Last Updated on November 22, 2023

College towns across America have a lot more going for them than just sports. From coast to coast and places in between, these destinations are also brimming with art, music, charm, history and scenery. More often than not, these college towns are hotbeds of culture, gastronomy and vibrant nightlife.

Here are my family’s favorite college towns. We’ve visited these when our kids and other family members were attending.

Are there more in addition to those we list here? Of course, but keep in mind these are the destinations we can personally vouch for.

Finger Lakes Region, Ithaca, NY

Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, Ithaca is one of the most quintessential college towns in the U.S.

Ithaca offers quaint lake town vibes, but lively energy from the campuses of its schools. Local favorites include Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian outdoor mall with a variety of unique dining and shopping options, and excellent museums and galleries.

Nature lovers will relish in Ithaca’s impressive array of outdoor activities on Cayuga Lake or enjoy discovering its many nature trails, waterfalls and gorges. As the saying goes “Ithaca is gorges.”

Charlottesville, VA

Charlottesville, Virginia.
Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo by Noreen Kompanik

Located amidst the rolling hills of Albemarle County, Charlottesville is home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia and is within striking distance of the Shenandoah National Park.

The colonial city is a beautiful blend of a laid-back countryside filled with acres of verdant vineyards and the cosmopolitan vibe of a college town that just happens to be one of the nation’s most coveted universities. Food, wine, and a stunning landscape make this a beloved destination for travelers.

Baton Rouge, LA

Baton Rouge is Louisiana’s capital city and is known as the “red stick,” a French nod to its historic name. The town is also home to two major universities—Louisiana State University (LSU) and Southern University, each steeped in unique traditions.

Not only is Baton Rouge one of the best college towns to visit but the city offers a unique blend of educational and cultural experiences, a strong sports culture, culinary adventures, live music, and so much more including glimpses into their Cajun and Creole heritage. It’s here that visitors will find a true, authentic Louisiana experience.

San Luis Obispo, CA

Located along California’s scenic Central Coast halfway between LA and San Francisco, SLO, as it’s lovingly called by the locals, oozes with small-town charm and a collegiate vibe– home to Cal Poly SLO – one of the state’s most prestigious public universities.

Carefree and colorful, SLO provides visitors with a lovely collection of boutique hotels, amazing chef-driven restaurants and a collection of sustainable local wineries. Hiking and biking are two popular outdoor activities and being this close to the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find plenty of places to breathe in that fresh SOCAL air along with the coast’s magnificent views and water activities.

Don’t miss out on visiting the impressive farmer’s market on Higuera Street every Thursday from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. It’s amazing.

State College, PA

Often referred to as “Happy Valley,” State College is home to Penn State’s Nittany Lions (one of many monikers for a mountain lion).

You’ll not only find the second-largest college football stadium in the nation and a gorgeously picturesque campus, but also a collection of museums, art venues, a pulsing nightlife and a top-notch craft beer scene, not to mention being one of the safest towns in the country.

If you venture out, hiking opportunities abound at nearby Mount Nittany along with two stunning waterfalls in the area, Yost Run and Kyler Fork, well worth a visit.

Dahlonega, GA

Dahlonega, GA.
Dahlonega, GA. Photo credit Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources

Located just north of Atlanta, Dahlonega in Northeast Georgia is an authentic, charming Appalachian Mountain town and home to the University of North Georgia.

The university is within walking distance of the historic downtown square, filled with museums, unique shops and quaint southern eateries. Here you’ll find the fascinating Dahlonega Gold Museum showcasing the history of the gold mine boom that started in 1829, the heart of Georgia’s wine country, expansive mountain vistas, roaring waterfalls and picturesque bubbling streams.

Austin, TX

You’ve got to love a town whose mantra is “Keep Austin Weird.”

Austin loves their eccentric environment, vivacious music scene, barbeque and other foodie hotspots as well as their college team, the University of Texas. “Hook ‘em horns” is a phrase you’ll hear often and though the town is always bustling with action, it explodes with energy on home-game weekends.

Year-round you’ll find a fascinating blend of eclectic cultures, grassroots politics and infectiously funky vibes. It’s a delightful mix of hippies, honky-tonkers, hipsters, tech experts, filmmakers and quirky characters. Yet somehow, it all works.

Boulder, CO

You’ll not only find the University of Colorado here, but Boulder is also one of the hippiest and healthiest towns in the U.S. to boot. It has also been voted one of the best outdoor towns as well as one of the top cities for foodies.

The Rocky Mountain borough is a perfect balance of urban living and the natural outdoors. Boulder is known for its brew scene, always-exciting downtown and more activities than you can count. It also boasts more than 60 parks and 155 miles of hiking trails making this an outdoor adventure-lovers nirvana.

Chapel Hill, NC

Thanks to the presence of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is a picture-perfect postcard university town, routinely ranking as one of the best college towns and best places to live in the U.S.

Chapel Hill’s reputation is guided by the diverse social, cultural and professional opportunities that flow between campus and its lovely town. The nation’s first public university is a place steeped in tradition offering a good mix of educational and professional opportunities, a lively social scene, and access to impressive scenic surroundings.

From live music and eclectic dining to quiet trails, historic architecture and impressive street art, Chapel Hill has so much to offer its visitors.

Flagstaff, AZ

Wupatki National Monument in Flagstaff.
Wupatki National Monument in Flagstaff. Photo by Noreen Kompanik

A visit to Flagstaff is an invitation to immerse oneself into a world of natural wonders, cultural vibrancy and endless outdoor activities. And let’s not forget its vibrant and exciting food and beer scene. Or the fact that Flagstaff is only 213 miles from the majestic glory of the Grand Canyon.

Home to the Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff offers so many opportunities to commune with nature through its scenic hiking trails, mountain biking, rock climbing and camping adventures. And our favorite? Exploring Flagstaff’s three spectacular national monuments, home to some of the world’s most intact and culturally-revealing archeological sites, ancient Sinagua cliff dwellings and awe-inspiring vistas. 

Burlington, VT

Not only is Burlington home to four colleges including the University of Vermont, but it’s also renowned as the birthplace of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Cozy, eclectic and colorful, Burlington, located along the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, has a myriad of culture, energetic breweries, true-blue farm-to-table-restaurants, unique shops and galleries.

The town is only an hour or two’s drive to some of the best skiing in the U.S. including Stowe Mountain, Mad River Glen and Killington. It’s also one of the most gorgeous places to ooh and aah over its magnificent autumn colors.

Athens, GA

Athens is the birthplace of R.E.M. and the B-52s and as such, attracts a very artsy, trendy culture.

This once-sleepy home to the University of Georgia Bulldogs, Athens has evolved into quite the spirited and often rowdy place, especially when football takes over on game days.

Visitors will also find thriving music, art and nightlife here along with an amazing number of historical sites dating back to the Civil War. If you love nature, you’ll totally appreciate the stunning State Botanical Gardens of Georgia and Sandy Creek Park and Nature Center with its 225 acres of picturesque woodlands and wetlands.

So, what’s your favorite college town? I’d love to hear all about it!