We love to help you find destinations that go beyond the obvious big cities and theme parks to discover something a little different: America’s Coolest Small Towns. For 13 years now, we’ve celebrated unique towns across the U.S., and this year our network of editors, writers, photographers, and videographers went in search of the coolest of the cool, each with a population under 20,000.
Combining cultural diversity, cutting-edge cuisine, natural beauty, and vibrant community spirit, these towns offer visitors a truly authentic experience, and the Coolest Small Town in America 2018, Beacon, in New York’s Hudson River Valley, exemplifies those core values, with an incredible array of artists and artisans, chefs, a world-class museum, DIA:Beacon, and a revitalized downtown. Here, the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2018.
#1 BEACON, NY
A haven for artists, artisans, chefs, and environmentalists
Hudson Valley Brewery, in Beacon, NY. (Meredith Heuer)
Beacon is a vibrant, forward-thinking little city in Dutchess County, New York, an easy day trip or weekend escape from New York City. Long before the word maker came into fashion, Beacon was making things: It was once a manufacturing center and was especially noted as a go-to for casting sculptures and other massive metal works. These days, a new generation of makers calls Beacon home, including the artisans at Zora Dora’s gourmet handmade paletas (popsicles), the craft brewers at Hudson Valley Brewery, bakers at Glazed Over Donuts, the knitters at Loopy Mango boutique, and the mixologists and chefs at the Roundhouse and other excellent eateries ranging from tacos to BBQ to upscale comfort food. Art lovers will appreciate the colorful murals on Main Street and the modern and contemporary works on display at the DIA:Beacon museum; nature lovers will enjoy hikes on Mount Beacon and the sweeping views of the Hudson River Valley; and everyone will want to end their day at Quinn’s for great food and live music.
#2 SONOMA, CA
A wine lover’s paradise
Vineyards in Sonoma Valley, California. (Geri Lavrov/Getty Images)
In its own charming way, California's Sonoma is like a theme park for grownups. An easy road trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sonoma Valley town has retained much of its Spanish Colonial flavor, including a historic mission and former military headquarters, and it feels a bit like stepping back in time, thanks to decades of forward-thinking preservationists. But the present and future are very much the focus of Sonoma's stylish boutiques, great Mexican, BBQ, and Asian restaurants, and, of course, the chic wine-tasting rooms that line the Plaza, welcoming sippers of all experience levels and pouring the best wines of the Sonoma and Napa valleys (which is to say, some of the best in the world). Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn is a bargain at well under $200 a night, and if you’re up for a bit of a splurge, the El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen, right on the Plaza, is a beauty any time of year. While staying in town, you’ll also want to explore Sonoma Valley’s trails and vineyards, and take the less-than-an-hour’s drive over to Bodega Bay, on the Pacific Coast, for fresh seafood and views that rival those of Big Sur.
#3 GATLINBURG, TN
Gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Gatlinburg, TN, in the heart of the Smokies. (Jon Bilous/Dreamstime)
If you’ve visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you may already be familiar with Gatlinburg, the “gateway to the Smokies,” for its ample affordable lodging. But we feel it’s time to celebrate Gatlinburg for being a truly awesome small town in its own right, with a huge variety of activities for families. This town openly embraces its mountain heritage and culture with classic Southern comfort food, unique shops, galleries, music, and an overall welcoming vibe we adore. Explore the musical legacy of local legend Dolly Parton at nearby Dollywood, dive into classic family-friendly summer vacation activities like go-karts, mini-golf, and horseback riding, and enjoy a variety of museum experiences, from the (yes, touristy) Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum all the way to the somewhat unexpected Titanic museum.
#4 DURANGO, CO
For Southwest adventurers
Incredible hiking outside Durango, CO. (Courtesy Cole Davis Photography)
Hiking in San Juan National Forest. Savoring downtown’s restaurants and art galleries. Taking a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (beautiful any time of year, but especially so in autumn). Durango, in southwestern Colorado, not far from the New Mexico border, boasts as many outdoor activities per capita as any town in America, ensuring that vacationers have a nearly endless choice of daily activities. But when you’re not skiing, hiking, or mountain biking, Durango’s downtown offers historical walking tours and an array of great restaurants, theater, music, and art galleries. We love that you can choose between staying in an alpine cabin or a luxury hotel (with plenty of options in between), and that this small town offers refreshingly convenient public transportation for maximum relaxation.
#5 EPHRAIM, WI
The classic American lakeshore vacation
A view of Lake Michigan from Peninsula State Park, near Ephraim, WI. (Stevengaertner/Dreamstime)
In the heart of the Midwest’s “secret cape"—Wisconsin's Door County, between Green Bay and Lake Michigan—the town of Ephraim welcomes generations of families who return summer after summer for the water sports, forests, lakeshore, and fabled local cherries. Ephraim was first settled in the mid-19th century by Norwegian Moravians, and the old-world charm remains to this day, with 30 historical sites in the village and guided and self-guided tours you’ll love. Eagle Harbor is one of those perfect places for kayaking, paddle-boarding, and Jet Skiing. You can even rent a pontoon boat for the whole family, or book a ride on a sailboat for epic views of the harbor and nearby Peninsula State Park (worth a stop for endless hiking and views of Green Bay).
#6 JACKSON HOLE, WY
Outdoorsy fun in the Grand Tetons
Great shopping and eating in downtown Jackson Hole, WY. (F11photo/Dreamstime)
It’s hard not to have a good time in Jackson Hole, surrounded by the incredible peaks of the Grand Tetons in a 48-mile-long valley that boasts just about every outdoor adventure you can think of (hiking, climbing, biking, paddling, fishing), all in a compact, elegant package. We love exploring nearby Yellowstone National Park with its legendary bison, bears, geysers, and waterfalls, and adjoining Grand Teton National Park with its jaw-dropping jagged mountains (your entrance fee to one of the two parks can get you into the other as well—ask a ranger for details when you enter). Suffice it to say that if you’re a skier, Jackson Hole may be the epicenter of winter fun, with accessible runs for every level and a cozy and delicious après-ski scene. Keep your eyes peeled for elk and deer just about anywhere in the valley, but elk are the main attraction at the National Elk Refuge northeast of town.
#7 EUREKA SPRINGS, AR
A rich history and soothing natural beauty
Basin Park Hotel in Eureka Springs, AR. The limestone hotel was built in 1904. (Linda Williams/Dreamstime)
Stroll a vibrant Victorian-era downtown with more than 100 shops and galleries, zipline in the forests of the Ozark Mountains, and get some “me” time at one of Eureka Springs’s many spas, including the natural warm springs that gave the town its name. We love how history and natural beauty come together here in a laid-back environment that boasts scenic caverns, a wildlife refuge, steam-train rides, and the folk culture and music of the Ozarks. Sometimes a visit to a mountain region means a relatively limited range of eating options, but not in Eureka Springs, where an international variety is on the menu, including Indian, Thai, and Mexican food, plus traditional Czech- and German-influenced fare handed down from the area’s first European settlers. Kick back in comfy lodgings such as the Basin Park Hotel, built out of limestone in 1904.
#8 SEDONA, AZ
For travelers seeking relaxation and enlightenment
The surreally beautiful rock formations surrounding Sedona, AZ. (Courtesy Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau)
Sedona’s unique rock formations, rising from the desert floor into a Technicolor sky, will blow your mind and inspire you to explore the nearly 2 million acres of national forest outside town on foot or by bike. Sedona has a centuries-old tradition of spirituality and healing, dating back to the Native Americans who originally settled the area and continuing to the present-day New Age folks who travel here for the “vortex energy centers.” Whether or not that's your thing, you’ll love the dozens of art galleries, indulgent spa treatments, and one of America’s up-and-coming wine scenes with picturesque vineyards and elegant tasting rooms.
#9 OCEAN SPRINGS, MS
The Gulf Coast’s foodie magnet
There is always plenty of chow at the Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint in Ocean Springs, MS. (Fred Salinas)
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is celebrated for fresh seafood like gumbo, shrimp, oysters, and crab, and perhaps no other coastal small town offers more and better restaurants than Ocean Springs. When you’re not chilling on the beach or paddling on the Gulf and its inlets, Ocean Springs will feed you well. Vestige specializes in seasonal, market-inspired dishes like crab croquettes and catch-of-the-day. Eat Drink Love offers fresh cheeses and cured meats perfect for a beach picnic. Phoenicia Gourmet Restaurant serves up blackened shrimp, red snapper, and crab cakes; the name of Aunt Jenny’s Catfish restaurant pretty much says it all; and the Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint dishes up big portions of classic smoky favorites in, yes, a retro-chic shed. For drinks and live music, stop by the Government Street Grocery. (Speaking of music, while you're in Ocean Springs, don’t forget to explore some of the Mississippi Blues Trail’s coastal sites in nearby Biloxi, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis.) And we must remind you that it’s not all about the food: Ocean Springs’s art scene is magnificent, with the Walter Anderson Museum of Art displaying an array of great visual art and also playing host to evening events, including an annual craft beer tasting.
#10 POINT PLEASANT BEACH, NJ
An awesome beach and boardwalk with a family-friendly vibe
The perfect beach, lined with vacation rentals, in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ. (Jon Bilous/Dreamstime)
Spread a beach blanket on a perfect stretch of white sand for a state of total relaxation. No, you’re not in the Caribbean or the Cape—welcome to one of New Jersey’s most awesome beach and boardwalks, in Point Pleasant Beach, an easy day trip from New York City and Philadelphia and one of the friendliest communities you’ll find anywhere. The star attraction in summer is Jenkinson’s boardwalk, with rides for kids (of all ages), exceptional food (think Northeast classics like sausage and peppers on a roll, deep-fried powdered Italian zeppole, and the finest hand-shaken lemonade this travel editor has ever tasted), and an array of carnival games (yes, the frog pond is here!), a vintage carousel, and even an aquarium. Visitors are often surprised that Point Pleasant Beach’s downtown is also one of the coolest antiques districts, with unique stores, quiet coffee shops, friendly locals, and upscale dining for when you’ve finally had your fill of boardwalk fare. Nab hotel bargains by visiting in spring or fall, or splurge a little on a perfect summer lodging like the White Sands, with beach access, an outdoor pool, and an on-site restaurant.