During the course of my college career, I went through four majors on three different campuses of two different schools. Despite that bumpy ride, to this day I seek out college campuses when I’m traveling, largely because they’re such alluring and lively places to roam around. They also offer plenty of cultural attractions, like the excellent Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, or the Saint Joan of Arc Chapel at Marquette University in Milwaukee. But whatever draws you to them, there’s always lots to see on some of the most beautiful campuses. These are my favorites.
#1 Savannah College of Art and Design (Savanna, Georgia)
My favorite college campus occupies much of my favorite historic district in the United States, in my favorite small city. But SCAD doesn’t have a traditional campus. Rather, it spreads out among all the squares and historic buildings of Savannah, turning this unique city itself into its campus. What makes SCAD so special is that it’s an integral part of Savannah’s historic preservation efforts, and most definitely practices what it preaches in its architectural history and preservation courses. SCAD buys old, sometimes abandoned, beautiful buildings, restores them, adapts them to its needs, and maintains the architectural integrity of Savannah. So, for instance, it purchased a department store and made it the library. A motel is now a dormitory. The Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory from 1892 is now Poetter Hall, SCAD’s flagship building. SCAD also took over the beautiful Scottish Rite Temple that had a ground-floor apothecary, now the utterly charming Gryphon Tea Room (pop in for superior Italian wedding soup). The Student Center was formerly a synagogue. Georgia’s first free public school (and temporary military hospital during the Civil War) is now Pepe Hall, dedicated to the study of fibers. The former Chatham County Jail and Savannah Police Department is now Habersham Hall. A building that, at times, was a grocery store, Western Union office, and auto parts store is now the bookstore. The old power station is now home to programs in dramatic writing, sound design, and film and television. An old bank from 1895, Savannah’s first skyscraper, is now home to the school’s digital interactive services. Former private mansions now serve myriad purposes, such as the office of the president and executive administration. As I roamed around seductive Savannah from my base at Forsyth Park Inn, I turned it into a game, guessing which of the city’s gorgeous old buildings are now part of the SCAD campus. With a total nearing 70, I was never far from another one.
#2 University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado)
According to Sunset magazine, “If heaven has a college town, it’s probably as beautiful as Boulder.” That’s no exaggeration, and the University of Colorado at Boulder itself is one of the reasons for such an accolade. This campus is simply gorgeous! Old Main, constructed in 1876, was the first building and housed the entire school. Now about 38,000 students attend classes and live in two dozen residence halls on a stunning campus with the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop. The original green space, flanked by beautiful pink-sandstone Italian Renaissance buildings, is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. Each season brings a markedly pronounced variation to the campus, from bursts of spring color to striking autumn foliage to a snowy winter wonderland. While you’re here, make sure to participate in some campus life, such as a performance in the castle-like Macky Auditorium Concert Hall, a show at Fiske Planetarium, or a Colorado Buffaloes football game at the 50,000-seat Folsom Field. Or just lie down on one of the grassy quads and appreciate Sunset’s boast.
#3 Princeton University (Princeton, New Jersey)
Princeton’s history goes back to its founding in 1746, one of nine colonial colleges chartered before the American Revolution and the fourth-oldest institute of higher education in the United States. Its 600-acre campus, especially attractive during the throes of autumn’s peak foliage season, includes more than 200 buildings, including Nassau Hall, built in 1756. Now housing the president’s and other administrative offices, it was the first seat of the New Jersey Legislature (in 1776) and of the Congress of the Confederation, making it the capitol of the United States for five months in 1783. University Chapel was the second-largest university chapel in the world when it was completed in 1928. Blair Hall, a Collegiate Gothic–style beauty from 1897, features an archway with acoustics so good that more than a dozen student a cappella groups perform here. And Alexander Hall, a granite and brown sandstone Richardsonian Romanesque structure from 1894, has fantastic arches, round towers, and a spectacular bas-relief sculptural mass under a Tiffany stained-glass quatrefoil rose window (with allegorical studies of Genius, Study, Knowledge, and Fame) on the façade that shouldn’t be missed. The campus, of course, is more than just buildings. The grounds are equally attractive and include 17 gardens, an elm tree alley, and an artificial pond that serves as the headquarters of the university’s rowing program.
#4 University of Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin)
It’s like a city. With close to 50,000 students, it has to be. Sprawled along the hilly terrain on the shore of Lake Mendota (and not far from Mendota Lake House B&B, where I was staying), the University of Wisconsin in Madison fans out for nearly 1,000 acres. At the heart of the campus, Bascom Hall, with its columned portico, pediment with lozenge window, and balustraded roofline, commands an enviable position. It rests at the top of Bascom Hill, an inviting green space flanked by the university’s oldest buildings that slopes down to Library Mall, an open quad that faces the historic 1892 Red Gym, one of the world’s best things that are red. I stopped at the Babcock Hall Dairy Store to refuel with some delicious cheese and ice cream before continuing to explore. The lovely two-acre Allen Centennial Garden wraps around the equally lovely Agricultural Dean’s House, built in 1896. The Washburn Observatory, completed in 1881, offers public viewing programs, and the Music Hall, a Victorian Gothic building from 1878 with a clock tower, is home to the university opera. Despite its enormous population, it’s still very possible to find quiet paths that ribbon their way through the campus where you can appreciate the grounds and the more than 7,000 oak, elm, ash, black locust, and other trees. For a panoramic view of the campus, head down to the lake and walk to the end of the Goodspeed Family Pier. And if you’re up for something a little more chilling, check out the allegedly haunted Science Hall, once occupied by the anatomy department of the medical school that had a morgue in the basement, underground tunnels, and a constant supply of cadavers that were brought by hearse and winched up to the attic.
#5 Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland)
The 4,000 plebes, midshipmen, and cadets who receive instruction at one of the United States’ top public schools have the privilege of doing it on a spectacular campus in Annapolis. Founded as the Naval School at Fort Severn in 1845, it became the United States Naval Academy in 1850 and has since expanded from a 10-acre campus to 338 acres, bordered on three sides by the Severn River and a few creeks. I followed a row of handsome houses for the upper administrators to The Yard, the heart of the campus. Stribling Walk cuts through this attractive green space, bordered by gorgeous buildings: Mahan Hall, a Beaux-Arts beauty of gray brick and terra cotta from 1902 with a signature clock tower; another Beaux-Arts masterpiece, Bancroft Hall, widely regarded as the largest contiguous set of academic dormitories in the United States, with its decorative naval elements on the exterior, a gorgeous rotunda, the tremendous Memorial Hall, and its own ZIP code; and the massive nondenominational Main Chapel, a National Historic Landmark with a copper dome that’s visible from miles away, stained-glass windows with nautical themes, and a 21-ton black-and-white Italian marble sarcophagus, with bronze fittings and dolphins amid waves, containing the remains of the United States’ first naval commander to achieve renown, John Paul Jones. I popped into Preble Hall to visit the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, which traces the history of the Navy, including an extensive collection of intricate model ships. Scattered around the campus, monuments honor service members who fought in Tripoli, Mexico, Midway, and Vietnam, as well as one honoring those who served on submarines. Massive Dahlgren Hall houses a model of a Wright B-1 Flyer in its cavernous space. The edges of the campus reward you with views along its watery borders. Time your visit well—you’ll be impressed when hundreds and hundreds of midshipmen in dress whites fall into formation behind a band and then march off to attend the all-important Army-Navy football game.
- University of Texas (Austin, Texas)
- Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, New York)
- University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
- Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee)
- University of Montana (Missoula, Montana)
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