The Nominees for America's Coolest
We've pulled together a list of 20 nominees from coast to coast. Cast a vote to determine the readers' top 10 American small towns—and check the September 2011 issue of Budget Travel Magazine to see the winners.
Alpine, Tex. (Pop. 6,460)
Alpine is surrounded by the rugged trappings of an old Hollywood western—high desert scrub, red mountains, canyons, and vast cattle ranches. But while it may look like a movie set, this small West Texas outpost is actually an authentic center of cowboy culture, with spots like the Big Bend Saddlery just waiting to fulfill all your belt and buckle needs. February brings the annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a three-day celebration of the fireside oral tradition. Just outside of town, at Woodward Ranch, amateur gem hunters can dig for semiprecious stones—the ranch charges for finds by weight. Back in Alpine, locals cool off at the Murphy St. Raspa Co., a funky spot specializing in raspa, or Mexican shaved ice. The adventurous can spice up their snow cones with outlandish toppings like chili powder, Fun Dip, chamoy (a mix of pickled apricots and plums), and even diced pickles.
Lewisburg, W.Va. (Pop. 3,497)
This Allegheny Mountains town is heralded for two major food events: In April, the mayor dresses up like Willy Wonka for the Lewisburg Chocolate Festival, which celebrates all things cocoa with a week of chocolate-themed tastings and dinners. October brings the Taste of Our Towns (or TOOT, as the locals call it), when restaurants dish out their best-known items at food stands scattered downtown and live bands play on three open-air stages. Annual favorites like the General Lewis Inn's pecan pie disappear fast. The town is also home to one of only four Carnegie Halls (carnegiehallwv.com) in the world, which draws big-name musicians and theater productions to the remote area. And just this past September, rock-violin band the Dueling Fiddlers shot a music video at local wine bar Red Key 3.
Cedar Key, Fla. (Pop. 954)
While much of Florida has become overrun with theme parks, strip malls, and luxury condos, the fishing village of Cedar Key—with its abundance of pelicans, palmettos, and Spanish moss—is a vivid reminder of the state as it once was. Two long-forgotten forms of architecture dominate the cay: 19th-century wood-frame cottages with wraparound porches, and tabby houses, made with a combination of sand, water, and crushed shells. Cedar Key also holds the distinction of being the nation's number one producer of farm-raised clams. Locals swear by the award-winning chowder at Tony's Seafood Restaurant, and there are dozens more dockside eateries where you can sample fresh Gulf shrimp, oysters, and grouper. Outside of town, 13 islands make up the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, where kayakers can spot frigate birds, ibis, and bald eagles.
Eureka Springs, Ark. (Pop. 2,390)
As the only town in the country with its entire zip code listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this southern Ozarks hamlet celebrates its past, from the immaculate Victorian houses lining Main Street to the painstakingly preserved homes hugging the cliffs outside town. There are zero traffic lights and shopping malls within city limits. The Springs—as locals call the town—was once the stomping grounds of Jesse James and his gang, before cleaning up its act and becoming a spa destination at the turn of the 20th century. Today, some 60 natural hot springs still make Eureka Springs a magnet for health centers: There are six spas and more than 50 registered massage therapists and alternative healers. In between spas and Victorian mansions, old-fashioned trolley cars zip along the streets, providing free rides. Outside the city limits, Pivot Rock Park's deep ravines, caves, and natural bridge draw hikers, while the nearby Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge—the world's largest sanctuary for big cats—allows visitors to see white Bengal tigers, cougars, and lions up close.
Greensburg, Kans. (Pop. 1,200)
Around 9:30 p.m. on May 4, 2007, a category EF5 tornado—the strongest designation twisters can receive—ripped through the tiny town of Greensburg and leveled everything in its path. Winds reached 205 mph, destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg's buildings, and severely damaged the remaining 5 percent. That kind of destruction would be enough to knock most towns off the map. But in Greensburg, locals in the tight-knit community dug their heels in and immediately set to work rebuilding their beloved hometown. The city council voted to rebuild all structures according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum standards, making Greensburg the first town in the U.S. to do so—and effectively creating a new model for green, small-town redevelopment. And its environmental strides even encompass the arts: Greensburg's 5.4.7 Arts Center, the only public art museum between Wichita and Dodge City, is entirely solar- and wind-powered.