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.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
Nearest City: Dayton, 21 miles
Yellow Springs has been a beacon for artists, activists, and creative thinkers since progressive Antioch College opened in 1852. "You can breathe here and feel very comfortable expressing yourself," says Kim Korkan, co-owner of The Winds Cafe & Bakery, which serves dishes using ingredients mostly from local farms (215 Xenia Ave., 937/767-1144, windscafe.com, rhubarb halibut $24).
Although the college was forced to close this summer because of financial problems, Yellow Springs is thriving: The main drag, Xenia Avenue, is lined with shops, cafés, restaurants, and galleries. No Common Scents sells more than 250 varieties of herbs and spices from across the globe (1525 Xenia Ave., 937/767-4261, nocommonscents.com), and Clemente Ullmer's shop, La Llama Place, is stocked with crafts from South America (224 Xenia Ave., 937/767-8650, lallamaplace.com). Across town, the Yellow Springs Dharma Center, a Buddhist retreat draped in Tibetan prayer flags, holds meditation and chanting sessions (502 Livermore St., 937/767-9919, ysdharma.org).
Public art has taken on a new meaning in the town, as well. One day, knitting appeared wrapped around a tree downtown, and soon passersby were bringing yarn to add to it. Now, the signposts up and down Xenia Avenue are covered with knitted "graffiti."