Nothing unites Alabamians like their love for football. And nothing quite divides Alabamians like the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn. The animosity culminates in the annual Iron Bowl, one of the greatest spectacles of American college football. So in the spirit of this ‘healthy’ competition, we’re pitting the cities of Tuscaloosa and Auburn against one another to see who comes out on top.
Architecture, attractions and history
Plenty of folks will tell you the best draws in either town are the two universities themselves, which dominate social and cultural life. But there’s plenty of history in Tuscaloosa. One of the town’s most notable attractions is housed in one of its prettiest and oldest structures – the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Located in Smith Hall and constructed in the early 20th century, the museum offers good insight on the flora and fauna of the Yellowhammer State.
A more fascinating historical site sits 17 miles – and a few millennia – away. Moundville Archaeological Park marks the location of one of the largest cities built by the pre-Columbian Mississippian civilization. On site, you’ll discover over two dozen raised mounds, an archeological trail and the Jones Archeological Museum, where you can glimpse more than 200 artifacts – it’s a fantastic window into one of North America’s great indigenous civilizations.
Like Tuscaloosa, Auburn is home to an assortment of museums and outdoor attractions, most notably the verdant green Donald E Davis Arboretum, located in the middle of town. Plant enthusiasts are drawn to the Auburn Azaleas, which are bred in the arboretum.
The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art is as notable for its stark stone facade, sculpture garden and walking paths, as it is for its excellent art collection.
No visit is complete without a stop to the corner of Magnolia and College, better known throughout the state as Toomer’s Corner. Home to Toomer’s Drugs, an old-school soda fountain, the locale is also home to a distinctly southern sports tradition – toilet papering the local live oak trees following an Auburn win. The practice was interrupted after a ‘Bama fan poisoned the oaks in 2010. Later, a replacement tree was set on fire in 2016. New trees have been planted since.
Score: Tuscaloosa 1, Auburn 0
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Food, drink, & nightlife
Tuscaloosa’s dining and drinking scenes continue to grow, particularly in Northport, which lies just across the Black Warrior River. With that said, we’re heading out of town for the most iconic eats – Nick’s Original Filet House, better known as ‘Nick’s in the Sticks’, because yeah, this place is out in the woods. This is one of those backwood restaurants where the dollars stuck to the ceiling probably date back to Bear Bryant. Grab a margarita and a ribeye for just shy of $20 and enjoy the heck out of life.
If Nick’s has the feel of a piney woods speakeasy, Acre in Auburn is a fancy execution of the rustic Southern farm-to-table experience. The decor is immaculate and the food is artfully prepared and presented; never has chicken-fried bacon or shrimp and grits come off as so elegant or decadent. Other dining options in this town trend in a similar homegrown southern cooking vein, albeit with a more casual atmosphere.
Score: Tuscaloosa 2, Auburn 0
The Black Warrior River runs through Tuscaloosa and has always been seminal to the town’s identity. The 4.5-mile paved Riverwalk runs by the banks of the waterway, creating a jogging and cycling green artery that’s adjacent to the heart of town. It’s not a total natural retreat – you can find shops and restaurants around here. As outdoorsy activities go, this is as kid- and pet- friendly as Tuscaloosa gets.
There’s no shortage of outdoors activities in Auburn, which sits on the Fall Line (the ecological border between the Gulf coastal plain and the Appalachian highlands). Chewacla State Park is home to about 700 acres of forest and plenty of lakefront views. The lovely Kreher Preserve is a good one for the kids, although adults will also appreciate the nearly six miles of trails that wind through several distinct Southeastern natural habitats.
Score: Tuscaloosa 2, Auburn 1
Lodging, cost & walkability
It helps to have a car to move around Tuscaloosa. The area around University Blvd running between Greensboro Ave and 21st Ave, and between Reed St and Campus Dr, is full of the usual college-town restaurants, shops and bars. The Northport area just north of Tuscaloosa has a walkable core near 5th and Main St. The modern, monochrome-chic Hotel Capstone is located just by the University of Alabama campus, while the Hotel Indigo maintains a nicely appointed, good value outpost closer to the Black Warrior River.
Outside of the university campus, Auburn is largely a residential town where many of the tree-lined streets feel almost rural. College St between Glenn and Magnolia Ave (Toomer’s Corner) is where you’ll find the most walkable stuff, but as with Tuscaloosa, you need a car to really feel the area out.
Most hotels in Auburn are chain options located off of I-85; in the town of Auburn itself, your best bet is The Collegiate Hotel, a stylish property with a handsome brick exterior, nice rooftop bar and swish rooms with a minimalist, contemporary aesthetic.
Final: Tuscaloosa 3, Auburn 1