Readers’ Choice: Chapel Hill Is America’s Best College Town
The American college town is as much a national tradition as green bean casserole on the Thanksgiving table.
Usually centering around a college or university, these towns enjoy a constant infuse of new ideas, interesting cultural events and a diverse population. This pretty much guarantees them as perfect travel destinations.
We set out to see which town reigned supreme by asking the people whose opinion we value the most: our readers. An impressive 65.2 percent of people agreed: Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is the best college town in the U.S. Just see why...
A Small-Town Community With a Big-City Heart
We spoke to local Chapel Hill residents to get to the heart of what makes this destination so special. Stephanie Cobert, director of marketing for the Chapell Hill Downtown Partnership, UNC-Chapel Hill alumn and long-time resident, says she loves that it's a "fast-growing area that keeps a community vibe."
As you walk through the beautiful downtown, it's impossible to resist the small-town charm of Chapel Hill, which has just over 61,000 residents. Because the campus is so close, Cobert explains, you get to profit from the special relationship the town has with the university.
After a big game, for instance, students rush through Franklin Street, filling the air with music, celebration and joy. It's incredibly exciting for any resident, even those who aren't students or sports fans.
Everyone is also welcome to enjoy the university's museums, performances, concerts and other cultural events. For visitors, this is largely the appeal of the city. And if you ever want something more urban, Durham and Raleigh are the two other cities that make up what's been dubbed the Research Triangle.
What to Do in Chapel Hill, According to Locals
According to Cobert, the arts and culture scene at Chapel Hill is absolutely thriving. This is in great part due to the University of North Carolina's (UNC) local campus, which has spaces like the Ackland Art Museum and the Morehead Planetarium & Science Center.
Another place to check out is the CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, which hosts performances, exhibits and different art events that are free and open to the public. The university also has the Carolina Performing Arts, which hosts student-led shows but also serves as a space for local and visiting artists and musicians.
In downtown, you'll find colorful murals, boutique shops and unique stores. Both Cobert and Patty Griffin from the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau highlight The Shrunken Head Boutique as the place to shop for souvenirs. This family-owned business specializes in UNC gear. Another must-visit spot Downtown is Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews, an independent bookstore that serves Spanish-style hot chocolate.
Of course, you can't skip walking through campus and learning about the country's oldest public university. Free walking tours are available almost every day.
And if you feel like taking advantage of North Carolina's natural beauty, the Johnston Mill Nature Preserve is a couple of minutes away from downtown. You can also visit the Carolina North Forest, the North Carolina Botanical Garden or Spring Haven Farm for a bit of fresh air and greenery.
Best Chapel Hill Restaurants
Many people think that small towns can't do great food or that they have limited culinary offerings. And while this may be true for other towns, it couldn't be further from the truth in Chapel Hill.
Sutton's Drug Store is a soda fountain that has been serving mouthwatering burgers, milkshakes and fries since 1923. Cobert calls it a "local staple." Al's Burger Shack is another great place for an award-winning burger. Make sure to also stop by Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a black-owned family restaurant serving some of the best soul food you'll find in the state. For a special occasion, visit Il Palio Italian restaurant at The Siena Hotel or the Asian-fusion Lantern Restaurant.
And if you're feeling thirsty, there are plenty of bars to enjoy as well. Because this is North Carolina, a visit to a local brewery is a must. Try Carolina Brewery or Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery (or both!). Fun and geeky, the Gathering Place offers card games, tabletop games and local taps.
Get a drink at the Crunkleton on those nights when you feel like treating yourself to a signature hand-crafted cocktail.
Best Hotels in Chapel Hill
Cobert and Griffin agree that the two best hotels to consider are the Graduate Hotel and the Carolina Inn. Both have a special relationship with the university.
The Graduate celebrates UNC through and through, with the front desk imitating the scoreboard from a 1982 championship with Georgetown. You can also tour a replica of Michael Jordan's dorm room.
While the Carolina Inn has fewer gimmicks, it's on the edge of campus and is within walking distance to downtown, so you'll be close to most of the action.
Why You Need to Plan a Visit to Chapel Hill ASAP
By now, we hope to have convinced you that Chapel Hill needs to be your next vacation destination. But if you need another push, we'll leave you with messages from the people who love their town.
Cobert says that the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnerships wants to highlight "that special relationship between the beautiful campus that extends into the downtown area" and how
"the university works with the town and the county to uplift the area.
"It feels like Chapel Hill is growing and changing in many different ways, while still holding on to some of the things that set it apart."