The Best College Towns to Visit Across the U.S.

Sep 26, 2019

There’s a reason so many students stay put after they've graduated, and it has nothing to do (okay, little to do) with cheap beer: The best college towns pack indie clubs, art house theaters, stellar museums, quirky boutiques, epic eats—and all manner of local celebs, past and present. Read on for eight cases in point, then plan your next trip. Just beware your inner Dangerfield.

Charlottesville, VA

Thomas Jefferson may be best known for his government gigs—first secretary of state, second VP and third president, to name a few—but he was also the founder and architect of the University of Virginia. The only American university ever to attain UNESCO World Heritage status, the campus alone is worth the trip to Charlottesville. Don't miss the Roman-inspired Rotunda, or, for that matter, Monticello—Jefferson's nearby estate that was UNESCO-listed at the same time as the school. Though C-ville was also famously home to Presidents James Monroe and James Madison (both UVA board members, by the way), the town serves up far more than politics and history: This is one of the state's major food and wine hubs. In fact, Jefferson himself gave viticulture a try before things like the American Revolution foiled his plans. But as you'll find on the Monticello Wine Trail, the new world wine story has a happy ending, with 33 wineries on this circuit alone. Something else that's done well as a transplant to the new world? Pizza—specifically, the pies at Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria, a James Beard favorite. Still, locals will say no autumn is complete without an apple cider doughnut from Carter’s mountain orchards, where you should, of course, pick your own apples.

Princeton, NJ

Ranking the Ivies is a fool's errand, but...only one was ever our nation's capital. For a few months in 1783, Princeton University's Nassau Hall served as the Continental Congress HQ, where, in fact, news of the final peace treaty with Great Britain was received. (Several years earlier, during the Revolutionary war, British forces surrendered this same hall to a certain General Washington. And several years later, everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Michelle Obama surrendered teenage freedom to hardcore academia here.) If you visit nothing else in the hall, see the Faculty Room. And you should also visit some of the hall's local contemporaries, from the Morven Museum & Garden (a National Historic Landmark that was home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence and various state governors) to the Bainbridge House (you can't go in these days, but you should still stop by to see what an original 1766 Princetonian home looks like). If you prefer your history a little less colonial, visit Princeton University’s Art Museum, whose 72,000 works include pieces by Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Claude Monet. (Monet’s Waterlilies and Japanese Bridge is one of many showstoppers.) Or get a different spin—literally—on the past at the Princeton Record Exchange, whose 160,000 LPs and CDs make Princeton a retro music lovers' mecca. And speaking of history, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention PJ’s Pancake House, where generations of students have carbo-loaded for exams on magic buttermilk pancakes. And don't leave without having a drink at one of Einstein's favorite watering holes: the Peacock Inn, where he stayed while his local home was being built.

Fort Collins, CO

On arrival in Fort Collins, the Rocky Mountain home of Colorado State University, proceed directly to a bike share station, grab yourself some wheels and take them for a spin on the Poudre River Trail. Here in cyclist central, you'll want to be behind the handlebars for your first look around. As the trail cuts through the city, keep an eye out for white-tailed deer, wildflowers and detours to the city’s celebrated breweries, not least the New Belgium Brewing Company, home of the Fat Tire amber ale and a favorite of onetime Fort Collinsite Jason Momoa (turns out he was a big "snowboard bum and climbing bum" before he was Khal Drogo or Aquaman). But there's also the Fort Collins Brewery, Odell Brewing Company and—four miles from downtown—the local granddaddy: Anheiser-Busch, where the house Clydesdales await you on your tour, if they’re in town (these guys rival presidential hopefuls for public appearances on the fair and festival circuit). And don’t miss the western-lore-rich Old Town district—the reported inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street, though the local magic comes in the form of breakfast tacos at the converted old dairy that is Butterfly Cafe, or the pies and people watching at the old town square's Little Bird Bakeshop.

Athens, GA

Here at the gateway to the Antebellum Trail, the Victorian architecture is rampant and renowned. But since the early 1980s—when the local bands R.E.M and the B-52s took off—the University of Georgia's hometown has perhaps become better known as a great place for live music. Aficionados shouldn’t miss the 40 Watt Club (so named for the lone bulb that lit the club’s first location), a key player in the launch of American new wave and punk, and still an important tour stop for alternative acts. Before you hit the shows, hit the fried chicken and macaroni and cheese at Weaver D’s, where a sign outside reads: Automatic for the People. (Yes, the R.E.M guys borrowed the phrase for the title of their 1992 album, not the other way around.)

Ann Arbor, MI

As the name would suggests, Ann Arbor has trees aplenty: 79 different genera, according to the most recent inventory. (Yes, this place takes its trees very seriously.) Enjoy a gorgeous selection of them during a stroll at the 123-acre Nichols Arboretum, where you'll also get panoramic views from the path along the winding Huron River. After you’ve worked up an appetite, join all the University of Michigan students at Zingerman’s deli, where waiting—while sampling cheese, brownies and fresh bread—is part of the experience. If you’re skeptical about queuing for a sandwich, let alone an $18 one, consider that one woman based her decision to attend UMich purely on the taste of the #73 (Tarb’s Tenacious Tenure). We don't know whether the same sandwich tempted Sasha Obama—or helped sustain Madonna, James Earl Jones, Susan Orlean or Arthur Miller during class reunions—but whatever you eat here, you won't be sorry. Just full. If it's a visual feast you crave, head to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, home to 18,000 century- and continent-spanning works. And music fans shouldn’t miss The Ark, a folk and roots music spot with stellar acoustics and not a bad seat in the house (there are just 400 of them).  Bonus points if you get there in time to hear Arlo Guthrie on Oct. 22. 

Lafayette, LA

In Lafayette—the capital of Acadiana and namesake of the state's favorite Marquis—you'll find recreations of 19th century settler life (Acadian Village), Creole music galore (Blue Moon Saloon) and old-school restaurants (don’t miss the crawfish-tail-stuffed Steak Louis XIII at Café Vermilionville or the smothered pork chop at Dwyer's Cafe). But the city—which is also home of the University of Louisiana—also serves up decidedly 21st century art (check out Paths and Loops: Automatic Drawings by the noted new media artist John F. Simon Jr. at the Hilliard University Art Museum through Nov. 16) and an of-the-moment craft craft beer scene (you can't go wrong with whatever's on tap from Parish Brewing Company). Don't leave without a visit to the 150-acre Acadiana Park, home to some 150 species of birds (even if you don’t see the birder-prized Swainson’s Warbler, you may hear it) and stunning wildflowers such as the bayou violet and the green dragon.

Eugene, OR

Eugene, the home of the University of Oregon, is a hiking and biking mecca—even the public buses have bike racks and run all the way to the Cascade Mountains. For a 101 course, hit the Ridgeline trail system (or at the very least, the trail that leads to the 2,065-foot summit of Spencer Butte, the highest point in the city.) You'll come back thirsty, so—depending on your drink of choice—work on your Eugene Ale Trail passport (there are 14 breweries; get eight stamps and win a prize) or play Pinot Bingo. And refuel on Pacific Northwest goodness at Grit Kitchen or Party Downtown. Before you leave town, be sure pay tribute to Steve “Pre” Prefontaine at Pre’s Rock, the memorial to the runner who helped turn the town into Tracktown USA, and who remains a legend both in Eugene and around the world.

Oxford, MS

Though the Nobel-winning William Faulkner put Oxford on the literary map, plenty more authors—John Grisham, Larry Brown, Richard Ford, Willie Morris, and Jesmyn Ward, to name a few—helped burnish that rep. (Trivia alert: Donna Tartt was a Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Mississippi, y’all.) See Mr. Bill’s restored antebellum home Rowan Oak, and visit his grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery just off the Square. Then check out the J.D. Williams Library on the Ole Miss campus, home to such treasures as Faulkner’s Nobel Prize, B.B. King’s personal record collection, Eudora Welty’s letters and a note that one-time student James Meredith received from Rosa Parks for his efforts to integrate the campus. In keeping with all things literary, Oxford is also home to a trio of beloved Square bookshops: Square Books (for signed firsts), Off Square (used and remaindered) and Square Books Jr. (for kids).

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