There are plenty of attractive college towns in the US. But Chapel Hill, in the centre of North Carolina, equidistant from its mountains and its coast, blends liberal philosophy and Southern culture in a way that borders on the utopian. From its community-minded businesses and political activism to a music scene that has quietly influenced the global stage, it’s the kind of town that doesn’t need to brag about itself or inspire a Portlandia to know its worth. And that’s exactly why we’ve chosen it to launch our series on the coolest towns and small cities in America to visit right now, which we’ll be unveiling monthly over the next six months.

“As close to magic as I’ve ever been,” was how author Thomas Wolfe described his days at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The red-brick campus – opened in 1795 as an affordable alternative to the Ivy League universities – remains a bewitching presence in the town of Chapel Hill and still provides much of the local colour: store fronts, road signs and much of the locals’ wardrobe are dominated by the college colours. Even the fire trucks are Carolina Blue.

Town and gown have a special relationship here. It’s not just that you can see students keeping up a daily protest at the town’s confederate statue, Silent Sam, or sit next to them as they type up late-night essays over triple espressos at the Open Eye Cafe. It’s that you can buy a delicious $3 burrito from a place called Cosmic Cantina, watch high-quality performing arts and even take in a free lecture from one of UNC’s many famous alumni.

Chef Bill Smith, who runs Crooks Corner, the town’s best-known restaurant, was a UNC student in 1967, when most southerners considered it a communist haven. “Anybody weird in your family you sent here so they wouldn’t embarrass you,” says Smith. “We had all the misfits, and that individual streak still lives strong.”

Since then, an influx of research and tech companies – not to mention a successful college basketball team – has brought prosperity and respectability. The town’s growth has also caused it to merge, seamlessly, with neighbouring Carrboro, whose 6.4 square miles takes the towns’ combined population to 80,000. “There’s a natural synergy between the two,” says Lydia Lavelle, who admits that most visitors wouldn’t even notice they’ve crossed a town limit as they walk down the main drag of Franklin Street. Carrboro’s second openly gay mayor, Lavelle is proud to work in “the most progressive city in the south” but equally proud of its music scene. “It doesn’t matter what you’re into, there’s something for everyone here.”