A Pedacito of Athens, Georgia
Updated: May 15, 2021
As a graduate of the University of Georgia, I am a die-hard Georgia Bulldogs fan. Whenever I hear someone say “Go Dawgs,” I am obliged to reply, “Sic ‘em.” With that being said, it is difficult for me to be objective about the small college town of Athens, Georgia. Still, even if you aren’t a college student, Athens is full of great food, great music, and plenty of southern hospitality.
I hadn’t been to Athens since leaving school in 2003, and I was a little worried that when I returned to see my alma matter after so much time passing that I wouldn’t be able to recognize the place. It’s true that there were some minor changes. My favorite local coffee shop where I used to study had been converted into a Starbucks, and I am pretty sure that my classmates and I didn’t look as pre-pubescent as the children who now attend the university. But I was happy to find that the soul and spirit of Athens hadn’t changed at all.
My first stroll down memory lane started in the downtown area. With a population of fewer than 130,000 people, downtown Athens is not very big. Though despite its size, there is plenty to offer. The streets are filled with interesting and unusual shops that reflect the diversity and history of the town. There are plenty of stores offering UGA merchandise, but it’s just as easy to find stores selling Native American jewelry, antique books, or quirky vintage clothing.
By far, my favorite store in all of downtown Athens is Wuxtry Records. This place isn’t so much a music store as an institution. Wuxtry is where a young Michael Stipe first met Peter Buck, who was working there before they founded the band R.E.M.. Rolling Stone named Wuxtry one of the most influential record stores in the U.S., and it’s easy to see why. I can and have spent hours leafing through the old vinyl records and talking bands with the music-nerd staff.
Music is one of the things that really sets Athens apart from other college towns. In 1910, The Morton Theatre became the first African American-owned venue in the country and hosted such acts as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Other clubs such as The 40-Watt (called such because there was a single 40-watt lightbulb, which served as the only light source in the entire place), and The Georgia Theatre introduced the world to such local bands as R.E.M., The B-52’s, and Widespread Panic. In fact, it can be said that Athens is one of the birthplaces of modern alternative rock and new wave music, and is home to the first and most famous college music scene in the country.
Besides the music, Athens also has a pretty amazing food scene. Some of the best soul-food and farm-to-table restaurants you will ever experience can be found in Athens. Be that as it may, I was only visiting Athens for one day, and so it wasn’t a difficult decision on where I was going to eat.
Yes, The Varsity is a fast food joint. There is nothing “farm fresh” about the place. When you step up to the counter to place your order, you may laugh a little as the cashiers translate your order to the cooks. If you ask for a plain hotdog, the cashier will call out, “naked dog.” If you ask for a hamburger with lettuce and tomato, the cashier will yell, “Give me a burger, and run it through the garden.” I’m not going to lie. The food is some of the greasiest and most fattening fast food you could possibly find. I have often felt my left arm begin to tingle a little after stuffing my face full of onion rings and chili-cheese-slaw dogs. Still, it is a piece of Athens history and not to be missed. It’s also pretty darn delicious!
Athens is such a unique and beautiful place. There is so much history and personality to the town that it becomes difficult to fully explain it to someone who hasn’t been there. If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend two things while you are there: check out one of the famous music venues to hear some fantastic music and eat a peach pie at The Varsity. I promise you won’t regret it.
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