America's Coolest College Towns
From California to Virginia, great university towns with top-notch food, entertainment, and outdoor adventures.
On a recent afternoon along Church Street in Burlington,
VT, young aspiring actors recited passages from Shakespeare’s Henry V as jugglers,
break-dancers, and blowers of didgeridoos displayed their skills nearby, creating a visual and
aural cacophony. Just another day in a thriving college town—this one happening to be home to
the University of Vermont.
There are notable distinctions between college towns and other American cities. In the
student-centric spots, bicycles seem to outnumber cars. Affordable restaurants serve up authentic
cuisines from all around the world. The streets are densely packed with businesses, making for a
highly pedestrian-friendly environment. Nature is usually accentuated: the shimmering Lake
Champlain, backdropped by a sawtooth silhouette of peaks, forms the western edge of Burlington. Madison, WI, is situated on an isthmus between two
lakes that draw hordes of hikers and bikers. Boulder, CO, is an outdoor enthusiast’s
And don’t forget the bars. Each of these locales offers plenty of opportunities for
imbibing, many of them ideal for both people-watching and soaking in the scenery. It’s hard
to beat sunset cocktails at Austin’s Oasis, where
tiered decks jut from a 450-foot-high cliff over Lake Travis.
These attractions are mainly geared toward the students, naturally, but they can be readily
enjoyed by those with no homework assignments or college connections. After all, few sports
experiences can top the rafter-shaking raucousness in Chapel Hill, NC, during a Tar Heels
basketball game. Many schools benefit from world-class art collections in glittering facilities
designed by marquee architects; Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum, featuring a wing by Polshek
Partnership, tempts visitors with Warhols, Titians, and Dalís in a way that many
university-less cities cannot.
The performing arts also abound. Most campuses host an array of dance, theater, and performing
arts to rival a season at Lincoln Center. Not to mention rock. This fall, for instance, the Boulder
Theater, near the University of Colorado, will host the Psychedelic Furs, Aimee Mann, and Dinosaur
So, as students zip up their backpacks for a return to the classroom, it’s a good time for
any traveler to pack up a trunk and visit one of these bustling campus locations. Just don’t
count on peace and quiet if you go to bed early.