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The Best College Towns in the U.S.

Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton is ideally positioned for a weekend getaway—equidistant from Philadelphiaand New York City, with Princeton University at its center. When the leaves turn on campus in the fall, the number of visitors always goes up—those Gothic buildings look best against a backdrop of oranges and ambers.

Eat: We love Teresa Caffe in Palmer Square for casual Italian, or Blue Point Grill for fresh seafood.

Stay: Try the Peacock Inn, a 16-room boutique hotel with a great restaurant helmed by Chef Maj Parvez. Nassau Inn is an old stand-by for alumni, just blocks from campus.

Play: Princeton University Art Museum, the Princeton Public Library, and McCarter Theatre Centre keep culture lovers happy, while outdoorsy types can visit Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park for canoeing, hiking, and fishing.

Athens, Georgia

The University of Georgia’s hometown is a slow-paced (yet increasingly cool) city in the heart of the state. With a growing number of chefs, musicians, and creative shop owners pouring in from the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, you might even consider skipping Atlanta altogether on your next trip to Georgia.

Eat: Visit 5&10 for modern Southern food, like Frogmore stew and pimento cheese. White Tiger Gourmet is everything you could want in a college town eatery, with hearty BBQ sandwiches and mismatched chairs hidden in a rickety old house. And go see if the artisan bread and pain au chocolat from Independent Baking Co. are worth the hype.

Stay: The Graduate Athens opened in 2014 under the Graduate Hotels brand, a company offering quirky, well-designed hotels in college towns across the country.

Play: Music fans should head to iconic event venue 40 Watt Club, where artists like R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls have performed since its 1978 opening. Also, make time for local favorite Ciné, a two-screen art house theater that doubles as a gallery and bar.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

A 45-minute drive west of Detroit, Ann Arbor is synonymous with the University of Michigan. During college football season, around 100,000 people descend on the Big House (the largest collegiate stadium in the country) to watch the Michigan Wolverines face off against their Big Ten rivals.

Eat: One of Ann Arbor’s most famous establishments is Zingerman’s, which opened its first outpost—a delicatessen—in 1982. Now, it has two other shops (the Roadhouse and Bakehouse) that also sell hearty comfort food. You could also pick up fruit and veggies at Ann Arbor’s Farmers Market or sample from the food trucks in the historic Kerrytown neighborhood.

Stay: The Bell Tower Hotel is a popular pick with university students and their families, thanks to its central location on UofM’s main campus. More quaint accommodations can be found at the Stone Chalet Bed and Breakfast, a country-style oasis in the middle of downtown.

Play: Ann Arbor has plenty of things for culture vultures to do: Visit the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) to see works by Sol LeWitt, Monet, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol, and more. The Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, also on campus, are excellent destinations for nature lovers.

Bloomington, Indiana

Bloomington is another charming Midwestern college town with a sports scene that sometimes seems to dominate the city’s other cultural offerings. But catching one of the Indiana University Hoosiers’ games isn’t the only thing to do in town: Bloomington is home to a growing tech scene, as well as plenty of quirky shops and cafes.

Eat: Beer lovers would do well to visit the Crazy Horse Food and Drink Emporium; its Around the World in 80 Beers program offers rewards for patrons who finish drafts of every brew on tap (yes, there are 80). Head to Feast Bakery Cafe for Sunday brunch, where you’ll find classic dishes (French toast, biscuits with jam and honey) alongside more creative options (chickpea crêpes, a breakfast tamale with tomatillo salsa).

Stay: Stay in a historic B&B close to the center of town, like Showers Inn (built in 1903) or environmentally friendly Persimmon Inn, which was built in 1905.

Play: Pate Hollow Trail is a ten-mile drive from downtown, and the Fairfax State Recreation Area just a short a drive south. There are also abundant cultural attractions, including the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health, and Technology, an interactive institution that’s great for families.

Williamsburg, Virginia

Although it may stand out in some minds as the site for middle school field trips and butter churning demonstrations, Williamsburg is a town of upscale restaurants, Virginia wines, and art museums—not to mention the lovely, tree-shrouded campus of The College of William & Mary.

Eat: Sample the chardonnays at the Williamsburg Winery, then have lunch overlooking the vineyards at the adjacent farm-to-table tavern. Located in the middle of the Colonial District, Fat Canary is known for its charming atmosphere and upscale, seasonal menu.

Stay: Splurge on one of the Colonial Houses, authentic 18th-century accommodations in Colonial Williamsburg, complete with with canopy beds and fireplaces.

Play: Get your culture fix at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and W&M’s Muscarelle Museum of Art. Drive a few miles outside of the city to Busch Gardens, a remarkably clean theme park divided into “hamlets” based on different European countries.

Berkeley, California

The University of California’s Berkeley campus is the oldest campus in the UC system; the university is also one of the biggest employers in the city. But the city is also known for its rebellious vibe, which was most prominent in the hippie-centric ’60s and ’70s but has also held true, to some degree, into the 21st century. Both the college and the counterculture influence the culture of Berkeley in equal measure.

Eat: You can’t talk about Berkeley without mentioning Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ pioneering farm-to-table restaurant, which has been open for more than 40 years. For one of the best brunches in town, head to La Note, whose menu takes inspiration from Provence for dishes like brioche pain perdu (French toast).

Stay: Though it’s a boutique hotel now, the Bancroft Hotel was once a campus building, used by the College Women’s Club starting in 1928. It has since been converted into a 22-room inn, and it takes pride in the fact that it’s eco-friendly; rooms feature organic bedding, locally-made toiletries, and energy-efficient appliances.

Play: Live music options exist in spades, but the best-known venue in Berkeley is UC’s Greek Theater, which has hosted a plethora of acts throughout the years. Amoeba Music, which opened over 25 years ago on Telegraph Avenue, remains one of the country’s most popular record shops. And you’d do well to hit the Berkeley Farmers Market, which has three locations throughout the city—the downtown market, open on Saturdays, is particularly popular.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Each year, 29,000 students descend on Chapel Hill, which basically doubles as the college campus, for basketball season (where Michael Jordan got his start). The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is among the oldest public universities in the U.S., but in recent years, the town has become renowned for its food scene and cultural attractions—not just its collegiate activities.

Eat: Maple View Farm has freshly made ice cream that’s worth skipping dinner for. We also enjoy James Beard Award-winning Lantern RestaurantSunrise Biscuits, which is so popular on the weekend, the line of cars at the drive-through stretches to the highway; and Top of the Hill, which doubles as a popular nightlife spot with great views down Franklin Street, Chapel Hill’s main drag.

Stay: For lodging, you can’t go wrong with the historic Carolina Inn located right on campus.

__Play:__The town that calls the North Carolina Tar Heels its own is home to a bustling music scene with great bands playing at Cat’s Cradle and Local 506 weekly. Activities abound, including the Morehead Planetarium (great for the whole family) and the beautiful North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Gainesville, Florida

There’s more to Gainesville than enviably warm weather, although that is a major draw. The University of Florida’s home also has state parks, diverse restaurants, and one of the biggest college football scenes in the country.

Eat: Go to Dragonfly for sushi and sake, The Top for burgers and vegetarian meals, or Manuel’s Vintage Room for Italian cuisine in a romantic setting.

Stay: Escape the college crowds at one of Magnolia Plantation’s cottages, with charming porches surrounded by Spanish moss.

Play: Watch the Florida Gators play at The Swamp (aka Ben Hill Griffin Stadium) for an unforgettable display of school spirit and football fervor. See the nature of Florida at one of the many state parks nearby, from the prehistoric sinkhole and rain forest of Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park to the sizable alligators of Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park.

thaca, New York

Yes, we know, “Ithaca is gorges,” but there’s more to this upstate New York town than its gorges (and pun potential). Home to two major institutions of higher learning—Ithaca College and Cornell University—the city also has plenty of non-college things to do, thanks to its proximity to the Finger Lakes.

Eat: Moosewood Restaurant, one of the most famous vegetarian eateries in the U.S., is located in downtown Ithaca. For more casual fare, the Ithaca Bakery has an impressive array of sandwiches, salads, and baked goods, made with local ingredients. Beer lovers should hit the Ithaca Beer Company‘s tap room, which serves some of the brewery’s most popular pints, including the hoppy Flower Power IPA.

Stay: The Argos Inn, a recently restored 19th-century mansion, isn’t big—there are only ten guest rooms. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in style, with each room outfitted with luxe linens and thoughtful decor touches (heated floors in the bathroom, Google Chromecast in the rooms, etc.). The adjacent bar offers a bevy of cocktails, both historic (the Scofflaw, a Prohibition-era cocktail created at Harry’s Bar in Paris) and modern (Fire Walk With Me, Audrey’s Crush, and other Twin Peaks-themed libations).

Play: You’d be remiss if you didn’t check out some of the many gorges in the area. They’re fed by a series of spectacular waterfalls—some of the best are Buttermilk Falls, Ithaca Falls, and Taughannock Falls. Yearly events at Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian mall downtown, include the Apple Harvest Festival in the fall, the Chili Cook-Off in the winter, and the Ithaca Festival in the summer. Angry Mom Records, located in the basement of a used bookstore, is a must visit for vinyl fiends; more than 20,000 LPs are in stock at any given time.