The Golden State's Most Beautiful College Towns

The Golden State's Most Beautiful College Towns

By Rachael Medina
Staff Writer September 17, 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. 

Considering where to go to college is perhaps one of the biggest decisions we make in our young adult lives. With so many things to factor in—including everything from affordability and program offerings to proximity to friends and coveted entertainment—sometimes it’s easier to sit back and daydream about where you can truly picture yourself being. Whether that’s studying at a quaint coffee shop on a tree-lined street, wandering through the forest in your downtime, or relaxing on the beach before class, California is home to many of the most beautiful college towns in America. 

Since California is the third-largest state in square miles and the absolute largest by population in the U.S., it’s no wonder there are so many opportunities and gorgeous college destinations to explore. While factoring in how often you’ll get to see loved ones and which schools will offer you the best chance for success after graduation, chances are you’ll have a happier college experience if you live somewhere that you actually want to be in. So, as you resume booking college tours and gathering the supplies you’ll need to live away from home, keep these stunning locales in mind.

The Golden State’s 5 Most Beautiful College Towns 

Since there are hundreds of colleges and universities scattered across the California landscape, there’s something for everyone. Featuring cool coastal towns, dry high deserts, bustling cities, mountainous groves, and giant redwood forests, this incredible state boasts every type of beauty. Regardless of whether you consider year-round sun or rainy weather ideal, you’re sure to find your kind of beauty here. These are a few of the university towns we just can’t get enough of.

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The Beautiful College Towns in Southern California

SoCal is the most densely populated region of the state when it comes to colleges and universities—but it’s also known for its plethora of natural wonders. Sporting the iconic yuccas of Joshua Tree National Park, stunning shores of San Diego, and enough cute towns to keep you busy for years, Southern California features many kinds of beauty.

Spend your college days in the incredible coastal town of Malibu. Photo courtesy of Pepperdine.

Malibu

Population: 11,820

College(s): Pepperdine University

Tucked along the coastline, between the powerful Pacific Ocean and the hills leading to California’s tourist destinations, lies a serene town that’s home to the stars. Beloved for its laid-back attitude, Malibu is as incredible for its natural vistas as it is for its proximity to other locales. With Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Venice, and dozens of other coastal cities situated just a short drive away, there’s no excuse for being bored here. 

Since Malibu is known for housing celebrities, just about everywhere is picture-perfect; from the crashing waves, to the rugged cliffs, to the local shops and eateries, this is a place where you’ll want to have your camera handy each time you leave your house. The town comes with a sophisticated air you won’t quite find on the shores of Venice Beach, so it’s a great choice for those who enjoy reading a good book on the sand, chasing the waves and getting to know the other local surfers, and brunching with friends on Sundays.

Enjoy the cotton-candy sunsets and stunning scenery of San Diego in between classes. Photo courtesy of the University of San Diego.

San Diego

Population: 1,423,851

College(s): San Diego State University (SDSU); University of San Diego; University of California, San Diego (UCSD); San Diego City College; San Diego Mesa College; Point Loma Nazarene University; and many more

If you’re the kind of person who wears shorts and flip-flops even when it’s raining and never tires of sunny skies, San Diego is likely the stunning spot for you. With more than a handful of colleges to choose from, this portion of Southern California comes complete with tons of amenities, a wide variety of unique neighborhoods to discover, and total beach vibes. Since it’s located right on the ocean, you’ll never tire of the region’s watersports, which range from sailing and stand-up paddleboarding to surfing and kayaking. But the beauty doesn’t end at the water’s edge, so head inland to check out the city’s other incredible attractions.

Featuring swaying palm trees, landscaped gardens, and well-preserved Spanish-Renaissance architecture, it’s clear why San Diego is considered to be one of the prettiest college towns. Wander about Balboa Park, visit the famous zoo, grab a cup of high-quality roasted coffee, meander around downtown, and enjoy the sunshine to make the most of your time in this incredible town. 

The Most Beautiful College Towns on The Central Coast

Settled between Southern California and the Bay Area, the Central Coast is a serene place to go to school—or to visit on the weekend. While this region isn’t home to the state’s most inexpensive college towns, it is spectacularly charming. Allow the cool coastal breeze to flow through your hair as you look out at the sun setting over the water—there’s really nothing like it.

Choose Santa Barbara as your college town if you want to study by the beach and savor endless sunshine. Photo courtesy of UC Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara

Population: 91,364

College(s): University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); Antioch University Santa Barbara; Westmont College; Santa Barbara City College

Santa Barbara is one of those places that you can never forget. Sporting unreal ocean vistas, a mixture of incredible architecture, and a variety of landscapes, this coastal city is always a good place to get away. Tucked between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles, this unexpected locale can instantly make you feel like you’re home. 

While the laid-back beach vibe and endless sunshine make you feel relaxed, the local boutiques and red-tiled roofs allow for an elevated experience that feels akin to a luxury resort rather than a college town. If you enjoy a mixture of forest and coastline, you might be inclined to settle down and live here forever

The Prettiest College Towns in Northern California

Complete with lush forests and unique coastal expanses, NorCal is the ideal place for nature enthusiasts to live. With so many alluring destinations to explore in the northern part of the state, it’s easy to leave the largest cities behind in favor of a bucolic lifestyle. 

Revel in the slower pace of Rohnert Park for an idyllic California college experience. Photo courtesy of Sonoma State University.

Rohnert Park

Population: 43,291

College(s): Sonoma State University

Sonoma County is renowned for its delectable cheese, sprawling vineyards, and handsome scenery, all of which make it a great place to visit and live. Located close to the San Francisco Bay Area, Rohnert Park is an unexpectedly wonderful place to spend your time—as long as you’re okay with a slower pace. While coveted destinations such as Napa, Sacramento, and Point Reyes are only an hour or two away, the remote beauty of Rohnert Park makes you feel like you’ve traveled much further. 

Enjoy walks around the verdant landscape, get to know the local farms, take trips to the nearby beaches, and sample all the local products you can get your hands on to truly understand why this town is one of the most beautiful places around. 

Look no further than Arcata if you seek a small town with endless natural beauty. Photo courtesy of Humboldt State University.

Arcata

Population: 18,431

College(s): Humboldt State University (HSU)

Nestled deep in Northern California, Arcata is a fantastic place to get inspired. With rugged coastlines, extensive forests, and limitless beauty, Humboldt County is one of the most underrated university locations in the state. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast looking to study botany or an artist searching for picturesque places to paint, this town has it all. 

Here, it’s easy to spend your entire vacation exploring on foot—making sure to walk to the Plaza, grab a cup of coffee, venture into the park near campus, and see where the locals hang out. While getting to any major cities will take some time, Arcata offers the chance to experience nature in a unique way you won’t find in other cities. If you’re looking for a taste of small-town life, this gorgeous college town just might be for you.

Staff Writer
Rachael Medina

Staff Writer 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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