My favourites include Fredericksburg, Tex., and Williamsburg, Va. But for even tastier U.S. small-town recommendations, I tapped five south-of-the-border travel writers.
“A great American small-town is one that’s easy to walk around – and you can chat with the locals over a slice of pie,” says Chicago’s Karla Zimmerman (mykindoftownandaround.blogspot.ca).
Her favourites? “Yellow Springs, Ohio, is an artsy, beatnik town near Dayton. Once a counterculture hot spot – you can still buy bongs at the local head shop – galleries, craft stores and locally sourced eateries now cluster downtown.”
Alternatively, peruse antique stores, lawn-ornament purveyors and a Civil War-era butcher shop in Three Oaks, Mich. Surrounded by orchards and vineyards, it’s “Green Acres meets Greenwich Village an hour from Chicago.”
Zimmerman’s final recommendation is equally bucolic. “Brodhead is in Wisconsin’s pretty, hilly south. Visit cheesemakers, bike old trestle bridges and sample friendly bars and restaurants around the wee town square.”
California’s Ryan Ver Berkmoes (ryanverberkmoes.com) thinks top small towns “are never just wide spots in the road lined with gaudy franchises.”
For him, Santa Cruz, Calif., leads the pack. “In its compact, restored downtown, you’ll see everyone from aging hippies to dot-com brats. None of them tolerates the humdrum, so there’s a creative mix of shops, bookstores and cafés.”
Southbound, he adds San Luis Obispo, Calif., for its “fascinating 18th-century Spanish mission and church. Usually sunny, there are beaches and state parks nearby – plus restaurants serving great local wine and microbrews.”
He’s not all Golden State, though. “Turkey, Tex., is as small town as it gets. The centrepiece is the Bob Willis Museum, a loving tribute to an iconic country and western musician. It’s a haunting town embodying a lost way of life.”
Gina Adams’s website (americansmalltowns.com) eulogizes small towns. “It’s amazing what people miss when they’re too busy booking vacations to large cities,” she says.
A diner fan fond of Sylvia Mae’s Soul Food in Jacksonville, Tex., (chicken fried steak recommended), her favourites include Florida’s laid-back Key West and South Carolina’s charming Charleston. Then she heads west. “My number one is Tombstone, Ariz. Filled with Wild West history – specifically the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp – it’s like travelling back in time.”
Nostalgia isn’t the only lure for travel writer Robert Reid (reidontravel.com). “I like it when a town holds onto its past but doesn’t live there. I also like having something else nearby – mountains to climb, rivers to canoe, scenic drives to take.”
His recommendations? “Walla Walla, [Wash.,] has great historic buildings. And there are over 100 regional wineries, including an area by the airport with tasting rooms in old [Second World War] barracks and mess halls.”
Next is Bartlesville, Okla. “An hour north of Tulsa on the lip of Osage County, [oil baron] Frank Phillips had a summer home out there that’s now a fascinating museum. And in town there’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper, the Price Tower – now a hotel.”
Reid’s final fave is in Iowa. “I like Dubuque, a Mississippi River valley town. With rolling hills and big river views, there’s a funicular ride up one hill plus old Victorian houses turned into B&Bs.”
Washington-stater Sue Frause (eatplaysleep.suefrause.com) recommends her own Langley, Whidbey Island, community – popular with weekenders. She also adds the state’s Port Townsend, where maritime heritage fuses with a vibrant arts scene.
Then, there’s Oregon. “Astoria is a great walking town, with its 1920s architecture still intact. Watch the ships navigating the Columbia River from your Cannery Pier Hotel balcony, then dig into beer-battered albacore tuna at Bowpicker Fish & Chips.”
For Frause, these communities rarely stand still. “A great small town has a sense of place – it knows who it is and celebrates the past but also embraces the future. When you see a great American town, you’ll know it: it’s a place of pride.”
OUR READERS WRITE
- I recommend Guthrie, Oklahoma – amazingly preserved 19th-century town, the original capital. Kimberly Feher
- Frankenmuth, Michigan! Bronner’s Christmas Store alone is worth a visit, but also go for the “German” chicken dinners. @elisabetheats
- You have to go to Aiken, South Carolina. It is safe clean old fashioned and friendly. There is excellent golf, and basically every type of horse event including polo. There is Civil War history and wonderful architecture. Liz Kenny
- I travelled extensively in the United States as a professional hockey referee. Traverse City, Michigan is amazing, home to vineyards, outstanding chefs and lots of beautiful Colonial architecture. I would also suggest anywhere in Wisconsin and Minnesota (nicest people).
- Phil Gilmour
- Loved Penn Yan, New York when I was there a month ago. A small, cultured town with plenty of local history. @brandon_sousa
- Port Townsend, Washington wins hands down! It’s been left in a late 19th century time warp. It has glorious Victorian architecture and interiors – check out the men’s washroom on the 2nd floor of the post office. I’m a woman but a male friend hauled me in there! Janine Bond
- A small town in Michigan or Minnesota. There’s many smaller communities in the area north of Flint, Michigan where it isn’t blistering hot in the summertime. A good website is utrmichigan.com. Earl Long
- Hard-pressed to beat Camden, Maine, a picturesque small town in the northeast. Great seafood, hiking and mountaineering, sailing and biking. Friendly – and with a classic corner store.
- We fell in love with Champaign, Ill., for its quirk and agri-tourism. For vintage Americana, head to Pontiac, Ill.! @Matt_and_Caro
- I’m torn between Provincetown, Massachusetts and Cannon Beach, Oregon. Both are by the sea, the sunsets are spectacular (remember the tip of the Cape faces west) and each exudes a feeling of community. @adela1hora
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