No need to take the SAT to experience college towns as a tourist. We identified 10 that offer a youthful atmosphere that may inspire nostalgia from your own college days, along with gorgeous scenery and fun attractions that’ll spark adventure beyond the hallowed academic halls and sports fields.
The Old Well at Chapel Hill in North Carolina in the spring with azalea blooms. Photo by JillLang/iStock.com
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA
Home to the country’s oldest public university, Chapel Hill blends together youthful energy, liberal philosophy, and Southern affluence into its 22 square miles. This dynamic gives the college town a refined quirkiness. Even the firetrucks here are painted the school color: Carolina blue. Join a free walking tour of this charming university town and its red-brick campus—then meander to Franklin Street, which is named after Benjamin Franklin, for an eclectic collection of restaurants, boutiques, museums, coffee shops, and bars that’ll satisfy both highbrow and lowbrow tastes alike. (It’s especially fun after a Tar Heels basketball victory.) Bon Appetit magazine hailed Chapel Hill as “America’s Foodiest Small Town,” so you’ll want to sample acclaimed farm-to-table cuisine at spots such as Lantern. Sutton’s Drug Store, established in 1923, is also a must.
Fort Collins is a college town with a thriving downtown and has been voted by Money magazine to be one of the best towns to live in. Photo by RiverNorthPhotography/iStock.com
FORT COLLINS, COLORADO
Skiing and craft beer are unofficial second majors in Fort Collins. This mountain town is not only the hometown of Colorado State University, but it’s also Colorado’s craft beer capital. You’ll find more than 20 award-winning craft breweries here, including one of the most best-known: New Belgium Brewing Co., the maker of Fat Tire. The town’s laid-back collegiate vibes are also complemented by a great local music scene and access to some of the country’s best ski slopes. You could use Fort Collins as a base to Echo Mountain, Loveland Ski Area, or Arapaho Basin.
Eugene, Oregon. Downtown cityscape.Photo by Sean Pavone
Heard of Nike? University of Oregon’s Hayward Field was, literally, the training ground for launching the Nike shoe franchise. You might time your trip with a track-and-field competition to witness the next crop of Olympic hopefuls. Renowned track-and-field legacy aside, Eugene is a serenely stunning, green setting in Oregon’s Willamette Valley that has a lot to offer the outdoor enthusiast and wine lover. After attending a track-and-field competition or football game, bike along the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail to enjoy fall foliage or taste organic Pinot Noir at a local winery.
Athens, Georgia. Downtown cityscape. By SeanPavonePhoto
Just 70 miles east of Atlanta, Athens is a music and foodie lover’s delight—as well as home to some serious Bulldog pride, thanks to its University of Georgia student population. The historic downtown comes alive pretty much every night, boasting restaurants, galleries, shops, and more than 70 bars within a single square mile. (Athens claims more bars per capita than any other city in America, something parents of incoming freshmen must love learning.) A night out might include the Georgia Theatre or 40 Watt Club for great music, followed by a trip to Waver D’s for the most amazing fried chicken and biscuits.
ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN
Go Big Blue! During your visit to this college town that’s home to the second-largest football stadium in the world, head to another Michigan Wolverine must: Zingerman’s. The deli serves up mouthwatering sandwiches, soups, brownies and more. It so impressed Oprah—she gave it an 11 on a scale of 1 to 5. After fueling up, be sure to check out Ann Arbor’s eclectic mix of art galleries and museums, then retreat to the Nichols Arboretum (a.k.a. ‘The Arb’ to locals) on University of Michigan’s campus for a Zen moment amidst nature. You may also find a student or two decompressing there after an exam.
Berkeley, California,The shadow of the Campanile in the Campus of UC Berkeley. Photo by pikappa/iStock.com
This San Francisco Bay town is renowned for its left-leaning politics, activism, and hippie legacy, thanks in large part to its University of California student population. What this extracurricular alchemy has fostered: a playground of art and culture that’s become an all-senses feast for visitors. Without setting foot in a museum or gallery, the street art and murals alone are enough to make your Instagram feed a little more interesting. While in the Arts District, however, be sure to also look down—but no, not at your phone! The Addison Street Poetry Walk features 120 cast-iron plates of poetry molded into the sidewalk. Take this poetic inspiration to Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina for contemplation paired with amazing Bay views.
Campus in the Spring. Photo by Sshepard
“Roll Tide” is a popular greeting in this town, which is home to University of Alabama—but you’ll find plenty of southern charm beyond the Crimson Tide sports teams. (Along with football, the basketball and gymnastics teams are among those that are dominant year after year.) Your itinerary might also include a stroll on the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk; a visit to the Alabama Museum of Natural History or Tuscaloosa Museum of Art; and a tour of area antebellum homes, such as the Battle-Friedman house. For succulent Alabama barbecue, you have quite the selection in Tuscaloosa: Dreamland BBQ, Archibald & Woodrow’s BBQ, and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, just to name a few.
Burlington, Vermont. Church Street Marketplace. Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock.com
Local legends such as Ben & Jerry’s and the jam-band Phish feed into the hippie vibe felt in this laid-back college town. Home to the University of Vermont, Burlington College, and Champlain College, Burlington is located next to Lake Champlain. This beautiful body of water boasts gorgeous waterfront parks, as well as cruises, paddling, and fishing opportunities. Burlington is also home to an artisanal food scene that’s been called the “most under-the-radar food town in America.” Spots such as The Farmhouse Tap & Grill (a farm-to-table gastropub) and Radio Bean (a live music venue serving craft cocktails and street food-inspired small plates) are just as much a must-visit as the town’s coffee shops and biking trails. Both eateries are near Church Street, the bricked, pedestrian-only walkway that stretches for half a dozen blocks and offers colorful shopping and people-watching.
Fall Panoramic Over the Clark Fork. Photo by Keegan/Stock.adobe.com
Home to University of Montana, this mountain town has Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake at its doorstep, not to mention a thriving restaurant and craft brewery scene. After a day of outdoor adventure, sample a popular unofficial major of many colleges: beer. Hit up Tamarack Brewing, Imagine Nation Brewing, or Draught Works Brewery -- the latter is where you can find local favorites such as “Mountain Berry Bowl” (a sour IPA) and “That’s What She Said” (a cream ale).
Harvard Square is near the center of Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States. Photo by DenisTangneyJr/iStock.com
Not everyone can get into Harvard University or MIT. But at least we can all look our dapper best (or not) and pay this prestigious college town a visit. This spirited and cultured town across the river from Boston offers a great starting point for your exploration: Harvard Square. With its trendy stores and outdoor cafes (great perches for people-watching), this is the heart of Cambridge. Indulge in the boho-chic vibe as you sip your espresso before roaming Harvard’s campus, where stately trees and classic architecture might make you wish you’d studied harder in high school.