Travel
4 min

Top 10 college towns in the US

Liberal havens are hidden in conservative stomping grounds

Campy band romps in Bloomington, Indiana's 4th of July parade. Credit: Rick Dikeman

When planning your next US road trip or weekend away, you might not immediately consider going to a small town tucked deep in staunchly Republican ranchland, prairies or mountains. But a number of liberal havens are hidden in conservative stomping grounds: college towns with fantastic arts facilities, vibrant café scenes, hip bars and a decidedly different character from what you might expect.

1 Missoula, Montana
A quirky mix of University of Montana students, academics, timber industry families, outdoors and arts enthusiasts, and celebrities make for a city of intriguing character at the foot of Mount Sentinel. Summer is idyllic in this northwestern Montana college town, population 80,000. Hike around Flathead Lake, tube the Blackfoot or Bitterroot rivers, and sample the best of the town’s restaurants at food festivals at the riverfront park, held Wednesdays at lunchtime and Thursday evenings. 2013 saw the 14th Missoula Queer Promstrut its stuff at the hip, historic Florence Hotel. Missoula also boasts the Western Montana Community Center, which serves the LGBT community.

2 Northampton, Massachusetts
A delightful New England college town of 30,000, Northampton is one for the girls. Women’s liberal arts college Smith was founded in 1871 and today attracts a sizeable lesbian student and staff population. Smith is just one of five schools in the area; students from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire all add to Northampton’s youthful ambiance. Stroll the elegant Smith campus and wander round the cozy cafés, eclectic restaurants, music venues and bustling farmers’ markets downtown. Former residents include Rachel Maddow, Alison Bechdel, Sylvia Plath and Gloria Steinem. Meet the locals at the lesbian-owned Divas club.

3 Ann Arbor, Michigan
The home of gay novelist Edmund White’s old school, the University of Michigan, cultured, sophisticated Ann Arbor is just 55 kilometres from Detroit. Get a feel for the place over pool or dinner at tiny, two-level, queer-adored Aut Bar, at LGBT-friendly club Necto or at one of 30 area bookstores. Linger over a pulled-Amish-chicken or corned-beef sandwich from Zingerman’s Deli, check out a slew of excellent eateries, including the snappy brunch and dinner spot Café Zola, or stroll through the historic Kerrytown market area.

4 Lincoln, Nebraska
The capital of the Cornhusker State, the second-largest city in Nebraska and the home of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln has a population of a quarter million and is a rare beacon of liberal light on these otherwise conservative plains. With the topnotch Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center screening indie cinema, two LGBT bars — Panic and mixed straight/LGBT dance club The Q — and bookstore café Indigo Bridge, housed in an old creamery building, Lincoln makes you feel far from the farmlands.

5 Tempe, Arizona
A wealth of Frank Lloyd Wright–designed architecture — especially ASU Gammage Auditorium — enticing restaurants, lively bars, such as Four Peaks Brewing, and a vibrant student contingent give this progressive city the edge. The home of Arizona State University sits right beside Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and within striking distance of both downtown Phoenix and some gorgeous parts of the Sonoran Desert.Tempe has impressive gay credentials: from 1996 to 2003 the city had an openly gay mayor, and ASU boasts both a gay fraternity (Sigma Phi Beta) and lesbian sorority (Gamma Rho Lambda), the first American university to do so.

6 Bloomington, Indiana
Home to 69,000 people, Indiana University and the renowned Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Bloomington is a hip, queer-welcoming spot. It’s diverse, friendly and has thriving arts, culture and nightlife scenes. Elm-shaded streets boast hip cafés, such as the adored Rachael’s, cutting-edge boutiques, friendly brewpubs and tasting rooms for area wineries. Spend an evening out in the town’s wealth of welcoming venues and you’ll find that Bloomington is progressive, not just in terms of LGBT-inclusiveness, but in its chardonnays, pinot grigios and vidal blanc ice wines, too. It’s a winning combination.

7 San Luis Obispo, California
Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the sleepy college town of San Luis Obispo (known as “SLO” by its denizens), home of California Polytechnic State and of the first motel, is a perfect jumping-off point for Central Coast attractions, such as Hearst Castle, the 3,200-hectare coastal Montaña de Oro State Park and the gorgeous Avila Beach. Mingle with students at SLO Brewing Co and 1960s flashback Margie’s Diner, then spend the night at the over-the-top 110-room Madonna Inn. Pick from the zebra-hued Jungle Rock room or the Flintstones-inspired Caveman room or just visit the rock waterfall urinal in the men’s room.

8 Lawrence, Kansas
Laid-back lounges, hip cafés and sleek wine bars dot the downtown of this unexpected oasis among the cornfields of northeastern Kansas. The University of Kansas — or Gay U, as many call it — has its main campus here in this riverside town of 89,000, 55 kilometres from Kansas City. As well as LGBT-friendly coffeehouses Z’s Divine and The Bourgeois Pig, Lawrence boasts lively music venue Jazzhaus, funky repertory cinema/music venue/video store/coffeehouse Liberty Hall and enjoyably chaotic dance club and gay bar Wilde’s Chateau 24.

9 Eugene, Oregon
Famed liberal arts school the University of Oregon is the anchor for this colourful town of 156,000, 160 kilometres south of Portland. Lesbian-owned Wandering Goat Coffee is a perfect place to pick up some local info and, perhaps, a vegan doughnut or organic beer. Explore the edible delights of 5th Street Public Market, check out the up-and-coming Whiteaker neighbourhood, with its coffeehouses, galleries and bars, and sample local flavour at queer-welcoming watering holes Ninkasi Brewing, dance club Cowfish or music venue Sam Bond’s Garage.

10 Madison, Wisconsin
Home to the University of Wisconsin, the state capitol building and Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay American senator, dynamic Madison has a whole lot to offer. Perched on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona, this scenic academic hotspot has more than 40,000 students at UW alone. Infiltrate student circles on the university’s lakeside terrace overlooking Lake Mendota, bike trails that lace the city, linger over lattes at the venerable Michelangelo’s Coffee House, cruise the shelves at LGBT-targeted bookstore A Room of One’s Own and end up at exuberant queer venue Five.