The Nominees for America's CoolestSmall Towns
Berlin is a great spot for water and land lovers alike. Surf, sunbathe, or fish at Assateague Island National Seashore, located on one of the few remaining natural barrier islands, or cycle along the 63-mile "beach to bay" trail nearby. Visit the Globe for an eclectic dinner and live music five nights a week. Chef Brook T. Lamar's Globe Crabcakes have won him the American Culinary Federation's Gold Medal. —reader burleybrown
Jim Thorpe, Pa.
Located at the base of a valley in the Pocono Mountains, Jim Thorpe is known for its scenic landscape and historic architecture. Experience a bit of Jim Thorpe's history with a ride on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway. For a look into a darker part of the town's history, take a ghost tour of the Old Jail, allegedly haunted by 17th-century murderers. Sample Eurasian-inspired vegetarian cuisine, like Thai papaya salad or stuffed whole portobello mushroom, at Café Origins. —reader dhugos
On June 20, the streets of Owego will be packed for the annual Strawberry Festival. With over 150 vendors and artisans lining the streets, visitors can explore what has been called the best-kept secret in the area of New York. Downtown shops and galleries stay open late for the monthly Third Friday Art Walk, featuring art, entertainment, and refreshments. At the Jailhouse Restaurant—the former county jail, transformed into an eatery in 1998, complete with cell blocks and prison-bed dining tables—try the pulled pork sandwich in the company of a ghost named George. —reader tioga
There's not a chain store in sight in Onancock, an old-school fishing village on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Roseland Theatre, the town's retro movie theater, shows first-run films and an international film series, and the North Street Playhouse has 12 to 15 theatrical productions each season. Grab a hand-dipped cone at Scoops Ice Cream and take the historic downtown walking tour, which includes a half dozen churches and Ker Place Historic House. If you prefer the water, take a guided kayak tour with Mary and Bill Burnham—some say the best way to see the Eastern Shore is from the water. You'll soon be on a first-name basis with the shop owners and artists in this friendly town, where the family-owned pharmacy is housed in the oldest bank building on the Eastern Shore. —reader BurnhamInk
You'll feel like you've been transported back in time in this Gold Rush town—yet this well-preserved 19th-century locale has a 21st-century vibe. In summer, the annual Britt Festival features more than 40 performances from internationally renowned musicians, as well as dance, musical theater, and Broadway musicals. Stop by MacLevin's Whole Foods Deli, which serves delicious kosher food like open whitefish sandwiches with a side of potato latkes and matzo ball soup. For the town's best cup of coffee, visit Good Bean Coffee, a café and roaster located in an 1859 billiards hall. —reader jillcobb15
Eureka Springs, Ark.
A self-proclaimed shopper's paradise, Eureka Springs has no chain stores. At the boutique Bath Junkie, you can create one-of-a-kind gifts—and suds for yourself, too. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Sweet's Fudge Kitchen with award-winning, handmade fudge and hand-dipped chocolates. Penuche, the kitchen's newest flavor of fudge, is made from brown sugar. For a glance at lions, tigers, and even bears, visit Turpentine Creek, a 450-acre wildlife refuge for big cats. Life doesn't stop once the sun goes down: Check out Chelsea's Corner Café for drinks and live music or try the "speedy martini" at Henri's Just One More. —reader gojigirld
Port Royal, S.C.
Located between the Beaufort River and Battery Creek, this charming fishing village is a great place to spend a slow day. Take a walk on the town's boardwalk or along Sands Beach. Stop by Bateaux restaurant for mouth-watering seafood specialties like bacon-wrapped scallops. April 18 brings the town's annual Soft Shell Crab Festival, which offers a variety of seafood, beverages, vintage automobile exhibits, live music and handcrafted arts. And for a look at Port Royal's aquatic life, take a tour of the Lowcountry Estuarium. You can observe local species, become acquainted with local shrimping practices, and learn how to cast a net. —readers shannonerickson and CharlotteGonzalez
Located along the Juniata River, the town is the center of culture and business in Huntingdon County. The antique trains on the East Broad Top Railroad tour will take you back to the time of coal-fueled steam engines. Visit Juniata College's Baker Peace Chapel, a granite circle that sits atop a secluded hill, which was designed by artist and architect Maya Lin. In the evening, dine at Boxer's Café, a local favorite for a large selection of microbrews and live music. The home-cooked meals appeal to many and include vegetarian options. Drop by Mimi's, a cosmopolitan restaurant and bar known for its desserts and martinis—and dessert martinis. —reader rberdar
Rockland is located in an enclosed bay, and life revolves around its rocky shore. Take a walk on the waterfront boardwalk and tour the Breakwater Lighthouse at the end of the mile-long breakwater. Visit the Maine Lighthouse Museum to see the largest collection of lighthouse artifacts in the country. From July 29 until August 2, the annual Lobster Festival takes place. You can enjoy lobster dishes, lobster-crate races, and live music. For a meal with a view, make reservations at Amalfi on the Water, and be sure to order the crème brûlée. —reader CaptBren
Crested Butte, Colo.
If Aspen is the glitzy Colorado locale, Crested Butte (just a six-hour hike away from Aspen) is its authentic counterpart. Nestled in a remote valley in the Rocky Mountains, this small town steers clear of commercialism, and its modern amenities often hark back to the town's mining and ranching history. In the winter, take advantage of the snow to ski or go on sleigh rides. Outfit yourself with clothes and equipment for the mountain at Alpineer. Interested more in local culture? Take the ArtWalk on the third Thursday of the month and see the galleries around town. Indulge in gourmet French food at Soupçon, a small bistro situated in an old miner's cabin. Or for more casual dining, visit Secret Stash, where you'll sit on pillows and dine on pizza made by New York natives. You can forget about finding a Starbucks in this mountain village. Instead visit Camp 4 Coffee, where the owner roasts his own beans and has his own special-recipe chai. —reader bethbuehler
La Conner, Wash.
Located in the Skagit Valley, La Conner has become an artist colony for Northwest painters, and plenty of galleries line downtown streets. Try the oyster dinner at Nell Thorn Restaurant, serving all organic, locally grown produce, seafood, fowl and beef. Or you can pick your own apples, strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries from Skagit Valley's local farms. Explore one of the five small islands nearby, treat yourself at one of the town's eight spas, or watch migrating birds. —reader marciplank
Life moves at a slower pace in this wildlife, culture, and relaxation spot on the Wind River. Downtown Dubois still looks like it did in the 1800s. You can experience fine dining, unique shops, and a hospitable small-town atmosphere. Try the Wind River burger at Sundance Café on a deck with views of Horse Creek. Or pick up a picnic lunch at Paya and take it with you on a wildlife tour at the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. Then talk with friendly locals and linger in shops like Spin a Yarn. —readers Leah and klc203
In this old lumber town, known as the Mural City, you'll find large-scale paintings on the sides of local buildings. The most famous mural is Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms. Stroll through nearby Silver Falls, Oregon's largest state park, where you can see 10 waterfalls. Back in town, visit the Stone Buddha for Asian antiques and jewelry, and for a homey breakfast go to O'Briens, but beware that the signature hotcakes are huge. —reader stargazer
Downtown Pahoa—only about a block long—boasts great restaurants, wooden sidewalks, and a charm you won't find anywhere else in Hawaii. Main Street has maintained its Western-style storefronts and boardwalks. There are also performances on Main Street and at the Akebono Theater, the state's oldest theater. If you're planning on visiting Pahoa overnight, stay in the historic Kapoho Village Inn, which housed some of Puna's earliest travelers; the spacious rooms have antique furnishings. —Budget Travel
Located along the Ohio River, Vevay is home to the first commercial winery in the United States. For a sip of that history, stop by the Ridge Winery tasting room. Sit on the riverside deck and enjoy free samples of the wine as you watch the river flow by outside. On the first Friday of each month, Main Street stays awake with late-night shopping and dining, gallery openings, live entertainment, and free carriage rides. And if you're in town on the last weekend of August this year, check out the highly regarded Swiss Wine Festival. Try the riverboat cruise, visit the beer garden, or watch the fireworks on Saturday night. Don't forget to stop by G.G.'s Grill before you leave town; order the handmade sweet-potato fries. —reader SwitzCntyTourism
Mineral Point, Wis.
Mineral Point, once a mining community, has a long history but still looks to the future. Architectural walking and driving tour booklets are available for $3 at the Chamber of Commerce office, so visitors can enjoy the well-preserved historic buildings. Take an art class at Shake Rag Alley to experience the offbeat creativity of the town. The Alley Stage has a new performance each month. For a lunch break, head to the Red Rooster Café for a traditional Cornish pasty with a figgyhobbin for desert—both were staples in the miners' diets. —reader minpt
Port Austin, Mich.
Just over 100 miles from Detroit, this old farming town is called one of the state's best-kept secrets. On Saturday mornings, visit the Farmer's Market, where you can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables and even handmade games and clothes. Afterward, order pecan waffles at the Lake Street Emporium. At the Farm Restaurant, all menu items are made from seasonal herbs and produce from the restaurant's own garden. And if you'd like to experience the lake, visit the marina to rent a boat or arrange a fishing charter—or, if the water's too chilly, see a show at the Port Austin Community Playhouse. —reader meb
The Little Traverse Bay Area provides residents of Petoskey (and visitors) with some amazing natural vistas. On some nights, you can even see the northern lights. The town also has great shops and restaurants. Have a cup of coffee at Roast and Toast, where they roast their own beans, or try some Italian gelato at American Spoon Foods. For shopping, walk over to the Gaslight District, and don't forget to buy a Petoskey stone at Bailey's Place. The stone, which is actually petrified coral, is found in the bay on which the town is located. —reader ChristieStruck
Founded in 1854, Grinnell maintains its historic architecture. The town is filled with residential architectural beauties—most buildings in downtown date back over 100 years. Take a tour of the Grinnell Historical Museum, which holds artifacts of the town's past, such as one of the first 50 electric refrigerators made by the Grinnell Washing Machine Company in 1932. Attend Date Night at the Bourbon Street Restaurant and enjoy an elaborate Cajun meal. The Happy Days Festival in August includes a carnival and a car show. —reader bmenner
Located in a valley on the Winooski River, this intimate town hosts the New England Culinary Institute and the annual Green Mountain Film Festival. The Dairy Creme, open seasonally to serve super-thick shakes and blizzards, is a local favorite. And of course, a state capital wouldn't be complete without a stop by the home of Vermont's State House, complete with a gilded dome. Free guided tours are given every half hour July through October. —Budget Travel
At the Vergennes Opera House, locals participate in everything from karate lessons to performances by the Little City Players, a community theatre company. The Opera House also shows a different movie every week in its Friday Night Flicks program. At the Black Sheep Bistro on Main Street, visitors can dine on affordable French food and wine. —Budget Travel
Take a drive along River Road to see the scenic Russian River, which traces one side of town, or canoe along the river for great views of the surrounding hills. Just five minutes outside of town is the 6,805-acre Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve. Back in town, Stumptown Brewery and Smokehouse brews its own beers and features beer from other local breweries on tap. This year marks the seventh annual Beer Revival and BBQ Cookoff, where 25 brews and 25 BBQ recipes are served up all afternoon. Get your $50 tickets early—last year's event sold out beforehand. —Budget Travel
How do we define 'Coolest Small Town'?
The town must have a population under 10,000—we're talking small towns, not big cities. It's also got to be on the upswing, a place that's beginning to draw attention—and new residents—because of the quality of life, arts and restaurant scene, or proximity to nature. And cool doesn't mean quaint. We want towns with an edge, so think avant-garde galleries, not country stores.