These towns all have fewer than 10,000 people—but they can rival larger cities when it comes to good food, culture, and quality of life.
Nearest City: Madison, 24 miles
"I got tired of driving through a ghost town," says Bob Brumley when asked why he founded his artists' co-op, the Iron Horse Gallery (18 E. Hudson St., 608/795-2789, ironhorsegallery.org). The co-op began in 2006 with five artists and now has 18—as well as a café, A Better Buzz.
Mazo (may-zoh) is chockablock with artists, many of whom were drawn here by the historic downtown and cheap real estate. "You can't swing a stick in these hills without hitting an artist," says Brumley. Along with galleries, Mazo boasts the Mazomanie Historic Arts Center (103 Crescent St., 608/575-9390, mazoart.com) and Mazomanie Movement Arts Center, a dance studio with a circus camp (2 Brodhead St., 608/795-0014, mazomac.com). Even the Wall Street Gallery & Bistro exhibits artwork (14 Brodhead St., 608/576-6694, wallstreetgallery.com, pastas from $15).
But there's more to life than art. You can buy Wisconsin-made souvenirs at Walter's General Store (34 Brodhead St., 608/795-4455); stay at the Walking Iron B&B, an 1865 Italianate house (21 State St., 877/572-9877, walkingiron.com, from $90); and rent bicycles at ProCycle (30 Brodhead St., 608/795-0019, procyclebikes.com). Ask politely and the staff might tell you how to get to the clothing-optional Mazo Beach—or Bare-Ass Beach, as it's known among some in town.