Over the past few years, we researched and visited many college towns as our kids made college choices. College towns are an essential criterion when choosing the college you wish to attend for years of education.
The best college towns have much more to offer than communities dominated by their university population. They are attractive places to live or visit for a weekend stay or vacation.
22 of the Best College Towns To Visit in the US
What makes a good college town? Besides academics and professional job opportunities, the best college towns are thriving environments for culture, diversity of people, historical places, architecture, accessible transportation, fun activities, scenic beauty, art and music festivals, museums, restaurants, and lively nightlife. And, of course, being around inspiring young people.
1. Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ann Harbor is a bustling college town anchored by the University of Michigan, with 51,225 students enrolled in Fall 2022. The football team, the Wolverines, is a recognizable tradition in the Fall with lively tailgating. However, this town enjoys activities all year round.
They have globally inspired cultural offerings with an active artist community, many galleries, museums, and musical and theatrical performances, often by jazz legends. There are over 300 restaurants to explore modern cuisine and bars. There are bike paths, trails, and the well-regarded Huron River for canoeing and kayaking.
2. Annapolis, Maryland
Annapolis is home to the United States Naval Academy and St. John’s College and a colonial port city in the Chesapeake region. Founded nearly 400 years ago, Annapolis has a colonial charm with cobblestoned streets, 18th-century architecture, eateries at the City Dock, seafood joints, and maritime pursuits.
Downtown is just a short distance to explore its historical roots, shop, and dine. The Classic Theatre presents many classics, including William Shakespeare outdoors, renting a boat and going fishing, or watching a yacht-filled sunset on the Severn River by the Chesapeake Bay.
3. Athens, Georgia
Athens, officially Athens-Clarke County, is home to the University of Georgia, the state’s Georgia Museum of Art, the University’s Botanical Gardens, and the Arboretum. Its football team is named Georgia Bulldogs and has won national championships. The town has one of two remaining double-barreled cannons produced during the Civil War,
This college town has many venues, notable restaurants, and bars, including The Globe bar, which was voted among the top bars by Esquire magazine in America in October 2007. Athens has a thriving music and nightlife scene, with musical acts drawn to the young town, like R.E.M., who lived and performed their first act in 1980 out of St. Mary’s Church steeple in Athens.
4. Austin, Texas
Austin, the capital of Texas, is among the fastest-growing large cities and the most desirable places to live in the US. It’s home to the University of Texas and is considered one of the best college towns in the US for its mix of academics, social, historical, and cultural aspects. Austin is a fun town I traveled to often for work, and easy to find things to do after work.
Austin has a vibrant nightlife scene, plenty of cultural events, and notable festivals like South by Southwest (SXTX) for theater, film, and music. It is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World” for its many musicians and live music venues. Restaurants and bars are now found in the historic bungalows converted in the Rainey Street landmark district, and you can visit LBJ’s Library and Museum.
Although there is diverse cuisine, you’ll want to try its Texas BBQ, Tex-Mex, and craft beer. Make sure to see the beautiful Lake Austin. It doesn’t hurt that Austin is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network under Media Arts for expanding their culture-rich town.
5. Berkeley, California
Located just outside San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley is a college town known for its anti-establishment and sociopolitical activism in the 1960s. It is still one of the most socially progressive cities in the US today.
Berkeley has a thriving music scene, restaurants, historic areas, and artisans. There are bicycle and walking paths, parks, a marina, and gourmet options, and there are tons to do with San Francisco and Oakland nearby.
6. Bloomington, Indiana
Bloomington is home to Indiana University and the Hoosiers, a typical college town that enjoys its students and the quiet when they travel home. The university has first-class museums and theaters. Our son, Tyler, is a rising sophomore here, and we enjoy visiting him in the town. Several films celebrated its sports, including Breaking Away and Hoosiers.
People bike around town, and in the summer, you can trade your scooter for a paddle or jet ski and venture out to Monroe Lake, the state’s largest body of water. Outdoor recreational activities include golf, hiking, birdwatching, and wildlife in several areas, especially Stillwater-North Fork State Wildlife Refuge. Bloomington has fine dining and international food options, casual eateries, shopping, and lively nightlife on The Square.
7. Boston, Massachusetts Vicinity
The Boston area is home to about 35 colleges and universities in several towns, notably Cambridge, Medford, Waltham, Waltham, and Wellesley, all of which have their respective college vibes. However, it’s not just about reading textbooks.
Many people visit these colleges, especially Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for their architecture, history, walking and biking paths, museums, music venues, parks, arts, breweries, and food, on and off campuses. Many of the best commencement speeches are from Boston colleges and universities.
Boston is undoubtedly a desirable city to go to college, live in, and a place to visit. It has historical landmarks, an aquarium, and many restaurants, bars, museums, and theaters. Traveling from Boston to other college towns is easy for the entire college town experience.
8. Burlington, Vermont
Burlington is a vibrant small city with charming vibes on the eastern shoreline of Lake Champlain, near Canada, and home to the University of Vermont and Champlain College. The college town is surrounded by scenic beauty from its Green Mountains. It provides recreational activities, notably winter sports and skiing nearby, boat races on the lake, art galleries, gorgeous fall foliage, and gourmet food.
9. Boulder, Colorado
Boulder is at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, home to the University of Colorado, and Naropa University, a private university based on Buddhist principles. The college town has been “hip since 1859” and perfectly balances urban and outdoor life. Though small, the city is celebrated for its outdoor recreation and natural beauty. Its iconic landmark, the Flatirons, are beautiful hiking and rock climbing formations.
Boulder is known for hosting Bolder Boulder, a 10 km road run, one of the largest road races in the world, and is blessed with many open spaces. It has lots of trails to satisfy its bicycle culture. You can find its outdoor shopping area, the Pearl Street Mall, with art galleries, bookstores, fine food, and casual dining. It is also home to many scientific institutions, notably laboratories and observatories. Many place Boulder towards the top of the best college towns.
10. Chapel Hill, North Carolina
With its terrific weather, Chapel Hill is a picture-perfect college town thanks to the well-regarded University of North Carolina (UNC). Although most of the points of interest center around the campus, you don’t need to be a student to visit. The campus encompasses the Morehead Planetarium. Franklin Street contains many popular shops and restaurants, including soul food and another cuisine, making it a foodie destination given its numerous food festivals. Walk around the town for impressive street art with must-see murals.
UNC was one of 16 recipients of the American Society of Landscape Architects Medallion Awards for its beautiful Georgian architecture and notable works of art, including the Playmakers Theater, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973. The Ackland Art Museum is worth a visit.
11. Charlottesville, Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia, is a beautiful college town destination for students, anchored by the University of Virginia (UVA), history buffs, and those seeking the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains nearby. Thomas Jefferson designed the UVA campus near his Monticello home. The Charlottesville area is also home to Presidents James Madison and James Monroe. The Downtown Mall is one the longest outdoor pedestrian malls in the US, with live music, art galleries, and restaurants.
Shenandoah National Park is along the Blue Ridge Mountains and has cascading waterfalls, incredible vistas, wildflowers, vistas, and attracts wildlife. People can use the campgrounds, go hiking, and bird watching.
12. Eugene, Oregon
Eugene, Oregon, is on the Willamette River and home to the University of Oregon, Bushnell University, and Nike’s headquarters. The town’s slogan is “A Great City for the Arts and Outdoors,” it is known for its natural surroundings and cultural events supporting art, theater, museums, and music.
Outdoor recreational opportunities include kayaking, rafting, and bicycling. Eugene has lots of green space and beautiful views of Spencer Butte, Skinner Butte, and Mount Pisgah that surround Eugene. It is a communally active town known for protests on progressive issues on alternative ideas with a significant hippie population.
13. Fayetteville, Arkansas
Fayetteville is home to the University of Arkansas, and the Hogs, with the Ozark Mountains as a beautiful backdrop. The Clinton House Museum is the first home of former President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is near the campus. The town is known for its exciting nightlife, diverse culinary food, local bars, theater, live music, fine arts, craft breweries, and restaurants.
The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, as the state’s public garden spaces, is worth a visit. The area has many lakes for fishing and parks with hiking and biking trails.
14. Flagstaff, Arizona
Flagstaff sits amid ponderosa pines and San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountain range in the state. It serves as the college town of Northern Arizona University and its sports teams and is close to the Grand Canyon. The historic Route 66 runs through Flagstaff, enhancing its culture and tourism.
It has a vibrant cultural presence with lively nightlife, popular restaurants, theaters, museums, art galleries, festivals, and music events for students and visitors. Flagstaff celebrates its outdoor adventures with Coconino National Forest and its ski resort, Arizona Snowbowl, for hiking and skiing.
15. Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University and is popular with students and tourists. The town is chockful of things to do and see, with much scenic beauty of the beautiful gorge near Rocky Mountain National Park and Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, taking a trolley through historic neighborhoods, parks, gardens, and museums.
Fort Collins has an active homegrown music and microbrewery scene complementing the town’s vibes, with one of its most attractive events held by New Belgium Brewery, drawing over 20,000 people riding bikes and dressing in costume. The city is close to Boulder, and there are opportunities to go skiing in the winter.
16. Gainesville, Florida
From skiing to Gainesville, Florida sunshine, and home to the well-regarded University of Florida, it is a young college town with terrific sports teams, especially its Florida Gators football team. There is much to do on its campus or nearby, including the Harn Museum of Art, the Kika Silva Pla Planetarian, and the Florida Museum of Natural History, including the Butterfly Rainforest.
People enjoy hiking through the lush park, Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, with waterfalls and thick foliage. Gainesville nightlife splits into midtown which is more casual and college-oriented, and downtown, which is more classy.
17. Iowa City, Iowa
Home to the University of Iowa, Iowa City is notable for its UNESCO-designated City of Literature received in 2008 and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose graduates include Flannery O’Connor and many prominent authors. The Iowa Avenue Literary Wall is a series of bronze relief panels that feature authors’ words as a tribute to the city’s rich literary history.
Those who are literature buffs or writers should seriously visit this town. Those looking to study literature should seriously consider a move to Iowa City. You can also go to Prairie Lights, a bookstore with readings from visiting authors.
Iowa City is also known for its arts and jazz festivals; there are arts venues, theaters, live music, an outdoor Shakespeare festival, and the Film Scene downtown.
18. Ithaca, New York
Ithaca is home to Ivy League Cornell University and Ithaca College and is on Cayuga Lake, part of the Finger Lakes region. It may feel isolated when college students head home and brutally cold in the winter, with plenty of breweries to duck into and get warm. The town is a naturally beautiful area with scenic views, gorges, parks, and a walkable town.
Though small, Ithaca also boasts a surprisingly talented and diverse music scene, benefiting from Ithaca College’s School of Music, which attracts superb talent. Visiting the college this past year, I kept returning to the music and how lovely it was to listen to students practicing.
19. Madison, Wisconsin
Madison is named for President James Madison and is home to the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Badgers, the Wisconsin State Capitol, the Overture Center for the Arts, and the Henry Vilas Zoo. The city is also home to nine National Historic Landmarks, including several buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, including his 1937 Jacobs I House, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Madison is a charming and vibrant outdoor recreational community with 20+ miles of trails in the UW-Madison Arboretum and vibrant fishing, boating, and swimming communities. Surprisingly, it is known as a foodie destination, with several trendy restaurants getting James Beard awards.
20. Oxford, Mississippi
Oxford is home to the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss,” and represents the charming small college towns in the South. Well-known authors, like John Grisham, live in Oxford. William Faulkner’s quaint home “Rowan Oak,” owned by the university, and a couple of other buildings, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Oxford is near Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. As such, Oxford benefits from a unique and varied music scene, attracting big acts traveling between the larger cities. “Hotty Toddy!” is a standard greeting on the campus and the school’s chant. During football season, they have an elaborate tailgating tradition that reflects Southern hospitality. Take advantage of Oxford’s parks, known for their beautiful fall foliage hiking season.
21. State College, Pennsylvania
State College is home to Penn State University, which dominates this town, with the university’s football team, Nittany Lions drawing significant crowds to Beaver Stadium for home games. Though known for football, other Penn State competitive sports include soccer, volleyball, and wrestling. Another big event for the town is The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, featuring artists from around the country. The five-day arts festival is held downtown every July, drawing over 100,000 visitors annually.
State College is surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains and forests, farmland, rolling hills, and golden cornfields, with a vibrant downtown, dining, and museums to visit.
22. Tuscaloosa, Alabama
As the home of the University of Alabama and Stillman College, Tuscaloosa deserves a place as a desirable college town. The university’s winning football team earned the moniker “The City of Champions,” and there is vibrant tailgating. Tuscaloosa is home to several performing arts organizations and art galleries and has many museums either on campus or in the downtown area to visit.
The town holds various festivals to celebrate its culture, and visitors can hop on riverboats to take in the scenery. Reflecting its deep South roots, Tuscaloosa is an excellent place to admire its antebellum architecture and try its tasty Southern fare.
Final Thoughts on the Best College Towns
Visiting a college town near you, or traveling to an area home to one, can be fun, inspiring, and low-cost. Colleges and universities house terrific museums, art galleries, and music venues, attract people who want to be around young people, and bring back memories of their college days.
This article originally appeared on Savoteur.
Featured image credit: Jeremy Huang
About the author
Linda is the founder of The Cents of Money, a personal finance blog, here to teach and inspire you about money, seek new ideas, and create greater comfort in your world about one of life’s significant stresses. Linda wants to use her financial skills honed by her professional experience to help others get on the path toward building wealth.