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Note: All travel is subject to frequently-changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state, and local advisories before scheduling trips.

As we head into the final stretch of summer, it’s time to start gearing back up for school. Whether you’re a prospective student, a returning one, or just a curious traveler who loves hanging out in really rad places, there are some college towns that are so awesome they need to be experienced at least once. Here are 8 great college towns to check out this fall.

RELATED:  6 hippest small towns to get off-grid

Olympia, WA

Those lucky souls who chose Evergreen as their college have the great fortune of living in one of the most undeniably beautiful towns in America. The Pacific Northwest is known for its lush green forests, rugged coastline, and panoramic mountain scenery. You’ll  find countless was to explore the outdoors, including nearby Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Priest Point Park, and Hope Island Marine State Park. Meanwhile, Olympic National Park is just an hour away. After soaking in all the pristine nature, head to Medicine Creek Winery, check out the Capitol, stroll the historic district, then finish up the day at Brewery City Pizza.

STAY Red Lion Inn & Suites offers affordable rooms right near downtown.

Boulder,  Colorado

Flatirons

The Flatirons near Boulder, Colorado. Photo: Cara Jo – Flickr.

Lying in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains is one pretty rad college town. Boulder is in so many ways exactly as you might picture it: A town populated with outdoorsy hikers, stoner snowboarders, and college students hanging out at the many cafes, breweries, and dispensaries lining the pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall. After a day of hiking the iconic Flatirons or Chautauqua Park, knock back a craft beer at one of the city’s many breweries such as Avery Brewing Company. Whether or not you are enrolled, the University of Colorado’s campus is worth seeing thanks to its beautiful architecture and classic college campus feel.

STAY Boulder University Inn offers affordable. accommodations.

Madison, WI

Go Badgers! Wedged between two lakes, Madison’s a great combo of. culture and outdoorsy fun. While the University of Wisconsin dominates this Midwest capital, the city has much to offer visitors, including breweries and a renowned, some may say infamous, sports scene, plus a regionally famous farmers market. Take your pick between tailgating at Camp Randall Stadium or bar crawling The Robin Room and Cask & Ale. Along with drinking holes, lively State Street offers a variety of restaurants and cafés, plus art galleries, museums, and clubs. In addition to its lively college scene the University of Wisconsin hosts the world-class botanical research center, The University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum.

STAY The Best Western Premier Park Hotel in downtown Madison is right near the Capitol.

Berkeley, CA

U.C. Berkeley campus, Campanile

U.C. Berkeley campus, Campanile

Synonymous with one of the best schools in the country, Berkeley offers a large range of activities for visitors and students. And while it’s super close to all the adjacent cities of San Francisco and Oakland have to offer, Berkeley’s thriving arts scene, restaurants, bars, outdoor spaces and quirky sights give this city enough to stand on its own. Soak up the outdoors at Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley Marina, or the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. See a band at The Greek Theater or a play at Berkeley Repertory Theater, or visit the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Afterward, knock back some local beers and grub at the Gilman Brewing Company or Cesar before watching the sun set over the bay at Grizzly Peak.

STAY The hip Graduate Berkeley is just a stone’s throw from campus.

Cambridge, MA

This one is almost too easy… Boston metro hosts more famed universities than any other place in the country. As you rub elbows with snooty law students you may even be inclined to ask, “Do you like apples?” (If you know, you know). But in all seriousness, the balance between a bustling college town and city nightlife will leave many with more options than they know what to do with. Hit up the bars, cafes and eateries around Harvard Square and Inman Square in Cambridge before strolling across the Charles River to tour sights like the Boston Common, Faneuil Hall, and world-famous Fenway Park. Boston offers a wide range of neighborhoods to partake in food and nightlife, from Italian eats in the North End to bustling bars and clubs in the posh Back Bay.

STAY HI Boston offers a clean, affordable, and well-rated hostel right near Boston Commons.

Chapel Hill, NC

"The Old Well at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC."

“The Old Well at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC.”

The options for hip college towns in the South are plentiful, but Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina, takes the lead. The UNC campus alone is worth visiting, thanks to its mix of greenery and historical buildings complimented by new architecture. The campus is accompanied by a sports scene centered around the Dean E. Smith Center, Boshamer Stadium, and Kehan Memorial Stadium. The town hosts additional architectural gems such as the University Baptist Church, The Chapel of the Cross Gimghoul Castle, and the Forrest Theater. Animal lovers can intermingle with pigs, goats and horses at 1870 Farm or lounge with felines at Cat Tales Cat Cafe. Finish up your day at either Top of the Hills Distillery, Hawthorn Wood or Brenz Pizza Company.

STAY After soaking up southern hospitality, head to the historic Carolina Inn which is right near campus.

Santa Barbara, CA

Santa Barbara

Who doesn’t like sunshine and palm trees? Santa Barbara offers both and much more. In addition to being the home of the University of California Santa Barbara (in nearby Isla Vista), the town offers many sights and activities, including the historic Old Mission Santa Barbara, El Presidio de Santa Barbara, and whale-watching tours where you might encounter several species of whales and dolphins along the beautiful California coast. For further ocean views, visitors should head to East Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach State Park, or make a beeline to Stearns Wharf for seafood and cocktails. While taking in the ocean views chow down on East Beach Tacos or complement the warm Californian evening with Mediterranean seafood and cocktails at Toma Restaurant and Bar. Nightlife rules in the trendy Funk Zone and along rambling State Street.

STAY La Quinta Inn and Suites by Wyndham Santa Barbara puts you close to downtown action without breaking your bank.

Amherst, MA

Amherst, MA

Move over Cambridge and Boston! Nestled in Western Mass and shrouded in New England woods, sits Amherst. With U Mass Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Westfield and others all in close proximity, Amherst brings a traditional college town feel to the table. This New England town offers a combination of a thriving college scene intermixed with history, outdoors, and a range of options for a night out. Outdoor enthusiasts, take your pick from a range of trails such as The Notch or Metacomet-Monadnock Trail then unwind at Amherst Farm Winery. Museums such as the Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst History Museum and Mead Art Museum offer a taste of Amherst history and the local arts scene.  Finish up your day at The Moan and Dove, High Horse, or The Harp Irish Pub.

STAY Make Howard Johnson by Wyndham Amherst Hadley your affordable home base.

Tagged: Destinations, Seasonal

Note: CheapTickets compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site.

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Since weather wise fall is the Bay Area’s version of summer, it also makes it the perfect time to take your dining outdoors. Here are the Bay Area’s best places to picnic, including nearby restaurants and cafes where you can gather grub for your al fresco feast. Remember to pack a blanket and a parka with your picnic—just in case the famous fog rolls in.

RELATED: 10 free things to do in San Francisco

Angel Island State Park

Golden Gate bridge as seen from Angel Island, California

Golden Gate bridge as seen from Angel Island

Located on San Francisco Bay near Tiburon, this island has a history that includes acting as a detention center for immigrants in the early 1900s, processing prisoners of war and serving as a Nike missile defense base in the late 1950s. Now a state park, day-trippers reach it via ferries departing from San Francisco and Tiburon. In addition to picnicking, you can hike or bike around the island on paved roads and well-marked trails. Trams also circle the island.

Picnic pick-up: Near the ferry landing, Angel Island Cafe is a convenient back-up if you don’t have time to pack a picnic beforehand or if you want a little something more. The Cantina, which features live music and fresh oysters, operates seasonally (Jun–Oct). You can also order a box lunch for pick-up when you arrive.

 

Golden Gate Park 

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Golden Gate Park | Photo: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Of course, there are endless picnic spots in this giant park that is larger even than Manhattan’s Central Park. Two favorites are Hippie Hill, which is legendary for being a gathering place in the ‘60s, and Strawberry Island, which is across a foot bridge from the Stow Lake Boathouse and has picnic tables and a waterfall. Afterward, rent a paddle boat and float for a while on the lake.

Picnic pick-up: Say Cheese is a long-established shop in nearby Haight-Ashbury, where you can fill your picnic basket with a selection of hundreds of cheeses and perhaps a made-to-order sandwich, some pate and a few cookies. As a back-up, a cafe at Stow Lake serves hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as cold beer and hot espresso drinks.

 

Jack Early Park 

Head here if you’re in the mood for an intimate, or maybe even solo, picnic.  A climb up the 63 tree-lined steps may take your breath away, but the pay off is that it leads you up to a platform offering a breathtaking view spanning three bridges: the Golden Gate, San Rafael–Richmond, and Bay Bridge. Located on the outskirts of North Beach, this hidden park is wee, but has a bench at the top to rest upon and enjoy your lunch. The park is gated at night.

Picnic pick-up: Swing by nearby Molinari Delicatessen in North Beach. Take a number as you walk in, and order up made-to-order sandwiches and more. This old-school Italian deli was established in 1896 and is the oldest in town. It’s also a local institution.

 

Mission Dolores Park 

Mission Dolores Park, San Francisco

Mission Dolores Park | Photo: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

The sun shines more reliably in the Mission District, so this park is extremely  popular on weekends. It features rolling expanses of grass, with limited shade provided by tall palm trees. Spread a blanket and then sit back to enjoy the spectacular view of the city’s skyline.  Facilities include a tennis court, a basketball court, a playground and several off-leash dog play areas.

Picnic pick-up: Located on the northwest corner of the park, the deli counter at Bi-Rite Market will fulfill your picnic fantasies. They also stock a good selection of kombucha, and for dessert check out the wall of chocolate bars or pick up some housemade chocolate mousse or a dessert jar. Or . . . cross the street to Bi-Rite Creamery for some yummy ice cream and eat your dessert before your picnic.

 

Presidio Main Parade Ground

Presidio Parade Grounds

Presidio Parade Grounds

In 1898, this 7-acre expanse of grass served as a training site for soldiers who lived in the adjacent red-brick barracks. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1937, the area was paved over to serve as a parking lot. Fortunately, it was changed back to a green space in 2011, so now you can picnic your heart out here. One of the buildings has been converted into the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Picnic pick-up: Time your visit for a Sunday between April and October, and you can participate in an official Presidio Picnic. You can still bring your own picnic or purchase a portable feast from a variety of food trucks featuring international cuisines. Free live entertainment is usually part of the mix.

Transamerica Redwood Park 

It is exciting enough to find a small park among the skyscrapers, but even better that it’s next to the famous Transamerica Pyramid building and filled with toddler redwoods standing up to 100-feet tall. Benches and tables are available. Note that the park is open weekdays only, from 7am to 5:30pm.

Picnic pick-up: Just across the street, Sushirrito mixes together two of the Bay Area’s favorite foods—sushi and burritos. There is usually a line, but it is worth the wait for a great sushi roll, perhaps the popular sumo crunch featuring spicy tempura. Order ahead and pick up your picnic ready to go.

Wave Organ

Wave Organ, San Francisco

Wave Organ | Photo: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Located at the eastern tip of the breakwater forming the Marina Yacht Harbor, this unique attraction is off the beaten path. It was designed by an artist with the Exploratorium, when that science museum was situated just a few blocks away at the Palace of Fine Arts—another great picnic destination. Find a perfect spot here, then relax while enjoying the natural symphony made by pipes submerged in the Bay. A spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge is included.

Picnic pick-up: Located on the Marina’s trendy Chestnut Street, Lucca Delicatessen has been owned by the same family since 1929.  Pick up a basket full of picnic supplies here, from made-to-order sandwiches to housemade salads to Italian wines.

 

Old Mill Park: Mill Valley 

Old Mill Park, Mill Valley

Old Mill Park | Photo: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Meanwhile, just across the bay in Marin, picnicking at a table under mature second-growth redwoods is magical. When the table is within a fairy-ring circle of giant redwoods—you’re almost beyond a wildest dream. Add in a free public park with a small stream and picturesque sawmill ruins and you’ve got a memorable picnic site. This park has a small playground and is especially fun with children.

Picnic pick-up: Another old-timer, the small but well-stocked Mill Valley Market has been family-owned since 1929. Locally made products are the specialty, and a deli/bakery tucked in the back purveys prepared salads and baked goods.

 

U.C. Berkeley Campanile: Berkeley 

U.C. Berkeley campus, Campanile

U.C. Berkeley campus, Campanile

Head to the East Bay to see how fun it can be to drop a blanket in the shadow of Cal’s famous Campanile and settle in for a picnic feast while listening to a concert played out on the bells above. Do check the concert schedule because it changes regularly. And do plan in the time to take the Campanile’s elevator up to enjoy a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. You might want do what new Cal graduates sometimes do and enjoy a picnic of just champagne and strawberries.

Picnic Pick-up: In the Gourmet Ghetto, around the corner from world-famous Chez Panisse, is charming Grégoire—an upscale hole-in-the-wall. The accomplished chef here produces French take-out made from scratch with fresh local ingredients. He is justly famous for crispy round potato puffs and a flaky housemade apple tarte tatin, but it is hard to go wrong here. You can place your order online and then pick up your picnic ready to go in sweet corrugated boxes with black-and-white liners. A few picnic tables are available outside the shop should you be unable to wait.

Central Park: San Mateo  

Draeger’s Market | Photo: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Over in San Mateo, this traditional suburban park holds 16 acres of trees, a miniature train ride and a Japanese Tea Garden, as well as a baseball field, playground and tennis courts. It also has several official picnic areas with tables and barbecue grills.

Picnic Pick-up: An immense emporium, Draeger’s Market boasts grocery items but also a deli, a bakery, a sushi bar and a smoothie bar, as well as a wine-tasting room and cooking school (if you want to make your own picnic). A second floor purveys cookbooks and housewares, and items such as fancy napkins that might come in handy for a picnic.

Tagged: Food & drink

Note: CheapTickets compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site.

Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Carole is a Berkeley-based travel writer who most especially enjoys cultural and culinary travel. She contributes to an assortment of publications and is the author of 18 books. Carole oversees two websites, berkeleyandbeyond.com and webcamtraveler.com, and she blogs at travelswithcarole.blogspot.com.
Carole Terwilliger Meyers

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