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The Best Small Towns in the USA

Jessica Spiegel
By 
Jessica Spiegel
Freelance Writer
7 min read
Last updated 
November 17, 2020

Big cities are travel favorites, not least because there’s so much to do and see you’re unlikely to get bored in a hurry. But a municipality doesn’t have to be huge to keep visitors entertained.

The United States has an abundance of charming small towns—they’re often what makes road trips across the country so memorable. Some are mainly thought of as home bases for exploring area attractions, and some are attractions in and of themselves. For this list, we’re highlighting spots that have enough appeal on their own to keep travelers busy for a long weekend, have populations under 50,000, and which are no more than a three-hour drive from a major airport.

There’s no way to make an exhaustive list of the best small towns in the United States, so consider this a starting point. If you’ve not been interested in visiting small towns before, these fabulous little boroughs should change your mind. And if you’re already a connoisseur of small towns, we hope there are a few places listed here you can add to your must-see list.

Note that as the coronavirus pandemic continues, cities are in different stages of reopening (and those stages could change). Check with local news sources before you make plans.

Port Townsend, WA

port townsend.

Port Townsend has picturesque surroundings no matter where you look. The town sits at the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, with sandy beaches along the bay, and the majesty of Olympic National Park is only about an hour away by car. Colorful and ornate Victorian houses still line many streets, a testament to Port Townsend’s one-time status as an important seaport on the west coast. 

In more recent decades, artists have flocked to Port Townsend, making it a beloved cultural center. There’s a music festival at historic Fort Worden each year, and local art galleries host open houses on the first Saturday of every month.

Calistoga, CA

Calistoga sits at the northern end of California’s famous Napa Valley and is ideally placed for both wine tours and spa visits. There are more than 50 wineries in the Calistoga area, not to mention the hundreds more tasting rooms in Napa and nearby Sonoma Valley within easy day-trip distance. 

The numerous spas fed by Calistoga’s geothermal hot springs are the perfect way to relax—some spas even feature therapeutic mud baths with volcanic ash. And don’t miss seeing the geyser, nicknamed the “Old Faithful of California,” just north of town.

Hood River, OR

Gorgeous Hood River is on the Columbia River and famous for windsurfing in the summer, while the winter playground of Mt. Hood is only about an hour south of town. Area wineries have been luring oenophiles for decades, and more recently pFriem is being hailed as one of Oregon’s best breweries. 

Hood River is on what’s affectionately called “The Fruit Loop” (fruit orchards and vineyards dot the surrounding hills), and restaurants in the historic and easily walkable downtown feature the bounty of local harvests year-round. There’s also a thriving arts scene—shops throughout town sell the work of local artists and artisans.

Sandpoint, ID

Located in the far northern part of Idaho, Sandpoint is a haven for outdoorsy travelers who like to have plenty of variety. Sandpoint is on the biggest lake in Idaho, Lake Pend Oreille, for water sports of all kinds.

The three mountain ranges around the town provide lots of options for hiking and mountain biking in summer, and come winter Schweitzer Mountain Resort (Idaho’s biggest ski resort) is the place to be. For some outdoor family fun, head to the enormous WaterLife Discovery Center to learn about the local ecosystem—or to nearby Silverwood Theme Park to get the adrenaline pumping on roller coasters and water slides.

Park City, UT

park city.

When Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, sports fans around the world learned about the much-loved mountain town local skiers and snowboarders had been frequenting for ages—Park City. Both Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort hosted several events during the Olympics and remain among the best winter playgrounds in the country. 

In addition to snowboarding and downhill and cross-country skiing, visitors can try snowmobiling, snowshoeing, tubing, and even dog sledding. Park City’s historic downtown is home to hundreds of local shops, restaurants, and art galleries, and even if you aren’t in town for the annual Sundance Film Festival, the Sundance Institute’s calendar has events year-round.

Glenwood Springs, CO

Glenwood Springs is one of many former mining towns in Colorado—but unlike many other mountain towns throughout the state, Glenwood Springs has always been a tourist destination. This is due, in large part, to the local natural hot springs that remain a major draw today. The geothermal waters feed into the biggest hot springs pool in the world at Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, a sauna-like underground cave at Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves, and soaking pools at Iron Mountain Hot Springs that afford views of rafters on the Colorado River.

US history buffs should check out the Hotel Colorado (President Teddy Roosevelt lived there during a bear hunt in the summer of 1905) and Linwood Cemetery (O.K. Corral gunfight survivor Doc Holliday and the outlaw Kid Curry are both buried there).

Taos, NM 

Taos’ small size doesn’t hinder its mighty stature as a tourist destination. It’s well-known today as an art lover’s paradise, but the Taos art colony began in the early 1900s. Visitors today can tour artist studios or browse the many galleries in the Taos Plaza for a souvenir. 

There are more than 20 designated historic sites in Taos, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Taos Pueblo. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited Native American settlements, dating back to the 14th century, and affords visitors with a unique look at traditional pueblo life. The High Road to Taos scenic byway makes a wonderful day trip to nearby Santa Fe.

Cody, WY

Most travelers likely know Cody as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, and it serves brilliantly in that capacity. But Cody is more than simply a jumping-off point. Founded in the late 19th century by Buffalo Bill Cody, the town celebrates its Wild West roots. 

Five museums make up the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, including the Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indians Museum, and the Whitney Western Art Museum. Cody is the self-described “Rodeo Capital of the World” and hosts both amateur and professional rodeos each year. And, of course, the great outdoors is always ready to play host, whether you want to hike or hit the trails like Buffalo Bill might have—on horseback.

Arthur, IL 

A visit to Arthur is an invitation to slow down. This is the heart of Illinois Amish Country, where horse-drawn buggies are a common sight and “handmade” is a guiding principle. There are thousands of Amish residents in the area, and you’ll see the results of their hard work in the “country shops” around town. 

In addition to foodstuffs, you’ll also find quilts, wood crafts, and even handmade furniture. And you can visit the local farms with guided tours, some of which include a traditional Amish meal in a family’s home. For an outdoor excursion of another sort altogether, take a day trip to Allerton Park and Retreat Center (about 45 minutes’ drive) to wander through the expansive woods and sculpture-filled gardens.

Sedona, AZ 

sedona.

Sedona is visually breathtaking, especially during sunrise or sunset—the striking red sandstone formations that surround the town positively glow when the light hits them just right. One could be forgiven for losing several hours to simply watching the colors change, but there are other distractions in Sedona, too. 

The town has a long-standing reputation for spiritual energy (the area is sacred to Native Americans, and you’ll find plenty of local energy healers offering treatments of one kind or another), as well as an artistic muse for the countless artists who have artwork in galleries around town. To really explore what makes Sedona so special, though, you’ll need to lace up your hiking boots and head into those red rocks—into Red Rock State Park, to be exact.

Granbury, TX 

History takes center stage in Granbury, named the best historic small town in the country by USA Today. The town was founded in the mid-1800s, and registered landmark buildings circle Historic Granbury Square. 

Local legends abound, including one that says John Wilkes Booth fled to Granbury under an assumed name after killing President Lincoln, and another that says Jesse James is buried in town. You can ponder the veracity of those stories as you stroll Granbury’s family-friendly boardwalk or public beach on pretty Lake Granbury—or join the locals spending a day on the water, boating, kayaking, or simply fishing off the piers.

Tahlequah, OK 

The town of Tahlequah is in the eastern part of what is now known as Oklahoma, but it’s also the capital of the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Street signs in the historic district are in both English and Cherokee (one local school has Cherokee language immersion through eighth grade), and the original Cherokee National Capitol building is now the Cherokee National History Museum. There’s even a replica of an ancient village at the Cherokee Heritage Center just south of town. 

During the summer, Tahlequah’s surroundings become a playground for lovers of the great outdoors. Head into the Ozarks for a hike and (if you’re lucky) some local wildlife spotting. Or spend a day exploring all the inlets of Lake Tenkiller or paddling a canoe down the Illinois River.

Traverse City, MI

Foodies have been singing Traverse City’s praises for ages, and with good reason—or, more accurately, reasons

The Traverse City region is the biggest cherry producer in the country, and the fruit is venerated each July during the National Cherry Festival. The fertile soil is good for more than just cherries, though. This part of northern Michigan is also a great wine-producing region, not to mention the craft breweries and distilleries that have popped up. And local farm-to-table restaurants serve up fantastic dishes to go with all those beverages, too. 

Even the scenery in and around Traverse City is delicious, from the untouched beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to the expanse of Lake Michigan.

Bar Harbor, ME

bar harbor maine.

Travelers who collect stamps in a National Parks Passport will likely already know about Bar Harbor, situated as it is next to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. But before you lose yourself in Acadia’s rugged wilderness, make some time for little Bar Harbor itself. As is the case with any island town, sightseeing from the water is a must. There are several boat tour options, including some whale watching tours. 

On land, the Abbe Museum (a branch of the Smithsonian) is the perfect place to learn about the region’s Native American history. There are two annual music festivals in Bar Harbor, downtown shops that feature the work of local artists and artisans, and more places to eat lobster than you’ll have time to sample.

Stillwater, MN 

A proverbial stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Twin Cities is Stillwater, often called the “birthplace of Minnesota.” (In 1848, the convention to establish the state was held in Stillwater.) The historic town sits on the banks of the St. Croix River (that’s Wisconsin on the other side), which is a beloved spot for outdoor recreation in addition to being a part of the pretty scenery. 

Visitors can rent boats, kayaks, or canoes for some DIY adventure, but there’s nothing quite like a ride on an old-fashioned paddlewheel boat for a taste of history. And if you’d like to bring a little history home, you’ll be pleased to know Stillwater is a haven for antiquing.

Cooperstown, NY 

Sports fans are familiar with Cooperstown for the same reason most people who have heard of the town are—it’s home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And that is as good a reason as any to visit, to be sure. But little Cooperstown has plenty of attractions that aren’t even remotely baseball related, too. 

US history buffs will love The Farmers’ Museum, one of the oldest living museums in the country, for its recreation of 19th century rural life. The Fenimore Art Museum is in author (and Cooperstown native) James Fenimore Cooper’s former mansion and the collection features Native American and folk art. The Glimmerglass Festival draws opera and musical theater lovers from around the globe each year. And, in addition to all of this, Cooperstown boasts a picturesque lakeside setting on Otsego Lake.

Beaufort, NC 

If an expert is asked to sum up Beaufort in a few words, you might get a reply like, “Beaches and pirates,” which is destined to make you want to learn more—even without USA Today naming Beaufort the best small town for adventure. Beaufort is the third oldest town in North Carolina, founded in 1709, and both its history and its charm are tied to its waterways. You can go boating on the Beaufort Inlet or kayaking on Taylor’s Creek or, yes, spend a lazy day on any of the dozens of beautiful beaches in the area.

For the “pirates” piece of the equation, head for the North Carolina Maritime Museum to see more than 300 artifacts recovered from the wreckage of Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground in 1718 in Beaufort Inlet.

Brattleboro, VT

Vermont is made up almost entirely of small towns, so while Brattleboro is among the top 10 populous cities in the state, it retains a great deal of small town charm. The town’s industrial past and artistic present blend beautifully so that modern Brattleboro is neither too gritty nor too stuffy. The picture-perfect historic Main Street invites leisurely strolling, and the small boutiques and art galleries offer plenty of opportunities to pick up a unique souvenir. 

Brattleboro is home to the New England Center for Circus Arts, so live performances in town are as likely to feature trapeze artists as they are musicians. And if you like food and small town festivals, don’t miss the Strolling of the Heifers in early June—it’s a food festival celebrating all sort of local deliciousness, plus the parade of kids who lead their livestock down Main Street.

Sanibel, FL

lighthouse and beach on sanibel island.

The town of Sanibel occupies the southern part of Sanibel Island, just off the southwestern Florida coast. The beautiful island, more than half of which is a wildlife refuge, is a beloved beach holiday spot—particularly if you’re into beach combing (though locals call it “shelling”). 

Since Sanibel is on a barrier island, seashells accumulate on its beaches in enormous numbers. You won’t have to hunt long to find colorful striped shells and perfectly round sand dollars. Locals even have a name for the bent-over shelling posture everyone assumes: “The Sanibel Stoop.” The best shelling is on the Gulf side of the island (Lighthouse Beach is good for smaller shells, Blind Pass Beach for larger ones). For another kind of nature escape, the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge that occupies a large part of Sanibel Island is a must for birders.

Lewes, DE

Delaware became the first state in the United States, and sleepy Lewes’s motto is “The First Town in the First State.” It was founded in 1631 by Dutch settlers, who named it Zwaanendael, and you can learn about the town’s history in the Zwaanendael Museum (built as a replica of a 17th century Dutch City Hall). The oldest house in town, built in 1665, is in the historic district and now home to the Lewes Historical Society Visitor Center. 

Lewes offers more than history lessons, though. The town is a popular beach getaway, sitting on the Delaware Bay near the Atlantic Ocean, and Cape Henlopen State Park has miles of trails that are perfect for cycling or hiking. For a bit of maritime history, check out one of only a handful of surviving lightships, Overfalls.

Meredith, NH 

When you’re looking for the retro delights of a New England lake resort, Meredith fits the bill. Located in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, the town includes parts of several local lakes, including a long stretch of shoreline on Lake Winnipesaukee (the biggest lake in the state). Spend time boating or fishing, enjoying a lazy day on the beach, or exploring the parks and nature reserves in the area—including some of the islands on Lake Winnipesaukee. 

Outdoor activities extend beyond the water, too. Meredith is in the foothills of New Hampshire’s famous White Mountains. And when it’s time to unleash your inner child, look no further than Funspot in nearby Laconia, entertaining kids since 1952 and now the largest arcade in the world.

Little Compton, RI 

Try to imagine what Cape Cod would be like if it wasn’t such a famous tourist hotspot and you might end up with something that looks a bit like Little Compton. There are the pretty ocean beaches, of course, with little summer cottages that may look a little worse for wear, and plenty of places to get incredibly fresh seafood—including a few beachside places where you can eat with your feet still in the sand. 

There’s history here, too. Little Compton was once part of Massachusetts, founded in 1682, and it’s home to the only historic “town common” in Rhode Island today. But this part of New England is also known as The Farm Coast, and a wider view of the region confirms the moniker. There are miles and miles of fields and pastures, where farmers tend to the crops that make dining anywhere in the area a locavore’s delight.

Talkeetna, AK 

The mountain town of Talkeetna is, like many small Alaskan towns, a haven for anyone craving a majestic playground in the great outdoors. Talkeetna sits at the confluence of three glacial rivers and in the shadow of North America’s tallest peak. It’s no surprise, then, that most of the town’s visitors use it as a base for exploring Denali National Park, but the quirky town itself is worth some attention. 

The downtown historic district is only made up of a few blocks, but it’s as adorably rustic as you’d imagine. Visit the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum (in the former schoolhouse) and check out Ole Dahl’s 100-year-old log cabin (his descendants still live in town). Then tuck into a (perhaps unexpectedly) good (and sizable) meal at the Talkeetna Roadhouse while you make new friends at the family-style tables.

Last Updated 
November 12, 2020
The Best Small Towns in the USA
Jessica Spiegel
Freelance Writer

Jessica Spiegel is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. She's an obsessive knitter and loves Italy, pho, Sazeracs, the Portland Timbers, and altruism.

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