In this season of elections and campaigns in politics, Hollywood, American Idol–land, and beyond, the closest contest of all may well have been Budget Travel magazine's 7th "Coolest Small Towns." It was so close, in fact, that we have declared a tie between Beaufort, N.C, and Hammondsport, N.Y.!

Read our blog post for all the details.

Beaufort, NC

(Population: 4,309)
Beaufort was put on the map nearly 300 years ago when the infamous pirate Blackbeard's ship ran aground off the coast—pirate lovers can still view artifacts at their museum. Beaufort is also home to charming antebellum homes and scenic views of the Atlantic.

Cape May, NJ

(Population: 3,699)
The ideal place to mix some history and ghost adventures into your relaxing beach vacation, Cape May is home to a haunted Estate, as well as a number of historical inns and B&Bs. You can even get in touch with nature at nearby Cape May Point State Park.

Cooke City, MT

(Population: 142)
This former mining community's charm lies in its traditional log-based architecture, homey mountain lodges, and small-town feel. Cooke City is also the perfect base for wilderness expeditions within neighboring Yellowstone National Park.

Damascus, VA

(Population: 1,066)
Welcome to Trail Town, USA—literally. Not only is the main street part of the Appalachian Trail, but the town hosts an annual Trail Days celebration every spring featuring film screenings, free concerts and guided hikes in honor of nature.

Hammondsport, NY

(Population: 725)
This Finger Lakes hamlet is best known for its wineries—most of which are open for public tours. Sample some local favorites—including fruits, syrups, and jams from the Finger Lakes—or shop for artsy finds when you're not relaxing on the shores of Keuka Lake.

Jerome, AZ

(Population: 378)
From ghost town to artist haven, Jerome has become known for its Verde Valley views and mysterious past—including a former red-light district and a failed copper-mining community—as well as excellent wine from the intriguingly named Asylum Restaurant.

Nashville, IN

(Population: 769)
Nestled in the heart of Indiana's hill country and home to Brown County State Park, Nashville offers visitors a chance to enjoy the arts—whether you're interested in jewelry making, pottery, art galleries, or live music venues featuring local talent.

 

Port Townsend, WA

(Population: 9,136)
Port Townsend flaunts its rich nautical history yet features enough chic and funky stores to satisfy modern-day shopping demands. Spend time exploring the beauty of nearby Olympic National Park or just admiring the century-old buildings dating back to 1885.

Ste. Genevieve, MO

(Population: 4,360)
Founded in the 1740s—making this town Missouri's oldest—Ste. Genevieve celebrates its French-Canadian past with perfectly restored French colonial homes, B&Bs, and is also home to a historic courthouse-turned-restaurant serving the best ribs in town.

Weaverville, CA

(Population: 3,807)
Located close to the natural beauty of Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and steeped in Taoist traditions started by Chinese laborers during the mid-1800s gold rush, Weaverville was once compared to Shangri-La by writer James Hilton.

Finalists Details

Beaufort, NC

(Population: 4,309)
The coastal town of Beaufort, with its ocean views and antebellum homes, seems an unlikely hangout for one of history’s most notorious buccaneers. Yet the pirate Blackbeard ran aground off Beaufort’s coast nearly 300 years ago, and the Beaufort branch of the North Carolina Maritime Museum proudly displays artifacts salvaged from his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. For another reminder of Beaufort’s rough past, visitors can tour the Old Burying Ground, complete with moss-draped oaks and cracked tombstones recalling some of the town’s nautical pioneers. One the nicer side: The Inlet Inn, a family-operated, 36-room hotel on Beaufort’s waterfront, provides views of the harbor from its private porches, as well as fireplaces in many of the rooms. And the Blue Moon Bistro serves up locally caught seafood and a rum cake that would make Blackbeard proud, matey.

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Cape May, NJ

(Population: 3,699)
Nearly 400 years after its founding, Cape May is still a popular place for sun, surf, and relaxation. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, an organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the town’s Victorian architecture and historic sites, offers trolley tours of beachfront mansions, World War II fortifications—and even paranormal activity. One tour focuses on the town’s Emlen Physick Estate, which reputedly houses a host of ghosts from the Physick family’s past, including one ghastly old auntie who a local medium claims has “great energy and a vibrant smile.” But the beach is still king at Cape May. The town is rich in local inns and B&Bs, many of which look out over the sweeping white sands and gentle waves. Most of the restaurants make use of their coastal connection, too. Try the Washington Inn for fluke, scallops, and grilled swordfish with curried lobster cream. For a break from the bustling downtown, eco-minded tourists can head for the western edge of the cape, where Cape May Point State Park provides opportunities for hiking, fishing, picnicking, and some of the best bird-watching in the state. Keep an eye out for shorebirds like ruddy turnstones and red knots, and the migrating hawks that pass through each autumn.

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Cooke City, MT

(Population: 142)
The string of villages along the border of Yellowstone National Park occupy some of the best real estate in the country, with unfettered access to the waterfalls, geysers, and mountains in the country’s first national park. But Cooke City—a true lightweight in terms of numbers, with a population lower than its own area code—may actually be the reigning champ among these satellite towns. Set on the quiet northeastern corner of the park, it receives just a fraction of the tourist traffic of Yellowstone’s other, busier borders. Cooke City’s history as a mining community has given it an authentically rustic appeal: Its town’s log-based architecture is appropriate rather than contrived, and its teensy size means that everything is within easy reach. There are a dozen traditional mountain lodges, a number of which—such as the Cooke City High Country Motel—include cabins for rent. Early risers can stroll a few short blocks to Bearclaw Sales and Service for pecan rolls and biscuits with gravy at the in-house bakery, then consult with Bearclaw’s outfitter experts—or one of Cooke City’s several other outfitters and tour operators—to prepare for whatever great wilderness expedition the day might hold.

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Damascus, VA

(Population: 1,066)
It calls itself Trail Town, USA, and the title is no hyperbole. In addition to the fact that Damascus’s main street runs on top of the Appalachian Trail, the town serves as a crossroads for a half-dozen wilderness and cultural pathways. The town commemorates its unique location with an annual Trail Days celebration in the spring that gathers hikers and other outdoorsy types for three days of free concerts, film screenings, and, of course, guided hikes. For tired travelers looking for a touch of comfort, the 12-room Damascus Old Mill overlooks Laurel Creek and is a stone’s throw from the Virginia Creeper Trail—no one rests for long around these parts! For an extra pick-me-up, there’s always Mojoe’s Trailside Coffee, whose “trail magic” drink mixes espresso, ice cream, and caramel into a sweet concoction for a burst of quick energy.

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Hammondsport, NY

(Population: 725)
Cradled by gentle hills on one side and beautiful Keuka Lake on the other, Hammondsport is a tiny town with a big reputation: The slopes surrounding the Finger Lakes hamlet are home to some of the most renowned wineries in the country. For a true taste of American history, visitors can tour the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, which, under the name Great Western Winery, became the first bonded vintner in the United States way back in 1860. Over 150 years later, the company still sells reds, whites, and a particularly long list of sherries and other sweet dessert wines. Oenophiles have many other options, including the famous Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, which features picturesque views above Keuka Lake along with its Rieslings. Those more interested in relaxation can enjoy the town’s placid atmosphere, as well as its two public beaches on Keuka Lake and artsy shops perfect for treasure hunting (and tasting!) local products. Finger Lakes fruits, syrups, and jams find their way onto the tables at the four-room Lake and Vine B&B, an 1868 home equipped with a fireplace, library, and other cozy amenities.

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Jerome, AZ

(Population: 378)
It bills itself as a ghost town, but Jerome’s mile-high streets are anything but dead. A copper-mining community that went bust in the mid-1900s, Jerome was saved from complete abandonment by an influx of artists, and today the town is thriving thanks to its artistic heritage and its fortunate location clinging to the slopes of Cleopatra Hill in central Arizona. Jerome’s local businesses make the most of its 50-mile views over the Verde Valley. At the Ghost City Inn, guests can revel in those desert vistas from the comfort of one of six themed rooms, from the Miner’s Suite—outfitted with hardwood floors and antique furnishings—to the cabin-styled Northern Exposure Room, complete with pine bed and wilderness decorations. The vibe outside is just as atmospheric and rife with references to the town’s turbulent past. Visitors can browse the collection of the House of Joy, a “brothel boutique” crammed with vintage artwork, political propaganda, and repurposed accoutrements left over from the building’s run as a prime destination in Jerome’s red-light district. And while the Asylum Restaurant’s name and location in an old hospital might sound unsettling, its wine list—recipient of an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine—and artisanal dishes, such as mesquite bacon-wrapped filet mignon, are good medicine for discerning gourmands.

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Nashville, IN

(Population: 769)
It’s an arts-centered town with a familiar name, but it’s not that Nashville. Nashville, Ind., may not be as famous as its Tennessee cousin, but it has charms all its own, including an enviable setting at the heart of Indiana’s beautiful hill country. The artistry of the fall colors, particularly at nearby Brown County State Park, complements the town’s numerous art galleries, many of which offer classes in jewelry making, pottery, and a variety of other media. One standout is the Sweetwater Gallery, a studio specializing in locally produced stained and blown glass. While its counterpart two states south might be the better-known music destination, Indiana’s Nashville is no slouch when it comes to aural pleasures. Visitors can check out country, jazz, and classic rock at live venues like the Muddy Boots Cafe, which combines the best of Nashville—local musicians take the stage almost nightly, and the cafe is festooned with eclectic, colorful artwork and decor that almost rival the town’s annual leaf-peeping extravaganzas. Those keen on experiencing Nashville’s countryside may want to saunter down to the Buck Inn at Rawhide Ranch, where modern amenities with rustic twists—hewn-log bunk beds, for example—are housed on the second floor of the ranch’s horse barn.

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Port Townsend, WA

(Population: 9,136)
If Port Townsend, perched on a tendril of Washington’s scenic Olympic Peninsula, seems to have a split personality, there’s a reason for that. In the late 19th century, the community was built on two levels to separate the rough-and-tumble maritime types from the respectable, bluff-dwelling townsfolk. The waterfront today may not be quite as coarse as it was, but Water Street, the town’s primary commercial strip, still preserves vestiges of Port Townsend’s nautical history. The street is lined with elaborate, century-old buildings; the Belmont, a dockside saloon, opened in 1885. From fine jewelry at Lila Drake to funky duds at the Clothes Horse to CDs, vinyl, and coffee at Quimper Sound, Water Street has plenty of chic and quirky stores to keep shoppers busy. Visitors weary from a long day of browsing the boutiques can settle into one of several historic lodgings, including the eight-room Old Consulate Inn, which has been restored to its original 1904 Queen Anne style, down to the paint trim. Port Townsend provides easy access to Olympic National Park, an expanse of wilderness encompassing beaches, rain forests, and even glacier-topped mountains—though lodgers at the Old Consulate can always just skip the adventure and spend the day lounging in one of the inn’s claw-foot tubs.

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Ste. Genevieve, MO

(Population: 4,360)
Missouri’s oldest town, Ste. Genevieve has been a mainstay of middle America since before Missouri—or America, for that matter—even existed. The community’s French-Canadian roots have survived from its founding on the Mississippi River in the 1740s until today. Ste. Genevieve is packed with meticulously restored French colonial homes, many of which now house local businesses. Built over 200 years ago, the nine-room Southern Hotel is one of the town’s most celebrated B&Bs, thanks in part to its many personal touches, including a curated garden and bathtubs custom-painted by a local artist. The first stop on any tour of Ste. Genevieve’s historic district should be the gardens at the Bolduc House Museum, which was built in 1790 and is now a National Historic Landmark. After an afternoon of experiencing Ste. Genevieve’s robust history, visitors can enjoy an equally hearty meal at the Old Brick House, a former courthouse that now delivers prime rib in place of prosecutions.

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Weaverville, CA

(Population: 3,807)
Coursing rivers, craggy mountains, vibrant wilderness—Weaverville’s setting on the outskirts of California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest sells itself. It owns a nice slice of history, too: Unlike many gold-rush towns, Chinese laborers in Weaverville in the mid-1800s were able to cultivate a strong and supportive local community here. The result is a town that, even today, comfortably spans cultures. There are strains of Victorian America in antique residences such as the 1865 five-room Whitmore Inn while the spirit of the frontier flavors the menu of the Old West–styled La Grange Café. For a touch of California bohemia, try the fair-trade coffee and organic tea served at Mamma Llama Eatery. Anchoring it all is a strong history of Taoist tradition exemplified by the Joss House—the state’s oldest continuously used Chinese temple, where the faithful have worshipped since 1874. Religious and cultural tolerance combined with 2 million acres of wild country? Sounds like heaven on earth—a description that wouldn’t be out of place in the works of the writer James Hilton, who compared Weaverville to a mythical paradise of his own creation: a little place called Shangri-La.

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Coolest Small Town Contenders

Beaufort, NC Cape May, NJ Cooke City, MT Damascus, VA Hammondsport, NY Jerome, AZ Nashville, IN Port Townsend, WA Ste. Genevieve, MO Weaverville, CA