Who wouldn’t want to live in the Coolest Small Town in America? Budget Travel’s 9th annual contest saw some of the liveliest competition ever, with some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet creating videos, songs, and mobilizing their fans all in the name of getting their town to the top. Here, the results.
If you found yourself admiring the scenery in the films Tuck Everlasting and The Runaway Bride and thought to yourself, why can’t I live somewhere as beautiful as that, you might consider visiting Berlin, MD, where both movies were shot. Not far from Maryland’s teeming Ocean City and gorgeous Assateague Island, Berlin’s downtown is a National Register Historic District and plays host to fun events all year long, from the regular farmers market to one-of-a-kind bashes like the Berlin Fiddlers Convention, New Year’s fireworks, Victorian Christmas (complete with horse-drawn carriages), and, yes, even bathtub races. The town draws beach lovers, hikers, kayakers, and bird watchers-and history aficionados will want to stop by Merry Sherwood Plantation, Taylor House Museum, and the historic downtown.
If Central New York isn’t already on your travel radar, get ready for a big, and very pleasant, surprise! Cazenovia, on the shores of Cazenovia Lake, may make you feel like you’ve discovered the perfect small town you thought didn’t really exist. Start with a stroll down Albany Street to get a sense of the community’s long history, with architectural styles dating back to New York’s colonial days. The Scottish-themed Brae Loch Inn only increases your sense of having escaped the "real world" (or at least its cares), and the inn serves an exceptional Sunday brunch.
Whether you’re rafting down the Buckhannon River, delving into local Civil War History at the Latham House, or tucking into a "hot belly" BBQ pork sandwich at CJ Maggies American Grill, Buckhannon is a charming host. Smack dab in the heart of West Virginia, Buckhannon received the most nominations of any town in this year’s Coolest Small Towns preliminary round. With an artsy Main Street (with specialty shops, antiques, and galleries), historic downtown, and a paradise for nature and wildlife lovers just outside of town, Buckhannon just may be "the little town that could."
Travelers Rest gets its travel-mag-ready moniker from the pioneer days, when travelers followed a trail dotted with the occasional tavern or inn. But the town offers not only restful, comfy lodgings but also world-class outdoor activities. Nearby state parks and bike trails (including the legendary 13.5-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail) basically invite you stay outdoors all day long. TR’s vibrant downtown is the place to browse for antiques, sip from artisanal coffee, and indulge in Southern faves like BBQ, fried chicken, and waffles. We congratulate Travelers Rest on its succeeding in making the Coolest Small Towns list of 15 finalists for the second year running!
Mathews is not just a town but also Virginia’s second smallest county, with just 84 square miles and no traffic lights. But we know "small" and "cool" go together like beaches and cottages. Speaking of which, Mathews includes miles of Chesapeake Bay shoreline that make it a prime summer destination for beachgoers, bird watchers, cyclists, fishermen, and kayakers. The General Store of your small-town dreams has been converted into a visitor center that’s also devoted to the work of local artists. Don’t miss Point Comfort Lighthouse, and the overflowing seafood (including fresh fish, blue crab, clams, oysters, and mussels).
Nevada City may be a little off the beaten path (60 miles northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains), but residents value the Gold Country town for its music and art scene, food, and proximity to some of California’s amazing rivers, lakes, and the Sierras. For live music, locals swear by the Miners Foundry. For a Sundance feel without the hordes, savor the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. And if you’re hankering for a pro cycling race and don’t plan on dropping in on the Tour de France anytime soon, hightail it to the Nevada City Classic.
Never heard of Rockport? Well, we hadn’t either, which just means it’s now not only a candidate for Coolest Small Town but also for one of our best-kept secrets. Here, artists, saltwater fishermen, and birdwatchers have been lured to Texas’s warm Gulf coast. That combination of activities and interests makes Rockport that kind of town where people return summer after summer for vacation; and many of them eventually decide to relocate permanently to this friendly place. Rockport is also home to the Texas Maritime Museum, the Rockport Center for the Arts (with changing monthly exhibits by local artists), and of course beautiful Rockport Beach.
When your town is the headquarters for Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ve got a pretty good head start on other cool burghs. Skiing and snowshoeing the surrounding mountains is a must in winter, and rafting, fishing, and wildlife viewing are on tap in warmer months (if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the iconic bighorn sheep with its curved horns). Speaking of "on tap," the area abounds with craft breweries and excellent wineries, plus world-class dishes prepared by imaginative chefs that belie the small-town environment. The best news of all may be the, in the wake of last fall’s devastating flooding, 90 percent of the area’s lodging, restaurants, and attractions are open for business. (Estes Park invites you to "Stay Strong," with proceeds from your stay helping to fund recovery efforts.)
Nestled among rolling hills along Illinois’s Galena River, this bustling town has a thriving downtown with unique boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. Visit one of the area’s three local wineries, hike the easy, beautiful hills just outside town, kayak the gentle rivers, and golf at one of the state’s most prized courses. Even non-locals find Galena’s history fascinating, with must-sees like the Ulysses Grant Home and Museum, where the Civil War general and 18th president once lived (the museum’s exhibits are dedicated to Grant’s life and major battles he was involved in, such as the siege of Vicksburg).
In the lovely Yadkin Valley Wine Region of North Carolina, Elkin is about one hour north of Charlotte in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, you’ll find just about every outdoor activity you might like, including hiking, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, bird watching, and cycling. But when you’re ready to relax after a day in the wild, the town’s galleries, historic sites, shops, theaters, wine trails, and restaurants that offer a wide range of tastes for everyone, from fine dining and gourmet sweets to an old-fashioned soda shoppe with "world famous hotdogs." Fun happenings include the Yadkin Valley Wine Festival, the Yadkin Valley Pumpkin Festival, Elkin Fiddlers music, and fantastic Cruise events.
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