- Home of: Iowa State University Cyclones
- Student population: 33,241
- Conference: Big 12
- Where to hang: Welch Ave Station for pool, pinball, beer
- Where to eat: The Great Plains Sauce & Dough Co. for pizza
- Extra credit: The nearby Seven Oaks Recreation area offers a variety of activities ranging from tubing and canoeing to paintball, mountain biking and snow skiing.
1. Ames, IA
College students make up more than half of the population in Ames, Iowa, which is our pick for the best college town. While Ames is more college than town, it provides those not attending Iowa State University with excellent quality-of-life amenities including affordable housing and an assortment of restaurants, cultural attractions, parks and walking trails.
The university helps foster a creative atmosphere that attracts entrepreneurs and innovative businesses. The high concentration of college students gives the local economy vitality. Most businesses here attribute a large portion of their sales to the more than 33,000 students who attend ISU. More than 30 percent of all jobs in Ames are in the education sector, and that includes all levels of teaching.
From campus, students can cross Squaw Creek to reach the downtown area, which is filled with shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. Residents attend the many special events held downtown like summer concerts, art walks and holiday celebrations that take place on and around Main Street. Held every Saturday morning from May to October, the Ames Main Street Farmers' Market includes a bountiful offering of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, arts and crafts along with musical performances, children's activities and special events like a petting zoo. Closer to ISU is an area known as Campustown, which provides students with restaurants; essentials like copy services, barber shops, tanning salons and a comic book store; and plenty of places to hang out.
When it comes to recreation, Ames packs a punch. Sports fans can cheer on the ISU Cyclones who field competitive teams in the Big 12 conference. The city is dotted with parks and open areas such as the Reiman Gardens, a 14-acre horticultural wonderland. The Ames/ISU Ice Arena hosts public skating, hockey games and special events. Several sports complexes, pools and fitness centers provide opportunities for youth and adult sports as well as ways to stay in shape.