There's nothing like the charm of a small town.
Walk through a quiet downtown filled with quaint, locally owned stores, and you can smell the mom-and-pop restaurants cooking everything from burgers and fries to specialty dishes created by executive chefs. Residents walking their dogs stop to say hello and welcome you to their little slice of heaven. Even shop owners take the time to throw up a hand and issue a friendly greeting as you walk by. Many of the residents know one another, and festivals abound as an excuse to come together. And if you look hard enough, "small town" is usually a misnomer, because you'll usually find an abundance of things to do.
Perhaps one of the best things about small towns is that, like characters in a book, each one has its own personality, backstory and way of doing things. Here are 15 small towns to love, spread across the U.S., each with its own charm and flavor.
Known as "The End of the Road" in Tom Bodett's radio show, Homer's charm has a lot to do with its mix of residents, said native and former resident Jim Anderson: "Its residents are a rich mixture of multi-generational families that homesteaded the land before statehood to hippies that came in the '70s to start a new organic life before the word 'organic' was hip. There are also artists—visual and performing—who settled in the area to take advantage of the inspirational beauty of the countryside and the peaceful, welcoming nature of the locals in one of God's most glorious canvases on Earth." Nature plays a big role in Homer's appeal, as it is known for its views of the Northern Lights and spotting animals ranging from bears to eagles to whales.
For an old-world German experience without leaving the U.S., willkommen to Leavenworth, an entire American Northwest town modeled after a Bavarian village. The Bavarian touch is in everything from the architecture to the handcrafted maypole in the town square. To add to the small-town Bavarian charm, a beer wagon greets people downtown each weekend from spring to fall, and the variety of German restaurants includes an outdoor beer and brat garden. What's most curious is that all the German charm was actually dreamed up in the 1960s when the town was broke and needed some appeal to attract tourists. Five decades later, it's clear the idea has worked.
According to our Tahoe editor Chaco Mohler, the mountain-town charm of Truckee is its combination of history, the natural beauty and outdoor recreation available throughout its surroundings and its vibrant and involved residents. "Truckee is home to a committed population of Gen-X and millennials who have started new shops, restaurants and businesses and are very involved in local schools and community activities," Mohler said. "Those locals support an ever-expanding collection of unique shops, galleries and eateries, all while preserving the Western town's authentic, relaxed mountain lifestyle."
Ithaca, New York
Head to Ithaca, and you'll be charmed by the town's largely youthful, vibrant atmosphere with a good mix of cultural activities and plenty of outdoor adventure. Joni Sweet, a New York editor for Where, recommends visitors eat vegetarian food at the famous Moosewood Restaurant ("I was a waitress there. Tourists from around the world would come in all summer long, even with a two-hour-plus wait for a table."); swim at Buttermilk Falls; walk through the Cornell Plantations; sample Finger Lakes wines at the local vineyards; see live music at the State Theater; let kids get hands-on with science at the Sciencenter; hike Treman State Park; visit the farmer’s market; grab a local brew at Ithaca Beer Co.; enjoy tapas in a beautiful outdoor patio at Just a Taste; and shop on the commons.
We asked Susan Grunstra, of Ligonier's chamber of commerce, why people know this town's charm, and she said it's because the location in Pennsylvania's scenic Laurel Highlands couples well with historic sites, art museums, galleries and some the best boutique shopping in the region. She adds that the town is also a great jumping-off point for other adventures: "We are close to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob and Duncan House; whitewater rafting in Ohiopyle State Park; the Flight 93 Memorial; Idlewild and SoakZone (one of the oldest amusement parks in the country); and our own Fort Ligonier." Perhaps one of Ligonier's most charming sites is the town's "Diamond" central square with its iconic bandstand.
Newberry, South Carolina
Newberry's location in the South Carolina's Midlands puts it near several rivers, lakes and state parks. Charming and quaint locally owned shops, parks, the Enoree River Winery and all the outdoor activities make Newberry worth a visit. A variety of locally owned stores—including many antique shops—only adds to the charm. Built in 1881, the French-Gothic Newberry Opera House, also downtown, is home to many live theatrical performances and concerts that you wouldn't otherwise expect in a town this size. People come from all over the state to see shows and concerts here and grab a bite to eat at one of the many downtown restaurants.
[ALSO IN SOUTH CAROLINA: Aiken: A Travel Guide to South Carolina's Horse-Obsessed City]
The charm of remote Marfa is that it is basically one giant art installation. This town of about 2,000 has many art galleries, from tiny storefronts to sprawling outdoor installations to a huge gallery that was a military base in a past life. One of Marfa's most famous installation pieces is the Prada store, a permanently installed sculpture sitting by itself along the highway about 20 miles from town that looks just like a miniature version of the upscale retailer. Almost as much artistic vision can be found in Marfa's dining scene, from a taco trailer called Boyz2Men to a number of bars and casual dining establishments (Buns 'n' Roses) and fine dining (French-Italian fusion at Laventure). Art even can be found in the lodging, which includes everything from hotels and home rentals to curious rentals like a brightly colored RV or a big teepee.
Stowe is a charming town, both visually and emotionally, said Stowe Area Association's Jasmine Bigelow. "The colorful 19th-century architecture, cobblestone sidewalks and a pedestrian covered bridge deliver precisely what’s expected in a quintessential New England village. Surround that with the natural environment—mountains (including Vermont’s highest peak), rivers, waterfalls, wooded trails, and open landscapes—and Stowe’s beauty surpasses expectations in all seasons. But it’s the friendly 'hello' of the shopkeepers, restaurateurs and other locals that defines Stowe charm for most visitors." And what is more charming that the von Trapp family (yes, as in "The Sound of Music"), who once called Stowe home and even founded a lodge there?
The beauty of Marquette, which sits directly on Lake Superior, is unparalleled in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, says our Las Vegas editor Jennifer McKee, who lived there during her college days. "The city is a college town, but locals, students and visitors alike are not immune to the pull of Presque Isle Park. Upon approach is a marina, picnic area and breakwall, but the real beauty lies inside the undeveloped scenic loop, which can be accessed on foot or by bicycle or automobile." The picturesque environs of Marquette don’t stop there, she said, adding that no trip to Marquette would be complete with going to the Lower Harbor, home to every food fest imaginable and an over-the-top fireworks display and parade of boats on the days surrounding the Fourth of July. When hungry, head to the quaint downtown area. It is filled with family-owned shops and restaurants and is easily walkable.
Tarpon Springs, Florida
The historic downtown of Tarpon Springs—20 miles north of Clearwater—is very much influenced by its Greek culture after a population of Greeks were hired in the 1880s to harvest sponges. Today, that tradition still carries on, as many visitors shop for freshly harvested sponges on the docks at the Anclote River. The charm of the town itself comes with brick streets. To get started exploring, head to Dodecanese Boulevard along the riverfront; it is lined with local shops that carry everything from souvenirs to home goods, natural sponges and olive oil soap. Several antique shops line downtown’s Tarpon Avenue a few blocks to the south. Bringing the kids? Stop in at the Tarpon Springs Aquarium to pet the baby sharks and stingrays.
Princeton, New Jersey
Princeton is home to the Ivy League university of the same name, which is wedged between the town’s main street—Nassau Street—and Mercer Street, where Albert Einstein lived. According to our New York editor Lois Levine, the town's charm comes from all that can be found in such a small area. "Nassau Street is replete with unique jewelry stores, wine boutiques, award-winning restaurants and a coffee bar—Small World—that in my opinion is the best coffee in the U.S.," she said. There also are jazz and food festivals in the fall; an historic inn that has a wall filled with black-and-white photos of Princeton alumni (from Eugene O’Neill to Michelle Obama); and a little-known gem of an art museum in the center of the university campus. "And it's halfway between Philly and New York City," Levine said, making the charm easily accessible for millions of urban dwellers.
Manitou Springs, Colorado
Manitou Springs was formed in the 1870s when visitors discovered the healing waters the Ute Indians had been drinking. The cool mountain air also was thought to be good for tuberculosis sufferers. Today, visitors still come for mental and physical health that can be found in this small town near Pikes Peak—just take a look at the many salons and day spas. To throw in some retro charm, you can play pinball for a dime at Manitou Springs Penny Arcade. Downtown is easily walkable for shopping and dining at a variety of local shops and restaurants. Perhaps the largest attraction—literally—is Pikes Peak. In Manitou Springs, you can catch the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which slowly winds its way up the mountain to the 14,000-foot summit.
Apex, North Carolina
Beth Shugg, Where's Raleigh editor, said she has been a resident of Apex for 16 years, but she feels like a native, which speaks volumes about the town's charm. "Apex is one of those towns you escape to a few miles outside of Raleigh. It's a small town with all the amenities of a much larger town." She said the small, locally owned downtown shops each have their own character. "Whatever you want to get for yourself or someone else, you can easily find downtown," Shugg said. For such a small town, there are lots of parks and green space, including a skate park right next to a dog park. "And we're right next to Jordan Lake, which is huge. Just about everybody has a boat in their garage for spending time on the lake."
Winona is located in the Mississippi River, in bluff country, and the bluffs rise up on one side (capped by Sugar Loaf, the most prominent landmark), and the Mississippi is on the other. "It’s an old town because it’s on the river, so there are beautiful, enormous old houses and historic buildings in the town," said our Seattle editor Stacy Booth, who has a personal connection to the town. There are a ton of outdoor activities like hiking in the bluffs, and a few nearby state parks, the most popular being Whitewater State Park. "It’s also a college town—I went to Winona State, which is in the middle of the town—but on the outskirts is Saint Mary’s University (a private school). That means there are lots of cute coffee shops, restaurants and theater and art shows," Booth said. Winona is known for its stained-glass tradition, and holds the distinction of being one of the best places in the world to have stained glass restored.
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Sure, people also come for the coastal beaches, but Ocean Springs is equally a destination for art lovers and foodies, with more than 100 restaurants lining the streets in the tiny historic district. The live-oak-lined streets of the downtown area are filled with eateries, shops, art galleries and boutiques. Each year, Ocean Springs holds the popular Peter Anderson Art Festival in the fall, which brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area. Looking for live music? May Fest and The Mississippi Songwriters Festival both take place at the heart of Ocean Springs.