Deciding where to go to college can be one of the biggest decisions of your life. Academic curriculum and the value of your education are important, sure—but as they say in real estate, so is location, location, location. And even if you’re no longer in school, you can still learn a thing or two from visiting a college town.
These five towns exemplify the best of college life: cafes, diners, cutting-edge music and art scenes, and a melting pot of individualism.
Big-city culture in a natural small town setting. That’s Boulder, Colorado, home to both the University of Colorado and the alternative Naropa University, rooted in the teachings of Buddhism and the Beat Generation. These two schools are the driving forces behind Boulder’s young and hip atmosphere.
With a music scene worthy of New York City, small clubs all over town attract major and independent acts nightly. Surrounded by coffee shops, unique boutiques, record stores, and plenty of cheap eats, the Fox Theatre, on University Hill, is one of the best places to catch a big-name show in a small venue.
The Pearl Street Mall, an outdoor walking mall in the downtown area, offers delicious dining options, hand-crafted arts, street entertainment, and a view of the Flatiron Mountains. Coffee shops, bookstores, and pubs along this street attract a social and young crowd well into the evening hours.
Boulder is also a perfect base for outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, fishing, and skiing. Students and visitors can hike in the Flatirons, eat fresh sushi for dinner, and catch a live show—all in the same day.
Madison is not only the capital of Wisconsin, it’s also a college town disguised by big-city buildings. The University of Wisconsin is the main reason this could-be-stuffy government city is a thriving epicenter for music, arts, and theater.
Located between Lakes Monona and Mendota, and offering 6,000 acres of parkland, Madison is a “green” city with a wide range of outdoor activities. The pretty UW campus is worth a stroll, but the major highlight is the UW-Madison Arboretum, offering 1,260 acres for bird-watching, biking, photography, hiking, and skiing.
State Street, the city’s flourishing pedestrian mall, and Capitol Square can’t be beat for nightlife and food. Affordable restaurants and lively pubs line the walking area, providing a perfect place to relax after finals. Blowing a little steam at one of the many eclectic shops downtown may also help reduce stress. It’s not all fun and games, of course: Many restaurants and coffee shops offer a quiet place to study and focus on work.
Want to avoid the hustle and bustle of Boston college life? Look no further than Northampton, a small New England city in the Berkshire foothills surrounded by no less than five colleges. The downtown area is filled with ma-and-pa-owned boutiques, coffee houses, hip restaurants, and theaters housed in historical buildings. Home to Smith College, the nation’s largest liberal arts college for women, this funky little town is well-known for its art—many galleries feature local artists’ work—and for its thriving gay and lesbian counter-culture scene.
In nearby Amherst, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is the top choice for more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and hosts some major musical acts. These two colleges, plus the others in the area, provide the perfect backdrop for a formal education in the natural setting of the Berkshires.
Finding things to do outside of the classroom is a breeze, as many outdoor activities throughout the year offer a break from the books, including rafting on the Connecticut River, biking along Smith campus, hiking in the mountains, and window-shopping along Main Street. What sets this town apart from others is its energy. It may be a small town, but it’s big on all things creative.
When it comes to college towns, Berkeley made the mold. With its stunning location on San Francisco Bay, this small town was built around the University of California. Within its 18 square miles, locals can participate in countless activities, including fishing off Berkeley Pier, rock climbing at one of the many rock parks, or bird-watching at the Aquatic Park.
The downtown area maintains its independent spirit by rejecting most things corporate. Its refusal to allow copycat chains has given the town a unique look, and makes for great shopping. Dining in Berkeley can also be a cultural experience, with cuisines ranging in ethnicity from Hawaiian to Mediterranean.
Serving as a safe haven for intellectual, creative, and contrarian ideas, Berkeley has been the backdrop for many historical movements, including anti-war protests and just about any kind of rally concerning injustices in the world. This welcoming of diversity has given Berkeley its spirit, making it an ideal place to be for those who want to change the world.
Once home to the jam band Phish, and not too far away from the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, Burlington possesses a certain natural hippie vibe. This is apparent in the laid-back atmosphere and the locals’ friendly disposition. With several colleges in the surrounding area, the University of Vermont takes the cake as the biggest and most well-known, with more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
Although it’s Vermont’s largest city, with a population of about 40,000, Burlington maintains a distinctive college-town attitude. On any given day, the downtown pedestrian mall is filled with street performers and visitors enjoying the many sidewalk cafes. The shops lining Church Street sell everything from music to art to jewelry, and there’s a mall in the center of town to cut down on any other shopping errands.
Located on the shores of Lake Champlain, with the Green Mountains as the backdrop, Burlington initially wins visitors with its natural beauty. Many people come to participate in outdoor activities such as kayaking, fishing, hiking, and skiing. They choose to stay for the neighborly attitude, independent spirit, and day-to-day education found in all aspects of the area.