So now that graduation is over and done with, what’s next on the to do list? Well, for all those high school seniors out there, there is a humongous laundry list of things to do, actually—including finding the best, brightest, and most befitting town to live in for the next four awesome years of your life.
The college years, as they say, are some of the most ah-may-zing years a person will ever get to experience. So when it comes to outstanding college towns, it’s only natural that we go out of our way to scour through countless student hubs all across the country in order to find the one that combines great education with a highly livable city that’ll not only foster creativity, but social interactions and recreational pursuits as well. From coast to coast, the United States has a nice pick of incredible university towns that’ll have you cheering for sure. Come September, school’s back in session, so to make it super easy and simple, here are fourteen of the best college towns worth visiting in the U.S.
College Towns Worth Visiting in the US
It’s been voted number two in the country for quirky residents—but this home of UC Santa Cruz’s official mascot, the banana slug, has got plenty of other notable quirks to boast about. From But world-class waves for surfing, miles of mountain-bike trails meandering through the redwoods for hiking, a centuries-old beachside amusement park that thrives on a boatload of year round tourist (in addition to that mighty fine educational institution sitting up on the hill), Santa Cruz really is one mighty fine college town all on its own.
Bordered by several national parks and the Pacific Ocean, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy sun-bathed beaches and the splendor of the coastline when hitting those books. Make sure to head on over to the Santa Cruz Wharf to spot some sea lions before heading back into town for everything from California cuisine at Oswald’s, or Hawaiian food at Hula’s Island Grill, or simply some good old burgers at, Burger, which is always packed to the tee with hungry locals washing down handcrafted sliders with dozens of beer on tap. You also don’t want to forget to grab a cone from the Penny Ice Creamery in Downtown before heading on down to Pacific Avenue for some first-rate people-watching!
Let’s the just that the city itself already has the look and the feel of classic College Town USA. With neighborhoods of beautiful old homes on tree-lined streets surrounding an urban center that’s chock full of restaurants, bars, and stores, this small town in Western Massachusetts not only boasts nice weather, but is home to three schools, including the main campus of the University of Massachusetts, which happens to be just around the corner from two more.
You’re bound to find a more than eclectic mix of students, professors, and locals at hotspots such as the rooftop of the Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery, or around the array of shops within Nickels Arcade’s glass-covered atrium. Catch some live music at The Ark, one of the oldest nonprofit acoustic clubs in the country, or chow down at Zingerman’s, which has been capturing the hearts and stomachs of Michigan Wolverines since 1982. After lunch and some major studying with the buds, do some canoeing or fishing on the Huron River. And of course, a game-day visit to the second-largest sports stadium in the world is also a must. Join in on all the maize-and-blue frenzy as players rush midfield to hit the “Go Blue” banner. College football… What more could you ask for?
Voted number one for pizza and hamburgers, number two for coffee, and number four for both food trucks and craft beer—this town’s often earned top marks for helping university students step away from their comfort zones to channel up the best vibes of their higher selves.
Get ready to do your own thing in this Finger Lakes town full of hip locals who often gather together on Tuesday nights at Faegan’s Pub, where patrons can earn their name on an honorary plaque after completing a “tour” of some of the over forty brews on tap-- or in and around one of the marvelous historic sites, such as Hanover Square, which is surrounded by buildings dating back to the Civil War era. Be sure to check out The Landmark Theatre, the local symphony orchestra and opera company, as well as the array of professional sports teams, museums, and art galleries. Don't miss the Great New York State Fair at the Empire Expo center in the summer and to bundle up good for those latter months of the year, as Syracuse is renowned for its snowy winters.
The homes of greats such as Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, and Grover Cleveland help make this New Jersey-based campus even more picture-perfect and historic than it already is. Offering students with several cultural options including the free Princeton University Art Museum, the Princeton Garden Theatre, and The Princeton Festival, this classic, must-visit college town also happens to boast bunches of area parks filled with nature preserves and outdoor activities, as well as tons of top-notch shopping on Nassau Street and some of the Garden State’s best dining options—thanks to the city’s accessibility to fresh just-picked ingredients from nearby farms. Head on out to Hoagie Haven for some novelty sandwiches, or go for something more upscale at Elements. Whatever you’re looking for, Princeton’s got it!
Just a few miles inland from the Pacific, this is another more than vibrant California college town. Be sure to head down to Higuera Street, which closes off traffic every Thursday evening (except Thanksgiving) for its popular farmers’ market—featuring organic produce, fresh-cut flowers, and live entertainment to students and locals alike (not to mention some of the best tri-tip BBQ on the West Coast)! Townies also love to trek towards Bishop Peak, a popular and somewhat challenging four-mile round-trip hike offering scenic views that are well worth the hard work and sweat. You can even catch a flick or two with your roomies at the Sunset Drive-In Theater, which has been showing films on its outdoor screen for more than half a century.
SLO, as it’s been aptly named, isn’t just merely a midway stop for road trippers between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Sure, it’s got less must-see attractions than most college towns, but still, its low-key atmosphere provides the entire area with an enviably high quality of life that has made it one of America’s happiest cities. Plus, all those CalPoly university students help inject a healthy dose of hubbub all on their own!
It plays host to Yale, so what more could you ask for?! New Haven became the home grounds of this prestigious Ivy all the way back in 1716, and since then, has become a national fave in terms of best university towns. It’s also quite possibly the most supreme pizza town in the U.S., especially with Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, the founder of the famous white clam apizza.
Make sure to wash down your meals with drinks at one of the many local dive bars, such Rudy’s. Then do some city exploring of this ex-co-capital of Connecticut at arts and culture spots like the Yale University Art Gallery and Peabody Museum, as well as the Guilford Art Center and Long Wharf Theatre. Get some laughs at Joker’s Wild Comedy Club, or have an evening out at the ballet with a performance at New Haven Ballet. This lovely little history-rich city is bound to inspire travelers of all sorts.
It’s been blessed with an awesome backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and is home to the University of Colorado, making it a town that’s super popular with mountain-climbing outdoor enthusiasts. There’s also a more than fun community atmosphere, as the city plays hosts to multiple film festivals each year, and was even rated one of the ten best cities for the next decade by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. In recent years, it’s also become a magnet for entrepreneurs and high-tech geeks with an avid taste for seasonal artisanal brews and seasonal farm-to-table fare.
Let’s just say that Boulder’s among one of America’s foodiest towns, with hotspots such as Black Cat Bistro, which sources from its own farm, The Kitchen, which is a great place for those Monday night mingles, as well as The Bitter Bar, known for having cocktails on tap. What’s more is that just over an hour away in Fort Collins is Colorado State University, which sits in a relaxed atmosphere surrounded by mountain views and parks galore—not to mention tons of music venues and live events each week. It’s also the proud home of the Colorado Brewers’ Festival and holds the title for the most microbreweries per capita in Colorado.
It’s home to the University of Virginia, which was not only designed and founded by Thomas Jefferson himself, but is also the only college campus beautiful enough to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hence, the area’s utter attractiveness extends all the way down to the town of Charlottesville itself, where you can find brick-paved pedestrian malls perfect for shopping, dining, and gallery-browsing. Grab a cup of Joe and a currant donut at the Albemarle Baking Company before that first morning class. After lunch, slip into your running shoes for a jog up Observatory Hill. And after a long day of studying, mosey on down to the Whiskey Jar, which offers more than 125 kinds of bourbon, rye, whiskey, and scotch.
The town’s also been voted number one for intelligence, number twenty four for friendliness, and is the site of James Monroe’s home, Edgar Allan Poe’s room at UVA, as well as the infamous Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center. Do some red and white wine sipping surrounded by the rolling hills at Trump Winery, or have a picnic at Jefferson Vineyards. What’s more is that Charlottesville treats both college students and residents to affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods, as well as dozens of locally owned shops and an expansive restaurant scene, with everything from French and Thai, to Mexican and Southern recipes, all made with ingredients from local farms. Some of today's most notable entertainers, such as Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, have even often played in the area’s venues, including the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena, and the historic Paramount Theater. Bookworms can even check out the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, as well as the numerous independent bookstores in and around town.
The state capital and home of University of Wisconsin-Madison is set among four lakes, is naturally beautiful, and best of all, extremely walkable. The university’s arboretum has got over twenty miles of trails, while outdoor activities are also plentiful. So sail, hike, bike, fish, skate, or snow kite to your heart’s content!
For those seeking a more urban scene, head over to State Street, which is covered with eateries, trendy shops, and a lively nightlife scene. There’s also the Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival every summer, as well as the Dane County Farmers’ Market, the biggest U.S. producer-only farmers’ market in the nation. Think cheeses and meats galore. Make sure to stop by The Old Fashioned for a true Wisconsin meal. Really, this Wisconsin capital regularly rates among one of the best cities to live in. The Daily Beast even listed Madison as one of the top places for college graduates to live as well. What are you waiting for?
Sure it’s home to Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design—but it also holds the title for the most coffee/doughnut shops per capita in the U.S. Make sure to stop by Dave’s Coffee for cold-brew coffee on tap, or Bolt Coffee Company for some smooth lattes. In addition to all that Joe, there’s also a tremendous food scene, including a vast array of food trucks, a robust offering of burger joints, and some of the greatest food tours showcasing cutting-edge cuisine and talented chefs.
Try Championship Melt for a gourmet spin on the classic grilled cheese, or check out Harry’s Bar & Burger. Get your taste buds kicking even more with walk through the Culinary Arts Museum. Plus, you’ll also find yourself amidst a flourishing arts community, with spaces such as the Tony-Award winning Trinity Repertory Company and WaterFire, a summertime installation of over one hundred bonfires on the river. Rad.
The downtown of Northwestern University’s stomping grounds is chock full of quirky coffee shops and promising restaurants. There’s the funky Kafein, with its hipster décor and extensive menu, or the charming little Unicorn Café, for those looking for a quieter, bookish, coffeehouse vibe. Get some delicious artisan breads at Bennison’s Bakery, or some of the best truffle fries and burgers in the Windy City at Edzo’s.
What’s more is that you’ll really get yourself in the school spirit, as Evanston was the very city in which much of Sixteen Candles was filmed. It was also the setting for the film Mean Girls, and since it sits right on Lake Michigan, provides more than easy beach access as well. Did we mention there’s also the beautiful, domed Baha’i House of Worship nearby? It’s the world’s oldest surviving Baha’i temple, and the only one in the United States.
12. Ithaca, New York
Home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College, it’s got one of the prettiest landscapes of all college towns, with hundreds of lakes, waterfalls, and gorges, along with the Cornell Plantations-- the untouched scenery really does add to the laid-back vibe of this extremely walkable city.
Eclectic Ithaca also constantly entertains a remarkably, diverse arts arts and music scene, offering a range of local events, in addition to an ever-assorted selection of restaurants, breweries, and wineries. What’s more is that it’s super close to Syracuse, another naturally beautiful college town just about an hour and a half drive northeast. Get the experience of two historic and cultural college towns all conveniently located on the beautiful Eastern U.S. coast.
13. Athens, Georgia
Though the city is built around the University of Georgia, where the Bulldogs reign supreme, tailgating and football aren’t all that Athens has to offer. It also boasts a superb art and music scene, with R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic, and Indigo Girls having all started out their careers by performing at venues like the 40 Watt Club. This Georgian city has also become quite the culinary hot spot in recent years, with about over sixty restaurants and nearly hundred bars in and around the downtown area.
Grab Sunday brunch at Mama’s Boy or a late-night drink at the World Famous before hitting up the Georgia Theatre or getting cultural at the Georgia Museum of Art, which celebrates and endorses diversity in art. Make sure to chow down on contemporary Southern cooking at Five & Ten, the James Beard-winner started by Top Chef’s Hugh Acheson. You can even join all the rowdy crowds during game season for the “Dawg Walk” with the school band, thousands of fans, and the the school’s live mascot, Uga.
It’s a high-elevation town of starry skies, ponderosa pines, and lots of pioneer history that serves as a base for excursions to Native American reservations, national parks, and the Painted Desert. The city itself, however, is also home to Northern Arizona University’s diverse landscape, as well as the Arizona Snowbowl in the San Francisco Peaks, which calls out to skiers and snowboarders in the winter, and families and festival-goers in the summer. Among some those lively festivals are the Hopi Festival of Arts and Culture and Pickin’ in the Pines, a three-day extravaganza of acoustic and bluegrass.
There’s also the Lowell Observatory, offering unrivaled stargazing for romantics of all ages, and the five-square-block of the Historic Railroad District, where old brick buildings house restaurants, hotels, art galleries, and shops surrounding Heritage Square. Flagstaff’s also been named as one of the best of the best for adventure seekers, so get ready to have some major amounts of outdoor fun in this vibrant Arizona town. Make sure to head over to the Beaver Street Brewing Co. for a Hopshot IPA and wood-fired pizza with the locals after a full day of playing (and studying!) in the mountains.
This article was written by Pamela Chan.