This Southern City Has Charms Other Than Golf
It’s the host city of the world's most famous golf tournament, but visitors who come at less frantic times are in for a pleasant surprise.
“It’s over!” a local resident said, waving to a friend in downtown Augusta, Georgia. She was practically dancing with happiness while crossing Broad Street.
The “it” she was referring to is the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, the annual tournament that brings tears to the eyes of many golf fans as pros putt their way past the course’s famous azaleas. The tournament is known for its green jackets, retro $1.50 pimento cheese sandwiches, surprisingly low beer costs, and its exclusivity. Some golf fans spend their whole lives entering the annual ticket lottery, never to have their name drawn (others pay over $1,000 for tickets on the secondary market).
Every April, Augusta is transformed by the event, as golfers with their teams of coaches, caddies, and cooks, along with the media and golf fans grinning ear-to-ear, flood the city of approximately 200,000 people. This past April, I set out to experience the pace of Augusta once the caviar and Champagne were finished and the dust of the Masters Tournament settled. What did the locals get up to when the tournament was over and the crowds went home?
Augusta is a city of wide avenues and water—both the Savannah River and the Augusta Canal provide open space for kayaking and boating—with train tracks that cut through the heart of downtown (bring earplugs; nighttime freight trains can be impressively loud). City blocks are neatly organized on a grid system, with historic mansions fronted by wrap-around porches a stone’s throw away from new galleries and restaurants in revitalized storefronts. Broad Street, a tree-lined avenue with plentiful parking and split by a landscaped partition, stretches across the downtown historic district.
On a Saturday morning I wandered through Augusta Market at the Riverwalk on the banks of the Savannah River. Locals topped breakfast tacos with hot sauce and waited in line for cold brew coffee. Fat slices of watermelon were on display next to a stall of blooming succulents. The air smelled of sizzling bacon and young families with strollers were out enjoying the relative cool of a spring morning. It had the buzz of a thriving city, one that is firmly in a period of growth.
New businesses are plentiful. In downtown Augusta, I drank Vietnamese coffee in Ubora Coffee Roasters, an airy café where every cortado and pour-over cup is made at a meditative pace. At a long table, freelancers worked on laptops and friends caught up over lattes. I pulled a book out of my handbag and actually read it, taking the time to sit and sip, instead of gulping the coffee down on the go.
When you linger in a place like Ubora, you might learn about its story and get recommendations for other similar places to check out. At a funky used bookstore called the Book Tavern, booksellers played chess and talked Murakami while I browsed. When I asked about books on sustainability, the bookseller brought me to a new section with titles on energy efficiency and sustainable buildings. Everywhere I went service was personal without a hint of being rushed.
Ubora Coffee Roasters is also one of the city’s many veteran-owned and operated businesses. They pointed me in the direction of other veteran-owned spots, including a boutique called American Journeyman, stocked only with items made in the U.S., and Riverwatch Brewery, a craft brewery owned by a mother-daughter duo who revamped an old warehouse on the river to create a small production facility complete with tours and tastings.
I would normally be skeptical about phrases I heard such as, “Downtown Renaissance,” but the proof was hard to ignore. Second City Distilling Company—producing vodka, whiskey, and bourbon on the Riverwalk—opened in time for the Masters Tournament in 2019. Craft cocktails are a draw downtown at Garden City Social, open since September 2018. Boozy milkshakes and a rotating selection of burger specials (such as a lamb burger with tzatziki when I was in town) have made Farmhaus Burger a downtown comfort food destination.
Between bites, there’s plenty of culture to keep visitors busy. An exhibit dedicated to the music, influence, and style of James Brown is on display at the Augusta Museum of History (he spent part of his childhood in Augusta). Admission is free on Sundays at the Morris Museum of Art, a gallery dedicated to southern art, where I was struck by how racial tensions of the region were explored on some of the canvasses. A local pottery shop called Tire City Potters allows visitors to take some of the city’s artistic spirit home. Music fans may want to investigate the calendar at the historic Miller Theater, home to the Symphony Orchestra of Augusta. People interested in art may want to check out exhibitions at the Westobou Gallery. Beyond downtown, outdoor activities include kayaking or biking along the river.
One element that makes attending the Masters Tournament so expensive is accommodation—rooms are limited and prices jump exponentially compared to the rest of the year. Many locals leave town, renting out their houses for eye-watering prices. During the rest of the year, accommodation is reasonable, including at Hyatt House, a hotel with a rooftop bar that opened in downtown Augusta in April, and the Partridge Inn, a historic renovation now run by Hilton. But the most interesting places to stay might be found on Airbnb, where historic houses offer a glimpse into a different era.
The Masters Tournament is certainly the most popular event of the year in Augusta, but there are also others worth traveling for, including a Craft Beer Festival in April, a Pride celebration in June, and an Arts Festival in September.
Augusta may not—yet—have the same travel buzz as destinations in the south like Charleston or Savannah, but I got the impression that the city is building towards it one brewery, museum exhibition, festival, and restaurant at a time.
This is the latest installment in our twice-a-month feature on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.