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America’s ten “most beautiful” college campuses

America’s ten “most beautiful” college campuses


Our fellow “structurists” over at Infrastructurist recently harnessed the supreme power of the all-seeing eye to subjectively rank the world’s 10 greatest urban parks.  This provocative little inquiry could be replicated and re-oriented in many ways - even at eye level - and inspired me to compile the following ranking of the ten most beautiful college/university campuses (in the United States).

Like urban parks, most college campuses have common elements (e.g., expanses of lawn, processional walkways, core buildings located on or near “quads” or “malls”), but they rarely get confused with each other.  Apart from their different ages, regional influences, and proximity to population centers, there are plenty of factors that throw a wrench into any perceived semblances of regularity.

My top ten list isn’t formulaic either; some campuses are urban, some are not; some are large, some are small.  All are picturesque from at least one vantage point (not including space), and none sap the soul.

As subjective as aesthetics are, I should note that they were not my sole consideration - among other things (e.g., size and geography), I think the way campuses relate to (or are set apart from) their surroundings has an oblique relevance to their perceived “beauty.”  In no particular order (but numbered, nonetheless):


1.  Stanford University, CA - From above, Stanford bears a couple indicators of its ground-level beauty, which benefits from a California climate and Texas-sized endowment.  Most buildings are hybrids (or derivatives) of the Richardsonian Romanesque and Mission Revival styles (hence, the red-tiled roofs, plaster, and rough-hewn stones).  Thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted’s consultations, the campus is on a generally flat plot of land and is littered with (un-Olmsted) scenic quads and predictably-dignified axial orientations.  Stanford also benefits from being one of the largest campuses by size, which has allowed it to have the semi-wooded area at the top of the screenshot.


2.  Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR - Lewis & Clark is lucky for a couple big reasons: (1) Portland has many expansive (and hilly and lush and full of footpaths) parks and (2) Lewis & Clark is next to one big one, Tryon Creek State Park.  Plus, as the screenshot shows, the campus itself has a high tree quotient, is walkable due to its small size, and has allowed the naturally hilly terrain to shape the campus’ growth.


3.  United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD - Notwithstanding the Chesapeake Bay’s odd hue in the screenshot, the Naval Academy’s waterfront location is a big plus.  Annapolis is arguably America’s sailing capital (I think the city even trademarked that phrase), boasting historic neighborhoods, many marinas and sailing clubs, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the water.  As for the school’s campus, it benefits from institutional traditions and a nation’s willingness to memorialize them in the form of stately buildings and well-tended landscaping.


4.  Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA - (1) Intimate campus, (2) California climate, (3) urban location, etc.  There are plenty other colleges in/near Los Angeles that benefit from these things; but Occidental didn’t assume these alone are enough to ensure beauty (see Pepperdine, below).  The small campus also has plenty of impossibly picturesque red tile-roofed buildings similar to those found at Stanford.  But really, Occidental’s repeated selection as a film location is the best evidence of its beauty (e.g., Orange County, Pat and Mike, Clueless).  Apparently the campus in the movies that looks too-good-to-be-true really does exist.


5. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis - I admit, that the U’s campus has a few low points; the West Bank has that “Martian landscape” vibe, and the only good thing about the “Superblock” dorms is their impersonal nickname.  But on the flip side, campus straddles path-lined cliffs overlooking the Mississippi River, has one of the best campus “malls” you’ll find (designed by Cass Gilbert), a great view of Minneapolis’ nearby skyline, and big clump of picturesque buildings surrounding the original center of campus called “The Knoll.”  Even better, they just finished a new, horse shoe-shaped stadium (with a terrible name), which replaces the unfortunate series of parking lots in the screenshot’s upper-right hand corner, and by 2014, a light-rail line will run right through campus between Minneapolis and St. Paul.


6.  University of Cincinnati, OH - Although its campus isn’t half bad (densely located on hill in historic city, etc.), I actually selected Cincinnati due to its singular focus on cultivating modern architecture (for better or worse) designed by the highest profile architects out there.  As a result, it’s campus has a decidedly different vibe (read: modern, and not slavishly bent on rehashing older buildings) and is interesting in large part because of the many discrete examples of modern architecture - not so much because of their cohesiveness.  Students in the college’s excellent design school can just go on a walk if they want to see representative works by Frank Gehry, Morphosis, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, or Charles Gwathmey, among others.


7.  Harvard University, Cambridge, MA - Harvard freshmen are among the luckiest college students; they get to live in extremely picturesque/historic buildings in the center of an equally picturesque/historic campus made up of quads, red bricks, painted clapboards, river paths, proximate commercial areas, and the best that 19th-century revivalism had to offer.


8. University of California - Santa Cruz - If this list’s numbers meant anything, UCSC’s campus would be number one, even though its impossibly photogenic campus doesn’t look like much from the air.  Located on the rising edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the campus has the least traditional layout on this list, perhaps in part due to its young (and decidedly progressive) heritage, and certainly due to its hilly placement just above the seaside town of Santa Cruz (nearly 1000 feet of elevation change from the top to the bottom of the screenshot).  Parks and (former) ranch lands ring the campus, which itself consists of the “Great Meadow” (bottom of screenshot), ravines, creeks, paths, redwood groves, and a number of random “curiosities” made by students.


9.  University of Chicago, IL - If UCSC is the most beautiful on the list, the University of Chicago campus is the most beautiful urban campus, taking up a prime location in Hyde Park’s mix of parks, respectable homes, and green corridors leading to Lake Michigan.  Whereas Chicago has one of the best collections of modern architecture in the world, the University of Chicago has one of the best collections of neo-Gothic buildings in the world, thanks to the deep pockets of its founding benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, who thought “emulating” Oxford University’s look might jump start his own institution’s academic prestige.  Those lofty aspirations led to Henry Ives Cobb’s quad-centric master plan, which emphasized a certain stylistic regularity and has gradually given way to a smattering of later, notable buildings (e.g., SOM’s Brutalist Rugenstein Library, Mies van der Rohe’s Social Service Admin Building, and Eero Saarinen’s Law School Building).


10.  University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN - Notre Dame’s campus reminds me of University of Chicago’s campus.  As the screenshot shows, it also has tons of quads, and a generally homogeneous collection of campus buildings, albeit in a less exciting setting (sorry, South Bend).  But hey, when you have a lore-laden stadium near the center of campus, which itself has an extra long (and lush) mall and Golden Dome to boot, you’re doing pretty well.

The near misses:

Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA - Any university overlooking the Pacific Ocean has a good chance of making the top 10.  Not Pepperdine.  For some ridiculous reason it chose to make itself a temple of 1970s-80s architecture, which has resulted in bunker-like, beveled, concrete rectangles with poorly-lit interiors.  The campus grounds are fine (when the wildfires are held at bay), but those buildings are just plain awful.  One might say unfortunate-looking.

University of Florida, Gainsville - If it weren’t for its Gainsville location, Florida’s pine-laden campus might’ve bumped the U of Minnesota off the list.

University of Virginia, Charlottesville - Has much history (Thomas Jefferson designed the old library and original campus mall), but so does Notre Dame.

University of California - Los Angeles - Situated next to the mansioned-up canyons of Beverly Hills, it is great for runners.  But Occidental College has a better density of campus “jewels” and UCSC has a much better connection to nature (and similarly, reality).

Princeton University, NJ - Loses out to University of Chicago’s urban location.

Which ones did I miss / get totally wrong?

Screenshots copyrights of Google & GoogleMaps


  1. Deanna says:

    What about Indiana University in Bloomington, IN? Definitely should be in the top 10! Beautiful rolling hills, old stately buildings, in the heart of a small college town. It is amazing!

  2. Paul says:

    I think people would think the list is rigged if I had two Indiana schools on it - and Notre Dame is pretty tough competition for IU!

  3. Lisa says:

    Kenyon College in Ohio! Stunning.

  4. Christie says:

    Dude, you can see the ocean and gorgeous mountains from UH Manoa, and its covered in stunning tropical plants from all over the world. It’s particularly pretty when you take a look at the sexy sub-campus on the water for the school of medicine. How does the University of Hawaii not get a top ten slot?!

  5. Paul says:

    that’s what i’ve heard, Lisa, although i must admit that the Ohio college I was thinking about including was (The) Ohio State University, which is incredibly similar in feel to the University of Minnesota’s campus, but without a “trendy” neighborhood nearby. Maybe I need to rank campuses in categories split by size or something!

  6. Paul says:

    Oh boy, nerves have been struck. You know, I actually thought about going to school at UH Manoa, but decidedly against it (in small part) because I thought the school’s buildings (generally Modern, which isn’t necessarily bad, but can easily be done poorly) didn’t do justice to the landscape - kind of like Pepperdine.

  7. Jake says:

    Second for Kenyon.

  8. Sue says:

    Have you seen Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida???

  9. Paul says:

    As a matter of fact, no Sue, sorry! Small colleges tend to get the short end of the stick I guess, re: exposure…

  10. Denise says:

    ND? please! Now Occidental, now you’re talking! Our family’s favorite spot and those of you who haven’t seen, well too bad! You don’t know what you’re missing! And, U of Chicago! Could not agree more!

  11. Elliott says:

    Boston College and Wellesley College. Absolutely beautiful campuses. I really can’t believe neither of them made the list.

  12. Paul says:

    Blame Harvard!

  13. Jane R says:

    Wellesley is not on the list?! I’d put it there and I didn’t even go there…

  14. David says:

    Duke AND Carolina.

  15. Paul says:

    Wow, now we have two passionate votes for Wellesley. The top-ten list is set in stone, now, of course, but I’d be okay adding it to the “near-miss” list!

  16. Paul says:

    Oh, no. I don’t think so. Two schools from NC would be too much. And correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it a breach of some cosmic law to be pulling for both Duke and UNC?

  17. Brandi says:

    Cal Poly Pomona. Give some love the the state schools. I worked there and went to school there and I miss the beauty of that campus. In the hills, a hidden oasis of greenery between ugly Pomona and Diamond Bar.

  18. Paul says:

    Come to think of it, I did only include 2 (3, if you include the Naval Academy) public schools. I guess thats what happens when you charge 35K for tuitition each year and have a billion dollar endowement!

  19. SB says:

    I went to UCSC and I absolutely agree, it is the most beautiful campus in the U.S.

  20. Nicole says:

    Yale! Best architecture in the US.

  21. Joeltron says:

    UH Manoa’s architectural styles don’t match at all, and all of the buildings are literally falling down.

  22. Paul says:

    That must make for a dynamic learning environment.

  23. [...] Related Post:  America’s ten “most beautiful” college campuses [...]

  24. Peder says:

    University of Washington — Cherry Blossoms and Rhododendrons in the spring = absolutely breathtaking.

  25. Moira says:

    As the song goes, “Wellesley, Wellesley, only to be there!” Olmstead campus, famous lightposts on wooded paths, lake, pond, arboretum — valued and well tended! Parent of Oxy student thinks it is even more lovely than Oxy!

  26. Paul says:

    Sounds like the parent wishes their child went to a different school. In any event Moira, at least you can take comfort knowing that your kid’s tuition payments are going to a decent campus!

  27. Olive says:

    Smith College, Northampton, MA.: c. 243 acres of traditional & modern buildings artfully juxtaposed, plus a pond, river & weir. Not to mention a thoroughly revived downtown leading up to it. How can it miss?

  28. Paul says:

    Well, I am a sucker for sensitive juxtapositions of modern architecture with older structures. And Olive, there does appear to be photographic evidence to back your claim ( ). Too bad it’s so easy to overlook a college with a name like Smith!

  29. Rosemary Snow says:

    An evening stroll by Lake Waban alone would put Wellesley College on the top.

  30. Paul says:

    Goodness, it seems I should have awarded Wellesley a top-ten spot just to avoid its boosters’ wrath!

  31. Mark says:

    Interesting post, particularly since, as an Oxy grad, I have long appreciated the school’s charm and always enjoy seeing the campus as a backdrop to so many movies. A very attractive college that reminds one of Occidental is Rollins in Orlando. Thanks again for the post.

  32. Paul says:

    I’m glad you appreciated it, Mark. I’ve never heard of Rollins, but if it is half as nice as Oxy, maybe Disney should get cracking on some films with it as a backdrop.

  33. Matt says:

    With respect to the University of Minnesota campus you also have to remember the St. Paul part of the campus which is connected to the Minneapolis side by a bus route.

  34. Byron Nichols says:

    Consider: Union College (Schenectady, NY), the oldest architecturally planned campus in the United States. Joseph- Jacques Ramee’s plan (1813) has been preserved, with no in-filling over the years. The campus has received a number of awards for its design and beauty, and its featured Nott Memorial building has now been restored to its original glory. A map of campus is available at and a video of the campus can be seen at

    After Ramee finished his design for Union, he proceeded to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he met with Thomas Jefferson to plan the University of Virginia. There are some fundamental similarities between the two designs.

  35. Paul says:

    That’s true, Matt - and the St. Paul Campus certainly makes up for the Martian landscape that is the West Bank of the Minneapolis campus. St. Paul is interesting just because the U of M managed to make it seem like a rural campus - when I’m on it, it seems more like a college in Northfield, MN than the East Bank.

  36. Paul says:

    Thanks for the comment Byron. Judging by your email address, I’d ordinarily take your praise of Union College’s campus w/ a grain of salt; however, the campus really does have a cohesive, planned feel to it. As nice as the singular Nott Memorial Building is, I’m most drawn to the Schaffer Library - perhaps in part because its exterior wings remind of the University of Virginia.

  37. helene says:

    Did you check out Dartmouth. Great in summer and winter!

  38. Paul says:

    I did think of Dartmouth Helene, but (you probably expected this) Harvard really did a number on its viability as a top-ten campus.

  39. Byron Nichols says:

    I must have hit the trifecta of campus architecture. I grew up in Oregon and spent some summer weeks during high school on the Lewis and Clark campus (your #2). i then went to Occidental for my BA (your #4). I recently retired from the Political Science faculty at Union College (arguably unranked in your survey), whose physical beauty I found as compelling as Lewis and Clark and Oxy. I’ve also spent some time on the Wellesley and Dartmouth campuses, and I think a good argument can be made for them as well. I did notice the relative absence of Northeast schools on your top-10 list.

    It is hard to evaluate the impact of physical beauty on the undergraduate learning process. It isn’t just aesthetic; there is something about the majesty of physical surrounding that imparts a degree of nobility about the learning process underway, to say nothing about institutional pride or personal contentment. I salute your effort to call attention to the physical beauty of campuses and its contribution to educating bright minds and emerging character.

  40. Ted says:

    What a great tour of academic settings. Aren’t these (listed and not) some of the most contemplative, beautiful, provocative places we have?!

    Don’t forget the Star Trek filming at Oxy.


  41. Jeanette says:

    Oxy! Great choice. I have one daughter attending school there and another at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Another beautifual campus to consider for your list, and relatively unknown. Historic, leafy and lovely. Go Quakers!

  42. Christine says:

    When it comes to history, I’m afraid Notre Dame is no match for the University of Virginia. And when you take into account Charlottesville and surrounds vs. South Bend? Sorry, but not including UVa was a major miss.

  43. Paul says:

    Christine, you’re definitely right that Charlottesville has a bit more going for it than South Bend - and I tried not to be swayed by the fact that Notre Dame’s football team used to have (and probably still has) its own section on MSNBC’s sports website. But don’t be too perturbed, because I made UVa a “near miss” - not a “miss!”

  44. Paul says:

    Thanks for the heads-up re: Guilford College, Jeanette. I have never actually heard of it, so you might say that just because the current “top-ten” does not include Guilford’s campus, it isn’t necessarily worse than any campus in the top-ten!

  45. Paul says:

    Well Byron, I’m glad I could validate (in a small way) your college decisions! I think my desire to recognize campus beauty over a broad geographic swath kept me from selecting more Northeast schools - perhaps erroneously. In any event, I completely agree w/ you that campus beauty plays a large part in the learning process - maybe even more so than some extra-curricular activities - simply because everyone (loners as well as social butterflies) are effected by their time spent walking to and from class.

  46. Paul says:

    Indeed they are, Ted - that’s why I selected them! Let me just say that I didn’t mention the Star Trek filming because I didn’t want to distract everyone from Oxy.

  47. ken says:

    i am perplexed that you did not include the
    university of boulder colorado.
    climate…mountain…great school….great city.

    what else is there to say.

  48. Nate says:

    The College of William & Mary in Virginia ought to be on your list…

  49. Paul says:

    Perhaps, perhaps, Nate. I’m frankly surprised someone didn’t already complain about W&M’s exclusion. But as much as I like the architecture of Colonial Williamsburg, I have to say that the Naval Academy is in a comparably-picturesque city (Annapolis) that has the bonus of have many authentically old architecture. That tipped the scales for me in this go-around.

  50. Paul says:

    I actually debated on including UC-Boulder for the reasons you stated. Ultimately, it didn’t “lose” for lack of beauty; its competition “won” because they had so much of it themselves. That’s probably an unsatisfying excuse, but that’s that!

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