The 10 Best College Towns in the US

Some of the best destinations in America are in college towns. In fact, one of the most searched terms on Google relating to the subject is “best college towns for retirement.”

However, college towns are hardly just for the older generation; the best college towns in America are brimming with energy, innovation, and a lively environment appealing to both college students as well as working professionals alike.

It’s no secret some college towns are more desirable than others, which begs the question: what makes a great college town?

For this list, we have ranked the 10 best college towns in America based on quality of life metrics, which include performing arts, reasonable rents, safety, quality of resident schools, nightlife/restaurants, and more.

Here are 10 of the best college towns in the US.

Eau Claire, WI

Eau Claire
Itrytohelp32, Day Downtown Eau Claire, CC BY-SA 4.0

With a population of 65,000, Eau Claire is a moderate-sized college town offering a taste of everything; music festivals, a lively performing arts scene, museums, nature, and even a winter games festival.

In 2007, America’s Promise named Eau Claire one of the best cities for young people, and it is easy to see why. Over half a dozen music festivals call Eau Claire home, including Eau Claire Jazz Fest as well as the Blue Ox Music Festival.

One spectacle of Eau Claire is The Pablo Center at the Confluence, a performing arts venue with a 1,200 seat theatre, visual art galleries, rehearsal rooms, and more.

The University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire is quickly rising among the most respected public universities in the country, recently ranking in the top 150 public universities in the country by 

Located along the Eau Claire River, the city of Eau Claire is among the most dynamic college towns in the midwest.

Schools in Eau Claire: University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

Chapel Hill, NC

Chapel Hill
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Chapel Hill encompasses the best of an intimate “small town feel” with a larger-than-life culture of art, academia, nightlife, nature, and more.

The story of Chapel Hill begins with Franklin Street, the main thoroughfare of this historic city. Franklin Street is the center of Chapel Hill’s nightlife and restaurant scene; additionally, it is home to a number of intricate murals that have become iconic symbols of this famous college town.

In 2014, Chapel Hill was rated the “foodiest small town” by Bon Appétit alongside Durham, with the publication citing the high quality of farmer’s markets, restaurants, farms, and more.

Home to UNC-Chapel Hill, one of American’s great public universities, Chapel Hill has a little bit of something for everyone.

Schools in Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ann Arbor, MI

Ann Arbor
AndrewHorne, AnnArborLibertyStreet, CC BY 3.0

Few college towns in America are as dynamic as Ann Arbor, the city with world-famous food, nightclubs featuring national acts, a vibrant downtown, and the nation’s #1 public university in the country according to Niche

Starting with Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown district, few college towns have a delicatessen as beloved as Zingerman’s, which was visited in the last decade by none other than President Barack Obama. Kerrytown attractions include the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, a unique experience where, in contrast to most museums, the visitor is encouraged to touch everything.

Music is at the heart of the Ann Arbor experience. One of the nation’s most famous indie-rock clubs is in Ann Arbor, The Blind Pig, which has hosted the likes of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Soundgarden, and Joan Baez, among thousands of others.

Historically, Ann Arbor was associated with liberal politics, having taken a well-known stance against the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Since then, Ann Arbor has continued to be among the most liberal college towns in the country.

We wrote about Ann Arbor recently – discover 15 amazing facts about this famous college town.

Schools in Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Concordia University, Washtenaw Community College.

Ames, IA

Tim Kiser, Ames Iowa Main Street, CC BY-SA 2.5

Perhaps the embodiment of the picturesque midwest city, Ames’ population of 66,000 enjoy one of the most active & diverse college towns throughout the nation.

Ames frequently appears on numerous best-of lists, including CNN’s top-10 places to live in the US. In the last few years, Ames has also been recognized by 24/7 Wall Street as the nation’s top college town.

Many notable people grew up in Ames, including 2019 Heisman winner Joe Burrow, inventor George Washington Carver, Pulitzer-winning writer Jane Smiley, and numerous more.

Schools in Ames: Iowa State University

Auburn, AL

Alabama’s fastest-growing metropolitan area, Auburn is home to Auburn University, best known throughout America for their winning Tigers football culture.

With its favorable weather conditions, Auburn is a nature-lovers dream; home to Chewacla State Park, a 700-acre destination featuring a 26-acre lake as its centerpiece, Auburn has something for any outdoors type.

Auburn may be known for its college education, but don’t sleep on their public school system; recently ranked the city among the top 5% nationwide in terms of public school quality

One of Auburn’s top cultural attractions includes the Julie Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, an impressive gallery with over 40,000 square feet of space housing work by seminal artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Henri Matisse, and even Pablo Picasso.

Schools in Auburn: Auburn University

Terre Haute, IN

Home to four institutions of higher education, including Indiana State University as well as the Rose-Hulman Institute, Terre Haute is designated as an official “Tree City USA,” with 1,000+ acres of golf courses, trails, parks, and outdoors recreation.

Terre Haute is the college town for the outdoors-oriented; one local favorite is the National Road Heritage Trail, a several-dozen mile trail with a portion in Terre Haute extending into other Indiana towns and counties.

Another international event held in Terre Haute is their air show, a spectacle with 55,000+ tickets sold in 2018.

The fabric of Terre Haute lies within its higher education institutions. Rose-Hulman is widely considered among the best independent engineering schools worldwide. Indiana State University, a rising public institution, is certified by the Carnegie Classification as a high research university, a designation given to less than 5% of all educational institutions nationwide.

Colleges in Terre Haute: Indiana State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Ivy Tech Community College

Burlington, VT

Burlington, Vermont
Jared and Corin, Burlington, Vermont, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of America’s most forward-thinking college towns, in 2015 Burlington became the nation’s first city to be entirely powered by renewable energy.

However, what makes Burlington special is much more than its progressive stance on politics and technology; once you get to know Burlington, you realize it is undoubtedly one of America’s great hidden gem cities.

Local music & art is at the heart of the Burlington experience. A number of highly-publicized events occur annually in Burlington, including the South End Art Hop, a collaboration between artists and businesses displaying art and installations throughout the city.

Burlington has historically been home to a number of alternative rock bands, most notably Phish who formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont. Other well-known bands with roots and connections to the city include Vermont-formed Dispatch, Strangefolk, and electronic musician Greg Davis.

True to the spirit of Vermont, Burlington residents embrace the city’s nature offerings, including the historic Lake Champlain.

One of New England’s top universities, the University of Vermont is widely regarded a “public ivy,” a designation comparing its public education quality to that of an Ivy League university. 

Colleges in Burlington: University of Vermont, Champlain College

College Station, TX

Rated by Money Magazine in the mid-2000s as the most-educated city in Texas, College Station is home to Texas A&M, one of the nation’s finest public universities.

In 1982, College Station initiated The Big Event, the largest one-day community service event nationwide; it has been an ongoing tradition continuing to the present. Each year, thousands of A&M students and community members give thanks to their local community, offering to do yard-work, house painting, and more for free.

This event summarizes the feeling of Texas A&M succinctly, which can be described as giving big for themselves and others.

Perhaps the area that best exemplifies what College Station has to offer is the city’s Northgate district, a mixed-use area with restaurants, churches, and businesses alike. Live music and nightlife are the major draws to this area, providing a substantial economic boost to this special part of Texas.

Colleges in College Station: Texas A&M University

Waltham, MA

Brandeis University
Leo Felici, Brandeis University Admissions Night, CC BY-SA 3.0

Home to two of America’s great universities, Brandeis and Bentley, Waltham is an amazing college town.

The pulse of this college town is perhaps best summarized by Moody Street, Waltham’s nightlife epicenter comprising many of Massachusetts’ finest eateries, music venues, and even a famous comic book store. Moody Street is often referred to as “restaurant row.”

Brandeis and Bentley are Waltham’s two universities; Bentley is widely regarded among the top business specialty schools in the east coast, while Brandeis is a world-class research university ranked in the top 40 schools nationwide according to US News.

Nicknamed “watch city,” Waltham has historically been associated with the watch industry, having been home in the early 20th-century to the Waltham Watch Company. 

Located just 10 miles from Boston, Waltham is home to just two of Greater Boston’s 60+ higher education institutions. 

Colleges in Waltham: Brandeis University, Bentley University

Madison, WI

Madison is among the fastest-growing cities in the midwest with a burgeoning entrepreneurship community, having been recently ranked the #1 city in the country for tech growth

Additionally, it is home to one of America’s top 10 public universities, the University of Wisconsin at Madison. With a strong economy combined with an active performing arts scene & highly-rated nightlife, Madison is the #1 college town in the country.

Madison has been historically associated with liberal politics, having once earned the nickname “The Berkeley of the midwest.” In recent years, the city continues to generally vote democrat and take a progressive stance on modern-day social issues.

Madison is perhaps the midwest’s finest city for food; it is home to a number of restaurants that have won one of American’s top culinary accolades, the James Beard award, including farm-to-table concept L’Etoile.

The music scene in Madison is nothing short of incredible, with dozens of venues housing musical acts on a weekly or nightly basis, including High Noon Saloon, Mickey’s Tavern, Crystal Corner Bar, Majestic Theatre, the Wisco, the Great Dane, and more.

Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a highly-rated top-10 public university considered the finest in all of Wisconsin.

Colleges in Madison: University of Wisconsin, Madison, Edgewood College, Madison Area Technical College

Research for this article includes town & county websites, Wikipedia, and College Values Online

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