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America's Coolest Small Towns 2013

By The Budget Travel Editors
April 24, 2013
Budget Travel readers have spoken! The competition was fierce, with towns across the U.S. vying for the 2013 title of Coolest. Did your town make our final list?

Think your town is cool? Well, thousands of Budget Travel readers thought enough of theirs to nominate them in our 2013 Coolest Small Town in America contest. To be considered, all your town needs is a population of fewer than 10,000—and the belief that it offers something that folks won't find anywhere else. After hundreds of nominations, we narrowed down a list of 15 finalists and held a month-long online vote this winter. The results? History, culture, wine, outdoor adventures, and of course great food in 10 sweet spots from Maine to California. Like what you see? Pay these burghs a visit. Got a cool town of your own that isn't (yet!) on our list? Stay tuned—our 2014 contest is just around the corner.

SEE THE COOLEST SMALL TOWNS IN AMERICA!

 #1 Lititz, Pennsylvania

Population: 9,369

History, culture, and great food in Lancaster County

Why we love it: You couldn't ask for a more beautiful location, in rural Lancaster County, Penn., with its rolling farmland and traditional Amish communities. Here, you can savor 18th-century history just a 90-minute drive from Philadelphia—a perfect long-weekend destination. What to do: Take a dip into colonial-era history at the Lititz Historical Foundation, the Johannes Mueller House, the Moravian Church, and a cemetery the locals refer to as God's Acre. Stroll through Lititz Springs Park, right in the middle of downtown, to take in the scenery and feed the ducks. Then step into a decidedly 21st-century culinary scene that includes Tomato Pie Café, Café Chocolate, Bulls Head Public House, Appalachian Brewing Company, Savory Gourmet, Olio, and Zest.

#2 Watkins Glen, New York

Population: 1,859

Gorges, waterfalls, and wine in the Finger Lakes

Why we love it: When a community is situated among some of the most beautiful lakes in the U.S., boasts a world-class race track, and those aren't the major reasons to visit, you know you've got a cool town. Hikers and wine lovers find unparalleled trails and vineyards here, making it easy to fill a day with both sweat and style. What to do: Two amazing parks—Watkins Glen State Park and the Finger Lakes National Forest (the only national forest in New York State) draw visitors for gorges, waterfalls, and endless trails. Thrills of another kind abound at Watkins Glen International Racetrack, with NASCAR and other auto-focused events. And for the wine connoisseur or novice, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail includes 50 local wineries.

#3 Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Population: 9,260

Beaches, seafood, and art on the Gulf of Mexico

Why we love it: Everybody loves a comeback, and Bay St. Louis has come roaring back from Hurricane Katrina (which made final landfall near this Mississippi Gulf hamlet in 2005). Its Historic Old Town has been chugging along for 300 years (French Canadian explorers first sailed into the bay in 1699), drawing visitors to its warm beaches, first-rate fishing, and friendly vibe. What to do: When a town boasts a street called Beach Boulevard, you know you don't have to look far for fun. If you have trouble finding the beach (you won't), take Main Street straight to the water. Take your own walking tour of 19th-century homes, Creole cottages, and art galleries (the scene is especially lively on Second Saturday Artwalk). Hungry? Try the Mockinburger at Mockingbird Café (it started as a cantina to serve Katrina volunteers).

#4 Greenville, Kentucky

Population: 4,312

Folk music, classic architecture, and hospitality among rolling hills

Why we love it: That particularly Southern combination of down-home charm and old-fashioned grandeur is old hat in Greenville. Founded in 1799 and settled by Revolutionary War veterans, it grew over the next century into the seat of one of the South's most profitable coal-mining regions. What to do: That history is reflected in the enduring elegance of city landmarks such as the 105-year-old Beaux Arts courthouse and 111-year-old Palace Theater. On Main Street, laid-back locals and mom-and-pop establishments evoke the guitar and harmonica twangs of folk songs. You might even hear John Prine's "Paradise" as you stroll the streets—the renowned singer-songwriter penned some of his most famous lyrics about the coal-mining history of Greenville and the surrounding area. The town's musical legacy lives on at Rockford's Place Café: part eatery, part jam session venue, it adds a little funk to the Greenville scene.

#5 Gulf Shores, Alabama

Population: 9,741

White-sand beaches, shrimp—and more shrimp!—on the Gulf

Why we love it: Folks in this Gulf of Mexico beach town must get tired of hearing tourists do their best Bubba impersonations. But comparisons to Forrest Gump's shrimp-loving sidekick are only logical: Each October since 1971, the town hosts the National Shrimp Festival, often attracting over 250,000 people with shrimp cook-offs, concerts, and sandcastle contests. What to do: If you don't make it here during the three-day National Shrimp Festival, don't fret. Shrimp shows up on menus all around town, including the dockside Lulu's at Homeport Marina, which is owned by Jimmy Buffett's sister Lucy. Like much of the Gulf of Mexico, the area was hit hard by the 2010 BP oil spill. But, ironically, the area's powdery white beaches got an unexpected PR boost from the disaster and subsequent successful cleanup: For many Americans, it was the first time they learned Alabama even has beaches!

#6 Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Population: 138

Lobster, crafts, and wine on a little island in Lake Erie

Why we love it: Put-in-Bay is utterly defined by its location, on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. The bay has been an essential part of lake navigation since Native Americans first plied the waters centuries ago. (The town's name likely comes from the boating term "put-in," meaning to enter the water.) The island was the site of a key naval battle in the War of 1812, and Perry's Cave, where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's men obtained the clean drinking water to which their victory over the British is partly attributed, is a popular historical site. What to do: Today, island life means coming and going via ferry or plane (even some schoolkids commute via plane from neighboring islands), and patiently waiting out winters that see few visitors. But all that changes in summer, when the community welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists to popular resorts, restaurants specializing in-what else?-seafood (you must try the local favorite, lobster bisque), craft shops, and award-winning Heineman Winery.

#7 Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Population: 1,734

Bluegrass, theater, and the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Valley

Why we love it: You might say all roads lead to West Virginia's oldest town, which celebrated its 250th birthday in 2012: The Potomac River, the C&O Canal, and the Appalachian Trail all pass through this Revolutionary War-era town in the lower Shenandoah Valley. What to do: Look behind those preserved 18th-century brick facades for surprisingly cool signs of life—this place is by no means a living museum. Housed in a Confederate hospital, the Mecklenburg Inn is known for its live bluegrass music and was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire. And the sophisticated Bistro 112 is housed in an 1830s brick building that once served as the town's haberdasher. The Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University stages productions from renowned playwrights like Neil LaBute, David Mamet, and Sam Shepard.

#8 Quincy, California

Population: 1,728

Water sports, gold-rush history, and big-city cuisine in the Sierras

Why we love it: This gold rush town on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where prospectors flocked in the rush of 1849, remains a mother lode of attractions for those who like to spend their days in the wild but welcome some culture and pampering in the evening. What to do: Nearby Bucks Lake Recreation Area is the kind of place you can visit every weekend and never quite do the same thing twice, including world-class fishing, water-skiing, hiking in warm weather, winter snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. Back in town, the historic 1920s-era courthouse is just one of several architectural gems. Pick up a self-guided Heritage Walk tour pamphlet at the Plumas County Museum, behind the courthouse, and explore downtown's murals depicting scenes from the area's history. Then take your pick of excellent pub and café fare that, true to Northern California tradition, belies its small-town locale.

#9 Flagler Beach, Florida

Population: 4,484

Whales, surfers, and ukuleles on Florida's east coast

Why we love it: Twenty miles north of Daytona Beach on A1A, Flagler Beach couldn't be more different from its party-hardy neighbor to the south. In fact, the area seems to attract more sea turtles and right whales than spring breakers. And it's not hard to see why: This thin strip of a beach town, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, has remained significantly less developed than its neighbors. What to do: The six miles of pristine sand—which boast an orange hue thanks to crushed coquina shells—are only interrupted by one fishing pier. In town, the vibe is laid back and retro, thanks to spots like Grampa's Uke Joint, which sells ukuleles, and High Tides at Snack Jack, a 1950s fish shack that attracts surfers with funky dishes like tuna reubens, ahi club sandwiches, and sake Bloody Marys.  

#10 Camden, Maine

Population: 3,570

Tall ships, hiking, and seafood where the mountains meet the sea

Why we love it: We've all been faced with the classic vacation dilemma: the mountains or the beach? But there's no need to settle, Camden's got them both covered. This mid-coastal town located on Penobscot Bay is one of only two places on the Atlantic seaboard where the mountains meet the sea. Those gorgeous vistas have been attracting vacationers to this former ship-building town since the 1800s, when wealthy families snatched up properties to build summer homes. What to do: Today, many of those mansions and estates have been converted to inns and bed and breakfasts, most within walking distance of the harbor. Go ahead, it's not cliché to dine on Maine lobster paired with a local wine at Fresh, a waterfront restaurant on Bay View Landing. Afterwards, browse the galleries, antique shops and general stores on Main Street for one-of-a-kind crafts, clothing and jewelry. When the ocean is calling, take sail from Camden Harbor on a tall-masted schooner cruise that explores the Maine coast, lighthouses, islands, and coves. Left your sea legs back at the B&B? No problem. Camden Hills State Park offers 30 miles of hiking trails in 5,700 acres of wooden hills including Mt. Battie, an 800-foot summit with stunning views of the bay.

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Inspiration

Spring Food Festivals You Must Taste to Believe

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Product Reviews

Explore Brooklyn By Bike With 'Get Up And Ride'

I'm a Queens girl, originally from Floral Park and currently living in Bayside. For me, Brooklyn has always been this artsy far-away place that sounds great, but is practically a day-trip from where I am. Needless to say, I haven't been out there much, but have always wanted to see what everybody's been talking about. Then I stumbled upon Get Up And Ride, a leisurely bike tour through six different historic Brooklyn neighborhoods along the East River led by Felipe Lavalle, a friendly Brooklynite entrepreneur who started the company last June as a way to combine his passion for cycling with his love of the neighborhood. SEE PHOTOS FROM THE BROOKLYN BIKE TOUR The Classic Bike Tour of Brooklyn is available from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Tours meet on North 12th St. between Bedford Ave. and Berry St. in Williamsburg across from the King & Grove Hotel, just a short hop on the L train from Union Square in Manhattan. After a quick check of the bikes, helmets and CV radio headsets were distributed so we could hear Felipe's commentary about the neighborhoods we passed through. It had been a pretty long time since I'd ridden a bike, so the idea of riding in traffic was a little intimidating at first, but I quickly got the hang of it, especially with Felipe announcing where to go and when to cross as we worked our way around town. We pedaled through old factory rows and past a thriving Polish community in Greenpoint, stopped for a slice at Best Pizza in Williamsburg, and biked on the "Great Hipster Silk Route" on our way to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a behind-the-scenes look at Brooklyn Grange, an urban organic rooftop farm paving the way for fresh veggie growing in big cities. We stopped at WNYC Transmitter Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and along the Brooklyn Promenade for photo-ops with different angles of the New York City skyline. Another perk was stopping at the Brooklyn Roasting Company, a local coffee shop in DUMBO known for their delicious freshly-brewed coffee, espresso, and cortado, a drink guaranteed to restore your energy. We ended the 4.5 hour tour with a scenic ride on the East River Ferry, passing underneath the Brooklyn Bridge on our way back to the tour's starting point in Williamsburg. The tour costs $85 per person and includes a 4.5 hour guided ride through Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Wallabout (the Brooklyn Navy Yard area), Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, and DUMBO; bike rental, bike lock, and helmet; a CV radio headset so you can hear about the neighborhoods as you ride; a behind-the-scenes look at Brooklyn Grange in the otherwise off-limits Brooklyn Navy Yard; and a scenic ride on the East River Ferry from Brooklyn Bridge Park back to Williamsburg. Shorter 2.5 hour themed tours (ie. photography, foodie, and graffiti tours) as well as a shorter tour of Greenpoint and Williamsburg will soon be available for about $50 per person, so check the website for the latest updates. Be sure to pack a water bottle or two, wear sunscreen, and dress comfortably according to the day's weather forecast—most importantly, don't forget to bring your camera!

Inspiration

Boston Is Open in Wake of Marathon Explosions

Following the explosions near the Boston Marathon finish line yesterday, the city of Boston is open for business (including Amtrak train service and flights to Logan International Airport). However, those of you currently visiting Boston, or with imminent travel plans to visit, will, of course, be directly affected by the explosions, which killed three people and injured at least 140. While the safety and well-being of everyone affected by yesterday's events is of greater importance than anyone's vacation plans, we do want you to know: The area around Copley Square is a crime scene and will likely be closed to visitors for several days, according to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. That means no access to Copley Station, the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the Shops at the Prudential Center, the Copley Place mall, the Hynes Convention Center, and the Boston Common garage. (USA Today reports, however, that drivers will be able to retrieve parked cars from the garage.) Boston Common is now a staging area for law enforcement. Many airlines are waiving flight-change fees for Boston travel, and many local hotels are waiving cancellation fees—contact airlines and hotels directly for more information. If you are in Boston for the Marathon and are without lodging, visit Boston.com for a Google doc to match visitors with available places to stay. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston and everyone affected by yesterday's events.

Budget Travel Lists

7 Incredible Grand Tours You Can Actually Afford

Sometimes a one-week vacation just isn't enough, especially when you wake up the last morning of your trip and don't want to leave yet—it's too soon, and you've just begun to discover what makes your destination so special. Luckily, there are longer grand tours that provide you with enough time to fullly explore a new place, whether it's a month-long journey through Southeast Asia or an in-depth two-week Ireland adventure. We've scoured the world of extended travel deals for packages that give you the most bang for your buck, listed here in order from the least amount of money you'll spend per day to most. At first it might seem like you are spending a little more than usual on some of these trips, but the perks included—meals, intra-country transportation, airport transfers, professionally guided small-group tours with a personal touch—and the unique travel experiences you'll get more than make up for any initial sticker-shock. SEE THE GRAND TOURS! India: basics on a budget Highlights: Visit ancient forts and colorful modern cities throughout Northern India. Looking to do some traveling abroad while on a budget? This three-week tour of Northern India and Rajasthan is full of unique experiences—an overnight camel safari in the desert, anyone?—and gives you just enough free time to explore the cities on your own. You'll also get guided tours of New Delhi, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Udaipur, and Jaipur, plus the chance to experience sunrise at the Savitri temple in Pushkar and wrap things up with a scenic boat trip down the River Ganges during a candle flower ceremony. The breakdown: This three-week tour of Northern India and Rajasthan will cost you about $67 per day including 19 nights' accommodations, all ground transportation within the country, and several guided tours. G Adventures, from $1,349 per person for a 20-day trip. Average group size: 10-16 people. Central America for the trail-blazing history buff Highlights: Tour ancient ruins and jungles in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Dreaming of visiting the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum, Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and Copán? This extensive small-group tour starts in Mexico City with a vast cultural tour of Mexico—explore the colonial buildings of Puebla, Oaxaca, and San Cristobal de las Casas before heading north to the Yucatán cities of Palenque, Mérida, and Playa del Carmen. Next, you'll cross the border to Belize and soak up the Central American sun in Caye Caulker, before heading south to Flores, Guatemala—shop for the perfect souvenir at the local markets of Chichicastenango and take time to roam the colorful city of Antigua. Ponder the past at the Mayan ruins in Copán and relax on the beaches of Roatán Island during your time in Honduras. From here, the tour heads south through Granada and Ometepe Island in Nicaragua before finishing up with trips to Costa Rica's tropical cloud forests, Arenal Volcano National Park, and San José, the country's capitol city. The breakdown: You'll end up spending $71 per day including all ground transportation, guided tours, and 45 nights' accommodations in hotels, one night in a local homestay, and one night on an overnight bus. Intrepid Travel's Central America Explorer, from $3,295 for a 46-day trip. Average group size: 16 people. New Zealand: affordable island-hopping for nature lovers and adrenaline junkies Highlights: Tour New Zealand's North and South Islands for less. Get to know this intriguing kiwi nation with a three-week trip through both islands. The tour starts and ends in Auckland, and includes some truly "only in New Zealand" experiences like Maori cultural encounters, sea kayaking in the Doubtful Sound, surfing lessons in Raglan, and a trip to Franz Josef National Park. Other adrenaline-pumping activities include a mountain biking excursion and the chance to take on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the most popular one-day treks in the country. Hiking, biking and opportunities to skydive and bungee jump are also available if you're feeling extra gutsy. The breakdown: You'll spend $112 a day including all intra-country transportation, 20 nights' worth of accommodations, guided tours, and most meals. G Adventures, from $2,359 per person for a 21-day trip. Average tour size: 12 people. An African safari adventure from Kenya to Cape Town Highlights: Meet the locals and spot the Big Five in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. If you're an adventurous animal lover with a month and a half to spare, this tour is right up your alley. Keep your eyes out for the Big Five as you zig-zag your way through eight African countries and stop to see the animals they're known for on a number of game drives and walks through the African bush. You'll also get to visit spice plantations in Zanzibar, feel the spray of Victoria Falls, and relax on the beaches of Lake Malawi. Get to know the locals by staying in several African villages along the way, giving you the chance to see what everyday life is like in the jungles and deserts of this intriguing continent. The breakdown: You'll end up spending $118 per day for this 45-day African adventure including 44 nights' accommodations, all ground transportation, guided tours, and most meals. Intrepid Travel, from $5,310 per person for a 45-day trip. Average tour size: 22 people. Best of the U.S. Highlights: An epic cross-country adventure from San Francisco to New York City and back, stopping at national parks and big cities around the country. Starting and ending in San Francisco, this 32-city tour of the United States' best attractions includes visits to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Niagara Falls, Badlands National Park, Devil's Tower, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Park. The first half of the tour takes you through the heartland—gamble in Las Vegas, experience southwest culture in Santa Fe, and visit Elvis at Graceland—while the rest of it works through the big cities of the Northeast before sending you back through the northern states—ride to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago, experience the Wild Wild West in South Dakota, and pay a visit to Old Faithful on your way back to the Golden State. The breakdown: This 44-day trip breaks down to $120 per day including all of your ground transportation in an air-conditioned van, 43 nights' accommodations, and guided city tours of San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and New York City. This package also covers most meals as well as entrance fees to all included National Parks, the Maid of the Mist boat tour in Niagara Falls, a trip to Arlington National Cemetery, and a beer tasting in Milwaukee. G Adventures, from $5,299 per person for a 44-day trip. Average tour size: 10-13 people. The ultimate tour of Southeast Asia Highlights: Visit temples, beaches, and historical spots throughout Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. On this 29-day Southeast Asia adventure, you'll get to visit ancient temples like Chiang Mai, Wat Po, and Wat Rong Khun, sail down the Mekong River, spend the night at a homestay in a local Laotian village, and watch a traditional Vietnamese water puppets show. And that's just the first half of your trip—the rest has you cruising around Halong Bay, visiting the Royal Tombs in Hue, exploring historic Hoi An, touring the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, and cruising the Mekong Delta before you head into Cambodia for a sobering historical tour of the Killing Fields and guided tours of Angkor Wat's spectacular temple complex. The breakdown: You'll spend $121 a day including all guided tours, entrance fees, ground transportation, regional flights and boat rides between countries, accommodations, and most meals. G Adventures, from $3,499 per person for a 29-day trip. Average group size: 10-15 people. Grand tour of Ireland Highlights: Visit Dublin, Killarney, Belfast, Derry, Blarney, Galway, Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula, and experience a traditional medieval dinner in an Irish castle. Erin go bragh! This grand tour of Ireland gives you eleven days to explore both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. You'll visit legendary places like the Giant's Causeway and get guided tours of twenty major sites and attractions including Trinity College's Book of Kells, the Guinness Brewery Storehouse, city tours of Belfast and Galway, a trip to the Titanic Belfast Experience, scenic tours of the Cliffs of Moher, Ring of Kerry, and Dingle Peninsula, plus a traditional medieval dinner in an Irish castle. Just don't forget to bring your camera! The breakdown: Round-trip multicity airfares between New York City, Dublin, and Shannon start from $697 in early October (Aer Lingus). The land-only portion of this trip ends up being about $1,702 per person, or $131 per person per day. SmarTours, from $2,399 per person for an 11-day trip including international airfare from New York City. Average tour size: 35-40 people. Book this package by Nov. 6th before prices increase by $400.

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