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The Sweetest Small Towns in the U.S. to Visit in Summer

By Ashlea Halpern

Jul 17, 2020

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Livingston, Montana, may look familiar—it was featured onscreen in a major Hollywood movie 1992.

Photo by Nick Fox/Shutterstock

Livingston, Montana, may look familiar—it was featured onscreen in a major Hollywood movie 1992.

Veer off the beaten path to small-town U.S.A.

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Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, AFAR is continuing to cover the world through our coverage, because while you may not be traveling right now, there's always room for inspiration.

Phoenicia, Taos, and Ojai? Been there, done that, already ’grammed it. It’s time to add a new small U.S. town (defined here by having a population of 16,000 or fewer) to your list. Here are seven lesser-known—but still super sweet!—destinations to consider, from a charming cowboy town in the mountains of Montana to a mushroom mecca in Pennsylvania with a Main Street so darn picturesque, Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted it any prettier.

Livingston, Montana

This eclectic Montana mountain town (population: 7,784), located one hour north of Yellowstone National Park, is the ideal escape for travelers seeking a mix of nature, arts, and shopping. Livingston’s historic downtown looks straight out of a movie: all weathered brick facades hung with vertical signage and set against a painterly backdrop of snow-capped peaks. (In fact, A River Runs Through It was filmed here.) There are plenty of kooky stores to explore around town: Babione’s Wilson Boots Emporium is like stepping into the Wild West, with the footwear to match, while the Livingston Kite Company sells a high-flying selection of single-line kites. Catch a musical or drive-in movie at the Shane Lalani Center for the Arts or soak your bones in a mineral bath at Chico Hot Springs in nearby Pray.

Livingston is also a jumping-off point for a plethora of outdoor regional activities. Anglers can fish for wild trout on the Yellowstone River, hikers can pick up half a dozen trails in town, and there are numerous outfitters who’ll gladly sit you on the back of a horse or in the front of a river raft for a day of white-knuckle adventuring.

Grand Teton National Park is close to Driggs, Idaho.

Driggs, Idaho

Tucked into scenic Teton Valley and straddling the Idaho-Wyoming border, this town of 1,814 makes a great base for exploring Grand Teton National Park. And unlike Jackson Hole, its flashier cousin across the border, accommodations here (like the cozy-simple Teton Valley Cabins) are a fraction of the price. In Driggs’s old-fashioned downtown, you’ll find huckleberry milk shakes, a local specialty, at the century-old Corner Drug soda fountain, and moose paintings for sale at The Local GalleriaMorales Home Made makes stellar tamales, while Grand Teton Brewing Company in nearby Victor does decent beer and even has an area where you can park your horse, since this is legit cowboy country.

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On the fringes of town, the Spud Drive-In Theater is a worthwhile roadside attraction whether you plan to see a movie or not; you’ll know you’ve found the right place when you spy a gargantuan potato on a flatbed truck at the entrance. There’s hiking and mountain biking in every direction, but for more adventurous types: Teton Balloon Flights will get you high; the indoor wall at Teton Rock Gym will wear you out; and Teton Aviation will take you on a private one-hour glider flight over some of the most majestic landscapes west of the Mississippi.

Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, are a major attraction.

Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

This historic 6,195-resident town in Pennsylvania’s Chester County, 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia, is known as the “Mushroom Capital of the World” (and you can smell it in the air). Its other claim to fame is Longwood Gardens, heaven for horticulturalists with its Japanese wisteria, Spanish bluebells, Carolina allspice, and other seasonal blooms.

An idyllic, tree-lined Main Street cuts through the town center, dotted with an award-winning farm-to-table restaurant (Talula’s Table), a squeezably cute pie shop (Nomadic Pies), and a third-wave coffeehouse that doubles as a community hub (Philter). Skedaddle off the main drag and you’ll find a host of Mexican eateries supported by the local Latino community (El Rinconsito and La Peña Mexicana spring to mind). Oh, and about that famous fungus—you can pick up souvenir shiitakes at The Mushroom Cap or visit Phillips Mushroom Farms.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is only 25 miles west of Traverse City, Michigan.

Traverse City, Michigan

With a comparatively whopping 15,651 residents, this lakeshore beauty is the biggest small town on our list. First stop for any Traverse City newcomer should be Grand Traverse Pie Company, where even Oprah has an opinion on which of the 12 cherry pies is the best (Old Mission with plump Michigan Montmorency fruit, in case you were wondering). Other foodie draws include elevated brunch fare like root vegetable waffles with poached eggs and fried sage at Sugar 2 Salt, and old- and new-school deli sandwiches from Folgarelli’s and Raduno.

Art deco architecture pops up all over town (we love the mechanic’s garage at Randy’s Olde Town Services), and you can spend a few hours wandering a state mental hospital turned shopping village at Grand Traverse Commons, one of the largest historic preservation and adaptive reuse developments in the country. If you visit only one shop in the Commons, make it Landmark Books; the used bookstore specializes in rare and out-of-print Michigana. Bonus: Traverse City is also a convenient base for accessing Michigan’s majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 25 miles west, where the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Dune Climb to Lake Michigan should not be missed.

Downtown Ouray, Colorado, is known for its myriad independent shops and eateries.

Ouray, Colorado

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While its elite ice-climbing park put Ouray on the map, this old silver mining town is just as appealing to travelers in the summer months. Clocking in with 1,010 full-time residents, it sits in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, some 7,792 feet above sea level, at the north end of the spectacularly scenic and dangerously steep Million Dollar Highway. (If that mountainscape looks familiar, you’re probably a fan of The Ranch.) The area is chock-full with thermal hot springs and vapor caves, but it’s worth keeping your clothes on long enough to hike the scenic waterfall at Box Canyon Falls Park and to explore Ouray’s ridiculously quaint Main Street. See a live music performance (or a Jumanji screening—whatever, no judgment) at the 131-year-old Wright Opera House; poke around the historic Ouray Alchemist frontier pharmacy museum; and scour the antiques at Rb Horsetraders, all located on the town’s main drag.

Wherever you go, you’ll be encircled by rugged Rocky Mountain goodness. Serious hikers should carve out a day for bagging a 13,000-footer; rock climbers can scramble up the red-cliffed, multi-pitch Sandia Mountains, accessible via the Old Twin Peaks Trail; and the rest of you lazy bums can hitch a ride up to Corkscrew Gulch, Imogene Pass, and/or Yankee Boy Basin by booking a seat on a 4x4 scenic tour with Colorado West Jeeps. They handle the driving; you do the gasping and photographing. Win-win.

Egrets on Lake Martin in Lousiana, near Breaux Bridge.

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

At the start of every May, thousands of tourists descend upon the 8,227-resident town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, aka the “Crawfish Capital of the World” and birthplace of crawfish étouffée, for the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. Although the festival has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this tiny Southern charmer in St. Martin Parish, two hours west of New Orleans, offers good eating all year long. Hit up Poche’s for étouffée and pork backbone stew, Acadiana Jerky Co. for boudin sausage and smoked spare rib po’boys, and Cajun Claws for down-home seafood boils.

Beyond grub, Breaux Bridge is close to the cypress-rich canoe country of Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, or you can go birding and 'gator-spotting at the swampland preserve at Lake Martin. There’s skeet shooting aplenty and jambalaya cookouts, along with quirky bric-a-brac shops like Lagniappe Antiques

An Old West Victorian from Virginia City, Nevada.

Virginia City, Nevada

A half hour south of Reno, and 6,148 feet above sea level, is a little town (population: 855) with a lot of Wild West personality. Virginia City’s streets are lined with grand old Victorian homes—a vestige of a 19th-century silver boom that drew hordes of miners to Comstock Lode. Much of the bygone architecture has been restored; St. Mary’s in the Mountains, the oldest active Catholic church in Nevada, is the star attraction. The 16-room Tahoe House Hotel, a Main Street staple since 1859, is also frozen in time. Request one of five balcony rooms or the private carriage house, and don’t be shy about kibitzing with fellow travelers in the communal great room. That’s where the vintage piano, antique pot belly stove, and occasional Mark Twain impersonator hang out. (Samuel Clemens reportedly bunked here back in his mining days.)

For a crash course in Nevadan mining, cut straight to the goose-fleshy stuff on a tour of the as-seen-on-Ghost Adventures property The Washoe Club & Haunted Museum. (Let's be real, though—nothing is more eerie than a hike through the steep, lonesome, hillside burial yards of the Silver Terrace Cemeteries.) If possible, time your visit to one of Virginia City’s annual events; summer highlights include a chili cook-off and a camel, ostrich, and zebra race with roots dating back to the 1950s.

This article originally appeared online in July 2018; it has been updated to include current information.

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