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Celebrate the 4th of July in One of the Coolest Small Towns in America

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
June 29, 2017
The Asbury Park Boardwalk fireworks
The Asbury Park Boardwalk
Whether you want to see fireworks on the beach, soak up some Southwestern art and history, or explore a cool Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, our top Coolest Small Towns in America 2017 all make unique Independence Day getaways.

#1 ASBURY PARK, NEW JERSEY
Fireworks over the beach and boardwalk.

If you want to witness the fireworks “hailin’ over Little Eden,” that Bruce Springsteen commemorated in his classic song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” book your spot at the historic Paramount Theater’s fireworks viewing party overlooking the beach. Asbury Park is an easy road trip from New York or Philadelphia, and we named the Jersey Shore town the “Coolest” in America 2017 for its revitalized Boardwalk; great shopping, dining, contemporary art, and views of one of the East Coast’s most beautiful beaches; and its welcoming, diverse vibe and LGBTQ-friendly legacy.

#2 BISBEE, ARIZONA
Southwestern art, history, and quirkiness.

Two words: coaster races. Bisbee celebrates American Independence with its own quirky tradition, with mini-race-cars coasting down its main drag. After that, the town gets more traditional with an old-timey parade and fireworks display. Bisbee is a cool road trip from Tucson. It’s an awesome cross between a 19th-century copper-mining town and a hip artist colony. Bisbee’s narrow streets evoke the Old West, with some of the best vintage architecture in the U.S., but the town’s vibe is decidedly contemporary, with galleries, craft beer, art walks, funky boutiques, and an aesthetic that happily embraces the word “weird.”

#3 NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIA
County-wide celebrations, including an all-day fair.

An all-day fair, a parade featuring vintage cars, and evening fireworks are on tap all around Nevada City, a cool road trip from San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento. Nevada City may be a little off the beaten path (60 miles northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains), but residents value the Gold Country town for its music and art scene, food, and proximity to some of California's amazing rivers, lakes, and the Sierras. For live music, locals swear by the Miners Foundry. For a Sundance feel without the hordes, savor the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. And if you're hankering for a pro cycling race and don't plan on dropping in on the Tour de France anytime soon, hightail it to the Nevada City Classic.

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Inspiration

Luxe-for-Less Lodging: Hotel RL Wants to Entertain You

It’s probably the best worst-kept secret in Hollywood—and the music industry, too: overhaul your look and people will notice you all over again. Some might even say that an image makeover generates more attention than a flawless performance. It seems that the RLH Corporation is borrowing a page from show business’s playbook—in more ways than one, in fact--with the introduction of Hotel RL, a hipper and edgier take on the familiar hotel chain. The first of these slick new boutique hotels opened in Baltimore last year and other ones have since popped up in Brooklyn, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Omaha, and more. Designed with a mind towards community and socializing, each hotel’s airy, colorful lobby has a performance stage (more on that in a second) and food and coffee purveyors. As far as Bill Linehan, CMO of the RLH Corporation who helped design the concept, sees it, this is where boutique hotels haven’t dared go before. “Boutique hotels are increasingly prevalent and, more and more, that means a focus on design, high-design. I don’t think that’s necessarily the millennial mindset,” he said. “As a company, we’re focused on being conversation-friendly and more relevant. There’s a creative mindset that exists within the millennial population, so it's important to come up with a lobby concept that’s different.” READ: "These Unique Hotels Transform Travel" The result? The Living Stage, which gives the hotel lobby not just a chill, artsy coffee house vibe, but a connection to the local community.  The performance space hosts musicians, speakers, artists, and a variety of other creative types, each from the resident city. And it’s not just about entertainment. In Omaha, a mayoral candidate held his election night event at the city's Living Stage. There was a Black Lives Matter event at Hotel RL Baltimore Inner Harbor. And TED Talks-style events happen all around. Each hotel provides its Living Stage schedule in each guestroom. “With technology these days, all you need to do is walk up to the front desk and summon someone who’ll look up and give you the key,” said Linehan. "We want to make the lobby more activated and energetic, more of an authentic place than a space where you stand in line to get a key." READ: "Oops! How Not to Embarrass Yourself in a Foreign Country" But that’s not all. Each Hotel RL showcases its own local installment of Project Wake Up Call, which features local photographers’ shots of the city, and not always the glamorous aspects. In fact, part of the goal of the Project is to bring attention to each area’s homeless blight. Photographs are auctioned off and donated to each hotel’s chosen local charity.  "Hotels have very much have lost their way on being part of the community,” said Linehan. “There are just so many opportunities for locals to project their creativity as well as advocacy, awareness, and innovation. We want to be a community’s stage.” 

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Jim Fricke moved to Milwaukee from his native Seattle in 2004, four years before the opening of the Harley-Davidson Museum, where he’s the Curatorial Director. He had to learn the city quickly, not least because part and parcel of helping to develop the museum was entertaining architects and designers from NYC and Baltimore and elsewhere. "I just kept trying to figure out: where do I take them to give them a sense of what feels uniquely Milwaukee?” he recalls. “Coming from the west coast, if something goes back to the Depression, it’s really old. What's fascinating here is the number of old buildings, businesses that have been continuously operating since early 20th century. I think being from the Pacific Northwest made me appreciate some of the Midwestern aspects of the city and the lifestyle here.” A lot of that lifestyle has its roots in the 19th and 20th centuries history of the city. In the 1800s, quite a few breweries and tanneries were built along the Milwaukee River. But by the 1960s, with industry declining and the flight to the suburbs in full force, the long bustling downtown fell into disrepair. Flash forward to now and Milwaukee, like so many other once-industrial American cities (see: Detroit, Pittsburgh) is in the throes of a renaissance. But even as young entrepreneurs refurbish old buildings and new construction extends the European-style cafe-lined public walkway along the river, it's hard to overlook the city’s rich legacy of lively immigrant communities and, of course, brewing. Add to that the ease of access—Jim says the airport is the perfect size and hassle-free in terms of parking and security—and the accessibility of city bike rentals, and it’s hard to resist adding Milwaukee to the top of your bucket list. WHERE OLD AND NEW MEET Perhaps the best place to witness the fusion of classic and contemporary Milwaukee is a stroll down Brady Street, which runs between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. Jim is particularly fond of Glorioso’s, a family grocer specializing in Italian provisions since 1946. The first time he walked in, he said, “I thought I walked into Italian grocery in Italy. I swear I was in Italy.” Today, he’s one of the many locals who patiently stand in line for one of the standout sandwiches. He recommends grabbing lunch from there not just because the food is so superior, but because it’s also an experience to watch the generations work together. One of his favorite ways to spend an afternoon is to take the sandwich across to Regano’s Romain Coin, a tavern located in the old Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery. It’s the kind of place designed for a relaxing afternoon with a pint or two. Then Jim will wander around the corner to Sciortino’s, an Italian bakery that’s as transporting as Glorioso’s. “There’s just the smell. And there’s a grandma sitting with the cash register by the door,” he says. If you’ve got more time to walk off lunch, continue up Brady Street, meander through the locally owned shops and eateries, and carry on to the scenic bluff where you can walk down to Lake Michigan. PASSING THE BARS While the Blatt and Schlitz breweries have been turned into trendy condos and restaurants, the Miller Brewery is still operating and open for tours if you’d like to get a sense of old-world Milwaukee flavor. The unique thing about this town, though, is that back when the breweries were in full swing, many brewers also built and ran bars. That vintage flavor is kept alive at a number of joints that have a laid-back neighborhood vibe. And bowling! Jim calls out Koz’s, a classic bar with a killer jukebox and plenty of taxidermy. Plus it’s one of the few left that has a sizable space devoted to duckpin bowling, which is apparently a Wisconsin thing involving wood balls. The chill landmark Holler House, meantime, has the oldest certified bowling alley in the USA. CHOW DOWN Given the city’s history of immigrants who arrived and started what are now America’s iconic breweries, it’s little surprise that Milwaukee is dotted with low-key ethnic eateries, particularly of the Eastern European variety (see: German). Within the city limits there are three Serbian eateries, which offer fare that’s similar to Hungarian. Jim is partial to Three Brothers Restaurant, which has been dishing out wiener schnitzel and burek since it opened in the 1954. A local culinary tradition that those restaurants preserve is the festive fish fry—complete with communal tables and polka bands. While several restaurants do their own, Jim says the ones that take place at the lakefront are the most popular, so much so that people will come down from Chicago for the day to indulge. “The fish fry in Milwaukee is a big enough thing that even the most elite restaurants have to have one,” he says. But not to worry, there’s plenty more to explore beyond the oom-pa-pa. The flagship of a top-notch regional Mexican grocery chain, El Rey, is here in Milwaukee and there’s a strong enough Mexican community that the restaurants are worth checking out. Jim recommends the tacos and street food at Bel Air Cantina, which has its original location on the river and now has several outposts across the state. It’s so popular, in fact, that the owners had to buy the bar across the street to hold people while they waited. Another favorite is Café Corozon in the nearby River West neighborhood, which is also home to neat restaurants like Centro Café, a go-to for gluten-free Italian food, and several microbreweries, reminding Jim of his native Seattle. A MUSEUM TO GET REVVED UP FOR Jim’s workplace is more than a shrine to motorcycles. The Harley-Davidson Museum is a tribute to America—to industry, to pop culture, to the spirit of entrepreneurship, to design—as seen through the eyes of one enduring company. “We wanted to build a museum that has plenty to offer non-motorcyclist,” said Jim, whose resume includes stints at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture and a science fiction museum. “As I got into this, I started thinking that people do understand things in many ways that the Harley-Davidson story is a great American business story, starting in 1903 when three brothers and their friend started a company at local shops and foundries. A trip through the museum is a trip through US industrial history, social history, war time, post-war, the Depression, and industrial design.” For more information on Milwaukee visit their site.

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Healdsburg, California

Before it was one of California’s premier tourism destinations, Sonoma County was just home to Dustin Valette. The young chef, who was born 1980, has been working in kitchens since the week after his 13th birthday and he cooked around the world—from Italy to Hawaii to New York to France—before moving to Healdsburg, less than ten minutes from quaint Geyserville, where he grew up, in 2008. After working Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen for several years, he and his brother Aaron Garzini opened Valette on the site where their great grandfather's bakery once stood, in 2015. The rustic yet elegant restaurant quickly garnered attention for its focus on Sonoma County purveyors. To this day, lots of locals, particularly noted winemakers, are among its habitues. We checked in with Dustin for some guidance on what to do, see, and eat around his glorious hometown. His answers had us working really hard to hold back on an impulse to book a flight to California. “You look at a place like Lyon, France. Lyon screams food and wine," says Dustin. "But in Sonoma County you get the vibes of food, wine, agriculture and family. It feels wholesome, authentic, and real. That’s what Sonoma County is to me: home.” EAT YOUR HEART OUT There’s no better source for dining direction than a local chef and indeed, Dustin has lots to recommend. First up, Diavola in Geyserville, which specializes in pizzas from a wood-burning stove. The menu is impressive enough, but Dustin’s go-to is an off-menu selection: the Bambino. It's chef Dino’s twist on Chicago-style pizza. “It’s deeper dish than Chicago, though, and it has this amazing homemade sausage. It’s roasted longer, so the dough gets caramelized on the outside,” he describes. Hungry yet? In Healdsburg, the place to go is Bravas, a Spanish tapas restaurant, which he loves because you can go for an elegant splurge or you could just hang out on the terrace and order wine and exquisite Spanish snacks.   One of the fun things about a hard-core culinary destination like Sonoma County is that there are incredible dining experiences to be had beyond the restaurants. You can thank local shop-owners for that. Dustin is a fan of Jimtown Store. Styled like an old-timey country store, it's about eight minutes outside of Healdsburg on the way to the wineries in Knight’s Valley. Pick up a few of their excellent sandwiches and sundry gourmet eats—charcuterie, cheese, creative salads—and you have yourself the making of a divine picnic. Alternatively (or additionally!) the Dry Creek General Store is about ten minutes northwest of Healdsburg on the way to the world-class Rafanelli Winery. their provisions, which include everything from classic breakfast fare to hearty salads to baked goods, are made in-house. Dry Creek is also a must for anyone with shopping in mind. Their wine-country-related home décor and knickknacks are made with barrel staves and other objects from the wineries.   And, of course, you can’t go wrong at Dustin’s restaurant. Like Bravas, it’s an excellent option for a splurge, but it’s also perfectly encouraged to grab a seat at the bar (there are only 13 seats, so be patient) and indulge. A TOAST FOR ALL TIMES There are more than 200 tasting rooms in the area and over 500 wineries and the drive to each one is even more scenic than the last. Many tasting rooms, in fact, don't charge for the sampling. Sometimes, though, even in Wine Country you might crave a change of pace. Dustin frequents Duke's, a cocktail bar on Healdsburg's main square, for its fantastic negroni and plenty of other meticulously crafted cocktails. One of the owners, Tara Heffernon, loves to make up custom drinks on the fly. "You just tell her the ingredients you like and she’ll create a drink right then and there for you." Dustin explains.  If you need further break from vino, Bear Republic Brewing is in the heart of town. It’s the original brewery/restaurant in the area—opened in 1994, and I think they led the way for microbrewery scene in the area. Red Rocket, one of their standby brews, is his go-to.   GET OUT OF TOWN Thanks to all the twisting and turning roads, Healdsburg has a reputation for being one of the best bicycling areas in the USA. The biking is such a draw that there are three bike rental operations in the small town. “People literally come from everywhere to bike here,” Dustin marvels. “You can go through the majestic Redwoods and the coast is only about 15 miles away. It’s just such majestic and beautiful scenery. It’s also one of those bucket-list towns for runners. Dustin urges any and all roadrunners to pop into Healdsburg Running Company not just for attire and sporty paraphernalia, but to visit with Skip, who he calls the “running guru,” what with his unparalleled insight and direction on the myriad running paths throughout the area. Or, of course, you could just see the scenery from the car. Healdsburg is a 25 minute drive to the ocean. Dustin recommends heading out on Westside Road, along which you'll pass several of Healdsburg's finest wineries, like Williams Selyem and Arista and Thomas George Estates. You can even hit the renowned Korbel en route to the sea. There are several cute hotels and restaurants along the coast. Hog Island Oyster Co. is among the chef's favorites for indulging in bivalves that are "literally harvested fresh out of the water," he marvels. KIDDING AROUND With so much talk about NorCal’s countless wineries and high-end restaurants, it’s easy to forget that it’s an excellent family destination, and Dustin is the perfect one to reassure that, as he has two daughters, each under two years.  Santa Rosa, just 15 minutes south of Healdsburg, is where Charles Shulz of Peanuts fame is from. There’s an ice skating rink that Dustin likes to go to with his young daughters. Make a day of it and visit the nearby Children’s Museum of Sonoma County or the Charles M. Shulz Museum, a shrine to all things Linus/Lucy/Charlie Brown/Snoopy, or head back to town for a bike ride with the kids. “Wine Country really is a beautiful place to bring kids to. They can enjoy the views and there’s not a lot of trouble they can get into, like running into the ocean or something. There’s no crazy or extreme place here. Wine country isn’t like Vegas or Chicago, it’s really more like a holistic family place. Plus a lot of wineries are family-friendly.”

Inspiration

Budget Italy: Yes, You Can Afford Amalfi

Nowhere else on earth quite compares to Italy's Amalfi Coast. You've seen the pictures: A highway that hugs the hillsides. Colorful towns that perch along cliffs, as if to say, "Quick! Grab us—along with our buffalo mozzarella, limoncello, and caponata—before we tumble into the sea!" And, of course, the people strolling the streets, kicking back on the beaches, and embodying the expression La dolce far niente ("The sweetness of doing nothing"). If you're like me, you've probably regarded Amalfi's awesomness as a little too rarefied for the likes of you. With must-see neighbors to the north (Rome, Florence, and Venice, anyone?) and what we've presumed to be a prohibitive price tag, this gorgeous stretch of Italy's Campania region has languished on the margins of our travel list. That's going to change. While it's possible to drop a small fortune in pursuit of a sun-drenched dream here in the enchanting countryside outside of Naples, it is also possible to grab your piece of the Amalfi without breaking the bank. GETTING THERE The simplest way to see the Amalfi region is on a day trip from Naples. Viator.com and other tour operators offer easy, reasonably priced round-trip sightseeing tours via bus or private car. Sure, you'll soak up some sole, but you'll leave wanting more. The next step up is a multi-day excursion from Naples or Rome, in which you can spend a few days (a typical tour from Rome may include three days' sightseeing and two nights' accommodations for under $400). This will be more than a window on Naples, the Amalfi, and the ruins of Pompeii, but it's hardly an immersive experience. For that, G Adventures offers the opportunity to live in an agriturismo on the Amalfi Coast for a week, with tours of the nearby towns, restaurant and home-cooked meals, for less than $1,800 (not including airfare). If you're ready to explore sans tour guide, book a flight to Naples (flights from New York start around $1,200, but to get the earliest notification for fares, follow all the major airlines on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to their e-newsletters), grab the convenient public rail line, the Circumvesuviana, to Sorrento, and travel at your own pace along this string of jewels along the water. SORRENTO (Nata_rass/Dreamstime)Often the first stop for visitors to the Amalfi, Sorrento is perhaps the picture-perfect Amalfi town because of its photogenically tiered buildings adorning the hillside that rises from the water. Remember, this is such a popular arrival point that it will probably strike you as a bit touristy, and that breathtaking cliff sort of precludes a conventional beachgoing experience. But don't overlook the authentic charms lurking behind the tourst façade. Elizabeth Minchilli, author of the bestselling apps Eat Rome, Eat Florence, and Eat Venice, notes that while vendors at every turn will attempt to sell you bottles of limoncello (the signature lemon liqueur of Southern Italy), there are lesser-known local favorites to be savored. "Try fried fresh-caught anchovies," suggests Minchilli, "and caponata, a local salad made with cornbread, tomatoes, tuna, basil, and mozzarella." Casa Astarita is a comfortable and affordable B&B (casastarita.com, from $150). AMALFI Yes, Amalfi is the name of the region (officially Costiera Amalfitana) and of one of its towns. Centuries ago, this little village was a dominant force in the Mediterranean shipping trade. These days, it's more about hoisting cold beverages than sails. Ideal for leisurely strolls, you can cover most of Amalfi in a few hours, window-shopping and snacking along the way. Ready to bump your walk up to the next level? Gillian Price, author of Walking on the Amalfi Coast, recommends, "Take a walk on the old mule tracks, the Sentiero degli Dei ("Pathway of the Gods"), a breathtaking route high above the spectacular coastline. It links the hillside village of Bomerano (above Amalfi) with gorgeous, trendy Positano. Should you need a guide, contact local expert and English-speaking Giovanni Visetti (giovis.com). While in Amalfi, enjoy a Caprese salad, lentil soup, and lemon risotto with prawns at Da Gemma Trattoria (trattoriadagemma.com). POSITANO (Mikolaj64/Dreamstime)Here, big-city style meets coastal sun and fun. You can spend an entire day or more browsing Positano's boutiques and ceramics shops, and the prestigious Franco Sinesi gallery is a must for modern art lovers. And, of course, an upscale town like Positano is a perfect place to indulge in more great food. "Delizia al Limone is a luscious, soft sponge cake with delicate lemon cream," enthuses Price. "And Sfogliatelle are layered pastries stuffed with candied fruit and ricotta." If you're looking to spend a night or two here in affordable luxury, the former palazzo Albergo California (yes, Eagles fans, that's "Hotel California") won't disappoint (hotelcaliforniapositano.it, from $200). And when you're ready to hang with Positano's jetsetters, belly up to the sleek, modern Next2 bar-dinner can be pricey, but you can soak up the vibe for the price of a tasty local cocktail (next2.it). MINORI You might call Minori your window into the real Amalfi Coast. This is, after all, where Italians themselves are likely to visit on vacation, and you'll definitely notice a more relaxed, less touristy scene here. And speaking of real, the executive chef at Minori's Hotel Villa Romana, Giuliano Donatantonio, leads cooking classes that let you take home some of the secrets of Italian cuisine, recipes included (hotelvillaromana.it, weekend special includes two nights, breakfast, and one dinner for two from $260; learn more about cooking classes at travelingtoitaly.com). The town is also home to a limoncello factory that offers tours-and tastings! PAESTUM In Paestum, you can do more than just eat fresh mozzarella and tomatoes like everybody who visits the Amalfi does—here, you can actually see how the light, creamy cheese is made daily. Drop by Tenuta Vannulo (vannulo.it) for a tour of an operating buffalo mozzarella factory. Minchilli suggests, "Enjoy fresh mozzarella grilled on lemon leaves till just warmed and oozing." And you can thank the somewhat forbidding-looking water buffaloes who live on the grounds of Tenuta Vannulo for contributing their milk to the uniquely heavenly cheese! PRAIANO When visiting Italy, there are a few simple rules of thumb that always pay off. One, "If it was good enough for a doge, it's pretty much going to be a nice place to visit." Here in Praiano, the doges (dukes) are long gone, but the relaxing atmosphere and lovely mountainside make this one of the Amalfi's off-the-beaten-path gems. Enjoy an afternoon at the local beach and the Chiesa de San Luca. CAPRI (Neirfy/Dreamstime)"Catch a ferry to Capri, where the Roman emperors built their holiday villas," recommends Price. Indeed, Augustus and Tiberius made Capri their home-away-from-home, and these days hydrofoils from Positano and Amalfi will get you there for about $22 (a few dolllars extra for luggage). If you like your rocky seashores mixed with Roman ruins, world-class cafes, and more than a hint of the artsy crowd that put this island on the travel map in the 20th century, Capri might be the highlight of your Amalfi adventure!

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