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America's Coolest Small Towns 2013

Budget Travel readers have spoken! The competition was fierce, with towns across the U.S. vying for the 2013 title of Coolest. Did your town make our final list?

#5 Gulf Shores, Alabama

Population: 9,741

White-sand beaches, shrimp—and more shrimp!—on the Gulf

Why we love it: Folks in this Gulf of Mexico beach town must get tired of hearing tourists do their best Bubba impersonations. But comparisons to Forrest Gump's shrimp-loving sidekick are only logical: Each October since 1971, the town hosts the National Shrimp Festival, often attracting over 250,000 people with shrimp cook-offs, concerts, and sandcastle contests. What to do: If you don't make it here during the three-day National Shrimp Festival, don't fret. Shrimp shows up on menus all around town, including the dockside Lulu's at Homeport Marina, which is owned by Jimmy Buffett's sister Lucy. Like much of the Gulf of Mexico, the area was hit hard by the 2010 BP oil spill. But, ironically, the area's powdery white beaches got an unexpected PR boost from the disaster and subsequent successful cleanup: For many Americans, it was the first time they learned Alabama even has beaches!

#6 Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Population: 138

Lobster, crafts, and wine on a little island in Lake Erie

Why we love it: Put-in-Bay is utterly defined by its location, on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. The bay has been an essential part of lake navigation since Native Americans first plied the waters centuries ago. (The town's name likely comes from the boating term "put-in," meaning to enter the water.) The island was the site of a key naval battle in the War of 1812, and Perry's Cave, where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's men obtained the clean drinking water to which their victory over the British is partly attributed, is a popular historical site. What to do: Today, island life means coming and going via ferry or plane (even some schoolkids commute via plane from neighboring islands), and patiently waiting out winters that see few visitors. But all that changes in summer, when the community welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists to popular resorts, restaurants specializing in-what else?-seafood (you must try the local favorite, lobster bisque), craft shops, and award-winning Heineman Winery.

#7 Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Population: 1,734

Bluegrass, theater, and the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Valley

Why we love it: You might say all roads lead to West Virginia's oldest town, which celebrated its 250th birthday in 2012: The Potomac River, the C&O Canal, and the Appalachian Trail all pass through this Revolutionary War-era town in the lower Shenandoah Valley. What to do: Look behind those preserved 18th-century brick facades for surprisingly cool signs of life—this place is by no means a living museum. Housed in a Confederate hospital, the Mecklenburg Inn is known for its live bluegrass music and was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire. And the sophisticated Bistro 112 is housed in an 1830s brick building that once served as the town's haberdasher. The Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University stages productions from renowned playwrights like Neil LaBute, David Mamet, and Sam Shepard.

#8 Quincy, California

Population: 1,728

Water sports, gold-rush history, and big-city cuisine in the Sierras

Why we love it: This gold rush town on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where prospectors flocked in the rush of 1849, remains a mother lode of attractions for those who like to spend their days in the wild but welcome some culture and pampering in the evening. What to do: Nearby Bucks Lake Recreation Area is the kind of place you can visit every weekend and never quite do the same thing twice, including world-class fishing, water-skiing, hiking in warm weather, winter snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. Back in town, the historic 1920s-era courthouse is just one of several architectural gems. Pick up a self-guided Heritage Walk tour pamphlet at the Plumas County Museum, behind the courthouse, and explore downtown's murals depicting scenes from the area's history. Then take your pick of excellent pub and café fare that, true to Northern California tradition, belies its small-town locale.

#9 Flagler Beach, Florida

Population: 4,484

Whales, surfers, and ukuleles on Florida's east coast

Why we love it: Twenty miles north of Daytona Beach on A1A, Flagler Beach couldn't be more different from its party-hardy neighbor to the south. In fact, the area seems to attract more sea turtles and right whales than spring breakers. And it's not hard to see why: This thin strip of a beach town, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, has remained significantly less developed than its neighbors. What to do: The six miles of pristine sand—which boast an orange hue thanks to crushed coquina shells—are only interrupted by one fishing pier. In town, the vibe is laid back and retro, thanks to spots like Grampa's Uke Joint, which sells ukuleles, and High Tides at Snack Jack, a 1950s fish shack that attracts surfers with funky dishes like tuna reubens, ahi club sandwiches, and sake Bloody Marys.  

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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