How travel will look in three weeks, three months or three years is anyone’s guess, but research and intuition tell us that the first wave of travel will be regional, favoring smaller cities and natural areas with plenty of space to spread out. In the shadow of COVID-19, many travelers will feel most comfortable staying fairly close to home and prioritizing destinations that feel safe, welcoming and familiar. 

Hmm… small cities that are welcoming, comfortable and a bit nostalgic? Sounds like it’s time to pack your weekend bag and head to a college town.

College towns have a lot going for them as early post-COVID travel destinations: Whether or not you have a personal connection to the school, these small cities tend to have warm and welcoming residents, a wide range of recreational activities and quality healthcare systems to put your mind at ease as you dip your toe back into travel, post-quarantine. 

“College towns constantly refresh themselves,” says Nick Pfeiffer, vice president of marketing and communications for Think Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa. “New students and faculty come and go each year. This equips us with new ideas, new processes, and adaptability, and uniquely positions college towns to be the most elastic and prepared to return from this pandemic.” 

Of course your own alma mater will always be your favorite place to go back to, but if you’re looking for a new college town to visit when it’s time to travel again, here are five that absolutely deserve a spot on your places-to-explore-next list.  

Overcast Day Over the River at Iowa City
Iowa City is most famous for the celebrated writing workshop at the University of Iowa, but there's a lot more here than prose © Chris Boswell / Getty Images

1. Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City is a Unesco City of Literature, and visitors can soak up the city’s creative energy in a myriad of ways. “In Iowa City you can enjoy a beverage in the haunts that served Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving while they attended the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and take a stroll on the Literary Walk through downtown,” says Pfeiffer.

Be sure to browse the offerings at the iconic Prairie Lights bookstore, and treat yourself to a latte at the cafe upstairs – where many a first draft penned at its tables eventually became a book sold downstairs in the stacks. Check out the quirky decor at the literature-themed Graduate Hotel, where the lobby is adorned with a hand-painted novella by Writers’ Workshop graduate Tim Taranto.  

Luckily for foodies, Iowa City’s culinary scene runs on the same supercharged creativity and innovation that fuels the literary scene – particularly when it comes to breakfast. Don’t miss the fried chicken sandwich at Pullman and chorizo and eggs at Bluebird Diner. And although it's still unclear when the Hawkeye Wave – a beloved tradition where football fans turn and wave at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital during football games – will return, the same generous spirit fans bring to Kinnick Stadium can be found around town in smiling locals eager to help you find the perfect book, meal or cocktail to make sure your trip is unforgettable.

A bronze statue of William Faulkner looks out over Courthouse Square, May 31, 2015, in Oxford, Mississippi.
A bronze statue of William Faulkner looks out over Courthouse Square in Oxford, Mississippi © Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright / Alamy Stock Photo

2. Oxford, Mississippi

If you aren't familiar with the quintessential Southern college town, know that Oxford, Mississippi has everything: history, charm, amazing food and local residents who are as passionate about Ole Miss as they are about welcoming visitors to town. 

It’s easy to spend a full day making your way through the historic downtown square, popping into local boutiques, eating at beloved mainstays like City Grocery and Bottletree Bakery, and enjoying a patio cocktail or two. Carve out ample time to wander the aisles of Square Books, where cozy chairs tucked into reading nooks invite you to flip through your stack of titles before you bring them home.

If being around all that good literary energy leaves you craving more, make your way to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s former home which is now owned by the university and open for tours. And while you’re in a wandering mode, pop over to Oxford Canteen, located just a few minutes from downtown, to try one of their epic grilled cheese sandwiches.

Bike-only paths on the campus of UC Davis, California, USA.
Davis, California started as a railroad hub, but became a college town starting in 1959 © David R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

3. Davis, California 

Located about 20 minutes outside of Sacramento and a little over an hour from San Francisco, Davis is home to UC Davis and offers all the amenities of a great college town: great restaurants, funky boutiques, a lively arts scene, plenty of green space and a fun, walkable downtown. 

Davis is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, and there’s no better way to experience the city and surrounding natural areas than by bike. Rent some wheels and see how much of the area’s 100 miles of paved bike lanes and trails you can explore. Without many hills, you might be surprised how far you can go. 

Davis has a rich agricultural history and is located in the heart of California’s farm country, so the food scene here is packed with locally sourced restaurants like Seasons and The Mustard Seed. Grab an orange blossom honey ice cream cone for dessert at Davis Creamery, and do your future self a favor by picking up some fresh produce at one of the many fruit stands dotting the highway outside of town. You’ll be glad to have a taste of Davis to enjoy from home. 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been here since 1848, when Wisconsin first became a state ©Aubrie Pick/Lonely Planet

4. Madison, Wisconsin

Consistently ranked among the most physically active cities in the country, Madison has a plethora of outdoor recreation options for visitors to enjoy. “There is a vibe and an energy in a city that has a major university. It inspires a very active lifestyle for the community and we take advantage of that in Madison,” says Rob Gard, director of PR and communications for Destination Madison.

Among Madison’s outdoor amenities and activities, Gard counts “boating, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding on one of Madison’s five lakes, 241 miles of paths for biking, running and blading, and 14 area state parks with great hiking.” 

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, Madison’s restaurants won’t disappoint. From fine dining to dive bars, innovative international cuisine to old-school supper clubs, this small city’s restaurant roster reads more like a major metropolis. A few standout spots include Bar Corallini, Tornado Steakhouse, and Sardine

Of course, no Wisconsin vacation would be complete without cheese. Stop by Fromagination (which is certainly a contender for best cheese shop name ever, yes?) to sample the best cheeses from the region and all over the world, plus gourmet accoutrements of every kind. 

New Haven, Connecticut City Skyline
New Haven is most famous as the city surrounding Yale University, but there's plenty of attractions beyond the lore surrounding Handsome Dan © Getty Images/iStockphoto

5. New Haven, Connecticut

Yale’s stunning campus would be reason enough to visit New Haven, but this historic college town and surrounding area has much more to offer than postcard-perfect Ivy League scenery. 

New Haven’s location gives visitors easy access to the shoreline and all the biking, boating, and swimming your heart desires. Hammonasset Beach State Park, located in nearby Madison boasts more than two miles of beach. History buffs won’t run out of sites to see and museums to explore: take a stroll around town to admire 18th-century buildings and beautifully preserved churches, and check out the New Haven Museum for a deeper dive into the history of this city that was founded in 1638.

And whether you’re coming back for a slice of nostalgia or have never tried New Haven-style pizza (known for its super thin, crispy crust), a stop at Sally’s or Pepe’s is a must.

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