Back to School - Visiting College Towns

What is it about the crisp air of the fall that makes me want to take a road trip to a college town? Football, tailgates, wool sweaters, bonfires and falling leaves are all images that take me back to my college days.  Having spent much of the last five years looking at schools for my three children, we have traveled to fifteen different states looking at countless campuses and college towns.  It must be something about the environment of academia but almost all of them were places I enjoyed visiting and many are places I would recommend for a weekend trip whether or not you were visiting with a prospective student. Without claiming to be unbiased, my top five favorite college towns are:

Photo of the University of Virginia by Fotopedia
1) Charlottesville, Virginia - Home of the University of Virginia, my alma mater. None of my children opted to go here, but Charlottesville will always be one of the top college towns in my book (it also regularly makes the various top ten lists of best college towns). With the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the architecture of Thomas Jefferson, the campus is breathtakingly beautiful. The Charlottesville area has grown significantly since my years there and it is a vibrant community with many cultural and historic offerings.   On "The Grounds" of the University, don't miss the Rotunda, the Lawn or the stately Pavilions that line the Lawn.  Check out the dorm rooms on the Lawn where select students still live and must walk outside to get to the bathroom. While in Charlottesville, Monticello, Jefferson's home, is a must see.  Stay at the Boars Head Inn or Keswick Hall. Eat at The Virginian, a favorite with students and professors since 1923 or The Local.

Photo of Georgetown University via Wikimedia Commons

2) Georgetown/Washington, DC - While Washington isn't strictly a college town (although with five major universities there, it certainly could be considered one), the area of Georgetown is very much a college neighborhood. On the banks of the Potomac, the gothic buildings of Georgetown University take up 100 acres in the neighborhood.  Beyond the academic and cultural offerings of the University,  Georgetown is only a short distance from the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, the Capitol and all the other amenities of the nation's capital.  The majority of the museums in DC are free, making them easily accessible for students.  The area around the campus is filled with the finest shopping and restaurants in DC. Don't miss walking around the cobblestone streets with elegant rowhouses and along the historic C&O canal. The Washington Harbor area along the Potomac riverfront park is a  relaxing place to hang out on a pretty Fall day. Stay at the Ritz Carlton Georgetown when you visit. Eat and drink at one of the many restaurants and bars along Wisconsin Avenue and M street (we like Clydes - a Georgetown institution), but don't miss the cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake or the coffee drinks at Baked and Wired.
Photo of University of Colorado, Boulder via Google Images
3) Boulder, Colorado - Home of the University of Colorado, Boulder has become a mecca for people who love the outdoors.  Because of it's proximity to the Rocky Mountains, hikers, mountain climbers and skiers flock to the University and the town.  With a student population of nearly 46,000 out of a total population of 95,000, it is to be expected that there are a lot of student oriented activities in town. Many of those are centered around the campus and the Hill area near campus. Boulder is also home to several film festivals. One pleasant surprise about Boulder is the high quality of restaurants in the area - it seems to be a mecca for foodies as well as outdoorsmen. Be sure to check out Pearl Street - a pedestrian mall with many shops and restaurants with outdoor seating where you can observe the various street performers. The Dushanbe Tea House near Pearl Street is a great place to relax - it has a gorgeous hand carved and painted ceiling from Tajikistan. Stay at the St Julien Hotel and Spa. Dine at The Kitchen and don't miss breakfast at Lucile's.

Photo of Providence via Google Images
4) Providence, Rhode Island - Home to four colleges - Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College and Johnson and Wales University, Providence isn't a town you often see on any of the "Ten Best College Towns" lists.  Since my youngest son just started his first year at Brown, I have recently spent quite a bit of time in Providence and, as a result, feel that it is a college town that is highly underrated. The College Hill area where Brown University is located is quaint and charming with many gorgeous federal style homes reminiscent of historic Charleston or Newport.  With RISD in town, there is the renowned RISD Museum along with a lot of fun, artsy shops. The Rhode Island Historical Society showcases Rhode Island's Colonial past.  We have been very impressed with the high quality of restaurant choices in Providence - maybe it's because of Johnson and Wales, the respected university for the hotel and restaurant industry, is in town or maybe academic types just love great food.  We have already found two excellent restaurants (Red Stripe and Parkside) and are looking forward to trying many more that have been recommended, particularly some of the Italian ones on Federal Hill, Providence's Little Italy.  There are several large hotel chains (Westin, Marriott, Renaissance) in Downtown Providence and several B&B's in the College Hill area, so there is no shortage of places to stay when visiting. Try to go in the summer or fall when WaterFire is happening - it is one of the most unique experiences I have had in a while - well worth a trip in and of itself.

Photo via Colgate University

5) Hamilton, New York - Colgate University is located in Hamilton, which is a very small town with not a whole lot going on beyond the University. I admit complete bias here as my daughter graduated from Colgate in 2011.  While she was there, I spent many wonderful fall weekends exploring the area around Colgate, so it would be crazy for me not to include it in my list of best college towns.  Hamilton is a quaint little town with probably the prettiest college campus in the country as it's centerpiece.  Because of Colgate's presence in Hamilton there is a lot more going on than in most small rural towns. What other town of 3,500 residents can say they had Bill Clinton speak there one year and the Dalai Lama the next? The Picker Art Gallery at Colgate and The Palace Theater performing arts center are two other cultural attractions in town.  In my opinion, the Central New York region is extremely underrated and is often passed over amidst all the other attractions in New York State. It is a beautiful area offering many cultural activities and gorgeous scenery. Not too far from Hamilton is the Earlville Opera House, the antiques shopping of Madison, historic Cazenovia and Cooperstown, with the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Fenimore Art Museum.  In Hamilton, stay at The Colgate Inn, which has been recently renovated, or a little B&B called The Guest House at Weathervane Farm, which is truly lovely.  Book way ahead if you will be there for family weekend, reunions or graduation. Go to Rusch's for lunch or the Hamilton Inn for dinner.  Be sure to stop in to Swank for fun and eclectic home decor and accessories.

Edit - Here are some top college towns in Europe.