World's Most Beautiful Universities
Trinity College in Dublin epitomizes our collective vision of a university campus. Here, cobblestoned paths wind among elegant stone 18th- and 19th-century buildings, bicycle racks edge grassy sports fields, and shade trees surround flowering gardens.
There are good reasons why Trinity fits our traditional idea of what a college campus should look like. University designs, after all, are deeply tied to a nation’s history and identity—in fact, they can be seen as architectural monuments to a country’s relationship with learning and education. So for many of us, it feels fitting that a university’s campus should reflect a certain dignity and grandeur.
But there are many kinds of historically relevant design—and just as many ways in which a campus can be beautiful. On the West Coast, for instance, Stanford University’s Mission revival buildings, with their red tile roofs and sandstone walls, are impressive in a way that is distinctly Californian. Peking University in Beijing, meanwhile, has students enter the campus through an ornately painted gate guarded by stone lions—a nod to traditional Chinese architecture.
Some universities choose to embrace more modern architectural and design elements on their campuses—perhaps to signify their evolving relationship with schooling. At the University of Rostock in Germany, for example, turn-of-the-century redbrick Neo-Renaissance structures share the campus with new, streamlined buildings of glass and steel. Newer universities, like Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, often showcase striking contemporary structures by today’s star architects; its School of Art, Design, and Media, built by the locally based CPG Corporation, has won design awards and is also a model for ecologically sustainable architecture.
Still other universities put as much design focus on their green spaces as they do their buildings. The Aarhus University in Denmark, for example, is in the midst of enhancing its hilly and parklike landscape with extensive modern botanical gardens. At the University of Western Australia’s Perth campus, meanwhile, pine trees surround an outdoor auditorium, and ponds and gardens frame an amphitheater used for dance and music performances.
We’ve strived to incorporate all these forms of beauty—architectural, historical, environmental—in our list of the world’s most beautiful universities. If we missed your favorite, post a comment below.
Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Built in 1931 by three Danish architects, this 30-acre campus located in waterfront Aarhus is beautiful in its uniformity: while buildings differ in size and height—some are low-rise and square, others have pitched roofs and soaring glass windows—the architecture shares cohesive elements like yellow brick and tile roofs. The surrounding bucolic grounds include a grass-stepped amphitheater and a university park with rolling green lawns. In the works are indoor and outdoor botanical gardens, connected by open-air walkways and anchored by a striking glass greenhouse that will house tropical plants.
Coimbra University, Coimbra, Portugal
An iron-gated entryway opens up to cobblestoned courtyards at this hilltop university, where the architecture is reflective of Portugal’s long and artistically diverse history. The 1517 Capela de San Miguel, for example, incorporates thousands of traditionally hand-painted tiles; the Baroque Biblioteca Joanina, built in 1717, has bookcases made of Brazilian wood originally shipped overseas from Portugal’s new world settlements. German-turned-Portuguese architect João Frederico Ludovice built the university’s Baroque-style tower in 1728; though currently closed for repairs, its narrow, 115-foot spiral staircase leads to spectacular views over the surrounding city.
McGill University, Montreal
McGill’s 79-acre campus, punctuated by a series of pavilions that were built over hundreds of years, has a unified design derived from the college’s Scottish roots (the school was founded by Scottish trader James McGill in 1821). Many of the buildings have commanding stone walls and pitched copper roofs; the Gothic-style Faculty of Religious Studies building, with its stained-glass windows and wood-paneled interior, is especially impressive. The school applies an annual six-figure budget toward green-minded student programs, such as the Edible Campus, a former 1,000-square-foot concrete plaza–turned–garden that provides both aesthetic beauty and produce for needy Montreal residents.
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
At this top-ranked engineering school, paths lined with palm and durian fruit trees link contemporary buildings, such as the School of Art, Design, and Media—a four-story glass building with an open courtyard, reflecting pool, and grass-covered roof that doubles as an outdoor communal space. Classrooms are also cutting edge. Instead of whiteboards, many learning centers have interactive screens; and thanks to design and technology–focused student group Cool Campus, a series of learning pods with modular furniture, movable power outlets, dozens of LCD screens, and glass writing boards have opened. Plans for a light-rail system are also in the works.
Peking University, Beijing
This central Beijing University is heralded for its traditional Chinese architecture, exemplified by its West Gate entryway: stone lions guard the ornately carved wall and doorway, which are painted with Chinese symbols and topped with a traditional timber roof. Inside, the 675-acre campus is studded with beautiful gardens, ponds, and huabiao, or traditional ceremonial columns. The school’s contemporary buildings, however, are striking, too; for instance, its Law building, built in 2010, has a patterned façade, made with local stone and cement, that filters harsh light.
Qatar Foundation’s Education City, Doha, Qatar
This 5.5-square-mile campus, housing branches of eight U.S. and European universities, is a showcase of works by today’s architectural stars. The imposing Georgetown University School of Foreign Service building, for example, was built by Mexico City–based architects Legoretta + Legorreta; Japanese architect Arata Isozaki created white-walled geometric lecture halls—some are egg-shaped, others are 12-sided polyhedrons—for the Weill Cornell Medical College. He also worked with architect Kazuhiro Kojima to design the Liberal Arts and Science Building, which, with its mosaic façade and geometric latticework walls and ceilings, offers a modern take on traditional Islamic designs.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Stanford’s mile-long, palm tree–lined drive and Mission revival architecture (incorporating sandstone walls and red-tile roofs) make its campus appear every bit as exclusive as it is. Among the famous buildings scattered throughout the 8,000-plus-acre campus are the hexagonal Hanna-Honeycomb House, built over a 25-year period by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Cantor Arts Center, home to 170 bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Additionally, Stanford lays claim to the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, five miles from the main campus, a nature reserve where hiking paths crisscross through Douglas fir and redwood forests.
Taroudant University (Polydisciplinar Faculty of Taroudant), Taroudant, Morocco
This starkly modern school, completed in 2010 in a walled city in southern Morocco, echoes the region’s traditional architecture while simultaneously modernizing it. The campus’s stark ocher structures—many of which feature interior rock gardens—surround a ryad, or central courtyard, connected by polished cement walkways. Grass and argan trees frame the campus, which overlooks the rugged Atlas Mountains.
Trinity College, Dublin
Even if the 47-acre Trinity College—one of the most popular tourist sites in Dublin—didn’t have cobblestoned streets, a sweeping green, and 18th- and 19th-century campus buildings, it would make our list for its Old Library. Founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1592, the library has a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a 215-foot Long Room, where rows of bookcases house more than 200,000 of the country’s oldest tomes. Fourteen marble busts of influential writers and philosophers, created by sculptor Peter Scheemakeres in 1743, also punctuate the bookcases.
University of Bologna, Italy
This northern Italian university, founded in 1088, has an urban campus that’s indistinguishable from its surrounding city blocks—a picturesque maze of medieval towers, redbrick buildings, and cobblestoned streets. A few of its buildings, though, are particularly famous for their individual beauty and attract many visitors. For example, its elegant Neoclassical greenhouses are home to tropical flora, beds of native flowers, and even carnivorous plants. The 1563 Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, with its columned walkway surrounding a central courtyard, currently houses more than 700,000 books and hundreds of hand-painted coats-of-arms.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Mexico City
Built between 1949 and 1952, UNAM made UNESCO’s World Heritage List for its 20th-century Modernism, use of local building materials, and artistic and architectural references to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic roots. The most distinctive attributes of the 2.8-square-mile central city campus—built collaboratively by more than 60 artists, architects, and engineers, many of whom were university students—are its murals by famous Mexicans such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Of those, the Central Library mosaic mural by artist Juan O’Gorman, who used tiles from all over Mexico to create a depiction of the country’s ancient history, may be the most striking.
The University of Oxford, England
This world-renowned campus, featuring a series of elegant quads and cloisters with stunning stone archways and stained-glass windows, attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. Among the points of interest on the university grounds (once called a “city of dreaming spires,” by British poet Matthew Arnold) are the iconic domed Radcliffe Camera (now a reading room for the Bodleian Library), the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, and the sprawling Botanic Gardens, which are the oldest in the U.K.
University of Rostock, Germany
Founded in 1419, Rostock, built in the historic heart of this Baltic seaport city, is the oldest university in Continental Northern Europe. Its campus buildings, though architecturally varied, are universally lovely: a redbrick Neo-Renaissance central building, erected in 1866, has arched windows, doorways, and stone statues; nearby, the library, built in 2004, has a splendid contemporary façade of glass and steel.
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
The Cavaliers take serious pride in the beauty of their Public Ivy’s campus, the heart of which was designed by Thomas Jefferson between 1817 and 1826 (the university opened to students in 1819). The property features the two-acre Lawn, surrounded by what Jefferson described as an “academic village”—rows of redbrick 18th-century rooms (it’s considered an honor to live in these small quarters, sans en suite bathrooms). The showpiece of the campus is its Rotunda, a stately Neoclassical building with Corinthian columns and a soaring dome—which other universities like Duke, Rice, and Johns Hopkins have used as inspiration for their own architecture.
University of Western Australia, Perth
Since its founding in 1914, this university’s plan was to have “buildings in a park,” a design aesthetic that still pervades the campus today. Along with open-air pedestrian walkways that spill out on green lawns, the campus includes the Somerville Auditorium, an outdoor stage where the thousand seats are framed by tall pine trees; and the sunken garden, with flower beds, ponds, and a grass-covered amphitheater, where plays and musical events are performed. Best of all, the campus is adjacent to Perth’s Swan River as well as the 988-acre Kings Park (home to more than 70 bird species).