Like it or not, college towns are often the best kinds of towns there are, as they offer not only edgy and youthful energy, but often bring together the smartest and most creative people into one small hubbub of a town. Lucky for us, especially all those high school seniors, or those of us who just like to hang on to the nostalgia of the good ole’ college days, many states all across the U.S. remain incredibly university-oriented, boasting wonderfully vibrant and pedestrian-oriented streets, thriving economies and cultures, as well as many other important aspects pivotal for travelers to consider when choosing their next vacation destination.
The Golden State is no stranger to these such towns, with a booming array of large public universities – such as UCLA, UC San Diego and San Jose State – or private institutions – such as Stanford, Loyola Marymount, or the mighty home of the Trojans, USC—that help provide both northern and southern tips with bunches of college towns worth making a trip out for. Let’s just say that California has got itself a fine little smattering of true college towns, each with its own unique flavor. Here are seven of the best and most remarkable of these places.
College Towns Worth Visiting in California
1. Palo Alto
It’s home to Stanford University (a.k.a. the Harvard of the West), as well as several Nobel Prize winners, Silicon Valley CEOs, venture capital firms, and Hewlett-Packard—a sleepy little hub that’s perfect to go to for both business or pleasure, offering travelers of all sorts with a highly unusual blend of intellect, innovation, culture, and natural beauty. Naturally, the Stanford campus itself is the biggest visitor attraction, as it has paved the path for hundreds of successful businesses and helped the area become known as the birthplace of Silicon Valley. However, the town is also a mighty fine space all on its own, filled with some of the costliest tree-lined residential neighborhoods in the nation, loads of foothills or Baylands to trek towards, as well as some of the best shopping and dining options in and around the handful of nearby business districts, including faves in nearby Menlo Park, Cupertino, and Mountain View.
Downtown Palo Alto is also a fairly lively place that’s so full of extremely well-educated people that you’ll find yourself learning something new each and every day. Mingle around with students and teachers over lunch and a latte or a draught during a free period. It’s so worth it.
Without the UC Davis, it would be just another valley town amid a lot of tomato fields. Seriously, the university literally defines this Yolo County town, with Downtown Davis located just an easy bike ride from campus, and filled to the tee with some of the liveliest and most typical college town coffee houses, nightclubs, bookshops, and late-night pizzerias you’ll find anywhere else in the Cali area. There are even tons of office spaces where college students and grads could potentially work come graduation time, as well as plenty of nice local neighborhoods near campus providing student housing and vacation rental options. What’s more is that the Home of the Aggies is a more than open and inviting campus that offers plenty to do even for non-students, including recreation, cultural, and sporting events. Plus, practically everyone gets around via bicycle or foot.
Davis really is the prototypical college town. Celebrate the city by taking a free, self-guided, public art tour of numerous public murals, sculptures, galleries, and museums all in downtown Davis and the University of Davis campus via the Davis Transmedia Art Walk, or head on over to the flora and fauna-filled UC Davis Arboretum and the highly rated Davis Farmers Market held every Wednesday and Saturday for fresh fruits and veggies, just-baked goods, and locally produced dairy or meat products. You can even take a tour of the Toad Tunnel, a rare wildlife crossing created by animal lovers back in 1995 to help small amphibians hop from one side of the overpass to the next.
It’s nestled along the eastern shore of the San Francisco bay and has been deemed as the most liberal city in the U.S., as it was the first in the nation to recognize bisexuality with a city-wide recognition of Celebrate Bisexuality Day. It’s also one of the most racially diverse towns in the nation, as well as a first-rate college town that birthed the youth free speech movement. Even forty years ago, you would have likely found yourself stuck within a daily anti-war protest on the campus of UC Berkeley, the first college in the University of California system, as well as the top public school in the nation, and the third best engineering school by the US News and World Report.
Today, the town remains full of excitement and exuberance, with righteously liberal politics continuing to dominate the entire area. And though some portions of downtown and the University Avenue corridor have struggled over the years, Downtown Berkeley is evolving into one of the Bay Area’s greatest urban spaces, with shopping, dining, and wining options galore. Do some sake tasting at Takara Sake USA Tasting Room and Sake Museum. Catch a show at the renowned Berkeley Repertory Theater or get rowdy at a Bears game in Memorial Stadium before heading over to Indian Rock Park to catch a beautiful Californian sunset. There’s even the Berkeley Art Museum, the Berkeley Rose Garden, which houses almost three hundred varieties of roses amongst some three thousand bushes in a gorgeous setting, as well as Tilden Regional Park, one of the oldest parks in the entire Bay Area. The options are endless.
4. San Luis Obispo
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 effort. 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 over fifty years.
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!
Though Playboy magazine ranked CSU Chico the biggest party school in the country in 1987, causing the flow of students attending Chico State to come to a halt during that era, the Butte County city has since then redeemed itself, as it even made the list for the best mid-sized city downtowns in California. Really, the days of rowdy students, open-air keggers, and weeklong drunken orgies have ended, and Downtown Chico has actually become quite a nice place to trek out to. Plus, students and upstart businesses run by former students are spread out all across town — including the giant Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the second largest craft brewer in the country. Check out the National Yo-Yo Museum, which has the country's largest collection of yo-yo artifacts, or the forty plus murals and galleries at spots such as the Chico Paper Company or 1078 Gallery.
You even have the option of ditching those four wheels for two and saving up on lots of gas money. Chico has earned the reputation as being a super bicycle-friendly city, and was even ranked as the number-one cycling city in the nation by Bicycle Magazine in 1997. It also plays host to the Wildflower Century, an annual 100-mile bike ride put on by Chico Velo Cycling Club. Plus, the city is bounded on the west by orchards with thousands of crops like almond trees, walnuts, kiwis, olives, and plums that make for fantastic buys at the Chico Certified Farmer's Market!
Although compared to its East Coast rivals, Southern California has no true college town, the home to The Claremont Colleges on the far eastern edge of the Los Angeles County is a close approximation. The downtown, called Claremont Village, is a nice, quaint, and uber-thriving area right across College Avenue from campus—an inviting, walkable district without the hazardous hordes of wild college kids on bicycles or scooters. There are tons of specialty shops and restaurants to peruse, such as The Little Dress Shop or Boon Companion, as well as the Candlelight Pavilion and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens, which showcases native California plant life.
Grab up fresh produce and unique antiques at Claremont's Farmer's Market on Indian Hill and Second Street, or sit down for a game of outdoor chess at the boards built into the tables on the lawn of City Hall. You can even catch free concerts and family movies during the summer at Memorial Park and shop till you drop at Victoria Gardens, a fashion favorite mecca super close by that boasts a fabulous food court, a theater, and just about every nation-wide chain store you can imagine.
Oscar, Calremont's Farmer's Market Managers tell us, "we are one of the few farmers markets that have a great variety of actual agricultural certified products that include: Fresh chicken, goat cheeses, mushrooms, beef products, certified organic produce, breads, mediterranean salads and spreads and much more!"
7. Santa Cruz
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 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 tourists (in addition to that mighty fine educational institution sitting up on the hill), Santa Cruz really is one marvelous 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!
This article was written by Pamela Chan.