Sometimes it’s nice to slow down and take a breather, and across the country, there are scores of smaller hamlets where you can do just that.
With ample arts and cultural opportunities, plus all the dining, shopping and entertainment you could want, America’s lesser-known urban scenes are justifiably popular.
From a former mining community in the Southwest to a Victorian-lined charmer on the East Coast to a laid-back surf town off the mainland — all with populations of 15,000 or less — here are some of the coolest small towns in the US. If you're looking for exploration close to home this fall — or any time — look no further.
St Augustine, Florida
The vibe: living history, impressive architecture
Forty miles south of Jacksonville and almost 150 miles north of Orlando on Florida's Atlantic Coast, St Augustine is the "oldest city in the US", or rather, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement, established by the Spanish in 1565. Because it’s been around so long, this small city of 15,065 has accumulated an impressive array of architectural styles, from Moorish Revival to Spanish Colonial to neoclassical, and its building codes ensure the enclave’s eclecticism remains intact.
Historic reenactments occur throughout the year, particularly on and around Aviles Street, purported to be the oldest street in the country, and there are loads of other landmark sites, including two properties built by financier Henry Flagler in 1888 — Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel, and the Lightner Museum, formerly the Hotel Alcazar—as well as the Villa Zorayda Museum, a reproduction of the Spanish Alhambra; and the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, the site of the spring once believed to be the actual Fountain of Youth. Don’t skip Lincolnville, a Black neighborhood settled by formerly enslaved people in 1866, and the Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center on MLK Avenue, which honors their place in history.
Stroll down the pedestrian-only St. George Street to pick up snacks and gifts or simply window-shop along the thoroughfare, and don’t be afraid to venture off course — the surrounding environs have plenty to offer as well, from antiques on San Marcos Avenue to art galleries all over. For a cool treat, pick up an ice cream sandwich at Peace Pie, where fillings like key lime and cherry pie are part of the equation.
The vibe: Old West with a modern twist
The red rocks and energy vortexes of Sedona are an established Arizona attraction, but some 300 miles to the south, the former mining town of Bisbee is making a name for itself with a cooler crowd. Just an hour and a half from Tucson in the Mule Mountains, the onetime “Queen of the Copper Camps” is now a destination for creative and outdoorsy types alike, offering a glimpse of the Old West via mine tours, museums, and heritage sites like the Lowell Americana Project, an ongoing effort to restore the one original street remaining from the town’s early days.
But it’s not just a time capsule: Modern makers have set up shop on and around Main Street, selling custom hats, vintage clothes, handmade jewelry, and consumables like olive oil and honey; there are breweries and restaurants ranging from farm-to-table to vegan to Vietnamese, and the art scene is a lively one, with a contemporary museum spotlighting works by artists such as Banksy, Jeff Koons, and Kara Walker, plus galleries galore. Plan a trip around the monthly art walk, or visit in June for the uber-popular Pride festival.
The vibe: Wine Country-casual
Anchoring the top end of Napa Valley in Northern California’s Wine Country, Calistoga sits 75 miles north of San Francisco, ideally situated for a casual weekend away from the Bay Area. The spa town was hit hard by 2020’s Glass Fire, though it’s been bouncing back since in a big way, with folks turning out for soaks in the local geothermal hot springs, alfresco music and dining, shopping on Lincoln Avenue, and, of course, vineyard visits aplenty.
Larkmead is one of the oldest family-owned estates in the valley, while Sterling Vineyards has an aerial tram that offers unbeatable views of its surroundings (though it’s currently closed for renovations and repairs post-fire). For something more modern, the too-cool-for-school Tank Garage Winery slings one-off California blends from a refurbished 1930s gas station. Weary of wine? Take a break and try the divey Susie’s Bar for cheap beer and free popcorn at happy hour, plus pool tables, a jukebox and sports on TV.
Beaufort, South Carolina
The vibe: slow and steady
With stately Southern mansions and ancient trees dripping with Spanish moss, Beaufort sits some 70 miles south of Charleston on Port Royal Island, one of the Sea Islands that constitutes South Carolina’s fabled Lowcountry region. Founded in 1711, the second-oldest city in the state has a strong military presence — there’s a Marine Corps recruit depot and air station as well as a naval hospital — and a sizable Gullah population, an African-American community with uniquely well-preserved ties to its heritage, especially its English-based, African-influenced creole language.
Visit in May for the Gullah Festival, or, for a hands-on approach to cultural learning, take a cooking class at Gullah Grub. Sign up for a workshop or attend a reading at the Pat Conroy Literary Center, ogle the antebellum homes in the Point neighborhood, and tour the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory, the only one of its kind still operating in the country today. Refuel with a shrimp burger from the down-home Shrimp Shack, and bunk in at Anchorage 1770, an 18th-century mansion turned boutique inn on the waterfront.
The vibe: all Pride, all the time
A longstanding art community and legendary LGBTQ+ escape at the very tip of Cape Cod, two hours from Boston and five from New York, Provincetown has been welcoming — and embracing — queer travelers for decades, drawn to this corner of New England for its unspoiled beaches and its open-minded attitude. With cottages hundreds of years old, plus a quaint, walkable downtown area, dozens of outdoor drinking, dining and entertainment options, and a reputation as being one of the most bike-friendly places in the country, with multiple shops and rental options for exploring both town and country, it’s no wonder P-town has remained popular throughout the years.
To see the place in all its glory, time your visit to one of the community’s big events — Pride in June, Bear Week and an epic Independence Day celebration in July, and Carnival in August, to name a few. For an artsy experience, the East End has 40-some galleries are clustered along Commerce Street; the permanent collection at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum spotlights local and regional art, featuring works by hundreds of artists who have lived on the Cape, while the Provincetown Fine Arts Works Center focuses on the contemporary side of things.
The vibe: equine excellence
Situated in northern Virginia’s horse, hunt, and wine country, about an hour west of Washington, DC, Middleburg is situated in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it’s a genteel jumping-off point for exploring the surrounding terrain, wineries most definitely included. Over the years, it’s had a roster of elite residents, with politicians (Kennedys, Reagans), philanthropists (Mellons, du Ponts), and entertainment-world bigwigs (Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Duvall, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson) calling the area home — or second home, as the case may be.
Even so, it’s maintained a down-to-earth yet still upscale small-town feel, and in keeping with that aesthetic, its charming, walkable streets boast country-chic boutiques, equestrian shops, and diverse dining options, as well as some 160 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Snag a seat outside at King Street Oyster Bar for crabcake sliders and $1 oysters at happy hour, try the organic, gluten-free, farm-to-table eats at Side Saddle Bistro, or belly up to the bar for snacks and cocktails at The Red Fox Inn & Tavern, a historic property dating to 1728.
The vibe: big style in a small-town package
Despite its claim to fame as a filming location for movies like No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and the James Dean–starring Giant, Marfa didn’t have much name recognition outside of Texas until the 1970s, when minimalist sculptor Donald Judd relocated and put down roots. After his death in 1994, the next wave of artists and creatives followed in his footsteps to the Trans-Pecos, and in the years since, the tiny Chihuahuan Desert town has been transformed into an art-world destination, equally famed for its iconic fake Prada store — an installation by artists Elmgreen & Dragset with bulletproof glass and doors that don’t open—as its thriving creative community and its remote location, three hours from El Paso, seven from Austin, and eight from Dallas.
Judd’s Chinati Foundation is a contemporary museum that’s drawn devotees since its doors first opened in 1987, and it remains a must-see; don’t skip the contemporary Ballroom Marfa with its site-specific projects and free entry either. Shop for custom footwear at Cobra Rock Boots and pick up skincare goodies at Mira Marfa. El Cosmico offers overnights in funky safari tents, yurts and Airstream trailers, while Hotel St. George has sleek digs and a nice pool.
Cape May, New Jersey
The vibe: vintage vacation
The southernmost beach in the state, Cape May is a throwback to summer days gone by, with a slow-paced, family-oriented atmosphere that sets it apart from the rest of the Jersey Shore. The town itself is a National Historic District, boasting lush, quiet streets lined with hundreds of well-preserved, brightly painted Victorian mansions — a backdrop perfect for social-media photo shoots and family albums alike.
Hit the walkable Washington Street Mall for beachy staples like souvenir tees, ice cream, and homemade fudge; climb to the top of the 19th-century lighthouse — 199 steps up a spiral staircase — for a bird’s-eye view of the ocean and the bay; and visit the Harriet Tubman Museum to learn more about the legendary abolitionist, who lived and worked in Cape May to fund her work on the Underground Railroad.
The vibe: artsy and outdoorsy
Less than three hours south of Denver and west of Colorado Springs is Salida (pronounced Sa-LIE-da), a Rocky Mountains town founded in the 1800s as a stagecoach stop. Today it’s one of the state’s Certified Creative Districts and an artsy gateway to some of the region’s best outdoor activities, from hiking and mountain biking to skiing and whitewater rafting. Within the city limits, the Arkansas River winds through the heart of downtown, a walkable grid lined with bookstores, galleries, yoga studios, bike shops, and plenty of places to stop for coffee, beer, and bites.
Grab a table overlooking the water at Boathouse Cantina and sample the mango-habanero margaritas, baja fish tacos and Colorado-style green chili, or sit outside on the patio at The Fritz for small plates like seared-ahi wontons, bacon-wrapped dates and elk-jalapeño sausage, washed down with a creative cocktail or two. Refuel with an espresso and shop for small-batch goods and outdoor-adventure supplies at Howl Mercantile and Coffee, then take a break at Riverside Park, a quiet spot where the Arkansas rushes by. For accommodations, Amigo Motor Lodge has refurbished Airstream trailers and minimalist, modern rooms with super-comfy beds, just a few minutes from downtown.
The vibe: flip-flops and board shorts
An hour from the bustle of Waikiki is the tiny, laidback town of Haleʻiwa, the epicenter of Oʻahu’s North Shore surf scene, thanks to its proximity to the world-renowned swells of Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline. The two-lane Kamehameha Highway is the main thoroughfare, and it reflects its core demographic, with surf shops — like Surf N Sea, one of the oldest in the state—offering all the necessary gear to get newcomers and pros riding the waves. You’ll also find quirky shops, art galleries, a tiny surf museum and an assortment of eateries in the vibrant plantation-era buildings lining the road.
Suit up and spend time at those beautiful beaches, then make like a local and join the queue at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, a neighborhood fixture that recently celebrated 70 years slinging its famous syrup-drenched snowcones. (Pony up the extra dollar and add sweet azuki beans for a chewy, nutty boost.)
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The vibe: old-school Ozarks
In the late 1800s, travelers came to the Ozark Mountains for the hot springs, and in that regard, not much has changed. About 45 miles from Fayetteville, Eureka Springs still draws crowds for its thermal waters, but now spa-goers also come to check out the hamlet’s creative side, from gallery crawls and open studios to the monthlong arts festival held each spring. A “stair-step town” with classic Victorian homes stacked on its hills, a meandering National Register of Historic Places–listed downtown, and exactly zero traffic lights, the town has an old-school ethos that only adds to its appeal.
Go underground for a hearty breakfast at the subterranean Mud Street Cafe, try the hulking wagyu steakburger at Rockin’ Pig Saloon or splurge on the five-course tasting menu at Le Stick Nouveau, a French fine-dining gem below the New Orleans Hotel. Ghost hunters may want to consider booking in at 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, a landmark property dubbed America’s Most Haunted Hotel for its paranormal activity.