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Best college towns
Photograph: Time Out

The best U.S. college towns everyone should visit—even if you're not a student

Anyone can appreciate the beautiful college campuses and the culture, dining and scenery of these cool university towns.

Johnny Motley
Written by
Johnny Motley

Sure, large cities like Boston, New York or Chicago, spattered with universities and throngs of students, are technically college towns. But the archetypical American college town, enshrined in our imaginations from countless coming-of-age films, is something else entirely: an idyllic burg with a university as its beating heart, a locale where the very air ripples with the buzz of academia and youthful exuberance. In the classic collegiate hamlet, sports are akin to religion, tailgating is elevated to an art, and counter-cultural flair enlivens leafy quads and ivy-decked halls.

The halcyon undergraduate years might be in the rearview mirror for many of us—with dollar tequila shots, sweaty dance floors and dorm-room philosophizing best left as fond memories—but a good college town is a blast to visit at any age. Brimming with regional charm, art and music and Americana, U.S. college towns are—more often than not—hotbeds of culture, gastronomy and nightlife.

Ranging from the Deep South and New England to the Alaskan coast and the Great Plains, below are 10 distinctive takes on America's best college towns. 

Best college towns in the U.S.

1. Durham, New Hampshire

Durham, once a thriving textile-manufacturing hub, is steeped in cozy New England charm, Puritan history and alleged hauntings. Braving long, harsh winters, the young scholars at the University of New Hampshire take to liquid warmth with gusto at bars like Libby’s and Scorpions. Ice hockey reigns king in these parts, and UNH hockey games, especially against cross-state rival Dartmouth, always promise evenings of rowdy fun.

Spend an afternoon meandering along Durham’s riverfront to admire the 19th-century mills and brick colossuses as large as modern Amazon warehouses, now mostly converted to apartments, restaurants and shops. If you’re up for a worthy culinary splurge, Stages at One Washington crafts one of New England’s most exquisite tasting menus. After stints in elite kitchens like Per Se and Cafe Boulud, chef Evan Hennessey returned to his native New Hampshire to launch a restaurant celebrating the bounty of New England’s waters and forests. Each morning, chef Hennessey forages ingredients like shellfish, mushrooms, and seaweed to showcase in his rotating eight-to-10-course prix-fixe menu and wine pairing.

2. Athens, Georgia

The oldest state university in America, the University of Georgia is the Big Southern College par excellence: rows of stately fraternity and sorority houses; football games summoning armies of tailgaters; and homecoming celebrations with all the pomp and verve of a national holiday. Beyond the Ivory Tower, the Classic City is one of the South’s great music capitals, the birthplace of the B-52s, REM, Widespread Panic and scores of beloved jam bands. 

40 Watt Club, graced over the years by the Allman Brothers, the Drive-By Truckers, and countless rock legends, is a storied theater in the annals of Southern music history. Shows, an eclectic mix of country, hip-hop, and rock acts, take place almost every night of the week, with tickets usually around $20. For daytime live music paired with craft beer, make your way over to the patio at Creature Comforts Brewing. Every Wednesday, artisans and farmers from the Georgia Piedmont hawk honey, vegetables, and crafts at the Athens Farmers’ Market hosted by Creature Comforts. 

Colorful dives are sundry in Athens, but hit up WonderBar to rub shoulders with a medley of students, professors and local eccentrics. While undergrads come for the cheap drinks, WonderBar’s cornflake-crusted fried chicken sando has garnered a cult following among foodies. To balance out boozing with cultural edification, spend an afternoon perusing the beautiful galleries of the Georgia Museum of Art, home to nonpareil collections of art from around the South. 


3. Columbus, Ohio

With nearly seventy thousand students, Ohio State University is practically a city within Columbus. While Ohio’s capital is sizable, the OSU campus is undeniably Columbus’s center of gravity. From old-timers to small children, C-bus approaches Buckeye football with fervor bordering on fanaticism, but basketball and hockey games likewise animate the bars of Short North or Franklinton with boundless enthusiasm. 

Beyond Buckeye mania, Columbus is awash with terrific restaurants, street art and quirky neighborhoods. German Village was once, as the name suggests, a Bavarian enclave, but the idyllic quarter is now one of Columbus’s most elegant neighborhoods. You can still nosh on pretzels, wurst, and sauerkraut among lederhosen-clad waiters and bouncy polka rhythms at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in German Village. Agni has generated buzz throughout the Midwest for creative cocktails and seasonal tasting menus, thoughtfully blending Bengali delicacies with Korean and South American influences. For Midwestern staples like smash burgers and fried pickles dressed up with gourmet flair, grab a table at Brass Eye on the rooftop of the sumptuous Junto Hotel

Columbus catches an echo of nearby Kentucky, Ohio’s neighbor to the south, in a slew of excellent whiskey distilleries around town. Savor a pour or a bite at the award-winning High Bank Distillery before touring the stills and barreling rooms. Night owls will find themselves right at home in Short North, a neighborhood bustling with food trucks, live music venues, and watering holes that thump until the wee hours. 

4. Columbia, South Carolina

South Carolina is too small to be a republic but too large to be an insane asylum, or so goes an old chestnut. Interpret that claim as you will, but the Palmetto State’s penchant for bacchanalian cheer is undeniable. Home to the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, Columbia amalgamates collegiate verve with Southern hospitality, balmy weather, and progressive ideals.

The Five Points neighborhood is Columbia’s unofficial nexus of fratty bars, Jager shots, and late-night shenanigans. To really find out if you can still hang with the youngsters, test your mettle at Bar None or Jake's, a pair of popular public houses in the Five Points. For a more subdued evening, sample Southern specialties like whole-hog BBQ and catfish stew at The War Mouth, or sip craft cocktails at Motor Supply Company Bistro, housed inside a retrofitted auto parts shop. Kick back with a pint of splendid suds inside a former aircraft hangar at Hunter-Gatherer Brewery. With a beer flight at hand, cop a squat at an outdoor picnic table by the tarmac to watch prop planes take flight. 


5. San Luis Obispo, California

Cal Poly might be one of the world’s most eminent STEM institutions, but heavy academic responsibilities don’t seem to damper student revelry in San Luis Obispo, a funky beach town on California’s sunny Central Coast. Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, SLO is chock-full of superb vegetarian restaurants, music stores and wineries. 

Caffeinate with an artfully poured matcha or cappuccino at Kreuzberg, a popular student coffee shop, before strolling the palm tree-lined avenues of downtown SLO. For a hearty lunch, Old San Luis BBQ smokes some of Central California’s finest Santa Maria 'cue, a regional style centered on red oak-smoked tri-tip. When you’re ready to burn off the calories, the Cerro San Luis Lemon Grove Loop, a hiking trail through the mountains behind SLO, offers stunning views of the city and the Pacific Ocean. 

Fans of kitschy Americana cannot skip visiting the Madonna Inn, a bright pink landmark off Highway 1. Inside the inimitably flamboyant bar, patronized by countless Hollywood legends over the decades, guests sip pink cocktails paired with cakes frosted in Barbie’s favorite color. San Luis Obispo is close to the coveted vineyards of Paso Robles and Edna Valley, and wine tastings at Croma Vera Wines showcase vintages from California’s many AVAs. 

6. Fayetteville, Arkansas

Like Austin or Boise, Fayetteville is a progressive island in an otherwise deeply conservative state, and the Ozark burg attracts more than its fair share of musicians, artists, and off-beat characters. Among the regal brick buildings of the University of Arkansas, you’ll find a slew of third-wave coffee roasteries, yoga studios, and sunny rooftop bars. 

The subterranean pub Hugo’s, a favorite among students and professors alike, is a stalwart for burgers, wings, and craft beer from around the Ozarks. World-class mountain-biking trails vein the mountains around Fayetteville, and Northwest Arkansas has burgeoned into an outdoor sports epicenter in recent years. For an only-in-Arkansas experience, drive about 30 minutes from Fayetteville to Bentonville, the international headquarters of Walmart. The Walton Family has invested millions into beautifying the town. In addition to Walmart Museum, Bentonville boasts one of the nation’s finest collections of early American art at Crystal Bridges Museum.


7. Fargo, North Dakota

Aw geez, Marge, can we lay off the Coen Brothers quotes and woodchipper jokes? High in the windy plains of the northern prairie, Fargo is one of the Midwest’s most sneaky-cool towns. Yes, winters are hellish, but a wonderful sense of camaraderie among the students of North Dakota State University pervades Fargo during the icy months, the season when that lovely Midwestern ideal of gemütlichkeit, cozy hospitality, shines forth in the city’s snug bars and restaurants. 

Start the morning at Youngblood Coffee, a Fargo mainstay for strong java and vintage records. Blessed with the smorgasbord of the prairie, Fargo's culinary scene pleasantly surprises visitors. Scandinavian roots run deep across North Dakota, and Prairie Kitchen serves Norwegian comfort fare like lefse and cured herring and a selection of Midwest beers and stiff cocktails. BernBaum’s is Fargo's answer to Katz’s or Russ & Daughters, with pastrami sandwiches and smoked fish taking on a Scandinavian twist with ingredients like lingonberries and pickled fennel. Good beer is as essential as kerosene in these snowy climes, and Drekker Brewery, a lofty taproom with outdoor fire pits, is a favorite retreat among thirsty NDSU students.

8. Oxford, Mississippi

Break out the seersucker suits and cue the Muddy Waters soundtrack because we’re swinging deep down south to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi. While at first glimpse, Oxford appears a sleepy hamlet, football games galvanize denizens with an energy rivaling Coachella. On game days, hours before kickoff, students and alumni converge by the thousands on The Grove for tailgating marathons—one big excuse for grilling steaks, drinking well before 5pm, and dressing up to the nines. 

When Ole Miss students say they’re off to the library, they might be referring to the stacks and carrols of the J.D. Williams building, but odds are they’re fixing to tie one on at Oxford’s favorite dive bar, The Library. A few miles outside town, down windy dirt roads, is the legendary Taylor Grocery, frying up arguably the most delectable catfish in the South. After a big night in Oxford, Funkys Pizza and Daquiri Bar has got you covered with satisfying, cheesy slices, or, if courage remains unbroken, boozy New Orleans-style slushies. 


9. Charlottesville, Virginia

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many Promethean ideas, but his finest stroke of genius might have been designating Charlottesville as the site of the University of Virginia. Amidst the rolling hills of Albemarle County, Charlottesville lies within striking distance of Shenandoah National Park and Washington, D.C. The colonial city marries the laid-back rhythms of the Virginia countryside with cosmopolitanism reverberating from one of the nation’s most coveted universities.  

Scores of excellent restaurants, from student-friendly burrito joints to fine dining worthy of a day trip down from D.C., adorn Charlottesville’s handsome brick streets. Oakhart Social is a UVA go-to for date-night wining and dining, or when mom and dad come to town for parents’ weekend and pick up the check. Especially in Virginia’s glorious autumn, there’s no better way to spend a Sunday in Charlottesville than on Oakhart’s patio with a bloody mary. For more casual bites, Citizen Burger Bar serves simple but scrumptious burgers, fried chicken, and craft beer. 

10. Anchorage, Alaska

The most remote outpost on our whirlwind college tour, the University of Alaska Anchorage is the Last Frontier’s largest institute of higher education. Framed by the snow-cloaked Chugach Mountains and the steel-blue waters of Eagle Bay, Anchorage is one of the most picturesque small cities in America. Chalk it up to the call of the wild or the aurora borealis' magnetic influences, but the Alaskan port town punches well above its weight for nocturnal tomfoolery. 

Colorful dives like Darwin’s Theory and Bear Paw Bar & Grill attract electric crowds of students, salmon fishermen, and tourists. For an educational indoor afternoon, explore Alaska’s fascinating history at the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The pristine wilderness of Chugach State Park, rife with National Geographic-worthy mountain vistas, is a quick 20-minute drive from downtown Anchorage. While far from the southern border, Taco King serves up Tex-Mex delights like burritos, tacos, and enchiladas—food that sticks to your ribs after a day of hiking in Chugach or clubbing at Mad Myrna’s or Williwaw Social

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