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Charming College Towns With Off-Campus Appeal

By Kathryn O'Shea-Evans

Sep 16, 2020

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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.

There’s only one thing more fun than a college town and that’s a college town without any homework in sight.

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Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, AFAR continues to cover the world; there’s always room for inspiration. Note that, due to the virus, some of the following venues may be closed or only open for delivery or takeout. Please check each venue’s website for the latest.

A college-town tour carries powerful nostalgia if you’ve been through it before, and nerve-crackling promise for those who haven’t (even in a year as crazy as 2020). Why not make the most out of a visit? When you plan a trip to these six endearing places—no matter the year, no matter the season—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

Population: 121,890
Best for: arts and culture
Home to: University of Michigan 

This UMich hometown is a Midwestern hub for creative types, brimming with arts and culture—such as the 94,000-square-foot University of Michigan Museum of Art, where the collection includes furniture by Michigan design legend Florence Knoll. 

Where to stay

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, 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 out.

Where to eat

For dinner, head directly to the Blue Llama Jazz Club, which opened in 2019 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. 

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

Oxford, Mississippi 

Population: about 25,000
Best for: Football and Faulkner 
Home to: Ole Miss

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.

Where to stay 

Insiders stay at one of two places: 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 features a stand-alone 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).

Where to eat and drink

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 Saint Leo Lounge—set in the former offices of the Oxford Eagle newspaper.

Things to do

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

Population: about 75,000 
Best for: Microbrews 
Home to: University of 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. 

Things to do

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 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”). 

Where to eat and drink

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. 

Where to stay

Stay at the 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 and Netflix-stocked smart TVs.) 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

Population: about 107,353
Best for: A hike before happy hour
Home to: University of Colorado Boulder

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. 

Where to eat and drink

An 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). 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.

Things to do

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. 

Where to stay

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.

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

Asheville, North Carolina

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Population: about 92,500
Best for: Food crawls
Home to: University of North Carolina Asheville

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. 

Where to stay

Check in at the 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. 

Where to eat and drink

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’s 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 redone 1929 S&W Cafeteria building for housemade pretzels with apple brandy cheese. On to Chemist, designed with a nod to Prohibition-era apothecaries, to sip its barrel-rested gin gimlets. Then 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

Population: about 64,725
Best for: Beach town vibes
Home to: University of California Santa Cruz

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. 

Things to do

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. 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. 

Where to eat and drink

Check out former Chez Panisse staffer Tom McNary’s locavore restaurant, Soif Wine Bar & Merchants, with its chef-designed menu showcasing regional fare (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.

Where to stay

The Dream Inn is the perfect base for exploring and has affordable rooms, a retro-chic design, and a beachfront location within walking distance of the famous boardwalk,” says AFAR contributor Jen Murphy. 

This article was originally published in August 2019. It has been updated with new information.

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