This post is sponsored by the Tempe Tourism Office. All opinions are my own.
College visits are a huge part of many family’s travel schedules once there is a high schooler in the house. If you are paying for a hotel and perhaps also a plane flight already, why not see some of the local sights while you are in town too? So many college towns are also kid-friendly travel destinations, so you might even consider bringing the whole family along to make these trips into a regular vacation.
Here are 9 of the very best college towns that also do double duty as family-friendly cities worth a visit.
Top Family-Friendly College Towns
1. Charlottesville, Virginia
I was lucky enough to spend three years of my life in Charlottesville when I was in law school at the University of Virginia, so I have a special place in my heart for the city. Even though I’m a little bit biased, the many landmarks and historical sites in the area are truly must-sees that kids will find engaging while they are also learning about history.
The top site for families to visit is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home. The university grounds (particularly the Rotunda and Academical Village that was also designed by Jefferson) is another worthy stop. Also be sure to spend some time outdoors – both Shenandoah National Park and the the Blue Ridge Parkway are within easy drives of the city. Both offer hiking as well as scenic drives in the fall when the leaves change color.
2. Tempe, Arizona
Home of Arizona State University, Tempe is a city with so much to offer family travelers. Next door to Phoenix, it’s also very easy to reach whether you are flying or driving. My own family spent several days of our February break in 2020 in Tempe, and found more activities than we could do in a full three day visit.
Top kid-friendly attractions and things to do include the Phoenix Zoo, the Legoland Discovery Center, Tempe Town Lake, Papago Park, and Childsplay Theater. Be sure to make time to hike up “A” Mountain (officially known as Hayden Butte) at sunset to get a view of the entire valley. The city is also in the middle of baseball spring training action every February and March each year, so it’s the perfect home base for baseball-lovers who also want to tour the university. For more details on visiting Tempe, be sure to read my complete guide to visiting Tempe with kids.
3. Austin, Texas
The University of Texas in Austin is one of the largest universities in the country, so it’s a common stop for many potential college-goers. Austin is also the state capital, so there’s so much to do. And with it’s well-known city tagline, “Keep Austin Weird,” it’s a city that celebrates the eclectic – sure to be a hit with kids.
Top indoor activities in Austin include visiting the Texas Capitol building, engaging in STEAM activities at the Thinkery, exploring the Austin Science & Nature Center, or checking out the Austin Aquarium. When the weather is nice, families can enjoy so much outdoors as well, from activities on Lake Travis to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. And of course, be sure to make time to eat some barbecue while you are in the Lone Star State.
4. New Haven, Connecticut
Another college town that I was fortunate enough to call home for four years also has attractions galore for families. New Haven is the (alleged) birthplace of pizza in America, so it’s one destination where you don’t have to feel guilty saying yes to your kids eating pizza at every meal. Restaurants vying for the top pizza spot include Pepe’s, Sally’s, and the upstart Modern Apizza.
With kids, make sure to take time to stroll Yale University’s campus – Harkness Tower and Connecticut Hall on the university’s Old Campus are both must-sees. With younger kids, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is the best bet for indoor fun. The museum’s collection includes an impressive array of dinosaur fossils. Older kids would also enjoy the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art, or the Beinecke Rare Book Library.
Because of its proximity to New York City, shows often make their pre-Broadway debut in New Haven’s theaters. Consider checking out a show at either the Shubert or Long Wharf theaters.
5. Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Chapel Hill, one of three cities in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, is where the University of North Carolina is located. My parents met in Chapel Hill, so it’s another college town that has meant something to our family but that we also love visiting for its many interesting attractions.
Stroll the campus and stop by the Old Well, and be sure to dine on Franklin Street. Sports-loving kiddos should definitely pay a visit to the Carolina Basketball Museum where memorabilia from the Tarheels’ many ACC wins is on display. The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is another excellent museum where kids can have fun while learning something. On nice weather days, get outside at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens.
6. Santa Cruz, California
The University of California, Santa Cruz is located in the heart of this beach town in Northern California. The city is also home to the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk chock full of amusement park rides and state fair style food situated on a beautiful stretch of beach overlooking Monterey Bay. My kids and I regularly take day trips down to Santa Cruz from the San Francisco Bay Area. The boardwalk easily offers a full day of fun.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of deep fried Snickers bars and stomach-churning attractions, you can also take the kids on a train ride. Roaring Camp Railroads in nearby Felton runs two train lines – one through the magnificent coastal redwoods and another to and from the Santa Cruz beach. Also consider a visit to the Mystery Spot, described as “gravitational anomaly” where your “perceptions of the laws of physics and gravity are questioned.” It’s the ultimate in American roadside attraction kitsch, and kids will love it.
7. Burlington, Vermont
Burlington might not be a city name that is as familiar as many on this list, but perhaps the name Ben & Jerry’s rings a bell? In addition to being the home of the University of Vermont, Burlington is where the ice cream brand came into being. Be sure to visit the scoop shop in downtown to try a few flavors, or even take a tour of the factory in Waterbury, the next town over.
The best time to visit Burlington is undoubtedly in the summer months, when residents and visitors shake off the cold and hike, bike, and boat around Lake Champlain. Families should visit the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center to learn about the ecology of the area. Street festivals are common on summer weekends, so check the calendar for happenings during your trip.
8. Athens, Georgia
Athens, Georgia is a city about an hour and change northeast of Atlanta that is home to the University of Georgia. As much as it pains me as a native Alabamian to give the Georgia Bulldogs any love, the city is pretty darn cool. Be sure to snap a family picture at the Athens arch as well as the Tree That Owns Itself. Visit the Butts-Mehr UGA Sports Museum – a must-see stop for sports-lovers.
The city has a plethora of family-friendly outdoor adventures. The Sandy Creek Nature Center is home to over 6 miles of trails and the Children’s Garden at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia is another lovely place to explore nature.
9. Ann Arbor, Michigan
Last but not least is Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan stands. The top outdoor attraction is the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.
Interesting family-friendly museums also abound in Ann Arbor. Younger kids will enjoy the Hands on Museum, a children’s museum where everything is meant to be touched and tried. The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History is another kid-friendly stop with dinosaur fossils and a planetarium.
For more information about visiting Ann Arbor, be sure to check out this University of Michigan college trip guide from my friend Tamara of Your Time to Fly.
What are your favorite college towns to visit with kids? Share your alma mater or your local favorite in the comments!