New College of Florida

Sure, you go to college to study, but sometimes the campus and its surroundings are so gorgeous that it’s a challenge to tear your eyes away long enough to open a book. Just in time for the start of the academic year, here are our picks for the nation’s most scenic colleges and universities.

Vanderbilt University

Many colleges tout their campus’s arboreal splendor, but the campus of Vanderbilt University is actually a national arboretum. The Nashville, Tenn., school gained official arboretum status in 1988, courtesy of the Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. More than 300 types of tree and shrub call Vanderbilt home, including at least one of every tree species indigenous to Tennessee. Vanderbilt’s venerable Bicentennial Oak predates the Revolutionary War.

Pepperdine University

Pepperdine University is in Malibu, Calif., a city that’s often more associated with sunny beaches than with academics. The university is right next to the roaring Pacific, snuggled between the Santa Monica Mountains and the oceanfront Pacific Coast Highway. Besides the stunning seaside beauty, the Pepperdine campus is lovely to look at as well, with white-stuccoed, red-tile-roofed Mediterranean architecture.

University of Colorado

The University of Colorado’s flagship campus is in the heart of Boulder, but Boulder itself is in the heart of towering mountains. Dominating the scene are the Flatirons, mountainous sandstone formations that stand sentinel over Boulder; just beyond are the Rockies proper, plus hundreds of square miles of national parkland, forests and wilderness. The campus itself is scenic also, with much of the architecture fashioned after a rural Italian style.

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Anyplace that’s in Hawaii almost has to be scenic by definition, and the University of Hawaii’s primary campus does not disappoint. Its location is positively idyllic: just east of downtown Honolulu, just north of Waikiki Beach and the iconic Diamond Head crater. The school is set in the Manoa Valley at the foot of the lush, intensely green Koolau Range. The campus itself is verdant and features abundant art, a Japanese garden and a sala, or open Thai pavilion.

Stanford University

Walking through Stanford University in Palo Alto is like taking a tour through old California. The campus was designed in the California Mission Revival style by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City, and the architecture features red-tile roofs and sandstone arches. Highlights include the impressive Stanford Memorial Church, completed in 1903; the 285-foot-high Hoover Tower; and a sculpture garden devoted to the works of Auguste Rodin.

Harvard University

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., is usually associated with rarefied academics, but the scenic surroundings are no less an asset. Founded in 1636, Harvard is the country’s oldest institute of higher learning, and the campus pays homage to its early American history via beautiful Colonial architecture and the verdant, manicured Harvard Yard. Just a block away is the Charles River, which rambles toward downtown Boston, a few miles east.

Loyola Marymount University

Loyola Marymount University occupies some prime real estate: Its 142-acre campus sits on a bluff overlooking West Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. Between the campus’s lovely grounds and its proximity to Los Angeles’ beaches and excitement, it’s a wonder any studying gets done here. Loyola Marymount, the West Coast’s biggest Catholic university, will mark its centennial in 2011. 

Rhodes College

Woodsy Rhodes College frequently garners acclaim for the beauty of its 100-acre campus. The pretty school features lovely Gothic-style architecture and stone buildings, and 13 of its structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The surrounding neighborhood — a historic district of Memphis, Tenn. — is a treat as well, and it’s just a short hop to the fun of downtown Memphis.

College of the Atlantic

The tiny College of the Atlantic occupies the same island on Maine’s rocky coast as Acadia National Park. Indeed, the campus is mere yards from the park’s border, which gives you some idea of the kind of landscape this seaside school boasts. The natural world is always beckoning here and is an important facet of the college, which has a strong commitment to sustainability and renewable resources.

Wagner College

Located on Staten Island, Wagner College is an ivy-covered oasis in New York City, but it’s just a quick (and free) ferry ride from the bustle and glamour of Manhattan. Gorgeous views of the Big Apple skyline, New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean are a perpetual distraction, but the green, wooded campus, at the top of Grymes Hill, is no less pleasing to the eye.

Williams College

Williams College is nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of northwestern Massachusetts, a rural area of deciduous woods and rolling hills. The two-century-old school and its burg, Williamstown, are flanked on all sides by thousands of acres set aside as forest or parkland. It’s a gorgeous place any time, but especially so in the fall, when the leaves turn — what a way to start the academic year. 

Furman University

Furman University is sometimes referred to as "The Country Club of the South," and the charming spot is lovely enough to have been named one of the most beautiful places in the nation by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The 750-acre Greenville, S.C., campus boasts lovely Georgian buildings, a 40-acre lake and a library surrounded by lush greenery.

University of Washington

Water plays a prominent role in the culture of Seattle and of its biggest institute of learning, the University of Washington, which marks its 150th anniversary next year. Many parts of the university are within sight of Lake Washington, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal hugs the southern side of campus — including Husky Stadium, where football-season tailgating frequently takes place on boats. The campus also has stunning views of Mount Rainier and the Cascade Mountains to the east, and the Olympic Mountains to the west.

Flagler College

Flagler College is on northern Florida’s Atlantic coast in St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest continuously occupied city, founded in 1565. The school is more than four centuries younger, but the beautiful campus still has plenty of history to call its own: The main building is a former luxury resort built in 1888 and now a National Historic Landmark, and eight of Flagler’s 12 buildings are historic structures. And by the way, the ocean and beaches are just a short hop away.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology doesn’t often land on rankings of beautiful colleges, but we respectfully disagree with those who’d leave the Cambridge, Mass., school off the list. For one thing, MIT has a storied history of installing cutting-edge structures like the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center — appropriate for a college that had the nation’s first school of  architecture. On top of that, MIT is right on the Charles River across from Boston, and no spot on campus is far from a spectacular view of the water and city skyline.

U.S. Military Academy

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., has a well-deserved reputation for rigorous training, academically and otherwise. Given how scenic West Point and its surroundings are, it’s a good thing students here are so well-disciplined. The site hosted a number of forts during the Revolutionary War, and the campus is filled with historic buildings and monuments. It sits amid a lovely landscape overlooking the Hudson River, which prompted Charles Dickens to say during an 1841 visit: "Any ground more beautiful can hardly be."

Kenyon College

Few schools offer as much pastoral charm as Kenyon College in the village of Gambier, Ohio, about 50 miles northeast of Columbus. The rural school sits perched on a hill above the Kokosing River Valley, and the campus is filled with steepled Gothic architecture. The oldest building, Old Kenyon Hall, is more than 180 years old and may be the oldest Gothic Revival structure in the Americas.

University of Chicago

If you love beautiful campuses, the University of Chicago is your kind of school. The 211-acre campus is in the Hyde Park neighborhood a few miles south of downtown Chicago, flanked by Washington Park to the west and the lakefront Jackson Park — site of the 1893 world’s fair  — to the east. The older part of the campus consists largely of Gothic architecture, while the newer sections were designed according to a plan developed by legendary architect Eero Saarinen, who personally designed the law school.