From Cape Cod to the Monterey Peninsula, from the Rocky Mountains to the Adirondacks, we’re celebrating gorgeous, welcoming communities.
At Budget Travel, we are all about discovering affordable destinations that go far beyond the obvious vacation choices. Over the past fourteen years, a passionate and accomplished team of editors, writers, and photographers have had a blast bringing you a different kind of travel experience: The Coolest Small Towns in America.
What makes a small town “cool”? We believe that it’s cool to reflect the principles upon which the United States was founded, including cultural and ethnic diversity, the free exchange of creative ideas, and an entrepreneurial spirit that lifts all citizens in a community. We believe it’s cool to welcome and celebrate a diversity of visitors, the way Provincetown, Massachusetts, has been welcoming LGBTQ+ travelers for decades. We believe it’s cool to live in harmony with nature, the way Pacific Grove, California, became Butterfly Town USA and Saranac Lake, New York, and its neighboring towns in Adirondack State Park have pursued a sustainable tourism industry that respects the region’s pristine lakes and mountains. We believe it’s cool to boast a vibrant downtown, cutting-edge cuisine, and a community spirit that makes visitors feel like friends, as all the towns on this year’s list do.
Here, Budget Travel’s 14th annual 10 Coolest Small Towns in America, an editor-curated to-do list for 2019 and beyond.
1. Provincetown, MA
Drift on up the hooked peninsula of Cape Cod, past the dunes and windswept bungalows, and you’ll arrive at the magical village of Provincetown. It’s a place of beautifully balanced contrasts: tradition and flamboyance, art and industry, seafood stews and nouveau cuisine.
The Massachusetts town has been a popular destination ever since English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold dropped anchor there in 1602. (And, by the way, he also bestowed the name “Cape Cod” thanks to a big fishing score.) Eighteen years later, the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived there, finding winter refuge in Provincetown Harbor before settling inland at Plymouth. You might say that Provincetown was the original American sanctuary before there was an even an American settlement.
Today, “P-town” lives on as a peaceful retreat for travelers seeking calm waters. And in 2019, a retreat here comes with modern appeal too. For starters, Provincetown is a world-famous LGBTQ+ destination, home to year-round festivals welcoming gay, lesbian, and transgender visitors. It’s a rainbow-waving haven with countless queer-owned B&Bs, restaurants, and other businesses that lend a sense of freedom to any vacation.
The city’s 3,000 friendly residents, of course, make room for everyone intrigued by Provincetown’s history and mellow atmosphere. Its chill vibe is rooted in the arts, thanks to the Cape’s natural beauty that’s inspired artists from Edward Hopper to Jackson Pollock to Anne Packard to take up residence there. They were among many who made P-town an active art colony, and you can see some of that heritage at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, founded in 1914. There you can view exhibits from its permanent collection of more than 3,000 works, along with year-round temporary exhibits. Other private galleries along Commercial and adjacent streets offer original works by local and global painters, sculptors, and multi-media artists.
The city stages and screens plenty of art too, topped by the renowned Provincetown International Film Festival each June at the non-profit Waters Edge Cinema. Filmmakers and actors turn out in abundance as much for the prestige as for the chance at a spring escape to the Cape. The same is true of P-town’s other performance arts events, like the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival and seasonal productions at the famous Provincetown Theatre.
Spring brings P-town’s annual reawakening, and as warmth returns, so do the whales, seals, hawks, and other wildlife. Bring your binoculars to Herring Cove Beach to spot fauna from the shore, or bring your sea legs on a whale-watching tour with a Dolphin Fleet ($53 for adults, reservations recommended).
To heighten your view, climb 252 feet to the top of Pilgrim Monument, erected in 1910. While you’re there, don’t miss the Provincetown Museum’s history exhibits covering local maritime customs, the Mayflower Pilgrims arrival, and the Provincetown Players’ early theater.
P-town dining yields a nice array of choices, and of course seafood rightfully tops most menus. Head to the Red Inn, on the west end of town, for waterfront seating while sampling its raw bar, fresh-caught lobster sliders, or roasted local cod. Women-helmed Baie Bar Resto in the heart of Commercial Street uses seafood in more inventive dishes, along with sophisticated craft cocktails. Duck into the Mayflower restaurant, open since 1929, for traditional Portuguese kale soup with spicy linguica sausage, and other local specialties in a more casual setting.
Live entertainment is steady day and night at cafés, clubs, and larger spots. Head to the centrally located Crowne & Anchor complex for dinner, drinks, and/or a show in its giant performance hall. Sip drinks and catch diverse, eccentric acts at the Art House (open summer season only). Both spots host LGBTQ events, including solo acts and bands, comedians, viewing parties, and more. For a more intimate scene, try the Post Office Cabaret for dinner on the first floor, and drag, singalongs, and stand-up upstairs.
From about May through October, Provincetown’s festival calendar reads like a roster of theme weeks. Some are sporty, some are traditional, and many are skewed for mature audiences. On the LGBTQ side, there’s Provincetown Pride, distinct Womxn and Men of Color Weekends, Bear Week, Women’s Week, and the racy Mr. New England Leather Weekend.
Art and tradition are honored with festivals like June’s Portuguese Festival, late-May’s CabaretFest, September’s Antique Car Show & Parade, and October’s Wellfleet Oyster Festival. Even once the cold season returns, visitors can still enjoy the Thanksgiving tree and Pilgrim Monument lighting ceremonies, Holly Folly holiday events and fundraisers, and First Light New Year’s Festival.
It’s tough to encapsulate all that makes P-town so cool—especially because so much of its charm only comes from being there. Best of all though, no matter when you go, Provincetown will welcome you. —Kelsy Chauvin
2. Pacific Grove, CA
Here at the tip of the Monterey Bay Peninsula, along the Central Coast of California, you’ll find a meeting of land and sea so perfect—whether it’s shrouded in morning fog or bright blue and cloudless—it has been immortalized in the literature of Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck, and in so many film and television productions that the town feels familiar even to those who’ve never visited before. Whether you go for one of the luxe B&Bs that boast views of the winding shores of the bay, or one of the more modest cottages along the town’s narrow streets, be prepared to relax—it’s difficult not to with this much beauty at your doorstep. Take your pick of activities, including simply strolling or cycling the curving Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail that links Pacific Grove with its bigger next-door neighbor, the city of Monterey. Visitors in October should head to the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary to see the thousands of monarch butterflies that descend on the town annually, earning Pacific Grove the nickname Butterfly Town USA. Hire a kayak from Adventures by the Sea for an unforgettable up-close-and-personal experience on the bay, or head to Lovers Point Park and Beach for a chance to “win Instagram” for a day with the rugged shoreline and deep-blue water as your backdrop. When you get hungry, fresh-from-the-bay seafood is cooking in Pacific Grove’s award-winning kitchens, and a bottle of Central Coast Pinto Noir is a must. And as wonderful as all the above activities are, don’t forget to keep an eye out for the sea otters who frolic in the waves just offshore—these lucky critters get to call the Monterey Bay their year-round home, and you’ll cherish your photos and memories of the whiskered sea mammals long after you return home. —Robert Firpo-Cappiello
3. Park City, UT
About half an hour southeast of Salt Lake City, in the middle of northern Utah’s Wasatch Range, the mountain town of Park City is home to one world-famous film festival and two renowned resorts: Sundance, which kicks off in January; Deer Valley, an award-winning luxury property; and Park City Mountain, America’s largest resort, with more lift-accessible, skiable terrain than anywhere else in the country. But though Park City welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors to its slopes on an annual basis, the residential population hovers around 10,000, and when the crowds thin out, its true colors shine through. Visit from late November to early April to take advantage of the quality powder, and to channel your inner Olympian. Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 winter games, but events were also held at venues in Park City that are now open to the public for bobsledding, curling, and more. During the summer, those same resorts stay busy with all manner of outdoor activities, including hiking, mountain-biking, zip-lining, and rope courses. In the former silver-mining town itself, Main Street is where it’s at, with more than 100 indie shops and 50 restaurants to keep visitors entertained. Catch a concert at the historic Egyptian Theatre, a King Tut-inspired building dating to 1926, or go gallery hopping on the last Friday of the month, when the exhibits are free to take in. An added bonus? You won’t need a car to get here or around town—there’s a shuttle that runs to and from the airport, and the local transit system operates gratis year-round. —Maya Stanton
4. Saranac Lake, NY
Plenty of American travelers are discovering what New Yorkers have known for generations: Adirondack State Park, the largest state park in the U.S., is an outrageously beautiful—and affordable—oasis of pristine lakes, rivers, streams, and mountains just a few hours’ drive from the NYC metro area or New Englend. In the heart of the Adirondacks, the town of Saranac Lake offers elegant lodging at Hotel Saranac and phenomenally good food at the hotel’s Camp Fire restaurant, plus Blue Line Brewery, Casa del Sol, Tail of the Pup, Blue Moon Cafe, and Origins Coffee in the vibrant, shopper-friendly downtown. A fun arts and artisan scene includes Art at the Pink House, Small Fortune Studio, the Community Store, and Ampersound, which wins our informal award for cleverest musical instrument shop (and offers personalized customer service and reasonably priced ukuleles). Book a guided kayaking excursion with Adirondack Trails & Lakes Outfitters to explore one of the area’s amazing lakes, and don’t miss the family favorite carousel featuring carved wooden Adirondack denizens that include loons, beavers, bears, and more. —Robert Firpo-Cappiello
5. Milledgeville, GA
Conveniently situated between Atlanta and Savannah, Milledgeville is the former Georgia state capital and a charming southern town that seamlessly balances historical pre-Civil War roots and the modern role of hosting the state’s only designated public liberal arts university. Under the towering oaks that line the streets, you’ll find a bustling, energetic downtown complete with hip coffee shops, made-to-order brick oven pizza, cool beers on draft, eclectic boutiques, and antique shops. Hop aboard the trolly and tour the Old State Capital along with Lockerly Arboretum. For a glimpse into the Antebellum, Civil War, and early Reconstruction phases of the state, visit the Old Governor’s mansion. This National Historic Landmark and Smithsonian affiliate has been restored to its original splendor from 1839, even down to the original lighting. Literary enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to Andalusia Farm, the home of Flannery O’Connor. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy kayaking the Oconee River, pontooning on Lake Sinclair, or bicycling and walking along the many greenway paths that run beside the river. For a true taste of southern style, stay at the Antebellum Inn, where you can sit on a white-columned porch while sipping a glass of ice tea. If major hotel brands are more in your comfort zone, Milledgeville offers a wide variety to fit your needs and budget. —Amanda McCadams
6. Bastrop, TX
Located 30 miles southeast of Austin, Bastrop’s slogan is “Welcome to it all,” and they’re not kidding. First, there’s the unusual geography. The Lost Pines Forest, which is in part located in the center of the town, is comprised of trees not typically found in the region. Ride a bike or take a walk or jog through Bastrop State Park to explore. Then there’s the historic look of the place. Many down town buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1862, so most of the cityscape was built after the Civil War. In 1979, 131 buildings and sites were added to the National Register of Historic Places, making Bastrop the “Most Historic Small Town in Texas.” It’s caught the eye of filmmakers, many of who have used the town as the set of their movies. The 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was shot here was shot here, and stars like Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Angelina, Jolie and Jack Black have all done takes in front of the camera here. Today, however, its old-world charm is just a backdrop to a thoroughly modern small town, complete with boutiques selling locally made crafts, soaps, quilts, and food, antique shops, a music instrument retailer, galleries, book stores, and more. Bastrop sits along the Colorado River, which makes the town a prime destination for canoeing, swimming, wildlife viewing, or hiking. There’s also golf courses and camping in the state park. At the end of a busy day, refuel at one of the many restaurants in town. Choose from steakhouses, BBQ joints, and all the other classic Texas fare, like Mexican food served in vast cantinas or small, homey taquerias. —Liza Weisstuch
7. Lanesboro, MN
No chain stores, no McDonald’s, no stop lights—no, it’s not Mayberry, but you’d be forgiven for confusing the two. A former milling community in southeastern Minnesota, on the banks of the Root River, Lanesboro had its heyday in the late 1800s, and by the 1970s, its historic downtown was on the verge of collapse. In a move ahead of its time, a group of forward-thinking activists took steps to protect and preserve their hamlet’s century-old heritage, working with the state to turn the abandoned rail line running through town into a bike trail that provides easy access to the walkable downtown area. Today, this early example of the rails-to-trails model is thriving, bringing in thousands of visitors each year via bike and boat (the Root River State Water Trail, a gently flowing waterway, also winds through town). The picturesque downtown features more than 30 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including hotels, a drugstore, a post office, and a saloon, some of which have been turned into B&Bs, as well as quaint shops and eateries. And, with a population of less than 800, it has the cultural chops of a far bigger destination: The Commonweal Theatre, a rural professional company, stages five shows a season, the nonprofit Lanesboro Arts provides multidisciplinary programming like dance performances and concerts throughout the year, and the tiny historical museum puts it all into context. —Maya Stanton
8. Seward, AK
In the summertime, Seward’s 3,000-ish residents welcome enough visitors to triple its population. The reasons they flock to this gorgeous, enchanting destination are numerous. The sea-centric activities alone make a visit here special. Seward’s waters are home to halibut, salmon, and rockfish and anglers of all levels can take guided tours with expert fishermen. There’s also the surrounding Kenai Fjords National Park. A variety of day cruises through this jaw-dropping natural wonder reveal marine wildlife and glaciers. There’s a chance to hang with wildlife on land, too. Dog sledding, known as Iditarod, is one of Alaska’s most enduring traditions and there are kennels where pros will guide visitors on a ride of their own. For something a bit slower paced, there’s hiking options through forests, including trails for disabled adventurers, mountain climbing, and lake activities, and glacier visits. And of course no vacation is complete without a taste of the regional food. The town’s chefs specialize in dishes with the fish from the nearby Kenai and Copper rivers. —Liza Weisstuch
9. Fulton, MO
A small Presbyterian school in central Missouri seems an odd location for landmark, history-making moments, but Fulton’s Westminster College has seen more than its share of elite action. Former presidents and prime ministers have addressed the student body here, which is impressive enough; add Winston Churchill’s legendary Iron Curtain speech from 1946 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1992 follow-up addressing the end of the Cold War, and you have something extraordinary. Located on campus, beneath a 17th-century church dismantled and moved from London to the midwest, the National Churchill Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, paying homage to the iconic British statesman with deep archives featuring Churchill memorabilia, personal papers, and paintings from the man himself. His granddaughter, the artist Edwina Sandys, also contributed to the collection: a striking sculpture, situated in front of the museum, featuring a 32-foot-long segment of the Berlin Wall. But that’s just one aspect of Fulton’s storied past. The Callaway County seat’s downtown Brick District boasts nearly 60 buildings on the historic register, and it’s not the only part of town that’s well-preserved. The soda fountain at Saults Drug Store has been slinging sundaes and sodas since the 1930s, and many of famed Missouri architect Morris Frederick Bell’s homes still stand today. Come in April for the Morels & Microbrews festival, spend a summer evening splashing around at the municipal pool for a dive-in movie, or visit year-round for galleries, wine-tasting, fishing, and more. —Maya Stanton
10. Bath, ME
In the 19th century, Bath was one of Maine’s largest cities ad and an industrial center, turning out more than a quarter of our young nation’s wooden sailing vessels at its 20-plus shipyards. Today, the redbrick sidewalks and hulking 19th century buildings remain as reminders of its heritage, as a hip, artsy crowd has cultivated a community that’s earned a reputation as “little Portland,” a town 40 minutes south and a population eight times the size of Bath’s. Young creative types are relocating here for its chiller vibe and outstanding real estate prices, contributing to the growing local pride. You sense it in the variety of new restaurants, architectural tours of 18th century homes, the Chocolate Church, a quirky performance center in a 1840s Gothic Revival church, and the food- and jewelry- and soap-makers who hawk their wares alongside farmers and bakers at the year-round market, which takes place in a century-plus-old shed in the wintertime. And that’s to say nothing of the Maine Maritime Museum, Popham Beach State Park, the pretty Kennebec River shorelines that draw crowds in the summer, and historic fort. Little surprise that New Englanders have turned their attention to this charming, lively coastal paradise. —Liza Weisstuch