Credit the universities. Without the schools, students and staff, most small towns would be Rip Van Wrinkle sleepy — nice for residents, but not rip-roaring places to visit. Put a university at its heart, and the towns transform into vital centers well worth tourist attention.

Most college towns develop in similar ways and share similar structures.

To feed budget-minded students, solvent professors and a population from all over the world, college towns sprout a big-city variety of low-cost, upscale and authentically ethnic restaurants.

Because many students don't own cars, college towns are pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, with businesses, entertainment facilities and shops located in one compact area.

Being youth-focused, the towns sport opportunities for a variety of physical activities, often in beautiful, natural settings.

And, of course, universities are learning-centric, featuring a multitude of disciplines that spill over to the public in the form of exhibitions, lectures, concerts, theater performances and other class acts.

Although much alike, college towns also differ, developing personalities based on location, environment and educational strengths.

In all, college towns provide unique pockets of A-plus pleasures, so whatever the reason for a visit — previewing schools, attending sports events, spending a parents' weekend, celebrating a graduation or just passing through, linger a bit and enjoy the amenities.

How do you make the most out of a short visit?

First assignment: Do the homework. Learn all you can about the area. Research on the Internet. Contact the tourist bureau for brochures, maps and general advice.

After arriving, ask a variety of locals to suggest favorite places and activities. If you are traveling with a prospective student, take a campus tour as tour guides offer a quickie course in "must-dos."

Explore the campus. Stop at the student center. Check out student newspapers and bulletin boards to find entertainment and special events.

It doesn't take a Ph. D. to uncover the ABCs of any college town, but if you are headed to Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbia, Mo.; Madison, Wis.; or Champaign-Urbana, Ill., skip the homework. We've done it for you.

We asked a student, a university official, a tourism professional, a resident and the mayor from each town to give us the lowdown and heads up of what makes his or her town special. Then we tallied results, combined only duplicate answers and came up with the following, which you can uses as crib sheets to good travel.

ANN ARBOR, MICH.

Named for the wives of two founders in 1824 and for the rich canopy of trees in the area, Ann Arbor continues to collect impressive titles. The city has been called one of the U.S.'s Best Cities for Families (Parenting Magazine), Top Art Destinations (American Style Magazine) and Best Places for Business and Careers (Forbes).

Just 43 miles west of Detroit, the city hosts five schools of higher education, the largest, of course, being the University of Michigan. The city tops the charts for bookshops and books sold per capita, scoring a spot on Amazon.com's list of Most Well-Read Cities in America.

Although cosmopolitan and sophisticated, "Tree Town" remains green at heart, counting within city limits, more than 2,200 acres of parkland as well as the flowing Huron River.

Do not miss

• Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum

• Main Street

• Michigan Theatre (for films and live entertainment)

• The Ark (a nonprofit music venue)

• Canoeing, kayaking, tubing on the Huron River

University of Michigan highlights

• Law Quadrangle

• Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum

• Michigan Stadium aka "The Big House" (largest stadium in the U.S., third largest in the world)

• Michigan Union (main student union in the heart of Central Campus)

• Museums (including the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Museum of Art)

Favorite food

• Angelo's Restaurant (family friendly)

• Grange Kitchen & Bar (seasonal, fresh local foods)

• Pacific Rim by Kana (Pan-Asian cuisine)

• Washtenaw Dairy (ice cream and doughnuts)

• Zingerman's Roadhouse (award-winning traditional American foods)

Nightlife — student favorites

• Ashley's

• Good Time Charley's

• Rick's American Café

Sleeping over

• Bell Tower Hotel

• Dahlmann Campus Inn

• Weber's Inn

Websites for further study

visitannarbor.org

umich.edu

COLUMBIA, Mo.

Osage and Missouri Indians first settled the area in Pre-Columbian times, but it wasn't until 1821 that the town officially incorporated and took the name Columbia for a once-upon-a-time name for the United States. Columbia had college town on its mind from the get go. Original town plans saved space for a university, which, in 1839, the University of Missouri filled.

Located in the center of the state, roughly 125 miles from both St. Louis and Kansas City, Columbia continues to thrive as an educational enclave hosting three institutions of higher learning and a medical school associated with the University of Missouri. Wikipedia reports that more than half of the city's 110,438 plus residents have college degrees making "CoMo" the 13th "most highly educated municipality in the United States."

Do not miss

• The District (downtown area)

• North Village Arts District (neighborhood of art-related businesses)

• Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

• Shelter Insurance Gardens

• Biking and hiking on the MKT Trail (weaves 8.9 miles through Columbia and joins the Katy Trail south of town)

University of Missouri highlights

• Ellis Library (home to the State Historical Society of Missouri)

• Memorial Student Union

• David R. Francis Quadrangle (home of the famous columns)

• Sculptures of Thomas Jefferson, Beetle Bailey and the Mizzou tiger

• Museum of Art and Archaeology

Favorite food

• Addison's-An American Grill

• Booches (pool hall with burgers)

• Shakespeare's Pizza

• Sparky's (unique ice creams)

• Sycamore (a James Beard award nominee serving top-notch local dishes)

Nightlife — student favorites

• Déjà Vu (comedy club)

• Harpo's

• The Blue Note (concert venue)

Sleeping over

• The Gathering Place (B & B)

• Hampton Inn at the University of Missouri

• Stoney Creek Inn

Websites for further study

visitcolumbiamo.com

Missouri.edu

MADISON, WIS.

Madison is not just another college town. It is a capital college town, which double dips the pizazz. Originally founded as the government center of the Wisconsin Territory and named for president James Madison, the town received its city charter in 1856 when the population reached 6,864. Today's population of 236,901 makes Madison Wisconsin's second-largest city, with Milwaukee, 80 miles to the east, the largest.

Enjoying a prime location on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona in south central Wisconsin, "Madtown" hosts four institutions of higher learning, with the University of Wisconsin, the largest and most prominent.

The triple crown attributes of natural beauty, government hub and world-class educational center, catapult Madison to winner's circle on most lists of top U.S. college towns.

Do not miss

• Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

• State Street (pedestrian mall)

• Lakes Mendota and Monona

• Wisconsin State Capitol

• Bicycling along the Capital City Bike Trail

University of Wisconsin highlights

• Memorial Union

• Bascom Hill (the main quadrangle with a gigantic statue of Abe Lincoln)

• Chazen Museum of Art

• Union South (new student union building)

• Institutes for Discovery (research facility open to the public)

Favorite foods

• Food carts (during the day on Library Mall)

• L'Etoile (winner James Beard Foundation award for "Best Chef in the Midwest")

• Sardine (lake views with French and American cuisine)

• The Great Dane (great beer/good food)

• The Old Fashioned (regional dishes and good variety of beer)

Nightlife — student favorites

• Memorial Union Terrace

• State Street Brats

• Genna's

Sleeping over

• The Edgewater Hotel

• HotelRed (new boutique hotel)

• Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor's Club

Websites for further study

visitmadison.com

wisc.edu

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, ILL. 

It takes two municipalities to represent the college towns associated with the University of Illinois. Champaign and Urbana are separate entities but often treated as one metropolitan area.

Urbana came first, taking root in 1833, in the prairie land of east-central Illinois as the county seat of Champaign County. The second settlement, established by those who followed the railroad as it set up links two miles from Urbana's city limits, was incorporated in 1861 under the name Champaign. The university came on the scene in 1867, operating in one building located in the muddy fields between the towns. Today, the University of Illinois includes 316 major buildings stretched over 2.3 square miles, and connects the two cities like a hyphen. Located about 135 miles from Chicago, "Chambana" continues to thrive, creating a vibrant, metropolitan oasis, surprisingly surrounded by verdant farmland.

Do not miss

• Curtis Orchard (80-acre apple orchard and pumpkin patch — open mid-July to mid-December)

• Downtown Champaign

• Meadowbrook Park (a restored prairie in Urbana)

• William M. Staerkel Planetarium

University of Illinois highlights

• Japan House (promotes an appreciation of Japanese culture and related Asian cultural concepts)

• Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion (second largest fine arts museum in Illinois)

• The Main Quad

• Lorado Taft's Alma Mater statue

• UI Arboretum

Favorite foods

• Bacaro (Italian featuring local products)

• The Courier Café (hand-dipped shakes, juicy hamburgers)

• Jarling's Custard Cup (frozen custard)

• Papa Dels (pizza)

• Radio Maria Restaurant (Latin inspired)

Nightlife — student favorites

• Murphy's Pub (popular with graduate students)

• Firehaus

• Red Lion (popular with freshmen)

Sleeping over

• Illini Union Hotel

• I Hotel and Conference Center

• Hilton Garden Inn Champaign/Urbana

Websites for further study

Illinois.edu

visitchampaigncounty.org