10 Unique Small Towns to Explore in the U.S.

by Mike Shubic

Summer is the quintessential time of year when families pack up the car for the beloved road trip. In the United States, folks often head to one of the nation’s awe-inspiring parks, frequently overlooking the small towns in between. Last year I took to the road and solidified my love for small-town America and the back roads that lead to the heart of a nation.

Each of these small towns has everything you’d want for a memorable vacation, from outstanding lodging options, culinary delights, sensational scenery, to fun activities. In a few hundred miles you’ll have a new chapter of memories that will last a lifetime.


Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Eureka Springs, Arkansas,  is a Victorian mountain village nestled in the Ozarks with copious things to see and do. You can zip-line through the forest, watch big cats feed at a wildlife refuge, view breathtaking vistas (fall is sensational), fish in clear trout streams, photograph waterfalls or stroll through the colourful gardens surrounding an ancient burial ground — if that doesn’t make your spirits soar, check out one of the haunted houses. One of the best spots for live music is Basin Park which plays host to frequent free community concerts. Dining options are abundant, and don’t be afraid to veer up or down a dark, narrow alley staircase: they often lead to places where the locals hang out.


Lake Placid, New York

Lake Placid, New York,  hosted the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, and one could argue that it was the last of the small-town Olympics to be held. The area still attracts world-class athletes for summer and winter training. While there is plenty of Olympic history to explore, Lake Placid is certainly not defined by it. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy skiing, bike riding, hiking and an array of water sports. Beautiful scenery is everywhere you look. Dense forest shimmers in the fall with its brightly coloured foliage — a sign that winter festivities are just around the corner. Lake Placid also offers world-class lodging and dining options.


Leavenworth, Washington

Leavenworth, Washington,  is a Bavarian-themed community, and when I say “themed, ” I mean embraced through-and-through. From its architecture to the attire, the look and feel of Leavenworth is reminiscent of a hillside community along the banks of the Rhine. With over seven hundred miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails, you can devour nature. Or you can relax at one of the many luxurious accommodations in town, several of which are right next to the Wenatchee River (the west’s version of the Rhine).  If you’re into spas, theatre, festivals, geocaching, wine tours, museums, or drinking beer from a stein, you’ll find that too. Leavenworth is on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountain range, so you’ll experience a lot more sunshine than you will on the Seattle side.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico,  is located about an hour north of Albuquerque and offers a more relaxed and highly impressive array of amenities.  There are many high-end B&Bs, resorts and spas in town, all of which provide a unique southwestern experience, and the dining is top notch. Santa Fe is extremely well known for its art scene — it’s a way of life here, and has been for centuries. As one of the oldest cities in the country, Santa Fe is rich in history and Pueblo culture. From architecture, New Mexican cooking classes, to nightlife, there is something for everyone. You can also enjoy skiing, white-water rafting, fishing, hiking, and horseback riding.


Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina,  is a bevy of beer, beards and bears. The growing craft beer scene apparently boasts more breweries per capita than any other U.S. city.  At any given time you can enjoy over fifty local beers on tap or in the bottle, and there is no shortage of annual festivals to celebrate the artisan suds. When it comes to “beards, ” for some reason they are quite popular in Asheville and you’ll see every style under the chin. Asheville is one of the entry points to the Great Smokey Mountains, where in the summer there is a good chance you’ll see bears roaming and foraging. Make sure to pay a visit to the ostentatious Biltmore Estate. At over 8, 000 acres, the Biltmore was built by George Vanderbilt and is America’s largest home with 250 rooms and nearly 180, 000 square feet.

Port Orford, Oregon

Port Orford, Oregon,  is so small that if you blink, you might just miss the whole town. Despite its size, the coastal community has much to offer. More than half a dozen art galleries offer experiences ranging from whimsical to ultra-modern. Some B&Bs offer individual romantic cabins in a tranquil setting, to say nothing of the ocean views, and dining ranges from high-end to eccentric. Heads State Park is a great place for hiking and unobstructed ocean views. Or make your way to Agate Beach to fly a kite, take a romantic stroll, or lie out on a warm summer day. Oh, and you won’t want to miss the Cape Blanco Lighthouse.


Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia,  is located along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  During its long and illustrious existence, Charlottesville (aka C’Ville) has been able to maintain its small-town charm.  Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, called Charlottesville home — his presence is still felt, remembered and revered.  Visiting Monticello (Jefferson’s home) and strolling the grounds of the University of Virginia (founded by Jefferson) are a must. The focal point of the community is the Downtown Mall, where on Saturdays you’ll find a farmer’s market at which many of the local restaurateurs get their ingredients.  The soil in Virginia is very fertile and the farm-to-fork movement is fully embraced. You’ll also find a rich art scene, over twenty wineries and some award-winning small-batch breweries to explore.


Telluride, Colorado

Telluride, Colorado,  is tucked into a box-like canyon surrounded on three sides by majestic 14, 000-foot peaks. The public transportation in Telluride isn’t buses, subways or streetcars, it’s a gondola. You also won’t find any chain restaurants or stores, but you will find Colorado’s longest free-falling waterfall. With the town’s colourful Victorian-era homes, clapboard storefronts, boutiques, art galleries, gourmet restaurants and historic buildings, Telluride is an enchanting place to explore.

Lewiston, New York

Lewiston, New York,  is located just beyond Niagara Falls. This small village boasts at least a dozen marvelous restaurants, and the area’s outdoor ArtPark plays host to many well-known musical acts each year, as well as other art and cultural events. You can also enjoy jet boat rides, strolls along the embankment, and kayaking. Close by, Old Fort Niagara is worth a visit, as well as The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, a developing winery trail, and, the historic Lockport Locks on the Erie Canal.


Bardstown, Kentucky

Bardstown, Kentucky,  might be best known for being the bourbon capital of the world. In 2012 it was named the “Most Beautiful” small town in America by Rand McNally and USA Today. If you’re not a bourbon fan, don’t let that stop you from visiting Bardstown, the distillery tours and tastings might make a fan of you, as they did me. For more than 225 years the southern hospitality, historic surroundings, fine restaurants and friendly accommodations in Bardstown have made folks feel right at home. Civil war history runs deep in these parts, and a tour of the various museums and sites will surely be an education you’ll not soon forget.