Oxford, Ohio | Long ago, the poet Robert Frost visited western Ohio and fell under the thrall of Miami University, deeming it "the most beautiful campus that ever there was." A half-century later, it's easy to see what captivated Frost: Paved paths wind past stately redbrick Georgian buildings (some from the 19th century), under stone arches, over bridges crossing Four Mile Creek and across lawns dotted with stands of maple, oak, bald cypress and even the occasional persimmon tree (whose fruit should be coming into season right about … now).
Miami University is the figurative heart of Oxford, Ohio, 41 miles northwest of Cincinnati. (Geographically, it occupies the eastern half of the town of 8,000.) Oxford provides a quiet place to grab a drink after a day of hiking and fossil hunting among the fall colors at nearby Hueston Woods State Park, connected in spirit to the wooded town. Once classes start, the population swells to some 22,000 residents, and visitors arrive to savor autumn afternoons and campus staples—football games at 24,000-seat Yager Stadium, historical architecture, a tight-knit community—with a side of wilderness.
Miami has earned a reputation as "the cradle of coaches" for cultivating legends like Paul Brown and Woody Hayes, who advanced from the Miami sideline to the coaching pantheon. Beyond the stadium, a great spot for game watching is in Oxford's Uptown neighborhood at Mac and Joe's, filled with big-screen TVs and fans drinking craft beers. But even as cheers rise from the stadium, the splendor Frost found along Four Mile Creek remains, quiet but for the applause of falling leaves.
Play Fill a day at Hueston Woods State Park, 5 miles north of Oxford. Ten miles of hiking trails wind through the hilly region known for its towering beech and maple trees. Other modes of exploration include bike or horseback (through the on-site stables).
Dine At authentically German Steinkeller Bier Hall and Restaurant, try The Mad King Ludwig: a bratwurst patty, Wiener schnitzel, crispy bacon strips and sauerkraut sandwiched between two potato pancakes and smothered in beer-cheese sauce. For lighter fare, hit Kona Bistro for smashed salmon salad: a bed of spinach with layers of tomatoes, carrots, mashed potatoes, grilled salmon and mango chutney.
Stay Chain hotels scatter through Oxford, but for a more personal experience, check into Maplevale Farm Bed and Breakfast. Innkeepers share local history at this renovated 1850s farm. The Martindell Room ($199) contains a spacious Jacuzzi and an electric fireplace.
For more information: Oxford Visitors Bureau (513) 523-8687; enjoyoxford.org
Bloomington, Indiana | Outside downtown Bloomington's jazz-age Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a glittering marquee advertises an evening ballet performance. Inside, on a stage that will host Grammy-award winning musician Booker T. Jones and the seriously entertaining Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain later this year, 10 students from Indiana University Bloomington perform a popping and pirouetting dance routine to the bass-thumping Top 40 song "Uptown Funk." It's the dancers' own choreography—part classic ballet, part hip-hop, completely original.
Original, funky and "well, that's interesting" get a warm welcome in the progressive home of Indiana University. The university's prestigious Jacobs School of Music consistently ranks as the nation's No. 1 music school in U.S. News and World Report lists (and yes, that includes Juilliard), and the 1,600 instrumental, vocal and dance students put on an average of three performances every day, on campus and at venues around the city.
But the campus itself offers plenty of diversions beyond performing arts. Visitors gather on Sundays at the iconic Sample Gates, a symbolic separation between city and campus, for a student-led university tour or a stroll through the arboretum, where at least one of every tree native to Indiana grows. The wonky-angled I.M. Pei-designed Indiana University Art Museum contains 30,000 Asian, African and Western works; and nearly 53,000 Hoosier football fans fit in Memorial Stadium.
Kirkwood Avenue connects campus to cosmopolitan downtown Bloomington, where dozens of modern, upscale restaurants rub shoulders with vintage bars. A few blocks south, ice cream shop The Chocolate Moose's parking lot becomes a popular Friday night destination when it's lined with food trucks (through fall). And when dinner is done, there's time again for art: window-shopping in the galleries along Kirkwood or stopping in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater to see what's on stage.
Play The Indiana University Art Museum (with a giant lighted totem that glows rainbow colors at night), the IU Auditorium (showcasing student and national touring acts) and the Lilly Library (containing one of the world's 14 original Gutenberg Bibles, Ian Fleming's James Bond manuscripts and 30,000 mechanical puzzles) are each worth a visit, and they're within steps of each other. Off campus, cruise past public artwork, shops and museums along the paved 3-mile B-Line Trail.
Dine At farm-to-table restaurant FarmBloomington, the ever-changing menu might feature adobo-rubbed bison sirloin and garlic fries. Finch's Brasserie serves an impressive variety of small plates (don't miss the duck wings with orange glaze) as well as little pizzas.
Stay Indiana University's cream and crimson school colors dominate the lobby and artwork at the new Hyatt Place Bloomington, conveniently located at the intersection of the B-Line Trail and Kirkwood Avenue. Book one of the corner rooms for wall-length windows overlooking the Monroe County Courthouse and downtown bars. But be warned: The scene can get noisy on weekends. From $159.
For more information: Visit Bloomington (800) 800-0037; visitbloomington.com
East Lansing | Somehow, returning to campus feels like the best type of regression: shedding the responsibilities of adulthood and embracing the heady freedom of college days, but without the classes. And few campuses channel that leave-it-behind spirit better than Michigan State University, in East Lansing, on the banks of the Red Cedar River. The capital city of Lansing, just to the west, tends to keep it all business. Popular daytime activities include lawmaking and administration (the nightlife picks up after 7 p.m.). But across the river, MSU always feels ready for a good time.
Spirits inevitably soar when your football team is riding high. And this fall, the Spartans return to campus with a fresh Cotton Bowl win under their belt. Join the pregame party midmorning at The Rock, a giant painted boulder in a field along Farm Lane, a popular route to 75,000-seat Spartan Stadium. From there, ride the green current toward the sound of the bass drum thudding as the marching band warms up.
Even on nongame days, MSU and East Lansing conjure a festive atmosphere. Grand River Avenue, the tree-lined boulevard separating campus from the city, supports a village of restaurants with patios and bookstores catering to a town full of academics. In late morning, sidewalks fill with packs of students waiting in line for cheap lunchtime eats, and colorful artist-designed bike racks along the boulevard hold a jumble of bikes fresh off the Lansing River Trail. Followed west, the trail swoops away from the campus and into business-minded Lansing, past the neoclassical Michigan State Capitol. But followed east, the trail cruises by students swinging in hammocks, basking in the sun and soaking in the unencumbered sense of freedom.
Play Campus attractions include contemporary works in the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, some 2,700 plant species in the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, a rose display at the MSU Horticulture Gardens, a trove of science-minded exhibits in the MSU Museum and the sounds of a carillon at Beaumont Tower.
Dine Crowds pack the Peanut Barrell for BLTs and burgers, baskets of peanuts and Long Island Iced Teas. If the wait is too long, try hole-in-the-wall Crunchy's for towering burgers and buckets of onion rings. On campus, MSU Dairy Store dishes super-rich ice cream.
Stay The Wild Goose Inn, behind shops and restaurants across from campus, packs more charm than the nearby Marriott. Rooms at the inn offer tasteful decor, balconies or patios, and whirlpool tubs. However, you might hear spirited (and spirit-infused) students in the night. Light sleepers should consider bringing earplugs. From $159.
For more information: Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau (888) 252-6746; lansing.org