of the Most Beautiful U.S. College Towns
The U.S. is home to more than 5,000 colleges and universities, often situated on idyllic campuses that seem to leap straight out of the pages of a brochure. Many of them are surrounded by equally gorgeous towns worthy of a visit in their own right — even if your student days are long gone. Explore 15 of the most beautiful U.S. college towns and a few of the year-round activities you can enjoy at each one.
Located a mile from Lake Champlain on a hill above downtown Burlington, the University of Vermont is ideally situated for visitors and students to take advantage of the surroundings any time of year. In the summer, rent a paddleboard and spend hours along the shoreline or go further afield for a hike in the Green Mountains at Mount Philo. In the winter months, Burlington is bursting with hygge, and when you’re ready to leave the cozy shops and breweries, there are several skiing areas nearby. Bolton Valley is a 25-minute drive, and Stowe is also less than an hour away. Don’t forget that Vermont is home to Ben and Jerry’s — it’s always a good time to take a break for ice cream.
Few towns in the U.S. feel quite as utopian as Boulder. The clean, crisp air and surrounding mountains create an invigorating vibe for numerous outdoor activities around town. Time your visit to a University of Colorado Buffs football game and enjoy an epic view of the Flatirons from the stadium. Enjoy the pregame festivities at one of the numerous breweries, preferably on the patio so you can soak up the Colorado sunshine. Avery or Twisted Pine are two solid choices. For more active pursuits, hike the popular Chautauqua Meadow trail or kayak on Boulder Creek in summer. When it comes to winter, many of the students (and visitors) in town are drawn to the ease of access to skiing and snowboarding in the area — a number of world-class ski resorts are within a two-hour drive of Boulder.
Boone, North Carolina
For what feels like a true escape from the grid, head deep into the Blue Ridge Mountains to Boone, North Carolina — home to Appalachian State University. The mix of the mountain and college cultures results in an eclectic, inviting atmosphere. For an easy hike, try Howard’s Knob, a mountain which sits in the middle of Boone. A more difficult option is the trek to the Grandfather’s Bridge — a mile-high suspension bridge that offers 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. On your return to town, shop and explore King Street and dine on modern Southern food at Proper or Vidalia.
Home to the state capital and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Madison is situated on an isthmus between two lakes. In the summertime, rent a kayak and paddle up to one of the many waterfront restaurants, and if you can brave the cold, you can even rent snowshoes to walk along the lake in winter. Locals flock to the Dane County Farmers Market on Saturdays from April to November for local wares, produce, and flowers. Consider taking a tour of the majestic state capitol building or the impressive botanical gardens while you’re in town, but one local specialty you can’t leave without trying is fried cheese curds — you can find them at most local breweries.
Home to the United States Naval Academy and the capital of Maryland, Annapolis is a historic city located along the Chesapeake Bay. When visiting, be sure to take a leisurely stroll and peruse the boutiques downtown and grab a drink along the water. A unique way to take in the surroundings is a sailing cruise around the harbor with Schooner Woodwind. (For a cheaper option, grab a water taxi between your destinations). Extend your afternoon by visiting the Naval Academy — if you happen to visit on a weekend, you might be lucky enough to catch a wedding party outside the chapel holding their swords high for the happy couple. No visit to Annapolis is complete without a crab feast, and there are several spots around the area like Cantler’s and Mike’s Crab House for a down-home meal with mallets.
About an hour south of Lexington, Danville frequently features in lists of the best small towns in the nation. The presence of Centre College means residents and visitors can enjoy a packed calendar of performing arts at the Norton Center. In summer, take in a show at the outdoor Pioneer Playhouse, where several Hollywood stars got their start. The town hosts several popular festivals each year, including the Great American Brass Band Festival in June and the Kentucky BBQ Festival in September. Main Street is buzzing with small shops, pubs, and restaurants; the town even has a dollhouse museum. Explore the charming downtown and feel as if you’ve gone back to a simpler time.
If Montana conjures up images of open pastures and fly fishing, you’ll be in for a surprise when you see just how much the charming city of Missoula — voted best in Montana in 2020 and home to the University of Montana — has to offer. To be sure, the fishing is magnificent; the Clark Fork River was the setting for all of those idyllic river scenes in A River Runs Through It. In the summer, take a hike to the top of Mount Sentinel, marked by the giant "M" on the hillside overlooking the town, or head to the 61,000 acres of Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness. Once winter comes, the mountain bike trails of the Snowbowl are transformed into cross-country skiing trails. On the edge of town, the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula showcases a number of preserved buildings that chart the town’s history, from pioneer days to when the fort was used as an internment camp during World War II. Meanwhile, downtown is home to the children’s theater, numerous art galleries, and plenty of restaurants and pubs. Sit by the river, take in the mountain air, and ponder the benefits of staying here a little longer.
Ithaca, New York
Located in upstate New York, the college town of Ithaca makes the most of all four seasons. This part of the state has access to several state parks and opportunities for skiing and skating in the winter, fabulous fall foliage, and hiking and water sports in the warmer months. Much of the town’s population attends or works at Cornell University, and so there is a strong sense of community here, not to mention numerous options for live entertainment and nightlife. Despite the brewpubs, shops, pedestrian streets, and Victorian houses downtown, the star attraction of Ithaca is its proximity to so many outdoor activities. It overlooks Cayuga Lake, the longest of the region’s Finger Lakes. From swimming and boating on its waters to hiking and climbing along its banks, there are many welcome escapes from hitting the books.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Although close enough to Detroit to be able to hop aboard an international flight, Ann Arbor is far enough from Motor City to have its own distinct character. College football is a huge deal at the University of Michigan, and you’ll know when the Wolverines are playing by the crowds of avid fans pouring along the tree-lined streets to the stadium. The campus also has several excellent museums, as well as an arboretum and botanical gardens. Winters can be harsh — this is Michigan, after all — but even in the snow, Ann Arbor is easy to navigate on foot or bike. After a day of cheering on the quarterback or working up a sweat outdoors, spend some time relaxing in one of downtown’s many bookshops before taking in a movie at the Michigan Theater and stopping in at one of Main Street’s many eateries.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
In addition to being the home of St. John’s College, Santa Fe is the state capital of New Mexico. As a result, the small city is alive with culture and history. The mountains surrounding Santa Fe provide some spectacular views, but ultimately it is the town’s funky artistic vibe that attracts so many people, with more than 250 art galleries, museums, and markets to visit. Choose from those dedicated to Georgia O’Keeffe, International Folk Art, Indian Arts and Culture, and many other options. After spending the day rejuvenating your creative spirit, indulge your taste buds at one of Santa Fe’s many charming local restaurants, or take a culinary tour of the town to learn about the Spanish and Indigenous influences in the regional cuisine.
With beautiful weather, year-round blue skies, and the sprawling Florida wetlands surrounding town, Gainesville is proof that inland parts of the state have just as much to offer as the coast. Spanish moss drapes elegantly across the branches of the city’s trees, creating a gauzy tropical effect that complements the stately Southern buildings. At the southern edge of town, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, established in 1971, is home to several hundred species of birds, as well as bison, wild horses, and (of course) gators. At the opposite end of town is Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, a miniature rainforest that contains a number of precious fossil remains. The Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History is a great option for families.
Rome sits near the center of the triangle formed by Chattanooga, Tennessee; Huntsville, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia. The college town — home to the likes of Berry College and Shorter University — has undergone an impressive revitalization in recent years. The result is a city that is filled with galleries, shops, restaurants, and historic buildings. Any visitor should make a stop by City Hall to see the Romulus and Remus statue that stands out front. The bronze statue is an exact replica of the Etruscan original in Rome, Italy, and was a gift from the Italian city in 1929. This Rome also has a fascinating extensive history, with its location on the Trail of Tears. Chieftain’s Museum was once owned by Major Ridge, a Cherokee leader. Today, it operates as a museum depicting the history of the Cherokee people in the area. For a break from local history, take in America’s favorite pastime by watching the Rome Braves, the town’s minor league baseball team.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Chapel Hill combines great food, a lively downtown, gorgeous architecture, and good weather — making it a town that is much more than its (albeit impressive) college campus. If museums are your thing, you have equally excellent choices between art and science. When you’re done soaking up the culture, more than 700 acres of parkland make it easy to get some fresh air. Add another thousand acres within the North Carolina Botanical Garden and you might forget that Chapel Hill also happens to be a worldwide center for scientific research and development. But there’s more to Chapel Hill than academic research and the outdoors — the city has become is a rising food hotspot. Bon Appetit previously called it “America’s Foodiest Small Town” and, befitting that status, it hosts a plethora of food festivals throughout the year. As the sun goes down, head to Franklin Street to take in some live entertainment, local brews, wood-fired pizza, or even some Turkish delights.
About an hour’s drive northwest of Chattanooga, the small community of Sewanee is tucked into the remote forests of Tennessee. It’s a popular destination for writers who come to attend workshops at the University of the South (otherwise known simply as Sewanee), but there is also much to offer those seeking a little peace and quiet surrounded by nature. The university is the focal point of this small town, and the gothic campus begs to be explored. Another point of interest is the Cross, a striking memorial to those Sewanee graduates who died in World War I. After wandering through the campus, shop for a few local gifts at The Lemon Fair or stop for a bite at The Blue Chair. To get active, you can meander along the Mountain Goat Trail, or a hike to South Cumberland State Park offers opportunities for panoramic views.
A long way from the beaches of Florida, Miami University is actually located in the idyllic town of Oxford, Ohio. The college was once nicknamed “the Yale of the West,” and the campus area certainly does conjure up images of New England with its red brick buildings and shady tree-lined streets. The town is easily walkable, but in warm weather, the locals all head to Hueston Woods State Park at the weekends for hiking, fishing, horse riding, or perhaps just lazing by the creek. Afterward, stop by the farmer’s market or one of the popular brunch locales. (Patterson’s Café is a favorite.) In spring, local wineries all come to town for the annual wine festival, while summer evenings are filled with art gallery hops, outdoor music, and movie screenings. Later in the year, as the winter evenings get longer, ice skating and Christmas festivities add to the charm of the irresistible college town.