It’s that time of year again—back to school season. Except for us, instead of a new class schedule and freshly bought books, back to school season means mapping out the best college towns to visit on your vacation this year, regardless of whether you’re actually a student.
College towns offer a lot more than cafes for studying and dive bars for 20-somethings to let loose—a lot of them, including the ones on our list, are home to several top things to do for students and non-students alike.
First things, first. The word “college” itself comprises community colleges, two-year schools, public and private four-year universities, and more—under those terms, LA could be a college town even though it encompasses more than 200 schools! So when looking at the best college towns in the U.S., we looked for two main criteria—first, a place that’s small enough to have a recognizable sense of community and identity, tied to but not limited to the campus (or campuses); and second, one that’s home to a variety of things to see and do there both on and beyond the campus. You’ll find plenty of the latter in our round-up—towns with outdoor adventure, great museums, diverse culinary scenes, football fandom, and more.
Whether you’re packing up for your fall semester, your kids are decorating their dorm rooms, or you’re looking for inspiration for your fall getaway, these are the best college towns to visit in 2019.
Burlington, Vermont, USA
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Burlington, VT, USA
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Tie-dye and plaid flannel don’t clash here, and neither do “town and gown,” making Burlington feel welcoming, small, and a party for all even though it’s Vermont’s largest city. The University of Vermont and Champlain College may be right downtown, but Lake Champlain and nearby ski mountains lure outdoorsy sorts. Burlington’s a city on the greening edge: first in the nation to run exclusively on renewable energy and a model of sustainability and grassroots entrepreneurship. Spending time on Champlain is essential—bike the shoreside Greenway or board a tour boat. With 150 shops and restaurants, and live entertainment spilling out onto the brick concourse, Church Street Marketplace is another must. Stay at Hotel Vermont, and you’re steps from this lively hub and the waterfront, and you won’t even have to venture out to dine at one of Vermont’s most lauded restaurants, Hen of the Wood. In this city, where chain establishments are shunned, you’ll want to sample local everything including some of Vermont’s best beers and the alcoholic appleiciousness that is Citizen Cider. —Kim Knox Beckius
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Washington State Capitol Building
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Olympia, WA, USA
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Olympia is home to the Evergreen State College, a unique university that draws in an equally unique student body. The university is known for its independent education style without grades, and this freedom to learn without boundaries spills over into the town. Saint Martin’s University is also located here, as is the state capital, so there’s a lot of contrast between student and government life and everything in between. Wander the Capitol Campus, and then walk through the amazing Olympia Farmers Market (just blocks from the Capitol), which has not only fresh fruit and produce, but also live music and food vendors galore. The city parks and nearby state parks offer a glimpse into the rugged beauty that makes the Northwest so special—search for sand dollars at Tolmie State Park, or take a walk through evergreen forests in Priest Point Park. When you’re ready to recharge, Oly’s food scene has a bit of everything from ample cheap eats like the popular Tofu Hut to swanky cocktails at Dillinger’s. —Kristin Kendle
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Ann Arbor, Michigan
Law School Quadrangle, University of Michigan
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Ann Arbor, MI, USA
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Known as A2 to the locals, Ann Arbor bleeds blue and gold in honor of the hometown University of Michigan wolverines. Fall football weekends pack “the Big House” (a.k.a. Michigan Stadium) and the rest of the town with loyal fans and alums, but a thriving culinary scene, diverse cultural offerings, and outdoor recreation serve as an incentive to visit all year long.
Museum-goers have plenty to explore, from the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. The city’s many scenic trails see lots of bikes and foot traffic in the summer months, with kayaking and canoeing available on the Huron River, and a year-round lineup of festivals and events means there’s always something fun happening. Dining options span a dizzying range of cuisines, but the locally renowned Zingerman’s family of restaurants, particularly the delicatessen, are required stops for serious foodies. —Amy Lynch
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Sunflower field in Lawrence, Kansas
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Lawrence, KS, USA
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Lawrence may be best known as the home of the University of Kansas, but the Haskell Indian Nations University also resides here, energizing the town with a double dose of collegiate vitality. Bookended by the Kansas River (known as the Kaw) and the Wakarusa Rives, KU Jayhawks territory encourages active visitors to come out and play with hiking and biking trails, more than 50 public parks, the South Park gazebo concert stage and late summer fields full of sunflowers.
Populated with local shops, restaurants, and entertainment, Massachusetts Street (“Mass” for short) is the centerpiece of the historic downtown district. The town’s vibrant cultural offerings appeal to creative types through an expansive collection of museums, theaters, and performing arts venues. Fuel up for adventures with hearty farm-to-table fare sourced from regional food producers or authentically prepared ethnic cuisine, and wash it all down with a pint of craft beer from Free State Brewing Company. —AL
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Indiana University Of Bloomington
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Bloomington, IN, USA
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Tucked into the gently rolling hills of south-central Indiana just to the north of Lake Monroe and the Hoosier National Forest, Bloomington boasts a surprisingly cosmopolitan vibe thanks in no small part to the major presence of Indiana University. The handsome limestone campus lures alumni back often for basketball games at Assembly Hall and pints of beer at Nick’s English Hut, but even visitors without an IU connection can’t help but appreciate the Bloomington’s natural beauty and welcoming vibe. Here, diversity infuses the friendly local strain of Hoosier Hospitality with intriguing results; for example, the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and a tasty wealth of 75 international restaurants representing 18 different global cuisines.
The majestic Monroe County Courthouse anchors a walkable downtown district filled with local boutiques, eateries, brewpubs, music venues, nightlife, green spaces, and family-friendly destinations. Staying all weekend? The Graduate Hotel on Kirkwood Avenue (open since late 2018) offers overnight accommodations steeped in Hoosiers history. —AL
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Ithaca, New York
Watkins Glen State Park
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Ithaca, NY, USA
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Ithaca is a funky town that takes its local culture seriously. A couple of examples: its long-time fight against a proposed nearby highway to maintain the community culture, and its own currency, the Ithaca Hour, created with the purpose of supporting local businesses. Despite being home to Cornell University, Ithaca College, and a community college, all of which double the town’s population during the school year, Ithaca manages to hold on to its unique personality that locals love and keeps alums coming back to visit.
The downtown area known as “The Commons” is home to unique mom-and-pop shops, an art cinema, and several bars that are frequented by both residents and students. Indulge in the culinary scene by attending one of its frequent food festivals (such as the apple cider fest in the fall and a chili fest in the winter), picking up artisanal baked goods at Ithaca Coffee Company, shopping at the farmers market, and enjoying a locally sourced vegetarian dinner at Moosewood. Then, down all that food with a brew at Ithaca Beer Company or one of the nearby vineyards.
Ithaca is also surrounded by several hiking trails that lead to gorges (hence the punny motto “Ithaca is Gorges”); Buttermilk Falls and Six Mile Creek are favorites. Or take a day trip to nearby Watkins Glen State Park or Robert H. Treman State Park to find some beautiful waterfall hikes. —Taylor McIntyre