It’s that time of year again—back to school season. Except for us, instead of a new class schedule and freshly bought books, back to school season means mapping out the best college towns to visit on your vacation this year, regardless of whether you’re actually a student. College towns offer a lot more than cafes for studying and dive bars for 20-somethings to let loose—a lot of them, including the ones on our list, are home to several top things to do for students and non-students alike.
First things, first. The word “college” itself comprises community colleges, two-year schools, public and private four-year universities, and more—under those terms, LA could be a college town even though it encompasses more than 200 schools! So when looking at the best college towns in the U.S., we looked for two main criteria—first, a place that’s small enough to have a recognizable sense of community and identity, tied to but not limited to the campus (or campuses); and second, one that’s home to a variety of things to see and do there both on and beyond the campus. You’ll find plenty of the latter in our round-up—towns with outdoor adventure, great museums, diverse culinary scenes, football fandom, and more.
Whether you’re packing up for your fall semester, your kids are decorating their dorm rooms, or you’re looking for inspiration for your fall getaway, these are the best college towns to visit in 2019.
Tie-dye and plaid flannel don't clash here, and neither do "town and gown," making Burlington feel welcoming, small, and a party for all even though it's Vermont's largest city. The University of Vermont and Champlain College may be right downtown, but Lake Champlain and nearby ski mountains lure outdoorsy sorts. Burlington's a city on the greening edge: first in the nation to run exclusively on renewable energy and a model of sustainability and grassroots entrepreneurship. Spending time on Champlain is essential—bike the shoreside Greenway or board a tour boat. With 150 shops and restaurants, and live entertainment spilling out onto the brick concourse, Church Street Marketplace is another must. Stay at Hotel Vermont, and you're steps from this lively hub and the waterfront, and you won't even have to venture out to dine at one of Vermont's most lauded restaurants, Hen of the Wood. In this city, where chain establishments are shunned, you'll want to sample local everything including some of Vermont's best beers and the alcoholic appleiciousness that is Citizen Cider. —Kim Knox Beckius
Olympia is home to the Evergreen State College, a unique university that draws in an equally unique student body. The university is known for its independent education style without grades, and this freedom to learn without boundaries spills over into the town. Saint Martin’s University is also located here, as is the state capital, so there’s a lot of contrast between student and government life and everything in between. Wander the Capitol Campus, and then walk through the amazing Olympia Farmers Market (just blocks from the Capitol), which has not only fresh fruit and produce, but also live music and food vendors galore. The city parks and nearby state parks offer a glimpse into the rugged beauty that makes the Northwest so special—search for sand dollars at Tolmie State Park, or take a walk through evergreen forests in Priest Point Park. When you’re ready to recharge, Oly’s food scene has a bit of everything from ample cheap eats like the popular Tofu Hut to swanky cocktails at Dillinger’s. —Kristin Kendle
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Known as A2 to the locals, Ann Arbor bleeds blue and gold in honor of the hometown University of Michigan wolverines. Fall football weekends pack “the Big House” (a.k.a. Michigan Stadium) and the rest of the town with loyal fans and alums, but a thriving culinary scene, diverse cultural offerings, and outdoor recreation serve as an incentive to visit all year long.
Museum-goers have plenty to explore, from the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. The city’s many scenic trails see lots of bikes and foot traffic in the summer months, with kayaking and canoeing available on the Huron River, and a year-round lineup of festivals and events means there’s always something fun happening. Dining options span a dizzying range of cuisines, but the locally renowned Zingerman’s family of restaurants, particularly the delicatessen, are required stops for serious foodies. —Amy Lynch
Lawrence may be best known as the home of the University of Kansas, but the Haskell Indian Nations University also resides here, energizing the town with a double dose of collegiate vitality. Bookended by the Kansas River (known as the Kaw) and the Wakarusa Rives, KU Jayhawks territory encourages active visitors to come out and play with hiking and biking trails, more than 50 public parks, the South Park gazebo concert stage and late summer fields full of sunflowers.
Populated with local shops, restaurants, and entertainment, Massachusetts Street (“Mass” for short) is the centerpiece of the historic downtown district. The town’s vibrant cultural offerings appeal to creative types through an expansive collection of museums, theaters, and performing arts venues. Fuel up for adventures with hearty farm-to-table fare sourced from regional food producers or authentically prepared ethnic cuisine, and wash it all down with a pint of craft beer from Free State Brewing Company. —AL
Tucked into the gently rolling hills of south-central Indiana just to the north of Lake Monroe and the Hoosier National Forest, Bloomington boasts a surprisingly cosmopolitan vibe thanks in no small part to the major presence of Indiana University. The handsome limestone campus lures alumni back often for basketball games at Assembly Hall and pints of beer at Nick’s English Hut, but even visitors without an IU connection can’t help but appreciate the Bloomington’s natural beauty and welcoming vibe. Here, diversity infuses the friendly local strain of Hoosier Hospitality with intriguing results; for example, the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and a tasty wealth of 75 international restaurants representing 18 different global cuisines.
The majestic Monroe County Courthouse anchors a walkable downtown district filled with local boutiques, eateries, brewpubs, music venues, nightlife, green spaces, and family-friendly destinations. Staying all weekend? The Graduate Hotel on Kirkwood Avenue (open since late 2018) offers overnight accommodations steeped in Hoosiers history. —AL
Ithaca, New York
Ithaca is a funky town that takes its local culture seriously. A couple of examples: its long-time fight against a proposed nearby highway to maintain the community culture, and its own currency, the Ithaca Hour, created with the purpose of supporting local businesses. Despite being home to Cornell University, Ithaca College, and a community college, all of which double the town's population during the school year, Ithaca manages to hold on to its unique personality that locals love and keeps alums coming back to visit.
The downtown area known as “The Commons” is home to unique mom-and-pop shops, an art cinema, and several bars that are frequented by both residents and students. Indulge in the culinary scene by attending one of its frequent food festivals (such as the apple cider fest in the fall and a chili fest in the winter), picking up artisanal baked goods at Ithaca Coffee Company, shopping at the farmers market, and enjoying a locally sourced vegetarian dinner at Moosewood. Then, down all that food with a brew at Ithaca Beer Company or one of the nearby vineyards.
Ithaca is also surrounded by several hiking trails that lead to gorges (hence the punny motto "Ithaca is Gorges"); Buttermilk Falls and Six Mile Creek are favorites. Or take a day trip to nearby Watkins Glen State Park or Robert H. Treman State Park to find some beautiful waterfall hikes. —Taylor McIntyre
Auburn is best known for the roar of the Tigers at Auburn University. Going to the Jordan-Hare stadium at Auburn University for a football game against its rival, the Alabama Crimson Tide, is a given for even casual fans who visit in the fall and early winter. Experience the football culture, and then enjoy the rest of what this eastern Alabama city has to offer.
Natural beauty abounds in and around Auburn. With its humid subtropical climate, you can enjoy outdoor activities throughout the year—head to the unspoiled woodlands at the Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve & Nature Center. Then, experience the city's more cultural side at some of its top museums. Enjoy some of the greatest artwork from the south at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, or feel like you stepped back in time with a stroll through Toomer’s Corner or the Pemberton Historic House Museum.
In the evenings, savor a spread of international cuisine. Bombay Grill is known for delectable Indian food, Venditori’s Italian Restaurant has an extensive selection of classic Italian dishes, including great vegan options, and the Amsterdam Café and Pho Lee are favorites of locals. —Robin Raven
Berkeley may be just across the Oakland Bay Bridge from San Francisco, but this progressive city is a world unto itself, partially due to its legendarily left-learning university. In the 1960s, Berkeley gained worldwide recognition as home of the student-led Free Speech Movement. Today it remains a symbol of counterculture that's most apparent in the independent book and music stores and second-hand clothing shops along Telegraph Avenue, as well as its enticing Gourmet Ghetto (known as the birthplace of "California Cuisine"), where landmark restaurant Chez Panisse still thrives as the epicenter of farm-to-table fare.
The city is also known for its outdoor offerings, such as the bayside Berkeley Marina and the forested hills of 2,079-acre Tilden Regional Park, as well as its impressive architecture, most notably within the Berkeley Hills and throughout the U.C. campus. Students lead free 90-minute walking tours of the university daily, but you can also explore on your own—don't miss the iconic Sather Tower. —Laura Kiniry
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Chapel Hill, not to be confused with the neighboring cities of Raleigh and Durham (or collegiate rivals, depending on who you speak to), is widely known as home to the campus of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and its Tar Heels basketball team. Sports aside, it's home to plenty of cultural activities, bars, and restaurants.
Check into The Franklin, a happening hotel situated on Franklin Street, directly in the heart of downtown, or opt for a more luxurious escape at Siena Hotel, which is inspired by a Tuscan villa and home to Il Palio, the state’s only AAA Four Diamond Italian restaurant. Then, pop over to the North Carolina Botanical Garden to scope out the beautiful display gardens and take a stroll through the Piedmont nature trails. A few minutes’ drive away, the Ackland Art Museum features an impressive collection of Asian and European art and North Carolina pottery. For spirits enthusiasts, stop by Top of the Hill Distillery for a tour and tasting of spirits exclusively crafted from North Carolina-grown wheat. When hunger strikes, there are many tempting options. There’s Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a true intro into Southern cuisine; Al’s Burger Shack; Crook’s Corner, a local’s hotspot for over three decades (shrimp and grits are not to miss); Lantern, for celebrated chef Andrea Reusing’s Asian-inspired menu with a focus on Southern ingredients; and Sutton’s Drug Store for no-frills deli sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers and milkshakes; to name a few.
For a taste of the nightlife, head to The Crunkleton, a members-only cocktail bar (due to NC liquor laws) with a fine list of libations to choose from. (Buy an annual membership for just $10 per year—consider it a cover charge for your visit.) Or turn it up a notch and grab a spot at Top of the Hill, a popular watering hole since 1996. For beer fanatics, Beer Study offers a laid-back atmosphere with an extensive selection of bottles, cans, draft beers, and more. —Jenn Rice
Often overlooked by visitors heading north to Glacier National Park or south to Wyoming’s Yellowstone, Bozeman, Montana, makes a perfect stopover between both places. This quiet college town—home to 45,000 people, many of them students and staff at Montana State University—has stunning natural beauty, robust cultural attractions, and surprisingly diverse bars and restaurants. Start your visit at the Museum of the Rockies, an affiliate of the Smithsonian that is home to one of the country’s largest collections of North American dinosaur fossils, all of which were discovered in Montana, then head to the historical Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, a towering cliff that Native Americans used for centuries for hunting buffalo. In town, grab a meal at Copper Whiskey Bar & Grill, where a substantial whiskey list is paired with hearty burgers and sandwiches. Other don’t-skips: A concert by the Intermountain Opera, mountain-biking the Bangtail Trail, and American Indian Council Powwow held each year in the spring. —Laura Ratliff
Flagstaff is a historic Arizona town that’s a far cry from saguaros and desert sand. “Flag,” as locals like to call it, is 140 miles north of downtown Phoenix and set amongst the world’s largest contiguous emerald green ponderosa pine forest. It’s also home to Northern Arizona University—the smallest of Arizona’s state colleges. The quaint town of Flagstaff provides a charming and all-season setting for NAU’s resident Lumberjacks. Average summer temperatures in the low 80s and winters with ski-worthy snow make it a great destination year-round. For visitors looking to explore Northern Arizona, Flagstaff is a great gateway to nearby heavy-hitters like Sedona and the Grand Canyon. Staying put? There’s plenty to keep you busy within city limits, such as exploring historic downtown’s shops and the city’s culinary scene. With a strong college student presence, it’s not surprising that the brewery scene is impressive. Heavy hitters include Mother Road Brewing Company and Lumberyard Brewing Company. Grub seekers will go crazy for Pizzicletta, whose wood-fired pizza is legendary. Insider tip: Kill two birds with one stone by settling in for a pint at Mother Road and ordering-in Pizzicletta (located next door)! In terms of accommodations, try to stay near historic downtown where everything is within walking distance. —Courtney Kellar
St. Augustine, Florida
Whether you are moving your child in at Flagler College for the new school year or just visiting the nation’s oldest European settlement, you’ll find nonstop entertainment in St. Augustine. Not surprisingly, the city overflows with historical attractions including the Oldest Wooden School House, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, and the Castillo de San Marcos. You can even tour Flagler College, which was built as the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888 and features Tiffany windows and gorgeous murals. When you’re ready to satisfy your appetite, head to Columbia Restaurant for its famous “1905” Salad tossed tableside. For a sweet treat, select a gourmet popsicle (try the Elvis with peanut butter, banana and honey) from The Hyppo. At day’s end, head to your room at the Jaybird’s Inn just minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown. While the exterior is a vintage roadside motel, the interior is modern, contemporary comfort. —Karon Warren