Published May 01, 2013
| Budget Travel
Think your town is cool? Well, thousands of Budget Travel readers thought enough of theirs to nominate them in our 2013 Coolest Small Town in America contest.
To be considered, all your town needs is a population of fewer than 10,000--and the belief that it offers something that folks won't find anywhere else. After hundreds of nominations, we narrowed down a list of 15 finalists and held a month-long online vote this winter. The results? History, culture, wine, outdoor adventures, and of course great food in 10 sweet spots from Maine to California. Like what you see? Pay these burghs a visit. Got a cool town of your own that isn't (yet!) on our list?
1. Lititz, Pennsylvania
History, culture, and great food in Lancaster County
Why we love it: You couldn't ask for a more beautiful location, in rural Lancaster County, Penn., with its rolling farmland and traditional Amish communities. Here, you can savor 18th-century history just a 90-minute drive from Philadelphia--a perfect long-weekend destination.
What to do: Take a dip into colonial-era history at the Lititz Historical Foundation, the Johannes Mueller House, the Moravian Church, and a cemetery the locals refer to as God's Acre. Stroll through Lititz Springs Park, right in the middle of downtown, to take in the scenery and feed the ducks. Then step into a decidedly 21st-century culinary scene that includes Tomato Pie Café, Café Chocolate, Bulls Head Public House, Appalachian Brewing Company, Savory Gourmet, Olio, and Zest.
2. Watkins Glen, New York
Gorges, waterfalls, and wine in the Finger Lakes
Why we love it: When a community is situated among some of the most beautiful lakes in the U.S., boasts a world-class race track, and those aren't the major reasons to visit, you know you've got a cool town. Hikers and wine lovers find unparalleled trails and vineyards here, making it easy to fill a day with both sweat and style.
What to do: Two amazing parks--Watkins Glen State Park and the Finger Lakes National Forest (the only national forest in New York State) draw visitors for gorges, waterfalls, and endless trails. Thrills of another kind abound at Watkins Glen International Racetrack, with NASCAR and other auto-focused events. And for the wine connoisseur or novice, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail includes 50 local wineries.
3. Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Beaches, seafood, and art on the Gulf of Mexico
Why we love it: Everybody loves a comeback, and Bay St. Louis has come roaring back from Hurricane Katrina (which made final landfall near this Mississippi Gulf hamlet in 2005). Its Historic Old Town has been chugging along for 300 years (French Canadian explorers first sailed into the bay in 1699), drawing visitors to its warm beaches, first-rate fishing, and friendly vibe.
What to do: When a town boasts a street called Beach Boulevard, you know you don't have to look far for fun. If you have trouble finding the beach (you won't), take Main Street straight to the water. Take your own walking tour of 19th-century homes, Creole cottages, and art galleries (the scene is especially lively on Second Saturday Artwalk). Hungry? Try the Mockinburger at Mockingbird Café (it started as a cantina to serve Katrina volunteers).
4. Greenville, Kentucky
Folk music, classic architecture, and hospitality among rolling hills
Why we love it: That particularly Southern combination of down-home charm and old-fashioned grandeur is old hat in Greenville. Founded in 1799 and settled by Revolutionary War veterans, it grew over the next century into the seat of one of the South's most profitable coal-mining regions.
What to do: That history is reflected in the enduring elegance of city landmarks such as the 105-year-old Beaux Arts courthouse and 111-year-old Palace Theater. On Main Street, laid-back locals and mom-and-pop establishments evoke the guitar and harmonica twangs of folk songs. You might even hear John Prine's "Paradise" as you stroll the streets--the renowned singer-songwriter penned some of his most famous lyrics about the coal-mining history of Greenville and the surrounding area. The town's musical legacy lives on at Rockford's Place Café: part eatery, part jam session venue, it adds a little funk to the Greenville scene.
5. Gulf Shores, Alabama
White-sand beaches, shrimp--and more shrimp!--on the Gulf
Why we love it: Folks in this Gulf of Mexico beach town must get tired of hearing tourists do their best Bubba impersonations. But comparisons to Forrest Gump's shrimp-loving sidekick are only logical: Each October since 1971, the town hosts the National Shrimp Festival, often attracting over 250,000 people with shrimp cook-offs, concerts, and sandcastle contests.
What to do: If you don't make it here during the three-day National Shrimp Festival, don't fret. Shrimp shows up on menus all around town, including the dockside Lulu's at Homeport Marina, which is owned by Jimmy Buffett's sister Lucy. Like much of the Gulf of Mexico, the area was hit hard by the 2010 BP oil spill. But, ironically, the area's powdery white beaches got an unexpected PR boost from the disaster and subsequent successful cleanup: For many Americans, it was the first time they learned Alabama even has beaches.
6. Put-in-Bay, Ohio
Lobster, crafts, and wine on a little island in Lake Erie
Why we love it: Put-in-Bay is utterly defined by its location, on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. The bay has been an essential part of lake navigation since Native Americans first plied the waters centuries ago. (The town's name likely comes from the boating term "put-in," meaning to enter the water.) The island was the site of a key naval battle in the War of 1812, and Perry's Cave, where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's men obtained the clean drinking water to which their victory over the British is partly attributed, is a popular historical site.
What to do: Today, island life means coming and going via ferry or plane (even some school kids commute via plane from neighboring islands), and patiently waiting out winters that see few visitors. But all that changes in summer, when the community welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists to popular resorts, restaurants specializing in-what else?-seafood (you must try the local favorite, lobster bisque), craft shops, and award-winning Heineman Winery.
7. Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Bluegrass, theater, and the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Valley
Why we love it: You might say all roads lead to West Virginia's oldest town, which celebrated its 250th birthday in 2012: The Potomac River, the C&O Canal, and the Appalachian Trail all pass through this Revolutionary War-era town in the lower Shenandoah Valley.
What to do: Look behind those preserved 18th-century brick facades for surprisingly cool signs of life--this place is by no means a living museum. Housed in a Confederate hospital, the Mecklenburg Inn is known for its live bluegrass music and was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire. And the sophisticated Bistro 112 is housed in an 1830s brick building that once served as the town's haberdasher. The Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University stages productions from renowned playwrights like Neil LaBute, David Mamet, and Sam Shepard.
8. Quincy, California
Water sports, gold-rush history, and big-city cuisine in the Sierras
Why we love it: This gold rush town on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where prospectors flocked in the rush of 1849, remains a mother lode of attractions for those who like to spend their days in the wild but welcome some culture and pampering in the evening.
What to do: Nearby Bucks Lake Recreation Area is the kind of place you can visit every weekend and never quite do the same thing twice, including world-class fishing, water-skiing, hiking in warm weather, winter snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. Back in town, the historic 1920s-era courthouse is just one of several architectural gems. Pick up a self-guided Heritage Walk tour pamphlet at the Plumas County Museum, behind the courthouse, and explore downtown's murals depicting scenes from the area's history. Then take your pick of excellent pub and café fare that, true to Northern California tradition, belies its small-town locale.
9. Flagler Beach, Florida
Whales, surfers, and ukuleles on Florida's east coast
Why we love it: Twenty miles north of Daytona Beach on A1A, Flagler Beach couldn't be more different from its party-hardy neighbor to the south. In fact, the area seems to attract more sea turtles and right whales than spring breakers. And it's not hard to see why: This thin strip of a beach town, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, has remained significantly less developed than its neighbors.
What to do: The six miles of pristine sand--which boast an orange hue thanks to crushed coquina shells--are only interrupted by one fishing pier. In town, the vibe is laid back and retro, thanks to spots like Grampa's Uke Joint, which sells ukuleles, and High Tides at Snack Jack, a 1950s fish shack that attracts surfers with funky dishes like tuna reubens, ahi club sandwiches, and sake Bloody Marys.
10. Camden, Maine
Tall ships, hiking, and seafood where the mountains meet the sea
Why we love it: We've all been faced with the classic vacation dilemma: the mountains or the beach? But there's no need to settle, Camden's got them both covered. This mid-coastal town located on Penobscot Bay is one of only two places on the Atlantic seaboard where the mountains meet the sea. Those gorgeous vistas have been attracting vacationers to this former ship-building town since the 1800s, when wealthy families snatched up properties to build summer homes.
What to do: Today, many of those mansions and estates have been converted to inns and bed and breakfasts, most within walking distance of the harbor. Go ahead, it's not cliché to dine on Maine lobster paired with a local wine at Fresh, a waterfront restaurant on Bay View Landing. Afterwards, browse the galleries, antique shops and general stores on Main Street for one-of-a-kind crafts, clothing and jewelry. When the ocean is calling, take sail from Camden Harbor on a tall-masted schooner cruise that explores the Maine coast, lighthouses, islands, and coves. Left your sea legs back at the B&B? No problem. Camden Hills State Park offers 30 miles of hiking trails in 5,700 acres of wooden hills including Mt. Battie, an 800-foot summit with stunning views of the bay.