The Coolest Small Towns in America
In Budget Travel's fifth-annual celebration of hometown escapes across the USA, we're spotlighting 10 places that somehow pack in more personality than cities triple their size. How? It all comes down to the people.
Who picked these places?
You did! We received a record-breaking 439,411 votes in our online poll. The winners:
- Ely, Minn. 118,899 votes
- Cloverdale, Calif. 74,399 votes
- Brevard, N.C. 71,178 votes
- Saugatuck, Mich. 47,419 votes
- Kennett Square, Pa. 44,089 votes
- Bandon, Ore. 9,866 votes
- Cuero, Tex. 9,831 votes
- Nyack, N.Y. 9,666 votes
- Medicine Park, Okla. 8,414 votes
- Egg Harbor, Wis. 7,517 votes
On January 22, a month before we launched our poll to find the Coolest Small Town in America, a black bear named Lily gave birth on live webcam, at Ely's North American Bear Center (NABC, bear.org). Days later, Lily and her cub, Hope, became the number one search term on Google, and Lily gained 104,886 fans on her Facebook page (yes, even bears have profiles), where links to our ballot were posted prominently. "Lily's fans worked hard to get her hometown recognized," says NABC biologist Lynn Rogers. That, they did: Ely took nearly a quarter of all the votes cast in our contest.
Ely, Minnesota pop. 3,470
The best backyard in the country
It says a lot about a town when there are more wildlife centers (two) than Wal-Marts (zero), and more canoe and fishing outfitters (27) than, well, anything else. In Ely, you're never more than a step away from the wilderness. The tiny grid of pine log cabins and pubs five hours north of Minneapolis sits within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a million-acre maze of indigo lakes and boreal forest. Each year thousands arrive to canoe, fish, camp—or simply sit back and soak in the North Woods. At the Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant, where trophy walleyes are mounted on the walls, locals swap stories over hearty oatmeal stouts (47 E. Sheridan St., boathousebrewpub.com, pints from $4). Nearby, visiting families recap their recent adventures around the stone fireplace at A Stay Inn Ely, a five-room lodge run by Joan and Don Bean (112 W. Sheridan St., astayinnely.com, from $60). More often than not, they've just returned from a fly-fishing overnight or weeklong canoe excursion with Don's Jasper Creek Guide Service (14295 Canadian Border Rd., jaspercreek.com, canoe trips from $150 a day). Some are tempted to stay even longer. Jim Brandenburg travels the world as a National Geographic photographer but always comes home to Ely: "Where else can you sit out on your porch, listen to a pack of wild wolves howling, and then head down to the pub and share the story?"
Brevard, North Carolina pop. 6,716
Blue Ridge views and Appalachian pride
If the notion of town-wide square dances with an old-time caller sounds appealing, then Brevard is your kind of place. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains 45 minutes south of Asheville, the redbrick town is an outpost of authentic Appalachia. Every Tuesday night in summer, locals block off Main Street, a bluegrass band strikes up, and everyone lets loose. Longtime Atlanta resident Ginger Lipscomb, 64, is one of many who were drawn by Brevard's history. She first came in 2005 to visit friends. "Then I started annoying them because I wanted to come every weekend." Lipscomb now runs Stones Jewelry Store out of a century-old storefront (28 E. Main St., 828/884-8988). Across town, patrons head to 68-year-old Rocky's Soda Shop for chocolate malts (50 S. Broad St., ddbullwinkels.com, malts from $4) or to the 1934 Co-Ed Cinema, complete with a gleaming marquee and ornate ticket booth, for first-run films (79 W. Main St., coedcinema.com). At day's end, there's no better spot to relax in the cool mountain air than the porch of 149-year-old Red House Inn, just one more historic—and homey—side of Brevard (266 W. Probart St., brevardbedandbreakfast.com, from $85).
Saugatuck, Michigan pop. 954
A lake town where time stands still