Student Life

10 beautiful college campuses to explore

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Big and small, public and private, the U.S. has a bounty of riches when it comes to gorgeous college campuses.

The following list includes classics but hopefully also a surprise or two. All are worth a special trip, or at least a detour, this summer — whether you’re traveling with children and teens and would like to put some dreams in their heads or just want a unique destination combining culture, history, and natural beauty.

Top 10 beautiful campuses:

Most Beautiful College Campuses — William and Mary. Photo by Stephen Salpukas/College of William & Mary Stephen Salpukas/College of William & Mary

William & Mary — Williamsburg, Virginia

Before he designed the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson attended William & Mary, the second oldest college in the U.S. and site of the oldest college building still in use, the Christopher Wren Building (1700). The historic section of campus has been restored to its 18th-century appearance — you will truly feel as if you have stepped back in time as you explore the exquisite grounds, which also encompass scenic Lake Matoaka and College Woods. Deepen your experience by including a tour of Colonial Williamsburg right next door.

Most Beautiful College Campuses — UC Berkeley. Photo by Visit BerkeleyVisit Berkeley

The University of California at Berkeley

“Cal” — the oldest campus in the renowned UC system — immediately captivates with its energetic, non-conformist vibe and super-cool location across the Bay from San Francisco. Channel that energy because there is a lot to do here! UC Berkeley is home to not one but six natural history museums, as well as the Berkeley Art Museum, the Pacific Film Archive, and a 34-acre botanical research garden complete with redwood grove. All are open to the public year round, as is “The Campanile,” the world’s third-tallest bell and clock tower and an iconic Cal-Berkeley landmark. Climb the tower for breathtaking views of campus and coast, then listen to the noon carillon concert. Finally, escape the bustle with a quiet wander along the Strawberry Creek paths and bridges which crisscross campus.

Most Beautiful College Campuses — Hampshire College. Photo by Hampshire CollegeHampshire College

Hampshire College — Amherst, Massachusetts

Make quirky, non-traditional Hampshire College (famous grad: documentary filmmaker Ken Burns) your starting point as you explore the bucolic Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, also home to the beautiful Amherst, Mt. Holyoke and Smith College campuses as well as UMass Amherst. On the Hampshire campus, visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the National Yiddish Book Center. Stop off at Atkins Farms Country Market next door for cider donuts before or after biking and hiking the local trails. The Smith and Amherst campuses both host renowned art museums and on a quiet side street in downtown Amherst you will find the Emily Dickinson Museum and Homestead.

Most Beautiful College Campuses — Northwestern. Photo by Chicago's North Shore CVBChicago’s North Shore CVB

Northwestern University — Evanston, Illinois

12 miles north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan, the campus of Northwestern University is an exciting blend of old and new. Pass under “The Arch” (1993) to enjoy a stroll that takes in the gothic-inspired gray stone architecture of the original campus, including University Hall (1868), as well as newer buildings like the McCormick Tribune Center (home of the renowned Medill School of Journalism). The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is top-notch. Make the most of welcome summer breezes off the lake — toss a Frisbee on the campus green or rent a sailboat.

Most Beautiful College Campuses — Lewis and Clark College. Photo by Jeremy McWilliamsJeremy McWilliams/Creative Commons

Lewis and Clark College — Portland, Oregon

Summer is the perfect time to savor the lushness of the Pacific Northwest but when you arrive at Lewis & Clark you will also be greeted by possibly the single most stunning view on any U.S. campus — the snow-white peak of Mt. Hood to the east of the college’s hilltop location. There are 137 forested campus acres to explore, with unique, award-winning “green” architecture. Tryon Creek State Natural Area is right across the road and downtown “Portlandia” only a few miles away. You can’t go wrong.

Most Beautiful College Campuses —  CU Boulder. Photo by Evanne MontoyaEvanne Montoya/UniversityParent

The University of Colorado at Boulder

The warm local sandstone and red tile roofs create a gorgeous contrast with pine-green foothills on this stunning campus nestled against the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The CU Museum of Natural History is among the best of its kind, and Fiske Planetarium and the Sommers-Bausch Observatory are worth a look, too. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival performs on campus (both indoors and outdoors) all summer. Take the CU Boulder “Tree Walk” — just be sure to leave time to chill out on the nearby Boulder Creek Path and wander the shops and cafes of the pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall.

Most Beautiful College Campuses — Furman University. Photo by VisitGreenvilleSC VisitGreenvilleSC

Furman University — Greenville, South Carolina

Halfway between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and gorgeous Atlantic beaches is one of the most beautiful and unique college campuses in the country. In fact, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects, it is one of the most beautiful places, campus or not. Stroll miles of paved, forest-fringed trails alongside a spring-fed lake. Enjoy the striking Florentine bell tower, Asian gardens, and a replica of Henry Thoreau’s cabin.

Most Beautiful College Campuses — College of the Atlantic. Photo by College of the AtlanticCollege of the Atlantic

College of the Atlantic — Bar Harbor, Maine

You will not just stumble upon this tiny gem of a college, dedicated to teaching the liberal arts through a human ecological perspective, on Mount Desert Island in “down east” Maine, but it is worth a special trip. The campus is a unique blend of 19th-century seaside estates (transformed into student residences) and 21st-century sustainable design. Terraced gardens lead down to a cobble beach. There is an art gallery and natural history museum, and downtown Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are each only about a mile off. You’ll work up an appetite for the award-winning food at the college’s “Sea Urchin Café.” Anyone in the mood for lobster?

Most Beautiful College Campuses — Cornell University. Photo by Ithaca CVBIthaca CVB

Cornell University — Ithaca, New York

The Ivy League is full of regal, culture-rich campuses, but here is the one you want to make sure to visit during the summer. Cornell is one of the world’s premier research universities but also a top “green campus” located in the heart of upstate New York’s scenic Finger Lakes region. Right on campus you can hike trails down into the Fall Creek and Cascadilla Gorges. Visit the Johnson Museum of Art and the Morgan Garden, a Japanese dry-landscape garden. Close by, sail on Cayuga Lake, birdwatch in the “Sapsucker Woods” of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or walk the pedestrian-only Ithaca Commons.

Most Beautiful College Campuses — Cornell University. Photo by The University of Texas at Austin, provided by Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau
The University of Texas at Austin/Courtesy of Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau
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The University of Texas at Austin

The flagship school of the UT system is a sprawling, beautiful southwestern campus with so much to do and see it’s almost criminal. Begin outdoors with a tour of the “Landmarks” public art collection — 35 modern and contemporary pieces dotted around the 433-acre campus and one of its most distinguishing features. Don’t miss the Blanton Museum of Art, the Harry Ransom Center (special collections of books, manuscripts and photography), and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Finally, kick back in the Cactus Café on campus for terrific regional food and (of course — this is Austin!) live music.

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