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

Best Small Towns to Visit 2013
Illustrated maps by John S. Dykes

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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2. Cleveland, MS

Cleveland, MS
(Jane Rule Burden)

The Mississippi Delta, as the Southern essayist David L. Cohn famously put it, “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” The land is pancake flat, some of it below sea level, all soldierly fields of cotton, rice and soybeans, cut lengthwise by a railroad and later by Highway 61. Outlanders seeking the prettified Old South of Tara come away disappointed, but other visitors find culture as deep and rich as the soil, especially those who’ve heard the “Pea Vine Blues” sung by early bluesman Charley Patton.

American music would not be what it is today without the blues. It welled up in the Delta—arguably at Dockery Farms plantation, five miles east of Cleveland—for myriad reasons. But ultimately, said Tricia Walker, director of the Delta Music Institute at Cleveland’s Delta State University, “There was nothing to do at the end of the day but sit on the porch and play.”

There’s more to do now in Cleveland. New blood has washed through town, restoring the Historic Crosstie business district with its beguiling Railroad Heritage Museum, bringing an arts alliance to a vintage movie theater, filling rehabbed warehouses with galleries and restaurants. Creative young locals surprise even themselves by coming home to stay after college, though their art group’s wry motto—“Keep Cleveland Boring”—confounds elders. And here’s something for the front page: In early 2015 a $12 million Grammy Museum will open on the DSU campus.

The university, which opened in 1925 as a teacher’s college, kept Cleveland alive and draws audiences for concerts, dance, theater and film to its stylish Bologna Performing Arts Center. The Delta Center for Culture and Learning offers tours, lectures and workshops. The university’s Dave “Boo” Ferriss Museum celebrates a Delta-born Boston Red Sox pitcher and longtime DSU coach. The Delta Music Institute prepares students for careers in the industry and sends new talent to local clubs like Hey Joe’s, On the Rocks and the Pickled Okra.

No matter how hard Cleveland pulls toward the New South, it persists as an authentic Delta town where historic markers are about as common as stop signs. Chiefly shaped by white Methodists and black Baptists, it benefited from surprising infusions of Chinese and Italian immigrants enticed to Delta cotton fields, traveling Jewish salesmen, Irish mule traders and Mexicans who gave Cleveland its taste for tamales. The region’s literary bent produced Eudora Welty and Willie Morris, their work underscoring the Delta’s loquacity.

The talk these days is likely to be about football at Country Platter, favored by graduates of predominantly black East Side High School, several of whom went on to play for the NFL. Co-owner Jimmy Williams can tell you about Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy attending civil rights meetings on the premises and the health benefits of fried chicken, yams and peach cobbler cooked without too much oil. “The trouble is people are lazy,” he says. “They got to burn it off.”

The countryside east of town yields more history. Dockery Farms Foundation (a former plantation) vividly describes the sharecropping system that kept blacks in poverty or sent them into the Northern diaspora. Freedom Riders were held at nearby Parchman Prison. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by two white men, likely in the hamlet of Drew, helped wake up a nation to the plight of Southern African-Americans. And then there’s the town of Mound Bayou, founded in 1887 by former slaves—the first haven of its kind in the United States—once with its own bank, train depot, swimming pool and hospital. The village, alas, now molders along Highway 61, but Peter’s Pottery thrives. It was started in 1998 by the Woods brothers, who learned the art of working native clay at McCarty Pottery, a celebrated ceramics gallery and garden down the road in Merigold.

It’s just a few winding, washboard miles to Po’ Monkey’s, set in open farmland crisscrossed by hickory breaks and bayous. A dilapidated collection of add-ons and lean-tos, it’s like all the other rural juke joints that once lit up the night sky, beckoning folks to dance, drink and listen to guitar slides. Fans kept stealing the historic marker out front so proprietor Willie Seaberry put a fence around it. Po’ Monkey’s is all about the blues—“No rap, period,” says Seaberry. Standing outside with the sun sinking and the lights of Cleveland blinking on, you can just about hear James “Son” Thomas, whose uncle taught him to play the blues by marking three chords on the neck of a guitar:

I ain’t gonna pick no cotton.
I ain’t gonna drag no sack.
I ain’t gonna do nothing ’til my baby get back.


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3. St. Augustine, FL

St. Augustine, FL
(Ryan Ketterman)

St. Augustine has decided to throw itself a 450th birthday party—for four years. That would be overkill anyplace else, but not in the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America, founded in 1565 by Spanish conquistadors. Add this year’s statewide quincentennial commemoration of Ponce de León’s 1513 landing and you’ve got a true history bash.

She—St. Augustine is too pretty not to be female—nestles on Florida’s northeast coast, protected from the Atlantic Ocean by barrier beach islands of signal interest to sand castle builders. Havana, maybe, has as much bougainvillea and Spanish Colonial character. But with a restored fortress, coquina limestone city gates, central plaza and nine-building-strong Dow Museum of Historic Houses, St. Augustine stands as the most lovingly cared-for vestige of the Spanish New World in the United States.

She comes to her fiesta in full dress, with an exhibition of 39 artworks by Pablo Picasso on loan from the Fundación Picasso in Málaga, Spain (through May 11), at the St. Augustine Visitor Center, a Spanish Mission Revival-style building. Colonial Quarter, a living history museum, opened last month, and the Government House Museum will complete renovations in the fall, returning Spanish doubloons and épées to display. Flagler College is polishing Tiffany stained-glass windows and restoring the solarium at Ponce de León Hall, formerly a luxury hotel, built when big American money turned its eyes on Florida. There’s no gainsaying the wow factor of St. Augustine’s Gilded Age.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, with a planetarium, teaches about the nation’s first port and has a swizzle stick of a beacon, with 219 steps leading to an alert Fresnel lens. Performing arts take stage at the Limelight Theater, First Coast Opera and St. Augustine Amphitheater, famous for “The Cross and Sword,” a re-enactment of the town’s founding, with symphonic accompaniment.

It must be said you’ve got to look sharp to avoid the Florida theme park feeling that sometimes makes it hard to tell the true from the ersatz. But who can cavil about the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park? Founded in 1894, it’s a relic in itself, one of the oldest still-operating tourist attractions in Florida—and the only place in the world said to exhibit living specimens of all 23 crocodilian species.


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4. Baraboo, WI

Baraboo, WI
(© Narayan Mahon)

Kids didn’t bat an eye when they saw elephants bathing in the Baraboo River: Ringling Bros. once made its headquarters in Baraboo. By the turn of the last century, it took 100 railroad cars to transport the circus’ 1,500 employees, animals, gear and opulently decorated parade wagons. When it bought out Barnum & Bailey in 1916, it had every right to call itself “the greatest show on earth.”

Clowns, trapeze artists and Vanna the baboon dazzle at the Circus World Museum, a monument to how the traveling show introduced frontier towns to art, music, exotic animals and marvels like electric lights. The masterfully restored wagons and lithographic ads are an Aladdin’s cave of American folk art.

“Nothing is too good for Baraboo,” Albrecht Ringling, oldest of the seven Ringling brothers who grew up in town, said while gilt was being applied to columns in a theater he built and artists were painting a French Baroque mural on the fire curtain. “The Al” opened in 1915, though vaudeville has yielded to concerts, musicals and talkies accompanied by a 1928 Barton organ.

You can’t go to this durable Midwestern town without experiencing powerful moments of déjà vu that emerge from the collective unconsciousness of America. On the lawn of the historic courthouse, folks gather on summer nights, kids in jammies, for concerts and movies. Adjacent to the town square are a handsome 1903 public library, galleries, antiques shops, German bakeries and two bookshops. (The Village Booksmith holds bring-your-own-supper showings of “Downton Abbey” in the uncut British version.)

Two big parades every year show off wagons from Circus World, marching bands and belly dancing. “That’s always controversial,” says Greg DeSanto, executive director of Baraboo’s International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center.

North of town, the Baraboo/Sauk County branch of the University of Wisconsin—“Boo U”— reaches into the community with concerts, plays, lectures and exhibitions.

The nearby Baraboo Hills offer naturalists and geologists textbook terrain scoured by ancient glaciers, later the meeting place of Midwestern forest and prairie. This landscape inspired the first generation of American conservationists, beginning with John Muir, raised in nearby Portage.

In 1973 a pair of Cornell University students landed at a Baraboo Hills horse farm, now home to the International Crane Foundation. Walking trails on the campus, where all 15 extant crane species are bred and studied—including the extremely rare whooping crane—bring home the preciousness of these critically endangered birds. To hear them bugle in unison is magic.

Aldo Leopold sometimes heard cranes on the abandoned farm by the Wisconsin River where he watched the seasons turn. He read the story of man’s relationship with nature in the rings of a tree he was forced to fell—the “good oak” described in A Sand County Almanac, a bible of the American conservation movement. At the Leopold Center, about 15 miles northeast of Baraboo, you can see Aldo’s shack, walk through groves of pine he planted and remember a visionary who, by rights, gets the last word.

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”


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5. Astoria, OR

Astoria, OR
(Brian Smale)

They’re picking Dungeness crab down at Bornstein Seafoods. Chowder’s on the hob at Josephson’s Smokehouse and the chef at Baked Alaska is preparing thundermuck tuna. In a dental office at the foot of 12th Street, patients sit in a chair that overlooks the Columbia River on its last massive surge to the Pacific Ocean. When the dentist disappears, it could be he’s gone out to the porch to see if there’s a sturgeon on his line.

One way or another, it’s about fish in this town. Wild salmon put Astoria on the map two centuries ago when 16 million of them swam upriver to spawn every year. Salmon fishing earned fortunes, gave work to immigrants, turned canneries into mints and lined the steep streets with flush banks, proud wood-steepled churches and Victorian mansions. And so they still call it “Little San Francisco.”

But time passes. Too many fish were taken. Dams rose, deterring the salmon spawn. The Bumble Bee cannery pulled up stakes and the plywood mill closed down, leaving Astoria a sorry fish carcass of a town. “Under a grey and leaden sky / A little city slowly dies,” the fisherman-poet Dave Densmore recited to me. (These days you can catch Densmore, who has a permanent tattoo of grime around his fingernails, reciting verse at Astoria’s annual FisherPoets Gathering.)

Then, it was as if Astoria put its foot down. In 1995 citizens raised more than a million dollars to restore the Astoria Column, a 125-foot-tall icon on Coxcomb Hill, wreathed in plaster murals that celebrate red-letter events in Astoria’s past, such as the arrival of the weary Lewis and Clark expedition at the Columbia River estuary in 1805 and John Jacob Astor’s establishment of a fur-trading colony seven years later—the first Anglo settlement west of the Rockies.

The pitifully triplexed 1925 Liberty Theater reopened in 2005—with original chandeliers and opulent Italianate décor. It hosts 200 events a year and anchors redevelopment around Commercial Street, a neighborhood alive with galleries, bookstores, cafés, microbreweries, a farmers market and seafood restaurants.

The Queen Anne-style Flavel House, built in 1885 with 14-foot ceilings and 11-foot, Eastlake-inspired pocket doors, was the domain of George Flavel, a Columbia River Bar pilot, and is now one of several Clatsop County Historical Society museums. Another, in the old county jail, shows movies made in town, such as The Goonies, a 1985 Steven Spielberg pirate-treasure adventure that has achieved cult status, at least locally. The soaring Columbia River Maritime Museum tells stories about treacherous storms, ships wrecked at the mouth of the river and heroic U.S. Coast Guard lifesavers.

Diversification helped bring the fish business back, and lumber companies now send enormous heaps of hemlock to Asia. Visiting cruise ships have played a role in Astoria redux, though movers, shakers and poets vow to make sure its blue-collar ring never fades.

They can’t do anything about the weather—close to 200 rainy days a year. On overcast mornings the bridge to Washington is just a pencil sketch, and some nights look like a Thames River nocturne by Whistler. How to cope? Good beer and coffee does it for ruddy-cheeked Chris Nemlowill, who co-founded the Fort George Brewery and favors baggy shorts in all weather. Of course, when it’s beautiful, long-timers say, Astoria is the only place to be.


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6. Petoskey, MI

Petoskey, MI
(Brian Kelly Photography)

In the summer the Indians picked the berries along the road and brought them down to the cottage to sell them, packed in the buckets, wild red raspberries crushing with their own weight.
—Ernest Hemingway

The Hemingways started summering near Petoskey in 1899 when Ernest was a baby and trains and steamer ships brought city people in search of fresh air, boating, fishing and widely advertised “Million Dollar Sunsets.” Hemingway immortalized Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in his Nick Adams Stories, but his “The Indians Moved Away,” quoted above, was a bit premature. Some 4,000 members of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of the Odawa Indians still live nearby and operate the Odawa Casino in town.

Petoskey (named after chief Ignatius Petosega) is charm central, graced by concerts, vintage architecture, art galleries and Friday night festivities that attract folks to the petunia basket-draped downtown Gaslight Shopping District. Jesperson’s Restaurant has been serving local sour cherry pie since 1903 and the doors are still open at bay-front Stafford’s Perry Hotel, which catered to summer people in the Victorian heyday. The Little Traverse History Museum has taken over the old rail depot, and a United Methodist Church built in 1890 is now home to the Crooked Arts Center, with pottery and painting studios, films, dance and music recitals.

In nearby Bay View, a Methodist summer camp and Chautauqua Assembly, the events traditionally started as soon as the lilacs bloomed. (One night in 1895, folks could choose between Mark Twain and a stereopticon lecture on “Babylonian Religion and Ideas.”) Today the tidy community of Victorian cottages puts on concerts, operas and musical theater. The Hemingway Society pays its respects at Windemere, a cottage on Walloon Lake eight miles from Petoskey and still owned by the family.

Papa isn’t the only literary figure around. The novelist Ann Patchett, of Nashville, who has vacationed in the “dreamy little town,” adores McLean & Eakin Booksellers, an independent shop that sponsors readings and short story contests. “It’s the kind of store where I could happily spend a summer,” Patchett wrote not long ago.

Others prefer the beaches, hunting for fossilized coral Petoskey stones, everybody’s favorite souvenir of summer on the shores of Lake Michigan.


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7. Fairfield, IA

Fairfield, IA
(© Charles Stretch Ledford)

Fairfield sits in an undulating landscape with farmhouses, silos, barns and plenty of sky. A railroad track runs through town and there’s a gazebo on the square. You have to stick around to learn about things you’d never find in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, like the preference for east-facing front doors. That’s the orientation prescribed by Transcendental Meditation movement founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose followers went looking for a place to start a university and landed in the cornfields of southeast Iowa.

The Maharishi University of Management now offers B.A.’s in 13 fields, among them Vedic science and sustainable living. With students riding bikes and plugged into iPods, it looks like any other college campus, except for twin gold-domed buildings where practitioners gather to meditate twice a day.

Fairfield could stand as a case study from The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida’s book on the link between educated populations and economic development. Fairfield got the one when the college opened its golden domes, drawing accomplished people who saw its sweetness; it got the other when they started dreaming up ways to stay. “Everyone who arrived had to reinvent themselves to survive,” said mayor (and meditator) Ed Malloy.

The economy started perking in the 1980s with e-commerce and dot-coms, earning Fairfield the name “Silicorn Valley,” then launched start-ups devoted to everything from genetic crop-testing to investment counseling. Organic farmer Francis Thicke keeps the radio in his barn tuned to Vedic music; his Jerseys must like it because everyone in town says that Radiance Dairy milk is the best thing in a bottle.

But there’s more than mellow. The new Maasdam Barns Museum, with buildings from a farm that raised mighty Percheron horses, displays agricultural machines made by the local Louden Company. A walking tour passes the rock-solid, Richardson Romanesque courthouse, a Streamline Moderne bank, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired residences and myriad examples of Vedic architecture.

Artists and performers find they can afford to live in Fairfield. ICON, which specializes in regional contemporary art, joins galleries and shops in hosting a monthly art walk, featuring the work of some 300 local artists.

The striking new Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts welcomes acts from chamber groups to Elvis impersonators. The soon-to-open Orpheum Theater will offer something that is dying out in big cities—an art movie house.

Solar panels help banish electricity bills at Abundance Eco Village, an off-the-grid community on the edge of town. But it’s less about altruism than well-being in Fairfield. Take, for instance, the quiet zones, recently instituted at railroad crossings to silence incessant train whistles; newly planted fruit trees in city parks; and Fairfield’s all-volunteer, solar-powered radio station, producing 75 homegrown programs a year. “Fairfield,” says station manager James Moore, a poet, musician, tennis teacher and meditator, “is one of the deepest small ponds you’ll find anywhere.”


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8. Los Alamos, NM

Los Alamos, NM
(Scott S. Warren)

Scientists in Los Alamos raced to design and fabricate nuclear bombs, detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, a scant month after they were tested, bringing World War II to a summary end. The drama, secrecy and moral implications of the Manhattan Project, as it was called, are of such enduring significance that Congress is expected to debate creating a national park in Los Alamos to conserve sites related to atomic bomb development.

As you approach town on stepped plateaus that climb to the Jemez Mountains and look east over the Rio Grande Valley, it’s clear why the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer convinced the U.S. Army to locate the Manhattan Project in remote Los Alamos. “He wanted grand vistas to inspire scientists, and they did,” said Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, which offers lectures on subjects as diverse as modern Nagasaki and hiking trails in Bandelier National Monument.

It was Manhattan Project alumni who created the Bradbury Science Museum, telling the social and scientific history of the great undertaking. (The Manhattan Project would give rise to Los Alamos National Laboratory.) Oppenheimer’s career went aground during the McCarthy era, but his brilliant, cultivated spirit still fosters a rich symbiosis of science and the arts in Los Alamos, which has two dance companies, a symphony orchestra and a community theater. Its calendar features art fairs and farmers markets, along with the popular Next Big Idea: Festival of Discovery, Invention and Innovation, which sponsors an international science- and math-based art contest.

The spectacular setting that inspired Oppenheimer is perhaps the crowning glory. Cached on the 7,500-foot Pajarito Plateau amid ranch lands and pine forests—lately threatened by two major wildfires—Los Alamos is in easy reach of skiing and hiking, ancient Pueblo dwellings at Bandelier National Monument and Georgia O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu.


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9. Sitka, AK

Sitka, AK
(Mark Kelley)

On an island in the Alexander Archipelago with roads that give up when they meet forests of massive hemlock and spruce, Sitka is cupped in a bay and protected from the cold, forbidding Gulf of Alaska by rocky green islets. It’s this stunning frame that strikes visitors first, inspiring amateurs off Inside Passage cruise ships as well as professional photographers to remove their lens covers.

There are photo ops galore at Sitka National Historical Park, site of the last major battle between Europeans and Native Americans on the Pacific Coast. The park’s Totem Trail presents a haunting collection of Native American woodcarving art. “Sitka is the most historic community in Alaska, but for me it’s the thousands of years of occupation by the Tlingit people that add depth of culture,” said Teri Rofkar, a Native American weaving artist and Sitka resident.

The woodcarving comes as a revelation, compelling visitors to see it less as artifact and more as art. The same goes for the miraculous Tlingit spruce root baskets, potlatch hats and Raven rattles displayed at the Sheldon Jackson Museum on the campus of a small Presbyterian college, where James Michener lived while writing his epic novel Alaska.

The Sitka Historical Society and Museum boasts 25,000 vintage photographs portraying local ceremony and society. It shares waterfront Harrigan Centennial Hall with a performing arts center, headquarters for the Sitka Summer Music Festival and Russian New Archangel Dancers. The celebrated Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi native dance company performs in the Tlingit Community House.

No other town in the 49th state has Sitka’s charisma. To wander through its historic downtown is to appreciate how three cultures—Tlingit, Russian and American—were woven together. Built partly on bayfront pilings, the landmark Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall houses the first chapter of an organization founded in 1912 to fight discrimination against the state’s first people. The Lutheran Church, built in 1840 for Swedish and Finnish members of the Russian American Company, and onion-domed St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral, with its nearby Russian Bishop’s House, are reminders of Eastern influence.

Above all looms 3,200-foot Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano said to have attracted the Tlingit people to Sitka even before its last eruption around 2200 B.C. It looked about to explode again in 1974 when local prankster Porky Bickar set fire to 100 spare tires dropped by chopper in the mouth of the volcano—the whimsical side of Sitka’s character.

10. Provincetown, MA

Provincetown, MA
(Jessica Scranton)

If you doubt that Ptown, as it’s known, is radiantly beautiful, flip through Cape Light, featuring photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, one of the many artists who have gravitated there.

Better yet, go: in season when day-trippers head for National Seashore beaches and mob downtown, or out of season when geese cry and time slows, leaving the village to residents and artists and writers on retreat. They come from afar to seek inspiration at the Fine Arts Work Center, and in historic National Park Service-administered shingle shacks on the dunes where Jack Kerouac made notes for On the Road.

The earliest outlanders—the Pilgrims—were off-season people. In November of 1620, before they ever saw Plymouth Rock, they anchored the Mayflower in Cape Cod Bay, first setting foot on dry land at the west end of town. Their footfall is marked by a plaque and their momentous enterprise commemorated by a 252-foot granite tower. Built in 1910, the Pilgrim Monument overlooks a splendidly intact 19th-century village with 1,500 sites and buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

But it wasn’t history or fried clams that created Ptown in all its singularity. It was the artists from World War I-torn Europe who found safe harbor on Cape Cod Bay, establishing the venerable Provincetown Art Association and Museum, where American Post-Impres- sionism met Modernism. The organi- zation still sponsors lectures, garden tours, concerts and exhibitions like last year’s “Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea.” Artists and art-lovers gather at Beachcombers Club clambakes to shoot the breeze about new shows at the galleries on Commercial Street.

As the bohemian art colony took shape, Provincetown laid cultural claim to its position on the outré edge of the Outer Cape. “This is the freest town in America,” resident Norman Mailer once said. The town’s gay and lesbian community helps set it apart. The December light festival, Holly Folly, has all the trappings of similar events in other small towns, except it’s sponsored by the gay and lesbian Provincetown Business Guild. How to Survive a Plague, a film about AIDs activism nominated for a 2012 Oscar for best feature documentary, got its launch at the Provincetown International Film Festival.

Go for the Pilgrims, clams, light and free-spiritedness. Just leave your Top-Siders at the door.


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11. Galena, IL

Galena, IL
(© Kim Karpeles / Alamy)

Ulysses S. Grant lived only briefly in Galena before the onset of the Civil War, working with little distinction in a branch of the family leather goods business. So it was awfully nice of the town to give him a fine, furnished mansion when he came home from the battlefront. Grant left again to become the nation’s 18th president, though he said he’d always vote in Galena—reason enough to enshrine the general’s boots and bow ties at the town’s history museum and to make his restored home the center for Grant birthday celebrations each April. It’s an Italianate brick dwelling built in 1860, somewhat more modest than the nearby Belvedere Mansion, built by Grant’s friend and riverboat baron J. Russell Jones, and the Greek Revival Washburne House, once home to Congressman Elihu Washburne, a supporter of both Grant and President Lincoln. These days Galena is an open pop-up book of classic Midwestern Victoriana, attracting weekenders from Chicago to picturesque Main Street art galleries, restaurants and shops. In the bar at the landmark DeSoto House Hotel, it’s none too hard to imagine General Grant mulling over a shot of bourbon.


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12. Sausalito, CA

Sausalito, CA
(© Craig Lovell / Eagle Visions Photography / Alamy)

Spanish missionaries and explorers put what is now Marin County on the map, but the nether land across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco got its true cultural stamp in the wild and woolly 1960s with the arrival of hippie refugees from the nearby Haight and New York’s Greenwich Village who planted an art colony in Sausalito. While the scene moved on with the dawning of the wealthy, woo-woo New Age, the moon lingers in the Seventh House among waterfront houseboats and in the town’s full palette of galleries. Labor Day weekend brings crowds for the Sausalito Art Festival, and studio doors open to visitors in December at the ICB, part of a historic shipyard in its second life as home to over 100 artists. These days it takes more than a day trip to dabble in Sausalito, where attractions include a massive hydraulic model of the bay, the Victorian Lyford House at the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary, and the Bay Area Discovery Museum, devoted to fostering creativity in children. Muir Woods and Point Reyes National Seashore are close at hand, and then there’s the view of San Francisco Bay, islands and bridges, backdropped by the glorious skyline of San Francisco.


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13. Hanover, NH

(© Eduardo Rubiano)

Home to Dartmouth College, Hanover has all the New England college town trappings: bookstores, cafés, galleries and an idyllic setting in the upper valley of the Connecticut River with covered bridges, New Hampshire Lake District vistas, mountains, ski resorts (Killington, Storrs, Ragged Mountain), brilliant fall foliage and maple syrup. The college, founded in 1769, provides such cultural attractions as the Hood Museum of Art, performances at the Hopkins Center, and Baker Library murals by the Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco, while adding a Winter Carnival ice sculpture and some of the Ivy League’s wildest parties (the 1978 cult classic Animal House was inspired by Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity). Nearby hamlets yield more soulful diversions, like Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner with its miraculously reclaimed Medicine Woods; Enfield Shaker Museum, a small community on the shores of Mascoma Lake where Shaker “simple gifts” endured for over 100 years; Mount Ascutney, a 3,130-foot monadnock across the river in Vermont; Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site preserving the summer home of celebrated American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the 19th century art colony of Cornish; not to mention the blissful New England country roads that reach them.


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14. Oberlin, OH

Oberlin, OH
(© Layne Kennedy / CORBIS)

“We will take special pains to educate all our children thoroughly, and train them up in body, intellect and heart.” That ninth tenet in a singular document known as the Oberlin Covenant forever tied the town of Oberlin to its college, both founded in 1833 by Presbyterian ministers not far from Cleveland and Lake Erie. The school, built to last of Ohio sandstone, went on to send missionaries to China who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion and commemorated with an arch in amiable Tappan Square, a stop on walking tours offered by the Oberlin Heritage Center. Oberlin was the first college in America to grant bachelor’s degrees to women and among the first to admit African-Americans, with the oldest continuously operated music conservatory in the United States. Now music is what Oberlin is known for: Friday night “Organ Pump” events in Romanesque Revival Finney Chapel, all-bassoon Christmas concerts, and the Artist Recital Series, attracting internationally acclaimed soloists and orchestras. The other liberal arts are showcased in Oberlin’s celebrated Convocation Lecture Series; at the recently renovated 1913 Apollo Theatre; and at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, an Italianate Cass Gilbert building with a later addition by the architectural firm of Robert Venturi. Feature this: Students and Oberlin townsfolk can rent works of art—including Toulouse-Lautrecs and Picassos—from the Allen for $5 a semester.


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15. Jackson, WY

Jackson, WY
(© Alex Pitt / ZUMA Press / Corbis)

Sure, you’ve got your sham cowboy shootouts, chuck wagon restaurants and elk antler curios in Jackson. Your movie stars, glam ski apparel and ritzy Four Seasons. But there’s just no gainsaying this two-stepping town at the threshold of the jagged Grand Tetons, a magnet for artists, beginning with Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, whose work vies with Mother Nature at Jackson’s Wildlife of the American West Art Museum. Mountain men, ranchers and big game hunters were drawn to the Snake River Valley, too, leaving vestiges of their wanderings at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum and on the town’s iconic square, still lined by boardwalks but now way more cosmopolitan than Tombstone, Arizona, or Dodge City, Kansas. The Grand Teton Music Festival makes its home every summer at all-wooden, acoustically rich Walk Festival Hall, and the Jackson Center for the Arts sponsors year-round lectures, concerts and plays. Of course, most visitors spend their time making hay in the great outdoors or looking for wildlife at the nearby National Elk Refuge and inside the national park, where elusive bighorn sheep can sometimes be spotted on the sheer, snow-carpeted faces of the Grand Tetons.


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16. Lexington, VA

Lexington, VA
(© Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / Alamy)

Lexington, just down-valley from Staunton—a 2012 Smithsonian culture town—gets a nod this year for a lot of good reasons, not least among them that it nestles between the beautiful Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway, authorized as a public works project by FDR in 1933, winds alongside for leaf-peeping in the fall or rapturous springtime encounters with blooming rhododendron and laurel. Either way the ridge still looks like “ranges of blue clouds rising one above another”—a description coined by an 18th-century member of the vaunted Byrd family of Virginia—a suitable backdrop for winsome Lexington with is brick sidewalks, handsomely restored historic churches and homes, Lawyers Row and Courthouse Square. There are plenty of arts and crafts galleries, dramatics under the stars at the Theater at Lime Kiln (set amid the ruins of a 19th-century quarry), bluegrass fiddlers at Clark’s Ole Time Music Center and concerts of all kinds on the stage of the Lenfest Center. But architecture and historic preservation are Lexington’s pride and joy, gloriously displayed on the campus of Washington and Lee University. Founded in 1749, the school was endowed by George Washington and presided over from 1865 to 1870 by Robert E. Lee, whose remains lie in a crypt beneath the perfectly proportioned Victorian Lee Chapel. The Stonewall Jackson House remembers the Confederate general who taught physics and artillery tactics at the nearby Virginia Military Institute. Known as the “West Point of the South,” the campus is a distinguished Gothic Revival complex with museums dedicated to the school’s history and to celebrated graduate George C. Marshall, who masterminded the post-World War II rebuilding of Europe as secretary of state under President Truman. Take a tour, led by a cadet, and if you happen to be there on a parade day, you’ll never forget it.


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17. Abilene, KS

Abilene, KS
(© Richard Wong / Alamy)

At the railhead end of the dusty old Chisholm Trail, Abilene was a rough-and-tumble watering hole—for both cowboys and cattle—like a page out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Those days are fondly remembered in the saloons and log cabins at Old Abilene Town, the 1887 Rock Island Depot and the Dickinson County Heritage Center with its still-operating 1901 C.W. Parker Carousel and Museum of Independent Telephony, dedicated to the nascent telephone industry. A cultural oasis amid the farm fields and silos of central Kansas just south of Interstate 70, Abilene has a circa 1900 Carnegie Library, Great Plains Theater, staging professional productions from June to December, and American Indian Art Center. But its depth of character comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent his boyhood in Abilene, then grew up to mastermind the Normandy invasion as a World War II general and to become the nation’s 34th president. “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene,” Ike once said. So it’s fitting that the town was selected as the site for his Presidential Library and Museum, enshrining Ike’s grave and modest childhood home where the seeds of the 1950s American dream were planted. Exhibits and events explore his approach to global peace-keeping during the cold war, role in desegregation, shrewd use of early television-age public relations and, of course, Ike’s wife Mamie.


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18. Lihue, HI

Lihue, HI
(© Michael T. Sedam/CORBIS)

Most people collect their welcome leis at the airport or cruise ship dock in Lihue and move on. But between the beaches and the waves, the frangipani and shave ices, the island’s cultural center keeps calling. Easy to reach from almost anywhere on diminutive Kauai (just 553 square miles in area), Lihue has been a place of congregation ever since—as legend has it—proto-Hawaiians built a lava rock dam near the mouth of the Huleia River, now a historic site known as Alekoko Fishpond. The whole story of the island from volcanology to surfing is told at the Kauai Museum; Kilohana and Grove Farm Homestead, two of the island’s big sugar plantations, vividly recapture scenes from the colonial era; and for the ear, the Kauai Concert Association brings jazz, classical music and dance to the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center.


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19. Fredericksburg, TX

Fredericksburg Texas
(David Butow / Corbis)

Hill Country color and craziness, foot-tapping song and dance, wine and wildflowers, LBJ and Lady Bird—it’s all part of the Fredericksburg barbecue. Start with the town’s singular history, as told at downtown’s Pioneer Museum, dedicated to the German settlers who brought Oktoberfest, strudel and Lutheranism to the region in the mid-19th century. Sauer-Beckmann Farm explores rural life in the Hill Country; Fort Martin Scott describes the enforcement of treaties with Comanche; the Texas Rangers Heritage Center tips its Stetson to the territory’s fabled corps of rough-riding lawmen; and the National Museum of the Pacific War dedicates itself to hometown boy Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, who signed the Japan’s surrender document in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. With LBJ’s beloved ranch in nearby Stonewall and the Luckenbach Dancehall, where Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band recorded country music classic “Viva Terlingua,” just down the road, people say Fredericksburg’s gone touristy. But there’s nothing touristy about driving Rural Route 1623 along the beguiling Blanco River and 13-mile Willow City Loop, especially in wildflower season. You’d have to be as dour as Martin Luther not to enjoy wandering through historic district galleries, theaters, biergartens and clubs where folk, rock, country and Tejano music is just as good as high-hat classical and opera. And even he’d dance the polka at the Fredericksburg Oktoberfest.

Editor's Note, March 25, 2013: The entry for Fredericksburg, Texas, originally had a photo of Mason, Texas. We have replaced the incorrect photograph with one that was captured at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Fredericksburg. Thank you to our readers for catching our error and we apologize for the mistake.


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20. Glenwood Springs, CO

Glenwood Springs, CO
(© Blaine Harrington III / Corbis)

The Colorado River has just come out of the high Rocky Mountains and still has a long way to go when it meets the Roaring Fork in Glenwood Springs. There’s a pretty park, cheerful business district and Frontier Historical Museum near the confluence, along with a 1904 train depot visited by the Amtrak Zephyr (on daily runs between Chicago and San Francisco). The station is also home to the Glenwood Railroad Museum, celebrating a time when seven different lines carried locally mined marble and prized strawberries to points beyond. Luminaries—the famous (Teddy Roosevelt and the Unsinkable Molly Brown) and infamous (Al Capone and Doc Holliday) all headed for Glenwood’s celebrated mineral spa established right around 1890. Folks still come to take a dip in the world’s largest hot springs pool—two blocks long, complete with water slides, bubble chairs and miniature golf on the side. Alas, Glenwood’s thermal water didn’t do much for gunslinging Doc, who died of consumption and was buried up the hill at Linwood Pioneer Cemetery in 1887. A Summer of Music festival at the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts provides upliftment and a chance to put your feet up after hiking on local trails that start at the town’s doorstep and take you through rugged canyons and airy peaks, including Storm King Mountain, where 14 firefighters died battling the South Canyon Fire in 1994, a devastating story told in John Maclean’s Fire on the Mountain.


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