From town squares lined with family-owned shops and diners to proximity to the great outdoors, small towns across the U.S. are treasure troves of good ole’ fashioned Americana. This list of our readers’ favorite small towns will transport you from coastal beaches to spring-fed lakes, the expansive open air of the plains to the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. So tuck in and discover what makes these small towns the best of the best.
1. Abilene, Kansas (Winner)
For the second year running, Abilene has taken the top spot in our annual Best Of Travel Awards (view the full list of winners and finalists from last year here)! Cowboy roots run deep in Abilene; cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail would end in town with cattle being sold and boarding trains bound for the East. The pockets of these early cowboys didn’t stay full for long, as they spent their hard-earned money on their vices of choice. Experience some of this rich history at Old Abilene Town, or climb on board an old-fashioned steam-powered locomotive for a memorable trip. The Wild West is still alive and well in central Kansas.
There is even more to like about this historic town, including a presidential connection. President Eisenhower moved to Abilene at the age of two and considered it his hometown. Pride in Ike is visible all over town. Step back in time in Little Ike Park, where you will find a statue of his younger self, or visit the 11-foot-tall effigy outside the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in all of his Supreme Commander glory. The library and museum — as well as his boyhood home — are essential stops during your visit, so don’t miss them!
Once your thirst for history has been quenched, saunter around town and explore everything else that makes this such a great place to visit and live. Enjoy a tasty treat from Amanda’s Bakery and Bistro, grab a bite from the award-winning La Fiesta, or head over to Old Abilene Town for a steak from the Hitching Post. Once your belly is full, stroll through the great boutiques and antique stores scattered around town. Whether you come for the day or the week, Abilene is ready to welcome you home.
2. New Braunfels, Texas
Located between San Antonio and Austin along the southeastern edge of Texas Hill Country, the quaint German town of New Braunfels awaits your arrival. Outdoor water fun is free flowing; with the Guadalupe and Comal rivers meandering through town and Canyon Lake just 30 minutes to the north. Tube down the Comal, which locals call the “longest shortest river in the world.” At only 2.5 miles, this spring-fed river is so short, it doesn’t even stray beyond New Braunfels’ city limits.
Or spend the day at Schlitterbahn, the local resort and water park that was a recent Family-Friendly Resort finalist in the Best Of Travel Awards. With four distinct sections of the park, each with both kid- and adult-friendly activities, your family won’t want to leave.
From traditional German fare to Tex-Mex done right, New Braunfels is a smorgasbord of fantastic flavors. And this is Texas after all, so a trip to town would not be complete without savoring some slowly-smoked and scrumptious meats at Black’s Barbecue or any of the other fine BBQ restaurants around town.
3. Lindsborg, Kansas
Experience the rich culture of Sweden without even leaving the U.S. While in town, see if you can spot each of the Wild Dala horses “roaming” the streets. One part Swedish culture and one part contemporary art, the Wild Dala horses of Lindsborg blend the town’s storied history and Swedish culture with their own unique town pride. The “herd” continues to grow, with the current map displaying locations for 35; don’t forget to grab your map and seek out each and every one!
Drop in to one of the many galleries and museums showcasing the rich art and history of the region. The Old Mill Museum will take you back to the early 20th century when the town’s mill was in its prime. The town honors this history with an annual festival each May, breathing life back into the historic building. After a busy day of art and antiquing, drop by Crown & Rye Restaurant for a hearty helping of Swedish meatballs with egg noodles or another fantastic Swedish dish.
4. Clear Lake, Iowa
Venture off Interstate 35 about halfway between Des Moines and Minneapolis, and you will find yourself in the charming lakeside community of Clear Lake, Iowa. When looking for things to do in this charming town, the lake itself is a great place to start. Venture down to the marina and rent a boat, or bring your own and drop it in at one of five area boat launches and explore the 3,600 acres of water at your disposal. Or sit back and enjoy the view aboard the Lady of the Lake, an authentic sternwheeler — an aptly named vessel where the paddle wheel can be found on the stern.
Music fans will enjoy a trip to Surf Ballroom & Museum, a historic music venue recognized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame itself. Continuing its rich rock ‘n’ roll traditions today, grab tickets to a lively show in what is one of the only true ballrooms remaining in the Midwest.
From cover bands to national tours, the music scene is strong in Clear Lake. Prior to the show, stop by one of these delicious places to eat in and near town to ensure you are at your peak energy wise.
5. Vero Beach, Florida
Nestled on the Atlantic coast 2.5 hours north of Miami, Vero Beach is home to beautiful beaches and stunning wildlife, with a healthy dose of nightlife as well. Pelican Island just north of town is home to the first official national wildlife refuge, created by Teddy Roosevelt to slow the decline of the then over-poached brown pelican. Or come for a glimpse of the sea turtles that build their nests along area beaches; just make sure you don’t disturb their fragile ecosystem.
Keep your eyes on the walls as you venture around; murals have cropped up all over town, and they’ll brighten your day. If you get hungry while exploring the mural trail, refuel yourself at one of the local restaurants. Try Fishack for a mouthwatering clam chowder, or head over to Southern Social for a craft cocktail and a homestyle meal. Vero Beach perfectly blends small-town charm with the laid-back beach vibe of the coast, and we are here for it.
6. Saratoga Springs, New York
Saratoga Springs is home to the Saratoga Racetrack, as well as the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Plan your visit for race day to watch the city come alive. Explore the many great exhibits featured in the museum, including one on the evolution of horse racing through the ages, which is fascinating. Horse and sport lovers alike will want to take the necessary time to explore the museum in depth.
Enjoy a soothing dip in one of the natural mineral springs or patronize a local spa for a more pampered Saratoga Springs experience. For outdoor fun, the southern border of Adirondack Park can be found just 30 minutes north near Lake George. The forests of this six-million-acre park have been protected since the 1800s, ensuring that these breathtaking views can be enjoyed for generations to come.
7. Sedona, Arizona
Make your way to Red Rock Country and enjoy the beautiful natural rock formations found in and around Sedona. Hike to Devil’s Bridge for a great photo op, or enjoy one of the other stellar hiking options around town. The Sedona Shuttle is a great way to get from one trailhead to another, so you can save on fuel and not worry about getting lost — at least on the roads. Venture out to Slide Rock State Park for a break from the heat; slip your way down a natural 80-foot-long chute worn into the sandstone as you enjoy the refreshing water of Oak Creek.
After a long day outdoors, don’t forget about dinner. Try one of these great restaurants with spectacular views and enjoy your meal while admiring the gorgeous natural backdrop. Make sure to pair your dinner with a local wine from the Verde Valley AVA of which Sedona is a part. The considerable temperature swing between the day and night works to slow the natural maturation of the grapes, making the season longer and introducing more complex flavors into the mix.
8. Taos, New Mexico
Taos has long been a destination for artists seeking inspiration for their work, as well as collaboration with fellow artists. This focus on the arts is evidenced by the dozens of galleries and museums around town showcasing their work. Supporting local artists by purchasing their works is a great way to fuel the region’s economy while adding new accent pieces for your home or — in the case of jewelry — body.
Stop in at a local eatery serving chiles, a New Mexican staple. I personally prefer the green variety, while others favor its red-headed cousin. You will just have to taste both and decide for yourself.
Taos’s history can be traced back to as early as 1000 C.E., and Taos Pueblo stands as a testament to the resolve and fortitude of those that settled this land over the last millennium. The settlement, made from adobe bricks, has been continuously inhabited for hundreds of years. Experience the rich history of this National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site during your time in Taos.
9. St. Augustine, Florida
Believed to be the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the U.S., St. Augustine is often called the country’s oldest city. Founded in 1565 by the Spanish, the town is a living museum of sorts, honoring the Spanish colonial architecture that makes this such a beautiful city. Relax at one of the serene beaches along St. Augustine’s shoreline and make time to explore the Castillo de San Marcos, the imposing fort that once protected the city.
Eat your way around the fantastic eateries that make up St. Augustine’s restaurant scene; don’t miss these great restaurants with incredible views! Get out and enjoy the ocean, embark on an exciting hike, or head to the links for a round of coastal golf. If you enjoy music, consider Music and Art by the Sea, a weekly free event on Wednesdays throughout most of the summer.
10. Hermann, Missouri
Step off the train in Hermann, and you will feel like you have taken a step back in time. Family-owned and run businesses are the norm rather than the exception in this quaint German town, with relatively few chains anywhere in sight. And with a downtown area of only a few blocks, it is easy to walk between the numerous restaurants, antique stores, and boutiques without getting lost. Traditional bed and breakfasts are the quintessential Hermann lodging option, putting you within a few steps of the best wineries and shops in town.
The Hermann AVA has been the primary driving force behind the town’s economy for some time. Vineyards blanket the hillsides that overlook the mighty Missouri River to the north. Sample the fruit of their labors at any of the area tasting rooms. Or, hop on the Hermann Trolley for a safe and convenient way for you and your friends to sip your way through town.
11. Ouray, Colorado
Hooray for Ouray! The mountains rise up from all sides hedging the small town in from the outside. Saunter around town, gazing at the historic buildings filled with modern shops and eateries. Allow the rhythmic sound of the cascading water at Box Cañon Falls to clear your mind. Head over to one of the hot springs for a refreshing mineral bath experience.
Bonus: The water in the area is sulfur-free, meaning none of the less-than-pleasant odor associated with many hot springs. Whether you come to relax in the springs or pursue more adventurous opportunities, like rock and ice climbing or embarking on a 4×4 tour of the rugged mountain landscape, Ouray has got you covered.
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