Southeast College Tour & Vacation Itinerary

Wake Forest University's Reynolda Library. Photo by Wake Forest University

If your soon-to-be college student has set his or her sights on the Southeast, North Carolina is the perfect place to start. Thinking about schools in the region will have you imagining picturesque campuses, blue skies and basketball fervor while humming James Taylor’s classic “Carolina in My Mind.” There are several top-tier universities clustered around the Research Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill), which got its nickname because of the density of research and scholarly institutions.

From a logistics perspective, Raleigh makes a perfectly good home base, but Durham or Chapel Hill will be far more quaint. Build in time for local sightseeing to squeeze some vacation fun out of a busy itinerary. (For essential tips on college tour vacations with teens, read the first post in this series.)

Southeast College Tour Vacation Ideas
The clock tower on Duke’s West Campus. Photo by Duke University

Southeast College Tour Vacation Ideas

Day 1

Today is devoted to visiting Duke University. Duke is a prestigious private school located in Durham, and the Gothic architecture on West Campus is widely admired. Take in the ambiance, anchored by the imposing Duke Chapel, and make sure to leave time for the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, lauded as one of the prettiest public gardens in the country.

For lunch, linger at Guglhupf, an open-air bakery, café and beer garden. Then, for something out of the ordinary, book in advance for a visit to the Duke Lemur Center, which houses the largest collection of lemurs outside their native habitat of Madagascar. Or If the weather is good, escape south of Durham to Jordan Lake, where there are multiple swimming areas and even boat rentals. Keep an eye out for bald eagles who make their home in the area. 

Tonight, check out a Durham Bulls baseball game, the minor-league team made famous by the Kevin Costner movie Bull Durham.

Southeast College Tour Vacation Ideas
The Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo by Jon Gardiner UNC-Chapel Hill.

Day 2

Today is all about Carolina Blue. Visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, known simply as Carolina — the nation’s oldest public university. Don’t miss the Old Well, and make sure to sip from the fountain, as tradition dictates, for good luck.

Franklin Street, the main drag through town, is the place to get a feel for the area and load up on any Carolina gear. For lunch, newcomer Lula’s on Franklin Street is gaining a following for its Southern specialties, including fried chicken. Grab a coffee at Perennial Coffee or head farther afield to Open Eye Café to absorb the ambiance in the self-proclaimed “Living Room of Carrboro,” the adjacent town to Chapel Hill.

Later in the day, check out the Carolina Basketball Museum in the Dean Dome for a peek into the storied history of Tar Heel hoops prowess. If you’ve timed your visit right, cheer on the UNC basketball team at a home game tonight.

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Southeast College Tour Vacation Ideas
NC State’s Court of North Carolina quad

Day 3

NC State University, a large research university located in Raleigh, is well known for its agriculture, life sciences and engineering programs. Take in the Memorial Bell Tower and observe student life on the quad or at Jubala Coffee. For lunch, Clyde Cooper’s is the place to sample award-winning barbecue in Wolfpack territory.

Burn off some energy later in the day at Umstead Park with its 22 miles of hiking and 13 miles of biking trails. If you happen to visit in October, don’t miss the North Carolina State Fair, which draws millions of attendees.

Southeast College Tour Vacation Ideas
Z. Smith Reynolds Library and Reynolda Hall at Wake Forest. Photo by Wake Forest University

With More Time

Head west to visit the well-regarded Wake Forest University just outside Winston-Salem. The home of the Demon Deacons is a private institution with a suburban campus. Another regional option of note is Elon University, a private liberal arts school with a small to medium-size student body.

If an even smaller campus is of interest, drive farther west toward Charlotte and visit standout Davidson College. With less than 2,000 students, Davidson offers a big reputation in a pint-size campus. While you are there, walk along Main Street and have lunch at popular spot Kindred. 

If you’d like to wrap up near the beach and are willing to make a longer drive, set your sights south on the College of Charleston. As the oldest college in South Carolina, it sits happily amid the Lowcountry gem that is the Holy City. Grab a coffee at Tricera or Kudu and saunter around Marion Square to get a feel for campus, and then turn on vacation mode with the many historical, cultural or beach options in Charleston.

College Tour Vacation Ideas
Designed by Thomas Jefferson, the Rotunda is the heart of UVA’s campus

Alternate Routes

The Southeast includes more than just North Carolina, and there are plenty of schools to consider in this swath of the country. Here are a few options that would make great itineraries in other states.


Founded by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia is well known for its aesthetic appeal (and remember, you’re visiting Grounds — not campus!). While you’re in Charlottesville, make time for a guided tour of Monticello, Jefferson’s former home. An hour or so to the southwest lies Washington and Lee University, a well-regarded private liberal arts college. Finish with a stop at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, a charming town with friendly locals and a lively arts scene. Alternatively, you could drive east from Charlottesville and check out William and Mary; it’s right in the heart of Williamsburg, a veritable playground for history buffs and a favorite with kids of all ages.


Start in Knoxville at the home of the Volunteers, the University of Tennessee. From there, head west, stopping at Sewanee, the University of the South, to see their Domain (Sewanee-speak for campus). End in Nashville and take advantage of all of the music, food and culture in this vibrant city after visiting top-notch private school Vanderbilt University.

Southeast College Tour Vacation Ideas
The Arch on the University of Georgia’s North Campus. Photo by the University of Georgia


Kick off your trip in the classic college town of Athens for a visit to the University of Georgia, the first state-chartered university in the U.S. Atlanta is next and affords stopovers at both Georgia Tech and Emory University. Georgia Tech is a leading research university focused on science and technology, while Emory is a private liberal arts school nestled in the leafy Druid Hills neighborhood. Atlanta is a playground for exploration in between, with everything from the High Museum of Art to the Georgia Aquarium and the College Football Hall of Fame.

South Carolina

Start in Columbia at the state’s flagship public school, the University of South Carolina. Next up is a visit to Tiger country at Clemson University, whose focus is on science and engineering. From there, make your way to Greenville, home of Furman University, the oldest private university in the state. Greenville also offers quaint shops and restaurants and the unique downtown Falls Park on the Reedy and Liberty Bridge, showcasing the city’s history of harnessing water power.

Relevant Links:

Browse all tips and ideas for travel with teens and tweens on Ciao Bambino

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: New York/Tri-State edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: Boston edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: Midwest edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: Pacific Northwest edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: SoCal Edition

9 places to make family travel memories with college-age kids

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