America’s Best College Towns 2014
“Depending on how you look at it, Santa Cruz is either the best or the worst place to spend your college years,” says Keijiro Ikebe, a Silicon Valley visual designer who graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2002.
“With the town surrounded by shimmering water and lush forests under sunny blue skies, the last thing you want to do is spend a beautiful day taking notes in a lecture hall.”
After all, ivy-covered walls, stately libraries, and cafeteria meals don’t make a great college town. It’s more about the distractions—and Santa Cruz is overflowing with them. There are miles of beaches with some of the best surfing in the country; mountain-bike trails at Wilder Ranch State Park; artisanal coffee bars almost as numerous as craft-beer taps; and your nightly choice of any genre of live music.
This kind of lively atmosphere earned Santa Cruz a place among the top 20 college towns in America, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers in our latest America’s Favorite Places survey. They evaluated hundreds of towns for live music, pizza, dive bars, hamburgers, and other qualities that add up to a great college town.
Syracuse, NY, takes home top honors, thanks largely to an abundance of choices for such collegiate necessities as beer, good, cheap food, and strong coffee. Lafayette, LA, was a close runner-up, with high marks for its live music, cocktail bars, and singles scene.
Read on to discover which other college towns scored big.
No. 1 Syracuse, NY
Syracuse earned top marks for things that fuel your typical university student. It was voted No. 1 for both pizza and hamburgers (sharing the latter honor with Lafayette, LA), No. 2 for coffee, and No. 4 for both food trucks and craft beer—apparently consumed by an abundance of hip locals, for which this Finger Lakes town rates No. 2 in the country. You’re likely to find aforementioned hipsters at Faegan’s Pub on Tuesday nights, when patrons earn their name on a plaque after completing a “tour” of some of the 44 brews on tap. Syracuse also ranked in the top 20 for its historic sites; start that sort of tour at Hanover Square, surrounded by buildings dating back to the Civil War era.
No. 2 Lafayette, LA
Lafayette made the grade for its plentiful extracurricular activities. The Acadian town ranked No. 1 for both its concerts and live music scene, and came in second for its nightclubs, cocktail bars, and singles scene. Music has deep roots in the heart of Cajun Country; tap into it with some “swamp pop” at the Blue Dog Café, a zydeco dance party at Vermilionville, or a Creole jam at the Blue Moon Saloon. When you’re done dancing, curl up with a good book—Lafayette was voted second best for bookstores like husband-and-wife-run Alexander Books.
No. 3 Charlottesville, VA
The University of Virginia was not only designed and founded by Thomas Jefferson, but it’s also the only beautiful campus named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That stately attractiveness extends to downtown Charlottesville itself, where a brick-paved pedestrian mall is the place to meet for shopping, gallery-browsing, dining, and drinking. You might start the day with a currant donut at the Albemarle Baking Company, then slip into your running shoes for a jog up Observatory Hill. Come evening, slip over to the Whiskey Jar, featuring more than 125 kinds of bourbon, rye, whiskey, and scotch. It’s a decidedly grown-up spot to strike up a conversation with locals, voted No. 1 for intelligence, yet still approachable—among hundreds of towns, Charlottesville came in at No. 24 for friendliness.
No. 4 Fort Collins, CO
The untamed Cache La Poudre River apparently isn’t the only thing to run wild through Fort Collins: the home of Colorado State University was also voted No. 5 for “wild weekends” by T+L readers. Some credit goes to the abundance of destination breweries, both big (Anheuser-Busch, New Belgium) and small (Black Bottle, Equinox). At the Bike Library, check out a free set of wheels and pick up an itinerary for an eight-stop brewery tour. End the day at Social, an underground speakeasy in Old Town serving a toothsome menu of nibbles, including blistered shishito peppers, roasted bone marrow, and charcuterie plates.
No. 5 Duluth, MN
Duluth grew up around the world’s largest freshwater port, Lake Superior, where captains of industry built magnificent mansions (many are now B&Bs), and immigrant dockworkers loaded ships with ore from Minnesota’s nearby Iron Range. Today the waterfront Canal Park is Duluth’s most popular destinations for tourists and locals alike, who grab a seat on the deck at Grandma’s Saloon & Grill to sip one of the dozen or so local microbrews and watch the Aerial Lift Bridge rise to let ships through, just like it has for nearly 110 years. And while the winters are frigid in Duluth, you’re bound to get a warm welcome from this town ranked 22nd for friendly people.
No. 6 Saratoga Springs, NY
In its heyday, Saratoga Springs was overrun with tourists looking to take the cure at one of the area’s many natural hot-spring spas—and place a few horse-racing bets on the side. You can still partake of the effervescent waters, but the new carbonated liquid of choice is locally brewed beer, like Druthers Brewing’s Fist of Karma Brown ale or Olde Saratoga Brewing’s Imperial Stout. The famous racetrack still attracts big crowds in summer, when the city also hosts the New York City Ballet.
No. 7 Asheville, NC
The mountain town of Asheville was once the playground of scion George Vanderbilt, who loved the area’s climate and fresh air; more than a hundred years later, his Biltmore Estate draws a million visitors annually. Wander the downtown streets to view the largest collection of Art Deco architecture in the Southeast (outside of Miami) before grabbing a beer over bluegrass or Irish music at Jack of the Wood. If craft cocktails are your drink of choice, your table waits on the rooftop of stylish Social Lounge. And if it’s a Friday, join locals—voted No. 5 for quirkiness—at the drum circle in Pritchard Park.
No. 8 Flagstaff, AZ
Route 66 passes through downtown Flagstaff, a high-elevation town of ponderosa pines, starry skies, and pioneer history. Begin with a walk around the five-square-block Historic Railroad District, where old brick buildings house restaurants, hotels, art galleries, and shops surrounding Heritage Square. With the San Francisco Peaks just minutes away, active types can be found skiing the Arizona Snowbowl in winter, then hiking or biking its trails in summer—all reasons why Flagstaff earned the No. 13 ranking for adventure vacations. After a day playing in the mountains, locals head to the Beaver Street Brewing Co. for a Hopshot IPA and wood-fired pizza.
No. 9 San Luis Obispo, CA
The vibrant center of this college town, just a few miles inland from the Pacific, is Higuera Street, which closes off traffic every Thursday evening (except Thanksgiving) for its popular farmers’ market—featuring organic produce, fresh-cut flowers, entertainment, and some of the best tri-tip BBQ on the West Coast. Bishop Peak is a popular and somewhat challenging four-mile round-trip hike, with views well worth the effort. Another favorite attraction in SLO, as it’s called, is the Sunset Drive-In Theater, which has been showing films on its outdoor screen for more than 60 years.
No. 10 Boulder, CO
Boulder is synonymous with mountain-bike riding, trail-running, and mountain-climbing outdoor enthusiasts. But the University of Colorado Boulder’s hometown has also become a magnet for entrepreneurs and high-tech geeks with a taste for seasonal artisanal brews (it was voted No. 7 for craft beers) and seasonal farm-to-table fare. Within town limits alone there are about 40,000 acres of preserved open space and 200 miles of trails under the gaze of the adjoining Flatiron foothills. The downtown Pearl Street Mall is lined with stores, boutiques, galleries, and restaurants that attract a colorful crowd; the Monday-night prix fixe community table at The Kitchen is a great place to mingle.
No. 11 Santa Cruz, CA
As befits a town voted No. 2 for quirky residents, University of California Santa Cruz proudly flaunts its official mascot: the banana slug. But there’s plenty more to boast about. Santa Cruz has world-class waves for surfing, mountain-bike trails that wind for miles through the redwoods, and a beachside amusement park that feeds a thriving tourist economy. Just down the hill from the university, Burger is packed with hungry locals washing down burgers with one of the dozens of beer on tap. Downtown, there’s almost always a line out the door at the Penny Ice Creamery, where you can buy a cone, then head to Pacific Avenue for some first-rate people-watching.
No. 12 St. Augustine, FL
St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited town in the U.S., has never shied away from its touristy pirate past, especially in the kitschy shops, restaurants, and bars fronting St. George Street, the heart of the Colonial Spanish district. But hop in one of the horse-drawn buggies near the commanding Castillo de San Marcos Fort for a tour of the town’s more genteel era, when oil tycoon Henry Flagler built extravagant hotels like the Alcazar (now a museum) and the Ponce de Leon, reborn as Flagler College—a couple of examples of why the city ranks No. 6 for architecture. “Floribbean” cuisine is king here, so try the Gypsy Cab Co. on Anastasia Island for seafood Cuban with black beans and rice.
No. 13 Burlington, VT
The birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, consistently named one of the most livable places in the country, is a politically progressive four-college town that attracts all manner of artists, professionals, activists, and outdoor enthusiasts. The recently restored waterfront is filled in summer with joggers, cyclists, and boaters, and picnickers who come to watch the sun set over New York’s Adirondacks to the west. In winter, T+L readers voted it No. 18 for skiing. Downtown, the Church Street Marketplace is a pedestrian mall packed with sidewalk cafés, hip boutiques, and relaxed bars.
No. 14 Annapolis, MD
The Maryland State House is where business gets done, but City Dock is where locals come to eat blue-crab cakes, drink beer, take in the parade of yachts puttering up and down Ego Alley, and watch the sun set over the Chesapeake Bay. This cobblestoned, history-steeped town is 140 years older than nearby D.C., and home to the U.S. Naval Academy—as well as ranked No. 14 by readers for its historical sites. The Ram’s Head Tavern is the go-to spot for tasty pub food and nightly live music by well-known touring performers, while Carrol’s Creek Café serves seafood along with some of the best views on the waterfront.
No. 15 Ann Arbor, MI
Ann Arbor has the look and feel of College Town USA, with neighborhoods of beautiful old homes on tree-lined streets surrounding a downtown loaded with restaurants, bars, and stores. (A 1980s mural of writers still adorns the wall of one former bookshop.) When the weather is nice, the rooftop of the Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery is a popular gathering spot. When you want to get in out of the cold, browse the shops within Nickels Arcade’s glass-covered atrium. And any time of the year, you can catch live music—folk, bluegrass, acoustic rock, even Caribbean—at The Ark, one of the oldest nonprofit acoustic clubs in the country.
No. 16 Williamsburg, VA
You can’t escape the past in Williamsburg, where the College of William and Mary was founded in 1693 and the restored 300-acre Colonial District draws hordes of tourists, many with kids in tow (it was ranked No. 16 for family vacations). There are plenty of pubs and taverns slinging mugs of local ales; try the Green Leaf Café for the variety, and check out the nightly gambol (18th-century singing, music, and games) at Chowning’s Tavern. But the area has also become a destination for Chardonnay sippers, who stop at the Williamsburg Winery for tastings of the local vintages—usually after an afternoon of browsing the specialty shops at Merchants Square, adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg.
No. 17 Bozeman, MT
Cowboy chic meets collegiate funky on the streets of Bozeman, especially downtown Main Street, where venerable old dive bars share historic brick facades with light-filled galleries, spendy boutiques, and upscale restaurants. The mountains that surround Bozeman, including the popular Bridger Bowl Ski Area, made it the No. 2 choice for ski vacations. Yellowstone is less than 100 miles to the south. After a day of strenuous shopping or leisurely hiking, stop in at Plonk for house-made pappardelle with grilled fennel, tomato confit, green beans, and ricotta.
No. 18 Boone, NC
Appalachian State University is the biggest employer in quiet little Boone, though most tourists come here to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway and surrounding mountains—some of the highest peaks in the Appalachian range. The campus sits next to the compact, walkable downtown, where students, locals, and tourists congregate to browse the antiques stores, eat pulled pork and tomato pie at Proper, or pick up a pair of hiking shoes at Footsloggers.
No. 19 Athens, GA
The buzz about Athens centers mostly on its music scene. This is, after all, where R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic, and Indigo Girls all started out. But lately, the home of the University of Georgia and its football-crazy Bulldogs fans is becoming quite the culinary hot spot, with about 60 restaurants and nearly 100 bars in the downtown area. Sunday brunch at Mama’s Boy is guaranteed to take the edge off a late-night Saturday at the World Famous.
No. 20 Oxford, MS
Oxford is as passionate about literature as it is about sports playbooks. This is the hometown of both William Faulkner and Ole Miss football. At Square Books, a local treasure on Courthouse Square, you can pick up a signed novel by part-time resident and best-selling author John Grisham. Then stroll the lovely grounds of Archie Manning’s alma mater, or visit Faulkner’s lovingly restored Greek Revival home at Rowan Oak. Kick off the evening with a cocktail on the balcony at Bouré, overlooking the square, and dinner downstairs courtesy of the James Beard Award–winning chef John Currence. Or tune into a sports game or live concert at Proud Larry’s, one of America’s best college bars, founded by Ole Miss alums.