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Tuscaloosa: What to See and Do

September 9, 2012

I have been meaning to do a post forever on my current hometown. I figure now is an especially good time to share the sights, because football season is starting and many people may find themselves here on a University of Alabama gameday weekend. Or maybe you’re a potential student, or the parent of one? Welcome! I hope you’ll enjoy your stay. I haven’t been to every college town in the country, but from what I’ve seen our traditions, energy, festivities, and atmosphere are definitely unique and special. College football culture and the strong sense of community in Tuscaloosa are definitely two of the things I’ll miss most when we move away from the South.

Healthyish Restaurants & Food: Our favorite place to eat in Tuscaloosa, hands-down, is Epiphany Cafe, which I’ve written about in the past. We love the farm-sourced ingredients, outstanding and inventive combinations of flavors, and friendly fine dining environment. I usually make a meal out of a couple of the “small plates” of vegetables, which are intended to be side dishes to share at the table. (What can I say? That’s how I roll when it comes to vegetable consumption.)

Epiphany also regularly has a veggie plate entree on the menu, and at least one or two vegetarian salads or soups. The only thing is, it is tricky to be a strict vegetarian here… I sometimes end up eating around bits of meat in the greens, or deciding that I am personally okay with knowing some of the organic, local, seasonal veggies have been prepared with an animal product for flavor. The servers and chefs are all nice folks though, and I’m sure they’d be happy to tell you which dishes meet your dietary preferences and which don’t. And if you want organic catfish as part of your Southern experience, look no further. (Downtown.)

Depalma’s is widely regarded as the best Italian fare in Tuscaloosa, but it tends to be too heavy for me to enjoy much. They usually have at least one vegetarian pasta and pizza on the menu. Their tiramisu was really delicious the last time I had it years ago. (Downtown.)

Chuck’s Fish is another popular Tuscaloosa fine dining choice. I like the decor and vibe, and the food is fine. They have a few vegetarian sushi rolls, but I don’t think they offer brown rice. (Downtown.)

Mellow Mushroom is a super casual, funky, hippie-ish pizza chain with TVs, wall murals, and a loud atmosphere. They have tons of creative pizzas and good vegan/vegetarian choices, from tortilla soup and lots of salad ingredients to tofu, tempeh, pesto, and avocado sandwiches on wheat rolls. They also offer vegan “cheese” and gluten-free pizza crust! (Downtown.)

Cypress Inn has a classic menu of American cuisine, a lovely setting right on the river, and a pleasant, traditional, almost lodge-like feel to the big dining rooms. However, it usually doesn’t have many vegetarian options and is not particularly health-conscious. It’s across the river from campus and downtown, so just a short drive from those main areas.

SaraBella Cafe and Tea Room is an adorable little eatery on the south side of Tuscaloosa, down toward the Taylorville neighborhood and Moundville. It is only open Tuesday – Friday from 9:00 – 3:00, but it has a lovely selection of sandwiches and salads as well as tea. (Although I don’t remember many being vegan-friendly or super duper health-conscious.) Perfect for a lunch with your girlfriends or a quiet date!

Iguana Grill is definitely not health-conscious, but I love the lanterns, lights, trees, and murals decorating the interior of this Mexican restaurant chain. The food is average, but they do have a couple of meat-free entrees. (In Midtown Village shopping center on McFarland Blvd.)

Our favorite quick and casual eateries for relatively healthful vegan/vegetarian meals are Jason’s Deli, Chipotle (has brown rice!), Moe’s Southwest Grill (has tofu!), Panera Bread, and Zoe’s Kitchen. The braised white beans with rosemary at Zoe’s are fantastic. I could eat them at every meal.

If you’d like to pick up some healthy snacks, there is a small health food store on McFarland Blvd, just around the corner from Jason’s Deli called Manna Grocery. For being as small as they are, they really have a great selection of products and genuinely healthy items. They also serve some sandwiches around at lunchtime in the cafe area at the back of the store.

What to Do: Don’t miss the quad, which is not only the heart of University of Alabama tailgating in the fall, but also lush and gorgeous in the spring and summer. At the very least drive by it and Bryant-Denny Stadium, which are both easily found on University Blvd.

Even a casual football fan might enjoy a walk through the small but informative Bear Bryant Museum, which is open every day except major holidays. It won’t take you too long and only costs $2 admission, but it will help you understand the fanatic Alabama football culture. They really do a nice job of presenting a great deal of lore and history.

Our new riverside Tuscaloosa Amphitheater is a fun nighttime setting with great people-watching. You may want to check the schedule- it has hosted some big names like Kenny Chesney, Train, Mat Kearney, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, and Luke Bryan.

The Saturday morning Farmer’s Market is pretty small, but is housed in a nice, new riverfront building that you can walk to (maybe a mile?) on the riverwalk path. The UA campus hosts a tiny farmer’s market on Thursdays from 3:00 – 6:00pm, usually including local honey and breads.

Check around for athletic or other events on campus and around town. We have a run-down but charming historic theater, an arts council, and a symphony. Sometimes there is “Shakespeare in the Park” at Manderson Landing. Besides football, other popular and fun sports are softball, gymnastics, basketball, and baseball.

There is a small Children’s Hands-On Museum (CHOM) downtown if you need to entertain some little ones!

If you have time to drive south of Tuscaloosa, there is an archaeological park and museum marking the site of a 300-acre Native American village from AD 1000 to AD 1450.

Parks/Walks/Fitness: The paved riverwalk path is about 3 miles long and right near campus, between the east and west Jack Warner Parks. In fact, you can walk to campus from the riverfront Park at Manderson Landing if you don’t mind a fairly long walk with an uphill grade to begin. The park is a great place for a picnic, walk, or bike ride (you’ll need to dodge people though). Sometimes on gamedays, boats pull up right here to dock! There’s another quieter walking/bike path on the other side of the river that runs past Wintzell’s restaurant, but it is a little more isolated and not as scenic. You’ll find information on several other smaller walking and biking trails in Tuscaloosa here.

They’ve turned the university’s old golf course into a big open area with a few paths and a lake where people let their dogs play. It is charmingly overgrown, unmaintained, and uncrowded, but a little tricky to find. It’s kind of adjacent to the beautiful VA Hospital campus, a mile or two down Veterans Memorial Blvd from Target. Follow the signs to the UA Arboretum- instead of continuing right toward the VA on Loop Rd, you’ll hook back left toward the Arboretum and follow that little road to a parking lot.

There is also a rougher hiking/biking trail through trees if you go to Munny Sokol Park in north Tuscaloosa. I’ve never been super impressed with it, but it is there! There’s also a big, paved, flat path alongside Northridge Road up there, across from Northridge High School, that tends to be shady in the evenings.

Yoga Bliss is the studio downtown that I go to. I’m not sure if their schedule would fit your time in Tuscaloosa, but they welcome walk-ins and are very easygoing and un-intimidating. Rita is an awesome instructor, and I like the others very well too. I think sometimes Rita does a donation-based yoga class for a charitable cause on Friday mornings at 8:30 in the Park at Manderson Landing, in front of the river, but I’m also pretty sure that is not consistently scheduled.

 

Shopping: My two favorite little shops are Bow Regards and Anna Kate & Co. They have all the cutesy items you’d expect Southern belles to be fond of: serving dishes, pitchers and tumblers, pretty Alabama football items, tote bags, monogrammed stationery, all of that good stuff. I love walking through and often find a unique gift for a friend or myself.

Midtown Village is a nice outdoor shopping center that has most of the large chain stores, like Loft, Old Navy, Best Buy, Kinnucan’s, Barnes and Noble, etc. The University Mall (right across the street) includes Belk, Gap, Victoria’s Secret, Express, and several other typical mall stores. I haven’t spent much time in downtown Northport right across the river from Tuscaloosa, but it is supposed to have some small gift shops from what I understand, and the locally very popular City Cafe meat ‘n’ three is there.

Coffee Shops: There are three Starbucks in Tuscaloosa (one in Midtown Village, one in Target, one on campus), but there are a few good independent coffee shops too. Edelweiss is a German bakery downtown with pastries, rolls, coffee drinks, and soy milk available if you avoid dairy. It’s a perfect spot for lingering on a weekend morning or having a simple, homey lunch. I think the healthiest menu item is the muesli roll, chewy and substantial with oats and seeds. Edelweiss is great for early birds; I think it opens at 6:30 on Saturday and 8:00 on Sunday. (I’ve written more about this favorite spot here.)

Chloe’s Cup, also downtown, is more like the cute coffee shop you imagine in a college town, with a larger menu of beverages including tea lattes, cold-brewed coffees, and soy milk.

If you go further up McFarland Blvd. into Northport, Heritage House has lots of unique gifts and baked goods, but they don’t have non-dairy milk for their drinks. :( I love their small, hand-painted canvases of inspiring words though, and sometimes the cakes on the counter look really tempting.

I’m sure people have written entire books on University of Alabama football weekends, but I hope my take is helpful for you! Please let me know if I can answer any more specific questions by commenting on this post or emailing me. Happy Tuscaloosa trip!

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