summer travel

Go Small

This summer, swap out sprawling cities for getaways with tiny populations but big hearts.

When we dream up our annual summer travel guides, we usually think big—big trips, big excursions, big ideas—from attending surf camp in Costa Rica to snorkeling with whale sharks in the Caribbean. This year, though, we’re thinking small. We’re celebrating 10 small towns across the country, places with populations under 12,000 that show how less really can mean more: more charm, more community, more moments to slow down and connect with what’s around us. So leave behind those big-city plans and turn down roads less traveled.

Fredericksburg, Texas

Population: 11,369 

Where: 1.5 hours from Austin

Who should go? Wine aficionados, couples

Small-town style: Peach picking at Vogel Orchard

A “Hauptstrasse” stands in for Main Street in this Hill Country hideaway, which was founded by German immigrants in 1845. Those roots remain essential to Fredericksburg, from the schnitzel at Der Lindenbaum to the Bavarian brews at the annual Oktoberfest. Fredericksburg’s terrain has also made it a hot spot for vineyards—in fact, vino lovers can visit 19 wineries along Wine Road 290, a 45-mile stretch of highway running from Fredericksburg to Johnson City. (Put Grape Creek Vineyard’s cabernet-merlot blend, Bellissimo, at the top of your to-drink list.) Don’t have sommelier aspirations? There’s still plenty to do. History buffs will love the National Museum of the Pacific War, while outdoor enthusiasts can hit the trails at Enchanted Rock, a pink granite batholith 18 miles from town. Round out your romantic getaway by booking a cozy cottage at Cotton Gin Village.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Population: 2,942 

Where2.5 hours from Boston

Who should go? Ocean enthusiasts, arts lovers

Small-town style: The Provincetown Bookshop, open since 1932

Come summer, the population of this Cape Cod destination swells. But despite the influx of visitors to America’s oldest active art colony, P-town’s allure remains. Known for its strong LGBTQ community and pristine stretch of shoreline, Provincetown blends small-town friendliness with a variety of things to do. Start with a stroll down Commercial Street, the bustling 3-mile main drag dotted with galleries, boutiques, and eateries. Pop into the no-frills Provincetown Portuguese Bakery for a malasada, and then make the walk to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum for a taste of local culture. Adventure seekers can tour the sand dunes at Cape Cod National Seashore or check out the historic Race Point Lighthouse. Stay at 8 Dyer Hotel, where the seven rooms are cozy and breakfast features homemade granola, plus java from local purveyor George Howell Coffee.

Frankfort, Michigan

Population: 1,280 

Where: 2.5 hours from Grand Rapids

Who should go? Craft beer fans, film buffs

Small-town style: Friday night fish fries at Dinghy’s Restaurant & Bar

What does small-town community look like? In 2008, Rick and Jennie Schmitt and Blake and Marci Brooks set out to restore Frankfort’s historic Garden Theater. When the team asked Michael Fitzhugh for help, the architect, who grew up in Frankfort, took on the project pro bono. Today, the theater hosts the Frankfort Film Festival and epitomizes small-town heart. After a flick, hit the links at Crystal Downs Country Club, or head to nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. In town, Victorian houses dot the streets, and a beer scene’s brewing. Sip a Belgian-style ale at Stormcloud Brewing Co., blocks from Frankfort Beach.

Cannon Beach, Oregon

Population: 1,728 

Where: 1.5 hours from Portland

Who should go? Adventure seekers, Sloth fan club members

Small-town style: Home to a colony of tufted puffins

It’s hard to miss Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach’s 235-foot centerpiece. But fans of The Goonies might recognize it for a reason beyond its size: Portions of the classic ’80s flick were filmed by the sea stack. Besides serving as a movie backdrop, this seaside town is home to stunning Ecola State Park and boasts an exciting food and drink scene. Sample spirits at Cannon Beach Distillery, or shop at Cannon Beach Hardware & Public House, a stop with everything from sandwiches to camping gear. Enjoy the arts at spots like Icefire Glassworks and Coaster Theatre, and if Fido is along for the ride, stay the night at dog-friendly Surfsand Resort and walk along leash-free Cannon Beach.

Anna Maria, Florida

Population: 1,725

Where: 1 hour from Tampa

Who should go? Families, beach bums

Small-town style: Maximum speed limit of 35 mph

Nestled on the northern part of its namesake island, this relaxed oceanfront town has all the elements of a Sunshine State stunner: sunset views on Bean Point Beach, brightly colored vacation cottages, and oceanfront dining at Rod & Reel Pier (try the coconut-crusted mahimahi). Sea turtles, which can be spotted May through October, also enhance the experience. And although the barrier island’s iconic pier was demolished last year after damage done by Hurricane Irma in 2017, a new structure is in the works and will open in 2020. As an added bonus, Anna Maria Island is home to two other vibrant small towns. Visit The Feast Restaurant in Holmes Beach, and shop along Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach. 

Galena, Illinois

Population: 3,225

Where: 3 hours from Chicago

Who should go? History hounds, beverage connoisseurs

Small-town style: Trolley tours of Galena’s Historic District

Even a small town can provide a big slice of history. Known for its 19th-century architecture, Galena is dotted with carefully preserved homes, including the Ulysses S. Grant Home and the Greek Revival–style Old Market House. On the outskirts of town, Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve’s effigy mounds—raised earth molded to resemble specific shapes, animals, and symbols—date back to A.D. 700. And even the accommodation options touch on the town’s legacy. Former guests at the DeSoto House Hotel, which was built in 1855, include notable names like Abraham Lincoln. But despite its ties to the past, Galena boasts a beverage scene that feels thoroughly modern. Sample the bourbon or moonshine at Blaum Bros. Distilling Co., branch out with the jalapeno-infused wine at Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery, or enjoy the award-winning Anna Belle’s IPA at Galena Brewing Company. In between drinks, grab a bite to eat at the Log Cabin Steakhouse, a Galena institution that’s been open since 1937.

Lyons, Colorado

Population: 2,053

Where: 1 hour from Denver

Who should go? Live music fans, whitewater rafters

Small-town style: Annual Lyons Good Old Days Celebration (June 29)

In Colorado, finding a spot with easy access to outdoor activities isn’t exactly a tall task. But Lyons pairs its picturesque surroundings with healthy doses of culture and singular charm. Along with serving as a convenient gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s home to Rabbit Mountain Open Space, where wildflowers bloom along the Rabbit Mountain Hiking Trail in the summer. Added elevation isn’t required for thrills, though; when the weather warms, LaVern M. Johnson Park offers whitewater rafting in the North St. Vrain Creek. When you’re ready to retreat indoors, try Lyons Fork’s famous truffle fries, or grab some house-made bread from St. Vrain Market. Lyons also touts an enviable music scene. Every year, crowds flock to RockyGrass Festival at Planet Bluegrass Ranch for toe-tapping tunes. This year, favorites like the Punch Brothers take the stage July 26–28.

Taos, New Mexico

Population: 5,668

Where: 2.5 hours from Albuquerque

Who should go? Creative types, families

Small-town style: Taos Lilac Festival (May 17–19)

Art abounds in this Southwestern desert gem, from the galleries surrounding Taos Plaza to the impressive museums. Taos Pueblo, too, provides a unique cultural experience. A living Native American community, it gives an in-depth look at traditions that are an essential part of the town’s past and present. Taos’ creativity also extends to its epicurean offerings and accommodations. Along with New Mexican staples like the pozole at The Alley Cantina, visitors can dig into Peruvian-Japanese fare at Aji Restaurant. And the eco-focused Earthships, which double as individual guesthouses, make for a truly out-there stay.

Highlands, North Carolina

Population: 989

Where: 2 hours from Greenville, SC

Who should go? Outdoor enthusiasts, epicureans

Small-town style: Striped awnings on Main Street

There’s nothing small about Nantahala National Forest. Stretching 500,000 acres across the southwestern corner of North Carolina, the heavily wooded wonderland is home to towering peaks and rivers ripe for whitewater rafting. Tucked inside, you’ll find Highlands, a miniature mountain town sitting at 4,100 feet, where the roar of Bridal Veil Falls replaces the din of the big city. But Mother Nature isn’t the only thing of note here. Highlands is known for its arts scene, high-end boutiques, and nationally recognized restaurants, which have earned the town its reputation as the “Aspen of the East.” Browse the permanent collection at The Bascom, a visual arts center that also offers year-round ceramics classes, before enjoying a taste of Italy at Ristorante Paoletti, which features more than 40 wines by the glass. Doze off at Old Edwards Inn and Spa, award-winning accommodations with Blue Ridge Mountain views and an 18-hole golf course.

Paia, Hawaii

Population: 2,668

Where: 15 minutes from Kahului

Who should go? Arts lovers, windsurfers

Small-town style: Colorful surfboard wall outside Aloha Surf Hostel

Once dependent on the success of its sugar mill, this laid-back town on Maui’s north shore has carved out a reputation as both an artists’ haven and a go-to destination for adventure seekers. Artisan wares abound at the Maui Crafts Guild, while Hookipa Beach Park—which helped Paia land its “Windsurfing Capital of the World” title—lures in water sport devotees. (Visitors in search of a more peaceful respite can relax at white-sand Baldwin Beach.) Ready to refuel? Paia Fish Market, a counter-service spot, specializes in fresh catches—try the opah, Cajun-style. After a busy day, get a good night’s sleep in one of Paia Inn’s rooms. You’ll need the energy for Maui Sunriders Bike Co.’s Haleakala Downhill Tour, but the views at the volcano’s summit make the effort worth it.


Melissa Flandreau is an editor of this magazine. Email her at melissa.flandreau@paceco.com.

Photography by Jody Horton (Pontotoc Vineyard outside of Fredericksburg, Texas), Ryan Ketterman (pier in Anna Maria, Florida), NoCoast (concert in Lyons, Colorado); Photography courtesy of Fredericksburg Trolley (trolley ride), Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson (beach)

Originally Published May 2019