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The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014

From country music to herbal cocktails to horseshoe crabs to Rodin, our third annual list takes you to cultural gems worth mining

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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

(Shaw Nielsen)

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 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.


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