Minneapolis, Minnesota-SS

Discover the Charm of the 20 Best College Towns in the Midwest

From bustling urban centers to idyllic small towns, the Midwest is home to some of the most charming and vibrant college towns in the nation. Whether you’re drawn to thriving arts and music scenes, passionate sports fanbases and storied venues, iconic eateries, or a strong sense of community, the best Midwest college towns all have something special to offer.

University of Michigan
University of Michigan I photo credit: Agnieszka Gaul / Shutterstock

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ann Arbor, better known as A2 (A-squared) is home to the University of Michigan’s flagship campus, one of the nation’s leading research universities, and a proud athletic tradition.

Apart from academics, Ann Arbor is a vibrant, green, and eclectic city with a rich cultural scene, beautiful surroundings, diverse dining options, and many arts and music options. Nature enthusiasts can explore lush parks and nature reserves, foodies can enjoy iconic eateries and history buffs can delve into Ann Arbor’s fascinating heritage.

Athens, Ohio

Ohioans and visitors looking for the quintessential town can visit Athens, home to Ohio University, the state’s oldest university and ranked as one of the Midwest’s top college towns.

The campus is just a short distance from Hocking Hills State Park and is home to The Ridges, a former asylum that’s open for tours. The Kennedy Museum of Art is also well known and features a diverse art collection and rotating exhibits.

Chicago, Illinois

The Windy City is home to world-renowned restaurants and landmarks, but it’s also home to the University of Chicago, which offers plenty to see in its own right.

One of the campus’ masterpieces is the Frederick Robie House, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and considered the best example of his Prarie Style. The Oriental Institute Museum and the Smart Museum of Art are also noteworthy for their esteemed collections of art.

Madison Wisconsin - capitol building lit up at night
Madison Wisconsin | photo via gmoneysniper_so

Madison, Wisconsin

Madison is Wisconsin’s capital city, the home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Badger State’s cultural home. It is renowned for its picturesque setting between two beautiful lakes, Mendota and Monona, which contribute to the city’s scenic charm and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Madison is known for its progressive and inclusive community, with a thriving arts and music scene, many culinary offerings, and a wealth of outdoor activities. Capitol Square is a focal point, featuring the impressive Wisconsin State Capitol building and hosting various events and farmers’ markets.

Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa, which greatly shapes the city’s identity and culture. The city has a strong literary tradition featuring many bookstores and has earned the title of UNESCO City of Literature.

Iowa City is also known for its many museums, including the Pentacrest area of Iowa’s campus, which includes the Old Capitol Building and the Museum of Natural History. Residents and visitors can enjoy outdoor activities along the Iowa River, which flows through the city and sports fans can cheer on the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Minneapolis, Minnesota-SS
Minneapolis, Minnesota I photo credit: Jacob Boomsma / Shutterstock

Minneapolis, Minnesota

While it’s not typically classified as a college town in the traditional sense, Minneapolis is a dynamic and diverse city as the home of the University of Minnesota. With the mighty Mississippi River flowing through town, Minneapolis offers outdoor recreation, scenic overlooks, trails, and parks, including Minnehaha Park and Minnehaha Falls.

The Twin Cities area is also known for its craft beer scene and famous Juicy Lucy burgers. Sports fans have plenty of options, including the university’s famous football and hockey teams and pro teams in all four major sports.

Bloomington, Indiana

Bloomington is a quintessential college town renowned for its picturesque surroundings and vibrant arts scene. Home to Indiana University Bloomington and its iconic Sample Gates, the city always pulsates with activity.

Visitors to campus can enjoy a performance at the IU Auditorium or explore the WonderLab Museum, which offers hands-on exhibits and interactive STEM experiences. Bloomington is also known for its bike-friendly infrastructure and the B-Line Trail is a scenic route right through the city and surrounding area.

Columbus Ohio
Columbus Ohio | photo via joshuaaaron

Columbus, Ohio

The home of The Ohio State University, Columbus is always bustling with activity as Ohio’s capital city. The school is known for its proud football tradition and its iconic stadium known as The Horseshoe.

Visitors can also enjoy the shops, nightlife, and galleries of the Short North Arts District just south of campus. Away from campus, the Ohio Statehouse is an architectural marvel and the city’s German Village is characterized by its charming brick streets, 19th-century architecture, quaint shops, and restaurants.

East Lansing, Michigan

Nestled in the shadow of Michigan’s capital, East Lansing is home to Michigan State University, one of the nation’s biggest schools. Students and campus visitors can stop by the iconic Beaumont Tower, the renowned Broad Museum, and Spartan Stadium, and Breslin Center for football and basketball games.

Running alongside campus, Grand River Avenue offers lively bars, cozy cafes, and plenty of shops. The Lansing River Trail offers scenic paths for walking, jogging, and biking, while nearby parks provide opportunities for picnicking and outdoor sports.

Evanston, Illinois

With its tree-lined streets, historic architecture, and vibrant cultural scene, Evanston offers a unique blend of academic vitality and community charm as the home of Northwestern University.

The picturesque campus offers stunning views of Lake Michigan and historic buildings, including the Weber Arch and Deering Library. The city also features the historic Grosse Point Lighthouse, the Evanston Farmers’ Markets, and Evanston Streets Alive, an annual celebration that transforms city streets into car-free zones.

Champaign, Illinois-SS
Champaign, Illinois I photo credit: tzm23 / Shutterstock

Champaign, Illinois

Nestled about two hours south of Chicago, the home of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign blends academic excellence with community spirit. The campus itself is renowned for its green spaces, architecture, and the beloved Alma Mater Statue — a university symbol and popular spot for photos.

Near campus, visitors can meander along Green Street to visit restaurants, cafes, and bars. Visitors who enjoy festivals can attend the Pygmalion Festival, which showcases music, literature, and technology, and the Ebertfest, an annual film festival that showcases independent, foreign, and classic films.

Lincoln, Nebraska

Home to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the city is a vibrant college town with much to offer. The campus is known for its passionate football fanbase, and the Sheldon Museum of Art, which features a renowned collection of American art, including works by Jackson Pollock.

Lincoln is also Nebraska’s capitol and offers tours of the iconic building. Those who love history can traverse cobblestone streets in the Haymarket District and explore unique shops and eateries to sample local delicacies like the runza.

aerial view of South Bend Indiana at night
South Bend Indiana | photo via adamrobert.sb

South Bend, Indiana

South Bend is home to the University of Notre Dame and a campus full of famous landmarks. Visitors can explore the historic grounds of Notre Dame, including the iconic Golden Dome, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and Touchdown Jesus mural, and soak in the lively gameday atmosphere around Notre Dame Stadium.

Away from campus, visitors can enjoy a stroll and public art displays on the Riverwalk along the St. Joseph River. Downtown South Bend is a vibrant hub of activity, with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, bars, and cultural venues.

Columbia, Missouri

The University of Missouri campus (known locally as Missou) is a must-visit spot in Columbia. With a design resembling a botanical garden, the school plays that up with 18 different gardens, including lily and butterfly gardens.

Visitors can also take photos at The Columns, remnants of the original Academic Hall that symbolize the school’s history. Just south of Columbus, visitors can explore Rock Bridge State Park or visit The District downtown, home to over 600 businesses.

Fargo, North Dakota

While it’s been immortalized on TV and in movies, Fargo is known to North Dakotans as the home of North Dakota State University. It’s close to downtown, which is where visitors will find a plethora of entertainment options.

After munching on hotdish and lefse, visitors can enjoy time at the Red River Zoo with its array of animals; and the Plains Art Museum, the largest such museum in the state that showcases contemporary and regional art.

Vermillion, South Dakota-SS
Vermillion, South Dakota I photo credit: Jacob Boomsma / Shutterstock

Vermillion, South Dakota

Vermillion is a charming town and the home of the University of South Dakota. The campus includes the National Music Museum with one of the world’s largest collections of musical instruments. History buffs can also visit the W.H. Over Museum and Spirit Mound Historic Prairie.

Foodies can sink their teeth into state favorites like chislic, small pieces of seasoned and grilled meat, typically served on skewers; and Indian tacos, which feature crispy frybread topped with savory ingredients like seasoned ground beef, beans, cheese, lettuce, and salsa.

Marquette, Michigan

The home of Northern Michigan University is a wonderland for those willing to brave chilling Midwest winters. Nestled on the Lake Superior shore, Marquette is close to scenic spots, famous ski resorts, and more in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Visitors can explore the campus or enjoy local activities like eating pasties and cudighi sandwiches, trying their hand at luge and curling, or soaking up the sun at a lakeside park

West Lafayette, Indiana

Nestled about an hour northwest of Indianapolis, West Lafayette is best known as the home of Purdue University and its iconic clock tower.

On campus, visitors can hang out at the Memorial Union and stay at the Union Club Hotel. The Purdue University Galleries offer unique rotating exhibits as well. Visitors can also visit in April to watch the Purdue Grand Prix, an annual go-kart race.

Away from campus, visitors can explore Prophetstown State Park just outside town or the Triple XXX Family Restaurant for classic meals.

Ames, Iowa

As the home of Iowa State University, there’s always something going on in Ames. In addition to a rousing athletic atmosphere, visitors can enjoy the 17-acre Reiman Gardens, featuring a stunning array of plants, flowers, and outdoor sculptures.

Away from campus, visitors can enjoy downtown shopping, local farmers markets, and stops at local eateries like Hickory Park, known for its hearty (and generously portioned) American fare and delicious ice cream.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

While it may be known as Brew City, Milwaukee is one of the busiest college towns in the Midwest — home to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

With its location on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, Milwaukee offers a dynamic atmosphere, no matter your interests. Sports fans can cheer on two pro teams; foodies can enjoy breweries, food trucks, and restaurants; and even history buffs can enjoy popular spots like the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Explore Some of the Best College Towns in the Midwest

From bustling urban centers to quaint towns transformed by college campuses, the best college towns in the Midwest have something to offer everyone. Whether you’re keen to take selfies near iconic landmarks, sink your teeth into local cuisine, visit a local museum, or cheer at a sporting event, college towns present no shortage of fun activities for students, residents, and visitors alike.