10 of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2019
Big cities have a lot of buzz with massive sightseeing opportunities, five-star restaurants and the excitement created by throngs of gleeful tourists. But sometimes you want to slow things down and discover quieter, more eclectic destinations that don’t have such big crowds or such a hectic pace, yet still offer the promise of adventure.
10. Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey
The expansive beach is kept crystal clean and the Boardwalk is great for kids (of any age) with dozens of rides along with games of chance, some of the most competitive miniature golf at the beach and Jenkinson’s Aquarium.
All of the required indulgences are offered along the mile-long Boardwalk, including waffles and ice cream, sausage and peppers, popcorn and cotton candy. There are numerous other dining opportunities, from on-the-go to full-service.
Off the Boardwalk, there’s year-round entertainment and dining centered along Arnold Ave., with choices including Uncle Vinnie’s Comedy Club and Europa South restaurant for Portuguese cuisine.
And if it’s not beach weather, don’t despair: Point Pleasant Beach is also an antiquers’ delight. Both Bay and Arnold Avenues have a number of spots to hunt for hidden treasures and the Point Pavilion Antique Centre offers over 40 dealers conveniently located under one roof.
9. Bozeman, Montana
Bozeman sits in a nearly 5,000-foot-high plateau surrounded by stunning mountain ranges and, frankly, some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. An hour and half drive takes you to Yellowstone National Park, Big Sky Ski Resort is only an hour away, and smaller ski resorts are reachable in 30 minutes. Bozeman is also heaven for fly-fishing fans, who can cast at Gallatin, Madison River, or Yellowstone River. Horseback riding is also big in Bozeman, as are rodeos (a big one each summer is the Bozeman Stampede). Add in hiking and mountain biking, and there’s no shortage of outdoor activities.
8. Jackson Hole, Wyoming
It’s hard not to have a good time in Jackson Hole, surrounded by the incredible peaks of the Grand Tetons in a 48-mile-long valley that boasts just about every outdoor adventure you can think of (hiking, climbing, biking, paddling, fishing), all in a compact, elegant package. We love exploring nearby Yellowstone National Park with its legendary bison, bears, geysers, and waterfalls, and adjoining Grand Teton National Park with its jaw-dropping jagged mountains (your entrance fee to one of the two parks can get you into the other as well—ask a ranger for details when you enter). Suffice it to say that if you’re a skier, Jackson Hole may be the epicenter of winter fun, with accessible runs for every level and a cozy and delicious après-ski scene. Keep your eyes peeled for elk and deer just about anywhere in the valley, but elk are the main attraction at the National Elk Refuge northeast of town.
7. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
If you’ve visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you may already be familiar with Gatlinburg, the “gateway to the Smokies,” for its ample affordable lodging. But we feel it’s time to celebrate Gatlinburg for being a truly awesome small town in its own right, with a huge variety of activities for families. This town openly embraces its mountain heritage and culture with classic Southern comfort food, unique shops, galleries, music, and an overall welcoming vibe we adore. Explore the musical legacy of local legend Dolly Parton at nearby Dollywood, dive into classic family-friendly summer vacation activities like go-karts, mini-golf, and horseback riding, and enjoy a variety of museum experiences, from the (yes, touristy) Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum all the way to the somewhat unexpected Titanic museum.
6. Flagstaff, Arizona
Flagstaff looks absolutely nothing like the Segoura-cactus-and-active-senior-community Arizona of your mind’s eye. Instead, it’s a woodsy mountain town that’s more akin to Colorado or northern Idaho, full of artists, students, and a smattering of hippies that keep it forever interesting.
The snow-capped mountains loom in downtown Flagstaff’s background, where you can walk to half a dozen breweries like Beaver Street Brewing and Lumberyard before getting the best traditional barbecue in the state at Bigfoot BBQ — then treating yourself to something sweet from Brookside Chocolate Company.
As the outdoorsy jumping-off point to all the spectacular nature of the high desert, Sedona is only 30 miles south, and the Grand Canyon is less than an hour away. Coolest yet, Flagstaff is also home to the Lowell Observatory, one of the oldest observatories in America and one of the best spots in the country to observe stars in the desert.
5. Cannon Beach, Oregon
National Geographic named Cannon Beach as one of the 100 most beautiful places in the world in 2013. The editors quoted explorer William Clark, who looked down at Cannon Beach and said it was, “the grandest and most pleasing prospect which my eyes ever surveyed.”
One obvious highlight is Haystack Rock, above, which towers on the shoreline. If you can tear yourself away from the water, the city itself has galleries, boutiques, restaurants and lodgings that overlook the sparkling water.
4. Taos, New Mexico
For locals, the quirks of living at an altitude of nearly 7,000 feet is a minor trade-off for the joys that their high desert home brings. Taos is a thriving artist community with excellent art museums, including the Harwood Museum of Art, and dozens of galleries and studios that are spread around the town’s sienna-hued adobe structures.
Taos’ artists take inspiration from a landscape of ochre sands filled with sagebrush, with the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. The mountains turn red in the evening light, hence their name, which translates to “blood of Christ.” The Rio Pueblo de Taos runs alongside the town, which is dotted with willow trees.
In the winter, Taos can be dusted with snow, and the excellent Taos Ski Valley resort is a mere 30-minute drive away. But winter temperatures rarely plunge too low; sunny, warm days are the norm most of the year in this arid environment — which means plenty of days to enjoy alfresco patio dining and outdoor music festivals, including the Music in the Park series.
3. Sonoma, California
In its own charming way, California’s Sonoma is like a theme park for grownups. An easy road trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sonoma Valley town has retained much of its Spanish Colonial flavor, including a historic mission and former military headquarters, and it feels a bit like stepping back in time, thanks to decades of forward-thinking preservationists. But the present and future are very much the focus of Sonoma’s stylish boutiques, great Mexican, BBQ, and Asian restaurants, and, of course, the chic wine-tasting rooms that line the Plaza, welcoming sippers of all experience levels and pouring the best wines of the Sonoma and Napa valleys (which is to say, some of the best in the world).
Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn is a bargain at well under $200 a night, and if you’re up for a bit of a splurge, the El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen, right on the Plaza, is a beauty any time of year. While staying in town, you’ll also want to explore Sonoma Valley’s trails and vineyards, and take the less-than-an-hour’s drive over to Bodega Bay, on the Pacific Coast, for fresh seafood and views that rival those of Big Sur.
2. Durango, Colorado
Hiking in San Juan National Forest. Savoring downtown’s restaurants and art galleries. Taking a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (beautiful any time of year, but especially so in autumn). Durango, in southwestern Colorado, not far from the New Mexico border, boasts as many outdoor activities per capita as any town in America, ensuring that vacationers have a nearly endless choice of daily activities. But when you’re not skiing, hiking, or mountain biking, Durango’s downtown offers historical walking tours and an array of great restaurants, theater, music, and art galleries. We love that you can choose between staying in an alpine cabin or a luxury hotel (with plenty of options in between), and that this small town offers refreshingly convenient public transportation for maximum relaxation.
1. Beacon City, New York
Beacon is a vibrant, forward-thinking little city in Dutchess County, New York, an easy day trip or weekend escape from New York City. Long before the word maker came into fashion, Beacon was making things: It was once a manufacturing center and was especially noted as a go-to for casting sculptures and other massive metal works. These days, a new generation of makers calls Beacon home, including the artisans at Zora Dora’s gourmet handmade paletas (popsicles), the craft brewers at Hudson Valley Brewery, bakers at Glazed Over Donuts, the knitters at Loopy Mango boutique, and the mixologists and chefs at the Roundhouse and other excellent eateries ranging from tacos to BBQ to upscale comfort food. Art lovers will appreciate the colorful murals on Main Street and the modern and contemporary works on display at the DIA: Beacon museum; nature lovers will enjoy hikes on Mount Beacon and the sweeping views of the Hudson River Valley; and everyone will want to end their day at Quinn’s for great food and live music.