Add These 20 Small Towns to Your 2020 Travel List
These towns are small, but mighty and well worth a visit.
Small town living
Sometimes you just need to get out of town. While America’s big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have a lot to offer, they can also be a bit much. With so much to do and so many options, just figuring out what to do can be exhausting. That’s why 2020 is going to be all about visiting small towns and really getting to know a local culture. These places have plenty to keep you busy for a few days without being overwhelming. They’re also full of history, nature, amazing architecture, and some delicious cuisine, making them the ideal break from your everyday life. Here are the small towns you should add to your 2020 travel list.
Clayton, New York
When we think of weekend getaways in upstate New York, it can be hard to look beyond the Catskills and Adirondacks—and for good reason. They’re both amazing and those who go are rewarded with some of the best scenery in the country. But, if you do look outside these two mountainous areas, try the 1000 Islands region. The 1000 Islands (you say it like the salad dressing which yes, was invented here) is a magical place full of antique wooden boats, Gilded Age castles, and miles and miles of gorgeous coastline. Make the small, but well-equipped town of Clayton your home base when exploring the area. Stay at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, which isn’t just comfortable and inviting, but was also built on the site of the old Frink snow plow factory, and—get this—is in the shape of a snow plow. Be sure to visit the Antique Boat Museum and take a cruise on the river in a vintage wooden boat (weather permitting). Solid food options include Bella’s for a tasty lunch and the Wood Boat Brewery for dinner. These are 13 more unusual hotels you’ll want to go out of your way to visit.
If you think of plumbing when you hear the name Kohler, you’d be right, but there’s so much more to this small town than toilets. Having said that, while you’re there, the Kohler Design Center is well worth the visit. Not only can you see all the newest kitchen and bathroom products, but it’s also home to a fascinating plumbing history museum and the very Instagrammable “great wall of china” featuring color-coordinated plumbing fixtures stacked to the ceiling. If you or anyone you’re traveling with is into manufacturing, then a tour of the Kohler Factory is a must. Take a walk around the historic company town—including a visit to the Austrian replica house and art museum in the Walderhaus—then treat yourself to a hydrotherapy treatment at the Kohler Waters Spa. Then venture into the woods to dine in a log cabin at the River Wildlife Lodge Restaurant before retiring to the American Club—a former dormitory for immigrant factory workers that is now a five-star hotel and full of history and character.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The town of Eureka Springs is a gem nestled in the Ozarks. A former resort town where people sought the “water cure” from the area’s natural springs, Eureka Springs is still a prime vacation destination. For starters, its entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places, full of stately Victorian buildings. If you’re into outdoor activities, there’s plenty of that, too, including trout fishing is popular on the White River, or water sports, camping, fishing and hiking on Beaver Lake. Those looking for a historic and possibly haunted experience will want to stay in the 1886 Crescent Hotel, which offers regular ghost tours—it’s one of the 24 most haunted hotels in America. For something more modern, visit the striking Thorncrown Chapel, which was chosen in 2001 as one of the Top 10 Designs of the 20th Century by The American Institute of Architecture. If you’re interested in the town’s original attraction— the natural springs—it’s possible to visit several of them or soak in the waters at the Palace Bath House, which is the last remaining Victorian bathhouse still in operation. Aside from all that, Eureka Springs has a strong LGBTQ+ community and regular diversity celebrations.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
Similar to Eureka Springs, Yellow Springs, Ohio was also initially developed around the town’s natural water sources were people went to “take the waters.” The college town is home to both Antioch College and Antioch University Midwest and has a bustling, walkable downtown area full of interesting shops and food options. The Jailhouse Suites is probably the most unique accommodation in Yellow Springs, housed in a former jail that operated from 1878 to 1929. Winds Cafe and Yellow Springs Brewery are two great places to grab a bite to eat and a drink. For outdoor adventures, visit Glen Helen, John Bryan and Clifton Gorge for miles of scenic trails. And no matter what time of year you visit, you’re likely to find a variety of festivals, art openings, theater, live music and other forms of entertainment.
If you’re looking for the quintessential small New England town, you would be hard-pressed to do better than Ridgefield, Connecticut. Located about 64 miles north of New York City in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, the town of 25,000 residents is known for its old stone walls, picture-perfect leaf-peeping, and quaint Main Street that still houses mom-and-pop shops. Must-sees include the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, an independently-owned museum that spotlights modern artists and their works and the Weir Farm National Historic Site, which was the home of J. Alden Weir who is considered the father or American Impressionism. Make time for a show at the Ridgefield Playhouse which hosts everything from musicals to children’s theater to concerts to podcast recordings. When it’s time to eat, head to Hoo Doo Brown Barbecue which serves authentic Texas-style smoked brisket and crispy smoked chicken that are worth busting your diet for. Speaking of autumn, here are 20 more of the best places to spot fall foliage in America.
Originally a copper mining town in 1880, Bisbee, Arizona has reinvented itself as a center for art and culture. Take a stroll back in time through the well-preserved early-20th-century downtown area, then visit the Smithsonian-affiliated Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum. Those with an interest in the dark side will find plenty to do in Bisbee, including the Old Bisbee Ghost Tour, Bisbee Seance Room, and the Queen Mine Tour (for literal darkness). There is a wide range of accommodation options, ranging from historic hotels and guesthouses to campgrounds and RV parks. For a small town, Bisbee nightlife packs a punch, with a variety of bars, saloons, and breweries. Or, do a DIY art walk among the town’s many art galleries. These are the 25 best small towns for Christmas lights.
Want to go on West Coast wine getaway, but are tired of Napa Valley? Look no further than Jacksonville, Oregon, located in the southern part of the state. Between the charming historic district full of brick and wooden buildings with six different tasting rooms, and the Applegate Valley Wine Trail with 20 intimate wineries, you can sip to your heart’s content. Explore the town on a trolley tour or a haunted history walk. The Jacksonville Inn dates back to 1861 and also houses a wine shop and fine dining restaurant, making it an ideal base for your trip. Better yet, stay a few days and visit nearby Crater Lake and Oregon Caves to get a healthy dose of nature. Jacksonville also made our list of the 21 nicest small towns to visit.
Not many small towns can claim a famous mayor, but Carmel-by-the-Sea isn’t your average small-town—legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood was elected mayor in 1986 and 2001. But there’s more to this picturesque seaside hamlet than its notable residents. First of all, it’s home to a stunning beach that offers hiking and surfing, in addition to the usual beach activities. Next, visit the open-air art museum at the Carmel Art Association, which has been exhibiting California artists since 1927. While you’re on your feet, take a self-guided historic walking tour organized by the Carmel Heritage Society. When you work up an appetite, visit one of the town’s many restaurants like Forge in the Forest and Carmel Belle—both of which are also dog-friendly. Want more sand and sun? Here are the best beaches in each state.
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
An architectural destination in the middle of Pennsylvania? Yes, it exists, and that place is a town called Jim Thorpe. This Victorian town in the Lehigh Gorge is only an hour and a half-hour from Philadelphia, two hours from New York City and less than three hours from Baltimore, making it an ideal weekend trip. Soak in the history of the area at attractions like the Eckley Miners’ Village, No. 9 Coal & Mine Museum and the Old Jail Museum, or go on a ghost walk, courtesy of the local Rotary Club. Make time for a trip to the Stabin Museum, which houses Victor Stabin’s fascinating modern works of art in a historical building featuring red brick and stone facades, an underground aqueduct and an exposed rock wall at the base of the mountain. Stay in the heart of the historic district at the Inn at Jim Thorpe, which dates back to 1849 and make time to stop at the Rainbow’s End old-fashioned candy shop. Need more proof? Jim Thorpe was named the most charming small town in Pennsylvania.
Hinton, West Virginia
Founded as a railroad town on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, Hinton experienced rapid growth between 1895 and 1907. As a result, it is home to a large historic district with more than 200 well-preserved buildings from the time period. Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy seeing structures representing the American Gothic, Classical, High Victorian, American Four Square, and Greek Revival styles. To learn more about the town’s train-related history, visit the Hinton Railroad Museum. Head into the great outdoors at the New River Gorge National River, as well as Bluestone and Pipestem State Parks. Make yourself at home at The Guest House Inn on Courthouse Square and grab a bite to eat at Chestnut Revival to make the most of your time in Hinton.
If you’ve always wanted to visit Arches National Park and/or Canyonlands National Park, take the time to go and make Moab, Utah your exploration base. But it’s more than just proximity to parks that make this small town special; Moab is a destination in its own right. Wannabe paleontologists can visit dinosaur exhibits at the Moab Museum, or venture out to one of the area’s many dinosaur site trails. If you get to Moab and it looks familiar, that’s because many feature films have been shot in the town and surrounding areas, including 127 Hours, Star Trek, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, not to mention several Westerns from the 1950s and 1960s. For an even more in-depth look into Moab’s Hollywood past, visit the Fields Museum at the Red Cliffs Ranch. There is a range of accommodation options in Moab, including the Aarchway Inn, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds. Sample the local flavors at one of several area wineries where you can sip and snack in front of breathtaking scenery. Discover 65 iconic TV and film sets you can visit in real life.
Sainte Genevieve, Missouri
If Sainte Genevieve feels a little different than the rest of Missouri, it’s for good reason: the town was founded by French-Canadians in 1735. Despite its location in the Midwest, the town features French Creole colonial architecture, including vertical wooden post houses more closely associated with parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Grab a map and take a stroll through town, stopping at notable historic sites and residences along the way. If you’d prefer walking through nature, visit one of the area’s many parks, like the Hickory Canyons Natural Area or Pickle Springs. Want to see some animals? Head to the Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary to see some up-close. Sample the local cuisine at The Anvil Saloon & Restaurant and Audubon’s Grill and Bar, and spend the night Inn St. Gemme Beauvais in the heart of the historic district. These other small towns will also have you feeling like you were transported to Europe.
Want to visit Sweden but can’t swing a trip to Europe? Then plan a trip to Lindsborg, Kansas, which is the next best thing. Also known as “Little Sweden, USA,” the town was settled in the spring of 1869 by a group of Swedish immigrants from the Värmland province of Sweden. Unlike many other immigrant-founded towns, Lindsborg has managed to hold onto its Swedish roots, especially during its many festivals throughout the year like Våffeldagen (international waffle day), Svensk Hyllningsfest (a festival celebrating Swedish culture) and Millfest. Make the time to visit the 1904 Swedish Pavilion, which was moved to Lindsborg after the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Live out your childhood dollhouse fantasies at the Rosberg House, a beautiful Victorian Queen Anne home built in 1885 that now operates as a bed and breakfast.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Though you may be familiar with Deadwood because of the HBO show, it is very much a real place that you can visit. A former gold mining town in what was then the Wild West, Deadwood was once home to both Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, who left their mark on the town and American culture. Immerse yourself in all aspects of the Wild West by visiting the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, Black Hills Mining Museum, 1880 Train, Historic Homestake Opera House, and the Wonderland Cave. Though you have plenty of choices when it comes to where to stay, book a room at the historic Branch House, which once used to be an ice house after being constructed in 1912. You’ll also have your pick of bars and saloons in town, like the Knuckle Saloon and the Wild Bill Bar and Trading Post—the site where Hickok was killed.
If you’re looking to escape into nature, Darrington, Washington, is the retreat you need. The 1,347-person town is surrounded by three rivers and three wilderness areas, including Glacier Peak Wilderness. Head over in August and you’ll join international visitors from as far as New Zealand and South Africa who are there to compete in an archery event. Summer is also time for the town’s annual bluegrass festival, which is the oldest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest and one of the largest in the country.
Southport, North Carolina
Add this to your list of America’s best beaches. This quaint beach community sits where the Cape Fear River and Intracoastal Waterway spill into the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re looking to escape winter weather (or just soak up some summer sun), Southport, North Carolina, is the place to be. No matter what you’re looking for, this little town has it: boutiques, art galleries, pubs, museums, and more. Or you can just take a seat on a public porch swing by the water to feel utter relaxation. Use these five-second stress-busters to relax even more.
Sullivan, Illinois, doesn’t just have great facilities—those areas came from the generosity of residents. For instance, a philanthropic farmer gave away land to develop Wyman Park, a beautiful area with space for fishing, skateboarding, and horsing around on a playground. You can also take a hike at Tabor Park, where a creek-side path passes through trees and prairie. Looking for a souvenir? You can find beautiful American flags local artist Geoffrey Auden makes from salvaged wood at raffles, and the proceeds to go charity.
If you want to regain hope in humanity, head to Pittsfield, Maine, which is all about good deeds. In fact, the town formally declared April 30 to be Pay It Forward Day to encourage acts of kindness. Not that the residents need the excuse—they pay it forward naturally. One resident remembers a time he left his wallet in his car when buying lunch, only to find out a young man had paid his tab while he was gone. It starts even younger than that, too; during an Easter egg hunt, one eight-year-old boy was spotted giving an egg to another kid whose basket was empty.
After the manufacturing crash killed the lumber business in Cheboygan, Michigan, the city became something of a ghost town. But a community effort is revitalizing the city. Trails in Cheboygan State Park wind around Lake Huron and are the perfect spot for cross country skiing, camping, mountain biking, and more. In town, restaurants, cafes, health food stores, and clothes shops are cropping up. Be sure to pick up a loaf of bread from The Brick Oven, which found its claim to fame when Michigan TV show Under the Radar featured the bakery.
Outdoorsy travelers should consider Reliance, Tennessee, for their next camping trip. The historic town feels frozen in time and hasn’t changed in 35 years, says former resident Laura Curbow. You can stop into the Webb Bros general store, which opened in 1936, or take a tour of the Watchman’s House and Hiwassee Meeting Hall, which have been around since the 1890s. Once you’re ready to get back to modern life, you can enjoy white water rafting, hiking, and more. Check out these other amazing campsites to add to your bucket list.