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Charming College Towns With Off-Campus Appeal

By Kathryn O'Shea-Evans

08.15.19

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Remember to pack your surfboard the next time you head to Missoula, Montana.

Courtesy of Destination Missoula

Remember to pack your surfboard the next time you head to Missoula, Montana.

Whether you’re touring colleges with your kids or there for extracurricular activities, these towns offer A+ fun.

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There’s only one thing more fun than a college town and that’s a college town without any homework in sight. When you visit these seven endearing places—all chockablock with new things to eat, sip, and do—the only assignments will be extracurricular, whether you want to nosh on Appalachian-inspired bagels, drink a wood-fired local beer (yes, you read that right), or crack a book (for fun, of course).

Ann Arbor, Michigan

This UMich hometown is a Midwestern hub for creative types, brimming with artsy entertainment offerings—such as the 94,000-square-foot University of Michigan Museum of Art, where the collection includes furniture by Michigan design legend Florence Knoll. Stay at throwback-themed Graduate Ann Arbor (a hotel chain that specializes in college settings), adjacent to the UMich campus. The hotel is home to a Poindexter Coffee, lined with cheeky vintage oil portraits, and a five-minute walk from Literati Books, a shop that lures locals with reading groups, coffee, and a public typewriter among shelves of books. Or check in at EVEN Hotel, set to open this September with sleek rooms (expect concrete design touches galore) housed in an old Holiday Inn Express revamped to the tune of $5 million.

Both hotels are prime launchpads for a night on the town. For dinner, head directly to the Blue Llama Jazz Club, which opened this spring and is arguably the most foodie-focused new restaurant in the Midwest; you can bite into crispy foie gras PB&Js (made with Michigan strawberry jam) or crawfish étouffée croquettes while local artists like Detroit’s Gwen Laster Quartet take the stage. Afterwards, follow the hip students beelining to newly opened Lo-Fi, a subterranean concert venue and cocktail bar, to dance to Motown sets into the wee hours.

William Faulkner did many of the renovations himself on his Oxford home, Rowan Oak.
Oxford, Mississippi 

Oxford is most famous for two things: William Faulkner (whose 1844 home, Rowan Oak, is open for tours) and football. But if literary and sports legends don’t do it for you, don’t worry; there’s plenty to see in the home of Ole Miss.

Insiders stay at one of two new hot spots: The Chancellor’s House, a 38-room boutique hotel that opened in 2017 with rooms tricked out to pamper (the sheets are Rivolta Carmignani Egyptian cotton and each bathroom is fitted with a standalone soaking tub), or the Graduate Oxford, where rooftop cocktail bar The Coop offers  Manhattans and Negronis barrel-aged for 45 days in new French oak. Happily, both hotels are a quick stroll from the esteemed Square Books, an independent bookseller that’s been locally slinging lit since 1979, now operating three locations (albeit all within a few feet of one another).

For dinner, stop in at Saint Leo, a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, run by California expat Emily Blount. Your assignment: order the gulf shrimp spaghetti in a white wine sauce with garlic-rubbed housemade grilled bread, then spend the evening at Blount’s newly opened Saint Leo Lounge—set in the former offices of the Oxford Eagle newspaper.

In the morning, don’t leave the area without taking the eight-minute drive south of downtown to Wonderbird Spirits, launched this spring, where you can tour the distillery and witness the transformation of Mississippi Delta rice into gin.

Ditch the Dining Hall: U.S. College Towns With A+ Restaurants

Missoula, Montana

When Norman Maclean wrote, “The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana,” he wasn’t entirely wrong. Tucked in the rolling, grassy foothills of the Bitterroot mountain range, the University of Montana’s hometown has an easygoing vibe that’s downright addictive. That could have something to do with the Clark Fork River that wends through town, or the hike to the top of  “the M” trail (and gain 620 feet in elevation) with a view of the valley, or maybe the profusion of microbreweries. Take newly launched Gild Brewing, an operation that took over the 1972 Crystal Theater, where you’ll find a basement arcade and housemade beers with toast-able names (you want the “Sweet Nectah”). 

Fuel up with a locavore, pasture-raised burger at the new Wally & Buck (classicists will love the Original Gangster, but more inventive eaters may want to go for the Wally, topped with bacon jam) before heading to the Western Cider Co. In the mornings,  you can join its Yoga & Cider class that ends with you sipping your pick of its brews, from Whiskey Peach Cider to Sour Cherry Cider, made with the fruits of 4,500 cultivar heirloom apple trees. Stay at the just-opened Residence Inn Missoula Downtown, which was partially constructed using timber from the site’s former occupant, the Missoula Mercantile. (Bonus: each room has a kitchen, Netflix-stocked smart TVs, and Paul Mitchell toiletries.) Another plus? The hotel is right around the block from Fact and Fiction, a old-school bookshop on Higgins Avenue that offers a thoughtfully selected inventory and comfy sofas for lingering. 

The Flatirons offer hiking options outside Boulder or great views from town.
Boulder, Colorado

If you’re a mountain mama (or papa), there’s perhaps no more exciting college town in the nation than Boulder. For one thing, some 45,000 acres of parks with hiking and biking trails lure from the town itself. (We heartily recommend a quick trek up to the craggy sandstone Flatirons, rocky formations that jut out from the Front Range like they’ve got places to be.)

But even if you’d rather ditch hiking boots for heels, you won’t be disappointed. A new outpost of Aspen’s tony Steakhouse 316 has opened near downtown’s car-free Pearl Street, and it’s already a favorite for fireside Manhattans (the menu offers five versions, including the Daddy Warbucks, complete with a gold-dipped cherry). On Pearl, you’ll find the formidable 20,000-square-foot Boulder Bookstore, which Publishers Weekly named 2018 Bookstore of the Year and where, back in the day, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg gave readings. Down the street, shops like Canoe Club cater to a very different crowd, young Ralph Lauren-goes-to-college types, looking for wares like Japan-made acetate souvenir jackets and Yuketen moccasins, hand-sewn in Maine. 

Ask for a guest room overlooking the Flatirons at the St. Julien Hotel & Spa, where Boulder visitors bunk for access to its indoor lap pool and 10,000-square-foot spa (treatments include lemon-mimosa sugar scrubs and, this being Colorado, CBD massages). For dinner, head across the street to Arcana for dishes like venison tartare and wood-grilled rib eye.

Need to hit reset after a night of back-to-back Tequila Blossom cocktails with elderflower liqueur at The Bitter Bar? Then head directly to Wonder Press, where nut milks (like Yam Spice Latte) and juices (like Blue Lagoon, with lavender and live algae) are served in recycled glass bottles.

Eugene, Oregon

Eugene’s hippie heyday is still revving like onetime resident Ken Kesey’s LSD-fueled school bus. If you opt to take a pass on the patchouli, there’s still lots to do and see.

Caffeinate properly at sustainably minded Farmers Union Coffee Roasters, which recently opened in a 1928 former Union Mill House. Aesthetes will get a creative jolt wandering Sundays-only Whiteaker Community Market, where the vendors are all local startups like White Squirrel Soaps with scented bars, including “Squirrel Fir” blended with French green clay. Make a sartorial stop: Marley’s Monsters, an eco-forward boutique that opened in 2018, also offers wares like bamboo straws and flannel UnPaper Towels. Save time to browse the stacks at Smith Family Bookstore, where clerks—not computers—help you find what you’re looking for from the roughly one bazillion used books on hand. 

Stay at the new Graduate Eugene, a de facto ode to Nike—the brand born in this town in 1964 when its founders changed tennis shoes forever by making soles in a waffle iron. (The front desk displays 43 vintage pairs of Nikes—including original Waffle racers.) The hotel provides a homey stay after a night of revelry at Eugene’s many new watering holes, such as Civic Winery & Wines—where biodynamic wines are fermented in terra-cotta amphoras—and Viking Braggot Company, where Nordic tipples include Battle Axe, a dry-hopped IPA made with wildflower honey.

The smooth gins distilled by Asheville’s Chemist are easy medicine to swallow.
Asheville, North Carolina

George Washington Vanderbilt was on to something when he picked this cinematic mountain town as the setting for his turreted château, the Biltmore, still the largest home in the country at (wait for it) more than 178,000 square feet. Asheville may be HQ of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, but it’s got other draws galore. Check in at the new Foundry Hotel, housed in a (yup) former steel foundry and now so glamorized that guests can whirl around town in a chauffeured Tesla Model X. Not a bad perk, especially for a food crawl—required in this town, where you’re encouraged to come hungry. 

This may be the home of the buttery biscuit, but you won’t want to miss a breakfast at local star chef Katie Button’s new Button & Co. Bagels, where sourdough Appalachian-inspired bagels (yes, Appalachian-inspired bagels) can be slathered in ramps or blueberry lavender cream cheese. Swing by the legendary Malaprop Bookstore to peruse the wares, especially the tables set aside to display books by regional authors. 

Back to the food crawl: Head to The Times in the newly redone 1929 S&W Cafeteria building for housemade pretzels with apple brandy cheese. Then enjoy some live jazz at throwback boîte Save Me the Waltz to kick-start an evening at Asheville’s new saloons. First stop: Chemist, designed with a nod to Prohibition-era apothecaries, to sip its barrel-rested gin gimlets. Next: the leafy outdoor patio at the wood-fired brewery Cursus Kĕmē, which opened in 2018 in a onetime tractor repair shop.

After all these bites, beers, and craft cocktails, an actual meal may be in order. Luckily, the restaurant back at the Foundry Hotel, Benne on Eagle, has been getting national press for its young chef Ashleigh Shanti and her kitchen’s tasty output, traditional African American dishes with a distinctly Blue Ridge accent. 

Santa Cruz, California

Surfers find Santa Cruz—about a 90-minute drive south of San Francisco—totally “gnar” (read: extremely cool), thanks to an easygoing boardwalk scene and swells so rad that the city has a Surfing Museum in a cliff-top lighthouse. A trip to Bookshop Santa Cruz, a friendly, busy, and opinionated landmark on Pacific Avenue, is reason enough for some people to visit town, but personally, we’re in it for the food. Take former Chez Panisse staffer Tom McNary’s new locavore restaurant, Soif Wine Bar & Merchants, where the chef designed the menu to showcase regional delights (order the diver scallops with pickled lemon relish). Or Persephone, worth the eight-mile drive down the coast to Aptos, where Point Reyes blue cheese and apricot-glazed catches of the day are served up creekside.

Outdoorsy types should make time to explore the new trails at 166-acre Glenwood Preserve Open Space, a mere six miles from town (yet seemingly in another galaxy, where riparian forests and wetlands lure). Or join local earth mothers at Dig Gardens, where you can join a workshop that may turn black thumbs green (Design Your Own Terrarium, Orchids 101, and others). Since 1954, guests have enjoyed watching Pacific sunsets from the aptly named Dream Inn, so chances are, you will too.

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