Nothing embodies classic Americana quite like small towns. For the second year in a row, we've compiled a list that highlights some of the best places in the country you don't hear about every day. This year, we've focused on destinations with populations under 30,000 that have a vibrancy of their own and year-round appeal. Our list is made up of detour-worthy towns all over the U.S. that have strong cultural offerings or great outdoor adventures, in addition to standout dining and lodging options. For your next small-town getaway, head to any of these 10 remarkable spots.
by Michael Alan Connelly and Abbey Chase
Michael Alan Connelly is the Editor of Fodors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @malanconnelly.
Formerly a mining town, Telluride offers a unique way to experience Colorado's mountains, replete with small-town charm that many other major ski areas lack. The town has a storied history—Telluride was the site of Butch Cassidy's first major recorded crime in 1889—and Victorian storefronts and frontier-era facades still adorn the compact downtown area. Today, the town is an all-season resort, with world-class skiing at nearby Mountain Village and mountain biking, hiking, and almost every outdoor sport imaginable in the summer. The annual bluegrass festival in June and film festival in August are two of Telluride's biggest summer draws, though the 4th of July celebration is a local favorite. Proudly boasting no chain restaurants or shops, the town has seen its fair share of celebrity guests in its history, but still maintains its untainted, small-town allure. For a truly Colorado experience, take the Telluride gondola to Station St. Sophia for breathtaking views and exquisite food at Allred's.
Where to Stay: Largely due to its celebrity clientele, Telluride has an extensive line-up of luxury hotels, particularly for a town that doesn't have a stoplight. A self-described “adventure boutique hotel,” Lumiere is one of the town's premiere lodgings. For a more budget-friendly option, try the New Sheridan Hotel and indulge in its rooftop hot tubs.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Telluride Guide
Beaufort, South Carolina
Not to be confused with its North Carolinian namesake, Beaufort (pronounced byoo-fort) has everything you would hope for in a small Southern town: antebellum mansions, Spanish-moss-covered trees, and a picturesque seaside location on Port Royal Island. What makes Beaufort unique is the local Gullah culture, which traces its roots back to West Africa's so-called “Rice Coast” and can still be seen in the town's culture, food, and local language. Beaufort also offers access to a plethora of water sports, so set aside some time to enjoy South Carolina's notoriously warm waters in addition to your perusal of the town's history. For the freshest seafood, head to Saltus River Grill to enjoy their decadent raw bar and watch the sunset from the outdoor patio. Be sure to pick up a locally made sweetgrass basket before you leave, one of South Carolina's traditional crafts.
Where to Stay: The nearly 200-year-old home-turned-hotel at The Rhett House Inn makes for a classically Southern experience, with antiques bedecking the beautifully maintained historical building. Breakfast, afternoon tea, evening hors d'oeuvres, and dessert are included in the price, and don't miss the opportunity to enjoy a meal on the wrap-around porch.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Beaufort Guide
Marfa is perhaps best known for its quirky art installations, but there's a lot more to love about this artists' haven in southwestern Texas. The downtown area is still dotted with historic architecture, in which you'll find several modern art galleries that give the town its reputation. The most famous of the town's collections is held at the Chinati Foundation, founded by artist Donald Judd, who moved to Marfa in 1971 and put the town on the international art scene. Marfa is still known today for its world-class collection of minimalist art, which mimics the surrounding Texas landscape. Another reason to stop here is to see the famous Marfa Lights. This phenomenon, in which lights appear hovering over the horizon, has been attributed to car headlights or small fires, but has gained something of a cult following due to the lights' spooky appearance. Marfa is also home to some excellent dining options; stop into Maiya's for an eclectic menu, or opt for a casual bite at Food Shark, a Mediterranean food truck.
Where to Stay: When in Marfa, it's best to embrace the town's quirks, and perhaps nothing is as pleasantly odd as El Cosmico, a collection of Airstream RVs, yurts, tepees, and tents that offers a unique glamping experience. If you're looking for more traditional lodgings, try the Thunderbird Hotel, a 1950s converted motel along the town's main drag.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Marfa Guide
It can be difficult to find remnants of authentic Hawaii behind the multitude of resorts, but this is one of the last holdouts. Located on Maui's northern coast just off highway 36, Paia was founded as a sugarcane enclave and though the sugar mill closed in 2000, the town is as alive as ever. Boutiques featuring everything from high-end fashion to beachwear line the streets, and with some of the world's best windsurfing spots in the area, you're sure to find an opportunity to put your new gear to good use. Because it sits along the route to Hana, the town is pleasantly devoid of major resorts and offers a great stopping-off place for a few hours or a few days. While in the area, explore Hookipa Beach, where you're sure to see a bevy of windsurfers. Café des Amis and Café Mambo serve up eclectic Mediterranean dishes and both offer excellent people watching along Baldwin Avenue.
Where to Stay: The Paia Inn along the Hana Highway features private beach access, a rooftop patio and a surprisingly quiet ambiance despite being its location on one of the town's bustling thoroughfares.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Maui Guide
Calistoga may not have the posh atmosphere of neighboring St. Helena or Healdsburg, but what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in character (and bargain prices). The Western-style shops along Lincoln Avenue, the town's main street, lend Calistoga a down-home frontier feel not usually found in the highly refined Napa Valley. In addition to its prime location in California's wine country (particularly near Schramsberg Vineyards), Calistoga is also home to historic hot springs and Old Faithful Geyser of California, a mini geothermal geyser. The town has outlawed fast-food franchises, ensuring that Calistoga retains its authentic charm. Nearby Castello di Amorosa, a winery modeled after a medieval castle, makes for an interesting visit, but don't leave town without stopping into Solbar, renowned chef Brandon Sharps' eatery located at the Solage resort.
Where to Stay: For those looking to luxuriate, the Solage Calistoga is a great option, complete with the eco-conscious Solage Spa. Or try the cedar-shingled Calistoga Ranch, which seamlessly blends indoor and outdoor spaces.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Calistoga Guide
Port Townsend, Washington
Tucked away in the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, this Victorian seaport is distinguished by its maritime history, quirky spirit, and touch of urban chic. A popular weekend destination for Seattle residents and other Washingtonians, PT (as locals call it) entices visitors with its active arts scene, gallery- and boutique-lined main street, unique festivals, and outdoor activities including whale watching and kayaking in Fort Worden State Park. Despite its small size, Port Townsend is home to a sophisticated set of writers, artists, and musicians, so you'll find an eclectic range of shops and restaurants here. Alchemy Bistro & Wine Bar and Fins Coastal Cuisine are the best places for fresh Pacific Northwest salmon and oysters, while Fountain Café and Khu Larb Thai are popular for international fare. Be sure to explore the many shops on Water and Washington Streets, parallel to the bay, including a stop at the Port Townsend Antique Mall, where you can find high-end Victorian collectors' items.
Where to Stay: For a taste of Victorian elegance, check into the Ann Starett Mansion or the Old Consulate Inn. The former pairs original details with slightly more modern furnishings, while the latter is truly a throwback experience, with innkeepers who dress in period costume.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Port Townsend Guide
Serving as the inspiration for Normal Rockwell's depictions of Americana on the front page of the Saturday Evening Post, Stockbridge is truly the paradigm of a small New England town. The artist lived in this undeveloped gem in the Berkshires from 1953 until 1978, capturing Stockbridge's unique character in his paintings. Today, you can visit the Norman Rockwell Museum to see a retrospective of his work; also tour Chesterwood, sculptor Daniel Chester French's summer home. In many ways, Stockbridge feels timeless with its well-preserved architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, which explains why this has long been a destination for wealthy Bostonians looking for a country escape. What's more, Rockwell wasn't the only artist to be inspired by this Massachusetts town; Stockbridge has been immortalized in James Taylor's “Sweet Baby James,” and in Arlo Guthrie's classic, droll Thanksgiving monologue-ballad “Alice's Restaurant.” The town is also home to an eclectic shopping scene and Rouge, a French bistro housed in a shingled cottage just outside of town.
Where to Stay: The Inn at Stockbridge has beautiful grounds, but its proximity to the highway means some rooms are less quiet than others. The Red Lion Inn has been in operation since 1773 and consists of one historic building and nine annexes, each one unique.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Stockbridge Guide
Cooperstown, New York
Founded in 1786, this town is filled with stately homes and civic structures—but you probably know it best as the location of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Cooperstown isn't just a destination for sports lovers, with cultural attractions including the Cooperstown Chamber Music Festival, the annual Glimmerglass Opera season, and the Fenimore Art Museum. Outdoorsy types, meanwhile, can enjoy golfing at Leatherstocking Golf Course, boating on Otsego Lake, and hiking in Glimmerglass State Park. Beer lovers shouldn't pass up a chance to tour the esteemed Brewery Ommegang, which produces Belgian-style brews and hosts a Belgian food-and-drink festival on its grounds every August. For dining, highlights include the global-inspired menu at Alex & Ika Restaurant and the waterfront views at Lake Front Restaurant.
Where to Stay: For grandeur on the waterfront, there's no better option than the elegant Otesaga Resort Hotel.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Cooperstown Guide
Though it's home to the largest population on our list, Ashland is hardly lacking in small-town charm: Picture twisting hillside streets lined with Victorian homes, a town center with a stream running through it, and a gorgeous 93-acre park. Best known as the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which attracts more than 100,000 theatergoers annually, Ashland has year-round appeal thanks to its outdoor activities, cultural offerings, and growing status as a culinary destination. If Shakespeare's not your thing, check out the Schneider Museum of Art, which showcases local artists as well as notables such as Alexander Calder and George Inness. In warmer weather, there are great options for biking, fishing, and whitewater rafting; in winter, the 23 trails at Mt. Ashland Ski Area get more than 280 inches of snow every season. While in town, make a reservation for dinner at locally celebrated Amuse, which serves French cuisine driven by local, seasonal ingredients.
Where to Stay: Of Ashland's many upscale B&Bs, the intimate Chanticleer Inn stands out for rooms that all have expansive views of the Chanticleer Mountains. Plus, they only stock eco-friendly products.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Ashland Guide
For a stopover in Kentucky bourbon country, it's hard to beat Bardstown, where it's easy to be charmed by the Georgian architecture and local hospitality. With a nostalgia-inducing Main Street, featuring a historic courthouse and an old-fashioned soda fountain, Kentucky's second-oldest town retains its historic splendor. Here you'll find My Old Kentucky Home State Park, said to have inspired Stephen Foster when he penned the state song of the same name. The downtown area has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, and a Civil War Museum, Museum of Whiskey, and a packed events calendar round out the offerings in Bardstown, named the Most Beautiful Small Town in America in 2012. Though a visit to the several distilleries in the area (including Jim Beam and Maker's Mark) will likely top your list of things to do, don't leave town without stopping into Old Talbott Tavern, in continuous operation since 1779.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Bardstown Tourism