I was traveling on Amtrak’s Crescent train that runs from New Orleans to New York City. Departing from New Orleans, I had options for stops in numerous cities on my way to my final destination of Washington, D.C. I studied each area to decide which to visit. My criteria, when traveling by train, include an optimal arrival time (no 2 a.m. departures or arrivals), proximity of the depot to the city center, and the demographics of the location as I’ve always preferred small towns to big cities. Part of it is the pace of living, but also there’s the safety factor as a solo traveler, and the ability to easily get around on foot that draws me to these smaller cities.
It’s about a 3-hour drive or a 5.5-hour train ride from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa. While Tuscaloosa isn’t a small town -- even though it does exude small-town charm -- its nearly 100,000 population is minuscule in comparison to Atlanta’s more than 465,000 population. The city is large enough to offer prime entertainment and dining, but small enough to allow a slower pace and friendly atmosphere. I later learned their slogan is “Not too small. Not too big. Just right,” and it’s true.
While Atlanta is known for its shopping districts, historical elements, and ethnic dining options, Tuscaloosa offers all of this and more. Here are five reasons I like to visit Tuscaloosa instead of Atlanta.
1. A Revitalized Downtown
Unlike the sprawl of Atlanta, Tuscaloosa is easy to get around. If you’re staying downtown you can walk to many activities. Still, even if you’re wanting to go further than you’re comfortable walking, Tuscaloosa offers a great bus system that’s only $1 per ride (and 20 cents for transfers), making it possible to get around without a car.
No matter your interest, there’s shopping for everyone. Stop by The Maker’s Market for homemade arts and crafts, Effie’s Clothing Boutique for a personalized shopping experience, or O’Connor Art Studios to see the official workspace of celebrated local artist Caleb O’Connor.
2. The University Of Alabama
One thing you won’t find in Atlanta is the University of Alabama. (Roll tide, y’all.) This public research university -- the oldest and largest public university in Alabama -- is not only home to the Crimson Tide but also the only publicly supported law school in the state. Visit the campus in person, or take a virtual tour of the campus.
Tuscaloosa was originally known as Tuskaloosa when it was named after Chief Tuskaloosa in 1819. The city is steeped in Alabama history and acknowledges and honors its heritage.
Some places of interest include the Bama Theatre, the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights Trail, Caleb O’Connor’s art display showing Alabama history at the Federal Building, the location where the stand at the schoolhouse doors took place in June of 1963, the Alabama Museum of Natural History, located in Smith Hall at the University of Alabama campus, and the Murphy African-American Museum, among others.
Because of the oak-tree-lined streets, since the 1940s, Tuscaloosa has been called both The Oak City as well as The Druid City. You can take a walk to the historic suburb known as Druid City, still. There you’ll find historic homes and neighborhoods dating as far back as the 19th century. While there, visit Annette M Shelby Park, Queen City Park, and the Mildred Westervelt Warner Transportation Museum, located inside the Queen City Pool House. The Transportation Museum is designed to educate about local and regional history through transportation.
4. Outdoor Activities
One benefit of skipping the big city for smaller areas is the accessibility of outdoor activities. At Lake Tuscaloosa, located just five miles from Tuscaloosa, you’ll find a popular fishing destination, whether by boat or near the dam. Or visit Lake Nicol, Lake Lurleen, or Lake Harris for picnicking and hiking trails.
In town, hike the trails at the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk. This paved trail follows the Black Warrior River for 4.5 miles and has benches and gazebos for picnic stops, a playground, a splash pad, and street lights for evening walks.
Get onto the waters of the Black Warrior River or Lake Nicol with a paddleboard rental from Tuscaloosa Paddleboard. They’ll provide everything you need for a day on the water.
5. Local And Ethnic Cuisine
While Atlanta has Buford Highway and its long stretch of authentic international foods, Tuscaloosa has a rich blend of locally sourced Southern specialties and international options too.
Tuscaloosa’s first Thai restaurant, Ruan Thai, opened in 1991 serving authentic Thai food in a welcoming space. A popular dish is the Curry Puffs in the Cup, a spicy chicken and potato curry on rice in a bowl that’s served with a cucumber salad and ground peanuts.
The oldest restaurant in Tuscaloosa, The Historic Waysider Restaurant, is a must for a true Southern breakfast. They’re known for their homemade biscuits and good coffee. Any of the breakfast options are delicious, but be sure to add sides of grits and red-eye gravy for a true Tuscaloosa experience.
For a sophisticated yet casual Southern dining experience, try Brick and Spoon for breakfast, brunch, or lunch. Ranked a Top 10 Breakfast by Travel + Leisure, enjoy a unique cocktail such as the Cafe Orange with Gran Gala (orange liqueur), coffee, and whipped cream, or a custom Bloody Mary with your meal. Start with the Bayou Green Tomatoes, fried green tomatoes that are topped with a bayou seafood sauce, or go sweet with an order of beignets. For the main course, try one of their specialties such as the Shrimp and Grits. This brunch version of a Southern mainstay includes Gulf shrimp, red and green bell peppers, onions, a garlic cream sauce, and fire-roasted corn grits with a poached egg and toast points.
One of my favorite farmers markets in the country, partly because of the great selection, but mostly because of its gorgeous location, the Tuscaloosa Farmers Market offers a taste of Alabama along the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk. You’ll find grass-fed meats, artisan crafts, and local produce, but also plenty of local foods ideal for a train or car ride. During my visit, I loaded up on fresh fruit, boiled peanuts, and raw cheese to take on the train. I felt as if I brought a piece of Tuscaloosa with me as I enjoyed these snacks on the train.
Learn more about my train journeys coast to coast here, and if you’d like to visit Atlanta as well, read How To Spend A Weekend Getaway In Atlanta, Georgia.