Amhearst, Mass.(© Andre Jenny, Aurora Photos)

Towns like Amherst, Mass., offer more than an exceptional education.

On a half dozen autumn Saturdays, I hear the crowd roar at the University of Washington's Husky Stadium from my Seattle studio, that is when the former perennial powerhouse can muster a win. Even in a city Seattle's size, you can't help but notice when the "Dawgs" are in town.

But a city doesn't need a Division One football program to be a great college town. From Walla Walla, Wash., to Amherst, Mass., colleges form the vibrant core of their communities, offering youthful energy, a panoply of cultural events, an intellectual injection and often a beloved mascot, be it the "Fighting Missionaries" (Whitman) or "Lord Jeffs" (Amherst). Below are some of the loveliest college towns a student or a sojourner could hope to explore.

Amherst, Mass.
Excuse my bias, but without Amherst and nearby Mt. Holyoke colleges, my dad would never have met my mom. But there's more than familiarity at play in this quintessential New England college town. Look no farther than Amherst Books to find lovely editions from the Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickenson, and longtime resident Robert Frost, who embellished Amherst's rarefied air with visits to one of Amherst's fraternities to read his newly penned poems. For those looking for a more digital aesthetic, most of the 300-year old downtown is wireless. Students at UMass, Amherst and Hampshire are hardly the only scholars here; almost half the population possesses advanced degrees.

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Austin, Texas
I know, I know. Everybody loves Austin, which is exactly my point. I'd like to meet someone who's visited this gown and gavel town and not raved about it. True, the music scene's long drawn critical acclaim, but the SXSW Festival is now arguably the most important cultural event in the U.S., especially for those under 30. With an astounding 220 parks, one can see the forest -- and the surrounding Hill Country -- through the trees here. The 360-acre Zilker Park runs along Lake Austin, though runners most often take to the 10.1-mile loop surrounding Lady Bird Lake. Epicureans make pilgrimages to the 80,000 sq. ft. flagship Whole Foods, though the Wednesday and Saturday farmers market offers the freshest fare -- all from within 150-miles. And should you crave great music with your fresh herbs? Well then, step into any old bar.

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Indiana University(Courtesy of Indiana University)

Though smaller, Bloomington Ind., rivals other college towns for more than I.U.'s curriculum.

Bloomington, Ind.
Forgive the Big 10 chip on Bloomington's shoulder, but residents here consider their Indiana University's hometown equal to the more celebrated Madison, Wisconsin. "Bloomington has everything Madison does," a former IU English professor told me, "just less volume." The academic year launches with the "Lotus World Music & Arts Festival" in mid-September, and other festivals range from celebrations of Chocolate (mid-February) to the Indiana Heritage Quilt Show in the spring. Designed in native limestone, the campus is regularly listed among the most beautiful in the U.S. Like rivals Iowa in literature and Madison in politics, IU's world renowned Jacobs School of Music permeates the local arts scene.

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