One thing I love about traveling is discovering the heart of a place. Sites like TripAdvisor might offer reviews of attractions, hotels and restaurants, but they don’t share the heart of a place. As an avid college football fan — “O-H” to all my Buckeye friends — towns that revolve around the home team are some of the best!
I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 college football towns for families. During the football season, these towns come alive in a whole new way. Beyond the football element, though, the towns on this list offer something for families to enjoy besides the football game: family friendly activities, good food and fun!
Side note to Columbus: I love you! While you didn’t make the cut here — you’re bigger than “just” college football — you will always be my number 1!
5. Clemson, South Carolina
My parents moved to Lake Keowee in Upstate South Carolina about 15 years ago. When we visit, the kids always know we’re getting close when we see the giant Clemson tiger paws on the streets. This town screams college football — from the roadways to the street signs. Need more proof? The city changes traffic patterns on football Saturdays! Clemson’s slogan, “In season every season” rings true, but I think fall might be the best season! The town sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the banks of Lake Hartwell which provides outdoor adventure options galore. Nearby Greenville, one of the top vacation cities in the world according to travel authority Peter Greenberg, so why NOT visit the region?
Top Picks in Clemson:
- Best restaurant: Larry’s 163. This bar and grill throws a great tailgate on football Saturdays!
- Best historical attraction: Fort Hill Plantation — home of John Calhoun.
- Best outdoor adventure: South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson. The children’s garden offers an especially fun play space for kids to run, play and explore.
- Best place away from campus to watch the game: Also Larry’s 163. For those who don’t mind the 30 minute drive, many restaurants in Greenville play the games on big screens too.
- Plan your Clemson visit here.
4. Stillwater, Oklahoma
Home of “the other OSU,” the town of Stillwater doubles in size during the school year. In football season, Cowboys fans take over downtown Stillwater. The friendly folks in Stillwater welcome guests like family. Besides Cowboys football — ESPN says OSU is a contender in the Big 12 this year — families visiting Stillwater will discover Red Dirt Music, Lost Creek Safari and a wide range of outdoor adventures on the region’s lakes and trails. Be sure to pack your cowboy boots and hat when you visit! Then head to the visitors’ bureau site for a chance to win tickets to an OSU Cowboys’ football game!
Top picks in Stillwater:
- Best restaurant: Hands down, it’s Eskimo Joe’s, the heart of Stillwater gatherings for 40 years!
- Best cultural experience: A red dirt music festival or live musical performance.
- Most unique food: Calf fries, but local flavor Fridays suggests other good options too!
- Best souvenir in Stillwater (besides custom made cowboy boots): An Eskimo Joe’s t-shirt.
- Best place away from campus to watch the game: This one also goes to Eskimo Joe’s.
- Plan your Stillwater visit using this handy resource.
3. Tempe, Arizona
Tempe, with its perfect fall weather and easy-to-use light rail system, makes visiting this charming town a delight and a perfect pick for our top 5 college football towns. Visitors should pack hiking shoes for a trek up A Mountain (officially called Hayden Butte Preserve Park) for views of the football stadium, campus and town. Tempe Town Lake — yes, a water oasis in the midst of the desert — provides water sports, hiking and biking, a splash park and more! Unique restaurants, great shopping and theater provide even more fun for visiting families.
Top picks in Tempe:
- Best restaurant: My pick for daytime dining is NCounter, in the heart of downtown. You might stand in line, but this is the place to gather with friends for expertly prepared casual dining in a laid back atmosphere!
- Best gathering place: Tempe Marketplace on the edge of Tempe town Lake. With dining, concerts, movies, events and outdoor space galore, this is a great place to meet friends or hang out with the family. Check the calendar for special events.
- Best outdoor adventure: Any and everything on Tempe Town Lake!
- Best place away from campus to watch the game: Well, that’s a toughie. There are tons of great options!
- Learn more about Tempe Tourism here.
2. Tallahassee, Florida
Florida’s capital city, home to the Florida State Seminoles, has been transformed in recent years. Near campus, restaurants and open space give families a number of options to enjoy pre-game and post-game activities. Beyond FSU football, the city boasts great weather, hiking and biking trails, water sports (kayak with a a manatee!), funky neighborhoods and museums for all interests. Tallahassee’s restaurant scene, driven in large part by marketing efforts at Madison Social (our favorite restaurant in Tallahassee), has evolved, too. Restaurants throughout the city provide outdoor dining, many with big screen TVs to watch the game and cheer on the home team… or the opponent, if you dare!
Top picks in Tallahassee:
- Best restaurant: Madison Social, near the FSU campus.
- Best outdoor experience: Tree to Tree Adventures.
- Best tour: Capital City Tours on “Wilma,” the street legal golf cart.
- Best way to see the city: By bike!
- Best place away from campus to watch the game: On the patio at Midtown Caboose. Great burgers!
- Plan your trip with Visit Tallahassee.
1. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Oh how it pains me to admit that an SEC school is number one on our list of top 5 college football towns. Really! Cuts deep. BUT, there is no denying that LSU fans have taken the tailgate to a whole new level. Home game frenzy — sure! Most college towns can do that. In Baton Rouge, though, every Saturday is a tailgate Saturday. Jay Ducote, who gained national fame on Food Network Star earlier this year, launched his culinary career through LSU tailgating. It’s a big, big, big deal here! Beyond the tailgate, Baton Rouge has great weather, a growing culinary scene, history and outdoor fun.
- Best restaurant: Leroy’s Kitchen. Near the LSU campus, this family friendly restaurant extends hours on game day. AND the menu doesn’t have sandwiches, but offers samiches! That’s how I say it, so it wins. Seriously, read the story on Leroy’s — and the menu. Then go!
- Best historical attraction: The State Capitol Building. Governor Huey P. Long, who had presidential aspirations, was fatally shot here years ago. Intrigue! Beyond the history, the building is an architectural marvel and public elevators take guests to the viewing deck which offers views of the city, the Mississippi River and beyond.
- Best tour: Baton Rouge Plantation Country. To understand LSU’s devotion to tailgating, it helps to understand the cultural background of this wonderful area.
- Best local eats: Red Stick Farmer’s Market. The best farmer’s market in the world — at least according to me.
- Best place away from campus to watch the game: Forget it. Around here it’s the tailgate party and it’s not worth fighting. I won’t say #GeauxTigers… but I will say #GeauxTigerTailgating!
- Learn more about Baton Rouge at #goBR.
Not a football fan? Then Columbus is definitely your number 1… Enjoy!