It’s back-to-books time at college campuses across the country, but you don’t have to pass the entrance exams to enjoy an enriching visit to these brainy-but-beautiful institutions. The campuses at the head of the class combine factors like sublime natural settings, historic architecture, world-class cultural centers, and spirited sporting events – enough to justify swapping dorm rooms for hotel rooms!
Intellectually, culturally, and visually stimulating, these coveted academic addresses certainly make an education feel a lot like a vacation. See our College Campuses to Visit slideshow for a preview of what these winning institutions have to offer.
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Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
With more than 20 college campuses set within a 6-mile radius, there’s little doubt that history-rich, pub-fueled Boston and Cambridge make for great twin college towns (just the Charles River sets the two apart). But Harvard University, in Cambridge, is in a league of its own (and we’re not just talking about the Ivy here). The 210-acre main campus is comprised of beautiful landmark buildings, grassy parks, and bustling Harvard Square, chockablock with restaurants, bookstores, street performers, and musicians. Established in 1636, Harvard is the country’s oldest college with the largest financial endowment of any school in the world (totaling some $32 billion). So it’s little surprise that visitors can find plenty to see and do on campus – without a college ID. Take your pick from several museums: The Sackler Museum ($9) has Chinese and Japanese Surimono prints and Byzantine art; the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology ($9) is one of the oldest museums in the world devoted to anthropology (opened in 1866); and the Semitic Museum (free) houses over 40,000 artifacts from excavations conducted in the Middle East. The small but wonderful American Repertory Theater, meanwhile, features an exciting lineup of theatrical performances (tickets start at $20). Take a tour (student- and self-guided variations are available from the Harvard Information Center) of the brick-walled campus and its massive library, the oldest in the U.S. and one of the most extensive with over 16 million volumes. Also check out the colonial mansion-cum-museum once home to American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (free guided tours available), or head to the banks of the Charles and watch the rowing teams glide by.
Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
Artists and creative souls will surely find inspiration during a visit to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It is, after all, the country’s leading arts school (dating back to 1877) and artworks (murals, sculptures, mosaics, and more) are heavily displayed throughout the campus (coordinate your visit with one of the annual alumni art fairs, or pop into the RISD|works store to browse original pieces that you can purchase and take home). Not your typical New England college campus (no grassy, tree-lined knoll surrounded by stately brick buildings here), RISD’s Providence campus is more akin to its city setting, with an eclectic mix of urban buildings spanning a dozen or so blocks alongside Brown University (the two schools share facilities). One of the campus’s more impressive architectural sites is the Fleet Library: RISD students themselves transformed the early 20th-century bank into a stunning, state-of-the-art library in 2006 – it’s won plentiful design and architecture awards, and houses over 145,000 volumes and 380 periodicals on architecture, art, design, and photography . The Museum of Art, also known as the RISD Museum ($10), is Rhode Island’s leading museum and touts a collection of 86,000 artworks, including textiles, decorative arts, paintings, sculptures, and more spanning ancient to contemporary times. Other on-campus exhibition spaces, where students display their own masterworks, include the the Chase Center’s Gelman Student Exhibition Gallery (opened in 2008) and the Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery (all are free and open to the public). Swing by the Admissions Office to pick up maps for self-guided tours; guided student-led campus tours geared towards travelers (and not prospective students) are available in July and August only. RISD visitors can also catch a flick shown by the RISD Film Society (at no charge) or swing by the Carr Haus coffee shop to mingle with students and faculty over a cup of java, and perhaps catch student poetry readings or other open mic events.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Spanning 8,180 generous acres, Stanford is much more than just your run-of-the-mill college campus – it’s a self-sustaining community, complete with power plant, water system, post office, lakes, and countless picturesque paths. Designed by Central Park-planner Frederick Law Olmstead in 1891, Stanford (located about 30 miles south of San Francisco) attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year who come for tailored, 70-minute walking and golf cart tours that cover the campus’s many wonders. Nature lovers delight in the thousands of oak, redwood, cedar, and eucalyptus trees that surround the red-roofed Spanish-colonial style buildings, designed to be reminiscent of California’s missionary past. Admirers of architecture should stop by the historic Red Barn, which is one of two remaining structures from the grounds' original late 19th-century Stock Farm, owned by university founder Governor Leland Stanford (he performed some of the era’s most progressive horse breeding and training work here; fittingly, it today houses facilities for the Stanford equestrian team); they'd also be remiss to miss a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House – originally built as living quarters for a Stanford professor in 1936, its hexagonal shape displays no right angles. A trip to the top of the Hoover Tower Observatory (former President Hoover was part of the original graduating class; admission $2) affords breathtaking views of the rolling foothills of this Northern California oasis. Art enthusiasts, meanwhile, revel in the Cantor Arts Center galleries (entry and tours are gratis), which highlight diverse works ranging from ancient Egyptian artifacts to modern masterpieces by bigwigs like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol; don't miss the Rodin Sculpture Garden, featuring the largest collection of Rodin bronzes outside of Paris. One visit to “the Farm,” as the students call Stanford University, and you may never want to leave.
— Brooke Betts
The University of the South, Sewanee, TN
The latest student survey from the Princeton Review awarded Sewanee: The University of the South (founded 1857) one of the top spots in the "Most Beautiful Campus" category, and we have to agree. The massive 13,000-acre campus, collectively known as "the Domain," encompasses the university’s buildings and the town of Sewanee, Tennessee – set 55 miles outside of Chattanooga – as well as large tracts of the surrounding countryside. Sixty miles of trails through verdant forests and along scenic lakefront bluffs provide students and visitors alike with abundant opportunities for hiking and mountain biking (bike rentals are available from Woody’s Bicycles in town). Back on the main college campus (ask for a map in the Admissions Office), visitors can wander about the central quad to view the striking Gothic-style buildings, and then stroll through Abbo’s Alley, a ravine garden constructed by a former English professor and his students as a labor of love. An architectural focal point of Sewanee is All Saints’ Chapel, a Gothic-inspired church completed in the 1950s. Drawing from great European cathedrals, the chapel’s tower was modeled after Oxford’s University Church, while the rose window recalls Paris’s Notre Dame. Inside, stained-glass windows tell the history of Sewanee; complimentary guided tours conducted by chapel staff are available by request. Around Christmas, the Festival of Lessons and Carols service at All Saints’ Chapel is based on one performed since 1918 at Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel (come prepared to stand in line for this popular free event). During the academic year, stop by the University Art Gallery (free) for contemporary art exhibits by students and faculty, or swing by in summer, when the month-long Sewanee Summer Music Festival draws classical music performers from around the world (tickets start at around $12). Visitors should also set out for some refueling and retail therapy at the cafés and shops of quaint “downtown” Sewanee, a short walk from the main campus.
Tulane University, New Orleans
Prestigious Tulane University (established 1834) draws a crowd – and for more than just students in search of an esteemed education (in fact, it received more student applications in 2010 than any other U.S. university). Its Uptown campus, set along New Orleans' streetcar-plowed St. Charles Avenue and opposite lush Audubon Park, welcomes visitors through the neo-Romanesque-style Gibson Hall (dating to 1894, it’s the oldest building on site – stop at its Admissions Center for visitor info or to sign up for a guided tour) to a college campus that covers more than 110 acres speckled with majestic oaks, some 80 architecturally eclectic buildings, and countless complimentary diversions. History buffs shouldn’t miss a nod to Tulane’s Newcomb College Institute, which carries on the traditions of its predecessor, Newcomb College, the first degree-granting coordinate college for women in the country – encounter its legacy via the Newcomb Archives or catch an installment of its women’s interests-focused Powerhouse Speakers Series. Art fans can ogle the acclaimed Newcomb Pottery collection at the Newcomb Art Gallery or peruse the latest student- and faculty-led exhibitions at the Carroll Gallery. Music lovers should head to the Archive of New Orleans Jazz for its extensive collection of jazz recordings, books, and photos, or, better still, visit in April, when the student-organized CrawFest (a mini-version of JazzFest) unfolds. While 2005’s Hurricane Katrina shuttered Tulane’s doors for only the second time its history (the last time was during the Civil War), operations were back in full swing by 2006 (with 93 percent of its student body returning); in fact, Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were the commencement speakers at the May 2006 graduation. Also scope out some of the sparkling new post-Katrina developments, including the $10-million Turchin Stadium (home to Tulane’s top-notch Green Wave baseball team; tickets from $5) and the McAlister Place Pedestrian Way (where Japanese magnolias and irises have replaced a former street).
U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO
As one of the nation’s only Air Force bases open to the public, a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Colorado Springs' campus, about 55 miles south of Denver, promises the singular chance to watch cadets march to lunch (every Monday and Friday at noon) and spot trainer aircraft buzz overhead, all while soaking in the beauty of the Rocky Mountains’ craggy, verdant base. The visitor center hosts military exhibits and a short movie on the history of the academy (it was founded in 1954), but the highlights here are to be found largely off-screen (do pick up a map for a self-guided tour). The sprawling 18,500-acre campus spreads across the Colorado foothills – our top pick for exploration is the Falcon hiking trail, which winds throughout the base for about 12 miles. Even in the midst of the majestic mountains, the college campus’s hallmark 150-foot-tall Cadet Chapel commands attention (free and open daily). Designed by Walter A. Netsch, Jr., more than half a million people visit the 47-year-old building each year (the most out of any man-made attraction in the state), and the sleek, geometric chapel’s 17 angular spires are visible from several miles away.
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Jocks and bookworms equally delight in the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus (set less than 40 miles west of Detroit), home to both the country’s largest football stadium and old-world-style libraries (along with other structures) that feel plucked straight from the pages of Harry Potter. Official hour-long tours and self-guided itineraries are available through the Huetwell Visitors Center, but it wouldn’t be difficult to while away an entire day poking around the college campus’s 543 buildings at random, which run the architectural gamut from the Law Quad’s medieval-influenced, gargoyle- and ivy-draped buildings to the Ross School of Business’s bold glass-and-steel design. The liveliest campus visits incorporate joining the blue-and-gold bedecked masses for a game day at "The Big House" (tickets start at $75), Michigan’s mammoth football field, which reopened for the 2010 season after a $226 million renovation that upped capacity by about 2,000 to 109,901 – enough to intercept Big Ten rival Penn State’s claim to the nation’s largest stadium. Visitors also dig the Diag, which forms the campus’s leafy hub and boasts plenty of space for impromptu Frisbee games and top-notch people-watching. Then discreetly duck into the bordering Law Library’s reading room, a Gothic hall with 50-foot ceilings, stained-glass windows, low-hanging chandeliers, and long communal tables with room for 500 cramming students. Ann Arbor’s historically vibrant arts scene has always been fed by the university (playwright Arthur Miller went to the school and often spoke on campus as an alumnus), and that tradition continues today: The University of Michigan Museum of Art reopened in March 2010 after a $41 million renovation ($5 suggested donation for entrance); each July, art fairs wind through campus; and even Hollywood is getting in on the action and filming on school grounds (as prompted by the state’s new tax incentive).
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University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Not many universities can say they were conceived and designed – from campus construction down to the first curriculum – by one of our nation’s founding fathers and a former president. Yet from the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819 (it’s located in Charlottesville, about 100 miles south of Washington, D.C.), Thomas Jefferson had his hands in just about everything. With an architectural legacy that continues to present day, Jefferson’s Academical Village – its great Lawn surrounded by the university’s main buildings and capped by the majestic Rotunda – serves as a model for other college campuses across the country. In 1987, the grounds here (along with Jefferson’s home at Monticello) were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only college in the U.S. with this designation. The university also celebrates its legacy every year on Founder’s Day, April 13 (Jefferson’s birthday), with a tree-planting ceremony and honorary medals (in lieu of degrees) awarded to those who best exemplify the President’s ideals. Though the first Rotunda burned down in 1895, restoration (conducted by Stanford White, a prominent Gilded Age architect) at the turn of the 20th century and subsequent renovations for the nation’s bicentennial returned the iconic structure to Jefferson’s original design. Free guided tours of the Rotunda and the Lawn are available year-round (except during winter break and the first half of May), while maps for self-guided tours of the Academical Village and the surrounding Pavilion Gardens are also on hand inside the Rotunda or from the visitor center. For art lovers, exhibitions at the UVa Art Museum feature prints ranging from Old Masters to modern day, hailing from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and beyond (admission is free).
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University of Washington, Seattle
Visit downtown Seattle’s University of Washington during the fall football season and you’re in for a tailgating treat: One of two universities in the country where you can tailgate on a boat (the University of Tennessee is the other), a floating community of die-hard Husky fans glides over Puget Sound and Lake Washington before each game to amp up the typical party-hearty parking lot scene that signals an impending kickoff. Back on land, sign up for a student-guided campus tour at Schmitz Hall – highlights include the stunning Collegiate Gothic architecture of the iconic Suzzallo Library and the interactive James Turrell piece at the Henry Art Gallery (Washington State’s first public art museum, dating to 1927 – it features 19th-century prints, Japanese pottery and folk art, costumes and textiles, and more). Come spring, the Seattle rain transforms the college campus into a verifiable pink wonderland as countless cherry blossom trees burst into bloom – climb the campus’s free outdoor rock wall for awe-inspiring views of the Cascade Range’s snow-capped mountaintops, peeking above the blossoms. The warmer months practically beg visitors to rent a canoe from the university’s boathouse ($9/hour) and get lost in the lush green landscape reflecting off the lake. Regardless of the season, visiting the University of Washington campus is to leave visitors enriched.
— Brooke Betts
Yale University, New Haven, CT
There are few more storied centers for higher education than Yale University, whose 300-plus-year history has enlivened its quintessential New England hometown of New Haven, Connecticut (set at a crossroads between Boston and New York City), and turned out some of society’s most successful upper-crust echelons (four of the last six U.S. presidents hold Yale degrees). Kick off your campus visit at the Mead Visitor Center, where you can collect brochures, get debriefed on Yale history, or sign up for a 1.5-hour guided tour led by undergrad students and prefaced by a video about campus life. Or, opt for a self-guided MP3 audio walking tour (downloads are free), or nab maps for self-guided tours tailored towards the college campus’s public art installations (including works by Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder, and Roy Lichtenstein) or its architectural highlights (the collection of largely Gothic-style structures is peppered with garden and courtyard designs by James Gamble Rogers, and modern touches by the likes of Cesar Pelli and Frank Gehry). Bibliophiles will want to book it to the Gothic-inspired Sterling Memorial Library, Yale's largest; the marble-lined Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, meanwhile, is the site of some of the world’s rarest manuscripts (including a Gutenberg Bible). Don’t miss the Yale University Art Gallery (founded in 1832, it contains more than 185,000 works spanning antiquities to modern-day; free); Yale Center for British Art (site of the largest collection of British art anywhere outside the UK; free); and Peabody Museum of Natural History (its impressive scientific holdings include the second-largest U.S. collection of dinosaur artifacts; $9 admission). Round out a visit by catching a performance at the critically acclaimed repertory theater (tix from $35) or cheering on the men's hockey team at the architecturally stunning (and recently renovated) Ingalls Rink, better known as "the Whale" thanks to its unique exterior design (tickets from $10).