The Best California College Towns to Visit

The Best California College Towns to Visit

By Rachael Medina
September 11, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

Whether you’re getting ready to send in college applications, just starting to think about your future, or ready to move to a lively California college town for a change of pace, there are plenty of places to choose from. Since the Golden State is sprinkled with opportunities—including all types of terrain, college majors, and job industries—stopping by the best college towns in California can easily turn into a cross-state road trip. But if you’re trying to narrow down your search and visit only a handful of locations, here’s where you should go before deciding which college town is the perfect place for you to live.

The Golden State's Best College Towns

Since California is home to about 400 colleges and universities, there is an abundance of cities you could add to your list of places to visit. While every town is surely worth seeing, where to go on your college tour should largely be based on the type of college (or post-college) experience you’re looking for. Some people are more interested in finding colleges in big cities where there are endless things to explore, while others are looking for a smaller town to settle down in. Regardless of which category you fall into, we’ve found the best college towns for you to visit. Read on to find your next campus tour locale.

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Palo Alto and Stanford 

The Silicon Valley cities of Palo Alto and Stanford offer some of the state's most renowned colleges.

These neighboring cities are home to some of California’s hottest colleges: Stanford University and the University of Notre Dame - California. There also happens to be at least a dozen other colleges in the surrounding area, if you’re willing to deal with a longer commute in exchange for living in a quaint college town. Santa Clara University, San Francisco State University, and the Academy of Art University are a few of the other schools located less than an hour’s drive away (depending on traffic, of course). 

Palo Alto has a Walk Score of 60 but an impressive bike score of 91, making it an excellent choice for bike enthusiasts and those without cars. With its close proximity to San Francisco, it’s easy to bike to a Caltrain station and ride into San Francisco; from there, the BART system allows you to see the vast majority of the Bay Area. Similarly, Stanford received a walking score of 71 and a biking score of 100, so getting around is pretty simple for visitors and residents alike. 

In addition to their unbeatable location, Palo Alto and Stanford are full of tree-lined streets and quaint boutiques, making everyone who visits feel right at home. The area also has an ideal blend of a driven, tech-forward atmosphere; college life; and relaxed family vibes, checking off the boxes for university students and graduates alike.

Davis

The agricultural town of Davis is home to beautiful landscapes as well as a prestigious university.

As far as California college towns go, Davis doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Known for its farming, this city is a bucolic oasis where you’ll be able to focus on your studies. Home to the University of California, Davis, the town is less than half an hour away from the state capital of Sacramento and about 75 minutes from San Francisco—making weekends incredibly easy to plan, especially if you have a car. 

If you enjoy nature, Davis is a great place to escape to for a college visit and perhaps even your college education. Since the town is fairly small—particularly if you’re used to living in one of the Golden State’s more populated cities—a slower pace might take some getting used to, but once you’ve experienced your first river float or farm tour, your world might change.

San Luis Obispo

The charming coastal city of San Luis Obispo provides top-notch colleges, a vibrant downtown, and plenty of outdoor recreation.

Located along the Central Coast, San Luis Obispo is an unusual eclection of things; with open nature for hiking and rock climbing, undulating shorelines to the west, and forested groves to the east, there’s no end to outdoor recreation here. In addition to this variety of terrain, San Luis Obispo is known for its tourist attractions such as Bubblegum Alley and a host of art museums, offering something for everyone.

Home to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo is a coveted college destination and an incredible place to visit. After exploring the town, extend your vacation by road tripping north to Big Sur or heading south to Santa Barbara; once you’ve spent some time along the Golden State coastline, you probably won’t want to spend your days anywhere else.

Santa Cruz

In between classes, students can enjoy the laid-back surf culture and numerous attractions of Santa Cruz.

Nestled between Big Sur and San Francisco, Santa Cruz is the ideal location for beach lovers. While many of California’s greatest college towns are located near the Pacific Ocean, Santa Cruz combines touristy amenities, a West Coast surf culture, and a local vibe to create a feeling all its own. 

Relax on the shore, catch a wave, and hit the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for an afternoon of fun, but don’t forget to add a campus tour of the University of California, Santa Cruz to your itinerary. Then, cruise down to Capitola or Monterey to get a better sense of all that the area holds. 

Los Angeles

USC is one of the many excellent colleges in L.A., a prime location for those looking to live in a bustling metropolis.

If you’re trying to find the California city with the most colleges, look no further than L.A. The Los Angeles region holds hundreds of the state’s colleges and universities, making it the perfect destination to visit if you’re not quite sure what you want to do for your career. Since there are so many educational institutions to choose from, it’s easy to find a specialty that interests you. Plus, with tons of things to do at all times in this sprawling metropolis, you’ll never be bored. 

UCLA and USC are only a couple of the top colleges in this city, and with several community and state schools to choose from in L.A., it isn’t hard to find a great education within your budget. When visiting, take in all of the region’s best features by stopping by the beach; walking around DTLA; seeing the incredible cities nearby, including Santa Monica, Venice, Pasadena, and the famous Anaheim; and cruising around the city’s different districts. With so much going on, it’s clear why Los Angeles is considered to be among the best college cities in California.


Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…

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