Best College Towns in North Carolina

Looking for the best place to live while you study? Uncover which places built a reputation as the best college towns in North Carolina.
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Doug Wintemute
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Doug Wintemute is a writer who focuses on higher learning and entertainment. Since 2014, he has contributed to content and editorial work for award-winning publications. He completed his BA and MA in English at York University, graduating summa cum l...
Published on August 15, 2023
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Editor & Writer

Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
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College towns are intimately connected to nearby schools. The young populations of these towns breathe exciting new life into the dining, arts and cultural, and entertainment scenes.

The towns of this list house some of the best colleges in North Carolina and offer a combination of comfortable Southern charm and youthful energy. These towns and cities showcase the state's history and natural beauty while providing students with a bevy of options to fill their downtime.

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10 Best College Towns in the Tarheel State

With more than 150 colleges and universities in North Carolina, the state has plenty of college towns to choose from. In this list, we look at the 10 best college towns and what they offer students.


When making a list of the best college towns, we consider several factors, including student and town/city population, scenery, culinary and entertainment scenes, and unique events and attractions. We also evaluate how close the campus is to the action and how intertwined the community and college are.

1. Chapel Hill — University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  • Total Population: 62,098
  • Student Population: 31,539

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you have an outdoor treasure trove at your doorstep. Along with the campus arboretum, you can walk the Bolin Creek trail or hike up the nearby Occoneechee Mountain.

Chapel Hill and the surrounding Orange County are also known for outdoor concerts, festivals, and dining. While the church that gave the town its name no longer stands, you'll find plenty of other historic buildings along the tree-lined streets.

2. Boone — Appalachian State University

  • Total Population: 19,756
  • Student Population: 20,436

Removed from the major cities, Boone offers countless activities for nature lovers and thrill seekers. The Blue Ridge Parkway leads to incredible views, over 50 trails, and dozens of waterfalls. There's also the Grandfather Mountain and the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, plus ski resorts, zipline adventures, and the Tweetsie Railroad theme park.

In town, Boone has a thriving arts and cultural scene, including classic southern dining options, museums, and a summer-long festival.

3. Asheville — University Of North Carolina at Asheville

  • Total Population: 93,776
  • Student Population: 3,300

Asheville, North Carolina, is surrounded by nature. The area has more than 40 Blue Ridge Mountain peaks, whitewater adventures, and one of the oldest rivers in the world — the French Broad River.

City lovers will enjoy a nearby nightlife full of street performances and a vibrant culinary scene. You can walk through the mountain town to visit the independent shops and art galleries or take one of the trolley tours available.

4. Davidson — Davidson College

  • Total Population: 15,771
  • Student Population: 1,927

The wide sidewalks of this North Carolina college town make Davidson pedestrian and bike friendly. The streets are dotted with restaurants, shops, and art galleries, including a visual arts center.

Davidson is also home to a scenic stretch of Lake Norman shoreline, which offers fishing and boating activities. The charming southern town boasts museums, live shows, and several festivals throughout the year.

5. Raleigh — North Carolina State University

  • Total Population: 476,587
  • Student Population: 35,210

One of the biggest college towns in North Carolina, Raleigh combines Southern charm with the buzzy energy of a bustling city center. You'll find history and culture at the North Carolina Museum of Art and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. For entertainment, there's Pullen Park, an amusement park from 1887.

Foodies will enjoy Raleigh's up-and-coming food scene, while those looking to shop will love the weekend Raleigh Market. Raleigh also has something for nature lovers in the state parks, the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail — the longest in the state.

6. Greensboro — University of North Carolina at Greensboro

  • Total Population: 301,115
  • Student Population: 17,929

The city of Greensboro has plenty of attractions and activities to keep both locals and tourists happy. Throughout the city, you'll find various monuments and events that honor Greensboro's military history and role in the civil rights movement.

For culture and entertainment, the city has the Greensboro Science Center and performing arts center, plus an annual folk festival. There are also over 500 restaurants, plus a fast-growing number of breweries, wineries, and distilleries.

7. Wilmington — University of North Carolina Wilmington

  • Total Population: 120,324
  • Student Population: 18,000

The port city of Wilmington provides all the water and fun you could ask for. The city has three island beaches and the Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park. It also has a riverwalk with over 200 shops that takes you along the Cape Fear River and coast.

Other water-themed attractions include the Carolina Beach Boardwalk and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Wilmington also boasts one of the largest historic districts in the country, featuring monuments to the city's Native American, Revolutionary, and military history.

8. Durham — Duke University

  • Total Population: 332,680
  • Student Population: 17,155

Durham is a North Carolina college town with a diverse and innovative history. The city features Black Wall Street, countless landmarks, and a worldly culinary scene. There's a performing arts center in the Historic District and over 5,000 events thrown throughout the city every year.

Durham also has cultural attractions like the Museum of Life and Science and the Nasher Museum of Art. For fun, you can check out Durham Central Park or Xtreme Park Adventures.

9. Elon — Elon University

  • Total Population: 11,250
  • Student Population: 7,123

While the Elon University campus is a botanical garden by itself, the quaint town of Elon is one of the best college towns in the state. From campus, you can reach downtown on foot, enjoying the local restaurants and independent shops.

Elon also has several community parks, Lake Macintosh, the Haw River, and the Haw River Trail. History buffs will enjoy the 105-acre Glencoe Historic Mill Village.

10. Greenville — East Carolina University

  • Total Population: 89,233
  • Student Population: 28,021

Greenville, North Carolina, has a large student population that keeps it young and innovative. A hub for the arts and entertainment, Greenville has several live music venues and festivals throughout the year. The city boasts a fresh culinary scene that blends Southern classics with modern dining.

Outdoorsy folk have the Tar River and River Park North for boating, camping, and fishing. When not in class, students can learn from Greenville's science center and Museum of Art.

Why a College Town Matters When Picking a School

When choosing a school, you should consider what you might do with the hours you aren't in class. Picking a school in a reputable North Carolina college town will ensure you have something enjoyable to do off campus. Here are just some of the benefits of a vibrant college town scene:

  • Choice of extracurricular activities
  • Events and activities targeted to students
  • Quality dining and entertainment
  • Strong community and campus connection
  • Living costs may be student-oriented and affordable is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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