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Street Smarts: 5 College Towns That Offer Way More Than Education


It’s obvious what Boston, New York City, and other major urban locales teeming with college students offer to the casual traveler. Although the secondary education market is a large piece of the fabric of these cities, there is so much more happening around the area that the campuses play a much smaller role.

This is not the case for other locales where the college or university is the lifeblood of the economy and tourism. The types of towns that you are led believe are good for frat parties and cow tipping and little else. We’re here to tell you that the “little else” is a lie – there’s a whole lot happening in these college towns beyond first impressions and final exams.

Boulder, CO (University of Colorado)

College 101: Though the University of Colorado has a few campuses, UC Boulder is the flagship. Over 150 academic programs are offered to the 30,000 strong student population. Their sports teams, known as the Buffaloes, compete in 9 NCAA sports in the Pac-12 conference. The university has been affiliated with 18 astronauts as either students or faculty. Known as one of the thirty “Public Ivy League Schools”, UC was created five months BEFORE Colorado was admitted to the union in 1876. On campus, there are more than 300 student clubs and organizations, and close to 40 fraternities and sororities.

A Secondary Education: Boulder is picturesque. Surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains, the area is truly a sight for sore eyes. With over 80 miles of biking and walking trails available it has a strong focus on fitness, in fact the entire city is all about being healthy. Most of the top attractions in Boulder on TripAdvisor are outdoor activities. Boulder features some of the top yoga studios (Yoga Workshop for one) in the country, as well as enough rock climbing spots (Climb Sanitas or Flagstaff are the best) to please even the most expert of mountaineers. The farm-to-table movement is strong here, as many restaurants embrace local, seasonal, and artisanal cooking. For the intellectual, Boulder offers independent bookstores that sell rare works. At the Colorado Shakespeare Festival you can watch a play under the stars and the Colorado Music Festival performs in a wooden auditorium almost a hundred years old. Boulder has been named as one of the best art towns in the country with plenty of galleries in the downtown area. For shopping, the Pearl Street Mall is “the heart and soul of Boulder” and where 85% of stores are independently owned. Pearl Street Mall is also the place to watch Boulder’s street performers. 

Harrisonburg, VA (James Madison University)

College 101: Immediately upon entering the quad of JMU, you know you’re at one of the most beautiful schools in the country. It has a total undergraduate enrollment of 18,107, and the campus size is 721 acres with around 30 residence halls. The school’s mascot, the Duke Dog, has its own ferocious statue encased in bronze outside the athletic center. The school’s namesake (James Madison) has his own statue on campus too. Maybe the coolest student organization option available: the scuba diving club. This area of the JMU website talks about some really fascinating campus myths, including the massive “kissing rock” that was used as cover for adventurous coeds in the early days of the university, and is said to be able to predict marriages. The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum is a must-see botanical garden on the campus.

A Secondary Education: Harrisonburg is a gorgeous Virginia city with ample hiking and biking areas – especially in the Shenandoah Valley. Visit the newly revamped, historic downtown Harrisonburg with some free time for shopping and  top restaurants. For more casual eats, Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint is a favorite of locals and students alike. Backcountry Bar is a popular watering hole too. For more pure fun in the outdoors, head over to Purcell Park and stop by Klines Dairy Bar afterward for a refreshing dessert. Just outside the area the Massanutten Skyline Drive is a road trip through the mountains and national park that showcases the beauty of the area.

Madison, WI (University of Wisconsin)

College 101: The numbers surrounding UW-Madison are staggering. Try over 900 acres of campus, 800 student organizations, and an enrollment of over 42,000. The school’s scale is so big that the campus has its own police force, food service, hospital, gymnasium, botanical gardens, public artworks, power facilities, and an on-campus dairy plant. As with the University of Colorado, sports are a major attraction for UW students. With the Badgers playing in Division 1 (Big Ten Conference), they are consistently superb, especially the men’s basketball team. There are over 40 club teams and 35 intramural teams for students to enjoy too. They offer some very cool academic schools such as linguistics, and zoology, but UW-M is most famous for its incredible teaching program. Social life on campus is quite lively and there’s always something to do.

A Secondary Education: Madison is a mainstay on “best of” lists, so the fact that it finds itself on ours will be no surprise. Best place to work, to live, the safest, the greenest – you name it, Madison has an award. The second-largest domed capital building is in downtown Madison and it is so large it has its own zip code, a tour of the place is highly encouraged. Wander down State Street to get a feel for the city and do some light shopping, or use the many bike paths to accomplish the same goal while staying fit. The Cave of the Mounds is an inspiring place to explore where you can touch stalagmites.There are ample lakes in the area, so canoeing and kayaking opportunities abound. The Henry Vilas Zoo can be seen rather quickly in an hour or so, and from April through September the Olbrich Botanical Gardens are quite a sight. The Dane County Farmer’s Market is claimed to the be the biggest in the country, so don’t miss that event on Saturday mornings.

Swarthmore, PA (Swarthmore College)

College 101: Swarthmore College, ever the matchmaker, was one of the first coed universities in the US. Today it is known for rigorous course load and an extremely successful students – where 90% continue on to graduate or professional school. The student body is minuscule, with only 1500 undergraduates attending. Simply put though, the best of the best attend this school. In its 2013 college rankingU.S. News & World Report ranked Swarthmore as the 3rd-best liberal arts college in the nation, behind Williams and Amherst. Swarthmore offers more than 40 courses of study, and provides the opportunity for students to design their own major. More than 600 courses are offered on campus each year. The campus is a short 25-minute train ride away from Philadelphia. The campus is routinely voted one of the most beautiful in the country.

A Secondary Education: Swarthmore has been named a “Tree City USA ” for the past 25 years and is full of mature trees which line the streets – every season of the year. Be sure to take the Swarthmore Walking Tour to see some of the most interesting houses and sights in the area. The local fire house has antique fire trucks to see and you can view an art exhibit at Borough Hall. Little Crum Creek Park, a newly restored wetland, is a top place to visit in town. When you’re hungry check out the 320 Market Cafe, rated top restaurant for Swarthmore on TripAdvisor. 

Charlottesville, VA (University of Virginia)

College 101: As you’ll read more on below, this university was designed by Thomas Jefferson and included fellow original board members James Monroe and James Madison. The original land for the school technically belonged to Monroe – he used it for farming. From its rather un-humble beginnings, the school has only grown in popularity and prestige in the next two centuries. The Jeffersonian Architecture is a defining feature of the school, as well as the fact that 90% of the student body was in the top 10% of their graduation high school class. Virginia also features top Division 1 sports teams in both men’s and women’s athletics.

A Secondary Education: Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop mansion, is the most famous and breathtaking attraction in Charlottesville. It is a must-visit. Ash-Lawn Highland is a nice consolation prize as this is the home (albeit smaller than Jefferson’s) of former president James Monroe. If you’re in a presidential-house-touring mood stop by the #3 offering in the area, Montpelier, the home of James Madison. All three spots are gorgeous and instrumental pieces of history. The downtown mall is free of chain stores and has everything from eateries to antique stores, to books. For the kids, visit the Virginia Discovery Museum that has hands-on activities and some of the friendliest staff in the area. Check out Jefferson Vineyards to get your drink on with some of the finest vintages, and you can’t go wrong with any downtown restaurant, but the C&O Restaurant stands out from the rest with its adventurous menu.