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As curious travelers, we’ve ventured to bustling cities and sprawling countries across the globe, and we’ve found something to love in each of them — but it’s some of the smallest towns right here in the U.S. that have stolen our hearts in the biggest way. They may not have designer shopping, popular restaurant chains, or even stoplights, but what they lack in cosmopolitan “buzz,” they more than make up for in warm hospitality, creative small businesses, and local character. Now, it’s finally time to celebrate them.
We launched America’s Best Small Towns to shine a spotlight on the lesser-visited destinations we want you, our readers, to know about this year, be it for natural beauty and outdoor adventure (think beaches, mountains, lakes, and deserts), or specific topics of interest, such as great restaurants or vineyards, interesting culture, and soothing wellness experiences.
We’ve selected winners and runners up across seven small town categories to let you in on our travel secrets. We hope they inspire you to go out and get to know the places that are quietly making our country such a wonderful place to explore.
In Honor of Lahaina, Hawaii
We can’t talk about small towns this year without taking a moment to reflect on Lahaina, Hawaii — Maui’s quintessential small town, full of Hawaiian culture and history — which was tragically devastated by wildfires earlier this month. Here, read more about the town and its deep meaning to Hawaiians. And don’t forget to check out ways you can help Maui on its long road to recovery.
What are the categories?
- Best Small Beach Town
- Best Small Mountain Town
- Best Small Lake Town
- Best Small Desert Town
- Best Small Food + Culture Town
- Best Small Wine, Beer, + Spirits Town
- Best Small Spa + Wellness Town
What are the rules?
In order to qualify as one of America’s Best Small Towns, a town must be located in the United States and have a full-time population below 25,000 residents, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. It must also excel in its category and offer a variety of activities, accommodations, and a timely reason to visit — be it a notable new festival, hotel, restaurant, attraction, or tourism initiative.
How did we choose the winners?
We polled our colleagues and contributors, trusted travel advisors, and more within our network of experts from all over the U.S. Our team of travel editors then sifted through the many thoughtful responses and chose the destinations we believe our readers will enjoy the most right now.
Want to nominate a town for next year?
We’d love to hear from you! Please submit your nomination here.
America’s Best Small Beach Town
Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island, Florida
While the state of Florida welcomes nearly 140 million visitors each year, only a small portion of them make their way to serene Gasparilla Island and its main town, Boca Grande, an upscale yet down-to-earth community on the Gulf of Mexico that’s just the right amount of sleepy (except when it comes to its role as “Tarpon Capital of the World”).
Back in action after the devastation of Hurricane Ian in 2022, Boca Grande remains a captivating place to visit — a tranquil respite from the frenetic pace of our modern world (and many parts of Florida) with a beachy, small-town allure all its own.
— Skye Sherman
Port Aransas, Texas
Port Aransas, located on a stretch of North Padre barrier island 40 miles east of downtown Corpus Christi, has long been cherished by Texans as a relaxed getaway for beachgoers and anglers. So it was especially devastating when 2017’s Hurricane Harvey pummeled the island with 130 mile-per-hour winds and 12-foot storm surges, leaving behind an estimated $1 billion in damage. Six years later, Port A is back in business. Brand new spacious beachfront family-style casitas at Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Club offer full resort amenities. A new Patton Center for Marine Science Education educates visitors about local wildlife — and admission is free. For an ideal getaway, take professional sandcastle lessons; sail a jetty out to secluded San José Island; and zoom across the beach in a rental golf cart. On weekends, participate in a lighthearted local tradition: belt sander races at The Gaff, where a rusty truck used to stand sprayed with “Nice try, Harvey.”
— Cynthia J. Drake
America’s Best Small Mountain Town
Highlands, North Carolina
According to legend, Highlands, North Carolina, was formed in 1875 after developers in Kansas pulled out a map and drew two lines, one from New Orleans to New York and another from Chicago to Savannah. These routes, they believed, would soon become critical for trade, and the spot where they intersected would serve as a hub for commercial activity. Highlands never became a bustling city center, but the original predictions weren’t too far off — Atlanta is a little over two hours away.
Located within the Nantahala National Forest, at the highest crest of the Western North Carolina plateau, the area now known as Highlands was once used as hunting ground for the Cherokee. In the late 1800s, though, pioneers from the North and South, as well as Scotch-Irish from the surrounding valleys and mountains, began to settle the region. Driving distance from major cities in the Southeast — including Charleston, Nashville, and Charlotte — modern-day Highlands is a summer retreat for those looking to escape the humidity and a year-round haven for hiking, waterfall spotting, art, music, and top-tier dining and hospitality experiences.
— Lydia Mansel
Red Lodge, Montana
Red Lodge is more than a mile-high mountain town with no stoplights or Starbucks; it’s a gateway community leading to Yellowstone’s underrated northeast entrance. Whether en route to tackle the hairpin turns of the Beartooth Highway, one of the most scenic drives in the world, or coming for a ski sojourn at a resort that still has lift tickets under $100, everyone who visits ends up looking at real estate, even if it’s just out of curiosity. Annual events include renaissance fairs, rodeos, rallies, and races — including the highest foot race in America. If you don’t want to hoof it at 10,000+ feet, consider renting an e-bike or a Polaris slingshot from the newly opened Red Lodge Adventure Center. Of course, you can also just stroll Main Street and enjoy the boutiques and restaurants owned and operated by the welcoming locals who are behind every amazing mountain town.
— Katie Jackson
America’s Best Small Lake Town
Grand Marais, Minnesota
Two hours north of Duluth seems like an unlikely spot for most things, much less America’s best small lake town. But should you venture to Grand Marais, that’s exactly what you’ll find. In-the-know travelers flock here looking for an increasingly rare vintage seaside vibe, adventures into the state’s famed Boundary Waters, and local-yet-world-class art. Set along the forested edges of Lake Superior, up the state’s North Shore, this is also Minnesota’s artsiest town.
With that rare Goldilocks touch — think far more food trucks and art galleries than stoplights (in fact, there’s just one in the whole county) — we’re happily calling Grand Marais the nation’s best small lake town. With new openings, eclectic redesigns, and an accidentally hip devotion to all things local, Grand Marais is a grand foray on America’s “Fresh Coast.”
— Jacqueline Kehoe
Wolfeboro, New Hampshire
Picture it: Wood-clad Chris Craft speedboats bobbing by the docks in summer, colorful ice-fishing huts dotting the lake in winter, trees lit up gold and red against the quaint New England village scenery come autumn. The tiny town of Wolfeboro, NH — dubbed “the oldest summer resort in the U.S.” — sits between Lake Winnipesaukee and Lake Wentworth and has been a go-to getaway spot since New Hampshire was still an English colony. Check into the Pickering House Inn (voted by T+L readers to be one of New England’s best stays in this year’s World’s Best Awards), an 1813 estate that’s been reimagined as a luxurious 10-room boutique hotel, and make it your jumping off point for mornings lounging in the sun on Brewster Beach and afternoon strolls down Main Street, just a block away from Winnipesaukee. The newly expanded Burnt Timber Brewing and Tavern is a laid-back spot for brunch or lunch — try the Korean fried chicken sandwich and a pint of the kaffir lime-infused Always Summer Saison. And don’t leave town without a meal at Pavilion, a three-year-old fine dining restaurant now run by chef Chris Viaud, a Top Chef alum and James Beard semifinalist whose New England upbringing and Haitian roots inspire his vibrant farm-to-table cuisine.
— Lila Harron Battis
America’s Best Small Desert Town
The tiny town of Kanab, Utah, is perfectly perched within reach of the most iconic sites in the southwest. Three popular national parks — Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon — are one to two hours away by car, and Kanab acts as the gateway to The Wave, a popular red rock formation that resembles a wave in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.
And while Kanab serves as the perfect homebase for exploring these famous sites (and more), it’s still relatively unheard of — in fact, its motto is “Magically Unspoiled.” The tiny town of roughly 5,000 people includes athletes and outdoor lovers who can’t get enough of the adventures that await just outside their door.
— Evie Carrick
Yucca Valley, California
Far from the middle-of-nowhere images that desert towns conjure up, Yucca Valley is an oasis of quirk, history, and art. 20 miles north of Palm Springs in Southern California’s San Bernardino Valley, the city often receives a quick stop or glance from visitors heading to Joshua Tree Park or Pioneertown, but has a life of its own. Over the years, a booming artist community drawn to the desert basin’s mystic mountains and dusty roads have produced eccentric art galleries like The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum, which features over 100 pieces of sculptures and recycled materials on 10 acres just 10 minutes outside of town, and the annual Highway 62 Art Tours, where visitors can buy works from local artists. Vintage Western vibes at dining newcomer Tiny Pony Cafe include framed velvet paintings of cats, a pool table, and elevated bar food, while the recently remodeled Copper Room, first opened in 1957, provides classic cocktails and Asian-inspired dishes on its tarmac location at Yucca Valley Airport (no boarding pass required). This November, the Yucca Valley Film Festival will celebrate its 5th year, and in 2024, in response to climate change and drought, a new Aquatics and Recreation Center will be built.
— Kristin Braswell
America’s Best Small Food + Culture Town
Los Olivos, California
Los Olivos doesn’t wake up before 6 a.m. This year, when the Inn at Mattei’s Tavern, Auberge Resorts Collection, opened with a cafe that started pulling espresso shots at 6 every morning, the hours of Felix Coffee Shop were the talk of the town. Or, more accurately, the talk of the 2.5-square-mile unincorporated community in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.
There are 27 wineries in Los Olivos, which means you’re looking at a tasting room every .01 square mile. But don’t worry, you won’t be driving. The main drag of Los Olivos — Grand Avenue — is two blocks from the new hotel. And to help travelers soak up the wine — mostly pinot noirs and chardonnays marinating in the valley’s cool microclimates — are a few fantastic new restaurants, which landed Los Olivos the title of Travel + Leisure’s very first best food and culture town in the U.S.
— Maya Kachroo-Levine
McCook, Nebraska, has a population of just 7,500, but this small prairie town boasts a culinary and cultural scene that far outpunches its weight class. It’s home to the only James Beard Award-winning eatery in the state, Sehnert’s Bakery. In 2019, this homey spot was honored as an American Classic for its bierocks (a German-style, doughy hot pocket filled with kraut or cabbage). McCook’s contemporary art scene is another highlight, with a newly finished, community-led downtown mural. But, perhaps the most striking offering in McCook is the 6th Floor Project, a purposeful gallery nestled on the top floor of the Keystone Business Center and offering a rare birds-eye view of town. This innovative effort seeks to elevate the art of under-appreciated creators from across the globe while reinvigorating rural Nebraska. On the festival front, the Buffalo Commons Storytelling and Music Festival just celebrated its 26th year of programming with a cowboy twist.
— Katy Spratte Joyce
America’s Best Small Wine, Beer, + Spirits Town
Tucked away in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, a small Georgia town hides an alluring secret: award-winning wineries and tasting rooms that offer local, regional, and international wines and spirits. With a thriving wine culture and a picturesque backdrop of mountains and foothills, Dahlonega, Georgia, is a pleasant escape to somewhere surprisingly unexpected.
Home to eight wineries, a dozen wine-tasting rooms, and a new surge of craft breweries and distilleries, Dahlonega is a thriving destination for in-the-know wine and spirits enthusiasts, without any of the pomp or circumstance. And while Dahlonega’s wineries are what draw many, recent hotel renovations and updates from local businesses — combined with unparalleled views of the North Georgia mountains — are showing visitors that this humble town packs quite a punch with some big-city amenities.
— Karen Ruffini
Greenport, New York
Located on Long Island’s bucolic 30-mile North Fork peninsula, Greenport is a charming seaside town with historic architecture, hip restaurants, and a thriving beer, wine, and spirits scene. It attracts weekenders seeking a more casual alternative to the ritzy Hamptons across the bay, and it’s renowned as a destination for wine lovers, boasting over 60 unique vineyards. Of those, Greenport is home to Kontokosta, serving both spectacular views and viognier. One Woman Wines, run by Italian expat Claudia Purita, has a tasting room in nearby Southold and is poured at Greenport’s First & South, a farm-to-table restaurant where the beverages are as locally sourced as the food. Equally popular are the many craft breweries and small batch distilleries nearby; beer drinkers hop to the tasting room at Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. for an IPA flight, while cocktail aficionados pick up spiced rum, vodkas, and grappa from Greenport Distilling. The hotel scene has also boomed, with three openings this season alone including Hotel Moraine, Silver Sands, and ZEY Hotel, owned by restaurateur and reality TV star, Zach Erdem.
— Amy Louise Bailey
America’s Best Small Spa + Wellness Town
Aurora, New York
When it comes to small towns with big reputations, lakeside Aurora, New York, is top of the class. The 724-person village, hugging the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, is probably best known as the headquarters of MacKenzie-Childs, the homewares retailer that still paints its distinctive serveware by hand in the blissful quiet of this stretch of Cayuga County.
But it’s also becoming a destination for wellness thanks to the Inns of Aurora Resort & Spa, a collection of six small lodgings and one stunning hilltop retreat that T+L readers recently voted among the very best resorts in New York state. Throw in the fact that this stretch of the Finger Lakes is filled with gorge hikes, tap rooms, farm stands, and low-key beaches, and Aurora starts to look like not only the best small town for wellness, but for just about anybody’s idea of what the chilled-out good life should be.
— Paul Brady
With the opening of the Alyeska Nordic Spa last September, the small Alaskan hamlet of Girdwood suddenly became a mountain sanctuary for wellness. The old mining town had been known for winter adventures like heli-skiing, ski touring, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing at Alyeska Resort — a classic far north ski experience in the Chugach Mountains that was just added to the Ikon Pass. Now skiers can combine nature-based activities with rejuvenating in the Nordic Spa, just a quick walk next door from the European-style slopeside Alyeska Hotel. The 50,000-acre forested spa grounds feature a circuit of open-air hot and cold pools designed to maximize the benefits of hydrotherapy, interspersed with an exfoliation cabin, essential oil-infused steam room, traditional Finnish sauna, and halotherapy sauna lined in salt walls. Indoors, massage rooms and a bistro serving local foods complete the revitalizing offerings.
— Cassidy Randall