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By now you’ve seen enough of those “best of” college lists to know that Charlottesville, Virginia, and Eugene, Oregon, are great college towns to visit. You Googled “great college towns to live in” and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Boulder, Colorado, were on the list. And you know that Columbus, Ohio, and Gainesville, Florida, have crazy fun fans. Of course, the biggest colleges in the country have a lot going on in their respective towns — that’s why every best-of college list contains the usual suspects.
But this list is different: These five college towns have populations of less than 110,000 people, so they might be off your radar, but they boast year-round school spirit and interesting activities for a weekend getaway. These towns are also less than 100 miles from major cities so you can enjoy a game and the energy of college life without straying too far from the airport.
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Appalachian State University
Boone, North Carolina
In-state comrades Duke and University of North Carolina (UNC) receive a lot of attention for their homes in Durham and Chapel Hill, respectively. But App State — as it's known — has more pastoral surroundings. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains (and about 85 miles northeast from Asheville), App State is an outdoor lover's haven with miles of hiking, biking and walking trails meandering through the Appalachian Mountains and through quaint downtown Boone (population 18,000). The school is known nationally for its commitment to sustainability in three areas: economics, environment and equity. If you visit in the fall, take your Frisbee or football to Sanford Mall in the middle of the red-brick academic buildings. Then head over to Kidd Brewer Stadium — which received a $50 million facelift in 2020 — and catch a football game. The school has been an ESPN darling ever since the football team upset the fifth-ranked Michigan Wolverines in 2007. Or skip the stadium and head to the 120-foot outdoor bar at Appalachian Mountain Brewery (with an attached patio, heated in the winter) to play cornhole and enjoy a Boone Creek Blonde Ale made with local honey and other year-round and seasonal brews.
Where to stay: The moderately priced Horton Hotel and Rooftop Lounge has the only rooftop bar in town and offers amazing views of the surrounding mountains. Bonus: Downtown parking — a guaranteed tailgating spot —is included with the stay.