America has many beautiful college campuses. Featuring ivy-draped academic buildings clustered on a quad and a community dedicated to learning, thinking, and drinking, they are outstanding places to visit with your teenage son or daughter who is immersed in the college application process.
But what if you’re a senior without a junior? Don’t let that stop you. America’s college towns are terrific vacation destinations.
I spent a week in Ithaca, NY, attending a conference at Cornell University. Despite a busy schedule of classes, I squeezed in enough sightseeing to totally sell myself on the town as a vacation location. Ithaca proudly promotes its gorges and it should. They are, as advertised, gorgeous. The city has over 100 waterfalls, a delightful byproduct of eons of glacial erosion, and trails for every level of hiker.
The conference included campus meals but I skipped them to explore the area restaurants. Collegetown Bagels offered a variety of filling breakfast sandwiches. I became addicted to the Roundhouse, featuring scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pepper jack cheese, and a hash brown on a rosemary salt bagel.
Dinner was a challenge since I had approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes to squeeze it in between classes. One night I headed over to Glenwood Pines on the shores of Cayuga Lake to try their famous Pinesburger. It was good but dipping their fries in Buffalo wing sauce? Swoon-worthy. And I had to get a meal (and a cookbook) at Moosewood, a legendary vegetarian restaurant. And then there was my secret shame: daily visits to Purity Ice Cream. Ithaca claims to be the place where the ice cream sundae was invented. I don’t know if that’s true, but the ice cream’s so good at Purity that the entire town lines up to grab a cone or bowl.
I consider myself an excellent time manager, but the conference schedule was intense and I ran out of hours to try other area activities. Finger Lakes wines have a very good reputation and I sampled a few with dinner but didn’t get to visit one of the local vineyards. And Ithaca Beer Company only has tours on the weekends, so I had to settle on picking up a case of their red IPA, Cascazilla, to bring home.
And, unfortunately, I was really looking forward to trying the famous swimming hole in Robert Treman State Park. But, when New York State runs nature, they do regulatory stuff like test the water and, due to particularly heavy rains, the bacteria levels were high enough for them to close the hole. Foiled again! Fortunately, my continuing education is a 3-year program, so I made a promise with Ithaca: same time, next year.
Here are 6 reasons why a college town makes a great summer vacation destination:
The students have gone home – If you think “college” and envision roaming hordes of dirty, drunk, backpack-toting youth, think again. Most have deserted campus for the summer, leaving behind professors, staff, and the locals who are very happy to enjoy their home for a few months before the fall invasion begins.
The campus is alive – Although the students have left, colleges and universities need to fill those empty dorms, classrooms, and auditoriums. Many offer summer classes, host camps and conferences, and schedule programming. Without the bodies, college towns would look post-apocalyptic during the summer months.
A wide-range of dining options – A college town has plenty of places to eat, ranging from cheap diners and coffee shops for the students to pricey, destination restaurants for visiting parents. Stop in the campus admissions office and ask for a list. They’ll also have area maps and are happy to make recommendations.
Lodging options – Because universities attract visitors throughout the year, there are plenty of hotels and motels in the area. And the prices will be dramatically lower than during move-in and graduation times. A great one to try in Ithaca is The Statler. Located on Cornell’s campus, it’s run by students in the School of Hotel Administration.
Shopping – College bookstores are open during the summer, so you can pick up varsity gear to show your school spirit. Hours may vary because of the season, so check the school’s website. And take a stroll around town. You’re likely to find a bookstore, resale shop, and a boutique or two, with prices that are manageable for a student’s budget.
Community events – You know who stays behind in the summer? University faculty, staff, and their families. Check the stores and restaurants in town for a local paper with listings for upcoming concerts, lectures, and performances. For example, Cornell hosts the Ithaca Shakespeare Company during the summer. Performances are staged in the beautiful gardens at the Cornell Plantations and tickets are very affordable; $10 on Thursdays and $15 on the weekend.