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Wine, Mountains, and Lakes: Best Small Towns in the USA for an Unforgettable Getaway


As curious travelers, the journalists at Travel and Leisure have explored bustling cities and vast countries worldwide, finding something to love in each of them. However, it's the smallest towns in the USA that have captured their hearts the most. These towns may lack designer shops, popular restaurant chains, or even traffic lights, but what they lack in cosmopolitan hustle, they more than make up for with warm hospitality, creative small businesses, and local charm.

The America's Best Small Towns program was launched to draw attention to less-visited places that are absolute must-sees.

To be considered one of America's best small towns, a place must be located in the USA and have a permanent population of fewer than 25,000 people, according to the latest data from the US Census Bureau. It must also excel in its category and offer a variety of activities, accommodations, and a reason to visit, whether it's a notable new festival, hotel, restaurant, attraction, or tourism initiative.

How the Winners Were Chosen Journalists surveyed colleagues and travel experts from various parts of the USA. Then, our team of travel editors sifted through the numerous thoughtful responses and selected the best ones.

Want to nominate a town for next year? Please submit your entry for the competition here.

America's Best Small Beach Town Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island, Florida While approximately 140 million people visit Florida annually, only a small fraction of them make it to the tranquil Gasparilla Island and its main town, Boca Grande—a laid-back yet upscale coastal village along the Gulf of Mexico.

Boca Grande, which rebounded after the devastating Hurricane Ian in 2022, remains a tranquil escape from the frenzy of the modern world (and much of Florida). It offers a beachy atmosphere in a small-town setting.

Port Aransas, Texas Port Aransas, located on North Padre Island, has long been cherished by Texans as a peaceful spot for beach lovers and anglers. Hurricane Harvey hit the island in 2017, but six years later, the town is back on its feet. The new, spacious beachfront cottages at Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Club provide all the comforts of a resort.

The new Patton Center for Marine Science Education introduces visitors to the local wildlife, and admission is free. For the perfect getaway, take a lesson in sandcastle building from professionals, embark on a secluded island tour to San Jose Island from the pier, or rent a golf cart to cruise the beach. On weekends, you can even join ribbon-sanding races at The Gaff.

America's Best Small Mountain Town Highlands, North Carolina According to legend, Highlands was formed in 1875 after Kansas developers took out a map and drew two lines: one from New Orleans to New York, the other from Chicago to Savannah. They believed these routes would soon become vital for trade, and the intersection would serve as a hub for commerce. While Highlands never became a bustling center, the initial predictions weren't too far off—Atlanta is just a little over two hours away.

Located within the Nantahala National Forest, on the highest plateau of Western North Carolina, the area that is now known as Highlands once served as hunting grounds for the Cherokee tribe.

However, in the late 1800s, pioneers from both the North and South, as well as Scottish-Irish settlers from the surrounding valleys and mountains, began to call it home. Modern Highlands, just a short drive from major Southeastern cities like Charleston, Nashville, and Charlotte, serves as a summer retreat for those looking to escape the humidity and a year-round playground for hiking, waterfall watching, as well as the arts, music, top-notch dining, and accommodations.

Red Lodge, Montana Red Lodge isn't just a mountain town with no traffic lights or Starbucks—it's the gateway to the underappreciated northeast entrance of Yellowstone.

Those who come here to conquer the twists and turns of the Beartooth Highway, one of the world's most scenic drives, or to ski at a resort where lift tickets still don't top $100, often find themselves eyeing real estate, even if just out of curiosity.

Annual events include Renaissance fairs, rodeos, rallies, and races, including America's highest elevation footrace. If you don't want to climb higher than 10,000 feet, rent an electric bike at the recently opened Red Lodge Adventure Center. Of course, you can simply stroll down the main street and enjoy the boutiques and restaurants owned and operated by welcoming locals who stand behind every amazing mountain town.

America's Best Small Lake Town Grand Marais, Minnesota A two-hour drive north of Duluth doesn't seem like the most likely place to find anything, let alone the best small lake town in America. But that's exactly what you'll find in Grand Marais if you decide to visit. Savvy travelers come here for an increasingly rare vintage seaside atmosphere, adventures on the famous Minnesota waters, and world-class local art.

Make the translation into English as an experienced translator:

Located along the wooded edge of Upper Lake on the northern coast of the state, this city is also the most artistic in Minnesota.

There are far more food trucks and art galleries here than traffic lights (there's only one for the entire county), and it proudly holds the title of the best small lake town in the country.

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire Picture wood-paneled Chris Craft speedboats gently rocking at the docks in the summer, colorful ice-fishing shanties dotting the lake in winter, and trees aglow with gold and red against the backdrop of a New England village's quaint landscape in the fall.

Situated between Lake Winnipesaukee and Lake Wentworth, Wolfeboro has been a getaway since New Hampshire was an English colony. Stay at the Pickering House Inn, an 1813 estate transformed into a luxurious 10-room boutique hotel. Head to the beach in the morning and take a stroll down the main street later.

The recently opened Burnt Timber Brewing and Tavern is a peaceful spot for a late breakfast or lunch. Try the Korean chicken sandwich and a pint of Always Summer Saison, lime-infused beer. And don't leave town without dining at the Pavilion, a high-end restaurant with a three-year history, now led by chef Chris Viaud, a Top Chef alum and James Beard Award semi-finalist. His New England upbringing and Haitian roots inspire his vibrant farm-to-table dishes.

America's Best Small Desert Town Kanab, Utah Tiny Kanab is conveniently located near the most iconic landmarks in the American Southwest. Three popular national parks—Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon—are within a 1-2 hour drive, and Kanab serves as the gateway to The Wave, a famous sandstone formation resembling a wave in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.

While Kanab makes an ideal base for exploring these renowned places (and more), it remains relatively uncrowded, as reflected in its slogan: "Beautifully Untamed." In this small town with a population of about 5,000, residents and outdoor enthusiasts who can't get enough of the adventures on their doorstep call it home.

Joshua Tree, California Not all desert towns conjure up images, but Joshua Tree is an oasis of quirks, history, and art. Over the years, as a thriving community of artists drawn to the mystical mountains and dusty desert roads, the town has become home to eccentric art galleries like the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. This museum showcases over 100 sculptures on 10 acres of land, just a 10-minute drive from town. Additionally, annual highway 62 art tours allow visitors to purchase works from local artists.

The recently opened Tiny Pony cafe in town exudes a vintage Western atmosphere with velvet cat paintings, a billiards table, and gourmet bar fare. At the newly renovated Copper Room, first opened in 1957, you can order classic cocktails and Asian-inspired dishes. In November this year, the Joshua Tree Valley Film Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary, and in 2024, a new water sports and recreation center will be built due to climate change and drought.

America's Best Small Town with Unforgettable Food and Culture Los Olivos, California Los Olivos doesn't wake up before 6:00 AM. This year, when Felix Coffee Shop opened at the Inn at Mattei's Tavern, Auberge Resorts Collection, and began brewing espresso every morning at 6:00, the entire town started talking about it.

Los Olivos boasts 27 wineries within its vicinity, equating to a tasting room for every 0.01 square mile. But don't worry; you won't need to drive. Los Olivos' main street, Grand Avenue, is just two blocks away from the new hotel. To enjoy wine, mainly Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, several fantastic new restaurants have opened here. This has earned Los Olivos the title of the best small town in the USA for food and culture.

McCook, Nebraska McCook's population is only 7,500, but this small town on the prairies boasts a culinary and cultural scene that far exceeds its weight class. Sehnert's Bakery, the only James Beard Award-winning bakery in the state, is located here. In 2019, this cozy bakery was honored as an "American Classic" for its bierocks (German-style hot pocket with fillings like meatballs or cabbage).

Modern art in McCook is another highlight. However, perhaps the brightest gem in McCook is the "6th Floor" project—a purpose-driven gallery located on the top floor of the Keystone business center, offering a rare bird's-eye view of the city. This innovative initiative aims to elevate the art of underrated creators from around the world while simultaneously revitalizing rural Nebraska. When it comes to festivals, the Buffalo Commons Storytelling and Music Festival recently celebrated its 26th year of existence.

Note: Some town names and details have been edited to improve readability and clarity in English.

Best Small Town in America for Wine, Beer, and Spirits Production Dahlonega, Georgia A small town nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia holds a tempting secret: award-winning wineries and tasting rooms offering local, regional, and international wines and spirits. Thanks to a thriving wine culture and the picturesque backdrop of mountains and foothills, Dahlonega is always a delightful destination.

Dahlonega is home to eight wineries, a dozen tasting rooms, and a recent wave of craft breweries and distilleries, making it a thriving hub for wine and spirits aficionados without the pomp and ceremony. While Dahlonega's wineries draw many, recent hotel renovations and updates to local establishments, combined with unparalleled views of North Georgia's mountains, show visitors that this modest town can offer the amenities found in larger cities.

Greenport, New York Situated on the bucolic North Fork peninsula of Long Island, Greenport is a charming coastal town with historic architecture, fine dining, and a thriving industry of beer, wine, and spirits.

It appeals to tourists seeking a more laid-back alternative to the upscale Hamptons, located across the bay, and is also known as a wine lover's haven, boasting over 60 unique vineyards.

In Greenport, you'll find the Kontokosta Winery, which offers magnificent wine vistas, and the One Woman Wines, managed by Italian immigrant Claudia Purita, has a tasting room in nearby Southold and pours wine at the First & South restaurant in Greenport. Additionally, there are numerous craft breweries and small-batch distilleries nearby, with beer enthusiasts visiting the tasting room at Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. and cocktail connoisseurs opting for spiced rum, vodka, and grappa from Greenport Distilling. The hotel industry is also booming, with three new hotels opening this season, including Hotel Moraine, Silver Sands, and ZEY Hotel, owned by restaurateur and reality TV star Zac Erdem.

Best Small Town in America with Spa and Wellness Centers Aurora, New York When it comes to small towns with a big reputation, Aurora, located on the shores of a lake, is one of the best in its class. This village, with a population of 724, situated on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, is perhaps best known as the headquarters of MacKenzie-Childs, a home goods retailer that still handcrafts its signature pottery in the peace and quiet of Cayuga County.

But it has also become a place for rejuvenation thanks to the Inns of Aurora Resort & Spa, a collection of six small cottages and one stunning hilltop house recognized as one of the best resorts in New York State. When you add in the fact that this Finger Lakes region has gorges for hiking, as well as breweries, farm stands, and serene beaches, Aurora becomes not only the best town for wellness but also a manifestation of almost any notion of a serene and good life.

Girdwood, Alaska With the opening of the Alyeska Nordic Spa in September of last year, the small Alaskan village of Girdwood unexpectedly transformed into a mountainous haven for wellness. The old mining town was known for its winter adventures at the Alyeska Resort.

Now, skiers can combine outdoor recreation with rejuvenation at the Nordic Spa, just a short walk from the European-style Alyeska hotel located on the slopes. The spa features a range of outdoor hot and cold pools designed to maximize the benefits of hydrotherapy. It also includes a scrub cabin, an essential oil-infused steam room, traditional Finnish saunas, and a halotherapy sauna lined with salt walls. Inside, there are massage rooms and a bistro serving local cuisine, complementing the wellness offerings.