A Student’s Guide to Chapel Hill: The Ultimate College Town

What is it that makes a college town a “college town”? Emily Brice, our BYOM Community Development Intern and current UNC student, takes us through what makes Chapel Hill, North Carolina so special. As UNC alum ourselves, Chapel Hill holds a place that’s very near and dear to our hearts – as they say, we’re Tar Heels for life.

College towns are a species, just like human beings.  Specific traits, like a highly educated population or cheap bars, can represent different organs or body parts. A trait of a college town can stand alone in a different location, but when many traits come together and begin to operate cohesively with a prestigious university within walking distance, a true college town is born. Like humans, no two towns are identical.  The same internal organs and functions categorize us all as humans but it is our appearances, minds, personalities, and experiences that distinguish us from one another. Conversely, when it comes to college towns, it’s all about atmosphere, energy, iconic landmarks, and hot spots to hang out.

In that vein (pun intended), here is a dissection of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, arguably America’s ultimate college town. Chapel Hill is the home of the Tar Heels, a tried and true college town and the place I am lucky enough to call home.

The Brain of a College Town: Libraries, Laboratories and Creation Centers

The Left Brain controls the logical and analytical thoughts in your head. Libraries are the left-brain of a college town and Chapel Hill is home to many, each with their own list of pros and cons.  Everyone has their go-to library where they turn into the productive student they promised themselves they would be all semester. UNC students can choose from the Undergraduate Library (hellooo all-nighters), Davis Library (the stacks!), Wilson Library, and many more.

The Right Brain houses creativity and ingenuity.  Innovation runs wild on campus.  From scientific experiments to music composition to entrepreneurial studies, colleges bring the best and the brightest together. Since Chapel Hill is a liberal arts college, all types of imaginations run amuck. Our science departments and research centers constantly win recognition for exclusive findings on subjects like Autism, Alzheimer’s and the Zika virus. On the other end of the spectrum, the award-winning, student-led Kenan Theatre Company produces at least 4 productions a year.


The Ears of a College Town: The Local Concert Venue

Everyone likes music, especially 20-somethings. College is the time to start a band, be a groupie, listen to new music and make many, many Spotify playlists.  Artists love coming to towns like Chapel Hill because they are a hub for music lovers and up-and-coming artists. A small to mid-sized venue offers musicians the chance to perform while gaining fans in a personal setting, while students benefit from a relatively cheap night of entertainment.  In Chapel Hill, Cats Cradle and Local 506 are two venues conveniently located within walking distance from campus. 


The Stomach of a College Town: Mom & Pop Restaurants mixed with Chipotles

College towns are full of larger than life, late-night pizza joints, cheap Mexican restaurants, bagel cafes and frozen yogurt joints. Chapel Hill’s cuisine selection does not disappoint, as the triangle area is a foodie destination.  A multitude of diverse backgrounds in the area create a unique mix of food from areas across the country and the world. Unique restaurant selections from all price ranges are mixed in with staple chains like Chipotle, Panera, and McDonalds, for those who play it safe with food. Check out Merritt’s Store & Grill for a true Chapel Hill experience — and the best BLT you’ll ever have! Other Chapel Hill culinary highlights? Acme Food & Beverage Co. in Carrboro, the classic Spanky’s and Sutton’s Drug Store, and Crook’s Corner for their famous shrimp and grits.

doesn't this look like the perfect thing to eat for lunch today?

A post shared by Merritt's Store & Grill (@merrittsstore) on


The Mouth of a College Town: Coffee Shops  

Unlimited amounts of coffee houses and cafes can be found throughout college towns, keeping its citizens awake. Being able to name more than ten coffee shops within walking distance from my apartment is a sign that Chapel Hill loves coffee. Surprisingly, Starbucks and other coffee chains do not dominate the market, which adds a unique flavor. Local, family-owned shops are what you’ll find in Chapel Hill. Access to caffeine doesn’t disappear once you step on campus. There are a plethora of coffee shops sprinkled throughout dining halls, libraries and in the student union. Two personal favorites are Open Eye Cafe, just up the road in Carrboro, and the ambient Caffe Driade if you’re looking to unplug and enjoy the gorgeous natural surroundings (psst! you have to pay for wifi here).


The Nervous System of a College Town: The Bars

Bars are found nationwide, but those that provide students with cheap alcohol and nonchalantly checked ID’s can only be found in a true college town.  Places like these are the nervous system of the town.  They provide us with substance that intensifies our senses and fosters impulsive college decisions that will turn into wedding-toast worthy stories. Chapel Hill is home to the famous He’s Not Here ‘blue cups’ and TOPO’s seasonal Blueberry Wheat brew, perfect for those warm Carolina days. 


The Lungs of a College Town: Relaxation Space

Places for outdoor relaxation and meditation are much appreciated in towns like Chapel Hill, which is always buzzing. The Arboretum is located conveniently in between campus and Franklin Street. Many students come here to picnic, study, meditate or just take a refreshing walk through nature to decompress after a big exam. Places like these allow students a chance to breathe; they are the lungs of the town.


The Limbs of a College Town: Outdoorsy Destinations

Ideal college towns do not give students an excuse to stay inside all weekend and binge-watch Netflix. They are usually detached from busy metropolitan areas, allowing hiking, camping or canoeing access to be less than an hour away. Chapel Hill is in the Piedmont area of the state, but don’t let that trick you into thinking the only good hiking trails are at least two hours west. Occoneechee Mountain is only 20 minutes from downtown Chapel Hill, University Lake is 10 and Eno Rock Quarry is 25. Hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, floating, swimming, running and jumping are all included.

Photo Credit: Samantha Leonetti Photography
Photo Credit: Samantha Leonetti Photography

The Eyes of a College Town: The Art

People say that the eyes are the windows to the soul; therefore, artwork is the eyes of a college town.  From street art to statues, wall murals to museums, Chapel Hill is overflowing with artistic content.  If you graduate from UNC without taking a picture in front of the ‘Greetings from Chapel Hill’ mural behind He’s Not, you’re doing something wrong.  Franklin Street is home to the Akland Art Museum, and student-created work is showcased in the Hanes Art Center next door.


The Heart of a College Town: The Icon

At the heart of any college campus there is an icon: a monument, a bell-tower, or any marked symbolic location.  The Old Well will always symbolize UNC-Chapel Hill. It is branded into the university and its significance is universal to all students, faculty, Chapel Hill residents, fans and alumni.  The sputtering fountain attracts students at the start of the semester hoping for a 4.0, couples smiling for wedding photos, alumni positioning their children for Christmas card pictures and soon to be graduates in their Carolina blue cap and gowns. The Old Well brings all Tar-Heels together and is without a doubt the heart of Chapel Hill.


Picture your college town. Maybe it does not have all the traits listed above, but it has most. Can you see similarities in the two locations? Did you resonate with some of Chapel Hill’s qualities without ever even visiting because it reminded you of traits you love about your alma mater? 


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