Life

Travel Writers Tell Us The American Small Towns They Can’t Wait To Visit Again

Travel will return. That’s a foregone conclusion. Vaccines are on the horizon (though their full rollout worldwide may take years). Once hitting the road is on the table again, expect things to be different. The industry has been rocked by the pandemic, going back to the way things once were would be ridiculous and ill-advised.

Hopefully, when travel does come back in full, we’ll be ready to travel smarter, more sustainably, and with a real purpose. Doing it “for the ‘Gram” isn’t reason enough (though adventure and fun certainly are). One way that we see travel evolving is a continued emphasis on thinking local, accessible, and neighborly. The era of constantly flying around the globe for every vacation — even for the span of a few days — should be on pause. At least until a less climate-punishing way to fly comes along.

That means more trips around this nation. Including visits to America’s small towns.

Why small towns? For years now, the places in between the big cities, the big monuments, and the big attractions have been overlooked by tourists chasing IG fodder. It’s time to slow down and look at what’s available away from the spots everyone has spent the past five years snapping endless photos of. There’s so much more out there, folks. And when traveling safely is part of our lives again, it’ll be time to find the spaces in between the tentpole destinations.

To help us breakdown some of the great small towns in the U.S., we reached out to professional travelers who see the world for a living. There was really only one parameter here: Think small. Places like Truckee (NV) not Reno; or Oxford (MS) not Jackson. The largest population on this list is around 77,000 people; the smallest is 298. Check each entry out below and add your favorites to your rapidly-lengthening travel wish list.

Scranton, PA — Melanie Sutrathada

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

I first found out about Scranton, PA, because it was the setting for the TV show The Office. If I’m honest, I kind of imagined (and maybe hoped) that Dwight Shrute and Michael Scott might be waiting for me around every corner, ready to shout “The Electric City!” While that didn’t happen, I did find a magical town with beautiful rolling hills, charm for days, and a sense of history and pride that can’t be beat.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

You have to take the Steamtown Fall Foliage Train Excursion if you’re in Scranton in the fall. The tours take you throughout Lackawanna County and have the most breathtaking scenic views you could imagine. Seriously, you’ll never look at the changing leaves in the same way after this tour in Scranton.

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

Go back in time at Madame Jenny’s, the speakeasy inside the Bittenbender Building on Franklin Avenue. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a great cocktail and live music after hours.

PRO TIP:

Scranton has so much to offer in terms of the great outdoors. Whether you live for zip-lining or are looking to ride ATVs for the first time, Scranton is the place to be! Set aside a few days to kayak down the river or hike for hours and hours on end. You will not regret it.

Racine, WI — Phil Calvert

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

About 40 minutes south of Milwaukee and an hour twenty minutes north of Chicago, lies a beautiful town in-between called Racine. This is an amazing Midwest city with plenty of activities from outdoor sports to museums to beaches, and some quality nightlife (in non-pandemic times, anyway).

Unfortunately, what is amazing for some is not for others. Racine — along with Milwaukee and Kenosha — is among the most racially segregated cities in the region. After the shooting of Jacob Blake, though, it’s impressive how many initiatives to support Black-owned businesses and the Black community have been launched. Go support them.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

Go check out the blue waters of North Beach (Certified Blue Wave clean beach!) or the must-see Mahogany Gallery, a premier art exhibition dedicated to some dope art and history.

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

Definitely Mrs. Betty’s Kitchen! The Jerk Chicken Noodle Soup is phenomenal. For dessert, you can’t go anywhere other than Yogi’s Pud’n for the best pudding in the world!

PRO TIP:

My second home outside the U.S.A. is Denmark, and Racine has the largest North American settlement of Danes. So you have to absolutely try “Wisconsin’s Official State Pastry,” the “Kringle,” which is a delicious Danish pastry.

Two Harbors, CA — Kinga Philipps

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

Catalina is only 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles yet absolutely worlds away. It’s a nature lover’s paradise with a rich history of Native Americans, movie moguls, and wild bison roaming the hills (left behind after a western film was shot on the island in the 1920s).

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

You can hike, mountain bike, camp, kayak, boat, and fish. But the must-do is diving the magnificent kelp forests and looking for the California state fish (the Garibaldi), or giant black sea bass, leopard sharks, and ubiquitous bat rays.

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

Pretty much only one option: Harbor Reef Restaurant & Saloon. Try the Buffalo Milk. It’s a mix of vodka and cream. No real buffalo used.

PRO TIP:

Book the tent cabin camping in Two Harbors well in advance. For sunset, climb to the top of the barbed wire hike for spectacular views and a reveal of why it’s called that. Emerald Cove is a must for a swim. Its name is true to its color. Say, “hello,” to the two resident octopuses who live there.

Union, WA — Zach Johnston

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

Union is one of those places that you can easily miss by simply staying on Highway 101. That’s a shame. The town is tiny and stretched along the misty shores of the Hood Canal. There’s a small store, a Tex-Mex joint with a bar, a few antique shops, a small tavern in an a-frame next to hotel cabins in the woods, a harbor, a deli with a pizza bar, and the Alderbrook Resort.

That’s actually it. The rest is misty rainforest hikes and cold, inky, and calm seas.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

In essence, Union is a home base for digging into the wider world of the Hood Canal and eastern reaches of the Olympic Peninsula and national park. You can hike around the immediate area, thanks to trails supported by Alderbrook Resort. You can also rent boats and go out on the water for fishing or just enjoying the scenery — the southern Olympic Mountains are in full view from the water. This is the sweet spot for diving into the best of small-town western Washington with the sea, forests, and mountains at your doorstep. I guess that’s two can’t-miss activities but they go hand-in-hand in a town as small as Union.

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

The bar and restaurant at Alderbrook is the spot. I post up at the bar almost every night I’m in town. The cocktails are on point, big, and not expensive. The bar menu highlights local seafood from Hama Hama Oysters to fresh-caught Dungeness crabs to locally smoked salmon. Don’t sleep on the clam chowder either. It pairs nicely with a local craft beer or wine with a view of the Canal outlined by the firs and cedars leading up to the craggy peaks of the Olympics — on a clear day, that is.

PRO TIP:

Day trips are the key to a stay in Union. Two trips are a must while you’re there and both are around 30 minutes away — by car — from Union.

One, head up the 101 to Lilliwaup and the Hama Hama Oyster Saloon. Along the way, stop off at Skokomish to pick up some smoked salmon. The Oyster Saloon is the perfect way to spend an afternoon eating seafood harvested literally a few feet away, drinking local wine and beer, and making new friends around firepits.

Two, head to Hoodsport and then up to Staircase to access the rainforests of Olympic National Park. It’s a very accessible way to get into the park and enjoy the moss-laden firs and cedars, vistas across Alpine valleys, and great hiking — though, you’ll probably need raingear.

Hailey, ID — Amanda Burrill

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

Hailey, Idaho, is just 12 miles south of Sun Valley and was just named Ski Magazine’s top resort in the west. Earlier this fall, I literally stumbled upon the town while I was there for three weeks of hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat my head injury! Concussions aside, Hailey is an outdoor lovers paradise, year-round.

I fell in love with fly fishing and the abundance of trails — hiking, climbing, and biking on both roads and in the mountains. The paved bike route that runs both north and south of Hailey for miles morphs into world-class Nordic skiing during snowy months.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

The can’t-miss activity is climbing up Carbonate Mountain. You can choose between the winding switchbacks for a more leisurely hike or beeline right up the ridge. Either way, the summit has the best view of Sun Valley. I fell so in love with that view and that particular summit that I decided to go back and live in Carbonate’s shadow.

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

Though backcountry and cross country skiing abounds, this is the mecca of fluffy downhill pow, and Sun Valley resort is already open for business. The iconic Shorty’s American Diner is a breakfast must, DaVinci’s Italian is a great place for a date and surprise, Zou 75 is shockingly good sushi in the mountains.

PRO TIP:

Homebase your stay in Hailey! You can drive around, but why bother when busses and shuttles will run you up to the resort and lifts and back down “apres.” Hailey is more laid back with a far less pretentious dining scene. I kept going back to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. See you in the snow!

Avalon, CA — Justin Walter

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

If you’re itching for a European escape but bummed a U.S. passport likely won’t do the trick for a while, I’ve got your solution! Just an hour boat ride from Los Angeles is the island escape of Avalon. This 2.9-square-mile area of Catalina Island will transport you to a Mediterranean-style getaway at the fraction of the cost and travel time (plus, no passport needed). With crystal clear Croatian-like turquoise waters, Avalon is an oasis for a post-pandemic unwind or a hot spot for adrenaline-pumping outdoor adventures.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

One thing that’s a must, scuba diving at Casino Point Dive Park. Not certified? No worries! You can do a PADI discovery dive in Catalina’s world-class kelp forests and coral reefs.

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

When it’s time to dry off, celebrate your underwater excursion with tropical drinks at a tiki bar. Luau Larry’s offers live music and views of the harbor to help you continue living your best island life…in Los Angeles County!

PRO TIP:

If you’re not sold on experiencing Catalina underwater, do it from above — via parasailing, zip-lining, or suspended ropes courses.

Leavenworth, WA — Steve Bramucci

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

The best Christmas of my adult life was spent in Austria. And while Leavenworth isn’t an exact facsimile of the German/ Austrian holiday experience, it’s incredibly close. It’s not just the distinct Bavarian winter charm that the city recreates, either. It’s also the small-town friendliness.

There are so many cheesy travel slogans about places that feel welcoming, but this is one spot on the globe that lives up to all of them. It’s so folksy — with locally made toffee, rich hot chocolate, and hearty stews around every corner — that it practically makes your teeth ache. Leavenworth also nails other key aspects of the Bavarian winter experience, namely the sledding, the beer, and the spas.

Seriously, make your plans now (as you can see, I recommend a winter visit). This is a true gem and a genuinely unique small-town travel experience.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

If you’re looking for luxury, the Leavenworth Post Hotel spa offers serious bliss. The subterranean pool and healing plunge tubs are the next best thing to Austria’s famous Aqua Dome. The rooms are minimalist and incredibly cozy — exactly the mix of warmth and sexiness you crave at an adults-only property like this. (Oh, and yes — it’s very Instagammable.)

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

München House has all of the Bavarian beers and foods you crave on a trip like this, the service is friendly, and the vibe is charming. That said, Leavenworth Sausage Garden has the widest range of sausages in town and has the exact convivial energy of a Bavarian beer tent come holiday-time.

PRO TIP:

Get a plastic sled before rolling into town. If there’s snow on the ground people will be sledding everywhere and that’s the sort of community-based fun you don’t want to miss out on.

Clarksdale, MS — Joe Sills

WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

Tamales, barbecue, juke joints, and blind bartenders. This gem lies in the middle of America’s music triangle, a pit-stop on Highway 61 between New Orleans and Memphis. Clarksdale’s claim to fame hinges on one of the country’s most hallowed music legends — the tale of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a place dubbed The Crossroads.

Numerous Mississippi outposts lay claim to those crossroads, but none embrace the legend quite like Clarksville. It’s here that you’ll find the Delta’s densest concentration of juke joints, derelict dives, shacks, and cotton gins that come alive at night with the wailing sound of electric guitars. It’s here that the members of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones began their early forays into the birthplace of the blues, in search of living legends that helped them transform rock n’ roll.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

“Mess with Red, you’ll wind up dead.” That’s the phrase etched into the restroom at Red’s Lounge, a Clarksdale bar beside the city cemetery that’s soaked in scarlet lighting. On a given night, you’ll find local bluesmen plying their trade inside a circle of boozy patrons, all of them dancing to sounds haunting enough to make Johnson ask for a refund.

Behind the bar, you’ll find Red Paden, a patron saint of the blues who’s served up your choice of Budweiser, lite or heavy, for thirty years from behind the bar. It’s rumored that Paden himself uses supernatural powers to crack open the cans — he’s almost completely blind.

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

Around the corner from Red’s, Levon’s dishes out cajun-esque meals like blackened catfish, boudin bites, and cioppino. An extensive cocktail selection and a fully stocked cabinet of domestic and import beers make this velvet-lined juke joint one of the best places to grab an upscale meal and a buzz before wandering off into the Mississippi night.

PRO TIP:

The Shack Up Inn sits on the northern outskirts of town, amidst the remnants of an old cotton gin. These days, the only gin you’ll find there is in a bottle. The main building itself now houses a stage and live music (along with excellent house tamales). Outer buildings have been converted into hotel rooms where you can, well, shack up.

Hood River, OR — Steve Bramucci

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WHY IT’S SPECIAL:

There’s no need to Google them all, Hood River (OR) is on literally every best/most liveable/ most adventurous city list ever made. In the winter, it’s cozy and in easy striking distance of world-class ski runs. In the summer, it’s a cruisy, folksy little surf/ ski town more than a hundred miles from the ocean.

The surf that Hood River is famous for is wind/kitesurfing. It’s also renowned for paddleboarding, sailing, and foil riding. When you’re not tearing across the famous Columbia River Gorge, there are hikes just about everywhere you look, with waterfalls, plunge pools, and cliff jumps all in easy driving distance.

This being Oregon, there’s no shortage of eating and drinking options when your adventures are done for the day. The quaint shops and friendly locals only add to the small-town energy of the place.

ONE CAN’T-MISS ACTIVITY:

My favorite hike in the United States is the nearby Oneonta Gorge — where you walk up a stream, through a mossy slot canyon, and up to a dramatic waterfall. My biases aside, Tamanawas Falls and Punchbowl Falls are in the same area and both similarly stunning. So while the no-brainer answer here is “get out on the river”, I’ll assume you’re doing that and add “go for a hike.”

ONE SPOT TO EAT and/or DRINK:

Hood River Distillers produces an incredibly diverse array of spirits and liqueurs, all of which can be tasted at their tasting room in town. The staff is friendly and the range of what you can try is nearly unparalleled. Don’t miss the Elderberry Liqueur or the Old Delicious Apple Brandy.

PRO TIP:

Adventures are exhausting. And they always take longer than you thought. Plus you’ll want some rest and you might have some rusty mornings thanks to the breweries in town. So here’s the tip: Book in at the very cool, highly stylized Hood River Hotel and plan on an extra night. Maybe two.

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