There’s something special about college towns. Whether it’s their abundance of used bookstores and funky cafes, the historic buildings and landscaped lawns of their universities, or simply their undercurrent of youthful energy, college towns have a certain appeal even to those of us who haven’t cracked a textbook in years. Best of all, there’s probably one near you! Check out our nine favorite college towns around the United States.
Visit the capital of Texas and it won’t be long before you see a T-shirt or bumper sticker bearing the slogan “Keep Austin weird.” That sums up the celebration of all things independent, progressive and quirky in this city of over 900,000 residents, home to the University of Texas. Austin is justifiably famous for its local music scene, and there are nearly 200 live music venues where you can tap your foot to everything from indie rock and country to Tejano and gospel. Don’t miss a stroll through the SoCo (South Congress) neighborhood, one of the best spots in town for shopping and dining. Also worth a visit are the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and the Harry Ransom Center (home to the Gutenberg Bible and the world’s first photograph). For outdoor adventures like water skiing and sailing, get out of town to the nearby Highland Lakes.
Just 10 miles northeast of San Francisco is a city linked inextricably to the 1960’s, when students at the University of California at Berkeley erupted into political protest spurred by radical idealism. These days you’ll still find gentler remnants of the old hippie spirit on Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue, which is lined with indie bookstores and music shops, ethnic eateries, and street vendors hawking tie-dye clothing. Once you’ve soaked up some 1960’s spirit, check out the University’s campus (which includes a botanical garden), break out your credit card at the upscale boutiques on Fourth Street or enjoy a local organic meal at one of the city’s many restaurants.
This small city, home to the 227-year-old University of Georgia, blends Southern history and traditions with a cutting-edge music scene—it’s the birthplace of such rockers as R.E.M., the B-52’s and Widespread Panic. During the day, tour Athens‘ charming historic homes and wander through acres of lush gardens (America’s first gardening club was founded here). Don’t miss such novelties as the world’s only double-barreled cannon and the Tree That Owns Itself (having been bequeathed the plot of land surrounding itself in Colonel W.H. Jackson’s will). When night falls, see Athens’ thriving music scene come to life in a variety of clubs and bars, playing everything from rock and jazz to country and classical.
Home to the Jayhawks of the University of Kansas, Lawrence enjoys a riverfront location and a downtown core that harks back to a time gone by. Don’t miss a walking tour through Old West Lawrence, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city is also a thriving arts community, with dozens of museums and galleries as well as some 30 sculptures and murals around town. Massachusetts Street is worth a visit for shopping and dining—or, if you’re a more outdoorsy type, head to Clinton Lake for swimming, boating, hiking, biking or fishing.
Sports fans will be familiar with Gainesville as the home of the University of Florida Gators, whose football and basketball teams are big names on the national sports scene. But there’s much more to do in and around this central Florida city than cheer on the recent national champs. Historic downtown Gainesville is fun for shopping and strolling, especially at the Union Street Station pedestrian mall. The Florida Museum of Natural History includes a vibrant Butterfly Rainforest exhibit where some 60 species of colorful creatures flutter freely amongst a landscape of waterfalls and tropical plants. You can also visit a limestone sinkhole at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, wander the lush Kanapaha Botanical Gardens or go canoeing on Lake Wauberg.
Princeton, New Jersey
Known mainly for its world-class university, Princeton is a charming, relaxing town filled with historic stone buildings and tree-lined streets. Don’t miss a stroll along the main drag, Nassau Street, where you’ll find bookstores and boutiques, as well as Bainbridge House, home to the Historical Society of Princeton; take a quick tour of its museum for some background on the town’s history. Then head over to nearby Princeton University with its famous bronze tigers at the entrance to Nassau Hall. Wander among the ivy-covered stone Gothic buildings and towering shade trees en route to the on-campus art museum. Other Princeton sights include the mansions along Library Place and the Delaware-Raritan Canal, a great place to bike, paddle or jog. For a quick bite, head to local institutions like PJ’s Pancake House, Thomas Sweet (for ice cream) or Hoagie Haven.
Perched on an isthmus between two lakes, Madison is a small city well known for its rabid University of Wisconsin sports fans. If you’re in town during football season, soak up the energy during a game at the Badgers’ 80,300-seat stadium. But even if you’re not a sports fan, Madison offers plenty of sights to see, including a museum of contemporary art, the impressive State Capitol building, and two structures designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright: the Unitarian Meeting House and the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. Shoppers can hit pedestrian-only State Street for unique stores and sidewalk cafes, or pay a visit to the Saturday morning farmers’ market on Capitol Square. Cap off your visit with a leisurely bike ride around Lake Monona or Lake Mendota.
No list of college towns would be complete without Boston. There are some 80 colleges and universities within the Boston metro area, including Harvard, MIT, Boston University and Brandeis. The city is well known for its historic attractions along the Freedom Trail, but visitors should also make sure to check out the city’s more contemporary neighborhoods—like the South End, known for artists’ lofts and interesting boutiques, and Cambridge (actually a separate city just across the Charles River) with its indie bookstores, cafes and music clubs. If the weather’s fine, don’t miss a stroll through the Boston Public Garden or along the Charles River Esplanade.
Home to the University of Colorado, Boulder enjoys one of the most breathtaking locations of any college town, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Locals embrace the great outdoors, and you can too; hiking, skiing and mountain biking are all popular pursuits to try here. Downtown, start your explorations with a wander down Pearl Street, a pedestrian mall. Here you’ll find yourself shoulder to shoulder with the whole range of Boulder’s population, from families and college kids to street performers and older folks out for a stroll. Don’t miss a stop at Boulder Book Store, a local institution. Take a break from your shopping at one of many sidewalk cafes lining the street. If you’re visiting in the summer, catch an evening concert at Chautauqua Park—which is also a great place to hike.
Map of America’s Best College Towns
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