The Best College Towns in California

The Golden State is known for its stunning coastline, unique landscapes and innovative culture. Amidst the towering redwoods, sun-soaked beaches and bustling urban centers, seven cities stand out as the best college towns in California: Berkeley, San Luis Obispo, Claremont, Davis, Pasadena, Palo Alto and Santa Clara.

These cities offer students a unique and fulfilling college experience with top-notch educational institutions, diverse cultural attractions and a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities.

Berkeley

Aerial view of Berkeley

Berkeley, a lively city nestled along the shores of the San Francisco Bay, is a hub of intellectual and cultural riches. The city is home to the University of California, Berkeley, one of the world’s premier public research universities. Established in 1868, UC Berkeley offers a wide range of academic programs, state-of-the-art facilities and a stellar campus life that attracts students from across the nation and around the world.

With a true wealth of museums, galleries and performance spaces to explore. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the legendary Greek Theatre showcase the city’s artistic and historical heritage, while the Downtown Berkeley Arts District offers a vibrant array of galleries, theaters and music venues.

The great outdoors is never far away in Berkeley, with the stunning Tilden Regional Park and the picturesque Berkeley Rose Garden providing ample opportunities for hiking, biking and soaking up the sun in serene natural beauty.

The city’s culinary scene is second to none, with popular eateries like The Cheese Board Collective and Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen offering a taste of Berkeley’s unique flavors. Telegraph Avenue, the city’s iconic thoroughfare, features lively bars, clubs and boutiques, providing students with everything they need to enjoy a day out on the town followed by a full night of fun.

San Luis Obispo

Wide angle view of San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo, a charming coastal college town situated halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, offers students a unique blend of small-town charm and a strong tech scene. The city is home to California Polytechnic State University, a renowned public university known for its outstanding academic programs in engineering, architecture and agriculture. Established in 1901, Cal Poly has a close-knit campus community with a strong commitment to hands-on learning.

San Luis Obispo’s cultural attractions are ideal for students and visitors of all interests. The city’s historic downtown area is home to a number of attractions including the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art and the Performing Arts Center, just to name a couple.

Outdoor adventure is at the center of the San Luis Obispo experience, with Montana de Oro State Park and Avila Beach providing ample opportunities for hiking, biking and beachcombing.

The city’s culinary scene offers a diverse array of dining options including the delectable farm-to-table fare at Novo Restaurant & Lounge. San Luis Obispo’s lively nightlife, with popular venues like Frog & Peach Pub and SLO Brew, offers the perfect setting for students to unwind after a long day in the library.

Claremont

Gorgeous Claremont California architecture

A picturesque city nestled at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Claremont boasts a unique distinction as the “City of Trees and PhDs.” The city is home to the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of seven prestigious private institutions that include Pomona College, Claremont McKenna College and Harvey Mudd College. Known for their rigorous academic programs, small class sizes and close-knit campus communities, the Claremont Colleges offer students an exceptional liberal arts education in a supportive and nurturing environment.

Some unique attractions in the city include the California Botanic Garden and the Petterson Museum of Intercultural Art, each of which provide fascinating glimpses into the region’s natural beauty and diverse artistic traditions. The city’s historic downtown area, affectionately known as the “Village,” is home to numerous galleries, boutiques and eateries that exude small-town charm and big city sophistication.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to do in and around Claremont, with the beautiful Claremont Hills Wilderness Park in your backyard, escaping the hustle and bustle is never a tall order. The city’s culinary scene is nothing to scoff at, with popular eateries like Viva Madrid and Some Crust Bakery offering a taste of Claremont’s eclectic flavors.

With its enchanting blend of academic excellence, cultural attractions and natural beauty, Claremont proudly claims its spot among the best college towns in California.

Davis

Stunning gardens just off the UC Davis campus

Davis, a vibrant college town located just west of Sacramento, is renowned for its bicycle-friendly streets, environmentally conscious mindset and world-class educational opportunities. The city is home to the University of California, Davis. UC Davis is a top-ranked public research university known for its strong academic programs in agriculture, veterinary medicine and environmental sciences. Around since 1905, UC Davis offers a wide range of degree programs, a supportive campus environment and a strong commitment to sustainability.

Outdoor adventure is never far away in Davis, with the city’s extensive network of bike paths and beautiful Central Park providing ample opportunities for cycling, jogging and wildlife watching at the drop of a hat.

The city’s culinary scene is a testament to its rich agricultural heritage, with popular eateries like The Mustard Seed and Davis Farmers Market offering a taste of the city’s farm-fresh flavors. With its blend of academic excellence, cultural attractions and environmental stewardship, Davis easily earns its place among the best college towns in California.

Pasadena

Pasadena from the sky on a sunny day

A city nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena offers students a rich and unparalleled college experience amidst a warm and welcoming community. The city is home to the California Institute of Technology, a world-renowned private research university known for its outstanding academic programs in science and engineering. Pasadena also hosts the esteemed ArtCenter College of Design, a top art and design school that has produced numerous industry-leading creatives.

Pasadena’s cultural attractions showcase the city’s storied history and artistic heritage, with a significant number of museums, galleries and performance spaces to explore. The Norton Simon Museum and the Pasadena Playhouse offer visitors a small glimpse into the region’s artistic prowess.

Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy exploring the natural beauty of Pasadena, with picturesque Eaton Canyon and scenic Arroyo Seco providing ample opportunities for hiking, birdwatching and leisurely strolls under the shining California sun.

The city’s culinary scene is something everyone should explore, from the classic Italian fare at Celestino Ristorante and Bar to the popular Mediterranean-inspired dishes at Café Santorini. Old Town Pasadena, with its historic charm and lively atmosphere, is home to numerous shops, bars and restaurants, providing students with the perfect place to go after shutting the books for the day.

Palo Alto

Aerial view of Stanford University and the greater Palo Alto area

As the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, technological innovations and top-tier educational institutions. The city is home to Stanford University, one of the world’s most prestigious private research universities, known for its strong academic programs in engineering, business and the sciences. Established in 1885, a degree from Stanford is beyond valuable in just about any field.

Palo Alto’s cultural attractions are as varied as the city itself, with a wealth of museums, galleries and performance spaces to explore. The Palo Alto Art Center and the Bing Concert Hall showcase the city’s artistic and historical heritage, while the vibrant University Avenue area offers a lively array of shops, cafes and music venues. Tech enthusiasts will also appreciate the proximity to numerous industry giants like Google, Facebook and many more.

Outdoor adventure is never far away in Palo Alto, with the picturesque Baylands Nature Preserve and the scenic Foothills Preserve providing ample opportunities for hiking, biking and reconnecting with Mother Nature. The city’s culinary scene is nothing to look down on with popular eateries like Terún and Evvia Estiatorio offering a taste of Palo Alto’s unique flavors.

Santa Clara

View of Santa Clara and its university from the hill above the city

As a thriving city in the heart of Silicon Valley, Santa Clara offers students a unique college experience, complete with a vibrant arts scene, top-tier educational opportunities and proximity to the region’s thriving tech industry. The city is home to Santa Clara University, a highly regarded private Jesuit university known for its strong academic programs in business, engineering and the liberal arts.

Santa Clara’s attractions are hard to categorize in a single box with a number of museums, galleries and performance spaces to check out just steps off the campus. The de Saisset Museum and the Triton Museum of Art showcase the city’s artistic and historical heritage, while the vibrant Santa Clara Town Centre boasts an array of shops, cafes and entertainment venues.

Find a cool college town in California

California’s Golden State reputation is well-deserved. The best college towns in the state are emblematic of this reputation, showcasing the richness and diversity that California has to offer. Students who choose to attend college in any of these cities will not only receive an exceptional education but also have the opportunity to explore and experience the best of what California has to offer.

Whether it’s the intellectual and cultural riches of Berkeley, the coastal charm of San Luis Obispo, the academic excellence of Claremont, the bicycle-friendly environment of Davis, the artistic heritage of Pasadena, the technological innovation of Palo Alto, or the vibrant college town atmosphere of Santa Clara, students are sure to find the perfect fit for their college experience in one of these exceptional California college towns.

Now that you’ve seen the top collegiate destinations in California, which college towns rank best nationally? Find out here.

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