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(Illustrated maps by John S. Dykes)

The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013

From the blues to the big top, we’ve picked the most intriguing small towns to enjoy arts and smarts

What makes a small town big on culture? For the second year running, we sought a statistical answer to this question by asking the geographic information company Esri to search its databases for small towns and cities—this time, with populations of less than 15,000—that have exceptional concentrations of museums, art galleries, orchestras, theaters, historic sites and other cultural blessings.

Happily, the top towns also boast heartwarming settings where the air is a little fresher, the grass greener, the pace gentler than in metropolitan America. Generally, they’re devoted to preserving their historic centers, encouraging talent and supporting careful economic growth. There’s usually an institution of higher learning, too.

Most important are the people, unpretentious people with small-town values and high cultural expectations—not a bad recipe for society at large. As a sign on a chalkboard in Cleveland, Mississippi (our No. 2) puts it, “Be nice. The world is a small town.”

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1. Gettysburg, PA

Gettysburg, PA
(Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau)

The Gettysburg battlefield draws over a million tourists a year, and this July, the 150th anniversary of the battle, will be especially packed. Perhaps the best time to visit is early fall, when the crowds thin and the leaves are still on the trees, as at the time of battle. The National Military Park is too big to tour entirely on foot; most visitors drive to the major sites. Pick up a CD at the park visitor center to provide historical narration. Or hire a licensed guide to join you in your car. Horseback tours are available, too.

Leave time to amble around town. Bizarre relic stores hold muskets, coffins and blood-stained nurses' uniforms. The Shriver House Museum and the Rupp House illuminate civilian life. Lincoln stayed at the David Wills House before delivering the Gettysburg Address.

One of the better eateries in town is the Dobbin House Tavern, with a cellar restaurant and waitresses in 18th-century dress. If you’re weary of the history theme, the nifty Blue Parrot Bistro has walls free of Lee or Pickett portraits.

The Adams County Winery, 15 minutes west of town, has a tasting room, concerts and a pleasant picnic area. Nearby, the 200-year-old Cashtown Inn served as a Confederate base during the Gettysburg campaign. -- written by Tony Horwitz

 

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