the best small town to visit in all 50 states
Telluride, Colorado | Blaine Harrington III/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Telluride, Colorado | Blaine Harrington III/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

The Must-Visit Small Town In Every State

Time to live at a more leisurely pace.

Romanticizing small towns has been an American tradition for as long as “quaint” has been an adjective. We love to idealize tree-lined hamlets populated with four-square homes. We long for a life of unhurried conversations and free parking, where a night out involves seeing actual stars, not dropping $250 on cocktails and cabs. When you fall in love with a small town, you fall hard. And even the most literary among us struggle to find an alternative to “charming.”

We scoured the country for the villages and townships that know how to slowwww dowwwwn: places rich in comfort food, cheap pitchers, sunny parks, quirky festivals, and a limited number of friendly faces (“small town” is relative… 35,000 people is tiny in many states, but a veritable metropolis in Vermont). For road trippers, these spots offer a respite from big-city life, and often serve as the gateways to outdoor adventure. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself scouring the real-estate listings… probably at a twee little bakery that has excellent scones.

a music festival by the beach
Gulf Shores is Alabama's crown jewel. | Hangout Music Festival

Alabama: Gulf Shores

Population: 13,109
In the crown jewel of the Redneck Riviera and home of the annual Hangout Music Festival, there’s a lot more than music and good-ole-boys. This Gulf of Mexico beach town surprisingly boasts one of the best zoos in America, where encounters with animals like lemurs and monkeys are cheaper and last longer than at most. It also borders Gulf State Park, the best state park in Alabama, which lost its iconic zipline but added substantial bike trails. The city also recently got its first brewery, Big Beach Brewing, and is home to one of the world's best beachside burgers at Pink Pony. —Matt Meltzer

Alaska: Homer

Population: 5,709
There are few things more magical than driving into Homer on a bluebird day. As you round the last corner on the Sterling Highway, the view out your windshield is a panorama of snow-capped mountains across the shimmering, boat-speckled Kachemak Bay, including the long, skinny Homer Spit, the world’s longest road into ocean waters. In this quirky harbor town, you’ll find myriad galleries, dynamic local cuisine, fishing charters, a couple of good breweries (including the Salty Dawg Saloon), opportunities to hike (on the trail or on glaciers), and so much more. It’s also a jumping-off point for flightseeing tours of Katmai National Park, home to around 2,000 brown bears. –Bailey Berg

Arizona: Sedona

Population: 10,301
Arizona’s red-rock playground offers seriously breathtaking desert landscapes best enjoyed on a hike or a climb, and a walk around town mingling with kooky-but-kind locals. Then take off your boots and zen out with a massage and a guided meditation session at one of Sedona’s many spas. Binge on top-notch tamales from Tamaliza or gussied-up carne asada at Elote Cafe. When you start itching for a punchier after-hours scene, the very-hip Flagstaff is less than an hour down the road. —Melissa Kravitz

Arkansas: Eureka Springs

Population: 2,107
Perhaps no tiny town in America is more things to more people. Bikers love it as a stop along mountain backroads; hippies love it for its low-key California-transplant vibe. The town has passed some of Arkansas’ most progressive LGBTQ policies; it also contains the state’s two most famous Christian landmarks: a 66-foot-tall, arms-wide-open Jesus statue and architect E. Fay Jones’ nationally celebrated Thorncrown Chapel. The gingerbread architecture of many of the homes complements the stone-and-brick downtown, which prohibits chain stores from setting up and thus thrums with mom-and-pop restaurants, taverns, and touristy craft shops. Its badass little public library was donated by Andrew Carnegie a century ago. And it’s just a few minutes away from Beaver Lake, a summertime party hangout for boaters and one of the better bass-fishing lakes in the Ozarks. —Sam Eifling

California: Ojai

Population: 7,534
There’s a reason this Ventura County oasis has long been a magnet for hippies, healers, and incognito rock stars sick of the constant hum of LA: The place is truly zen as fuck. On the outskirts, you’ll pass Johnny Cash’s old house as you spy sprawling orange groves that stretch deep into foothills housing luxury hotels and ranches. Downtown, Mission-style architecture unfolds across a walkable hamlet packed with greenspaces and local haunts like the famous Bart’s Books and breweries Topa Topa and Ojai Valley, as well as Tipple & Ramble, which brings a taste of the valley’s viticulture to a chill backyard setting. On Sundays, the entire town comes together for the Ojai Certified Farmers Market, a quintessential country fair—only at this one, you’re just as likely to spy a retired supermodel as you are the perfect basket of Ojai Pixie tangerines. —Andy Kryza

Telluride punches well above its weight in music, film, and culture. | Telluride Blues & Brews Festival

Colorado: Telluride

Population: 2,494
It’s kind of a pain in the ass to get to Telluride. But, oh, the rewards upon arrival. This former silver-mining town hunkers basically in a dead-end valley, its mountains sporting one of the most gorgeous waterfalls in the world: Telluride’s Bridal Veil. With peaks great for skiing, mountain biking, or hiking, it's about as sweeping as it gets. The town has blossomed into one of the best festival sites in the nation, with renowned events like the Bluegrass Festival and Telluride Film Festival. Even if you’re in town when a fest isn’t, you can grab a drink (or better yet, stay) at the historic New Sheridan Hotel, then continue your crawl to the no-frills Last Dollar Saloon before hitting 221 South Oak, a fine-dining spot helmed by Top Chef alum Eliza Gavin. —Colin St. John

Connecticut: Mystic

Population: 4,221
The pizza joint might be the most famous thing in Mystic to outsiders, but this old port town has so much more to offer than Julia Roberts references. And while tourists flock to Mystic during the summer to hang out at the wharf, gaze at the coastal architecture, and hit the aquarium, it’s the fact that Mystic is so beautiful and laid-back in the offseason—when the barstools go back to locals and the docks de-clog—that elevate the centuries-old village. It’s the quintessence of idyllic Rockwellian New England bergs that dot the landscape, here fine-tuned into paradise on the Mystic River. Oh, and the pizza at that Julia Roberts place? Not bad! —AK

Delaware: Lewes

Population: 3,353
Unless you grew up on a small stretch of the mid-Atlantic, you probably don’t know about the constellation of beach communities that make up Delaware’s southeastern shores. Hell, I didn’t know the state even had beaches until I fell in love with a Delawarean (yes, they exist) and started spending weekends in places like Dewey and Rehoboth. I was suspicious, being a California beach kid, but one summer in Lewes enchanted me for life. It’s the rare town that delivers on the promise of “something for everyone,” made better by the fact that they have a hotel run by the beer savants at Dogfish Head. (Their main brewery is a few miles down the road in Milton.) Local spots like Matt’s Fish Camp are synonymous with summer for Delawareans, and Heirloom would give any farm-to-table spot in Soho or Venice Beach a run for its money. —TM Brown

Florida: St. Augustine

Population: 15,072
Florida isn't known for embracing history above, say, swaths of condominiums. But St. Augustine is the rare patch of the Sunshine State that showcases its roots. The oldest permanent settlement in America is most easily recognized by the Castillo de San Marcos, an epic Spanish fort sitting right on Matanzas Bay, the oldest of its kind in the contiguous States. It’s but a precursor to the allure of the Old City, where 18th- and 19th-century buildings remind us of a time when Florida was but a small southern outpost of the bigger colonies. Now it's filled with bars and restaurants (many of which are rumored to be haunted) that make St. Augustine one of the state’s best destinations for nightlife. And if all that history gets old, it’s still Florida, so white sandy beaches are just a short drive over the Bay. —MM

Georgia: Helen

Population: 526
When you think of wine country and Bavarian towns, one place naturally comes to mind: the Blue Ridge Mountains. No? Well, you, my friend, have never been to Helen, the quirkiest little town in the Peach State. Turning onto the main drag is like apparating from the Deep South to the German Alps in two seconds flat. The street is lined with chocolatiers, biergartens, and souvenir shops that’ll have you thinking you’re in Europe. Outside town are a handful of wineries where visitors learn that “Georgia Wine” isn’t just a nice way of saying moonshine. It’s also set right on the Chattahoochee River, which means plenty of rafting, fishing, and hiking. If you can’t make it in the summer, Oktoberfest here is appropriately huge. —MM

Surf's up in Maui. | EQRoy/Shutterstock

Hawaii: Paia

Population: 2,412
Your last stop before hitting the Road to Hana should be this former plantation village on the northeast coast of Maui, where laid-back locals and world-class beaches will give you all the aloha feels. Window shoppers will love strolling down the boutique-lined streets and keeping a lookout for celebs like Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson. Along the town’s north shore, aspiring surfers can hang ten at Ho’okipa Beach Park where international windsurfers compete for world champion status. Or maybe it’s better to let the pros do their thing while you chow down on pizza and beer at Flatbread Company—or hit up Paia Fish Market for ridiculously fresh seafood. Boogie board along the white, sandy shores of Baldwin Beach Park and stick around for the explosively colorful sunset. —Ryan MacDonald

Idaho: Driggs/Victor

Population: 1,876/2,388
Affectionately dubbed “Wydaho” denoting its close proximity to Wyoming, the sun-drenched Teton Valley is flanked by parallel mountain ranges, the Tetons and the Big Holes, with two “downtowns” about 11 minutes apart; Driggs and Victor. Here, cowboys and ranchers wave at each other when they pass on the road and Burger Kings close due to unpopular demand. The Grand Targhee Ski Resort & Bike Park (in Wyoming, but accessed from the Idaho side) beckons winter and summer thrill-seekers. Hike Darby Canyon’s Wind Cave Trail, or float the Teton River in a kayak to behold beavers and huge moose. Or meet locals at one of several unofficial town halls—like Victor’s Wildlife Brewing, an evolved garage brewery with fringe pool tables and world-class pizza, where you’ll hear tales of East Coast refugees transforming into local ski bums. One of them owns the place. —Bruce Northam

a small town main street on a snowy day
Galena's one of the best towns this side of the Mississippi. |

Illinois: Galena

Population: 3,103
Drive 10 minutes east of the mighty Mississippi and you'll tap right into the quirky small-town vibes of Galena. Once the home of Ulysses S. Grant, Galena boasts cobblestone streets and historic mansions, plus an old-school blacksmith shop and the P.T. Murphy Magic Theater. A free trolley ride will drop you downtown, where you can stroll Main Street’s restaurants, antique shops, galleries, and boutiques bursting with kitsch. If you’re feeling active, book a rafting trip, hit up the nearby ski resort, or try the 40-acre Horseshoe Mound, known for its winding bike trails and scenic views all the way to Iowa and Wisconsin. —Josh Mellin

Indiana: Nashville

Population: 1,110
It’s the art, not the music, that defines Indiana’s Nashville. This tiny town near Bloomington was home to American Impressionist painter T.C. Steele, who settled here in 1907. His home is a fascinating walk through his life, art studio, and wife’s well-kept garden. Be sure to visit the Brown County Art Gallery, the original artist collective where independent artists still work and sell Hoosier-made paintings, albeit for a hefty price. If you’re looking for a thrill, stay outside of town at the somewhat creepy Story Inn. One of the rooms is supposedly haunted by a ghost known as the Blue Lady. It’s also a fine place to have a beer—the bar dates back to Prohibition, and the inn sits adjacent to some of the best hiking in Brown County State Park. —Tim Ebner

Iowa: Decorah

Population: 7,338
Next time you find yourself trying to break the ice with some statuesque Norwegian at a cocktail party, bust this one out: “You ever been to the National Norwegian-American Museum? No? It’s in Decorah, Iowa, and let me tell you...” Decorah is a jumping-off point for the best wilderness in the Hawkeye State: canoeing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, fishing, and bird-watching are a short drive out of town. You’ll also find the Toppling Goliath Brewery here. And while breweries nowadays are about as rare as stoplights, this one produces Kentucky Brunch, an imperial coffee stout aged in whiskey barrels that was once named best beer IN THE WORLD by RateBeer users. —MM

Kansas: Dodge City

Population: 27,788
Dodge City once served as the setting for numerous early-1900s Western flicks, the town’s fictional calamities inspiring folks around the country to utter the cliche “let's get the heck out of Dodge” at the first sight of trouble. Nowadays, the brouhahas have waned, but Dodge clings to its Wild West roots. Sure, you can go the modern route with blueberry sours at the region’s first downtown brewery or chicken-fried steak with roasted jalapeño gravy at Prime on the Nine, but the chance to get caught in a time warp is much more alluring. The Boot Hill Museum is a melee of Wild West artifacts, antique guns, saloons slinging sarsaparilla soda, and reenactments of cowboy shootouts, while the Depot Theater offers dinner theater in the 1889 Santa Fe Depot. The Santa Fe Trail preserves wagon rut trails from the 200-year-old pioneer highway, and the Boot Hill Distillery pours quirky cocktails—like a pickle juice and white whiskey tipple paired with potato chips—in a neo-saloon setting, with nary a reason to get the heck out of Dodge in sight. —Matt Kirouac

Kentucky: Bardstown

Population: 13,206
The so-dubbed Bourbon Capital of the World is not pulling punches when it comes to the brown stuff—Bardstown is home to Four Roses, Willett, Maker’s Mark, Barton 1792, the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, and the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, as well as the oldest bar in Kentucky, Talbott Tavern. Still, you can score hooch anywhere. What sets Bardstown apart is its old-timey southern hospitality, gorgeous landscapes, and an architecturally astounding downtown that's remained strollable and affable since 1780. And also, you know, all that bourbon. —AK

Louisiana: Abita Springs

Population: 2,646
Back at the turn of the 20th century, New Orleanians with a few bucks used this town just across Lake Pontchartrain as an escape from the city when yellow fever gripped the populace. After the Depression, the colorful hotels where they used to frolic fell into disrepair. In the 1970s a group of enterprising hippies brought them back to life; now they're private homes and B&Bs, lining the streets of the most hippie town on the Bayou. In addition to the cool old architecture, Abita Springs is also home to the regionally renowned Abita Brewing Company, and its “this tastes so good I should probably keep reminding myself it’s 8% ABV” Andygator pilsner. —MM

Enjoy the view and relax. You deserve it. | The Harborside Hotel Spa & Marina

Maine: Bar Harbor

Although YA author Sarah Dessen’s books all take place in North Carolina, the little village of Bar Harbor feels cut from the same cloth: Never has a quainter New England seaside town existed, nor has a better setting for a small-town coming-of-age novel. The walkable main roads are lined with ice cream parlors, mom-and-pop shops, twee inns, and plenty of chances to linger outside with a glass of wine (or a lobster roll) in hand; head toward the water, and you’ll find seafood restaurants promising both the piping-hot chowder you came to eat, as well as views of sailboats and pine-covered islands on the horizon. What sets Bar Harbor apart from the rest of Maine’s charming harbor towns is its proximity to Acadia National Park, a natural haven of deep green mountains and dramatic ocean cliffs that sits less than a five-minute drive up the road. Pick blueberries (and eat blueberry pie) on the shores of Jordan Pond, lay out your towel on Sand Beach, and rise early to catch sunrise views atop Cadillac Mountain. —Tiana Attride

Maryland: Hoopers Island

Population: 441
The Eastern Shore’s best-kept secret is this teensy, off-the-beaten-path town where one of Maryland’s biggest crabbing families—the Phillipses, of the Phillips Seafood empire—got their start in 1914. Seafood lovers should shell up here for a few days simply because it serves some of the freshest damn seafood in the state. Take a boat tour with Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company and learn how Chesapeake oysters are hatched, raised, and shucked. Or visit Old Salty’s, a Maryland institution with more than a dozen crab dishes on the menu: crab pretzels, crab nuggets, soft-shell crab sandwiches, the works. Post-crab, check out the tranquil Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge for stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, or biking. —TE

Massachusetts: Northampton

Population: 25,393
Far away from Boston, Northampton is a low-key paradise full of friendly hippies, college-appetite-appeasing greasy spoons, and gorgeous fall foliage. It lies north of Springfield in a region called the Pioneer Valley, and while the actual pioneers here currently trend toward the politically progressive type, the "Valley" part of that moniker is still instantly apparent when you catch a glimpse of the beautiful rolling hills, river waters, and forests surrounding you. Be sure to hit Local for a killer burger and Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium to fill any gaps left in your stomach. Remember: the more you eat, the more strength you'll have for a hike up nearby Mount Holyoke. —AL

Who said lakes can't have gorgeous beaches? | Saugatuck/Douglas

Michigan: Saugatuck

Michigan’s 3,000+ miles of coastline are home to dozens of dreamy lake towns as entrancing as they are interchangeable. And while any number of Lake Michigan towns could make this list, our heart remains in Saugatuck. An easy (and gorgeous) drive from Chicago, Indianapolis, and Detroit, Saugatuck has of late become an ‘Art Coast’ overflowing with galleries; a dining paradise where The Southerner and farm-to-table hotspot Pennyroyal bring James Beard cred; and an LGBTQ haven full of queer-friendly resorts, bars, and even a cabaret revue. Crucially, unlike other hyped-up towns on the coast, Saugatuck has reinvented itself without losing sight of what made it lovely, to begin with. Those Beard restaurants coexist with mom & pop breakfast joints. The resorts live in harmony with weatherbeaten motels and cabin rentals. And the beaches—all wind-swept white sands, dunes, lighthouses, and amber sunsets—are all still sure to dazzle. —AK

Minnesota: Stillwater

Population: 19,538
Lodged in the beautiful St. Croix Valley, Stillwater is known for its gorgeous waterfront, solid hikes, and scenic spots for a summer picnic. But there’s a lot more than bluffs and hockey going down. Lift Bridge Brewery—named after Stillwater’s iconic lift bridge—is an underappreciated jewel in a state where Surly, Bauhaus, and Bent Paddle hoard the craft brew love. In the summer, Nelson’s Ice Cream and the aptly named Lumberjack Days food and music festival make the trip worthwhile. In the winter, it’s the massive Ice Castles nestled along the riverbank. Even Smalley’s Caribbean, with its repellant pirate theme, is a must-try. The eye-patch palace has surprisingly good jerk chicken and curried goat. To boot (har!), almost every restaurant downtown touts a patio with a view. —Dustin Nelson

Mississippi: Ocean Springs

Population: 18,099
Sitting anywhere along Government St in Ocean Springs, you can hear live music—rock, country, bluegrass, hip-hop—coming from a bar only a few feet away. The small stretch of watering holes along this coastal city’s main drag is a little slice of Austin or Nashville plopped on the Bayou, making a weekend bar crawl here as entertaining as anywhere. Your days are for paddle boarding and kayaking along the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and a short boat ride out to the barrier islands finds you on the kind of turquoise, white sand beaches you never knew existed in Mississippi. —MM

Missouri: Boonville

Population: 8,397
You can’t walk down a Boonville street without tripping over the raw Americana—more than 400 registered historic sites smack in the middle of Missouri. You even got slipped a dose of history reading the name, taken from founders and sons of Daniel Boone. Tour the Native American burial grounds and stay across the Missouri River at the Rivercene Mansion bed and breakfast, conceived as an opulent retreat for a rich riverboat captain. The outlaw Jesse James left his boot prints here, and you’re welcome to follow those as you make your way around Civil War landmarks. Want something a bit more recent but just as red, white, and blue? Pop by Warm Springs Ranch, a nearby breeding farm for the Budweiser Clydesdales. —Peter Rugg

livingston, montana
Downtown Livingston, Montana is packed with saloons and galleries. | MONTANA OFFICE OF TOURISM

Montana: Livingston

Population: 8,150
Livingston is the epicenter of Montana cool, a town that fully embraces its rowdy past, even as it’s become a magnet for artists and laid-back celebs like Jeff Bridges and Michael Keaton. With the iconic Murray Bar standing as the town’s main compass point, Livingston’s central location near the gates of Yellowstone and not far from more booming Bozeman allows it to thrive as an rugged outdoor paradise. Here, world-class fly fishing and rafting is as much a way of life as is sucking down whiskey shots to the soundtrack of a band playing on a flatbed truck. And lest all that sounds very exhausting, it’s also right next to Chico Hot Springs, which have a century’s worth of legacy curing Murray Bar-induced hangovers.

Nebraska: Valentine

Population: 2,712
Locals compare this region to a rain forest misplaced in the Midwest plains. It's almost unfair to the rest of Nebraska how much of the state's natural beauty is hoarded in this town: Six, count 'em, six ecological systems smash together along the Niobrara River. You’ll find sandstone canyons, cliffs, valleys, and Smith Falls State Park, home to the state's tallest waterfall. Or run with the prairie dogs and bison in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Book a cabin at the Lord Ranch Resort and get the full cowboy tour package. Later, boot-scoot out of the 19th century and over to the Peppermill Restaurant, where you can get a fresh steak without looking it in the eye first. —PR

Nevada: Elko

Population: 20,467
If you’re not into desert landscapes, anywhere in Nevada not called Vegas or Tahoe won’t be for you. But if you can appreciate the beauty of vast, sandy plateaus backed by majestic red mountains, Elko might be America’s greatest hidden gem. It’s Nevada’s equivalent of a Rocky Mountain town without the tourists or the painful price tags. The annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering convenes here, because just like those cowboy poets, beneath its rough exterior Elko has an artistic soul. The streets are lined with shops from artisans hawking crafts, paintings, photographs, and the kinds of wares one would more expect to see in a place like Aspen. It’s also a jumping-off point to the Ruby Mountains and canyons beyond, where extreme hiking, heli-skiing, and off-road ATV-ing are daily adventures.—MM

New Hampshire: Portsmouth

Population: 22,282
A stone’s throw from the Maine border, Portsmouth was founded in 1623, making it one of the oldest towns in the country. Spend a weekend doing a walking tour of historic homes, taking in the waterfront, hopping a harbor cruise, and strolling Market St—and pepper that with pit stops at the many top-notch breweries (Smuttynose and Stoneface among them). If you can, time your visit around the popular annual Chowder Festival or Prescott Park Arts Festival. Don’t even think about leaving without hitting the wonderfully retro The Friendly Toast for brunch. —Joe McGauley

New Jersey: Sea Bright

Population: 1,362
If you want to experience the Jersey Shore sans spray-tanned mooks and barrels of industrial sludge, Sea Bright is a veritable 1.2-square-mile oasis of bars you actually want to visit, beaches where you can find a nook to yourself, and everything else you love about summer, including ice cream. Surrounded by the mighty Navesink River on the west, and the even mightier Atlantic on the east, Sea Bright is filled with membership-only beach clubs for the locals and a swath of public beaches for out-of-towners. Snooki would not feel at home here: SB isn’t overwhelmed by kitschy tourist traps and saltwater taffy stands. This is where people from New Jersey go when they go to the Shore. If you’re lucky, you might even spot Bruce Springsteen working on his tan (yes, seriously). —Wil Fulton

Silver City
Yes, this town name is real. | Erik Von Weber/Getty Images

New Mexico: Truth or Consequences

Population: 5,894
Does the very name of this town not do most of the heavy lifting, as far as piquing visitors’ interest goes? But even if it wasn’t called Truth or Consequences—a moniker earned from a contest run by a 1950s game show of the same name—there’d still be plenty to draw the curious out to this particular corner of New Mexico. Back in the day, the town was called Hot Springs, because—as you may be able to guess—there are healing mineral springs found all throughout the town. The best of the bunch is arguably Riverbend, where you can take a scenic soak in full view of the Rio Grande and the Caballo Mountains. When you’ve dried off, book a tour with Sierra Grande to take a bison-and-coyote safari, pick up a Grateful Dead-esque t-shirt at Dukatt ‘71, or explore the bone-white dunes of White Sands National Park less than two hours down the road. (P.S. Call it T or C—you’ll sound more like a local, and it’ll save you a helluva lot of time.) —TA

New York: Hudson

Population: 5,974
Two hours north of Manhattan sits a town so warm and serene, it’s hard to believe the two coexist on the same river. Hudson is known for its cutesy antique shops, art galleries (Hudson’s relative proximity to NYC makes it a popular part-time refuge for urban creatives), and an impressive café and restaurant scene. Shop at The Spotty Dog (a former firehouse turned indie bookstore and bar), fill up on locally raised pork buns and pulled pork sesame noodles at Hudson Food Studio, and stuff your face at local pizza obsession, Baba Louie’s. —MK

North Carolina: Beaufort

Population: 4,403
Coastal North Carolina swarms with idyllic beach towns: Wrightsville Beach, Hatteras Island, Seaside. The best-rounded of them is Beaufort, where antebellum architecture and farmers markets under oak trees meet serene Southern coastline and vast, open prairies. Watch the sun rise over the ocean, then head out deep-sea fishing, dolphin-watching, or driving through fields full of wild horses. The wilderness here is actually wild, and while the houses along the shoreline are plentiful, nothing ever feels crowded. When you can end the day with a waterfront sunset in the same spot you watched a waterfront sunrise, it’s a pretty special place. —MM

North Dakota: Medora

Population: 134
One would think getting Broadway-quality performers to spend their summers in the literal middle of nowhere, North Dakota would be tough. But it's barely a chore when you're drawing them to Medora, home of the Medora Musical and gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The once-depressed cattle town was brought back to life when businessman Harold Shafer sunk millions into it, turning it into an Old West Revival that avoids being too campy. Saloons and steakhouses offer stellar food; day hikes along the Pancratz Trail just outside the Badlands Motel offer sweeping views; and a trip to the Burning Hills Amphitheater—a sort of Hollywood Bowl in the Badlands—is a must for musicals and steak-on-a-pitchfork dinner. The entire town obliterates expectations of what one would expect to find an hour west of Bismarck. – MK

Chagrin Falls, Ohio
Chagrin Falls, Ohio | Wikimedia Commons

Ohio: Chagrin Falls

Population: 3,917
Somewhere between Cleveland and Akron is the sleepy town of Chagrin Falls, where the bright fall trees and snow-piled winters inspired Bill Watterson as he drew Calvin and Hobbes. It has small wonders otherwise, like the town's actual falls beneath the historic Popcorn Shop that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, and legitimate claims to firsts—the original Dave's Cosmic Subs and Jeni’s (at least outside of Columbus) are here. Besides the many surrounding walkable nature preserves, the allure mainly comes from the boutique stores (and the cramped bookstore). For food, find Rick's Cafe, open for 35 years strong, and newer hit Umami. If you tire of small-town vibes and colonial homes, northeast Ohio's two major metropolitan areas are scant 40-minute trips away. —Leanne Butkovic

Oklahoma: Guthrie

Population: 11,376
Guthrie can be forgiven for begrudging Oklahoma City. Dubbed the state capital in 1907, its glory days were cut short when the state seal was stolen in the night like a scene from National Treasure and brought 30 miles south to OKC. Luckily, the town’s essentially been preserved so that the glory days can last forever: it abounds with brick sidewalks, Victorian architecture, antique stores, pharmacies, violin shops, and murder mystery dinners in actually haunted manors. Its frozen-in-time Americana has endeared it to movie studios, too, from Twister (which shot the drive-in movie scene at the Beacon Drive-In Theater) to the upcoming Reagan biopic. It may not be as au courant as OKC, but Guthrie also boasts impressive mixology at modern saloon Mack & Ike’s (next door to the state’s first legal distillery, WanderFolk), hipster vibes in garage-turned-cafe Hoboken Coffee, and the Dominion House, a former boys’ and girls’ club transformed into a castle-like inn with a bistro. —MK

Oregon: Hood River

Population: 8,096
With much respect to the Oregon coast and high desert hamlets, no small town captures the beauty of the Pacific Northwest quite like Hood River. The town rises out of the mighty and scenic Columbia River Gorge—one of the most breathtaking natural areas in the West —and climbs steadily into the foothills of Mt. Hood. This is a kitesurfing capital thanks to the steady winds, and a gateway to endless wilderness for hiking, snowshoeing, and mountain biking. You can cruise the area’s sea of orchards, called the Fruit Loop, or just stroll by the old buildings that make up the hilly, walkable downtown. Oh, and because it’s Oregon, there’s beer. Lots of beer, including heavy hitters pFriem and Double Mountain. And here, you're allowed to stroll the esplanade with a beer in hand, provided the wind doesn't blow it all over your shirt. —AK

Pennsylvania: Ambler

Population: 6,486
Old brick buildings, pubs, boutiques, a dance company, painting studio, and a playhouse that puts on spectacular live productions—Ambler has the quintessential small-town Main St, only better. The Ambler Theatre, located in an old-school building with a hidden gargoyle on the roof, regularly plays old movies and new indie flicks (I just saw Jaws and Citizen Kane there). The restaurants are incredible: Forest & Main transformed an old house into a microbrewery; and The Lucky Well has some of the best BBQ around (I have recurring dreams about its cornbread). You’ll find a delightful community of folks who gather regularly for the summer farmers market, the Ambler Summer Arts & Music Festival, and the Dog Days of Summer (seriously, a giant dog parade). Throw in a hilariously quirky town history that involves a train wreck and an asbestos empire and you’ve got yourself one heck of a town, of any size. —Erin Weaver

the harbor of a small town at night
New England charm, thy name is Newport. | Discover Newport

Rhode Island: Newport

Population: 24,238
Nowhere in New England compares to the Gilded-Age splendor of Newport, a coastal town set upon cliffs dotted with some of the most spectacular mansions of the 19th century. The must-do activity here is, obviously, touring the Newport Mansions, but that’s far from the only draw. Newport also hosts the annual Newport Regatta, one of the biggest sailing races in America bringing with it the best sailing parties. Held in July, the Regatta is the ideal time of year to visit, but even if you miss it there are still plenty of wide, sandy beaches to lounge on for the day, and a surprisingly good wine region just on the outskirts of town. —MM

South Carolina: Beaufort

Population: 13,425
The South Carolina Lowcountry has no shortage of coastal appeal, but some areas can get a little oversaturated. Not Beaufort, a town with all the historical allure of Charleston at a slower, easy-going pace. The beauty isn’t limited to its streets: Head out to the barrier islands, like Saint Helena, where rural simplicity, fragrant marshes, and live oaks draped in Spanish moss make for instant relaxation. Experience the Gullah culture of emancipated African-American slaves who moved to these islands centuries ago and have preserved much of their distinctive language, food, and customs. Then boat out to the isolated Daufuskie Island, a car-less escape stocked with colorful characters. —MM

South Dakota: Spearfish

Population: 12,084
Western South Dakota, with its Black Hills, Badlands, and Elk Mountains, might be the most overlooked scenery in America. The best place to take it all in is Spearfish, nestled at the mouth of Spearfish Canyon. Main Street here is classic Old West, but venturing out of town is a must, whether hiking deep into Spearfish Canyon to see some of the most staggering cliff faces in America, or to Sturgis and its famous bike rally, or the casinos in Deadwood. If you must, hit Mt. Rushmore. None of it is too far for a short day trip, which may be part of the reason the most expensive real estate in SoDak can be found in Spearfish. —MM

Tennessee: Bell Buckle

Population: 553
Located a mere 54 miles from trendy Nashville, Bell Buckle feels more like a trip down memory lane than I-24. You’d assume the most scenic portion of town, a welcoming row of mom-and-pop shops, has been untouched by time aside maybe from an eco-friendly Prius parked over the town’s literal street art—an old timey quilt painted on the road. For dinner, twice-fried pork chops await at the Bell Buckle Cafe, followed by an evening sitting in handcrafted rockers watching trains pass and sucking down a malt from the Bluebird Antiques & Ice Cream Parlor. To catch the town in its prime, head down in June for the RC-MoonPie Festival, a day of crafts, shopping, Moon Pie Olympics (it’s exactly what it sounds like), and the annual cutting of the world’s largest moon pie. —Tanner Saunders

Texas: Marfa

Population: 1,672
When modern artist Donald Judd fell in love with this desert community in the 1970s, he ended up changing it forever, transforming it into an art hub renowned for its galleries and yearly film and music festivals. Judd’s Chinati Foundation is a necessary pilgrimage for any art aficionado (the drive here is no joke), in addition to the oft-Instagrammed Prada Marfa and amazing restaurants right in the middle of nowhere. After the sun falls, set up a folding chair at the Marfa Lights Viewing Area and watch for flashes (extraterrestrials, maybe?) dancing in the Texas sky. Enjoy a heavy pour of cheap whiskey at Lost Horse Saloon, then lay your head down in a yurt at the oh-so-trendy El Cosmico. —Kelli McDonald

a giant sandstone arch in utah's high desert
Fun fact: The Delicate Arch can be found on Utah's state license plate! | Brian Stevens/Unsplash

Utah: Moab

Population: 5,268
Utah has a knack for delivering beautiful sights. Once upon a time, dinosaurs roamed and Indigenous groups inscribed petroglyphs on the land here (both of which you can still find evidence of today in Bull and Horseshoe Canyons). Now, the area is now home to Moab, a mountain town that balances rugged outdoorsy adventure with modern amenities. The gateway to wildly popular Arches National Park and its underrated neighbor, Canyonlands, the streets often teem with tourists who are hungry—both for R&R after days spent hiking, rock climbing, and white water rafting, and in the general sense of the word. For a small, laid-back town, Moab has a surprising abundance of good eats, including Sabuki Sushi, Spitfire Smokehouse, Josie Wyatt’s Grille, Sunset Grill, and Moab Brewery, plus boutique shops like Moab Made for art and jewelry and Tumbleweed for pottery. Altogether, it’s a high desert oasis with plenty to explore indoors and out. —MK

Vermont: Woodstock

Population: 2,937
Imagine the fictional Stars Hollow, but instead of an inn, Lorelai Gilmore runs an upscale dairy farm-turned-museum that dates back to the mid-19th century. There, you're in Woodstock. In fact, this lovely oasis at the foot of the Green Mountains is so picture-perfect, the town buried its telephone wires to attract more Hollywood productions (you might recognize locations around town from Forrest Gump). Take your obligatory snapshots at one of the city’s historic covered bridges, eat fresh pie at the Woodstock Farmers Market, and visit the historic Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion. Then meander to one of the other adorable towns in the Upper Valley—Barnard boasts a general store dating to 1832 and a fun summer farmers market with live music every Thursday night. —TS

Virginia: Sperryville

Population: 244
In the foothills of the Shenandoahs, no-stoplights Sperryville is as steeped in old-time Americana as they come. Plan to stay at Hopkins Ordinary Bed & Breakfast, a B&B with an on-site brewery, one of several sources of top-notch brews. Pen Druid is a wild new fermentation brewery famous for Golden Swan, made from wild yeast strains found in Sperryville’s wildflowers. Locals opt for Rudy's Pizza or farm-fresh sandwiches at Before & After, but just up the road in Washington is the two-Michelin-starred The Inn at Little Washington. Diners book months in advance and come from near and far to try chef Patrick O'Connell's menu. Just make sure to get to bed early—Old Rag Mountain beckons. This 9-mile hike is a safe bet for some mind-alerting views, especially at sunrise, when you’ll find few other hikers on the trail. —TE

a lakeside town at the foot of a mountain
Small towns hardly get more picturesque than Lake Chelan. | Lake Chelan

Washington: Lake Chelan

Population: 4,237
Describing Lake Chelan is like playing Jenga with descriptors. Its crystalline namesake runs 1,500 feet deep and cuts a jagged 50-mile path perfect for parasailing, boating, or just admiring while drinking wine. Along with being Washington’s best lake townand one of its best mountain towns, it’s also the state’s coolest wine town, with more than 30 tasting rooms offering a taste of the unique mountain terroir. Here, the Cascades cast a shadow over a picturesque Pacific Northwest downtown whose mom-and-pop restaurants include the relatively upscale Campbell’s (hope for Dungeness crab, but always bet on the local oysters) and the ultra-chill Local Myth Pizza, which does wonderful things with pizza dough and housemade chorizo. It’s a winter-sports paradise, a fall-color explosion, a springtime wonderland, and a summer getaway. We can keep going, but at some point, this tower of superlatives is bound to topple. —AK

West Virginia: Fayetteville

Population: 2,670
Located just outside the New River Gorge, Fayetteville completely bulldozes all preconceived notions of West Virginia living, unless your preconceived notions paint it as an outdoor destination with artsy vibes and great food. Fayetteville’s rock climbing and mountain biking are nigh unmatched, and it offers up some of the best rafting in the east. The creative spirit that its nature-loving citizens have instilled in the place gives it a homey vibe, one where Ridge Brewing fills grateful growlers and Secret Sandwich Society feeds happy masses. Things get a little livelier during Bridge Days when hundreds of BASE jumpers leap off the New River Gorge Bridge while nearly 80,000 people gawk, but outside of that, this is a place to quietly embrace and tempt nature. —AK

Wisconsin: Sister Bay

Population: 740
Door County is Wisconsin's "up north" playground, a veritable showstopping destination complete with small-town charm, miles of dramatic coastline, and quirky local businesses. The brand new Dörr Hotel adds Scandi-inspired flair to this cozy lakeside enclave, while stalwarts like Earl's Sister Bay Bowl & Supper Club harken back to a simpler time. Stop into Door County Creamery for the area's best goat cheese (a strong statement in the state where dairy reigns supreme). Pro tip: if time allows, do the farm tour to taste cheese with a certified cheese master while goats scamper about the pastoral backdrop. And speaking of goats, don't miss Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant & Butik, featuring a grass roof complete with the happily grazing creatures on top. If you start itching for more isolated surrounds, wind up the coast and take the car ferry across Death's Door to Washington Island and its famed Provence-style lavender farm. —Katy Spratte Joyce

Wyoming: Centennial

Population: 276
This tiny outpost features all the best things about Wyoming: friendly bars, wide-open spaces, great music, and access to some of the most starkly beautiful outdoor recreation you'll find anywhere. Located 8,000 feet up and 30 miles outside of Laramie at the foot of the Medicine Bow Mountain Range, Centennial consists mainly of a couple hotels and bars/music venues that play host to hikers, campers, skiers, and snowmobilers on their way into or out of the mountains. On any given weekend, the town is liable to turn into a party, especially when the right bands are passing through, and it's the home of the most truly great winter party you'll ever find: The annual Poker Run, where a few hundred well-lubricated skiers tumble down the mountain and crash-land in Centennial's welcoming arms.—Bison Messink

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