Buff Stampede."
The sights of brightly painted faces emblazoned with cryptic emblems, whiffs of nachos mixing with the hoppy scent of freshly brewed beer, and sounds of roaring crowds mixing with barbaric-sounding chants can only mean one thing: college football season is in full swing. Whether popularized by their universities’ pagan athletic rituals or glorified for their nearby attractions, we find these cities offer the most all-encompassing, archetypal football experience for your next weekend away.
Football Team: The Buffaloes
Boulder, nestled in the quaint foothills of the Rocky Mountains and only 30 miles from Denver, offers spirited venues and scores of outdoor activities to up football fans’ adrenaline before the next big UC Boulder game.
At the core of the city lies pedestrian-friendly Pearl Street, the
town hub and home to game-day festivals and Friday night "Buff
stampedes" — a pep rally-like event during football season featuring
the university’s marching band. With its smattering of restaurants,
breweries and shops on tap, the action-packed boulevard is the perfect
place to meet up with other psyched Buffs fans.
Illegal Pete’s remains a favorite among students for its cheap beer, late hours and generous portions of Mexican food. If the sun is shining (and in Boulder, it most often is), fans also head up to the roof of West End Tavern for cold beers and breathtaking views of the Flatiron rock formations. Sister restaurants/bars Mountain Sun and Southern Sun serve up local brews and rowdy environments. Don’t forget to save time for a cocktail at The Sink — a colorful local institution and hopping pre-game hangout, where Robert Redford, former UC Boulder frat boy and pitcher on the university’s baseball team, was once a janitor.
If all the game-day adrenaline leaves you needing an outlet, Boulder Mountain Park, Walker Ranch Park and Golden Gate Canyon State Park — all within easy driving distance from the university campus — offer ample opportunities, like hiking and camping, to explore North America’s most beloved mountain range. Or hike the miles-long trail on the banks of Boulder Creek to unwind after a day of supporting the Buffs; the path can be picked up downtown at Civic Park.
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Football Team: Wolverines
Even alums from UMichigan’s arch-nemesis, Michigan State, have been heard to fess up: if one town in the state best epitomizes a college football experience, Ann Arbor takes the cake. Boasting the nation’s biggest football stadium (and still expanding), Ann Arbor sees more than 107,500 University of Michigan fans pack the house each time their team takes the field. Whether you’re a diehard Wolverine, or pigskin is not in your lexicon, you’ll find the football fever igniting this athletic haven contagious.
Visiting fans tend to congregate toward Main Street and nearby State Street, both home to a host of restaurants and bars. Grab an ice cream at Stucchi’s; pop into Bird of Paradise for a euphonious jazz brunch. You’ll find many an Ann Arborite lounging at the leafy arboretum, "the Arb," particularly when the fall foliage erupts into vibrant shades of reds and yellows. Nearby Kerrytown also offers unique shops and good eats, a well-stocked farmer’s market and intimate concert hall. For arguably the best food in town, book a table at the Gandy Dancer, situated among cobblestone streets at the 1886 Michigan Central Rail Depot, and featuring a daily-changing menu.
Keep in mind, visiting Ann Arbor during game time and not sampling a chipati, arguably the best-loved of the local cuisine, is like leaving Paris without a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower — it simply shouldn’t be done. Described by the university’s paper as "a pita-like choice combining a rather unusual tasting bread with equally unique and savory food stuffed inside," this culinary staple alone is said to lure Michigan alums back to Ann Arbor. You can sample it at the Pizza House, open until 4 a.m. to fulfill late-night cravings. Chipati fans are also loyal to Pizza Bob’s, the joint that is said to have invented the ingenious creation.
Football Team: The Volunteers
In the land of lazy days, sweet tea and good, old-fashioned hospitality, there are two things the locals take most seriously: football and tailgating, which go hand-in-hand here in the deep South. As early as Thursday, University of Tennessee fans from far and wide arrive to set up camp (and kegs) along the campus’ main drag, Cumberland Avenue — dubbed by locals as "the Strip" — in preparation for Saturday’s festivities. Spaces in the nearby parking lots fill quickly, so if you’re rolling into town with your camper, remember that in this town, it's the early bird who gets his worm. And take note: offering a body-warming shot of Tennessee’s homegrown moonshine to your tailgating neighbor is a way to win friends quickly in Knoxville.
Beyond the camping areas, most of Knoxville’s action takes place in the historical downtown area around Gay Street and Market Square, the city’s recently revamped artsy epicenter. Restaurants like vegan paradise The Tomato Head or noodle and wine bar Oodles offer tasty, off-beat eats. Shoppers will also find kitschy odds-and-ends stores such as Earth to Old City. While sports bars and frat hangouts are a dime a dozen along the Strip, jewelry-store-turned-lounge Sapphire is the one place in town that will leave you scratching your head wondering how you stumbled into such a chic establishment. A few blocks down Gay Street, you’ll find the Old City. College dance bars mix with grungy live music venues in this part of town, perpetually drawing a lively and eclectic crowd.
Should you tire of moonshine and "Rocky Top" (UTenn’s catchy fight song), and your eyes need a break from the sea of orange that floods the town year-round, you’re in luck. Right at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville is a great jumping-off point for hiking, fishing and bear-watching. Cades Cove provides spectacular views of the area and serves as an excellent venue for cyclists and nature lovers alike. Not a fan of the great outdoors? Home state legend Dolly Parton’s eponymous amusement park Dollywood is just a short drive down the road.
Football Team: The Longhorns
Perhaps not a traditional college town, in the sense that it also stands proudly as the state capital, Austin — with nearly 700,000 residents — still retains a familiar, tight-knit vibe. As the so-called "live music capital of the world," Austin could also wear the hat, "city that never sleeps." Witness this spectacle firsthand during football season with a stroll down Sixth Street, where you’ll encounter an enormous block party rocking late into the night, long after the stadium lights have died down.
Football literally is life in this sports-centric town. Typical tailgating practices — cookouts and keg parties — are certainly witnessed each time the Longhorns kick off, but the city goes particularly crazy leading up to the annual game against inner-state rival Texas A&M. The week before the iconic game, the alumni association organizes a large "hex rally" where fans, the team, band and cheerleading squad convene, burn red candles and try to jinx the competition in an effort to get pumped up for the big game. The ritual started when a group of UT students visited a fortuneteller in 1941, in response to nearly two decades of losses against the A&M Aggies. The palm reader had the students burn red candles, symbolizing challenge and opposition, for the entire week before the game; the Longhorns won 23-0, and a tradition was born.
But before things get too hazy in Austin, join the weekly "Pub Quiz" at B.D. Riley’s or sit in on a comedy show at Esther’s Follies. While Chuy’s bar gained notoriety for the infamous Bush twins incident a few years back (in which the girls were charged with underage drinking), many people don’t realize it’s also one of the premier joints in the state for tried-and-true Tex-Mex. If you want to get in really good with the locals, throw a "hook ‘em horns" gesture their way — this hand signal is the telltale sign of a true Longhorn fan and will grant you immediate rapport.
The rough-and-tumble Red River District, on the outskirts of campus, is where you’ll find Austin’s raw, live music scene. On "the Drag," between 21st and 25th streets, you can visit underground bookstores, purchase hipster clothing or get that tattoo you’ve always wanted.
Finally, while in town, Texas’ Renaissance-style capitol building is also worth a peek; it’s second only in size to the national capitol. To discover more about historic Texas, drop by the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which houses info on everything from ranching and the oil trade to the Texas Revolution.
Football Team: Sun Devils
Perhaps it’s the laid-back Southwestern mentality, or the fact that the weather’s warm 365 days of the year, but the people of Tempe seem happier than most, and this attitude resonates even with visitors passing through. The quiet suburb lies 11 miles east of Phoenix, and consistently attracts more than 50,000 students each year to Arizona State, the nation’s second-largest campus in terms of enrollment.
Until 2007, Tempe’s Sun Devil Stadium played host to the Fiesta Bowl, one of the four Bowl Championship Series games, held annually around New Year’s Day. Mill Avenue is the mecca to which many game day-goers flock for its surfeit of restaurants, bars and school spirit; other fans set up tailgating camp at Tempe Town Lake, conveniently located next door to the stadium. Before the game, you can fish, rent a paddleboat or take a refreshing dip in the water. Leisurely pre-game activities include fishing, renting paddleboats or taking a refreshing dip in the water.
While in town, grab a bite at Tavern on Mill and check out scores for other games playing on more than 30 monitors. You can also head to Gordon Biersch and request a table at one of the three balconies overlooking downtown Tempe. Before kick-off, knock back a few cold ones at the outdoor bar Dos Gringos Trailer Park, where the motto "every hour is happy hour" and drink menu (gringoritas and donkey punch are specialties) highlight the bar’s vibe. After hours, celebrate the Sun Devils’ victory at campus favorite The Library. (A word to the wise: leave your books at home.)
Even if the greater Phoenix area itself doesn’t hold much appeal, it’s a great jumping-off point for the surrounding scenery. A two-hour drive north lands you in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, while a two-hour drive south drops you into Mexico. And if you know Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp as more than just your neighborhood pubs, pay homage to the gunfighters by visiting their old stomping grounds in the Wild, Wild West of Tombstone.