Off Campus: 3 Great College Towns Where You Can Study in the USA

Auburn University
University of Kansas
Gonzaga University
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By Selene Angier
Last updated on August 8, 2023

When you attend a US university, your campus — and the city or town off campus — will be your new home away from home. Get inspired and explore three of the coolest college towns where you can study in the USA.

An aerial view of the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Kansas

With more than 5,000 universities and colleges to study at in the USA, many schools become the center of their region, often a small town. In fact, many areas with US universities and colleges are so closely associated that the towns become known as “college towns.” There is no proper definition of a college town, except that it has one or more universities and there are many off-campus shops, restaurants, and arts venues that are welcoming to students. 

College towns are often described as lively, hip, and creative because of the businesses that cater to younger people — food trucks, boutique shops, cheap eats. These areas are often home to tech start-ups, too — thanks to students or recent graduates — and many college towns find their way onto “best of” lists thanks to student-friendly factors like the local job market, housing affordability, walkability, green spaces, and creative arts.  

But what is life like for international students who go off campus in a college town? Here, we profile three welcoming towns with international-friendly universities — Auburn, Alabama; Lawrence, Kansas; and Spokane, Washington. Will one of them be your new home away from home?

Auburn, Alabama

Home of Auburn University

Charming southern town with a population of ~66,000

Student enrollment 30,440

Maps Campus | City


  • Top 100 Best Places to Live—, 2020

  • Top 100 Places to Live—Money Magazine, 2019

  • Top 20 College Towns to Start a Career—Business Insider, 2019

About the Auburn Family Spirit

In America, “Southern charm” is a term commonly used to describe the South’s warm hospitality, good manners, and generosity of spirit. And small cities like Auburn exemplify exactly why. Auburn is known as a “boutique town” because it feels like a small town, but has many amenities including cute shops and cafes, big retailers and popular chain restaurants, and movie theaters, alongside a rich history that predates the Civil War. 

“We use the term ‘Auburn Family.’ When you come on campus, people are going to welcome you, ask how you are, what you need,” says Charus Campbell, partnerships manager at Shorelight and Auburn University graduate (2004). “We use the phrase ‘War Eagle’ when greeting people. It can mean hello, goodbye, how are you, anything! You will always find a club to join or a group of friends to click with. From day one, everything is very student-centric.”

Auburn is located 100 miles southwest of the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International, providing easy access for international student travelers. Driving to campus for the first time, you will see rolling hills, vast stretches of farmland, and plenty of pine forests for outdoor exploring. The Gulf Shore beaches are less than a four-hour drive by car. 

Once on campus, picture yourself at the corner of College and Magnolia streets, where the university and city blend seamlessly. Then look for legendary Toomer’s Drugs to get your bearings — and to get the famous lemonade or a chocolate milkshake. “Downtown” Auburn is the center of everything, with shops, cafes, lunch spots, restaurants, convenience stores, pharmacies, tech stores, and more. 

Auburn To-Dos 

Auburn sophomore and India native Jahnavi says some of her favorite things to do on and off campus are “having a picnic at Samford Lawn, having lemonade at Toomer’s, and watching [the] sunset at the Red Barn.”

A few more Auburn University attractions and events:

Eating in Auburn

“Campus [has] all kinds of meals, whether you are a vegetarian, which I am, or vegan,” says Jahnavi. “I am big fan of Mexican food. So, I love to eat at Chipotle and Acapulco’s Mexican Grill. [For] Indian cuisine, I like to eat at Good Karma food truck, [which] gives me [a] home food feeling. For Southern or American food, I like corn bread and mac ’n’ cheese from Momma Goldberg’s. I love sweet tea, which is [a] very Southern thing here.”

Looking for kosher, halal, Thai, vegan, tacos, barbecue, pizza, Vietnamese pho, or Chinese food? Campbell assures international students that Auburn’s restaurant scene is creative, diverse, and affordable, offering something for everyone. A few of his personal favorites include: 

  • The Irritable Bao—which serves creative bao buns like Buffalo Chicken dip and zucchini and egg

  • Fusion—Asian “fusion” cuisine that mixes Thai, Chinese, and Japanese 

  • Royal Doner—for late-night Turkish/Mediterranean and halal food 

  • Mellow Mushroom—creative and funky pizza combos like the Breakfast Spectacular and the Thai Dye

  • Pannie-George’s Kitchen—a classic barbecue “meat and three” (think a hearty plate with a main dish like ribs and three sides, such as cornbread, baked beans, and coleslaw)

Day trips from Auburn

There is a lot to explore beyond Auburn, too. Take a tour at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site museum — which tells the story of America’s first military corps of Black aviators — is just a 30-minute car ride, or you can get a Civil Rights history lesson in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Music fans can rock out in Muscle Shoals, known for recording legends like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and others.

Lawrence, Kansas

Home of the University of Kansas

Lively midwestern city with a population of ~98,000

Student enrollment 27,690

Maps Campus | City


  • Top 20 Best College Towns—USA Today, 2019

  • #5 Small Town for Business and Careers—Forbes, 2017

  • Top 10 Best College Towns—, 2019

KU: Big Heart in America’s Heartland

Home to KU, Lawrence is a welcoming college town on the banks of the Kansas and Lawrence rivers. Centered in the heart of the Midwest, this friendly city was founded by New England abolitionists in 1854 and is known for its vibrant arts and culture scene, Native American heritage, and outdoor recreational offerings. Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, coached at KU, and famous writers Langston Hughes and William S. Burroughs lived in Lawrence.

When you go off campus, you will find Massachusetts Street — or “Mass” as it is known to locals — offers students plenty of shopping, dining, and nightlife options. Thanks to the city’s 30-plus venues and concert halls, Rolling Stone magazine and the New York Times have both touted the Lawrence music scene. Clinton Lake, more than 50 city parks, and the area’s proximity to the Oregon and the Santa Fe cross-country trails make Lawrence an outdoor lover’s dream. Kansas City is just an hour away.

What to Do and See in Lawrence

 “When I was trying to decide where I wanted to study in the United States, the first thing that made me want to come to the middle of the [country] was the university,” says Humberto, a KU student and Mexico native. “I felt really welcomed, which is basically what made me [want] to come to the Midwest. I can assure you that everyone here will make you feel like part of the community.”

Once you find your like-minded group of friends at KU, a few things to do locally are:

Where to Eat in Lawrence

Lawrence is a true foodie city with a broad range of restaurants for every taste and budget. At KU, you will find an all-vegan dining menu, a kosher kitchen, and a food allergen-friendly concept at the dining halls. Off campus, a few student favorites are: 

  • Ramen Bowls—slurp classic or modern variations, even a ghost pepper ramen if you dare

  • Thai Diner—for authentic curries, pad thai, and green papaya salad 

  • Limestone—dig into slices of pizza, pastas, and salads 

  • Taco Zone—classic and creative-twist tacos, burritos, and nachos

  • The Burger Stand—named one of the top 25 burger joints in the US by Zagat 

  • The Jayhawker—a fancy option when mom and dad are footing the bill 

Weekend Getaways from Lawrence

Kansas City, less than an hour away by car, is known for its famous barbecue restaurants, live music, and the American Jazz Museum. Omaha, Nebraska, is just three hours away, while the Ozarks in Arkansas is a four-hour trip. Chicago is a 90-minute flight. 

Spokane, Washington 

Home of Gonzaga University

A student-friendly city with a population of ~ 721,000 in the metropolitan area

Student enrollment 7,500

Maps Campus | City


  • Top 50 Places to Live in the US—, 2019

  • #32 Best Cities for Outdoor Activities—, 2020

  • Top 30 “Cities on the Rise”—National Geographic Traveler, 2018

Discover Spokane

Spokane is the second-largest city in the state of Washington, a financial and cultural hotspot in the Inland Northwest, offering residents a big-city urban lifestyle with a friendly and inclusive community. 

The city was incorporated in 1881 as Spokan Falls, named after the first Native American residents in the area, the Spokanes (meaning “Children of the Sun”). In 1891, the name was changed to Spokane.

Gonzaga’s beautiful campus is only a short walk from downtown Spokane. Explore hundreds of restaurants, museums, and stores, or visit one of 300+ cafes with a study buddy.

Spokane To-Dos

Spokane has a wide variety of activities and places to visit. Join your fellow Zags as they cheer on our top-seeded basketball team, go hiking with your friends, go on a whitewater rafting adventure, and much more.  

  • Relax at Riverfront Park with your friends and take in the rich history of the United States Pavilion, once the largest structure built for the World’s Fair.

  • Visit Spokane Falls, the second-largest urban waterfall in the US, offering breathtaking views and natural beauty.

  • Go camping, hiking, biking, wildlife viewing, and more at Mount Spokane State Park, just one hour from the city.

  • Discover a wide range of inspirational art at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, the largest cultural institution of its kind in the Inland Northwest.

A Taste of Spokane

With a vibrant culture and residents from all over the world, Spokane offers many different cuisines, from delectable Indian, Mexican, and Italian dishes to Japanese, German, Irish, and of course, classic American dining! As an international student, there is a restaurant or cafe for every taste, perfect for when you want to explore new food or when you are nostalgic for the taste of home.

Favorite dining spots in Spokane include:

  • Frank’s Diner—affordable and hearty American breakfast choices.

  • Taste of India—delicious butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, and much more.

  • The Flying Goat—homemade pizzas with a cozy pub-like atmosphere and must-have pies.

  • Italia Trattoria—classic Italian dishes from calamari to pasta made with authentic Italian recipes.

  • Safari Room Fresh Grill and Bar—a range of barbeque dishes and refreshing salads with generous portions.

Day Trips from Spokane

Spokane is surrounded by natural beauty and countless opportunities for getaways from the busy life of the city. Adventurers love to ski with five ski resorts just two hours away. Explore St. John’s Cathedral, a beautiful church and architectural architecture with a rich history. Visit the Crosby House, the childhood home (now museum) of 20th century singer and actor Bing Crosby — a Gonzaga alum! 

Your home away from home is ready to welcome you. Which US college town will you choose for your study in the USA journey?

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