America's Coolest Small Towns

Every now and then, you stumble upon a town that's gotten everything right—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose. These 10 spots have it all, in perfectly small doses.

Main Street in Lexington, lined with 19th-century storefronts
Main Street in Lexington, lined with 19th-century storefronts (Courtesy Nathan Beck)

CAYUCOS, CALIFORNIA (pop. 3,000)
serious waves and serious food

About halfway between San Francisco and L.A., Cayucos is everything you want in a mellow beach town—an anomaly on the increasingly built-up coast. While the vibe is decidedly relaxed, two things get residents fired up: serious waves and serious food. Surfer Wade Rumble bridges both worlds as owner of Rogue Wave Cafe, where most mornings, after drying off his board, he sells fair-trade, organic coffee beans (72 S. Ocean Ave., roguewavecafe.com). Just off Highway 1, Cayucos requires a dedicated detour, which has helped it remain untouched. "We have beautiful beaches and beautiful people," says Christa Hozie, who runs Brown Butter Cookie Company with her sister Traci Nickson; the duo make super-addictive sea-salt-topped cookies (250 N. Ocean Ave., brownbuttercookies.com, $13/dozen). "I came to visit three years ago and thought it was such a magical place," explains Hozie. Grace Lorenzen had a similar reaction. She moved back to the Central Coast from Seattle in 2002 and now manages the five-room Cass House Inn (222 N. Ocean Ave., casshouseinn.com, from $165). The restored 1860s Victorian has a fitting soundtrack for the coastal town: the lulling surf. Mario López-Cordero

LEXINGTON, VIRGINIA (pop. 6,867)
right out of a norman rockwell

Locals often describe this 19th-century hamlet between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains as "right out of a Norman Rockwell painting." Lexington is the kind of place where people are invested in making sure history is paid real respect. Take Hull's Drive-In Theatre: When the 1950s institution was in danger of closing in 1999, a group of 50—dubbed the Hull's Angels—banded together to save it; they succeeded after raising an initial $10,000 selling popcorn (2367 N. Lee Hwy., double feature $6, open season­ally). Meanwhile, family-owned B&Bs like the 1868 Magnolia House Inn dot Main Street (501 S. Main St., magnoliahouseinn.com, from $139). "It's like a movie set," says resident Siobhan Lomax. While history has a hold, modernity has entered in just the right way, in part thanks to Lomax, whose two clothing boutiques, P.S. Pumpkinseeds (1 N. Main St., 540/464-5007) and George and Bob (20 W. Washington St., 540/464-5015), stock labels such as Trina Turk and Penguin. At the year-old Red Hen, chef Tucker Yoder, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute, creates dishes like pork belly with garlic scapes (11 E. Washington St., redhenlex.com, entrées from $16). The sense of community has proven fertile ground for his business—and family. "I have three kids, and I don't have to worry about them riding their bikes down the street," says Yoder. Norman Rockwell indeed. Mario López-Cordero

BREAUX BRIDGE, LOUISIANA (pop. 8,200)
big crawfish in a small pond

In the world's crawfish capital, an hour southwest of Baton Rouge, days revolve around Cajun meals and music. Locals two-step to upbeat zydeco tunes at places like Café Des Amis, a brick-walled space that's famous for its crawfish étouffée and where the dining room doubles as a dance floor (140 E. Bridge St., cafedesamis.com, entrées from $16). The music is what drew long-time New Orleans resident Ellen Wicker back to the area from Maryland five years ago. "I was out dancing, and I met a guy who knew of a B&B that was for sale," Wicker recalls. She picked up the converted 1860s French Creole-style house and opened Maison Des Amis, a B&B with a half acre of landscaped gardens and a gazebo looking out on the bayou in the back (111 Washington St., maisondesamis.com, from $100). "Locals in Breaux Bridge are just friendly and generous," she says. "Right after the hurricane, families took in people they didn't know from Adam and put them up." While his New Orleans shop was being reconstructed after Katrina hit, decorator Patrick Dunne opened satellite locations of his culinary antiques store Lucullus in Breaux Bridge, upon a friend's recommendation (107 N. Main St., lucullusantiques.com). Now Dunne and his French bulldog, Clovis ("He's very much into zydeco"), split their time between city and country. Says Dunne: "It's fun being a big crawfish in a small pond." Maria Ricapito

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