Visit these thriving college towns for a crash course in live music, craft beer, art, and history
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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