Four College Towns That Aren’t Just for Students

Attractions in metropolises with big-name universities may garner more publicity, but smaller college towns have a lot to offer visitors, too. Take a field trip to one of these four SoCal communities where you can double major in higher learning and fun. 


With a population of more than 316,000, Riverside is the Inland Empire’s largest city. Soon after its founding in 1870, the town thrived as a vital part of the Southern California citrus belt, known primarily for growing navel oranges. 

In 1907, the University of California Regents established the Citrus Experiment Station on the arid hills of Mount Rubidoux. The station was converted in 1954 into the University of California, Riverside (UCR), highly regarded today for its classes in agricultural science, engineering, and entomology. Several research facilities related to those areas of study, along with arts and entertainment venues, are open to the public. 


Visitors at the UCR campus can stroll through the UCR Botanic Gardens, which has 4 miles of trails and 3,500 plant varieties. Observers here have spotted more than 200 species of birds at the gardens, as well as ground squirrels, turtles, lizards, bobcats, and coyotes. The garden hosts an annual plant sale in October. Botanic Gardens admission: $5. 1-951-784-6962;


Housed on the fourth floor of the Tomás Rivera Library, UCR’s Eaton Collection is the world’s largest publicly accessible grouping of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy literature, with more than 300,000 items spanning the 1500s to the present. Free. 1-951-827-3233;


“Riverside is the self-proclaimed city of the arts,” says resident Joel O’Neal, 39, a local filmmaker. Located in downtown, UCR’s ARTSblock complex houses three venues: The California Museum of Photography has the most diverse collection in the Western United States, including Civil War photos, 1840s daguerreotypes, and more than 7,000 Ansel Adams negatives; the Sweeney Art Gallery has premiered exhibitions by Jesper Just and Margarita Cabrera and other internationally renowned artists; and the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts screens indie and foreign films. Admission: $3; free for seniors, students, and children 11 and younger. 3824 Main Street, Riverside. 1-951-827-4787; 


Claremont is home to the consortium of seven higher-learning institutions collectively called the Claremont Colleges, along with the Claremont School of Theology. 

In the walkable historic Claremont Village, boutique shops, restaurants, and other businesses flank tree-lined streets. Art galleries and an arboretum are among the campuses’ visitor attractions.

Farms and Gardens

Spend an afternoon at Pitzer College’s John R. Rodman Arboretum, which has a lush citrus garden of tangelos, Moro blood oranges, Dancy tangerines, Eureka lemons, and Oro Blanco grapefruits.

The Margaret Fowler Garden at Scripps College features a mural of flower vendors by famed Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez.

The Pomona College Organic Farm contains a fruit tree orchard, banana grove, composting system, greenhouse, beehives, and more than 50 rows of crops. During the spring, visitors can purchase farm-grown produce at the Smith Campus Center Courtyard on the Pomona College campus.


Claremont Forum on West First Street is a well-stocked shop carrying inexpensive used books. Members of the community can donate titles to the Prison Library Project, which sends the books to correctional facilities nationwide. 1-909-626-3066;


The Claremont Colleges present several lecture programs, and ongoing events at Bridges Auditorium (


Appealing to our inner computer geek is Claremont Graduate University’s Paul Gray PC Museum, a repository of archaic computers from 1971 to the present. View art collections and temporary exhibitions at the Pomona College Museum of Art (, the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery (, Clark Humanities Museum (, and Pitzer Art Galleries ( Dance enthusiasts can catch student performances by the Claremont Ballroom Dance Company held periodically at the Smith Campus Center.

San Luis Obispo

Cradled in a verdant basin that backs up to the Santa Lucia Range, San Luis Obispo can satisfy the activity desires of most any visitor. It’s a short drive to the coast and, in the opposite direction, it’s a quick jaunt to mountain trails and the town’s green preserves. 
san luis obispo

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (a.k.a. Cal Poly SLO), lies on the city’s northeastern reaches, and visitors and students mingle while enjoying the amenities in and around town. In addition to its top programs in engineering and aerospace, the 114-year-old school is known for academic programs in viticulture, dairy science, and other agriculture-rooted disciplines. Several local culinary attractions, including an on-campus market, are student operated. 

Performing Arts

At the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center, visitors can check out acts such as comedian Eddie Izzard; Jerry Seinfeld; rockers Crosby, Stills & Nash; Melissa Etheridge; and Blue Man Group. Cal Poly athletics also draws huge crowds. The annual “Buck the Gauchos” soccer game against UC Santa Barbara, held each October or November, has made the ESPN list of games to see, and Poly Royal Rodeo has been a popular attraction for more than 70 years.


Cal Poly Organic Farm offers fruits and vegetables grown by students at an on-campus farm stand Wednesdays and Fridays. Student-grown produce is also available each Thursday in downtown SLO. “Everyone comes to this farmers market [] every Thursday night,” says student Anna Black-Hogins, 20. “It’s a great night to eat out; pick and choose from a few booths and you’ll have a delicious dinner on a beautiful Thursday evening in San Luis Obispo.”

At the Cal Poly Campus Market, visitors can buy various cuts of meat from the school’s meat-processing center, as well as strawberries, jams, and barbecue sauces. Students in the Wine and Viticulture program make the Cal Poly Wines brand’s chardonnay, pinot noir, Syrah, and port wines—all of which are for sale at local grocery stores, restaurants and other retailers, and online.


Bishop Peak, the area’s tallest mountain, provides an opportunity for a workout with rewarding views. Start with a strenuous 3.5-mile uphill hike from Highland Drive and end with 360-degree vistas. The 5.5-mile Poly Canyon hike, accessible to the public by a short drive through the Cal Poly campus to Village Drive, is a more leisurely alternative. It leads to the Poly Canyon Design Village, or “Architecture Graveyard,” a mishmash of hobbit houses, geodesic domes, and other eye-catching structures designed and maintained by Cal Poly’s architecture students.


Founded in 1888 and named for the crimson color of the local soil, Redlands was the world’s largest producer of navel oranges for more than 75 years. 

Today, you’ll find historic citrus packinghouses and Queen Anne–style Victorian and American Craftsman homes, in addition to cutting-edge businesses such as Esri, a leading supplier of geographic information system software, and Loma Linda University Behavioral Medical Center. At its center is the University of Redlands, which began in 1907 as a Baptist institution before becoming a private liberal arts college in 1976.  

Picnic Spot

The 1909 Administration Building, designed by Norman Foote Marsh, is a marvel of Classical Revival architecture. At the campus’s south end is the LaFourcade Community Garden, which began as a student work-study project and now serves as a peaceful oasis and a magnet for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

The Arts

The University of Redlands sponsors the Redlands Forum, which has hosted Ralph Nader, Jane Goodall, and other luminaries at the nearby Esri Conference Center in downtown Redlands. Free. 1-909-748-8011;

The Redlands Symphony performs year-round in the Memorial Chapel, a 1927 church. Students from the Redlands School of Music regularly give free recitals in the Frederick Loewe Performance Hall.


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