Tuscaloosa is the home to the flagship liberal arts institution for the State of Alabama. Nestled at the very edge of the Appalachian foothills, and defined by the very old, very deep Black Warrior River, the city as a whole has entered a renaissance, and that arrives by way of the University.
The University of Alabama has experienced phenomenal growth over these past 15 years, almost doubling in enrollment, largely from out of state students. Its greatly improved academic profile, comparative affordability, scenic location, laid back lifestyle, and athletic success have made UA a destination school rather than what it once was: a sleepy haven for in-state kids.
We tell you this because just as that demographic explosion has occurred, so too has the city of Tuscaloosa changed. And it changed even more drastically after the April 2011 Tornadoes — a tragedy that still scars the city, but was also one that permitted substantial rebuilding, notably in Midtown. For that growth though, you’re never too far away from “real Alabama,” if you poke around enough corners.
Once you wander off-campus, you will find all types: from the locals at roller derby practice, to coal miners, to shift workers leaving the tire plant, to farmers coming into the city for some shopping.
What to Eat
What to eat in Tuscaloosa is largely constrained only by your imagination and time of day. But let’s stick with what are definitively Tuscaloosan. Most places tell you to hit up the Wayfarer for breakfast, their biscuits, grits and pancakes are unbeatable. But we’re going to suggest being adventurous, crossing the River into Northport, and fighting for a booth at The City Cafe. This venerable hole in the wall is a locals / student spot, a quintessential American diner. Dirt cheap, outstanding food, plenty of it — and opening well before the rooster has even thought about greeting the day. This is a can’t-miss greasy spoon for breakfast and lunch: Dinner not available, and if you’ve eaten a big plate lunch, you may not be ready for one anyway.
So too will travel guides recommend the OG Dreamland on Jug Factory Road. This is one of America’s most celebrated rib joints for a reason. But, what if we told you it’s not even close to the best ‘cue in town? Those in the know will cross the River and hunt down Archibald’s. By far the best pulled pork in the city. For those who want a compromise between the two, we suggest the Dreamland in Northport: Archibald’s ‘cue, Dreamland ribs and sauce, expanded sides, and a more relaxed sit-down environment than either of the above. At the game and starting to get munchies? Full Moon sells the crowd-favorite barbecue nachos around the stadium too. Even if you’re not hungry, they’re worth checking out.
Not in the mood for barbecue, but still want to dine on the cheap? Mr. G’s in Northport is another local hidden gem. This Italian restaurant has outstanding daily deals, solid pizza offerings, and vastly underrated sandwiches. Mr. Chen’s, located near the Stadium, is the go-to for affordable, honest Chinese food on campus.
Those who want a bit of a nicer atmosphere and prefer evening dining can’t go wrong with River Restaurant — the best fish and seafood in town (reservations required) and probably the best brunch too (reservations not accepted at brunch), DePalma’s upscale Italian (reservations not accepted), and Dillard’s Chophouse (the best steak in town; reservations required, and be forewarned, this is not a fast dining option. You will spend a few hours).
For my money, however, the best combination of atmosphere, food, pricing, service and regional charm lies with Southern Ale House: Midscale and modern southern food with lots of unique twists, and some of the best biscuits and honest pours of any restaurant in town. Their whiskey selections is practically unbeatable, too.
Want more of a raucous environment? The iconic Druid City Brewing Company is a favorite for a reason. DCBC just received licensing for kitchen orders too, which is to your benefit: Bo and the crew have been cooking delicious food for years now as a thank-you for your patronage. More than a brewpub, DCBC has a great gameday environment, live music, trivia, a bevy of games — and is truly a place where there are no strangers; everyone you meet is your new best friend.
Biggest tourist attractions
I hate to be glib, but if you’re going to campus, you’re already there. Bryant-Denny Stadium is a national treasure. It is the 10th largest sporting stadium...in the world. Part shrine, part field of battle, the place has been modernized and revamped and expanded etc. five times in two decades. It oozes tradition, confidence, and is ear-crushingly loud...especially at night.
And, since you’re already on campus, check out the Paul W. Bryant Museum. This is truly a stroll through the past, 125 years of college football, Alabama memorabilia, interactive media and the like. It is a gorgeous place to spend hours in for all fans of college football.
Under the radar attractions
This is where some magic lies, and far too few people ever get out to explore them. If you’re in town, the Alabama Museum of Natural History (located on campus), is simply outstanding. The Jemison-Van De Graaff Mansion is also worth a visit. The Riverwalk is a great place to clear your mind, hold hands with a loved one, sit under the pavilions amidst the cypresses, feed some ducks, and just...relax.
Finally, almost no one talks about this, but the venerable Kathryn Tucker Windham (13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey), long ago highlighted one of the most haunted places in the state. It’s just a short trip away from campus too. Those of you looking to chase some haints could do far worse than the very creepy Drish House.
Game day experience
Every fan base wants to proclaim that their tailgating experience is unique, it’s special. And, in their own way, they’re right. Alabama may seem “ordinary” at first blush: stately oaks lining a Quad, neo-classical architecture and sprawling forests of white marble towers, gatherings on the lawns, packed street parties, the inimitable smells of a thousand cookers and a thousand spilled bourbons. In that sense, it is. If you’ve been to an average flagship public school, then nothing about Alabama will seem that unusual (well, besides the Tide’s unique RV culture).
But it is what happens for those three hours that you’re in the stadium that make the experience a unique one. This is a stadium that has seen 17 national titles, the two best college coaches to ever carry a whistle, the second most wins of any program in history — it gives the stadium an aggression that few places can match. Half baying for blood, half Southern gentility. “Doing things the Alabama Way,” as we call it. It drips confidence, old money, and old world charm. Southern grace with Yankee panache. The bricks reverberate with the voice of Paul Bryant, as though he descended from the heavens to read us the riot act with that gravel throat from God. That’s when it hits you, when you realize you’re watching Alabama. And that’s something that emotionally, intellectually cannot be matched by anyone, anywhere else in the country.
And always answer “Roll Tide” with a “Roll Tide” of your own.