They beckon from nearly every corner of the country, from grand rivers and awesome mountains, from the Great Plains and a misty farm valley and a venerable whaling harbor, and what never fails to charm us is that each one follows its own, unhurried clock, saving up stories to tell and making time to talk. They are America's Best Small Towns to visit, and for this, our third annual search-and-enjoy mission, we've singled out communities for particular strengths in history, music, visual arts, learning, food, theater and science. It's not solitude we're seeking—the fruits of human creativity are best shared—but, rather, enrichments unbothered by the growl of our increasingly urban lives. We worked with the geographical information systems company Esri, which analyzed tons of data to find towns or cities of fewer than 15,000 residents where cultural opportunities abound, at least on a per capita basis. When you think of museums you probably don't think of Nebraska City (No. 9), but there's said to be one museum for every 800 people. And there's a beautiful river, too, and a fresh breeze, and sky.
1. Chautauqua, NY
Chautauqua, on a long, skinny lake in the southwestern corner of New York State, is the sort of bucolic place where folks like to go for slow-lane vacations, but there's much more to it than ice-cream cones and ferry rides. Something important happened here in 1874 that changed the way Americans think about leisure time—the first Chautauqua Assembly. Originally a training ground for Methodist Sunday school teachers, it went on to demonstrate the role of learning in the perpetuation of democracy. It was, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "the most American thing in America."
The leafy 750-acre lakeside campus of the Chautauqua Institution draws 8,000 people for its nine-week summer season, and thousands more attend art openings and performances of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the Opera Company and the School of Dance. Yet the classes and lectures are still the main attraction. Last summer Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discoursed on how the law is treated in opera. This summer: global hunger, the democratic future of Egypt and the filmmaker Ken Burns on American consciousness. "Our founders didn't see 'happiness' as a pursuit of material wealth in a marketplace of things," says Burns, "but a celebration of lifelong learning in a marketplace of ideas. Chautauqua is that marketplace."
A participant's summer day might start with coffee and a doughnut at Food for Thought café overlooking the pansy beds of Bestor Plaza, and then a walk out to the lake to hear "Rock of Ages" piped over the colony from Miller Bell Tower. The 10:45 lecture is a high point, held in the 4,000-seat amphitheater, an 1893 landmark outfitted in later years with a booming pipe organ. In the afternoon there's golf, swimming, a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle book talk or a class on subjects such as the CIA, classical Greek or garden composting. Pack your slippers and take ballet.
Though the gathering welcomes believers of all faiths and nonbelievers, too, credit the Methodists for the concept, which spread across the country, seeding "Daughter Chautauquas" as far afield as Pacific Grove, California. Thus "chautauqua," lowercase c, refers to any uplifting group instruction, preferably conducted under a radiant blue sky.
Back in the 19th century, there were rules aplenty for Assembly attendees, to wit: "Believing with Solomon that there is a time for everything...the time to sleep...is at 10 o'clock PM. To go to bed is not enough to fulfill the law, but under the Rule, [you] must go to sleep. And your sleep must be quiet."
Today people can set their own hours (and even have a cocktail, an indulgence that was once prohibited), but the fight against rootlessness, information glut and shrunken attention spans—forces that Assembly founders themselves worried about—goes on. "At Chautauqua the sense of being present is tangible," says the institution's president, Tom Becker. "The beauty of the grounds, tree canopy, hills and lakefront inform lifelong learning and evoke contemplation."
Just so. As President James Garfield said when he addressed the Assembly in 1880, "It has been the struggle of the world to get more leisure, but it was left for Chautauqua to show how to use it."
- Susan Spano
UPDATE, April 11, 2014: Several readers of The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014 have complained that the Chautauqua attractions we focused on are provided by the private, non-profit Chautauqua Institution, which charges fees to attend events or visit the historic grounds during the summer. This is true. But admission to the grounds in summer is free on Sundays, and children 12 and younger are always admitted free. Also, on weekly Community Appreciation Nights, a $20 ticket to an evening concert includes access to the facilities from 4 p.m. to midnight. Outside the summer season, access to the grounds is free. Though the Institution is the main attraction in town, there are many other things to see and do in this lakeside community and the surrounding area.
2. Healdsburg, CA
"The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God." That's from the poet-essayist-farmer Wendell Berry, who may as well be the patron saint of Healdsburg.
Poised between Calistoga and the wild Pacific Coast, with damp morning fogs and blistering afternoon sunshine, the place is so fertile anything grows. The eat-local movement inspired by Bay Area chef-restaurateur Alice Waters has fully flowered in Healdsburg.
Four celebrated Sonoma County wine regions nearby—Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Chalk Hill—helped drive the gastronomical renaissance. But these days growers with small family farm biodiversity in mind are pulling up vines on prime grape-growing land worth $200,000 an acre to plant many-colored baby beets, hops, Belgian endive and Meyer lemons, and make way for sheep and free-range chickens. Chefs from town forage at Preston Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley for wild salad greens like stinging nettles. Area farm families are finding ways to hold on to their land by producing homemade comestibles, from sausage to vinegar, and marketing them on the Internet instead of letting food manufacturers mash their crops into jars with big-name labels.
A fine-food store, Shed, recently moved into a breathtaking glass-encased barn downtown, where co-owner Cindy Daniel experiments with organic fermented beverages called shrubs and welcomes local farmers to gather as they once did in Grange halls all across rural America.
This is farm-to-table via nirvana, a sophisticated culture of nourriture that would have astonished 19th-century food philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. M.F.K. Fisher, who translated his landmark The Physiology of Taste and wrote her own stirring books about food, lived nearby.
To get a sense of how rich the soil is, how blessed the climate, you don't have to go farther than Healdsburg Plaza, established by town founder Harmon Heald in 1857. Walkways, a fountain and a postmodern pavilion are shaded by mature coast redwoods and live oaks, orange trees and crape myrtles. Back in the day there were hardware stores on the plaza and farmers in bib overalls. But now the Mercantile Shop sells apple chutney instead of burlap and the plaza is surrounded by galleries and chic shops. Restaurants abound, including Scopa, Chalkboard, Spoonbar, Baci and Mateo's Cocina Latina, which puts Sonoma slants on traditional Yucatán recipes.
Then, too, there are downtown's wine-tasting lounges featuring vintages from some of the region's 100 wineries—major players like Kendall Jackson and La Crema, as well as singular labels like Banshee, Mueller and Trione. Lest things get out of hand, city hall ruled to limit them to two per block around the plaza.
A visit to the Healdsburg Museum in the old Carnegie Library recalls the town's past, especially its agricultural heritage seeded by immigrants from northern Italy. When Prohibition took a toll on the early American winemaking industry, farmers planted orchards, turning Healdsburg into the "Buckle of the Prune Belt." Don't miss the vintage photograph of a 1920s parade float featuring a quartet of winsome, white-robed "prune goddesses." Then ramble past the 19th-century Queen Anne and Neoclassical Revival mansions built along Matheson Street.
On the east side of town a road makes a circle around 991-foot Fitch Mountain, which is dearly loved by locals and was the center of a summer colony that grew up in the 1920s, attracting families from San Francisco. The kids could swim and inner-tube down the Russian River, which winds around the base of the mountain, while Mom and Dad did the Lindy Hop on Fitch Mountain resort dance floors.
Drive along West Dry Creek Road, where Italian farmers planted still-thriving vines that climb up hillsides as if they were trying to go somewhere. In a certain slant of light, the landscape turns zinfandel purple and you get a visceral understanding of the connections between Mother Earth and human well-being.
3. Williamsburg, VA
The hem of a calico skirt disappearing around a corner, lowering light on the Bruton Parish Church steeple (which houses the same brass bell that rang for George Washington himself), the sound of a door being bolted and, from a tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street, a fiddle: This is Colonial Williamsburg calling it a day, which is kind of what it did after its service as the cradle of American ideals was over and the Virginia capital moved to Richmond in 1780. For the next 150 years the Tidewater town was so sidestepped by time and events that city fathers forgot to hold a municipal election in 1912.
Williamsburg woke up to become an American shrine, of course. As the capital of the oldest, biggest, wealthiest English colony in the New World, it helped forge the idea of an independent America. And it's about as real as such a place can be, meticulously restored or rebuilt thanks to William A. R. Goodwin, Bruton church rector from 1926 to 1938, who had the vision, and John D. Rockefeller Jr., who brought money and commitment to one of the most comprehensive historic preservations in the world.
Entering the 300-acre historic district, you encounter people in 18th-century dress actually plying colonial trades such as shoemaking, brickmaking, weaving and blacksmithing. Patrick Henry fulminates against the Stamp Act in the House of Burgesses. Citizens protest that Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of the Virginia Colony, confiscated gunpowder from the magazine after shots rang out in Lexington and Concord.
But don't stop reading because you think you've been there and done that (or you think historical re-enactments are hopelessly corny). There are stories a single trip simply can't tell, places you may have passed by or, like me at age 8 on my first visit, were too young to appreciate. Bassett Hall, for instance, is a Colonial-era farmhouse lovingly restored to its appearance in the 1930s when the Rockefellers spent the spring and summer there. Among the prizes at the nearby Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art and DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts museums—with subterranean galleries entered through the historic Public Hospital for the mentally ill, which admitted its first patient in 1773—are the blissfully dreaming Baby in Red Chair portrait and the whimsically carved 1920s hippopotamus-rhinoceros Victrola console. And just west of the village is the Christopher Wren-inspired old campus of the College of William & Mary, founded six years before the capital moved to the village from Jamestown in 1699.
Also, previously ignored facets of history have been brought to light, especially the lives of black slaves, who once made up 51 percent of the population; exhibits and re-enactments explore how slaves responded when the British offered to free them in exchange for fighting against the Colonists.
The place has changed, too. "New" venues have opened, like R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, right out of Boswell and Johnson. High-tech investigations have guided restorations of structures including the Peyton Randolph House, which was formerly oyster-shell white and has been painted hematite red. "I'm still getting hate mail about that," says Edward Chappell, director of architectural and archaeological research.
Modern Williamsburg has had to chart a delicate course, growing with what can be thought of as America's Roman Forum at its heart. Many hotels, restaurants and shopping malls line designated commercial corridors, and pose no visual threat to the scenic integrity of the preserved colonial town; homeowners in neighborhoods near the historic district must choose exterior paint colors in accord with architectural preservation.
Yet the 21st century isn't hard to find. Residents hit the Saturday farmer's market in Merchants Square and take part in Art Month, a fall festival that opens galleries, stages concerts, sponsors Virginia wine tastings and turns Duke of Gloucester Street in the historic village into a fine arts fair. William & Mary has its Muscarelle Museum of Art and Phi Beta Kappa Hall, where the Virginia Symphony Orchestra performs.
But there's no doubt the past is the town's favorite pastime. Middle schoolers put their video-game consoles aside to perform with the Fifes and Drums, which rallies the village for revolution with tunes such as "The World Turned Upside Down."
4. Steamboat Springs, CO
Steamboat's big claim to fame is the dry light snow that creates "champagne powder," but something else is in the air: music. What other town this size has symphony and chamber orchestras, an opera and a world-class summer festival that brings first chairs from all over the country to perform in a smashing new concert hall at the base of a mountain?
The mountain is actually a whole range of them, runneled by the double-diamond trails of Steamboat Ski Area. For years the Strings Music Festival staged its summer concert series in a tent at the resort, but time took its toll on the canvas, and, on cool evenings musicians needed gloves to keep their fingers working. The Strings Music Pavilion, built of exposed timber with a bowstring-like truss ceiling and stunning Rocky Mountain views, opened in the summer of 2008. Since then, the festival has embraced country, jazz and bluegrass, added winter offerings at the pavilion and free summer concerts at the Yampa River Botanic Park. The ski area stages MusicFest, a wildly popular weeklong winter event with 40 bands, including American Aquarium, Midnight River Choir and the Turnpike Troubadours. A recent restoration of the 1926 Chief Theater downtown provides another place for music, as well as film, dance and drama.
"More and more, people plan their visits around who's playing in town," says MusicFest producer, founder and organizer John Dickson.*
And then there's the snow. The community has sent 79 athletes to the Winter Olympics since 1932, including half a dozen hometown skiers and snowboarders who went to Sochi earlier this year. Winter sports are a large part of the town's history, though skis were called Norwegian snowshoes 150 years ago, and tended back then to be worn when feeding cattle, delivering mail and going to school as the drifts piled up along wire ranch fences. But in 1913 Capt. Carl Howelsen came to town to demonstrate the derring-do that had made him a renowned Barnum & Bailey Circus performer. The "Flying Norseman" got a warm welcome, found a good hill just west of town and proceeded to build a wooden ski jump where he taught local kids how to fly. Howelsen Hill, now run by the city of Steamboat Springs, is the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado. It is also a summer concert venue.
Unlike some tony resort towns in the West, Steamboat holds onto its cowboy past as if its life depended on it: The rodeo arrives in summer. The town's homesteading, ranching and hot springs resort history is told at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in the historic center not far from the Yampa River, which runs from its source in the Flat Tops Wilderness. F.M. Light & Sons, a western outfitter, recommends western movies on its website.
Operating out of a historic train depot, the Steamboat Springs Arts Council mounts exhibitions and First Friday Artwalk. But to experience the town's strongest artistic suit, check out riverfront saloons and gastro-pubs like Ghost Ranch where bands drive folks onto the dance floor.
*An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to John Dickson as John Waldman.
5. Woods Hole, MA
Not long after Spencer Fullerton Baird, first director of the U.S. Fish Commission, established a research station in the village, in 1875, the Woods Hole Science Aquarium opened its doors—the nation's first such marine animal showcase. Still in operation and open to the public, it's rather low-tech compared with aquariums that have come along lately, but it remains a terrific place to see codfish, flounder and other critters cruising through glass-lined cases. I made friends with a horseshoe crab in a touch tank and was lucky enough to catch the feeding of two amiable seals that can't be released for various reasons and so live at the aquarium.
Science, in a word, is what sets Woods Hole apart from other salty Cape Cod towns, and the good news is you can get pretty close to the action. The Marine Biological Laboratory dropped anchor in 1888; today it boasts a year-round staff of about 300 and summer programs that swell its ranks to 2,000, including a fair share of Nobel laureates. Visitors take behind-the-scenes tours and attend Falmouth Forum lectures. I checked out the Robert W. Pierce Exhibit Center—lots to read and think about, underwater videos, more animals—and got to talk to the MBL president and director, Joan V. Ruderman, who told me about her research on cell division involving the common surf clam (an animal also loved by people who study clam chowder).
Another science powerhouse, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has been at the center of marine exploration and engineering since 1930. It burst into the headlines with the discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic in 1985 by the WHOI-designed submersible Argo; the ocean liner was later surveyed by Alvin, another submersible designed by the institution. WHOI now has a whole fleet of high-tech vessels that observe erupting volcanoes beneath the ocean surface, search for mines in war zones, study strange species found around deep-sea hydrothermal vents and discover such scientific imponderables as submarine waterfalls. The institution’s staff of 1,500 makes it the second biggest employer on the cape, with a modern campus just north of Woods Hole. Its Ocean Science Exhibit Center occupies an old Methodist church in the village center. There I watched a class of Massachusetts middle school students take turns climbing into a full-sized model of Alvin.
Woods Hole—the seemingly odd name refers to the channel, or, in mariner-speak, the "hole" between the town and the Elizabeth Islands where the current runs six to seven knots—is also home to the Sea Education Association, the Woods Hole Research Center and the Children's School of Science. But science also begets art. The Geo-strophic String Quartet, led by a former WHOI researcher, has played concerts at the village historical museum. Local ceramic artist Joan Lederman creates glazes from sediments collected on the ocean floor. The public radio station WCAI broadcasts "One Species at a Time" from a 19th-century captain's house on Water Street. The Woods Hole Film Festival, now in its 23rd season, is planning a "Bringing Science to the Screen" program. Even at Pie in the Sky, a well-loved village coffee shop with every genus of bakery items, I sat in front of a display on the science of coffee roasting, wondering whether the man at the counter ordering a latte has been awarded a Nobel Prize yet.
To give your brain a rest, hang out at local beaches and freshwater ponds, walk the many trails or hit the Shining Sea Bikeway, a 10.7-mile path occupying the bed of the former Old Colony railway. Still, all roads tend to lead back to Waterfront Park, presided over by a bronze statue of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and, before that, The Sea Around Us, who did research in Woods Hole. There she sits, gazing out at the channel she called "that wonderful place of whirlpools and eddies and swiftly racing water."
6. Marietta, OH
Barges still carry coal on the wide Ohio River, and the Muskingum is a National Navigation Historic District by virtue of its working 19th-century dams and locks, opening and closing for pleasure cruises on the Valley Gem, Marietta's old-time sternwheeler. During the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival in September dozens of paddle-wheelers tie up at Marietta while bands play, fireworks pop and fans await the pageant's Queen Genevieve. The Sweet Corn Festival, in July, features roasted ears and feed corn bag-tossing tournaments.
The first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territories, Marietta was founded in 1788 by a group of New Englanders, many of them War of Independence veterans whose story is told at the Campus Martius Museum. The tidy, neatly planned downtown, these days adorned with hanging flower baskets, long ago sprouted storefronts—Schafer Leather opened as a harness maker in 1867—and distinguished residences like the Castle of Marietta, a Gothic Revival mansion open to the public.
You can learn about early 20th-century burial rites and embalming techniques at the Peoples Mortuary Museum. For admirers of ancient history, the Mound Cemetery, laid out around a conical earthwork, is part of a network of nearby Native American archaeological sites dating between 100 B.C. and A.D. 400, brought to public attention by the Smithsonian Institution in 1848.
Many small American towns have died, and some have been reborn, but neither of those stories describes this place. Harley Noland, a city councilman-at-large, says "Marietta has always been a stable place." Long may it endure.
7. Beaufort, SC
"To describe...the low country of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell."
Or you could visit Beaufort, home to the fellow who wrote those lines, Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides. Between Savannah and Charleston, Beaufort is not quite on terra firma, secreted as it is along one of the ocean channels that form the Sea Islands, among them Fripp, Hunting, Parris and Port Royal, where Beaufort was founded in 1711.
It's pronounced "BYOO-furt," and the place is about as Southern as it gets; the state was not only the first to leave the Union, but the first meeting to draft the Ordinance of Secession, which made the state’s resistance official, took place in Beaufort at the Milton Maxey House, a white edifice with two levels of front porches and columns. Like many local 19th-century planters’ mansions, Milton Maxey still stands partly because the American historic preservation movement gained steam a century ago in South Carolina. Today the landmarks make up a National Historic Landmark District, shaded by oaks and glossy magnolias: a 1798 arsenal; the First African Baptist Church, in continuous use since the 1860s; the Federal-style Verdier House. The Center for the Arts at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, brings plays, concerts, art exhibits and independent films.
Waterfront Park, with its Southern belle swings and flower beds, makes a handsome fringe. The greensward looks south across the wide, marshy Beaufort River, with views toward the Wood Memorial Bridge, taking vehicles from Port Royal to Lady's Island and swinging open once an hour to accommodate Intracoastal Waterway boat traffic.
Port Royal, south of town, arguably even more historic than Beaufort, is the site of Spanish and French forts that ultimately fell to the English, and home port of the trawlers that provision area shrimp shacks. Beyond, another bridge crosses to Parris Island and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where the Parris Island Museum is open to visitors, as are stirring graduation ceremonies at Peatross Parade Deck, with Marines in dress blue and flags waving.
There are plantations nearby (including the only plantation house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright outside the hamlet of Yemassee). But the Beaufort region speaks even more profoundly about the black experience in America as a center for the Gullah people.
Brought to Savannah and Charleston slave markets from West Africa, they have preserved their culture, history and singular language, an African word-laced English Creole. The Penn Center on St. Helena Island east of Beaufort, established in 1862 to educate freed blacks, preserves Gullah folkways and tells the story of the Port Royal Experiment, a federal program that enabled former slaves to work toward purchasing land abandoned by white planters.
Carry on from there to Hunting Island State Park, with its beaches, 1859 lighthouse, sea oats, salt marshes and tidal creeks. Bring a pocketknife in case you spot an oyster.
8. Sedona, AZ
Sedona's reputation precedes it, all vibes and vortexes, shamans, psychics and healers, such as the one who plays for patients lying under his grand piano. But before all the seekers started arriving, it was a town devoted to the fine arts, set against some of the grandest scenery in the West. Still is, once you look past the razzle-dazzle.
Approaching from the south on Highway 179 or from Flagstaff to the north along State Route 89A, you feel your jaw drop as pinnacles, hoodoos and buttes rise—crimson, carmine, burnt sienna, depending on the slant of the sun. The effect makes you want to paint a Sistine Chapel even if you can't draw a straight line.
People have been feeling that way since the 12th century, at least, when artists from a Native American group known as the Southern Sinagua etched images of frog-men thought to be shamans in the rock that became part of the old V-Bar-V Ranch, now part of the Coconino National Forest and considered by archaeologists one of the best rock art sites in Arizona. Today exquisite Navajo weavings appear in Sedona galleries like Garland's, which has been showing rugs in the bright red Ganado or muted Wide Ruins patterns since 1976.
Uptown has restaurants, hotels, shops and public artworks like bronze cowboys and rearing horses; West Sedona is more of the same, plus a McDonald's with teal-colored arches, in compliance with municipal design guidelines. But the most distinctive structures are the sheer-walled Chapel of the Holy Cross, thrusting up from a 1,000-foot red rock plinth; the art-gallery village of Tlaquepaque, a graceful Mexican-inspired maze of shops; and the Church of the Red Rocks with wraparound views proclaiming the glory of God's creation. Senior pastor there, George Ault, says, "It's natural for people to come to a place of beauty and read spirituality in it."
Starting around 1950, it was a natural place for artists, including the German Surrealist painter Max Ernst, who lived with his wife Dorothea Tanning in a hand-built cabin, and the Egyptian sculptor Nassan Gobran, founder of the Sedona Arts Center. In an old fruit-packing barn, the SAC is an outlet for some 120 local artists, as well as a school and programs that include the popular October Plein Air Festival. The Western artist Joe Beeler co-founded Cowboy Artists of America in Sedona in 1965. The renowned ceramicist Don Reitz settled on a ranch west of town around the same time, as did the sculptor John Henry Waddell, still casting monumental human figures in bronze at age 93.
On the first Friday of every month free trolleys take visitors to galleries specializing in classic Western painting, Navajo-inspired jewelry, contemporary pointillism, hyperrealism, abstracts and New Age-inspired works, what with their angels, Buddhas, golden koi fish, tarot imagery and Native American motifs. The Goldenstein Gallery has hosted showings of haunting photographs of ancient rock art by Susie Reed and striking Zen calligraphic portraits by the Chinese-born painter Alok Hsu Kwang-han. The gallery's owner, Linda Goldenstein, says there's one word for Sedona art—"eclectic."
9. Nebraska City, NE
Omaha has the zoo and aquarium, Lincoln is home to the university, Red Cloud's pride is Willa Cather, and the rest of the state has the corner on corn. That leaves history for Nebraska City, first noted as a promising town site by Lewis and Clark on their way down the Missouri River in 1804. It boasts the state's first fire department, oldest public building still in use (the brick Otoe County Courthouse) and only officially recognized Underground Railroad station.
A reporter for Nebraska Life once estimated that there's a museum for every 800 residents, which is why people who care about the history of the nation's westward expansion have a soft spot for Nebraska City. You might as well start at the River Country Nature Center, in a restored furniture store on South Sixth Street. It showcases creatures found and preserved by a local taxidermist named Joe Voges, who was clearly on the same page as Lewis and Clark when it came to area fauna. Speaking of the duo, the town's Lewis & Clark Missouri River Visitors Center, which celebrates (and explicates) the explorers' wildlife discoveries, leads to hiking trails that wend from burr oak woods to bluff-top aeries.
Nebraska City long served as a way station to the West, with a ferry crossing, steamboat port and freight companies, including one headquartered in a 1858 white frame building that is now—you guessed it—a museum. Look into the old Kregel Windmill Factory Museum, which manufactured the wind-driven turbines that brought well water to semiarid Great Plains farmland, and tour Wildwood, a local banker's Victorian country home where costumed docents perform on an 1883 Steinway.
The Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard is a working farm museum, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center brings artists, writers and musicians to its handsome Prairie-style building just off Central Avenue.
You'll never again pick up a container of Morton Salt, with its patented pouring spout and Umbrella Girl label, without recalling your visit to Arbor Lodge State Historical Park on the west side of town, the 1855 estate of Julius Sterling Morton, whose son Joy founded the salt company. Julius, editor of the Nebraska City News, started Arbor Day—now observed around the world—which he commenced with the planting of an estimated one million trees in 1872. Today state champion oaks, ashes and maples surround the graceful old family mansion, explaining what Julius meant when he said (evidently borrowing from English architect Christopher Wren), "If you seek my monument, look around you."
10. Lanesboro, MN
In the cliff-lined valley of the Root River about 125 miles southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Lanesboro was on its way out, bypassed by the railroad and mired in agricultural crises, when the curtain first went up at the Commonweal in 1989. A year later, the theater's co-founder, Eric Bunge, opened the town's office of tourism, and owners of fine old Victorian homes around Parkway Avenue started plumping up pillows for visitors who wanted to stay over to see two or three plays. Now the town is known as the bed-and-breakfast capital of Minnesota.
Hal Cropp, the Commonweal's executive director, refuses to credit the town's revival solely to the Commonweal, also citing the Root River Trail System, a bikeway developed in the 1980s. It winds along the waterway for 60 miles—through hamlets and farm country in this scenic geological anomaly known as the Driftless Area, which is marked by hills, ridges and deeply entrenched rivers because it avoided the ice age glaciation that flattened much of the Midwest.
There's also the Lanesboro Arts Center, which shows the work of 100 regional artists, mounts an Art in the Park fair (in June, right after the Rhubarb Festival) and sponsors the "Over the Back Fence" radio hour, Lanesboro's answer to "A Prairie Home Companion," staged monthly in the circa 1870 St. Mane Theatre.
But it's the Commonweal, considered one of the sharpest, most innovative small regional theaters in the country, that has garnered attention, putting it on a trajectory not unlike the Guthrie in Minneapolis. As a matter of fact, seats salvaged from the original Guthrie now accommodate audiences at the Commonweal, which occupies a series of renovated storefronts along Parkway Avenue. Its company of professional actors play major administrative roles between productions, which run from March to December and include challenging works by playwrights like Tom Stoppard and especially Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian like so many of the immigrants who put down roots in Minnesota. Never mind that Lanesboro's entire resident population of 745 could find a seat in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
If you tell Cropp that you thought live theater was dead, he says, "I read that headline, too."
11. Spring Green, WI
If you've heard of Spring Green, Wisconsin, it might be because of the American Players Theater, a classical theater just outside of the town that attracts over 100,000 patrons each year. But there's more to the tiny town (population 1,622) than Shakespeare and Molière.
Architectural enthusiasts will want to stop by Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate, a 600-acre property that originally belonged to Wright's maternal family. Wright built his first house on Taliesin for his lover Mamah Borthwick in 1911 (she and six others were murdered on the property three years later). Due to the grisly murders and various fires, Taliesin has seen three separate Wright homes.
"Taliesin plays a significant role in attracting visitors to the area – it is a community within a community!" says Becky Rex, special event and media coordinator for the estate. "Upwards of 25,000 national and international visitors travel here each year to experience the place that has been coined Wright's 'autobiography in wood and stone', and his laboratory (where he fleshed out drawings for masterworks such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum)."
Spring Green boasts a second architectural wonder: The House on the Rock, a home built in the 1960s by architect Alex Jordan. Over the years, the house has expanded to house multiple fanciful rooms (like the Infinity Room, which juts out 200-feet over the forest below) and bizarre collections.
For food, try Freddy Valentine's Public House, built inside of the renovated State Bank of Spring Green, which has stood for 90 years.
- Natasha Geiling
12. Havre de Grace, MD
Located at the head of the Chesapeake Bay, between Wilmington and Baltimore, is Havre de Grace, a world that predates the Revolutionary War. When General Marquis de Lafayette visited the seaport several times in the 1700s, he remarked at how the town reminded him of the French town Le Havre; in 1785, inspired by these comments, the town was incorporated as Havre de Grace.
Mornings in Havre de Grace (pronounced: Have-ruh duh Grayce) should be spent meandering along the town’s boardwalk, which runs from Tydings Park to the Concord Point Lighthouse. Where the Susquehanna River joins into the Chesapeake Bay at Concord Point, visitors can see beautiful sunrises (if they arrive early enough). The lighthouse is the oldest in Maryland, built in 1827. Visitors can climb the lighthouse and explore the grounds, which include the keeper’s house. Nearby, the Maritime Museum and the Decoy Museum explore Havre de Grace's maritime history. The Maritime Museum has permanent exhibits that take visitors back in time 400 years, to pre-colonial American life.
Just up the waterfront, Java by the Bay, in Havre de Grace's Main Street District, features home-blended coffee that pays homage to the town's history and environment: grab a cup of Susquehanna River or Bulle Rock blends. Things open a little late in the small town, around 10 or 11 in the morning, but the Main Street District offers the best shopping in town.
But shopping in Havre de Grace isn’t limited to Main Street. "Be sure not miss working your way down St. John Street and Franklin Street. En route you will come across Doodads, a fair-trade store with many unique items, Courtyard Redux, a bookstore that has been in Havre de Grace for 20 years and Distinctive Décor, the most beautiful shop with which to decorate your home," says Brigitte Peters, manager of the city's Office of Marketing and Tourism.
To the northeast of the city sits the North Park trail, a moderate hike that allows visitors to explore the marshes and the natural water line of the Susquehanna River. Along the river also sits the Susquehanna Lockhouse Museum, which features a War of 1812 battle reenactment every year.
13. Columbia, PA
Along the banks of the Susquehanna River, 30 miles southeast of Harrisburg, sits Columbia, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1726 by Colonial English Quakers, Columbia survived a Civil War siege to become a thriving center of transport and industry into the 19th century. Now, the town of 10,334 attracts tourists looking to wander through its historic district replete with mostly late Victorian buildings, including the nationally registered historic Bachman and Forry Tobacco Warehouse.
Columbia is also home to one of the world's only horology museums, the National Watch and Clock museum, where visitors can contemplate the ever-nebulous subject of time. The museum houses over 12,000 items, from an extensive collection of 19th century American clocks and watches to Asian timekeeping pieces from China and Japan. Chronologically, the museum's exhibits explore the history of timekeeping from early, non-mechanic devices to today's most modern atomic clocks.
Outside of Columbia, visit two covered bridges or check out two state parks: Samuel Lewis State Park, which is 85-acres, or Gifford Pinchot State Park, a 2,238-acre expanse of trails, farm fields and Pinchot Lake.
14. Mount Dora, FL
Forget Orlando—the next time you're planning a trip to Central Florida, think about stopping by Mount Dora City, a town of about 13,162 nestled between hills and orange groves on the edge of Lake Dora.
Two of Mount Dora City's annual festivals are renowned throughout the country for their quality: the nationally ranked Mount Dora Arts Festival and the Fall Craft Fair, which is the largest outdoor event in the southeast United States. Mount Dora City also caters to antique enthusiasts, who come from all around the state—and country—to browse the town's offerings.
In the center of town sits Donnelly Park, a tree-shaded block that offers visitors a place to picnic or indulge in a game of tennis or shuffleboard. Nearby, visit Palm Island Park, home to one of the most beautiful nature walks in Florida.
The oldest structure in town is the 86-room Lakeside Inn, built in 1883. The Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce, inside the 1915 rail depot, attracts a large number of visitors each year, who come to marvel at its historic architecture. Mount Dora City is also home to the world-famous Renninger's Florida Twin Markets, a flea market and antique market held each Saturday and Sunday in the town.
15. Ketchum, ID
Located adjacent to Idaho's famous Sun Valley, the tiny town of Ketchum, Idaho (population: 2,706) is hardly an unknown spot—Ernest Hemingway lived (and died) here—though perhaps sometimes overlooked for its more recognized neighbor.
Miners settled in Ketchum—originally named Leadville—in the 1800s, and in 1880, Ketchum was one of the most prosperous mining towns in the Northwest. By the 1890s, however, a new industry had taken over; shepherds passing through the area would drive their sheep through Ketchum, toward the Sawtooth, Boulder and Pioneer Mountains. By the 1920s, Ketchum was the largest sheep shipping station in the United States. The legacy of sheep shipping is celebrated to this day with the Trailing the Sheep Festival, held in Ketchum and nearby Hailey. The festival takes place over four days in October, with exhibits, storytelling and a parade through the streets of downtown Ketchum.
Visitors looking to explore a different legacy can check out Ernest Hemingway's last house and grave. The prolific American author lived in Ketchum from 1959, when he bought a house in the town, to 1961, when he committed suicide in the same house. Though Hemingway's house is not open to the public*, his grave is located in the Ketchum Cemetery, and a memorial, dedicated to the author, stands one mile east of the Sun Valley Lodge.
Beyond the historical, present-day Ketchum is a celebrated center for arts and culture in the Wood River Valley. The town is home to 20 art galleries and boasts a year-round lecture series, as well as various musical and theatrical productions at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
Of course, it's perfectly fine to visit Ketchum in search of outdoor adventures. Like Sun Valley, Ketchum is nestled near the base of Bald Mountain, which is known worldwide for its fine skiing.
*The original post stated that Hemingway's house is open to the public. It is not. The sentence has been corrected to reflect this.
16. Montpelier, VT
Montpelier might be one of the smallest state capitals in the country, but don't mistake its tiny size for a sleepy town: Montpelier bustles with culture and charm both classically New England and uniquely its own. The New England Culinary Institute is situated here, making the tiny town a haven for food lovers: check out Salt Cafe, a 20-seat establishment created by former food writer Suzanne Podhaizer, that’s serving up no-frills seasonal fare, some of it plucked directly from Podhaizer's own garden. Or take a stroll through Montpelier’s weekly farmer's market, Capital City Farmers Market, where more than 50 vendors sell anything from raw goat’s milk to hand-dyed wool.
Downtown Montpelier offers charming shopping options: browse The Getup Vintage, where you can find original beaded dresses from the 1920s, or stop by the Buch Spieler record shop, where you can try out an original 1896 pump organ. Or, take a trip to the fantastical Rivendell Books, which houses more than 400 rare and signed books for sale, and visit the shop's mascot, Veruca, a Russian desert tortoise.
For a more historical tour of Montpelier, the State House offers free half-hour tours of the building. The Vermont Historical Society also offers tours of the Vermont History Museum (for $5), where visitors can walk through an original Abenaki wigwam.
Film lovers should think about visiting the town in March, when Montpelier becomes home to the Green Mountain Film Festival, an annual festival that began in 1997. The festival screens mostly new work from around the world, interspersed with a few classic films. Most of the films shown are documentaries, and some are student-made.
17. Harrodsburg, KY
Harrodsburg is Kentucky's oldest city and the oldest American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, distinctions that have earned the small town (population 8,298) the title "Birthplace of the West." With such a lengthy history, any visit to Harrodsburg is imbued with the feeling of centuries past. Old Harrod State Park, for example, houses a full-scale replica of the original fort, built in 1774, which claimed Harrodsburg as a settlement. The cabins and blockhouses in the park are furnished just as they would have been by the earliest pioneers, and visitors are welcome to walk through the structures, or visit the cemetery, where pioneers are buried.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, offers a look back at a different, but equally important, piece of the area's history: the Shakers, a religious sect that established communities in Kentucky in the 1800s. The original community at Pleasant Hill was settled in 1805 and dissolved in 1910, but conservationist efforts beginning in the 1960s helped bring the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill back to its original state. Visitors can explore the historic village, see textile, woodworking and broom-making demonstrations, learn about Shaker farming traditions and even stay overnight at the Inn at Shaker Village.
Though history is a large part of any Harrodsburg experience, it need not be the only part: the town has a bustling art and food scene (especially for bourbon lovers). Check out the Arts Council of Mercer County Studio and Gallery on Main Street, where local artists display their work for viewing and purchase (everything from sculpture to ceramics). Also on Main Street, The Ragged Edge Community Theatre acts as an educational center for the arts, putting on plays and musicals for locals and out-of-towners alike.
Harrodsburg is also surrounded by a number of bourbon distilleries, which offer tours (and tastes) to interested parties. Both the Makers Mark and Four Roses distilleries are just 20 miles from Harrodsburg in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. If you want to get your bourbon fix without leaving Harrodsburg proper, check out the Old Owl Tavern at the Beaumont Inn—they have over 70 different types of bourbon.
18. Silver City, NM
There's something for everyone in Silver City, New Mexico, where the local population just tops 10,000. Locals say that it offers the "authentic New Mexico experience," but for each old west saloon, there's just as many unique, unexpected cafés serving pork loin bathed with bitter chocolate or Moroccan date-and-orange salad.
Silver City, like its name suggests, popped up when silver was discovered in the area—but it was another metal, copper, that sustained the town after the silver industry went bust in the late 1800s. Copper mining is still the basis of the town's economy, which helps lend it its "authentic" feeling, mostly because it truly is authentic: in Silver City, miners, hunters, art folk and foodies all meld together.
Downtown Silver City features stately 19th century architecture—everything from adobe to Victorian. The saloons were Western figures like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy once might have visited have been replaced by a bustling art scene—most of Silver City's art galleries are concentrated in the downtown area, interspersed with coffee shops and restaurants.
For a sweet treat, stop by Alotta Gelato, New Mexico's oldest gelato shop. If you're looking for a more adventurous culinary experience, consider the Curious Kumquat, where owner Rob Connoley's interest in molecular gastronomy mixes delicate foams with local meat and produce. Or, if you're looking for the ubiquitous green chile, so important in New Mexican cuisine, consider a trip to Tre Rosat Cafe, where traditional bar food gets an upscale twist in dishes like pork belly tacos or Kobe beef meatloaf.
19. Decorah, IA
If Decorah, Iowa, has a mission, it's to prove that there's much more to the midwestern state than cornfields. Decorah sits in the heart of Iowa's bluff country, an area heralded for scenic beauty and wildlife. Dunning Springs, just minutes from downtown Decorah, is a 200-foot waterfall—visitors can explore the area by bike or via a network of hiking trails.
For those looking for a little dash of history, Decorah's main attraction might be the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, which features over 24,000 artifacts and 12 historic buildings, making it not only the most comprehensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world, but the oldest and most comprehensive museum about any single ethnic immigrant group. Founded in 1877, the museum takes its name from the Norwegian word for "western home," a tribute to the important presence of Norwegian immigrants in the Upper Midwest.
But Norwegian-American artifacts aren't the only thing Decorah stores in large numbers: the town is also home to the largest non-governmental seed bank in North America, Seed Savers. Think all tomatoes are created equal? Seed Savers has over 6,200 varieties of the fruit.
For shopping, visit one of Decorah's newest shops, Lillesoster Butikken, which means "little sister's shop" in Norwegian, and check out their selection of ladies clothing, jewelry, handbags, fashion belts, home decor and even children's accessories. Also consider stopping by Milkhouse Candles, which sells a blend of soy and beeswax candles that actually clean the air as they burn.
20. The Dalles, OR
Portland, Oregon may get all the attention with its bustling food scene and often mocked residents, but just 80 miles east, perched on the Columbia River Gorge, sits The Dalles, a vibrant community well worth exploring. One of the most appealing features of The Dalles is the astounding natural beauty that surrounds it: from orchards to forests to high deserts, The Dalles offers a taste of all of Oregon's natural beauty. Less than an hour by car from The Dalles is Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oregon. Or, explore over 271 acres of the Columbia River Gorge at the Tom McCall Preserve at Rowena, situated on a plateau overlooking the Columbia River.
Though The Dalles is set in a magnificent natural setting, human history plays an equally important role in the life of the town. Called "The End of the Oregon Trail," The Dalles offers a number of historic sites for those interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Visit Rock Fort Camp, where Lewis and Clark camped on both legs of their historic journey. Or check out the Rorick House, the oldest house in The Dalles, built by a noncommissioned officer from the U.S. Army post. There’s also Pioneer Cemetery, which has 228 graves, some of which go back to the 1860s.
Downtown The Dalles is marked by eight murals that tell the history of the area. Visit The Dalles Chamber of Commerce to score keys to the "talking boxes" next to each mural, which describe the murals story as recorded by historians, Native Americans or the artists themselves.