Originally Published On the LA Times Website
August 16, 2022
Published in the Los Angeles Times
Sunday, September 16, 2022
Story by Christopher Reynolds
Illustration by Jimmy Simpson
What to do, see and eat in California’s nine best college towns
Our kid is getting ready to run away from home.
We’ve been watching the clues accumulate for months — the chats with admissions officers, the 18th birthday party, the graduation gown, the Facetime sessions with prospective dorm roommates. In a few weeks, with little regard for whether her parents are ready, she’ll leave us to start her freshman year on a campus in a redwood forest.
But there is one consolation. She’s headed to one of my favorite college towns in California, towns our family has been sampling unscientifically for the last three or four years.
As a dad, I’ve been paying attention to details like class size, graduation rates, meal plans and the bus service between campus and downtown. But I’ve also been looking at these collegiate communities through a travel writer’s lens. In fact, all of our trips and conversations have helped me come up with my own list of the state’s nine best college towns.
Whether you’re getting ready to hug a young scholar goodbye this fall (while handing them a box of laundry detergent) or simply looking for a weekend road trip, these places are worthy of a visit. They’re all over the map in every sense, from Claremont to Chico, offering options from the obvious to the arcane. My daughter’s new campus, in Santa Cruz, has a library that houses the Grateful Dead archive. But you might end up with the National Yo-Yo Museum. Or Mark Twain’s letters. Or one of this continent’s first geodesic domes.
Among the scores of schools in California, how did I choose just nine? I decided to favor smaller cities, focusing on municipalities with fewer than 120,000 residents. (Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Diego, San Francisco, you may harbor great schools, but are they really central to your identities? Consider yourselves wait-listed.) I also favored universities with more than 5,000 undergrads, campuses at least 50 years old and schools that cozy up to their towns rather than standing aloof on the outskirts. (But I let Santa Barbara in anyway, because, for better or worse, the UC campus has Goleta and Isla Vista to keep it company.)
As your freshman writing instructor might say, this exercise is clearly subjective. But it does include tips from seasoned locals — and some facts and footnotes too. So go explore these wonderful towns, arranged by their distance from Los Angeles. And don’t worry. There will be no quiz later.
Population 35,703, stands 32 miles east of L.A. City Hall, neighbored by La Verne, Montclair and Upland.
What makes it special: Once this territory was mostly citrus and oak groves. Now this community’s core is a gathering of five colleges (and two graduate schools) neighbored by a small business district and quiet streets of Craftsman-style homes. It’s calm, it’s unassuming, it’s graceful.
Bigger picture: The commercial area is known as Claremont Village. The Packing House is a vast, converted citrus-packing structure that now houses dozens of shops and eateries. Options for visitors include the 28-room boutique hotel Casa 425; the art-house movie theaters at the Laemmle Claremont 5; and A Shop Called Quest, an Indian Hill Boulevard business devoted to comic books, graphic novels, gaming and such.
Some locals say Claremont is all about “trees and Ph.Ds,” because more than 20,000 trees grow on public property in town, not far from the California Botanic Garden and Claremont Hills Wilderness Park. But that equation probably should include retirees too: The city includes several communities designed for seniors.
The campuses: The Claremont Colleges consortium includes five undergraduate liberal arts colleges — Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona and Scripps — along with Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute. Though the consortium was founded in 1925, the oldest and largest college, Pomona (founded in 1887), predates Claremont cityhood. Scripps is all women.
The campuses add up to 546 acres. Undergraduate enrollment: about 5,500, plus a few thousand grad students. Team names: Sagehens (Pomona and Pitzer), and Stags and Athenas (Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Scripps). If the whole community seems suspiciously tidy and discreet for one harboring so many students, wait until you stumble onto the Golden Antlers, the colleges’ satirical news site (recent headline: “Pitzer Postpones Witch Burning Ritual Due to COVID Concerns.”)
Sample alumni: Singer-songwriter-actor Kris Kristofferson (Pomona College), artist Alison Saar (Scripps College), former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (Scripps College).
Cost of staying there: Claremont has so few hotels that lodging analyst STR doesn’t release figures or average rates for the city (but besides Casa 425, there is a Doubletree by Hilton and a Motel 6). The 683 nearby Airbnb units average $126.
What to do: Local Guide Ellen Harper likes roaming the Scripps College campus “because they’re just such lovely grounds, and also Pitzer College because they have that big native California garden” (the John R. Rodman Arboretum).
For shopping, she recommends DeeLux, a secondhand clothing store. Unfortunately, said Harper, “We’ve lost Rhino Records” (which is moving to Montclair this summer after 48 years in Claremont). But music can be heard at the Folk Music Center’s own open-mic night (on the last Sunday of every month). Performers get five minutes each, she said, and lots of students come. “If you want to drop names, Phoebe Bridgers got her start here at our open mic. Not that long ago.”
Where to eat and drink: Harper suggests the restaurant Union on Yale (“a very nice brunch”) and Patty’s Mexican Food on Towne Avenue (for the burritos). “There’s also a new bakery called Creme that’s fabulous, very French, very tasty, very European,” she adds.
Pop. 88,255, stands 95 miles northwest of L.A. City Hall. Ten miles west of downtown, you reach the UCSB campus, the suburban city of Goleta and the unincorporated neighborhood of Isla Vista.
What makes it special: Wide beaches. Mansions on the slopes. Wine country to the northwest. Spanish Colonial architecture and Mexican food in abundance. Lots of arts philanthropy from wealthy retirees. And enough energy from students and young entrepreneurs to remake an old industrial district into a bohemian-friendly Funk Zone.
Bigger picture: Santa Barbara’s downtown, topped by red tile roofs and punctuated with palm trees, is anchored by the State Street Promenade, a car-free zone (and pandemic improvisation) that features 10 blocks of restaurants, bars and shops (between Sola and Gutierrez streets). On Tuesdays, there’s a farmers market; on Thursdays, an artisan market. Readers head for Chaucer’s Books on upper State Street or (for used and rare volumes) Lost Horizon Bookstore in Montecito. The Old Santa Barbara Mission and the Presidio offer reminders of Spanish arrival in the 18th century.
A visitor also can dig into the angry politics behind “Mexico Today,” the big 1932 David Alfaro Siqueiros mural at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
The campus: Founded in 1892 as a manual training school in downtown Santa Barbara, it evolved into a teachers college and later a UC. In 1954, the campus moved to its current site: 1,055 acres on a plateau overlooking the Pacific, sandwiched between Goleta and the often rowdy student area of Isla Vista.
It’s estimated that about half of Isla Vista’s 23,000 residents are UCSB students. They get to enjoy the nearby beach and bluffs along Del Playa Drive, balancing that against the noise, crowding, lack of parking and often-daunting rents common in the area. UC officials say they’re adding campus housing as fast as they can, but Goleta officials say it’s not fast enough. Students travel free to and from downtown on the Santa Barbara MTD bus line No. 24.
Undergrad enrollment: about 23,200. Team name: Gauchos.
Sample alumni: DJ Steve Aoki and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. Dropouts include Gwyneth Paltrow.
Cost of staying there: Santa Barbara has 65 hotels that average $351.94 nightly — notably pricier than many of the other college towns in this list. Some 346 nearby Airbnb units average $453.
Local Guides: Co-founders of the “Mujeres Makers Market” Leah Ortega, Maritza Flores, Daniela Aguirre, Elysia Guillen and Lilli Munoz.
What to do: The Mujeres’ advice begins with a picnic by the rose garden at the mission. Ortega suggests a visit to SeaVees in the Funk Zone, “a local shoe company that originated in the ’60s [then shut down] and they brought it back to life. Their store is curated. So amazing. And they have this really cool mural in front by a local artist named DJ Javier.”
Where to eat and drink: “We obviously love tacos,” said Guillén, “so I’m going to Mony’s (in the Funk Zone) and Tacos Pipeye on Milpas Street. Mony’s actually catered for my wedding.” And Tacos Pipeye “is family-owned and really small, and every time you go there, you feel like you’re welcome.” (Besides the tacos, she likes the house-made specialty drinks.)
From Flores: “Corks and Crowns is a wine bar in the Funk Zone. It’s close to the beach, it has a nice view” — and on Sundays it does cupcake-and-Champagne pairings. On Sunday, Flores gravitates toward the Dart coffee shop and garden on East Yanonali Street.
Dessert advice comes from Ortega: ice cream from Piti Sukavivatanachai and Kathy Dao. The two, married, are building a brand called Creaminal Ice Cream and run a State Street Thai restaurant called Your Choice. They have created bold flavors like Thai Tea Oreo and Vietnamese Mud Pie; every Saturday at the restaurant, they make sundaes. The event is called “No Sad Sundaes.” Ortega favors the mango sticky rice sundae. “I go there every Saturday. It’s addicting.”
San Luis Obispo
Population. 47,545, stands 189 miles northwest of L.A. City Hall, just a few miles from the ocean, but also just a few miles from the wine country around Paso Robles.
What makes it special: Juxtapositions. The old-school ranching people live alongside the newer wine people, who live alongside the retirees from Southern California, who mix with students on just about every trip downtown. The engineers-to-be rub up against the aspiring designers. The agricultural hills and valleys rub up against the mild Central Coast. Also, you can’t beat the sight of a gentle hill dotted with oak trees.
Bigger picture: If you know SLO mostly from breezing past on the 101, then you’ll recognize it as home of the Madonna Inn — perhaps the most irresistibly kitschy set of rooms and restaurants this state has to offer. Day-to-day SLO is different (and not so pink).
The main drag is Higuera Street, and that’s where the Thursday night Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market spreads out each week, its vendors joining a roster of downtown retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers that had been growing for several years before the pandemic. Now there’s a chance that growth will resume.
Meanwhile, San Luis Obispo Creek keeps trickling past the Mission San Luis Obispo (founded 1772), Phoenix Books quietly peddles used volumes on Monterey Street, students keep contributing to Bubblegum Alley (off Higuera between Garden and Broad streets) and Junk Girls (also on Monterey) offers up artsy, edgy often-recycled artworks, artifacts, jewelry, custom lighting and hand-stamped cutlery.
The campus: Cal Poly, founded as a vocational high school in 1901 and expanded to its current status in 1972, is just north of downtown. The main campus is 1,321 acres (but the school also controls more than 7,500 acres of ranch land), and the school’s engineering, agriculture, architecture and environmental design programs are widely admired.
For a glimpse of the architecture program, hike from the main campus into Poly Canyon, a 2.5-mile round trip that leads to more than 20 experimental structures erected by students (with faculty approval) in the otherwise rugged, oak-studded slopes, including a geodesic dome inspired by architect and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller himself on a long-ago campus visit.
Undergrad enrollment: about 21,400. Team name: Mustangs.
Sample alumni: “Weird Al” Yankovic, NFL Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who died in 2021, and former U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, now chief executive of Trump Media and Technology Group.
Cost of staying there: San Luis Obispo has 38 hotels that average $220.40 nightly. Some 984 nearby Airbnb units average $359.
Local Guides: Whitney Chaney, Program manager and farmers market manager for Downtown SLO, Robert A. Flores, Retired Professor and department head in agricultural education and communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Jamie S. Patton, Assistant vice president of student affairs for diversity and inclusion at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
What to do: Chaney tries to make time for SLO Blues baseball games (they’re in the California Collegiate League, late May through August). She also likes the Sunset Drive-in. It’s one of the few old-school drive-ins remaining in the state. “The nostalgia. They still play the same little jingle, the popcorn song. And you can see two movies and camp out with your family in the back of your car. “ Other favorite spots for Chaney include the Performing Arts Center of San Luis Obispo (on the Cal Poly campus) and El Moro Elfin Forest. “It’s a walking trail through a nature preserve [near the Morro Bay estuary], and it just feels like you’re in a different world,” she said.
Flores recommends hiking the Seven Sisters (a.k.a. the Nine Sisters), a series of volcanic mountains in and around SLO. The highest (1,559 feet) is Bishop’s Peak, just west of downtown. Flores is also a longtime booster of Chaney’s employer, the Thursday night Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market.
Patton said he feels the same way about the farmers market. When family visits, “I typically make sure that they’re here on a Thursday night.” In addition to the food, music and vendors, “That’s an opportunity, especially in the summer, to really capture the diversity of San Luis Obispo, city and county. … That’s when I know they will see other folk of color in the community.” Otherwise, he said, “Many folk can go a whole day without seeing another Black man in other places in the county.”
For half-day excursions, Patton likes Shell Beach, Avila Beach and Morro Bay. And as someone raised in Philadelphia who has never lived in such a rich agricultural area, he likes to join his wife and daughters (ages 12 and 9 ½) at “u-pick” opportunities at the Cal Poly Farm. “A couple of weeks ago, we harvested mandarin oranges and peaches as a family.”