In the last 2 years, I have been making my rounds at college campuses, as my oldest child was searching for his perfect fit school, and now my middle one is on the same journey. I have visited a dozen schools, possibly more, and I think I enjoy these trips as much as my kids. Each of these college towns is exactly that, a town that revolves around the local university. The residents love and support these schools and their activities, and there’s a youthful vibe that’s infectious. Here are seven college towns that are perfect for a weekend getaway.
I visited some of these destinations as part of a press trip. As always, all opinions are my own.
1. Madison, Wisconsin
Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin, the largest university in the state. The city is also home to two smaller colleges — Edgewood College and Herzing University. On any given weekend, the city is a sea of red, as UW students show their Badger pride decked out from head to toe.
Outside of the university, there is plenty to entertain visitors on any given weekend. Madison sits between two lakes, Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, that provide opportunities for kayaking, fishing, and boating, or simply walking along the shores.
Popular attractions include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace, the Wisconsin State Capitol building, and the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which takes place every Saturday from April through November. This isn’t any ordinary market, as over 100 vendors set up stalls surrounding Capitol Square.
Madison is also known for its festivals, and boy do they know how to throw a party. Every Labor Day weekend is the Taste of Madison, a volunteer-run festival with over 70 vendors selling food from around the world. In the summer, there are Concerts on the Square with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and weekly performances at the University’s Memorial Union Terrace. These are free for everyone and a great way to meet and mingle with the locals.
Don’t miss a chance to sample some traditional Wisconsin brats and cheese curds at State Street Brats. If you want to join the pre or post-football gameday crowds, be sure to head to The Old Fashioned or Mickey’s Dairy Bar.
Grab a room at The Graduate Hotel, which is within walking distance of campus and the State Street Pedestrian Mall.
2. Tucson, Arizona
Tucson is in southern Arizona, about an hour north of the Mexico border. It’s home to the University of Arizona, some of the best Mexican food in the world, and epic outdoor adventures.
The city itself is fairly flat and there are mountains and a desert landscape everywhere you look. If you’ve ever wanted to see saguaro cacti, Tucson is the place to go because it is home to Saguaro National Park, one of the best places to see giant saguaros in the United States. Tucson is also home to the southernmost ski resort, Mount Lemmon, which has one of the shortest ski seasons out there, essentially just the month of January.
Must-visit sites include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which showcases native flora and fauna, Sabino Canyon for hiking, and San Xavier del Bac, an 18th-century Spanish Catholic mission.
Tucson is the very first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, honored for its 300-year agricultural history. As you can imagine, there are some pretty amazing dining options in Tucson. Don’t miss the coal-fired pizza at Anello; the oldest Mexican food restaurant in Tucson, El Charro Café; and some southern cuisine with a Southwest twist at The Parish.
For the complete desert getaway weekend, we recommend staying at one of the resorts in the Catalina Foothills — Loews Ventana Canyon Resort or Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa.
3. Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Tuscaloosa is the home of the University of Alabama and Stillman College. Yes, it’s home to a storied football program, but it also has some of the best barbecue, tons of spots for hiking and biking, and unique shopping options.
Take a stroll through the gorgeous grounds of Alabama’s campus or head a bit out of the city and explore the massive flat-topped domes at Moundville. This complex covers 300 acres and was once home to the Mississippian people who built 29 mounds arranged around a central gathering area. The site dates back to the 15th century and was once the largest city north of Mexico. It’s a fascinating place to visit.
Other fun things to do in Tuscaloosa include antique shopping at the Alabama Antique Market or the Skyland Antique Mall, fishing and boating on Lake Tuscaloosa, or touring one of the town’s historic homes, such as the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion or The Battle-Friedman House.
The food in Tuscaloosa doesn’t disappoint and there are some must-visit restaurants. We recommend Dreamland BBQ, Urban Bar & Kitchen, and the historic Waysider restaurant.
Our favorite place to stay in Tuscaloosa is WestGate. These vacation rentals are luxury condominiums right across the street from Bryant-Denny Stadium. Embassy Suites and Hotel Indigo are also good options.
Pro Tip: Be sure to head to Gallette’s and try their famous Yellow Hammer drink. It’s one of Tuscaloosa’s most popular beverages.
4. Charlottesville, Virginia
Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia, about an hour from Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and less than an hour from Shenandoah National Park. The town sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and its fun vibe and stunning scenery make for an idyllic weekend getaway.
If you want to explore the outdoors, Charlottesville offers it in spades. The Saunders-Monticello Trail and Hike systems span over 9 miles and feature hikes for every level of ability. Those who would rather take in the area’s natural beauty by car should head to Skyline Drive, the main access road through Shenandoah National Park. There are plenty of designated pull-outs where you can get out of the car and simply take in the beautiful scenery.
History fans will love the area for its proximity to the presidential homes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Wine lovers will love the area’s vineyards and wineries. Those who love to shop when they travel won’t want to miss Downtown Mall (an 8-block-long pedestrian shopping and dining area) and the Barracks Road Shopping Center.
Grab a bite to eat at Farm Bell Kitchen, The Ridley, or Ace Biscuit & Barbecue. We recommend a stay at Boar’s Head Resort or The Draftsman.
5. Bryan, Texas
Bryan is one of two cities that claims Texas A&M University as their own (the other is College Station). We prefer the charm of Bryan, which has a lively main street, weekend events, and some delicious dining experiences.
Visitors don’t want to miss a tour and tasting at Messina Hof winery, one of the largest and oldest wine producers in the state of Texas. Every month, Bryan hosts First Friday, a community-wide block festival downtown featuring music, demonstrations, and vendors from around the Brazos Valley. There are a ton of boutique shops in the historic downtown area and even a weekly farmers market.
There are so many delicious options for food in Bryan, but we recommend Ronin, RX Pizza, and Caffé Capri. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Our favorite place to stay is the Stella Hotel located in Lake Walk Town Center, a 5-acre lake with walking trails. The property offers paddle boards and bicycle rentals for guests who want to explore the area.
6. Oxford, Mississippi
Oxford is home to the University of Mississippi, otherwise known as Ole Miss. This town is quite lively on weekends with regular festivals, performances at the Ford Center for Performing Arts, football games, and multiple venues with live music.
Some of our favorite things to do in Oxford include shopping in the Square. Don’t miss Neilson’s Department Store (the oldest department store in the South) and Square Books (I love a good bookstore). Lamar Park has an easy 1.5-mile loop for walking or biking (bikes are available to rent at the Ole Miss Bike Shop).
The food in Oxford doesn’t disappoint and we have a few must-visit restaurants in town. For breakfast, head to Big Bad Breakfast, for lunch try City Grocery, and for dinner head to Taylor Grocery. We promise you won’t have a bad meal in Oxford!
We would recommend staying at The Graduate or Chancellors House. Both have comfortable lodging and easy access to the university and town square.
Pro Tip: There’s a stunning view of Oxford’s main square from the roof of The Graduate. Even if you’re not staying on the property, take the elevator to the rooftop bar and enjoy cocktails at sunset.
7. San Diego, California
San Diego isn’t a typical college town, but it does have more than a dozen schools. Some of the larger universities are the University of San Diego, San Diego State, University of California San Diego, and Point Loma Nazarene University. Since it is a large city, there are plenty of activities for all visitors.
Your first stop in San Diego should be the beach. We recommend Coronado Beach (on Coronado Island), La Jolla Shores Beach, and Moonlight State Beach. If shopping is on the agenda, head to the Gaslamp Quarter, La Jolla, or the Carlsbad Premium Outlets. Nature lovers will want to spend time at San Diego’s gorgeous 1,200-acre green space — Balboa Park. There are also some amazing museums in San Diego, including the USS Midway Museum, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, and the Comic-Con Museum.
There are some excellent dining options throughout the county, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. Check out George’s at the Cove for fine dining, the Fish Shop for fish tacos, and the Westerly Public House for breakfast and brunch.
San Diego has endless accommodation options, but we like Hotel del Coronado, Mission Pacific Hotel (in Oceanside, north San Diego County), and The Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Pro Tip: San Diego is extremely spread out, so you will need to rent a car. If you have extra time, explore some of San Diego’s neighborhoods as they all have a different vibe. We like Little Italy, North Park, and Del Mar.