10 U.S. Universities to Visit (Even If You're Not a Student)

by  Teresa Bitler | Aug 7, 2014
Harvard / travelview/iStock

Colleges and universities aren't just institutions of higher learning. Some of them are itinerary-worth destinations, even for those who haven't stepped foot into a classroom for a long time, thanks to stunning architecture, fragrant gardens, impressive museums, and great history. Here are 10 schools that get an A+ on all these fronts.

Harvard University, MA
The nation’s oldest university, Harvard was founded in 1636. But the visitor experience has become completely 21st Century -- you can download the mobile app or purchase a tour pamphlet to explore the Cambridge campus on your own. Of course, there are still the classic student-led tours, which departs regularly from the Harvard Information Center in the Smith Campus Center. Either way, allow time to visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History and its collection of 4,000 intricately detailed glass flowers, modeled precisely from 847 different plant species. Harvard also has three exceptional art museums.

College of William & Mary, VA

College of William and Mary

Founded in 1693, the College of William & Mary is considered the "alma mater of a nation,” having produced four presidents, 16 member of the Continental Congress, four signers of the Declaration of Independence, and four justices of the Supreme Court. Download a guide from the school's website and you'll be able to tour on your own. Highlights include the Wren Building, where Thomas Jefferson roomed as a student; the Muscarelle Museum, with approximately 3,600 works of art; the Crim Dell and its romantic bridge; and the statute of Thomas Jefferson, a gift from the University of Virginia. (Bonus: It’s right next door to Colonial Williamsburg, if your'e looking for even more history.)

University of Virginia, VA

flickr / Adam Fagen

Along with Monticello, this Jefferson-designed university in Charlottesville is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site -- putting it in the company of some of the world’s greatest destinations, including the Taj Mahal, Versailles, and the Great Wall of China. When school is in session, you can take a regularly scheduled tour that includes the campus’ extensive gardens, Edgar Allen Poe’s dorm room, and its famed rotunda. Note: You'll only be able to marvel at the rotunda's exteriors until its renovations finish at the end of summer 2016.

Yale University, CT

Yale University

Located in New Haven, Yale University is an art lover's dream. It has the oldest university art museum in America -- the Yale University Art Gallery -- and, across the street, the Center for British Art contains the largest collection of British art anywhere outside the United Kingdom. There's also tons of public art throughout campus, including a statue of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, which you can download a guide for online. If you do want a human introduction, though, guided tours begin at the Mead Visitor Center, where you’ll find displays exploring the university’s history and its graduates' achievements.

Princeton University, NJ

Flickr / stu_spivack

This elite Ivy League school in Princeton, New Jersey boasts stellar alumni including John F. Kennedy, Lee Iacocca, actor James Stewart, and Woodrow Wilson -- who also served as the university’s president before becoming the nation’s 28th president. During the school year, guided tours depart daily. But if you want to explore on your own, look for McCosh Hall, where Albert Einstein delivered five lectures on the theory of relativity; University Chapel, the third largest college chapel in the world (and which gets booked for weddings as far as two years in advance); Nassau Hall, whose faculty room served as a meeting place for the Continental Congress; and Prospect House, the university president’s home.

United States Military Academy at West Point, NY

United States Army

Access is limited to the United States Military Academy at West Point, 50 miles north of New York City, since it’s a military base. But so long as you bring an ID (required for anyone over 16), you can take a 1-hour bus tour ($14) from the visitor center and West Point Museum to Main Cadet Chapel, Trophy Point, Battle Monument, and the Plain. A 2-hour tour ($16) adds the famed West Point Post Cemetery, where General George Armstrong Custer and others are buried, to the itinerary.

United States Air Force Academy, CO


The United States Air Force Academy, located north of Colorado Springs, is also a military base, so you’ll need to bring your ID here, too. But unlike at West Point, you have the freedom of taking a self-guided drive here. The drive begins at the Visitor Center and continues to outlooks where you’ll see the Cadet Chapel, Falcon Athletic Center, and Falcon Stadium, among others -- and you might even see some cadets marching. The chapel is especially recommended for a walk-through, having just been named one of the nation's most beautiful churches by USA Today.

Stanford University, CA

Flickr / Peter Thoeny

Founded by Leland Stanford, this private research university 30 miles south of San Francisco conducts several different tours of its historic grounds. The free walking tour departing daily from the Stanford Visitor Center covers the most beloved areas of buildings of campus, including the Memorial Church and White Plaza. Golf cart tours ($5) pick up where the walking tour ends, continuing to the Red Bard -- where the famed industrialist bred horses -- the Cantor Arts Center, and the athletic facilities. For engineering buffs, the Science and Engineering Quad Tour focuses on engineering history, sustainable building technology, and the school's engineering program.

University of Norte Dame, IN

University of Notre Dame

The home of the Fighting Irish draws more than football fans to its South Bend campus, and for good reason—it’s one of the nation’s most beautiful campuses with several one-of-a-kind sites. Begin at the Eck Visitors Center with a 12-minute video on the university. Then, take a free public tour that stops at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Main Building, and Touchdown Jesus. Fun fact: The statue of Mary on top of the Main Building’s golden dome weighs 4,000 pounds and stands 19 feet high.

University of Pennsylvania, PA

Flickr / InSapphoWeTrust

Public tours are self-guided at this Ivy League school established in part by Benjamin Franklin. Stroll Locust Walk, the tree-lined heart of the Philadelphia campus. Then, drop by the nation’s oldest student union, Houston Hall. Of course, a visit wouldn’t be complete without at least an hour at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Also known as the Penn Museum, it contains nearly one million artifacts from Egypt, China, Japan, Central America, African, Greece, and Rome.

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