Celebrating America’s small towns has become one of Smithsonian magazine’s favorite traditions: an opportunity to get lost in the slower pace of walkable streets, minor league baseball games and waters brimming with wildlife. These communities are gateways to vast national parks, Native American heritage and Underground Railroad history, where qualities such as preservation, pride and perseverance often go hand in hand.
Our picks for the 15 best small towns to visit this year all have a population of 25,000 or under, a high density of cultural offerings and natural beauty, and a compelling reason to visit in 2022. They include Africatown, Alabama, a community just outside of downtown Mobile with a new museum that finally gives its formerly enslaved founders and their descendants a place to tell their stories, and Winslow, Arizona, where people have now been “standin’ on the corner” thanks to the Eagles’ chart-topping hit for a solid 50 years. It’s also said that 80 percent of all Native American jewelry sold worldwide comes from within 100 miles of Gallup, New Mexico, while Bemidji, Minnesota, surprised us with a series of fully immersive “language villages” where both adults and kids can learn Italian, Korean, Danish and more.
This year’s 15 small towns inspire our hearts and minds, and encourage us to get out and explore. (All population figures are from the 2020 census.)
Seaside Small Town: Cambria, California (pop. 5,678)
When media tycoon William Randolph Hearst first purchased 40,000 acres of ranchland in 1865 to build his now-famous hilltop compound, nearby Cambria was largely unknown. Not anymore. Today, this picturesque seaside village is buzzing with boutique shops, art galleries and antiques stores. It’s also an ideal base for visiting Hearst Castle. Located just six miles north, the world-renowned site finally reopened in May after a long, two-year closure caused both by storm damage and the pandemic. It’s wonderful timing, as 2022 also happens to be the 150th anniversary of the birth of its architect, Julia Morgan. Along with restored access to the estate’s opulent artworks, dazzling pools and grand rooms, the castle is celebrating its reopening with a new tour delving into Morgan’s incredible life and career, and featuring rarely seen pockets of the castle that highlight her design expertise. Noteworthy elements include the castle’s multitude of architectural styles, such as Gothic and neo-Classical, and Morgan’s seamless integration of Hearst’s personal art collection. The property once had a private zoo housing leopards, bears, kangaroos and zebras. Today, some descendants of the original zebras still roam the surrounding hillsides.
Along with its close proximity to the castle, Cambria also occupies a prime location along Highway 1 and California’s Central Coast, just south of the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, where thousands of these marine mammals mate, molt, give birth and rest each year. It’s also only 24 miles south of Ragged Point—the gateway to California’s rugged Big Sur coastline, with its hiking trails, campgrounds and awe-inspiring natural views. Approximately 100 Clydesdale horses roam freely on the grounds of Cambria’s 2,000-acre Covell Ranch. Tours of the property—with its pristine Monterey pine forest and ocean views—are offered both on the ranch’s open-air trailer and horseback.
Cambria’s many cafés, tasting rooms and restaurants include Linn’s Restaurant, known for its “world-famous” olallieberry pie, and Indigo Moon, a modern American eatery with its own cheese and wine shop that hosts a live jazz brunch on Sundays.
Weekenders can stay at Cambria’s oh-so-romantic White Water lodge, featuring custom furnishings and designs influenced by 1970s Scandinavian and California bohemian culture. The boutique property is ideally perched along Moonstone Beach, so named for the bevy of wave-worn sea glass—including moonstone agates—scattered across its sands. Be on the lookout for migrating whales, including grays (December through April) and humpbacks (May through October).
Laid-Back Small Town: Winslow, Arizona (pop. 9,005)
It’s been 50 years since country-rock band the Eagles first released their song, “Take it Easy.” In the years since, its iconic line, “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” has become an American pastime. To this day, travelers from around the globe still visit Winslow’s Standin’ on the Corner Park to snap their pic with its flatbed Ford mural and life-size statue of a man and his guitar.
Winslow makes the ideal base for exploring Arizona’s high plateau country, and 2022 marks 60 years since nearby Petrified Forest, with its Rainbow Forest of petrified wood, Late Triassic fossils and a partially excavated pueblo, became a national park. The town has long been a favorite stop among Route 66 travelers, not to mention on Amtrak’s Southwestern Chief line between Los Angeles and Chicago. Winslow is home to the historic hacienda-style La Posada, (which means “the resting place” in Spanish), a 1930 National Historic Landmark that happens to be the last great railway hotel of hospitality entrepreneur Fred Harvey. Today, the restored property is a pure work of art, complete with Ponderosa pine beds, Talavera tile mirrors and Zapotec rugs reminiscent of architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter’s original vision. Hotel guests and local residents alike flock to its Turquoise Room, a beloved restaurant serving up contemporary Southwestern eats in the elegant recreated style of a former Santa Fe Railway dining car.
Winslow is a town shaped by Native Americans and Western pioneers, a history that’s on full display at its Old Trails Museum. Or head to the 4,000-plus-acre Homolovi State Park to see hundreds of Hopi archaeological sites, including petroglyphs and pueblos, in the flesh. Nearby Clear Creek Reservoir offers outdoor adventure. Rent kayaks, canoes and SUPs for use on the sandstone-surrounded reservoir’s west canyon waters, or opt for swimming and fishing in the more docile east section. Twenty-six miles west of Winslow is Meteor Crater, the best-preserved meteorite impact crater on Earth. The site hosts guided rim tours, along with an interactive Discovery Center highlighting the history and science behind global meteorite impacts.
Specialty shops in downtown Winslow’s Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival buildings sell artworks and Route 66 souvenirs. The new Motor Place Mercantile is a one-stop shop for copper cacti ornaments, Winslow-made soaps and salted toffee bars. For casual eats, Relic Road Brewery serves a nice selection of Arizona craft brews and appetizers like beer-candied bacon and deep-fried pickles.
Resilient Small Town: Africatown, Alabama (pop. 2,000)
Even after the United States outlawed the importation of enslaved labor in 1807, smugglers continued to bring captured West Africans across the Atlantic and into the Deep South. When the Civil War ended, the newly freed survivors of the last of these slave ships, the Clotilda, founded Africatown, a stand-alone community located about three miles from downtown Mobile. This self-sufficient town used many elements of West African law, including having tribal leaders; retained their own regional language and customs; and started their own schoolhouse.
With the opening of the Africatown Heritage House later this summer (the official date remains unannounced), the town’s founders and descendants will finally have a dedicated place for their narratives to be told. The 5,000-square-foot museum will feature both documents and artifacts sharing the incredible stories of the enslaved laborers who traveled to Alabama aboard the Clotilda, survived and flourished. These include pieces of the sunken schooner, which was found in 2019, thanks in part to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum helped with the Clotilda research and in finding ways to involve Africatown’s residents in preserving the ship’s memory, as well as the legacy of slavery and freedom in Alabama.
Many of the founders’ descendants still reside in the historic community, home to the Union Missionary Baptist Church—organized in the late 1800s and the heart of Africatown—and the Old Plateau Cemetery, where enslaved Africans and their descendants, including a Buffalo Soldier, are buried.
Africantown is a part of larger Mobile’s Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail, a self-guided, five-mile driving tour encompassing 45 historic landmarks, including the National African-American Archives and Multicultural Museum, Finley’s (Alabama’s first chain of Black-owned drugstores), and a playground and park dedicated to local native and baseball legend Henry “Hank” Aaron.
Just five miles south in Mobile is SOCU Southern Kitchen & Oyster Bar, a seafood and Southern food restaurant serving up braised beef oxtails and Cajun ribeye. Mobilan and executive chef Erica Barrett opened the eatery in 2019. The nearby shop of Africkytown Ebi preserves Africatown’s history through African-made products from shea butter to kente cloth hoop earrings.
Historic Blakeley State Park’s Delta Explorer Cruises runs tours to remote Bayou Canot, where Clotilda’s remains were found. Netflix recently picked up the rights to Descendant, a documentary on the lives of Africatown descendants directed by Mobile native Margaret Brown and first premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, that will be a must-see.
A Shark Lover’s Small Town: Chatham, Massachusetts (pop. 6,594)
Filmed off the coast of Cape Cod in the early 1970s, Jaws changed the way that beachgoers everywhere interact with the sea. Nearly a half-century later, sharks are still an interest along the Atlantic Coast, especially in the waters around Chatham, a charming seaside town positioned at the “elbow” of the peninsula’s bent arm.
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) and its outreach facility, the Chatham Shark Center, take an in-depth look at the often misunderstood great white shark, with exhibits highlighting the history of sharks on Cape Cod and ways to be a better ocean steward. To intimately introduce people to these magnificent creatures, the center also hosts naturalist-guided private charters that visit great whites in their natural habitat. Starting this summer, the AWSC has also joined forces with the New England Aquarium to employ a bonafide shark expert, who will verify shark sightings submitted by “citizen scientists” to the conservancy’s app, Sharktivity. This data will help protect both the public and sharks by preventing possible encounters between the two.
Chatham is steeped in seafaring history, and many of its attractions reflect this. The country’s largest ship-to-shore radiotelegraph station once occupied what is now the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, a museum dedicated to the history of wireless communication. It even features an interactive exhibit on learning and sending Morse Code. The 48-foot-tall Chatham Light is part of an active-duty Coast Guard Station that helps protect the town’s 66 miles of shoreline. Tours of the lighthouse, as well as seal tours highlighting the playful marine mammals who frolic in the waters off Chatham Light Beach, are available each summer. This stretch of coastline is also home to AWSC’s receiver boat tours, in which participants have an opportunity to analyze the data on active shark receivers and see if any great whites have passed through.
As a summer resort town, Chatham is home to a fine selection of lodgings, as well as a bustling Main Street brimming with fun stores like Ducks in the Window, the world’s largest retail rubber duck shop (including ducks that look like Baby Yoda), and Maps of Antiquity, for those wanting to get lost in antique maps and charts from around the world. Eateries here run the gamut from the oh-so-casual Chatham Pier Fish Market, with its daily haul of oysters, sole and halibut, to the Frette linens and multicourse tasting menus of the elegant Cuvée at Chatham Inn.
Chatham’s History Weekend, June 17 to 19, celebrates the town’s historic riches, including its Old Village District, featuring homes dating back to 1730, through free museum hours, bus tours and lectures. The Chatham Band celebrates 90 years this season with Friday evening concerts at Kate Gould Park, from July to September.
Tropical Small Town: Everglades City, Florida (pop. 352)
Located along southwest Florida’s laid-back Paradise Coast, Everglades City began as a water-locked frontier trading town that in the early 19th century became the base of operations for the “Tamiami Trail,” the southernmost 275 miles of U.S. Highway 41 that crosses the Everglades. Both quiet and unhurried, the tiny community is known as the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of islands and mangrove islets ideal for primitive camping and with waters ripe for canoeing and kayaking. They lie partially within Everglades National Park, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Experienced paddlers will want to swing by the park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center for information on plying the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, which winds through the islands for what many consider the paddling adventure of a lifetime.
A sprawling 7,800 square miles, the Everglades is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States, with mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater prairies and incredible wildlife. We’re talking manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, pink flamingos, and both alligators and crocodiles. Combined with the neighboring 1,140-square-mile Big Cypress National Preserve, this “River of Grass” also provides the largest contiguous expanse of land for panthers in South Florida. Airboat tours, bicycling, hiking and scenic drives are popular activities in both parks, with plenty of rentals and guided excursions available.
At 85,000 acres, nearby Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is Florida’s largest state park, and home to more native species of orchid than anywhere else on the continent. Embark on a guided swamp walk among tropical ferns and bromeliads, or enjoy fat-tire biking along the park’s off-road trails.
Located in the town’s center, the Museum of the Everglades delves into local history with exhibits on everything from the Tamiami Trail’s construction to the impact of recent hurricanes. Greater Everglades City is also known as the “Stone Crab Capital of the World,” with local residents and visitors feasting on the delicious claws of this North Atlantic crustacean from mid-October through mid-May. Places to try stone crabs include the casual Triad Seafood Market & Cafe, with picnic tables overlooking the water, and local favorite Camellia Street Grill, sporting a chalkboard menu and dockside locale. Don’t worry if stone crab season has passed: seafood and Southern-style dishes are available in town all year long.
Breathtaking Small Town: Cañon City, Colorado (pop. 17,141)
Tucked within Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley, Cañon City is celebrating its sesquicentennial with a wide range of events, including everything from July’s Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival to a “Cañon Turns 150 Concert” on September 16.
The picturesque town’s best known natural asset is the Royal Gorge, a narrow, more than 1,000-foot deep canyon (one of Colorado’s deepest) that acts as a bottleneck for the Arkansas River, making for some incredible whitewater rafting. Local outfitter Lost Paddle Rafting hosts day and overnight trips on the river, in addition to mountain bike tours at spots like Phantom Canyon Road, a 30-mile stretch with breathtaking rock formations and ghost towns. Adrenaline-seekers climb the granite domes along Oak Creek Grade and flock to Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, home to America’s highest suspension bridge, as well as its highest zip-line—soaring 1,200 feet above the river. But for a cushier, more luxurious trip through the canyon, consider the Royal Gorge Railroad, a dining train that winds through exquisite natural scenery from Cañon City to Parkdale and offers several daily departures.
Perennially sunny Cañon City maintains one of Colorado’s most extensive trail systems for both riders and hikers. This includes the new, mile-long Point Alta Vista hiking trail, which traverses four restored train trestles for an unparalleled view of the Royal Gorge Region and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (one that previously required an arduous eight-mile round-trip hike).
For fossil fans, nearby Garden Park Fossil Area is notable for its part in the “Bone Wars,” a time in the late 19th century when scientists raced to discover new species of dinosaurs. Over the last 120 years, scientists have found 14 different Jurassic dinosaur species, including Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, in this active 3,209-acre fossil area. Some of their bones are currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Low-slung brick buildings from the late-19th and early 20th century line Cañon City’s historic district, many of them housing antiques stores, art galleries, and even the largest selection of rocks (including colored quartz and amethyst) in the state. The family-owned Owl Cigar Store, a landmark establishment first opened in 1903 as a tobacco shop, now dishes out burgers and shakes among old-fashioned booths and pool tables.
Festive Small Town: Bemidji, Minnesota (pop, 14,574)
Bemidji’s nickname, “The First City on the Mississippi,” comes from its location on the shores of Lake Bemidji, the northernmost lake feeding the Mississippi River. Not only is this northern Minnesota town the self-proclaimed “curling capital” of the U.S., but it’s also the alleged birthplace of Paul Bunyan. An 18-foot-tall statue of the legendary lumberjack and another of his blue ox, Babe, have been standing near the lake—and attracting kitsch-loving photo takers—for 85 years.
Within 25 miles of Bemidji you’ll find 400 lakes, 500 miles of snowmobile trails and 99 miles of cross-country ski trails. Even more, Bemidji is home to the Concordia Language Villages, a nonprofit program of Concordia College that offers classes in 15 different languages in total, for all levels of learning. Youth and adults alike fully immerse themselves (for one to four weeks, or as adventure day camps) in the foods, sports and cultural activities of the countries where the language they’re learning is spoken, whether it be German, Korean, Arabic or French.
Bemidji’s walkable downtown is brimming with public art, not to mention local shops like the family-owned Bemidji Woolen Mills, which has been producing Made-in-Bemidji wool blankets, shirts and coats for more than a century. The shop also stocks quality brands such as Pendleton and Wigwam. At the Watermark Arts Center, visitors can peruse a series of rotating art exhibits, or attend workshops on spoon carving, plein air painting, and more.
From the specialty mimosas and salted caramel cinnamon rolls of modern breakfast spot Red Stu to downtown’s Bemidji Brewing, serving up over a dozen site-brewed beers and snacks like classic pretzel twists, the town offers a mouthwatering selection of food and drink options.
A year’s worth of festivals include Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival (June 30-July 4) complete with a water ski show and massive fireworks display, and August’s Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival. New this year is July’s two-day Anishinaabe Art Festival, a celebration of Indigenous art. The town is a center point for three nearby Indian reservations: Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth, which have joined together to highlight and promote Native artists and their works at the festival.
Stroll along an elevated boardwalk above a spruce-tamarack bog at Lake Bemidji State Park, which is also the northern trailhead for the 115-mile-long multiuse Paul Bunyan State Trail. Or opt for hiking and camping in Chippewa National Forest, home to the “Lost 40,” a stand of centuries-old towering pine trees that were spared by loggers in the late 1800s thanks to a survey mapping error.
Artsy Small Town: Gallup, New Mexico (pop. 21,899)
Another stop along historic Route 66, Gallup sits within the stunning red rock country of northwest New Mexico. The town is rich with Native American culture and heritage, with the Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, and Hopi Reservation all located nearby. Come August, the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial will be celebrating 100 years with a massive showcase of events, including parades, ceremonial dances and the country’s oldest Native American art show, with Indigenous peoples from across North America and as far away as New Zealand in attendance.
Gallup’s historic downtown—with its one and two-story storefronts—is also home to dozens of Indian trading posts and galleries, displaying everything from Zuni pottery to Navajo rugs. Spots such as Perry Null Trading, where handmade art and jewelry includes Hopi coil baskets and Navajo silver bracelets; Richardson’s Trading Post, featuring an enormous collection of Navajo rugs and tapestries; and Ellis Tanner Trading Co., recognizable by the Circle of Light mural on its exterior. The massive mural, painted by Navajo artist Chester Kahn and comprising 65 portraits of Navajo individuals, including past politicians and unsung leaders, is one of more than two dozen murals gracing the exteriors of downtown.
Other downtown shops include City Electric Shoe Shop, known for its extensive selection of moccasins, and Kestrel Leather, where leather designer Coye Balok sells his artisan wallets, duffels and totes made of handwoven Navajo rugs. Local cuisine runs the gamut from steaks to Southwestern fare. Grab a biscuit and gravy breakfast or green chile burger at the Route 66 Railway Cafe, or opt for tacos and tamales at the cozy Jerry’s Cafe.
With so much surrounding nature, outdoor enthusiasts can rock climb in the nearby Mentmore area, mountain bike the High Desert Trail system (three mesas swelling with over 22 miles of single-track), or hike to the top of aptly named Pyramid Peak (an 800-foot climb in elevation) in Red Rock Park, dotted with several archaeological sites of the Anasazi dating back to 300 C.E. Visitors can embark on a scenic balloon ride over the area’s spectacular red rock scenery year-round, or watch as 150 or so colorful hot-air balloons dip in and out among sheer sandstone cliffs during the Red Rock Balloon Rally, each first full weekend in December.
Quirky Small Town: Banner Elk, North Carolina (pop. 1,049)
In the heart of western North Carolina’s High Country, Banner Elk sits at an elevation of 3,701 feet and acts as a gateway to the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains’ many offerings. This tiny one-stoplight town is just a 13-mile drive from Grandfather Mountain, part of the United Nations’ Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve and home to the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, opening this June. It’s a state-of-the-art center that nearly doubles the size of an already existing nature museum, adding a dozen interactive exhibits and experiences highlighting everything from the mountain’s natural history to its rare fauna, such as North Carolina funnelweed tarantulas and Virginia big-eared bats.
Banner Elk is sandwiched between the South’s two largest ski resorts, Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain, both of which transform their slopes into a wealth of hiking and downhill mountain bike trails each summer. The former is home to Beech Mountain Brewing, one of the only U.S. breweries owned and operated by a ski area.
For lovers of dry rosés and zinfandels, tastings are available at the local wineries of the Appalachian High Country American Viticultural Area. These include the riverfront Grandfather Vineyard & Winery, a dog-friendly outdoor venue with live tunes and food trucks on weekends, and Banner Elk Winery, which even features a Tuscan-inspired eight-suite villa for overnight guests. When it comes to dining, don’t miss the prix-fixe farm-to-table offerings at the seasonal Artisanal, twice ranked among America’s top 100 restaurants, or Stonewalls Restaurant, a long-running steak and seafood eatery renowned for its beloved salad bar.
The town’s Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster has provided endless fun since its 2020 debut, with gravity driving each two-person car along its twisting and turning 2,390-foot track at speeds of up to 27 miles per hour. For an adventure that’s a little more low-key, enjoy a tour of the family-owned Apple Hill Farm, a working alpaca farm selling artisan socks and needle-felted llamacorns.
Banner Elk’s signature event is October’s quirky Woolly Worm Festival honoring the woolly worm caterpillar (larvae of Pyrrharctia isabella, the isabella tiger moth). According to folklore, the 13 bands of the caterpillar correspond to the 13 weeks of winter. The darker the band, the harsher that week of weather. Participants can enter their own woolly worms in the festival’s series of racing heats, which take place upon a three-foot length of string. The winning caterpillar then earns the right to predict the upcoming winter forecast. This year marks the festival’s 45th anniversary.
Pre-Historic Small Town: Chillicothe, Ohio (pop. 22,059)
Located along the Scioto River in southern Ohio’s Appalachian foothills, Chillicothe served as Ohio’s capital twice during the state’s 200-plus-year history. The human history of its land, of course, dates back much further. Chillicothe was the name of the chief settlement of the five Shawnee tribes that once inhabited the region, and the word Chillicothe—or Chalahgawtha, in the Shawnee language—means “principal town.”
Today, Chillicothe’s Hopewell Culture National Historical Park and a couple of nearby properties house the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks—eight archaeological sites of the Hopewell Indigenous people composed of ceremonial earthen wall enclosures, each made up of varying geometric forms and dating back nearly 2,000 years. The earthworks recently received a nomination to become a Unesco World Heritage site. If all goes accordingly (the Unesco committee will be voting on nominations in early 2023), they will be officially designated in July 2023—just in time for the Hopewell Culture NHP’s centennial anniversary.
Whether it’s watching the Chillicothe Paints, a collegiate summer baseball team that celebrates their 30th season this year, in action, or catching a show at the Majestic Theatre, which began as an opera house in 1853 and now plays host to a selection of comedy nights, album release parties and Patsy Cline tribute shows, Chillicothe offers plenty to entertain visitors. This dedicated Tree City (according to the Arbor Day Foundation) has two distinct historic districts ideal for wandering: Courthouse Square, the town’s earliest planned section, and the Commercial District, a mix of brick and Victorian-styled commercial buildings dating back to the late 19th century. Dine on flatbreads and fish and chips at the locally owned Pour House at Machinery Hall, identifiable by its 19th-century mural for Mail Pouch chewing tobacco, or enjoy a signature cocktail on its newly opened rooftop patio.
Nautical Small Town: Newport, Rhode Island (pop. 25,163)
Appropriately known as the “City by the Sea,” Newport’s sailing history dates back centuries. The town’s waterfront location on Aquidneck Island, after all, makes it an ideal place for the maritime sport. This May even saw the opening of the Sailing Museum, a long-awaited multimedia experience, with six thematic exhibits to appeal to everyone from experienced sailors to yachting newcomers. One in particular, “Legends of Sailing,” celebrates the many big names of the National Sailing Hall of Fame and the America’s Cup Hall of Fame—both housed in the museum. A world-renowned yachting race, the America’s Cup has been held in Newport’s waters more than a dozen times.
But Newport has much more going for it. Fans of HBO’s “The Gilded Age” series, which is currently filming its second season, will recognize some of the splendid late-19th century Newport Mansions that appear in the show, including the Breakers—a 70-room property original constructed for the Vanderbilt family and now offering guided tours—and the Italianate-style Château-sur-Mer, open for self-guided tours on summer weekends. More than two dozen of these summertime homes, which once belonged to America’s wealthiest families, have been meticulously preserved with help from the Preservation Society of Newport County. Much of the town’s wealth came from Newport being a hub of New England’s 18th-century slave trade, and its Bowen’s Wharf was where many of the enslaved labored as barrelmakers, carpenters and dockworkers, and arrived and departed for other Atlantic ports. Today, a bronze medallion, embedded with a QR code linking to information on its role in slave history, marks the site. It’s part of a larger statewide awareness program launched in 2019 to bring these lesser-known stories to light.
The town is also home to the country’s oldest synagogue, its oldest tavern and its oldest-operating lending library, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, which is celebrating its 275th birthday this year. The Newport Historical Society runs daily walking tours in the summer that cover the town’s five centuries of history.
Whether it’s crispy chicharrones and street tacos at La Vecina Taqueria, a pop-up restaurant turned brick-and-mortar, or made-from-scratch ramen and saki cocktails at Yagi Noodles, Newport is also home to a wide selection of delicious eats. Dine on fig and prosciutto pizzas and chicken Milanese sandwiches at the new chef-crafted Foodlove Market, or discover local flavors on a guided Newport Foodies Stroll.
It doesn’t end there. Summer’s other activities include the Newport Jazz Festival, a beloved four-stage music extravaganza with performers like Norah Jones and Digable Planets happening July 29-31; and Thursday tours of Newport’s Blue Garden, a stunning display of blue, purple and white hues originally designed by leading landscape firm the Olmsted Bros. (the sons of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose 200th anniversary of his birth is this year), and restored in 2014 using original Olmsted plans, drawings and photographs.
Fossil-Hunting Small Town: Ste. Genevieve, Missouri (pop. 4,999)
At the end of 2021, paleontologists discovered a new genus and species of dinosaur in the small southeast Missouri town of Ste. Genevieve, at a site that’s been yielding dinosaur finds for nearly 80 years. Now, some of the bones from this duck-billed Parrosaurus Missourenisis, which is believed to have been 35 feet long, are housed at the Sainte Genevieve Museum Learning Center. The museum boasts its own Hall of Giants exhibit, featuring life-size T. rex and other dinosaur models co-created by Lost World Studios, as well as exhibits highlighting ancient cultures and local history. Visitors can even watch scientists cleaning ancient fossils and dinosaur bones, including those of Missouri’s newest dinosaur, in an active lab on site.
Approximately 85 million to 66 million years after the duck-billed dinosaur roamed the area, in the early 1700s, the French founded Ste. Genevieve. At the time, it was Missouri’s first European-style settlement, and today its downtown boasts some rare examples of French colonial architecture. Established in 2018, Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park commemorates the town’s origins, preserving the largest grouping of still-standing French-colonial structures. Ste. Genevieve takes historic preservation seriously, and is also home to many German-influenced mid-19th-century brick homes and businesses, each of them adorned with placards noting their construction year.
Boutique European Entitlements pays homage to the town’s history, with décor items that include French linens and German porcelain, while specialty stores such as Harold’s Famous Bee Co., a beekeeper-owned company with its own honey tasting bar, are par for the course as well.
If it’s food and drink you’re after, local landmark Sara’s Ice Cream serves up old-fashioned scoops of butter pecan and chocolate milkshakes from a vintage 1929 Bastian-Blessing fountain. Or sit down to pots of Darjeeling tea and crustless salmon and cucumber bites at Quintessential Rivertown Spice & Tea, tucked away in a historic home built in three distinct stages, beginning in 1807.
Ste. Genevieve is also the start of the Route du Vin Wine Trail, connecting six distinct wineries that stretch 28 miles southwest to Farmington. These include Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, which offers a selection of dry wines made with French-American hybrid grapes like Chambourcin and Vignoles, and houses the award-winning Grapevine Grill restaurant. Here, visitors can dine al fresco on plates of four-cheese flatbread and crawfish étouffée while overlooking the rolling hills of the Saline Creek River Valley. Cave Vineyard & Distillery, with both a wine-tasting room and biscotti bar that are located atop a natural cave, is perfect for afternoon picnicking.
Historic Small Town: Cape May, New Jersey (pop. 2,768)
Located alongside New Jersey’s southernmost point, Cape May is a stunning Victorian shore community that once played a role in guiding Black enslaved laborers to freedom. Over a couple of summers in the early 1850s, abolitionist Harriet Tubman, born 200 years ago, worked in this beachfront town, raising funds for the Underground Railroad. Since Tubman herself was a fugitive slave, few details about her activities in Cape May are known, but her mark was substantial. Today, the Harriet Tubman Museum, which opened last year, highlights her local connection, as well as Cape May’s own African American history, with artifacts ranging from authentic slave shackles to an early edition of abolitionist William Still’s book The Underground Railroad documenting the personal stories of those who escaped slavery, published in the 1870s.
In the “nation’s oldest seaside resort,” the still-active 157-foot-tall Cape May Lighthouse, located in nearby Cape May Point State Park, provided a beacon to freedom seekers crossing the dangerous waters of Delaware Bay. Spots like the still-active Allen AME Church and the once-summer-home of Underground Railroad leader Stephen Smith, the church’s founder, are both a part of a self-guided audio African American Heritage Walking Tour produced by Cape May’s Center for Community Arts. An Underground Railroad Trolley Tour includes a visit to a historic cemetery where some of Cape May’s earliest free Black settlers are buried.
Cape May is home to hundreds of historic buildings, many of them Victorian structures with colorful gingerbread trim, decorative woodwork and gabled peaks saved from demolition in the 1970s thanks to a group of concerned citizens and preservationists. The nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (Cape May MAC) continues to promote their preservation and historical significance, and oversees properties like the Emlen Physick Estate, an 1879 Victorian Stick-style mansion that hosts guided tours of its authentic period-era interior. MAC’s annual events include time-capsule favorites like Victorian Weekend, October 7-10, and its Sherlock Holmes-themed weekends (costumes encouraged) in mid-to-late October.
Boutiques and cozy eateries line Cape May’s Washington Street pedestrian mall, which is also a hub for booking activities ranging from Historic District trolley tours to Christmas Candlelight house tours. Just a short stroll away sits the bright-yellow Congress Hall, a high-end resort that began in 1816 as a wooden boardinghouse and later served as a summer “White House” for President Benjamin Harrison. These days it features a bevy of bright rooms and suites, as well several popular bars and restaurants, including the Boiler Room, a subterranean music club and artisan pizzeria. Cape May’s oldest original hotel, the Chalfonte, is home to the nationally acclaimed Magnolia Room, a Southern-style eatery that’s also an essential part of the town’s Black history. Four generations of African American women have run its kitchen, and the restaurant’s menu features many of their family recipes—including the delicious skillet-fried chicken of Miss Dorothy, a second-generation cook who worked alongside her mother, Helen, and sister, Lucille, for over 50 years.
Literary Small Town: Livingston, Montana (pop. 8,040)
Livingston sprung up in the late 19th century as a service stop for the Northern Pacific Railway, and soon became known as the “Original Gateway City to Yellowstone National Park.” The railway used this moniker to attract visitors traveling from the East Coast, and it was a good one, since the historic town is just 55 miles north of Yellowstone. This year, the park is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a variety of activities and events, including a Nez Perce horse trail ride and parade in late July. For a look into greater Park County and its connection to Yellowstone, don’t miss the Yellowstone Gateway Museum. A part of the larger Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the museum features thousands of artifacts, including a room devoted to Native cultures and a fabricated Northern Pacific Railway car.
The adventure-filled town is ideally perched among several mountain ranges and on the banks of the Yellowstone River. Rowdy River Guides runs privately chartered rafting trips on the Yellowstone River, while Livingston’s neighboring Paradise Valley is home to an abundance of groomed cross-country ski trails. Conservationist Dan Bailey also turned Livingston into a fishermen’s paradise when he first opened Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in 1938. The landmark store now stocks waders and waterproof gear bags alongside ski equipment and hiking gear, and even runs guided fly-fishing excursions in a handful of local waters.
Livingston is known for its laid-back attitude and a downtown brimming with art galleries and specialty shops. The town claims to have more writers per capita than any larger U.S. city, and is home to a handful of independent bookstores, such as Elk River Books. This cozy space stocks antiquarian, used and regional books, and hosts readings by poets and authors like Henry Real Bird and Pam Houston. Livingston’s streets still retain many of the older craftsman-style homes and early brick structures, and a well-preserved showcase of vintage neon, including the sign hanging outside the fully renovated Mint Bar & Grill. This more-than-century-old downtown landmark serves guests local brews and rib eye steaks while they feast their eyes on a wall of photographs depicting local railroad history.
Summer months, especially during and around the Livingston Roundup Rodeo (July 2-4), are when Livingston is at its busiest. Though the crowds filter out come September, events such as the Yellowstone Harvest Festival (September 24-25), a gathering of musicians and local craft artisans that occurs on the banks of the Yellowstone River, take advantage of the cooling weather.
Museum-Rich Small Town: Cartersville, Georgia (pop. 23,187)
As a gateway to both the Atlanta metro area and the pristine beauty of the north Georgia mountains, Cartersville is perfectly poised for cultural enthusiasts and outdoor lovers alike. It also happens to be the smallest town in the U.S. with three Smithsonian Affiliate museums: The Booth Museum, which tells the American story through works such as Civil War art and Native American artifacts; the Tellus Science Museum, with its replica of the Apollo I capsule and a wealth of hands-on exhibits; and the new Savoy Automobile Museum. Celebrating its first full year in 2022, this 65,000-square-foot space showcases the history of automobiles, from 1930s Studebakers to station wagon woodies. Current exhibits include “American Art Deco,” featuring a 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt, once dubbed “the car of the future,” and “Front Runners” (starting June 7), highlighting record-breaking and victory-claiming Indy 500 roadsters. Onsite events range from Hoods Up! weekends, when the museum lifts the hoods on select vehicles on display, to a two-day plein-air “Painting the Automobile” workshop (July 30-31).
Cartersville’s historic downtown features an array of galleries, restaurants and boutique shops, as well as the first-ever wall sign to advertise Coca-Cola, painted in 1894 on the exterior of the Young Brothers Pharmacy. Enjoy brews and live music at Drowned Valley Brewing, or Southern-inspired dishes like Cajun cracklings and fried green BLTs at The City Cellar. The aptly named Ate Track Bar & Grill serves up sloppy tacos in a 70s-rock-and-roll-inspired space.
For history buffs, the Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site was home to several thousand Native Americans from 1000 to 1550, and Bartow County’s African American Heritage Trail has stops in Cartersville that include Conyers Alley, the former center of the town’s black-owned business district. Just ten miles north of Cartersville is Old Car City USA, the largest known classic car junkyard on the planet, with over 4,000 vehicles being reclaimed by nature.
For day trekking and warm-weather swimming, local residents head to Red Top Mountain State Park on the shores of Lake Allatoona. Nearby Pine Mountain offers a couple of hiking trails with big payoffs in views of the lake from above.