America's Best College Towns 2013
Find out which cool college towns made the grade with T+L readers.
Strolling along Ithaca Commons in Upstate New York is a crash course in College Town, U.S.A. Spitting distance from both Cornell and Ithaca College, the four-block pedestrian area buzzes with vendors, cafés, festivals, and, of course, students around every bend.
But venture beyond, and there’s another Ithaca to be discovered, including one of the most intriguing wine regions in the country. Sure, big cities have their glitz, but it’s this kind of understated charm, diversity, and affordability that draws visitors to cool college towns.
For our first America’s Favorite Towns survey, we asked T+L fans and followers to post nominations on social media with the hashtag #TLTowns—and then to vote for the 744 towns in 55 categories. Ithaca and other popular college towns scored highly in categories like coffee, bars, and quirkiness (ahem, Asheville, NC), while Burlington, VT, rose to the head of the class as the No. 1 college town.
Talk to University of Vermont alums, and they’ll wax poetic about the college-crowd scene, with tales of chilly dips in Lake Champlain and “that epic Phish show” at Nectar’s. But they’ll also hasten to tell you about the local food culture and how you should plan your visit to City Market around the local celebrity bread maker, who sells his goods only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
But it’s not just East Coast college towns that made our list. San Luis Obispo, CA, and Flagstaff, AZ, also won over the T+L community. Read on to find out why these and others made the top 20 list. And, devotion to alma maters being what it is, we have a feeling you’ll want to add your favorites in the comments below.
No. 1 Burlington, VT
With local legends like Ben and Jerry and jam-band Phish, this lakefront town is known for its hippie vibe. And while breweries, coffee shops (rated No. 9), bike paths, and live music venues solidify its college with a capital C identity, a thriving artisanal food scene suggests that Burlington is growing up. Get a taste at City Market, where you can buy Strafford Creamery Ice Cream, made fresh each week, and, if you arrive around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday or Saturday, a loaf of the highly coveted Gérard Rubaud’s bread.
No. 2 Charlottesville, VA
What do Tina Fey, Bobby Kennedy, and Tiki Barber have in common? All are alums of the University of Virginia. The diversity of graduates hints at the town’s something-for-everyone appeal. History buffs flock to Monticello, while culture hounds stroll the charming downtown pedestrian mall, with restaurants, an ice-skating rink, and the renovated Paramount Theater, where you can see everything from the Moscow Ballet to up-and-coming bands (Dave Matthews Band got its start here in the early ’90s).
No. 3 San Luis Obispo, CA
SLO, as locals call it, might be just any California coastal town if not for California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly). The town caters to the student population with events like free outdoor summer concerts in the Mission Plaza every Friday evening and an international film festival held every March. T+L readers gave it the top score for coffee; get your fix at The Nautical Bean. There are more than 25 wineries within a 20-minute drive and, this being California, a plethora of outdoor activities, including hiking, sea kayaking, and, of course, surfing.
No. 4 Williamsburg, VA
If your only experience with this town was a tour led by aspiring actors in period garb, it’s time for a repeat visit. Venture beyond Colonial Williamsburg, and you’ll find downtown’s thriving arts district. Fuel your tour of the galleries with a stop at Extraordinary Cupcakes, and finish off with a Sichuan meal at the newly opened Peter Chang. Businesses stay open late for block parties on the first Friday of the month. T+L readers also appreciated Williamsburg for its romantic hotels (rated No. 5).
No. 5 Harrisonburg, VA
Beer and bikes—not necessarily enjoyed in that order—are two strong suits of Harrisonburg, a Shenandoah Valley town that’s home to James Madison University. Three Brothers Brewing and Capital Ale House have become major fixtures in Harrisonburg’s revitalized downtown, which is crisscrossed by bike paths. Set out on one of those easy trails or tackle the mountain-bike trails in George Washington National Forest.
No. 6 Boulder, CO
With its 300-plus days of sunshine each year, the gorgeous slopes of the Flatirons at the edge of town, and locals who could be cast in commercials for a healthy, active lifestyle, Boulder naturally scored near the top of the class among college towns. Hop on a bike from B-cycle, the town’s bike-sharing program, and cruise down Pearl Street, whose shops specialize in the local, from jewelry to cheese to beer. Treat yourself to a fresh pasta dinner at Frasca Food and Wine, one of the nation’s best Italian restaurants.
No. 7 St. Augustine, FL
Thanks to its oldest-city-in-the-country claim to fame—not to mention 43 miles of beaches—this coastal town has long been a favorite among tourists. But it’s the mix of the old and the new that makes St. Augustine so interesting. Alongside its No. 1–rated historic inns, such as Carriage Way Bed & Breakfast, are restaurants and bars opened by a younger set. The Floridian, for example, draws a hip crowd with its southern food made with fresh, local ingredients.
No. 8 Asheville, NC
Sure, the most popular tourist attraction is the opulent Biltmore Estate, but Asheville itself is down-to-earth and, according to T+L readers, quirky in the best of ways. A highly satisfying, if jam-packed, day could include: whitewater rafting, hiking, or mountain biking; small-batch brews at Wicked Weed Brewing; a pie and a pint at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria; and a concert at The Orange Peel or, if it’s summer, on the lawn at Pack Square Park for Shindig on the Green. These are the kind of everyman pleasures that appeal to students of UNC Asheville and visitors alike.
No. 9 Fredericksburg, VA
There’s plenty to learn here outside the classroom. With a national historic district full of buildings dating back to the 1700s (including the houses of George Washington’s mother, brother, and sister) and four Civil War battlegrounds in and around town, Fredericksburg is steeped in—though by no means stuck in—the past. The latest renaissance has been in food and drink. Foode and Poppy Hill, two restaurants fiercely committed to the farm-to-table philosophy, have awakened the dining scene. And the RF&P Grapes & Grains Trail draws visitors with its four wineries, a brewery, and a distillery.
No. 10 Flagstaff, AZ
It’s no wonder T+L readers voted this laid-back town No. 5 for family vacations—the place feels positively made for kids. During warm months, the fun revolves around Heritage Square, where kids can attend workshops on everything from pottery to salsa dancing. At night, spread a blanket on the lawn and enjoy a family-friendly movie or a concert. Flagstaff is famous for its impossibly starry skies, and there’s no better spot to get a look than Lowell Observatory.
No. 11 Morgantown, WV
It’s odd to celebrate a place for its public transportation, but Morgantown wouldn’t be Morgantown without its Personal Rapid Transit system. Connecting the five campuses of West Virginia University and downtown, the PRT helped boost the university’s enrollment (from 10,000 in 1960 to almost 30,000 today), which transformed the town. When they’re not at a WVA game, locals split their time between downtown (The Blue Moose Café is a favorite for coffee), the Wharf District (grab a pint at Mountain State Brewing Co.), and the trails just outside of the city limits.
No. 12 Saratoga Springs, NY
Even if you’re not an equestrian buff, you can’t (and shouldn’t) ignore that this upstate New York town lives and breathes horse racing. Certainly check out the racetrack (the oldest in the country), but also venture beyond to see the other Saratoga Springs. Beekman Street, a three-block stretch just a few minutes’ walk from downtown’s main drag, has transformed over the past few years into a thriving little pocket of galleries, shops, and restaurants. T+L readers also love the parks and gardens (rated No. 10), like Saratoga Spa State Park, where you can soak in the healing properties of the natural mineral waters.
No. 13 Ithaca, NY
As the slogan says, “Ithaca is gorges,” and there are more than 100 gorges and waterfalls within 10 miles of downtown. But T+L readers love the quirky college town and surrounding area for the wine (No. 4 in our survey). Follow the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, where you can visit 15 wineries, four distilleries, and a meadery. Back in town, head to Ithaca Commons, the local version of Main Street (No. 11), and join Cornell and Ithaca College students for healthy vegetarian fare at the legendary Moosewood Restaurant.
No. 14 Lexington, VA
Lexington is the kind of place you visit and find yourself picturing your life there. It’s not so much the “wow” factor as it is the “ahh” factor. With tree-lined streets, quaint downtown, old-school haunts like Hull’s Drive-In Movie Theater, and small-town parades down Main Street, this place just feels so livable. It’s also big on culture, thanks to Washington and Lee University. Catch a bluegrass show at Clark’s Ole Time Music Center or browse downtown’s art galleries.
No. 15 Annapolis, MD
Yes, you can get great crabs in Annapolis (especially at The Point Crab House & Grill), but T+L readers love the waterfront town for its wine (No. 5 in our poll). To sit and sip, head to Vin 909 Winecafé, where pours range from $6 (“Value is not a dirty word,” reads the menu) to $12 (“Damn the economy, let’s drink wine”). Stock up on hard-to-find bottles at Wine Cellars of Annapolis, where you’ll find a wine library, a tasting table, and an incredibly helpful staff.
No. 16 Fayetteville, AR
It’s no surprise this town ranked No. 3 for best diners—the 20,000 students at the University of Arkansas need somewhere to refuel after all those nail-biter Razorback games. No one goes hungry at the Rolling Pin Café, famous for its chocolate gravy, served only on Saturdays. But there’s more to the town than ball games and breakfast. Check out the burgeoning art scene during First Thursday Fayetteville, held March through October in the downtown square.
No. 17 Lafayette, LA
If our reader poll had included a “most well-rounded” category, Lafayette may very well have swept the competition. It ranked in the top five for four categories (friendliest, cool souvenirs, burgers, and local accent) and in the top 10 for four more (cafés, bars, ice cream, and fairs). The irresistible Creole cuisine brings locals and University of Louisiana at Lafayette students together at spots like Johnson’s Boucanière, where the pulled pork and brisket are smoked for up to 14 hours. When the weather’s fine, pack a picnic and head for moss-draped Cypress Lake, a watershed on campus.
No. 18 Bozeman, MT
When you’re gearing up to visit Bozeman, it helps to accept that you will constantly feel pulled in two directions. There’s the laid-back downtown, with its coffeehouses, galleries, and bookstores just begging you to linger. And then there’s the great outdoors, calling you to try your hand at fly-fishing, rafting, skiing, and hiking. Our advice? Stay at the Olive Branch Inn, housed in a 19th-century Victorian Manor house, and let your hosts help you create an itinerary that includes a bit of both.
No. 19 Chapel Hill, NC
As one of three hubs in North Carolina’s research triangle, Chapel Hill’s No. 1 ranking for being tech savvy makes perfect sense. But the presence of tech giants like IBM and Cisco Systems hasn’t cramped the approachable college vibe. The town scored highly in the hip/cool category (No. 3) and in the bars category (No. 9). UNC students flock to He’s Not Here, a bar famous for its cheap beer and live music. For something a little less Animal House, head to Top of the Hill, a brewery with rooftop seating.
No. 20 Duluth, MN
Twin cities Minneapolis and St. Paul get the buzz when it comes to Minnesota college towns, which is just fine with students at University of Minnesota Duluth and Lake Superior College—they’re more than happy to keep their quiet haven to themselves. On the southern edge of Lake Superior, Duluth strikes the perfect balance between city, with its thriving waterfront district, and outdoors, with its parks, hiking trails, and watersports.