Table of Contents
Moody college campuses. Leather-bound classic novels. The perfect cup of coffee on a gloomy day.
Do we have your attention? If so, you might have a penchant for dark academia.
Dark academia is an aesthetic that encompasses style, literature, lifestyle, and even places. Think: shadowy gothic architecture, historic college towns, melancholic cafes on a rainy day, spellbinding libraries, and bundling up on a perfectly crisp evening.
With autumn just around the corner, there’s no better time to immerse yourself fully in the dark academia trend. And since dark academia is all about the pursuit of knowledge, we developed this study to see where you can find those dark and delicious vibes.
While it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly makes up dark academia, we’ve done our best to measure this atmospheric phenomenon in 100 college cities and towns. We ranked college cities based on the quantifiable aspects of dark academia, like their coffee shops, bookstores, and fall weather.
Whether you’re headed back to school or simply looking for a getaway to live out your Secret History fantasies, get ready to explore these college cities with the most dark academia vibes.
Ranking U.S. College Cities by their Dark Academia Vibes
The West Coast is, in fact, not the best coast when it comes to cities with the most dark academia vibes. Head in the opposite direction, and you’ll find all the trappings of dark academia on the East Coast, with tons of coffee shops and bookstores, lower fall temps and plenty of rainy days each year.
Princeton, NJ, home to the eponymous university, nabs the top spot, while other East Coast college towns like Ithaca, Cambridge, and Storrs round out the top 5, alongside Evanston representing the Midwest at #4.
The ranking criteria we used are some of the core elements of the dark academia aesthetic. They include:
- Coffee shops per capita: Sipping steaming cups of coffee or tea (pick your poison) at a coffee shop is at the soul of the dark academia aesthetic, especially if it’s a late-night coffee shop. Bonus points if you’re also reading some dark and mysterious literature!
- Bookstores per capita: With academia in the name, you know reading and literature are a vital part of the vibe. The more bookstores per capita in each town, the higher we ranked them for dark academia vibes.
- Average fall temperature: Dark academia fashion is all about sweaters, blazers and a whole lot of tweed. Bright sunny days and high temps don’t bode well for these fashion choices, so lower fall temps are critical to attaining that dark academia aesthetic.
- Rainy days per year: Combine crisp autumn temps with gloomy rainy days and you’ve got a recipe for the superb dark academia mood. Rainier cities ranked as higher in the dark academia list.
The 10 Most Dark Academia College Cities
1. Princeton, NJ
Princeton, New Jersey, (and the university by the same name) is straight out of a dark academia dream. The campus dorms are housed in classic Gothic-style buildings, and most other campus facilities boast the same brick and ivy-laced aesthetic. Nassau Hall is particularly noteworthy, both for its architecture and history.
As the number one college city with the most dark academia vibes, Princeton has nothing to prove. But if you need some more convincing, you can page through This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (set in Princeton), or watch a recording of Adamandi: a new horror musical put on at Princeton last year with some serious dark academia influences.
2. Ithaca, NY
Home to the prestigious Cornell University, Ithaca, New York ranks at #2 for its dark academia vibes.
Ithaca’s high ranking is backed by Cornell’s gorgeous campus, serving up mysterious vibes with ornate Gothic architecture. Sage Chapel is especially ominous in all the best ways. The university also boasts a collection of dark yet dreamy libraries — seek out the A.D. White Reading Room in the Uris Library for some of the best dark academia vibes on campus.
The town itself is on the smaller side, but you’ll find enough coffee shops and quaint bookstores to keep your soul satiated. Autumn in Ithaca is deliciously cool, with average temps topping off at 60 degrees and gorgeous fall foliage on full display in town and at nearby state parks. If you prefer curling up in front of a fireplace with some classic literature, you’ll be happy to learn that, on average, Ithaca has over 130 rainy days per year.
3. Cambridge, MA
Situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard is known as the Ivy League of all Ivy League schools, and it’s also renowned for its beautiful campus. But Cambridge (and its historic university) also comes close to the number one spot for college cities with the most dark academia vibes.
Harvard is old, it’s prestigious (bordering on pretentious), and the neoclassical buildings and Gothic architecture go above and beyond. The magical Annenberg Hall evokes Hogwarts’ Great Hall, and the creaky chairs and old books of Widener Library are perfect for late-night study sessions.
After basking in the dark academia vibes at Harvard, spend an afternoon meandering around the historic Harvard Square or enjoy the fall foliage around the lovely Mount Auburn Cemetery.
4. Evanston, IL
Situated off the blustering shores of Lake Michigan just 12 miles north of Chicago, you’ll find the dark academic setting of Evanston. This pretty town is the home of Northwestern University, which serves up dark academia vibes in spades.
Rife with Victorian Gothic architecture (accented with plenty of ivy climbing up the walls), Northwestern’s campus will have you in your dark academia feels. Even the newer buildings complement the old architecture, so you’ll have few interruptions as you live out your moody daydream.
Grab a book and a coffee, then make your way to the enchanting Shakespeare Garden to round out the perfect day in Evanston.
5. Storrs, CT
Nestled amidst the picturesque landscape of Connecticut, Storrs exudes the enigmatic allure of dark academia. Home to the prestigious University of Connecticut (UConn), Storrs seamlessly weaves its rich academic tradition with an atmosphere steeped in mystery and intellectualism.
UConn’s ivy-clad structures and Gothic architecture form the backdrop for this intriguing town, offering a setting that could easily be plucked from the pages of a dark academia novel.
For the perfect dark academia escapade, explore the Benton Museum of Art’s exquisite collections, lose yourself in the labyrinthine UConn Library, or take a contemplative stroll through Mirror Lake.
6. Salt Lake City, UT
Anchored by the University of Utah, Salt Lake City seamlessly intertwines academia with an air of nostalgia.
The University of Utah’s iconic campus, adorned with neoclassical structures, forms the heart of Salt Lake City’s dark academia ambiance. Combined with the city’s mountainous backdrop, you’ll feel the drama in no time.
Head to the Presidents Circle on the university’s campus to explore some of the most historic buildings, including the John R. Park Building that looks like a straight-up Greek temple. Classical influence? Check.
While you’re in town, embrace the local history etched into Salt Lake City’s cobblestone streets with a visit to the renowned Trolley Square, a former streetcar barn-turned-shopping center.
7. Charlottesville, VA
Dark academia flourishes in Charlottesville. Home to the esteemed University of Virginia, the city is a symphony of intellectual charm and mystique, earning its #7 spot among top college cities with the most profound dark academia vibes.
The University of Virginia, with its neoclassical architecture and gothic undertones, is a masterpiece in itself. Visit the Rotunda, reminiscent of times past, and Alderman Library, where the scent of old books hangs in the air like an enchanting spell.
The city itself contributes to the allure, thanks to plentiful local coffee shops and bookstores. And as the seasons change, the fall foliage wraps the city in an autumnal embrace, inviting you to bundle up in your best tweed and wander with a book in hand.
8. Troy, NY
Troy, New York, is home to two universities that contribute to its dark academia vibes. There’s the Ivy League Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Founded in 1824, RPI has a few original buildings still intact, including the Quad: the oldest resident building on campus that still houses students to this day. There’s also the small and private Russell Sage College, featuring a lovely campus sandwiched between Prospect Park and the Hudson River.
Both schools are worth exploring if you’re seeking dark academia vibes, especially when the fall foliage is in full bloom. While you’re in town, don’t miss the fabulous Oakwood Cemetery. Established in 1848, this rural graveyard is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and boasts some spooky mausoleums, shadowy graves, and even a gloomy lake. What more could you want?
9. Ann Arbor, MI
Ann Arbor, Michigan, a haven of intellectual pursuit, is a profound embodiment of dark academia. Home to the esteemed University of Michigan, the city radiates an air of introspection and knowledge.
The dark academia aesthetic is evident on the University of Michigan’s campus thanks to its gothic architecture. The Law Quad’s ornate facades and the awe-inspiring Hatcher Graduate Library might as well be the settings for the next big dark academia novel.
Explore Ann Arbor’s charming bookstores and cafes tucked into old corners, or indulge in the autumnal palette of Nichols Arboretum for the perfect dark academia-inspired visit.
10. Columbus, OH
Columbus, Ohio, is a college town through and through, with seven colleges and universities located around the city. Ohio State University is by far the best-known of these, and while quite modern in many aspects, you’ll find several spots around campus that scream dark academia.
Adorned with no less than 24 gargoyles and grotesques, Orton Hall is especially grim. Its sister building, Hayes Hall, built in 1893, shares the historic vibes and Romanesque architecture style.
For more dark academia vibes in Columbus, you can wander around the Pontifical College Josephinum and admire the ornate architecture (specifically the St. Turibius Chapel), or bask in the fall foliage at Hayden Falls Park.
City-to-City With Wanderu
So there you have it: the full rundown on the college cities with the most dark academia vibes. Next time you’re feeling gloomy (or simply heading back to campus, which honestly induces the gloom more than anything), embrace the melancholia and book a trip to one of these towns with Wanderu.
You can even dive deep and visit several of these college towns in one go: take a bus from Columbus to Ithaca, a bus from Ann Arbor to Columbus, or even a train from Princeton to Charlottesville. Compare prices and routes with ease on Wanderu.com or the Wanderu app.
If you loved the stone-cold facts in this post, you might be interested in our studies of the most cultured cities in Europe or the U.S. cities with the best fall outdoor activities. Want to lean more towards the mysterious side of dark academia? Our ranking of peculiar landmarks might include just the oddity you seek.
How We Did It
How did we quantify something as vague as an aesthetic? We started with the 100 Best College Towns in the USA, according to WalletHub’s 2023 study. Then we gathered data for each city’s coffee shops per capita, bookstores per capita, average maximum fall temperature, and rainy days per year. Once we gathered the data, we normalized each category and combined the numbers into an overall score for each of the 100 cities.
- We pulled the number of coffee shops & bookstores per city from the Yelp API. We used population data from the World Population Review to determine per-capita amounts.
- The maximum fall temperature data & days of rain in a year both come from the NOAA API.
- The fall temperature data is based on the average daily maximum temperature between Sept 1, 2022 and Nov 30, 2022.
- The rainy days data is based on the number of days with precipitation in 2022, using data from the weather station in each city with the most complete dataset.
- The NOAA API was missing data from some smaller cities; for those small cities, we supplemented data from the nearest city with available weather data.
You are welcome to use the information and graphics on this page, crediting Wanderu. If you do so, please link back to this page, so that (dark) academics around the world can see all the data and find out how we came up with the rankings.