The Smithsonian reveals their new list of the 20 best small towns to visit in the US.
Sometimes vacations can be overwhelming: overcrowded beaches, transportation and food that will drain your wallet, and a busy, high-strung schedule. However, there exists a collection of small, refreshing treasures: quaint towns full of irresistible charm.
Smithsonian recently released their annual list of the 20 best small towns to visit in the U.S. These towns, on average, have populations of less than 15,000 people. In fact, many of the landmarks, historical sites, and museums in these cities outnumber the locals. It’s safe to say these small towns are chalk full of culture, tradition, and history.
From stunning ice caves to national landmarks with an overflowing wealth of historical significance, this countdown of small town USA does not disappoint the curious traveller.
20. Vernal, Utah
A tall, pink, 40-foot dinosaur welcomes visitors to Vernal, Utah, paying tribute to the Dinosaur National Monument (which is just a few minutes away). The monument boasts a total of 1,500 dinosaur bones embedded in the Carnegie Quarry and 1,000-year-old petroglyphs. Vernal’s naturally dark, clear skies make for a perfect stargazing experience, and town’s three state parks offer the right landscape to bundle up and admire nature.
19. Homer, Alaska
Perhaps the smallest town on the list, Homer Alaska, may be a far trip from home, but definitely worth it. A visit to Homer during the ideal season can result in the perfect view of the Northern Lights, one of the most beautiful wonders of the world. Homer provides all the accommodations for a memorable stay–lodging, seafood dining, captivating views, and local pubs. This year Homer’s Summer Music Festival will also add to the agenda of many art events happening in the city.
18. Stowe, Vermont
Aside from breathtaking views and picturesque forests, Stowe, Vermont invites visitors to stay at the Trapp Family Lodge, named after the Sound of Music’s Von Trapp Family. The musical’s characters were crafted after an actual musical family, and their late descendants still frequent this small city. Stowe also offers a fantastic experience for seasoned skiers: the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame. Following the tradition of the Von Trapps, Stowe is full of art, theater, and concerts to enjoy every week of the summer.
17. Custer, South Dakota
If you’ve never experienced a dude ranch, Custer, South Dakota is the place to experience it. The Custer State Park is hosting its 50th Annual Buffalo Roundup this September. Several other festivals grace this small town, including the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the 10th Annual South Dakota Bat Festival. There’s a Four Mile Old West town ripe with history, including the Crazy Horse Memorial and the Wind Cave National Park.
16. Thibodaux, Louisiana
After Hurricane Katrina, Thibodaux was a key player in providing housing for refugees from New Orleans. The diligent spirit of Thibodaux is visible in its historic places: St. John’s Historic Cemetery and the Laurel Valley Village. For an authentic Louisiana experience, Donner-Peltier Distillers has whiskey, dark rum, and sugarshine made from local rice and sugar cane.
15. Whitefish, Montana
After the majestic wonder of Glacier National Park, Whitefish, Montana, is a pleasant stop for hiking and boating. Whitefish has over several hundred miles of trails and lakes, in which you can see gray wolves, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons. You can follow the trails Lewis and Clark originally explored and recorded their ventures with wildlife and nature, or spend a night in one of the old hotels in the park. Whitefish’s close ties with Glacier make it an obligatory stop for any traveler.
14. Put-in-Bay, Ohio
During the War of 1812, Put-In-Bay was used as the U.S. naval base by naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie. The town is home to the only peace memorial in the National Parks system, Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial. Visitors can climb to the top of the memorial for an incredible view of Put-In-Bay. The bay is a great place to spend a weekend boating, water skiing, and walking along the coastline.
13. Nashville, Indiana
Nashville is one of Indiana’s best kept secrets. As fall settles in, visitors come to shop at the small boutiques and get a bite to eat at the local restaurants. The Little Nashville Opry, a small tribute to the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Country fans will enjoy Nashville, as it hosts the oldest bluegrass festival in the world: Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. Nashville also supports the arts and is home to one of the oldest art galleries: Brown County Art Gallery.
12. Bayfield, Wisconsin
One of the most incredible wonders of Bayfield, Wisconsin, is tucked inside the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: ice caves. The elegant structures are a sight to behold, and attract a number of tourists every year to Bayfield. The 22 islands inside of Lake Superior have old growth forests and nine historic lighthouses. If you want a break from mother nature, Bayfield also has a 900-seat tent theater, The Big Top Chautauqua.
11. Edenton, North Carolina
Another coastal gem, Edenton, North Carolina is home to the story of history class textbooks–North Carolina’s first colonial capital. The historic Roanoke River Lighthouse (pictured above), over 100 years old, was recently restored over the course of four years. The landmark is one of a myriad of historical places in Edenton, which is known for its rich past. Edenton is home to many small farms, making for a lovely stop for local food and dining.
10. Saint Simons Island, Georgia
A hidden gem off the southeast coast of Georgia, Saint Simons Island is full of warm weather, beaches, and golf. Though many are satisfied with the peaceful beaches, Saint Simons Island is full of history and adventure. Saint Simons Island was named the “Golden Isles” by the Spaniards who sailed their 400 years ago, and was later settled by British at Fort Frederica, a ruin that still stands today.
9. Boonville, Missouri
Boonville named after and founded by the sons of renowned Daniel Boone. Katy Trail State Park (pictured above) was previously the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, but now is converted into a huge park full of trails that follow the old railroad tracks. With history aligned with Jesse James and the Santa Fe Trail, Katy Trail is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Aside from the parks, Boonville is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Missouri River Festival of the Arts at Thespian Hall, the oldest theater in the Allegheny Mountains.
8. Sevierville, Tennessee
Nestled deep in the Smoky Mountains, Sevierville is best known for being Dolly Parton’s “hometown” (it’s no surprise that it neighbors the amusement park built in her honor, Dollywood). Dollywood is full of festivals, new facilities, and numerous events during the summer, making it a vacation hotspot.
However, even in the winter Sevierville is a sight to see–the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just a few minutes drive from the log-cabin town. You can spend a weekend at a rented cabin hidden in the Smoky Mountains, and enjoy hiking hilly dirt paths.
7. Calistoga, California
Calistoga was originally founded by Sam Brannan, who was looking to build a fortune on local geothermal waters. The town’s name was actually a mispronunciation–Brannan, who was tipsy at the time, stated he wanted to make the city “the Calistoga of Sarafornia,” when he actually meant to say “the Saratoga of California.”
Nevertheless, Calistoga is home to Indian Springs, California’s oldest spa. Calistoga is renowned for food and wine, as the northernmost town in Napa Valley. The large town is a wonderful visit for California vacationers.
6. Port Townsend, Washington
Port Townsend is a historic Victorian city hidden in the Pacific Northwest. One of the city’s most interesting sights is Fort Worden, a “19th-century army-base-turned-state-park”, as Smithsonian puts it. The park is home to many local events and concerts, often stretching throughout the summer months. Aside from the sheer beauty of the park, Fort Worden has a refined collection of artisan shops and local delicacies, including a new pub, Taps at the Guardhouse.
5. Cooperstown, New York
According to myth, baseball was invented in Cooperstown by Abner Doubleday in the 1830’s. 100 years later the Baseball Hall of Fame appeared in this small, upstate New York town. Aside from the museum, Cooperstown has a small town allure to it–shops and bars line the street for visitors and locals alike. This year Cooperstown will put on the Glimmerglass Opera‘s 40th anniversary festival. The festivities include productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica.
4. Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City is one of the top wine producing cities in the United States, and consequently home to several vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms. The most recent addition, Bonobo Winery, is owned by HGTV host Carter Oosterhouse and his wife Amy Smart.
The Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park is another blossoming attraction in Traverse City, full of luscious Shenandoah grass and Virginia sweetspire. Aside from the wine, gardens, and quaint storefronts, Traverse City also offers a coastline full of hiking, biking, and water skiing. The lakeside dunes make for a scenic evening to enjoy a glass of wine and a stunning sunset.
3. Stuart, Florida
With a rich collection of art, history, and exotic lagoons and sea-life, Stuart, Florida is the perfect vacation spot for a tropical weather-seeking traveller. Without the loud buzz of beaches or congested traffic, Stuart welcomes visitors to a trove of natural beauty.
Sea turtles will emerge on warm summer nights at Hobe Sound Nature Center, and nearby, Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center offers hands-on experience of coastal wildlife. Furthermore, the newly launched Lyric Theatre, a renovated silent movie palace, houses beautiful concerts and art-house movies.
2. Nantucket, Massachusetts
From beaches to cobblestone streets, Nantucket is full of quiet places to visit and unwind from the stress of everyday life. Notorious for building its wealth from its historical whaling era, the city houses a 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale within its whaling museum, a relic that washed on shore in in 1998.
The museum also boasts a detailed exhibit of the whaleship Essex, whose treacherous obliteration by a sperm whale inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick. The city’s picturesque harbor is full of storefronts and local restaurants, an ideal place to enjoy some delicious seafood.
1. Estes Park, Colorado
At the foot of the Rocky Mountain’s, Estes Park is home to the iconic Stanley Hotel, the elegant setting for Stephen King’s chilling novel, The Shining. The hotel, secluded in a pocket of colorful forests and mountains, is in the process of adding a hedge maze to honor Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation.
An assortment of breweries and a new distillery lie nearby for enjoyment, and the beautiful walk down the Big Thompson River makes for a lovely afternoon. The 100 year-old Rocky Mountain National Park lies nearby with a hotbed of scenic trails and peaceful mountains. Wildlife roam throughout the park, including herds of elk, which roam throughout Estes.