The word University comes from the Latin "universitas magistrorum et scholarium", with a possible translation being "a whole/community of masters and scholars". Meant to be places of knowledge, research, discussion, and love for education, the first universities in the world date back almost a thousand years.
Today, there are universities in every continent, and they can house community education facilities, famous libraries, hospitals, theaters, art galleries, museums, research centers - there are even whole towns that exist around their universities - and, what is most interesting to travelers around the world: extremely beautiful campuses and buildings seeping with history from every brick.
For architecture loving scholars, academics, or simply people that love to be immersed in the environment of campuses dotted with amazing buildings, interesting events, rolling grassy fields (and ok, the over-caffeinated student or other, but we’ve all been there), visiting these universities and colleges should be a next trip plan!
The most beautiful universities in the world
There’s no better place to start a lap around the world’s universities than in what is considered by many the first university (In the way we think of it today, at least - but more on that later.) in history, and it coined the very word università.
Such a place is the Università de Bologna, in Bologna, Italy. Founded in 1088 and still working today, UniBo counts with buildings from the 10th century, beautiful ancient murals, 26 different libraries with more than 4 thousand books, and one of Europe's oldest botanical gardens, and the Orto Botanico dell'Università de Bologna. UniBo also hosts many cultural events such as the Music Ateneo and Festa Della Storia.
Speaking of ancient and historical, the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, Morocco is considered by UNESCO and the Guinness World Record the actual oldest university in the world, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri.
How is that possible? Well, though many historians consider ‘university’ a European invention in structure, other types of higher learning institutions predate it, of course, and there is discussion around whether they should be called universities or not. Such is the case with Al Quaraouiyine, which was founded as a mosque, then became a madrasa, a learning institution in the Arab tradition, officially becoming a university in 1963. Some scholars make the distinction, but Al Quaraouiyine is in any case the oldest higher-learning institution still in operation in the world.
The University of Al Quaraouiyine is a wonderland of historical Islamic and Moroccan architecture, featuring dizzyingly complex styles from many different centuries, and has the oldest surviving library in the world, holding relics such as a 9th-century copy of the Quran. The library has been totally modernized, restored, and opened for the public in 2017.
Leaping into the 20th century, a mind-blowing example of modernist architecture and art is Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, one of the largest universities in the world and the biggest in all of Latin America, officially founded in 1910 as a successor to the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, the first university in North America.
UNAM’s main campus in Ciudad de México was designed and projected by some of the most important architects and features murals and artwork by the likes of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. UNAM hosts many museums and cultural event centers such as the San Ildefonso Museum and the Museo Experimental El Eco.
The public Lomonosov Moscow State University holds an impressive campus with the tallest educational building in the world and framing a sprawling garden and pond. It was founded in 1755 and is the main university in Russia. The tower of its main building in central Moscow is 36 stories high and might have more than 5.000 rooms, featuring the second biggest library in Russia, a Zoology museum, and a concert hall.
The Universidad de Córdoba is a public university in Andalucia, Spain, founded in 1972 as the secular successor of the Universidad Libre de Córdoba (Free University) from the 19th century. UCO’s main building is a lush, colorful sprawl of Moorish-influenced Andalusian architecture and bright green gardens framed by colorful arches. Its cultural center, UCOCultura hosts art exhibits, theater plays, music and poetry festivals, and more.
For lovers of university towns, Heidelberg in Germany is a perfect destination. It's Heidelberg University is among the oldest still-active universities in the world, founded in 1386 by a papal bull. Heidelberg University has over 6.7 million books in its libraries and buildings and campuses around the whole town.
The University of Glasgow, made of beautiful stonework and arched courtyards, is a public university also founded on a papal bull in 1451, in Glasgow, Scotland. It played a big part in Scotland’s important role in the Enlightenment along with Scotland’s four other ancient universities (Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews). Glas’ library is among one of the largest and oldest in Europe, with over 3 million books, and has a Memorial Chapel for students who died in WWI.
Addis Ababa University is the largest and oldest university in Ethiopia, founded in 1950. AAU has historically been greatly involved in community service and in the political life of Ethiopia, its faculty being instrumental in exposing and aiding the famine crisis of 1973.
The university holds an Institute of Ethiopian Studies and an Ethnological Museum and has 13 campuses spread around Ethiopia.