Remember how fun it was to be a college kid? Sure, there were classes and exams, but then you could hang out on the quad, go to town to get some good cheap eats, and maybe find an art show or music. These seven California college towns can help you relive the glory days (and you don’t even need a fake I.D.).
Tree-huggers and baseball fans find plenty to love
SCHOOL: Humboldt State University
Surrounded by towering coast redwoods, Arcata embraces everything eco. In this town, progressivism reigns supreme. The Humboldt Crabs, one of the country’s oldest semi-pro baseball teams, play summer games at Arcata Ballpark. Dell’Arte academy in Blue Lake teaches clowning, mask-making, and more; live performances in summer. Chill out in the Arcata Community Forest, a 793-acre oasis of ferns and redwoods. For fresh sushi at rock-bottom prices, try Tomo Japanese Restaurant.
Small-town vibe, world-class beer, and a gem of a park
SCHOOL: California State University, Chico
An award-winning brewery, a glorious urban park, plus handsome architecture, history, and a vibrant art community—Chico makes an inviting destination. SIP Sierra Nevada Brewing Company offers daily tours. Beautiful Bidwell Park, more than 11 green miles long, has excellent swimming holes. Visit elegant 26-room Bidwell Mansion, a Victorian masterpiece. Watch art glass masters in studios like Satava Art Glass and Orient & Flume. Red Tavern serves Mediterranean-influenced cuisine and a bocce court.
Bikes, barns, and a great way with wine
SCHOOL: University of California, Davis
This former agricultural town west of Sacramento has turned into the Central Valley’s laid-back think tank nudged up against a campus-ful of world-class scientists, artists, and winemakers. Make like a local and explore by bike—in fact, Davis has more bikes than people. GOOD LIFE Learn about food and health in the Good Life Garden at the new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame has antique bikes, photos, and memorabilia. Think wurst, paprikash, and goulash at Little Prague Bohemian Restaurant, a nod to the town’s Czech population.
A cosmopolitan, left-leaning foodie’s delight
SCHOOL: University of California, Berkeley (aka “Cal”)
This campus prides itself on its independent spirit and innovative thinkers. And thanks to chef Alice Waters, Berkeley has sprouted a “locavore” culinary scene focusing on fresh, organic ingredients. On campus, take the elevator up 307-foot Sather Tower, nicknamed “the Campanile”—one of the world’s tallest bell-and-clock towers. Pegasus Downtown independent bookstore is a Shattuck Avenue treasure. University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley boasts more than 13,000 different kinds of plants. At Gather, eat farm-to-table food and chat with students and profs at communal tables.
SAN LUIS OBISPO
Mountains, a mission, and the big blue sea
SCHOOL: California Polytechnic State University (aka “Cal Poly”)
Tucked between wild coastal mountains and the Pacific, it’s easy to see why so many students never leave “SLO-town.” When locals aren’t packing restaurants and bars near the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa downtown, they’re likely surfing or hiking. Cal Poly Arts brings must-see shows to the Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo. Bishop Peak, a 2¼-mile ascent, rewards with spectacular views of the Central Coast. Cowboy Cookie ’n’ Grub is all about desserts (Outlaws, hold-’em-withtwo- hands-size chocolate chip cookies, are addictive).
An artsy haven down south
SCHOOL: California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (aka “Cal Poly Pomona”)
Named for the Roman goddess of fruit, Pomona has graduated from citrus groves to academia: eight colleges on 1,438 acres. Downtown has antique stores, quirky restaurants, and art galleries. Fox Theater, a fully restored Art Deco movie palace from 1931, sponsors films, shows, and live music. In the city’s historic redbrick commercial center, discover galleries and artists’ studios. TORTILLA FLATS College students flock to Juanita’s Drive-In, a casual, freestanding taco stand, for terrific cheap (as in less than $5) dishes.
Pleasantly suburban, but with big-city cultural attractions
SCHOOL: University of California, Irvine
A planned community founded in 1960, Irvine is full of surprises. In addition to four higher education institutions, the Orange County metropolis has theater, music, museums, and pretty lakes. Irvine Museum focuses on California Impressionist and plein air paintings. The spiffy Irvine Barclay Theatre & Cheng Hall showcases classical music, ballet, and stage shows. The saag and chana masala at Clay Oven Indian Cuisine is so good you just might make enroll in school here.