10 Quintessential College Towns You’ll Fall in Love With

From New Hampshire to California, these epicenters of culture, creativity, and energy may be closer than you think.
Updated Oct. 30, 2023
afternoon aerial view of historic Royce Hall on the UCLA campus

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Buzzing with the life force of a university, college towns have their own vibe — spirited, artistic, and often historic and charming as well. This list of quintessential college towns showcases the educational museums, inventive restaurants, cozy bookstores, vibrant arts scenes, sporting events, and pristine outdoor spaces — minus the chaos of a metropolitan city.

Check out the spots that made the cut — these towns are not only great places to live or go to school, but also to put on your weekend getaway dream list.

Boulder, Colorado

Katherine Welles/Adobe The University of Colorado Boulder in Boulder Colorado

Situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the home of the University of Colorado is notable for its laid-back, outdoorsy, and artsy culture. The dramatic formations of the Flatirons and the Chautauqua trailhead are among the most iconic Boulder landmarks, and it’s here or in the rest of the city’s 45,000-acre protected park system where you can go hiking, picnicking, and rock climbing.

Microbreweries, boutiques, and street performers are all found at the brick-paved pedestrian mall of Pearl Street. The beautiful and meticulously built Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse was shipped piece by piece from Tajikistan. You won’t want to miss the annual Colorado Shakespeare Festival, as well as the offerings at the Dairy Arts Center.

Athens, Georgia

wolterke/Adobe Zell B. Miller Learning Center at University of Georgia

This hip but unpretentious Southern city is best known for its storied and passionate music scene, but it also has beautifully restored historic homes open for tours, a gigantic flea market, smart restaurants, and of course, University of Georgia football.

Athens is the birthplace of musical greats R.E.M., the B-52s, and Widespread Panic, and today, there are over twenty places to hear live music, from The 40-Watt Club, an Athens fixture that’s made everyone’s “best of” lists, to the iconic Georgia Theater, a venue known for its excellent acoustics.

For lodging, the local rentals here are particularly cool, and you can always book an Airbnb with points if you are using a rewards credit card to save money.

Lawrence, Kansas

jzehnder/Adobe Buildings on the University of Kansas Campus in Lawrence Kansas

Lawrence — home to both the University of Kansas (KU) and Haskell Indian Nations University — has long had the reputation of being an independent, hippie outpost with iconic basketball roots. During basketball season, Allen Fieldhouse — the notoriously energetic arena that more than one ESPN host has called their favorite place in America to watch a college basketball game — is where it’s at.

KU’s leafy, hilly campus with its historic Romanesque style limestone buildings, museums, and pond makes for a beautiful stroll. “Mass” Street is Lawrence’s lively and eclectic heart, where you can take in a live show at the rock-and-roll pinball bar, Replay Lounge, or dine on burgers and craft beer at Free State Brewery (the name is a nod to the state’s abolitionist history).

Ithaca, New York

Kit Leong/Adobe Sunny exterior view of Goldwin Smith Hall of Cornell University

The popular t-shirt slogan is true — Ithaca is “gorges.” The site of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, the town is an intellectual haven, and between the outdoor activities and university events, you will never run out of things to do.

Situated at the bottom of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region and surrounded by 150-plus waterfalls, state parks, and vineyards, this is a hiker’s, kayaker’s, and wine lover’s paradise. The Cornell Botanic Gardens is an especially impressive “living museum” with cultivated gardens, a 100-acre arboretum, exhibits, and managed natural areas — woods, lakes, gorges, creeks, and thickets — most of which have walkable trails.

When you’re ready to head indoors, take in a show at the Kitchen Theater Company, tour the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, or explore the Finger Lakes wineries.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

espiegle/Adobe University of Michigan Ann Arbor

Although football fans know Ann Arbor as the home of the “The Big House” — the University of Michigan’s sports stadium that also happens to be the largest in the U.S. — this college town also has a robust performing arts scene. The area is notable for its inclusivity efforts and plenitude of LGBTQ+ events, and it has a vibrant downtown area decorated with colorful murals.

Every year, the University Musical Society brings nearly 75 music, dance, and theater performances to the community. There are also numerous local and regional performing arts groups in town, like the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

Bloomington, Indiana

wolterke/Adobe Indiana University Landmark Campus Clock

With its pretty campus, easy access to forests and lakes, cultural institutions, and local winery and distillery scene, it’s hard not to fall in love with Bloomington, where you’ll find the University of Indiana.

For the literary minded, take in a show at the Bloomington Playwrights Project, a theater dedicated to producing new plays or view one of the rare books, like The Canterbury Tales or Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the Bill of Rights at the Lilly Library on campus.

And for libations, try Cardinal Spirits, a craft distillery and tasting room with a fantastic patio, or the award-winning Oliver Winer

Berkeley, California

wolterke/Adobe The Life Sciences Building at University of California Berkeley

Although Berkeley may be considered more bougie than bohemian these days, the counterculture vibe that made it so famous in the 60s is still recognizable in its local haunts, and food and art scene. Dine at world-famous Chez Panisse — considered by many to be the birthplace of the California cuisine food movement — where the focus is on locally sourced, sustainable ingredients.

For art and cinema aficionados, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is on a mission to “inspire the imagination (and) ignite critical dialogue” with diverse exhibitions and hard-to-find independent films. For a taste of the old days, head to the University of California’s epicenter of protests and performances, Sproul Hall, or head to Telegraph Avenue for bookstores and street vendor wares.

Hanover, New Hampshire

jiawangkun/Adobe Hanover New Hampshire

Surrounded by dairy farms, ski runs, and places for maple tree tapping, Hanover is a great place to get a taste of rural New England life and experience the cultural offerings from Dartmouth College.

On the quaint Main Street in town, you’ll find shops like Left Bank books, a local institution with over 9,000 rare books, or Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery, serving up locally sourced and traditional fare since 1947. On the colonial era brick campus, catch a show at the Hopkins Center for the Arts or visit the spacious Hood Museum of Art, which has one of the largest university collections in the country.

Fayetteville, Arkansas

Sono Creative/Adobe building facade at sunset view

The home of the University of Arkansas has all the classic perks of a college town — great eateries, hometown football games, historical sites, and charm — but what really sets Fayetteville apart is its cycling culture. With over 100 miles of biking and walking trails — including excellent mountain bike trails in the surrounding Ozarks — and numerous cycling events that are hosted in the city itself, Fayetteville has been internationally and nationally recognized as a bike friendly community.

For a dose of local culture, visit the whimsical Terra Studios, a six-acre art park and gallery, one of the country’s remaining drive-in theaters, or head to the Historic Downtown Square for farmer’s market goods or local nightlife.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

C5Media/Adobe The seal on the University of North Carolina on brick walkway leading to the South Building

Attending a Tar Heels game on the University of North Carolina’s pretty, mid-19th century campus is practically a spiritual experience. After worshiping at the altar of a men’s basketball or women’s soccer game, visit the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District that abuts campus and make a tour of the 30 plus art murals around downtown.

Don’t forget Chapel Hill’s notable food scene — the area once won the title of “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appétit magazine. Local favorites include the upscale Hawthorne & Wood and Sutton’s Drug Store, a beloved diner filled with Tar Heels basketball memorabilia.

Bottom line

janifest/Adobe man text on cell phone walking in city college campus

Quintessential college towns make for some of the most unique and accessible destinations in America — each of them have their own personalities and histories. 

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Becky Holladay Becky Holladay is a finance and travel writer whose work has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and the California Business Journal, among others. She loves finding out what makes people tick and telling their stories, whether they're entrepreneurs, artists, or changemakers.

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