SMALL PLACES, BIG FUN
Big cities are often hyped as the best tourist destinations in the United States, but many of the nation’s small towns are gems worth visiting. From coast to coast and north to south, cute small towns represent much of what is great about each state or region, just on a smaller scale than larger cities — and typically at a lower price. With lots of charm, natural beauty, history, and great food, small towns often make the best trips. State by state, here are some of the best ones to visit.
The small city of Durango (population 18,400) offers visitors unparalleled natural beauty with easy access to several national parks and landmarks, including Four Corners National Monument, the only place in the U.S. where four states intersect. Enjoy a day of hiking in the San Juan National Forest, or hop a train to Silverton, a former mining town with rustic charm. Downtown Durango features numerous antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and even a vaudeville theater.
In Smyrna, home to just over 11,000 residents, lovers of artisanal alcohol can get their fill. Blue Earl Brewing Co. offers tours of the brewery for $10 on weekend afternoons. At Painted Stave Distilling, tours ($12) are also available and include a cocktail. Not into booze? Woodland Beach is an ideal spot on Delaware Bay to enjoy a picnic and relax to the sound of the waves.
BREAUX BRIDGE, LA
Known to some Louisianans as the crawfish capital of the world, Breaux Bridge has lots to offer beyond regional Cajun cuisine. Nature lovers will want to visit Atchafalaya Basin to check out the wide variety of flora and fauna. There’s also Lake Martin (really, a swamp), where visitors may be able to spot alligators, birds, and turtles, depending on the season. In the evening, the La Poussiere dance hall hosts live bands playing Cajun-style music late into the night.
Located in south-central Indiana, Madison offers up beautiful sights and a bustling Main Street. The Lanier Mansion State Historic Site, overlooking the Ohio River and operated by the National Park Service, is open for tours that cost $11 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $6 for kids. Visitors will also want to pay a visit to Clifty Falls State Park to enjoy scenic views and rolling trails, for a daily entrance fee of $7 for vehicles with Indiana license plates and $9 for vehicles with out-of-state plates.
Fairhope has just over 20,000 people, but its bustling boutiques and restaurants are more than enough to keep visitors busy. Fairhope also boasts sweeping views of Mobile Bay and a quarter-mile pier perfect for a scenic stroll day or night. The French Quarter, which hosts an art walk the first Friday of every month, claims the largest crape myrtle in the South.
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, features white sand beaches and several historic spots, including Hulihee Palace, a former summer home for Hawaiian royalty, and Ahuena Heiau, once the residence of King Kamehameha and a sacred religious site. Ahuena sits on a public beach that features calm waters ideal for snorkeling.
Dahlonega, a cute small town of just over 7,000 people, was the site of the first major gold rush in U.S. history, and much of the town is dedicated to telling the story of that historic time. Visitors can tour gold mines and pan for gold in local creeks. The downtown area is bustling with enough contemporary local shops and restaurants to easily fill an afternoon or an entire day.
Lovers of all things Swedish will be intrigued by Lindsborg. In addition to hosting numerous festivals celebrating its Swedish heritage, the city is home to the castle at Coronado Heights Park, a unique historical site set on a 300-foot promontory. Panoramic views make it an idyllic spot to picnic. McPherson County Old Mill Museum ($2) offers a peek into Lindsborg’s past, showcasing the wood-milling days that once defined the town.
The tiny city of Seward (population: 2,831) boasts unparalleled natural beauty. Visitors can take a kayak out on scenic Resurrection Bay or go for a hike in Kenai Fjords National Park. Seward also offers numerous boat tours, giving tourists beautiful views of the mountains and sea that define the area, which lies about 130 miles south of Anchorage.
Nestled among mountain ranges on Lake Pend Oreille, Sandpoint has lots to offer outdoor enthusiasts and fans of arts and culture. Take a hike or mountain bike ride on the Gold Hill Trail, then head out to City Beach for an afternoon in the sun. Wind up the day with a show at the Panida Theater or take in a festival, art show, or concert.
Bisbee may have a population of fewer than 6,000 people, but a thriving arts scene makes this historic community worth a visit. Rolling red hills surrounding the town combine with brightly painted buildings and homes to create a unique landscape. Check out the free Bisbee Restoration Museum, where artifacts tell the story of mining and ranching in Bisbee, as well as other historic sites, including the Copper Queen Library and the Iron Man sculpture, which commemorates the town’s copper mining past.
Settled by Dutch immigrants in 1847, Pella calls itself “America’s Dutch Treasure,” and offers visitors a glimpse into traditional Dutch culture. The city of about 10,000 hosts an annual tulip festival in May and a harvest fest in September, along with other seasonal events. The Vermeer Windmill is an ideal spot for photos, while music lovers can take in a performance at the Pella Opera House during the fall and winter months.
Travelers who enjoy odd tourist spots will love Alexandria’s Big Ole Viking statue, a symbol of this cute small town’s Viking pride and a piece of American kitsch. After some photos, head to the Runestone Museum, home of the Kensington Runestone, which was exhumed by a Minnesota farmer in 1898 and purportedly dates to the 14th century. The museum also offers Native American and Norse history exhibits and a Minnesota wildlife display. Admission is $8 for adults in summer ($7 in winter), and there are family, senior, and student discounts.
The 7,600 residents of Whitefish enjoy some of the most splendid views of the Rocky Mountains anywhere. Whitefish Mountain Resort offers gondola rides, hiking, an alpine slide, and more. Diversions in town include the Alpine Theater Project, which produces musicals and plays. Or check out Whitefish Depot, a restored and still operational rail station and museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find several attractions worthy of exploration around Lisbon, including Dead Colt Creek and Sheyenne National Grasslands, both of which offer numerous recreational activities, including fishing, hiking, camping, and biking. In town, check out the Lisbon Opera House (free by appointment) and the Scenic Theater, built in 1911 and the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the U.S.
Situated in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, Harrison’s location makes it an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts. At Buffalo National River Park, families can spend a fun-filled day canoeing, swimming, camping, and fishing, or check out Mystic Caverns for an underground adventure featuring fascinating geological formations. Admission is $15 to $17 for adults and $8 to $9 for kids 4 to 12. Downtown Harrison is a historic district with shops, eateries, attractions, and more.
Berlin once played host to Julia Roberts and Richard Gere for the filming of “Runaway Bride,” which is no surprise given the charm of the town. Picturesque, tree-lined Main Street, on the National Register of Historic Places, is lined with antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and much more. Home to 4,638 residents, Berlin has been designated a state “Arts & Entertainment District” for promoting and encouraging local artists.
JEFFERSON CITY, MO
Jefferson City is home to the state government, and visitors should know that construction on the state capitol will be ongoing until 2020. Still, visitors can take a free tour of the governor’s mansion given by guides dressed in period costume. For some outdoor fun, visit the free Runge Conservation Nature Center and explore the nature trails.
LOS ALAMOS, NM
Although perhaps best known for its role in the development of nuclear weapons, Los Alamos is also renowned for its sweeping desert landscapes and numerous recreational activities. Bandelier National Monument offers a variety of scenic and well-maintained hiking trails and campgrounds for anyone wanting to pop a tent and get a glimpse of the stars. A weekly pass costs $25 a vehicle and $15 for visitors on foot or bicycle.
With a population just over 4,200, Chester fits the very definition of a charming small town, but this unique destination still offers plenty of diversions. Chester’s picturesque Main Street is a shopper’s delight, offering gifts crafted by local artists and an assortment of eateries. Hop on the Chester/Hadlyme Ferry for a view of Gillette Castle, a must-see destination, which sits high above the Connecticut River.
Kentucky is famous for producing bourbon, and the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown has been in operation for more than 130 years. The distillery sits on 196 acres in the heart of bourbon country and features 29 barrel-aging warehouses. Complimentary tours of the facility are available Monday through Saturday. The Bardstown Art Gallery, which showcases works from regional artists, is a must-see for lovers of art and culture, as is Thomas Merton Books.
No trip to Oxford would be complete without a visit to one of the town’s beautiful nature areas. Bailey’s Woods Trail brings walkers on a short and enjoyable loop through the woods. Keep an eye out for grazing deer and an open ear for birdsong. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, visit the local farmers market to pick up all the fresh produce needed to create a tasty meal.
TRAVERSE CITY, MI
Situated on Lake Michigan, Traverse City offers visitors sweeping water views and no shortage of beaches for whiling away the hours. This charming small town is also at the center of Michigan’s sweet cherry industry. With that in mind, visitors may want to plan a visit to the Grand Traverse Pie Co. and give the local delicacy a try.
NEBRASKA CITY, NE
Nebraska City is home to the Arbor Day Farm, a fun destination for families that features trails, trees for climbing, rides, and a market. Entrance costs $15 for adults and $11 for children. History buffs will enjoy the Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting, which displays an original collection of antique firefighting vehicles and gear. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children.
INCLINE VILLAGE, NV
Situated on crystalline Lake Tahoe, Incline Village is one of the most scenic spots to visit in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For an exquisite view of the lake, check out Sand Harbor beach in Lake Tahoe State Park, where admission costs $10 per vehicle. Although often a ski destination, the area offers plenty of summer recreational activities, including mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking.
HOOD RIVER, OR
Located on the Columbia River, the city of Hood River offers scenic beauty and a wide variety of activities. A visit to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area will delight any outdoor enthusiast. Hikes bring visitors to gorgeous waterfalls and breathtaking mountain views. Afterward, check out one of the local breweries or Naked Winery, where wine tastings are $15 a flight.
BAR HARBOR, ME
The biggest draw for visitors to Bar Harbor is nearby Acadia National Park, with outstanding scenery created by receding glaciers many millennia ago. Bar Harbor offers its own diversions, including bookshops, galleries, gift shops, and more. And no visit to Maine would be complete without lobster, served in various ways at many local restaurants.
YELLOW SPRINGS, OH
Hippie culture still thrives along the streets of the Midwestern town of Yellow Springs. Its quirky and brightly colored Main Street features bookstores, local artists’ shops, and small restaurants. Be sure to stop in the Village Artisans gallery and Epic Book Shop. After shopping, check the Glen Helen Nature Preserve to explore waterfalls, natural springs, and the preserve’s Raptor Center, which offers educational programs and rehabilitates birds of prey, such as owls, hawks, and falcons.
Gatlinburg is a scenic, small town inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Gatlinburg Scenic Outlook showcases the mountainous terrain. Visitors who enjoy a stiff drink should stop by Sugarlands Distilling Co. to see where moonshine and whiskey are made. A private tour of the facility and a tasting costs $12 a person.
With roots dating to the mid-18th century, Lebanon is an archetypal New England town built around a common green. The city features many small and charming shops, and anyone with a penchant for antiques should save time to browse the Colonial Antique Market. For more invigorating and nature-based fun, take a walk or bike ride on the Northern Rail Trail.
ST. AUGUSTINE, FL
St. Augustine is a small seaside town with charm to spare. Enjoy a day at St. Augustine Beach (free parking), or take in the sights from historic St. Augustine Lighthouse ($13 for adults). St. Augustine Distillery Co. offers free tours and samples of artisanal spirits, and students lead free tours of Flagler College, an architectural highlight of the town.
SOUTHERN PINES, NC
Southern Pines and neighboring communities are known as a golfers’ paradise, featuring more than three dozen courses for enthusiasts to check out. The quaint downtown shopping district features boutiques, galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants. A short walk away, the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities features musical and literary performances and offers free, self-guided tours of the Boyd House, a historic mansion that hosts writers in residence.
Montpelier has the smallest population of any state capital (fewer than 8,000). The Vermont History Museum explores all things Vermont, from the native Abenaki to the present day ($20 for families, $7 for adults, and $5 for students, seniors, and kids). There’s no visiting Vermont without indulging in a locally made maple treat. Montpelier’s Bragg Farm Maple Sugar House sells syrup, maple candy, and maple ice cream.
MEDICINE PARK, OK
Set along the Wichita Mountains, the Great Plains town of Medicine Park features a wealth of cobblestone architecture found nowhere else in the nation. Nearby Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge offers visitors a chance to view buffalo, longhorn cattle, prairie dog towns, and more. For a bit of local history, check out town’s oldest home, the Sanders House, built in 1908 (just a year after Oklahoma became a state), and the Old Plantation hotel, built in 1909 and on the National Register of Historic Places.
PACIFIC GROVE, CA
A trip to Pacific Grove combines beaches, history, and classic charm. Check out Point Pinos Lighthouse, a must-see lighthouse in the state. Have lunch at the Beach House restaurant and enjoy an afternoon swimming or surfing at Lovers Point Park and Beach. The various small shops along Main Street invite leisurely shopping.
The small town of Spearfish has over 11,600 residents and a laid-back, community atmosphere. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, which was used as a location for “Dances With Wolves,” is also a top draw. In summer, visitors can see canyon waterfalls and multicolored limestone palisades. In town, the Termesphere Gallery showcases the work of local artists.
JACKSON HOLE, WY
For those who like to hike, Laurance Rockefeller Preserve in Grand Teton National Park is home to well-maintained trails, pristine creeks, and lots of wildlife. Access to the park costs $35 a vehicle for seven days. Jackson Hole’s Town Square has “antler arches” made of elk horns and worthy of a picture or two, plus shops, restaurants, and sometimes live entertainment.
Carlisle has historical roots dating to the Revolutionary War, giving the town a charming feel of the colonial era. Lovers of antiques will enjoy perusing Carlisle’s numerous antique shops, each with its own set of interesting pieces to discover. For a lunchtime or evening thirst-quencher, try Molly Pitcher Brewing Co. The local brewery and taproom serves up to 20 different tasty beers.
The narrow tree-lined streets of Beaufort’s historic district are a big draw for visitors in search of Southern charm. Guided tours are available by foot, horse-drawn carriage, or van, but the visitors center also hands out maps for self-guided tours of local churches and other historical sites. Coastal Beaufort also offers plenty of cruises, fishing charters, kayaking, and more. Bibliophiles will want to check out the Macintosh Book Shoppe, which specializes in books about the Civil War and hard-to-find or out-of-print titles.
PARK CITY, UT
Park City is home to just over 8,300 residents and some of the most beautiful mountain views in the country. About a 30-minute drive from Salt Lake City airport, Park City has a world-famous annual film festival and a lively Main Street. The Egyptian Theatre, built in 1899, is worth a visit to see a show or simply marvel at its Egypt-inspired hieroglyphs, scarabs, and distinct decor.
Historic Jamestown sits on an island in Narragansett Bay. At its southernmost tip is Beavertail Lighthouse, in a state park with picturesque seascapes and ideal conditions for kite flying. Also be sure to check out Fort Wetherill State Park, a former training camp with sweeping views of Newport Bay. Visitors can go for a stroll, fish, or explore the waterfront rocks and cliffs.
The seaside village of Rockport features some of the most scenic beaches on the East Coast, with views that have inspired artists since the days of Winslow Homer. Take a trip to Front Beach to look for sea glass and take a quick dip. On Saturdays during summer and fall, the town hosts a farmers market featuring fresh, locally grown produce and other delicious goods.
Buckhannon is a serene small town beside the river of the same name, with a population of fewer than 6,000. Visitors can pick up fresh pastries or pepperoni rolls at the Donut Shop, then take a stroll in historic Pringle Tree Park, site of the first permanent colonial settlement west of the Alleghenies.
Located about an hour west of Manhattan, Madison is known for its picturesque Main Street, with numerous shops and restaurants. It is also home to the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, one of the top classical companies on the East Coast. Tickets for kids 18 and younger are free, and adult tickets start at about $30. The Museum of Early Trades and Crafts showcases the way Americans lived in the 1800s. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for seniors and kids.
MOUNT CARROLL, IL
With its quaint brick streets and colonial architecture, it’s not hard to see why tiny Mount Carroll (population 1,600) is nicknamed the New England of the Midwest. Situated 10 miles from the Mississippi River, this northwest Illinois town looks much like it did 50 years ago. Shop for antiques, check out arts and crafts from numerous local artisans, and catch live music by local and traveling musicians.
MOUNT KISCO, NY
Set in bucolic Westchester County, Mount Kisco is less than 40 miles north of Manhattan but a world away from the city’s infamous hustle and bustle. Established in 1875, the village describes itself as the shopping capital of northern Westchester, with small shops and restaurants worth exploring along quaint downtown streets. Leonard Park offers ample space for families to picnic, play, and enjoy the calm and tranquility of a classic small town.
FALLS CHURCH, VA
Falls Church is a quaint Southern town with a rich history and just over 14,500 people, including a sizable Vietnamese population. The Eden Center mall is a little Saigon teeming with Vietnamese restaurants and markets. In the evening, check out the State Theatre in Falls Church for live music, comedy nights, and laser shows set to rock music.
In Stephenville, a laid-back town of over than 20,800 residents, barbecue is king. Have a tasty meal at Hard Eight BBQ, and finish your meal with a slice of whiskey buttermilk pie. History buffs should check out the Stephenville Historical House Museum, which features 19th-century log cabins, a rock house, a Victorian home, and a two-hole outhouse. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.
PORT ANGELES, WA
Port Angeles, home to over 19,800 residents, sits right outside Olympic National Park, where visitors can enjoy ocean views, waterfalls, and hiking trails. Entrance to the park costs $30 a vehicle for a weekly pass. Visitors can also head to the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center to visit Webster’s Woods Art Park, an outdoor area where artworks are hung from trees and hidden in the foliage. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.
The National Mustard Museum in Middleton (population: about 19,600) claims to be the world’s largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia, and it’s free seven days a week. Another fun Middleton attraction is Capital Brewery, where $7 buys a tour of the distillery, a pint glass, and samples of craft beer.
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