10 Best “Hidden Gem” College Towns in the U.S.

When it comes to evaluating a college, many people consider its size, academic programs, reputation and rankings, cost, campus activities, culture, and, of course, location.

Location is key when searching for a school, and it can make or break a college experience. That’s why we rounded up the 10 best “hidden gem” college towns in the U.S.

When compiling a list of the top “hidden gem” college towns, we looked at towns with the best student life, culture, and activity in combination with reputable local colleges and universities.

Our goal for this list is to highlight cities that, although beloved by their residents and students, are rising in reputation throughout the country for their excellence as quality college towns.

These hidden gems represent some of the finest cities one could study in at the undergraduate or, in some cases, the graduate level.

Without further ado, here are our top 10 hidden gem college towns:

10. Rome, Georgia

photo by Thomson200 via Wikimedia Commons

Not Rome, Italy. We’re talking about Rome, Georgia, a town tucked in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s about and hour-and-a-half drive from Atlanta. Berry College is just a 10-minute drive to the historic downtown area, and Shorter University is even closer.

In downtown Rome, you’ll find plenty to eat and drink, including breweries, rooftop bars, ice cream shops, and food trucks.

If you’re looking to get active, rent some bikes and pedal along the Downtown Heritage Trail, where you’ll see all three of the city’s rivers. There’s also plenty of nearby hiking, kayaking, tubing, and camping options.

Each year, Rome hosts a number of big events, including its Spring Art Market, Spirit of the Sun Festival, and bull-riding competition.

Home to: Berry College, Shorter University, Georgia Highlands College, and Georgia Northwestern Technical College


9. Charleston, Illinois

Eastern Illinois – photo by Bubba73 (Jud McCranie) via Wikimedia Commons

Charleston, Illinois, calls itself “Downstate Illinois’ biggest secret,” and one of its main features, Eastern Illinois University, ranks No. 8 on U.S. News and World Report’s list of top public schools in the Midwest.

The city of Charleston is about three hours from Chicago and two hours from St. Louis and Indianapolis. Charleston’s downtown square is home to a number of local shops and restaurants. Around various corners, you’ll find impressive murals depicting the city’s rich history.

A huge part of Charleston centers upon Eastern Illinois University students. That’s because 44.1 percent of the town’s population is 18 to 24 years old. In fact, WalletHub recently named Charleston a top college town due to its high number of part-time jobs, which is perfect for students. Housing costs were also some of the lowest in the country.

Here’s a fun fact: John Liautaud, a former Eastern Illinois University student, founded the first Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in Charleston, Illinois, in 1983.

Home to: Eastern Illinois University


8. Davidson, North Carolina

photo by Dacoslett via Wikimedia Commons

The town of Davidson, North Carolina, was actually founded after the school, which simply emphasizes the important role the school plays in the tight-knit community. Students can easily walk to the downtown area, which features a number of locally owned coffee shops, restaurants and shops.

The Kindred, which was voted one of the South’s top restaurants by Southern Living, offers a cozy spot to grab a craft cocktail or celebrate a special occasion. If you want something a little more low-key, stop by The Soda Shop diner, which has been a town staple since 1951.

At the center of everything, you’ll find The Village Green, which hosts many of Davidson’s annual events, including concerts. On Saturdays, you’ll find a farmer’s market, where you can stock up on local eggs, produce, baked goods, and flowers.

Not too far away, you can enjoy Lake Norman, and Charlotte is only a 30-minute drive, making the small town readily accessible for out-of-town visitors who are flying in.

Home to: Davidson College

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