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From Florida to Mississippi, these fun college towns offer excellent food and flourishing art and nightlife scenes. (Getty Images)

There's something special about college towns. With their stately surroundings and peaceful backdrops for learning and touring, college campuses pack plenty of charm. And while these standout spots offer their own noteworthy qualities, they share a few common characteristics: Lively atmospheres, excellent pubs and thriving art and dining scenes. Whether you're visiting with a high school student or you're yearning to relive your undergrad memories, consider spending a weekend in these great college towns.

[See: The 12 Best Cities for a Weekend Getaway.]

Madison, Wisconsin

An easy road trip from Chicago, beautiful Madison is quickly becoming the go-to destination for city dwellers looking to escape for a weekend getaway. Home to the Wisconsin State Capitol and the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the city is a hub of intellectual thought, culture and politics that's tucked between two scenic lakes. And for a city so seemingly small, Madison has built up a wealth of amazing restaurants, craft breweries and a vibrant arts scene.

There's no shortage of fine dining destinations in this grand city. Try one of Chef Tory Miller's restaurants, including the high-end L'Etoile Restaurant, which serves French-influenced farm-to-table cuisine, Graze, a casual gastropub, and Sujeo, a trendy eatery serving Pan-Asian plates. Miller's newest venture is Estrellón, a Spanish-inspired eatery dishing out flavorful, locally-sourced tapas. Plus, no trip would be complete without shopping and sampling ingredients from farmers and artisans across the state at the expansive Dane County Farmers' Market that wraps around the city's Capitol Square or purchasing local cheese from the much-loved Fromagination cheese shop.

If you're an outdoor enthusiast, the city also offers plenty of bike-friendly routes. In fact, Madison is connected by a series of green bike paths that stretch from the shores of Lake Mendota to the stunning Capitol building and through the university's nearby residential neighborhoods. Sailing and paddleboarding on the city's lakes is also a fun way to pass the time, along with walking around the university's sprawling campus. With lakefront access and wooded trails, the campus is as much an outdoor paradise as it is a place of learning.

Where to Stay: The Graduate Madison Hotel, which is a stone's throw from campus, embraces a collegiate vibe and offers budget-friendly accommodation options.

[See: The 7 Best Budget-Friendly Vacation Spots for Students.]

Gainesville, Florida

Located between Atlanta and Miami, and home to the University of Florida, Gainesville is a quintessential college town. Often called "Gator Nation," the university is known for its superlative athletics. Tailgating football games here is as serious as academics. The campus offers a mixture of green spaces and iconic buildings, plus plenty of opportunities to enjoy recreational outdoor activities and culture. And at night, you can soak up a vibrant nightlife downtown.

Beyond its flourishing nightlife, Gainesville also boasts thriving music, dance and art scenes that are all close to campus. The Bo Diddley Plaza – named after the famous rock 'n' roll singer – offers a summer evening concert series that takes place each Friday and lasts into the fall. Other famous musicians from Gainesville include Tom Petty and the members of the alternative rock band Sister Hazel. What's more, the Dance Alive National Ballet – a highly-lauded national Ballet company – also performs an annual series of shows. And for art enthusiasts, the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art features 11 galleries and is conveniently located on campus.

If you're an animal lover or nature-seeker, carve out some time to explore Paynes Prairie, which is home to alligators, horses, bison, birds and more. There is ground access as well as deck access, so visitors who want to view the Prairie but not get too close to the wildlife are able to do so comfortably. And if you enjoy hiking, biking or horseback riding, make sure to check out the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, which is accessible from the Prairie. Plus, if you want to hit the beach, you can easily map out a daytrip from Gainesville to top beach spots, such as Jacksonville Beach, Crescent Beach and Daytona Beach, which are each within a two-hour drive of Gainesville.

Where to Stay: The Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Gainesville, located on campus, offers an ideal lodging choice. Make sure to enjoy some on-site dining at Albert's Restaurant before catching a Gators game.

Oxford, Mississippi

No visit to Oxford, Mississippi, is complete without a rowdy tailgate and a Hotty Toddy in the Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Touted as one of the best tailgating spots, well, ever, the pomp surrounding an Ole Miss Rebels football game is contagious, regardless of which team you're rooting for. In fact, on game days the town's population nearly doubles from its typical 20,000 students.

Oxford embraces visitors with traditional Southern hospitality during Welcome Home Weekends, the university's seven Ole Miss home football game weekends. On these weekends, visitors and locals can enjoy special community events like the Double Decker Bus Tours, departing from the Visit Oxford Welcome Center at 2 p.m. the Friday afternoon before a home game, often followed by live music on the courthouse lawn from 5 to 7 p.m. And when it comes to dining, the college town boasts countless eateries to pick from, including five restaurants under the direction of James Beard award-winning chef, John Currence.

[Read: Best Places to Visit in the USA.]

Easily accessible from Interstate 55 in north Mississippi and about an hour drive from Memphis, Tennessee, Oxford welcomes visitors with Southern charm and big-city amenities. And there's no shortage of culture-filled pursuits here. Browse the collection of Greek and Roman antiquities in the South at the University of Mississippi Museum and enjoy the great outdoors in the bike-friendly community, where the scenic trails are an excellent way to explore the city on two wheels. Afterward, peruse unique boutiques and stores surrounding the town square, like Neilson's Department Store, the oldest department store in the South.

Where to Stay: The Inn at Ole Miss is located on the University of Mississippi campus and has been welcoming visitors since 1951. In 2008, the Inn underwent an extensive renovation to include an eight-story tower, and boasts complimentary Wi-Fi access, along with an outdoor swimming pool.

Tags: travel, vacations, colleges


Erica Lamberg has contributed to U.S. News & World Report since 2015. In addition, she has worked as a correspondent for Gannett for over 15 years, writing business features, book profiles, special section features and travel articles. Under Gannett’s news umbrella, Erica was recently named a lifestyle and travel expert for USA Today's 10 Best platform. Erica’s writing credits also include Bankrate.com, where she writes about personal finance, real estate and travel topics, and she is a regular contributor to well-regarded travel sites including Fodor’s Travel and Cruise Critic. Erica is also a former education and travel correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Erica is also a sought-after author of health content and writes several monthly features for the digital platform of Reader’s Digest. She is also a writing consultant and is retained by corporations in the real estate, higher education and healthcare industries. Erica is based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow Erica on Twitter.

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