The lighter side of real estate

These Are The 10 Most Exciting College Towns In America

When it comes to places that colleges and universities call home, not all are created equal. These 10 places school everywhere else when it comes to all things exciting.

Randy Nelson

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119 articles, 53 comments

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If doesn’t matter if you’re a college student or a professor—when classes are done for the day, you want to have some fun. The last thing you need is for the town your school’s in to be a total dullsville. Whether it’s just meeting up with some friends for a nice dinner, or hitting the club to celebrate an A on a final (or having finally graded them all), some places simply do the whole exciting thing better than others.

We kinda know what we’re talking about here at the Movoto Real Estate Blog, considering that we’ve basically become the experts at determining how exciting a place is over the past year or so. After all, we’ve ranked everything from the most exciting suburbs in America, to which places in Indiana know the true definition of excitement. We’ve also ranked the country’s best college towns, so we decided “Hey, why not put the two together?”

That’s exactly what we did, and after using our fantastic number comparison technology (a more exciting name for a spreadsheet full of data), we calculated that Cambridge, MA is the country’s most thrilling college town. Like for any good party, it had some friends over to share the fun, and those comprised the top 10 most exciting:

1. Cambridge, MA
2. Bryn Mawr, PA
3. Hoboken, NJ
4. Princeton, NJ
5. Berkeley, CA
6. Burlington, VT
7. Santa Cruz, CA
8. Boston, MA
9. Ithaca, NY
10. Seattle, WA

If Cambridge sitting atop the pack seems a bit… familiar, you haven’t been staying out too late partying. This Massachusetts city was actually ranked No. 1 on our list of most exciting suburbs, and since it’s also home to Harvard and M.I.T., it qualified for this list, too. It’s not all returning champions, but you’ll no doubt recognize the likes of Hoboken and Berkeley, just to name a couple.

How did we arrive at this ranking? It’s all about mathematics and data analysis, two things most college students groan about but we find absolutely fascinating. Keep reading to learn our methodology and find out a little more about what makes each of these places so learned in the ways of excitement.

What Makes A College Town Pop

If you’ve read any of our previous exciting places post, you already know how this works. For those latecomers to the party, here’s how we did this. We started with a list of 167 cities and towns across the country that are home to a college or university. Then, we ranked each of these places across seven excitement-gauging criteria, using U.S. Census data and business listings, including one new factor: population density. Here’s what they were:

  • Nightlife per capita (bars, clubs, comedy, etc.)
  • Live music venues per capita
  • Active life options per capita (parks, outdoor activities, etc.)
  • Fast Food restaurants per capita (the fewer the better)
  • Percentage of restaurants that are fast food (the lower the better)
  • Percentage of young residents ages 18 to 34 (the higher the better)
  • Population density (people per square mile, the higher the more exciting)

Once we gave each town a score of 1 to 167 for the various criteria (with 1 being best), we averaged these rankings together into one overall Big Deal Score. The place with the lowest of these was the winner, and thereby the most exciting.

Now that you know how we did it, here’s why these 10 places schooled the 157 others we looked at. Before you ask: No, none of them cheated. That would’ve been grounds for expulsion.

1. Cambridge, MA

Cambridge, MA

Source: Flickr user Peter Lee

As we mentioned above, Cambridge is no stranger to the ranks of the most exciting. This Boston suburb of more than 105,000 people is also home to the brainiac-packed Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the prestigious Harvard University. Speaking of packed, it was the third-most densely populated according to our data, with 16,448 people per square mile.

Said residents have access to loads of activities and plenty of live music, placing Cambridge at eighth and second overall for both criteria. You can catch a live band and toss back a couple of drinks at spirited haunts like Toad or the Plough & Stars, then bowl some frames at Lanes & Games, or catch a cool art flick at the Kendall Square Cinema.

Whatever you choose, you’ll be surrounded by plenty of folks out to have a good time in our 18-34 age group—46 percent of Cambridge’s population falls within that excitement-seeking range.

2. Bryn Mawr, PA

Bryn Mawr, PA

Source: Flickr user Eric Allix Rogers

How can a place of less than 4,000 make it so far up our ranking? It’s all in the numbers. Nestled in Lower Merion Township, this home to Bryn Mawr College may seem like small beans, but as its name means in Welsh, it’s a “big hill” of excitement.

Bryn Mawr achieved the best possible rankings when it came to original dining options, since none of the restaurants within its borders are boring old fast food chains. From Yangming to Gullifty’s and everything in between, they all offer unique eating experiences.

Also, for such a small spot on the map, Bryn Mawr managed a respectable 25th place ranking for nightlife with one place to hang after the sun goes down for every 914 residents. Activity options here were more than just respectable—at fourth place overall, they were superb.

3. Hoboken, NJ

Hoboken, NJ

Source: Flickr user Matt Arena

If you’d read our piece on America’s most exciting small cities, you’d know that Hoboken taught the other nine cities in that top 10 a thing or two about excitement. It’s no surprise, then, that this happenin’ Jersey spot, and home to Stevens Institute of Technology, makes an appearance here.

Hoboken had the highest population density of any place we looked at for this ranking, at a staggering 39,128 people per square mile—and half of them fell within our active young age group. Another standout stat was this place’s nightlife ranking: 10th overall, with one club, bar, or other exciting hangout for every 703 residents. These include places like the bustling Pilsener Haus & Biergarten, where the giant pretzels are not to be trifled with.

4. Princeton, NJ

Princeton, NJ

Source: Flickr user Peter Dutton

Home to the much-lauded Princeton University, the relatively tiny Princeton (at about 12,000-odd residents) enjoyed two top 10 finishes in our ranking. The first was at exactly 10th place for live music and the other was seventh for activity options, such as canoeing and kayaking.

Princeton actually ranked second lowest when it came to fast food per capita, placing 108th for that criterion. Still, the town has some standout original eateries, including the Witherspoon Grill and Agricola Eatery, both of which serve up dishes sure to please even the most diehard culinary adventurer.

5. Berkeley, CA

Berkeley, CA

Source: Flickr user Daniel Parks

Situated northeast of Oakland, CA (our most exciting city in the nation for 2013), Berkeley is another East Bay bastion of excitement. Home to the University of California Berkeley, it did especially well for live music venues—and we’re not talking about the copious amount of drum circles on campus and at various spots along Telegraph and Shattuck on any given day of the week. It actually placed fourth overall for this criterion.

Population density was another area where Berkeley placed highly. With 10,760 people per square mile, it ranked fourth in that category. They have access to almost too many exceptional dining options to name, but we’ll mention one of our favorites: Vegan sushi spot Cha-Ya. Add to that multiple parks, easy access to the bay, and tons of funky things to do and you have one very exciting locale.

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6. Burlington, VT

Burlington, VT

Source: Flickr user dragonheartvermont

Vermont’s largest city is home to three institutions of higher learning: Burlington College, Champlain College, and the University of Vermont. It also happens to be the home of the world’s tallest filing cabinet… and has a pretty high percentage of original restaurants that also sent our excitement meters skyward. Only 1.6 percent of its dining establishments are chains, which sits at 17th for that category.

This means there’s more in the way of places like American Flatbread and The Skinny Pancake. There are also an impressive array of nightlife spots for a place that ranked 36th for that criterion, including The Farmhouse Tap & Grill, Van Phan Billiards, and probably our favorite bar name ever, The Daily Planet.

7. Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz, CA

Source: Flickr user Thomas Hawk

When we think about Santa Cruz, one thing comes to mind: skateboarding. It turns out there’s a lot more to this coastal California city than just that or UC Santa Cruz. One of these things is live music, a category in which Santa Cruz placed fifth overall.

Of course, this city renowned for skateboarding also offers exemplar active life options. So many, in fact, that it ranked 11th for that criterion. Not the least among these is the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with its myriad attractions, and the infamous Mystery Spot. There’s also lots of live music, earning the town a fifth place finish in that regard. Spots like Moe’s Alley, Catalyst, and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center make Santa Cruz such a top spot for fresh tunes.

8. Boston, MA

Boston, MA

Source: Flickr user John Macy

The largest city in our top 10, Boston really needs no introduction. Home to Northeastern University and Boston University, it’s also the city our No. 1 place, Cambridge, plays suburb—locals would just say neighbor—to.

At 12,835 people per square mile, Boston ranked fourth for population density, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s either from or has ever visited there. What might come as a surprise was Boston’s 55th place finish for nightlife, but you have to remember that our calculations were made on a per capita basis.

9. Ithaca, NY

Ithaca, NY

Source: Flickr user Matt HintsaCC License

Ithaca? Yes, Ithaca. We’re fairly certain this is the first time this city in central New York has graced one of our national lists. Home to Cornell University, it made the top 10 for a couple of impressive feats.

It nearly cracked the top 10 for nightlife at 11th overall. It did manage to make the cut for its percentage of 18-34 year old residents (40 percent), which was good enough for 10th in that category. Its nightlife options are represented by the likes of Felicia’s Atomic Lounge and The Chapter House, the latter of which brings together an eclectic mix of students, natives, and out-of-towners in a spot that is, according to locals, quintessentially Ithaca.

10. Seattle, WA

Seattle, WA

Source: Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives

People usually associate Seattle with its densely packed Starbucks and perhaps its number of flannel shirts per capita. As it turns out, the home of the University of Washington also pretty chock-full of people. That’s why, with 7,302 per square mile, it ranked 15th for that criterion.

Seattle also did really well for nightlife at spots like Shorty’s and the Comedy Underground (presumably fueled by copious coffee) and live music (not just grunge nowadays, you know) at The Showbox—among other hotspots. It placed 13th for the former and 18th for the latter. We would have expected Seattle to boast a higher per capita number of activity options, but it only managed to make 25th for that.

Where To Learn About Fun

People always talk about “party schools,” but these places are exciting for more than just the students who attend their schools (or the professors who teach their courses). They’re spots where anyone is guaranteed to find plenty of different things to do, interesting new restaurants to try, and lots of fun hotspots to spend evenings with friends dancing or laughing the night away.

So, if you’re near any of them—particularly Cambridge—there’s plenty these college towns can teach you about having a good time.

Most Exciting College Towns In America

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posted on: April 17, 2014
20,039 views, 2 comments


  1. Dave Klega

    Umm, not to quibble, but isn’t Cambridge University located in the other Cambridge, somewhat closer to London? But there is another noteworthy university in Cambridge, MA besides M.I.T. Starts with an H …

  2. Maggie

    Disagree….Clemson University belongs in this list for sure.


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