Readers nominated a record 647 towns this year – and now we’ve narrowed that list down to just 10 standout communities across the country. Read all about them, and then vote for your favorite! You can vote once daily, so be sure to get all your votes in before the contest closes on January 31st. VOTE NOW!
10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2011
The winners in our sixth annual celebration of great hometown escapes may be short on people, but they’re long on personality. Small wonder—the 437,480 votes from Budget Travel readers cheering on their favorites can’t be wrong.
Once in a while, you discover a town that has everything—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose. Each year, the Budget Travel team celebrates these places with our "Coolest Small Towns in America" competition. It starts with a call to you—our readers—to nominate the most interesting towns you know with populations of less than 10,000. From there, our editorial team whittles the selections down to the three most promising contenders. It's then up to you to vote on your favorite. This year's winner was Lewisburg—an irresistible small town in West Virginia. Each of the nine runners up has something special to offer, from the quiet, artistic enclave at La Pointe, Wisconsin to the scenic beaches of Astoria, Oregon. In honor of the sixth anniversary of our "Coolest Towns" franchise, we've also compiled a slideshow of all of the contenders from previous years. You won't find a more charming slice of small town Americana than you will right here.
#1 Lewisburg, W.Va (population 3,830)
Arts in Appalachia
A small town is usually lucky if there's a decent one-screen movie theater, maybe a community dance troupe. But a Carnegie Hall? This speck on the map in the Greenbrier River Valley lays claim to one of only four in the world (105 Church St., carnegiehallwv.com, ticket prices vary). The 1902 building now serves as Lewisburg's creative control tower, attracting an unlikely band of artistic characters, back-to-the-land types, and retirees.
Jeanne and Michael Christie embody Lewisburg's blend. The duo run the Davenport House B&B, where guests can bottle-feed one of the property's baby lambs after taking coffee and breakfast on their private patio (Tibbiwell Lane, off of Davis Stuart Rd., thedavenporthouse.com, one-bedroom cottage from $120). Michael is a painter whose work has shown in New York City's Hoorn-Ashby gallery, and Jeanne is the former director of front-office operations at the Greenbrier hotel, 10 miles down the road. "You know, you always think of the ideal American town, where the kids are safe, the streets are clean. We have that, but we also have Wynton Marsalis coming through," says Jeanne, who'd just finished a morning of shearing sheep. While Michael is a seventh-generation West Virginian, many of their friends and neighbors are newer to the community, drawn in large part by the creative atmosphere anchored by Carnegie. For example, Hall Hitzig, who goes by the moniker the Crazy Baker, came in 1986 and "never looked back" (thecrazybaker.com). Now, he makes granola in the nearby mountains—and sells it everywhere from Puerto Rico to Arkansas. Hitzig's sticky toffee cake also wins raves at Lewisburg's sunny Stardust Café (102 E. Washington St., stardustcafewv.com, cake slice $8). At Stardust, co-run by Hitzig's twin sister, Destiny, and her daughter Sparrow, glasses are filled with "local spring water" (don't call it tap), and the greens are cultivated largely in local gardens.
Lewisburg's arts scene is hardly limited to traditional performers like Marsalis; next door to Stardust, for instance, Tamera Pence identifies the potter of each espresso mug at her year-old emporium, Bella the Corner Gourmet (100 E. Washington St., bellathecornergourmet.com, mugs from $14). "We're very locally driven here," she explains. "And we're also a central hub. I have clients bringing their coolers in all the way from Charleston, more than two and a half hours away." -Nina Willdorf
#2 Astoria, Ore. (population 9,477)
Pioneers on the Pacific
Astoria has always been on the frontier, both the Lewis and Clark variety (they set up camp here in 1805) and the geographic (it sits both at the mouth of the Columbia River and in a teeming temperate rain forest). Sure, the place has prettied itself up nicely since those pioneer days with the addition of aging Victorians and craftsman-style bungalows, but the folks in sleepy coastal Astoria have never lost touch with their rough-and-tumble side.
Take, for example, the surfers off of Astoria's scenic beaches, where ocean temperatures rarely break 60 degrees until midsummer. "You really have to suit up," says Mark Taylor, owner of Cold Water Surf (1001 Commercial St., coldwatersurf.com). "We're talking five-millimeter wet suits, gloves, and booties—but Astorians have always been a tough bunch!" Even the city's swankiest design hotel, the Commodore, embraces a decidedly masculine and nautical aesthetic (258 14th St., commodoreastoria.com, from $89). Reopened two years ago after being shuttered since 1966, the property pairs modern furnishings with sly nods to the city's history as a seaside cannery hub: thick braided ropes, nautical charts, and fishing floats.