America’s big cities may get all the splashy buzz, but for savvy travelers, our small towns are our best-kept secrets. In a time when "authentic" is a travel buzzword, these hamlets are attracting visitors with an often unexpected—and surprisingly sophisticated—array of independent and locally-minded cultural, outdoor, and culinary offerings, all minus the urban price tags.
The only downside to all this small town regeneration? Narrowing down this list to just 10 favorites. Our editors pored over the possibilities, ultimately picking the winners based on criteria like population (all are under 50,000 people), and draws like great local eats, interesting museums and cultural points, and noteworthy natural attractions or outdoor adventures. The result is a list that should inspire travelers of all walks to fill up the gas tank and hit the road.
What it’s Like: Napa and Sonoma’s quieter wine country sister mixes contemporary cool with plenty of Norman Rockwell charm—not to mention mouth-watering eats and drinks.
Set about 65 miles from San Francisco, Healdsburg is not exactly an unknown—it’s garnered its fair share of glossy magazine features—but the town of 11,254 manages to balance the hype with a relaxed pace and diverse price points, meaning visitors don’t have to break the bank to enjoy the bounties of wine country.
Those who want to splash out can do so among the Bulgari bath products at Hotel Les Mars or in the Italianate Victorian Honor Mansion, complete with bocce courts and spa pavilions, then dine on homemade meatballs and thin-crust pizza at Scopa. The budget conscious should check into the LEED-certified h2hotel, home to a popular bar, and enjoy the free concerts in the town square and the charming country stores tucked among the lush wineries.
What it’s Like: This Big Sky Country college town is a nature-lover’s paradise, no matter the season.
Founded in the late-1800’s to service travelers along a mining trail, Bozeman today is home to 37,280 permanent residents, as well as the fluctuating student population of Montana State University. The college presence lends the place an arty vibe; popular activities include the year-round Bozeman Symphony Society and summertime Shakespeare in the Parks. The mix of faculty, students, cowboys, outdoor enthusiasts, and the odd celebrity has also elevated the dining scene; The rotating menu at John Bozeman’s Cafe in the historic downtown might feature Jamaican jerk chicken, while the bison burgers and Kobe beef at Montana Ale Works pair perfectly with the 40 beers on tap. Hotels like the Gallain River Lodge, set on a 350-acre working ranch, and the Lehrkind Mansion, a former brewer’s residence-turned-B&B, make ideal bases for fly fishing, skiing, rafting, and exploring Yellowstone National Park.
What it’s Like: Red-rock panoramas and the mythical "vortex" energies set the scene for this spa and wellness haven.
The striking vistas and natural splendors that once inspired artists like Max Ernst and countless Western filmmakers are today attracting a mix of New Age healers, spa therapists, artisans, and wellness-seekers to this mellow desert town of just over 10,000 residents. Sedona is light on historic activities, so visitors are free to hike, mountain bike, or jeep-tour around the red-hued canyons and buttes; shop for jewelry and Native American crafts in the town center; and park themselves at spots like Elote Cafe for gourmet Mexican (and great views), or Dahl & Di Luca for elevated Italian. Many guests simply settle into a health-minded hotel and indulge in spa treatments, yoga sessions, and excursions to the Vortex, a rock outcrop that’s said to be a powerful source of ancient energy. Accommodations here tend toward the upscale—favorites include the celeb-endorsed Enchantment Resort and its Mii Amo spa and hillside, cottage-style L’Auberge de Sedona—but deals can be found at places like the Sky Ranch Lodge, where some rooms have fireplaces or kitchenettes.
St. Augustine, Florida
What it’s Like: Beautiful beaches and 500 years of Spanish Colonial history make this a find in northeastern Florida.
Settled 500 years ago by the Spanish (it’s celebrating this milestone anniversary this year), St. Augustine is considered the oldest European-established city in the continental US. As a result, there is plenty in this town of almost 13,000 for history buffs, from the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum and Dow Museum of Historic Houses, to well-preserved jails, schoolhouses, and cathedrals. To enjoy the sunshine, take in the sites at Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park, laze on the pristine beaches of Anastasia State Park, or take a carriage ride around the shop-and-gallery-lined old town. Accommodations run the gamut from solid chain outposts like the Hilton, to Fodor’s Gold Award winner Casa Monica, while top eats include homemade breakfasts and lunches at The Bunnery, or the seafood, meat, and adventurous items (think alligator) at the aptly-named Salt Water Cowboy’s.
Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
What it’s Like: Art, gourmet food, and a welcoming vibe make Cape Cod’s smallest town a summer favorite, whether for a weekend, week, or month.
Though long-time visitors to Provincetown might bemoan its move from funky to upscale, even die-hards will appreciate the Cape Cod town’s still-intact sense of diversity, community spirit, and slightly eccentric ways. Though the year-round population is just under 3,000, come nice weather, Commercial Street bustles with antique hunters and art enthusiasts, while Portuguese-American fisherman and cruise ship day trippers mix with the LGBT local community in enjoying the shops, nightlife, and shipping history packed within just 8-square miles. Drop your bags at the art-inspired Christopher’s by the Bay or lively Crown & Anchor before heading to Bayside Betsy’s for fresh seafood and harbor views, or beef Wellington and romance at Jimmy’s Hideaway.
What it’s Like: A rich cultural and political history mix with a vibrant contemporary scene to help keep this mountainside town decidedly independent.
Farmer’s markets, gallery walks, arts festivals, indie stories, all surrounded by mountain views—this is the Vermont of your dreams. Home to 12,046 residents, Brattleboro retains the progressive cultural and political ties to its past (it was a counterculture hotspot in the ’60’s), while managing to feel more cool and hip than crunchy-granola. Get the ideal B&B experience among the canopy beds and fireplaces of Hickory Ridge House, set in an 1808 Federal Mansion, then venture into town to T.J. Buckley’s, where just 18 diners a night are treated to a gourmet meal cooked in an open, theater-style show kitchen. No need to feel guilty: You can hike it all off the next day.
Traverse City, Michigan
What it’s Like: Vineyards, craft breweries, cherry harvests, and gourmet shops and eateries are drawing foodies (including Mario Batali) to Michigan’s northern shores
For years, this town of 14,894 on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay has tempted visitors with its natural wonders, which include freshwater beaches, skiing areas, forests, and the stunning Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore. More recently, though, it’s the food scene that’s creating a buzz, thanks to kudos from magazines like Bon Appétit and chefs like Mario Batali, who makes his home here in the summer. With the largest tart cherry yield in the US (and a week-long Cherry Festival in July), as well as a number of award-winning vineyards and breweries along its peninsulas, Traverse City is home to notable restaurants like the farm-to-table Cook’s House, and dessert mongers like Grand Traverse Pie Company (get the cherry pie, of course.) When you’re ready to roll into bed, choose from an array of chains, B&Bs, or upscale getaways like the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. Or make like Batali and rent a place for a summer filled with great eats.
Door County, Wisconsin
What it’s Like: Five state parks, 300 miles of shoreline, hundreds of non-chain shops, galleries, and restaurants, all amid the beauty of Lake Michigan—need we say more?
Okay, so this isn’t technically one town, but this whole country—population 27,961—is made up of notable small towns, each more charming than the last. Thanks to the county-wide outlaw on chain hotels, shops, or dining, you’ll find hamlets teeming with cute boutiques, upscale galleries, and working artist studios, along with natural sites like Peninsula State Park and the beaches along Lake Michigan. Be sure to try the local favorite fish boil—a stew of whitefish, potatoes, and onions made outside in a cauldron—and the locally-grown cherries, which make an appearance in nearly every dish, from appetizer to dessert. Hotel favorites include the Edgewater Resort in Ephraim, set on a private stretch of shore, and the Juniper Inn B&B in Fish Creek.
What it’s Like: Just a few hours out of Chicago, find all the musts on a small-town wish list, from historic homes and trolley tours to homemade eats and friendly locals.
Born of the lead mine industry of the mid-1800’s, Galena boasts rolling hills for skiers, and plenty of history, art, and cuisine for everyone else. Over 85 percent of the town’s 19th-century buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places; to explore, hop on the 2.5-hour Galena Trolley Tour, which offers an overview of the historic districts, then pop into notable sites like the 1857 Italianate Belvedere Mansion, and the Ulysses S. Grant House, the former home of the 18th president. Enjoy dark stout and tapas at the Galena Brewing Company, or top-notch Italian at the unlikely-named Fried Green Tomatoes (those are on the menu, too), before retiring to the fireplaces and nooks of the Goldmoor Inn.
Walla Walla, Washington
What it’s Like: An influx of quality hotels and dining have helped make Washington’s thriving wine country so nice, they named it twice.
Since the late-1970’s, over 100 vineyards and wineries have taken root in eastern Washington, helping to put Walla Walla (population 32,148) on the gourmet map. Get a taste for the award-winning reds at Gramercy Cellars, or enjoy sweet dessert wines—and a look at sustainable farming methods—at Amavi Cellars. Lunch at Monteillet Fromagerie is, of course, a cheese-lover’s dream, while Saffron serves homemade pastas and cured meats on converted champagne riddling racks. Your room at the luxe Inn at Abeja, a restored turn-of-the-century farmstead, will most likely offer vineyard views, so you’ll never be far from the vines.
Photo credits: Healdsburg, h2hotel courtesy of h2hotel; Bozeman via Shutterstock; L’Auberge de Sedona courtesy of L’Auberge de Sedona; St Augustine via Shutterstock; Provincetown, Christopher’s by the Bay courtesy of Christopher’s by the Bay; Autumn in Brattleboro via Shutterstock; Traverse City cherries via Shutterstock; Door County Fish Boil via Shutterstock; Galena trolley via Geraldmarella/Dreamstime.com; Inn at Abeja courtesy of Inn at Abeja