Plan an enlightening and affordable college town escape

by , SmarterTravel Staff
The Old Main in fall (Photo: Casey A. Cass, University of Colorado Boulder)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 23, 2004. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Boulder, Charlottesville, destination, Molly Feltner, vacation package.

Want to relive your college days without having to take out a loan? Consider making a college town your next vacation destination. From football games to top-notch art museums and theater productions, university campuses offer visitors a wealth of educational opportunities, cultural experiences, and entertainment options. And, while university facilities and programs are made for students, many are open to the public for free or at a much lower cost than you'd find for similar options in a big city.

Read on to find out how you can plan a fun, affordable campus getaway.


Attractions and events

Most university websites have a visitor or "alumni and friends" section that you can use to learn more about campus attractions and events. You can find listings for performances, free public lectures, special exhibits, and more. Keep in mind that if there is a charge for the public to visit a campus site or attend a performance, children, seniors, and students often receive discounted admission.

To give you an idea of what kind of attractions and events you can find on college campuses, we've detailed the visitor draws at four top college destinations below.

University of California, Berkeley

More than just a haven for social activists, Berkeley offers eight museums dedicated to art and science and a full schedule of music, dance, and theater performances. Visitors can acquaint themselves with the campus by going on a free walking tour, and then taking an elevator ride to the top of the 307-foot Campanile tower ($2 for adults) for a spectacular view of the Bay Area. Other attractions worth visiting include the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive ($8 for adults) and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology ($4 for adults).

Berkeley also hosts countless performances by world-class artists and groups such as Yo-Yo Ma and the Bolshoi Ballet. While these performances can be costly, the university often plans free pre- or post-performance "Community Events" that allow visitors to participate in lectures and workshops with the performer. For more information on visiting, go to Berkeley's website.

University of Colorado, Boulder

A breathtaking mountain setting and excellent science facilities attract students and visitors alike to UC Boulder. On campus, science lovers will find a variety of cheap or free attractions. View over four million biology, anthropology, and geology research specimens at the Museum of Natural History ($3 for adults), or enjoy a star show at the Fiske Planetarium ($3 to $6 for adults), one of the largest planetariums in the country.

If you'd rather not pay admission, you can head to the Art Galleries or the Heritage Center. On Friday evenings, the public is invited to the Sommers-Bausch Observatory for free astronomy lectures and stargazing. Also check out the College of Music, which hosts over 400 public concerts annually, most of which are free. To learn more, go to the UC Boulder website.

University of Virginia, Charlottesville

UVA, the college Thomas Jefferson designed and founded in 1825, is a must-see for history buffs touring the Virginia countryside, along with nearby Monticello, Jefferson's home. Campus visitors can see Jefferson's architectural handiwork up close, with free tours of the university's Rotunda and the "academical village," where students still live today. While soaking up the historic atmosphere, you can also take in the university's free Art Museum, Aboriginal Art Collection, and Natural History Museum.

In the evenings, you may be able to catch anything from jazz to opera at the music department's Old Cabell Hall, which charges $10 per adult for most performances. To find other campus events and attractions, visit the University of Virginia website.

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

With a population of over 38,000 students, the University of Michigan feels like a small city, and has the educational, sports, and cultural facilities to match. Although best known for its athletics, Michigan offers visitors more than just a chance to cheer for the Wolverines. The university also has 11 museums, most of which are open to the public. You can view art from around the world at the Museum of Art ($5 suggested donation), see ancient artifacts from the Mediterranean at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (free), explore a topiary labyrinth at the Botanical Gardens ($5 for adults), or learn about the history of dentistry at the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry (free).

The university also has at least 11 performance spaces to accommodate countless student productions and outside performers. Check Michigan's calendar listings on any given day, and you're bound to find lots of events, including many free options. When we checked, we found that tickets for even the biggest name performers could be had for $20 or less. For more information, visit the University of Michigan website.

Other universities

Besides the four schools mentioned above, there are many other college campuses worth visiting. Other good options include Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, MA; the University of Texas in Austin, TX; and Stanford in Palo Alto, CA. Find out what these or other universities offer visitors by the browsing the schools' websites.


At some universities, sporting events are the biggest visitor draws, particularly football games in the fall. Although ticket prices for certain college football games rival the cost of professional games, most are significantly cheaper. And, most universities offer child, student, and senior ticket discounts—something professional teams almost never do. What's more, college games often have more family appeal than professional games, with alumni from older generations and prospective students joining together to watch the current squad.

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