Advantages fun, charming and diverting city with plenty of interesting things to see and do; great variety of bars and restaurants
Disadvantages has some shonky areas, may bring you to spend more than you'd like
The city of Athens, Georgia, USA, is one of those eclectic university towns scattered all the way across the country. If you're an American and a seasoned college student, you know all about what that means - an infinite variety of bars, pubs, theatres and crack houses. And, of course, a vast number of students to take advantage of whichever of these vices may take their fancy. In this particular case, it's the enormous campus of the University of Georgia which has set up shop in this interesting town.Athens is about 70 miles from Atlanta, anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half drive depending on various things - the traffic, whether there is a thunderstorm present, or if someone has managed to cark it somewhere along the road and has thus blocked it in some manner. Once you're out of the suburban and ugly sprawl of Atlanta you'll take a flat and boring road devoid of fairly much anything you might want to look at until you get there.
As with most college towns, the focal point of the city is the gigantor hulk of the UGA campus, throwing its massive weight across a large portion of the city. UGA has many, many buildings, an exceedingly large football stadium for the strange variety of football the infidels play over here, a large basketball stadium and a veritable cornucopia of housing options. Getting around the city can be quite problematic unless you know your way around, because it sprawls quite a lot.The downtown of the city is where all the action is, as one might imagine. The bars open at various times - a few are open during the afternoon, but it seems that the majority cater to the more nightowl-ish among the students, and don't open until 8 or 9. Most of the bars and pubs have the dingy feel of a dungeon, are oppressively lit and sometimes require a bit of feeling about to find your way (and if by accident your hand goes somewhere it oughtn't, whose fault is that?). This seems to be the way many people like it, however, so don't expect to find any brightly lit alcoves in your explorations.
The city is full of what might be known as 'institutions', as they say over here. Far from being centers of academic research, the only researching being done here is on the effects of alcohol on one's mental processes and physical agility. It appears that the research here is widespread and well co-ordinated, and there are always many ongoing projects seeking their own conclusions. The Manhattan bar is one such institution of sodden learning, and is a charming place in its own dark, cramped way. The rather larger edifice of the City bar is probably more suited to people with long legs and a hankering for space - and a three-hour long happy hour will tend to assuage most people's concerns about it, assuming you get there at the right time.While it's practically impossible to assault all of the city's bars in one go, unless of course you're Kevin Keegan or anyone else with no liver left to speak of, there aren't so many eateries that you will be at a loss as to where to go. This being America, burger bars and pizza joints are high on the list of places to be seen. However, you will receive a high-quality and tasty meal at most of these places, overload of grease aside. The Mellow Mushroom pizzeria, aside from selling simply enormous slices of pizza, has a mammoth beer list from all over the world, though it will be chilled (sorry about that). The ambience is comfortable and the food is good, so don't find yourself put off by the lack of houte couture establishments. This is a college town, after all - anyone who can afford crème d'escargot or Peking duck probably doesn't need to be here.
For those among us who prefer grazing on leaves to chewing steaks, The Grit is an interesting vegetarian joint offering a variety of things, including the ubiquitous tofu-style meat, aka NotSausage or NotBacon. They do good breakfasts and rather large pancakes, but you'll still find your requirements for grease can be accommodated here by virtue of large quantities of eggs being available, as well as some more curious southern delicacies. It's popular for breakfast or brunch, but does other meals too.The Grill, located about 50 yards from the entrance to the university, is yet another of the city's landmarks. This is the quintessential burger joint, really. It brings to mind Happy Days, although we saw no sign of the Fonz, to our dismay. You can have all manner of burgers dripping in lard, lots of French fries and even milkshakes, which are very good. It's almost always crowded, particularly after an evening of tippling, and you'll find many grease-junkies trying to calm down their rebellious stomachs with a generous helping of fatty goods after, or indeed in the middle of, a hard night out.
For the more eclectic of folks not after food, but rather a dose of small-town and rural Americana, there is an enormous flea market out of town, on the road to Commerce. Situated on a large and dusty lot, if there is something old and rusty and in existence somewhere, you'll find it here. If you're after the quintessentially southern Confederate memorabilia, you'll find it here, or even boiled peanuts if you're still a tad peckish. You'll find old TVs, new computers, rusting and useless farming implements, and a dodgy-looking cafeteria selling down-home stuff that we weren't really game enough to try. You may also catch a glimpse of KKK knickknacks if you look hard enough and aren't put off by the sight of rednecks trying to glare at you. It's impossibly large and you probably wouldn't want to look at all of the crap they sell here anyway, but it's infinitely interesting and certainly an expression of how rural America is, in all of its (sometimes dubious) glory.If you're visiting from overseas and are a mite curious about all kinds of American cultural artifacts, you'll find most of them here. There is even the bizarre and faintly ridiculous street lined with fraternity and sorority houses. Here, for a large fee, you can house with other nerds in a fancy house with large Greek letters written across the top of your ornate doorway. You will find validation from the other rich snobs once you perform a stupid initiation of some kind, and you will be able to thank your father for gifting though with such a highly-sought after place to stay, regardless of how well received you are by the rest of the student body.
One other quirk of the city - it contains perhaps the best and only example of a tree having ownership over a plot of land. Yep, that's right; The Tree That Owns Itself can be found in one of the pleasant and narrow side streets somewhere in the city. This large oak tree had the land it stands on and some 8 feet around it deeded to itself by the owner of the land in his will, and it has not since been challenged. Why you would want to, I don't know, but it would make for an interesting mediation and negotiation session.As far as accommodation goes, there is an enormous Holiday Inn in the centre of town - if you can't find a room here, you're struggling. But even if they are full, for whatever reason, there are still a few variously scary motels and hotels scattered around. Being a city where the focus is on living rather than touring, the selection may be limited, but it's not a resort town, so if you're after five-star luxury, you're better off somewhere a bit fancier and less student-oriented. The Holiday Inn we stayed at was perfectly adequate - comfortable, reasonable-sized rooms, without being ornate. It's pretty much the standard motel room you'd find anywhere. Not terrific, but not bad either.
Athens is an interesting and often charming city. It has its disreputable quarters, as all cities of size do, but the downtown area is very trendy, very young, has plenty of things to do, especially if you wish to bend the elbow, and is in itself quite pretty, especially with the large City Hall presiding over everything. It's well worth a weekend trip, or perhaps even longer, and is a prime destination for students looking for a good university, and a fun place to live in the meantime. Definitely a worthwhile place to stop over if Georgia is ever on the itinerary!
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