As we inch closer to the end of the school year, another scholastic tradition appears on the horizon: The Great American College Tour. Unlike other domestic family vacations, college touring is — by nature — predicated on the school first and location second.
And for those of us who love to travel specifically to experience a new hotel, this was, until recently, quite a tall order for some smaller college towns. The options were often limited to impersonal big chains or, if you were lucky, a bed and breakfast property that may or may not have space the next time you visit.
But over the past three years or so, there’s been a change when it comes to innovative, exciting, and even luxury properties opening in areas that are primarily known for their universities. From Athens, Georgia to Waterville, Maine, hoteliers are seeing the benefit of launching boltholes in areas that were sorely in need of new and unique properties.
So, if you’re one of the many Americans embarking on a plane, train, or road trip this spring or summer to visit schools of higher education, read on to discover 14 properties near college towns that are worth the trip themselves.
Located about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, creative-minded Athens is home to the main campus of the sprawling University of Georgia. And while the town has long been known for its robust music scene and a surprisingly deep bench of innovative restaurants, boutique hotels were scarce.
That changed with the opening of The Rushmore in 2021 — a property that falls somewhere between a bed and breakfast and a small hotel. Each suite here is decked out with custom furnishings, unique decor (we especially love the florals in the Lenox Room), and chic Grown Alchemist toiletries. And of course, there’s a daily seasonal breakfast included, all sourced from nearby The Cafe on Lumpkin.
We’re well aware that Baltimore is no small college town, and there has been an influx of fantastic hotels in recent years, including The Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore and Sagamore Pendry Baltimore. But those looking for a luxury or boutique property within walking distance of Johns Hopkins University have been historically out of luck.
This summer, however, college-minded hotel chain The Study will open The Study Hotel at Johns Hopkins. The 115-room hotel is located right at the main gate of Hopkins’ Homewood Campus and features many scholarly perks, like leather reading chairs in every room, and bookcases curated with a selection of works from Johns Hopkins University authors, scholars, and alumni.
Brunswick in Midcoast Maine punches well above its weight when it comes to arts and culture. It’s home to the state’s premier performing arts venue Maine State Music Theatre, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and of course, Bowdoin College itself. And with the opening of The Federal in the spring of 2022, the town now also boasts a boutique hotel whose interior design is worthy of the town’s pedigree. Located in a 19th-century historic home, the rooms feature vintage furniture, custom mattresses, and many have views of the beautiful Androscoggin River. Equally exciting for the town was the opening of 555 North — the on-site seafood restaurant from acclaimed Portland chef Steve Corry.
Bucolic Charlottesville, with its numerous hiking, biking, and wine trails has long been a favored weekend trip destination, even if you’re not visiting the stunning campus of the University of Virginia (UVA). But two new hotels have made the city even more alluring.
Keswick Hall, a sprawling resort with everything from seven tennis courts to Marigold by Jean-Georges, an on-site restaurant by famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, unveiled a full renovation in the fall of 2021. And just this April, the city welcomed the opening of Kimpton The Forum Hotel, right on the grounds of UVA’s Darden School of Business. The Kimpton property is the brand’s first on-campus hotel and includes modern steakhouse Birch & Bloom and craft beer bar The Good Sport.
College Station, Texas
This city in eastern Texas is perhaps best known as Aggieland: the home of the main campus of Texas A&M University. And while the area doesn’t lack nightlife, the hotel options weren’t up to snuff. But this year, College Station welcomes the opening of an outpost of Hotel McCoy, a laidback property with a focus on art and community. The hotel amenities will include everything from an on-site art gallery, pickleball court, outdoor gym circuit, and a life-sized chess board, plus a sleek pool complete with cabanas and an alfresco cocktail bar.
Ohio’s state capital is home to a bevy of excellent museums like the Center of Science and Industry and the Columbus Museum of Art, as well as, of course, The Ohio State University. So, it makes sense that creativity imbues the city’s first independent lifestyle hotel, The Junto, which is opening this May. The name, in fact, was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s “club for mutual improvement” of the same name. Guests can relax at a fireside library, sip cocktails at chic rooftop bar Brass Eye, or watch the Scioto River pass by from custom-built window seats in the rooms.
Northcentral Florida isn’t generally top of the list when it comes to vacation destinations within the state, but Gainesville, the home of The University of Florida, is more vibrant than most may know. With a steady population of college students and over 30 miles of hiking and biking trails, the city likes to bill itself as a place where “nature and culture meet.” And Hotel Eleo at the University of Florida, which opened in the summer of 2020, finally gave the area its own contemporary luxury hotel. All rooms feature bespoke, Italian-designed furniture and luxury linens, and many overlook Rush Lake. Other perks include a gym stocked with Peloton bikes and the location is an easy walk to campus.
Hanover, New Hampshire
Hanover, nestled in the beautiful Upper Connecticut River Valley, has long been a launching point for some of New England’s best outdoor activities, from famed ski mountains to national historical parks. It’s also home to Dartmouth College, which has cemented the town’s reputation as one of the prettiest college towns in the country. Those visiting who are looking for a hearty dose of New England charm should book a room at Six South St Hotel, which was thoughtfully renovated in the spring of 2022. The guest rooms at this boutique property have all been redesigned with mid-century modern flair (think sage green paneling and furniture with cane accents) and some are even pup-friendly.
Iowa City, Iowa
Iowa City, home to The University of Iowa, may not have a reputation as a hotbed of quirky hotels. But The Highlander Hotel, which opened in August 2021, is single-handedly changing that perception. The property, which takes inspiration from the psychedelic trends of the ‘60s, is actually a reimagining of The Highlander Inn and Supper Club, the city’s most popular spot for music back in the day. (Joan Baez even popped in!) Now, the hotel is home to The Supper Club, a quirky arcade and cocktail bar; retro milkshakes at the Snack Shack; and a turntable library so you can rock out in your own room.
If your hotel taste veers more towards the … Hobbit-y, then a stop at Ancient Lore Village in Knoxville is a must — even if you’re not visiting the flagship campus of The University of Tennessee. The property, which opened in April 2021, is straight out of The Shire. Think rooms dubbed Fairy Cottage or Gremlin Den, with themed decor to match, and exteriors that resemble a quaint, English village. Activities on-site are also quite fitting, from axe throwing to archery. And the hotel even throws quite a few events during the year, from dinner under the stars to — you guessed it — screenings of “The Hobbit.”
The capital of Nebraska is one of the Midwest’s most popular cities, with a thriving restaurant scene and an emerging live music culture. And, as home to The University of Nebraska, the vibe here also skews quite young and energetic. The opening of The Scarlet Hotel in the summer of 2021 brought 154 much-needed new guest rooms to the city, along with buzzing venues like rooftop bar Barred Owl and Well & Good, the on-site restaurant specializing in local cuisine — think grilled rib eyes and pork chops. The rooms here are spacious, modern in design, and, of course, all come with TVs equipped with the Big Ten Network for football games.
New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven may lack the bucolic charm of some of the other New England towns on this list, but it makes up for it with a vibrant food culture, Yale University, and some of the most interesting urban architecture on the East Coast. Unsurprisingly then, one of New Haven’s newest properties, Hotel Marcel, is a repurposed brutalist landmark, the Pirelli building designed by Marcel Breuer. And far from just having an eye-catching exterior, the hotel, which opened in May 2022, is now a model of sustainability — the whole structure is actually powered by solar electricity. We also love the mid-century modern bedrooms, which retain many of the original details of the Bauhaus-style office building.
Palo Alto, California
Silicon Valley is best known for its preponderance of tech companies, of course, but sunny Palo Alto is also home to the famed Stanford University. And those visiting the beautiful campus now have a new bolthole which is just a few minutes walk from the school. Graduate Palo Alto opened this past January, after a thoughtful restoration of the former Hotel President. The lobby and guest rooms are decked out with carefully chosen antique furniture, and there is even custom Stanford art and hand-painted redwood wallpaper for a bit of school spirit in every corner. Don’t miss the rooftop bar President’s Terrace either — it’s the only one of its kind in the city.
This city on the banks of the Kennebec River is home not only to a surprising amount of National Register of Historic Places, but the quaint campus of Colby College. Hotel development, however, had been stagnant for decades until the Lockwood Hotel opened in August 2022. The property is now quite the community hub, with restaurant Front & Main serving creative New England fare, plenty of event space, and a prime location in downtown Waterville. Rooms here are cheerily decorated with warm wood furniture and Lavazza coffee makers and are also dog friendly.