The Best Small Towns in the United States to Visit in 2023
Many people gained a new appreciation for small towns over the past couple of years. Sure, there’s no denying the draw of bustling cities and cultural centers. But even as travelers return to crowded areas, the appeal of a small town remains strong, and will well into 2023 and beyond.
Each of these towns have a year-round population under 100,000 and offer something special for people decide to visit. In some cases the towns are a home base for outdoor adventure. Others are food and wine hot spots that in many ways outshine more famous neighbors. All deserve to be on your destination list as you start to plan 2023 travel.
Entries are in no particular order. Picks were chosen and written by Suzie Dundas, Alex Bresler, Tim Wenger, Elisabeth Sherman, Matt Meltzer, Morgane Croissant, Eben Diskin, and Nickolaus Hines.
Port Angeles, Washington
If you’re cruising into Port Angeles (or simply PA, as the town is known) on Washington’s northern coast, odds are high you’re either coming from Olympic National Park or heading there. The backdrop of this town of about 20,000 couldn’t be more striking – the Salish Sea crashes into its north shore and the Olympic peaks tower over downtown from the south. Olympic National Park’s visitor center is here, but Port Angeles is more than a place to restock and refuel before heading to the mountains. Scenic Ediz Hook peninsula should be your first stop to stroll Harborview Park, which is surrounded by water on both sides and where you can catch the perfect view of the town and the mountains behind it. Even on a cloudy day, it’d be hard to stand anywhere on Ediz and not wish this were your hometown.
Post up at the Blackbird Coffeehouse to route your adventure over a cup of joe (or reconnect with the wider world if you’ve just returned from your Olympic trip). Downriggers is the place to go for fresh seafood and views of the Salish, and locals congregate at Barhop Brewing for pizza and brews right next to the ferry connecting PA to Victoria, British Columbia.
On that note, Port Angeles makes an ideal jumping off point for vanlifers and road trippers en route to Vancouver Island thanks to drive-on ferry access available from the port. The town offers ample nearby camping and access to surfing, skiing, and paddling. Just be sure to hike the Spruce Railroad Trail before departing town. — Tim Wenger
Utah has no shortage of adventure towns. Thing is, Park City long ago became a resort destination and Moab is fast becoming that way. That’s why you should base yourself in Kanab for a Utah adventure trip in 2023. Here, red rock canyons and sandy desert mountains surround one of the most underrated basecamps anywhere in the Southwest. Nowhere in the Beehive State offers better access to more national parks: Bryce Canyon National Park is just over an hour north, Capitol Reef is a bit further to the northeast, and Zion National Park is northwest. Kanab is also an excellent place to post up before or after exploring Grand Canyon National Park.
Here’s the thing, though – you don’t even have to head to a park to have an epic adventure in Kanab. Hit the trail from the Addison’s Poppy Falls trailhead, Tom’s Canyon trailhead, or the K-Hill trail. Hiking Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch is a great way to spend an afternoon with excellent photo ops waiting at the gulch. Kanab also offers easy access to some of Utah’s best state parks, including the red sand dunes of Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and The Wave, the famous waved rock formation near the Utah-Arizona border. From February 17 to 19, the Kanab Balloons and Tunes Roundup brings a rainbow of colors to skies above this red rock region, which is an excellent excuse to head down for a winter national parks trip.
Afterward, crash at the Grand Circle Lodge, a cozy bed and breakfast in the heart of town. Or, if you’re an Ed Abbey fan (and if not, you should become one before visiting Utah), post up at Hayduke’s Hideout. Dining in Kanab trends towards Old West lore, with excellent steak on order at the Iron Horse Restaurant & Saloon. It’s also possible to get new age and trendy, though, with craft beer and farm-to-table eats at Sego. One thing you must do while here is dig into the western chuckwagon dinner at the Little Hollywood Museum. — Tim Wenger
Astoria is everything a coastal Pacific Northwest town should be. Rocky cliffs cascading into the sea, a quaint downtown lined with fresh seafood shops and cozy waterside pubs, and the mouth of one of America’s most epic waterways spilling into the ocean. This town is downright beautiful, from its hilly downtown to the sun reflecting off the ocean, bay, and river that surround Astoria on three sides and cast a calming blue hue over the town.
Climb the Astoria Column, a 125-foot-tall tower built on top of a hill overlooking downtown and the ocean before settling in for a pint and a basket of fried halibut fish and chips at Astoria Brewing Company. The nearby boardwalk makes for a great afternoon stroll with shops and more than a few places to pop in for a snack or a round with friends. Hike the Cathedral Tree Trail up to the towering tree itself, and enjoy views of the harbor from Rogue Brewing’s Pier 39 Public House. Astoria is also a hub for rockhounding, or searching for treasure among the rocky seashore.
It’d be tough to leave Astoria feeling anything but a deep desire to move there. Fortunately, you can stay the night at the Astoria Riverwalk Inn and wake up to the sound of the current hitting the boardwalk. Or check into one of the many unique Airbnbs in Astoria. Being right on the border of Oregon and Washington means that whether your travels take you north or south from here, the drive is going to be as beautiful as it is remote. As an added bonus, there’s no better opportunity to jam to The Ataris as you cruise across the Astoria-Megler Bridge. — Tim Wenger
People don’t call Maine “Vacationland” for nothing. Camden is the embodiment of everything that makes Maine alluring for travelers: small town coastal beauty, rugged nature, historic architecture, boating, and a slower pace of life. And at just two hours from Portland, you don’t have to plunge into Maine’s deep wilderness to get there.
Bordered by forested hills, Camden is perfect for leaf-peeping and enjoying Maine’s brilliant foliage. Even in the offseason, the lush Camden Hills State Park is the best way to take in the area’s flavor, with scenic trails and sweeping views from the top of Mount Battie of the town, Penobscot Bay, and the surrounding hills. Since the town is right on the ocean, you can also rent kayaks and explore the bay, or participate in a kayak or schooner tour to the nearby Curtis Island lighthouse. Also be sure to check out the historic downtown, which has 19th century buildings you can stay at, like the Blackberry Inn and Abigail’s Inn.
When in Maine, you have to try the local seafood. The best place to do so in Camden is Peter Ott’s on the Water, which specializes in New England classics like clam chowder, oysters, steamed mussels, haddock, and, of course, lobster rolls.
No matter what time of year you visit, there’s something special to do in Camden. From the annual Camden Winterfest in February to the Art Walk in May, Schooner Gam in the summer, and the Windjammer Festival, film festival, and leaf-peeping in the fall, 2023 is shaping up to be a busy year. — Eben Diskin
Two-square-mile Sebastopol often gets overshadowed by neighboring towns in Sonoma County. That’s what happens when you’re located in one of the most prolific wine regions in Northern California. Historically famous for growing Gravenstein apples (a heritage that’s still celebrated with an annual fair), Sebastopol is home to more vineyards than orchards today. The town gets much of its dynamism from its proximity to both the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River — although credit really goes to the laid-back local community for preserving Sebastapol’s bohemianism while making room for destination draws like global cuisine, trendy breweries, and refined taprooms.
Downtown Sebastopol’s dining and drinking scene is concentrated in The Barlow, a 220,000-square-foot open-air marketplace. Highlights include Pax Wines; the Crooked Goat, Seismic, and Woodfour brewing companies; Golden State Cider taproom; WM Cofield Cheesemakers; and Fern Bar. But there’s plenty to eat outside the town center as well — Khom Loi has seriously good Thai food and Ramen Gaijin is the spot for date-night Japanese.
Between meals, walk around to get to know Sebastopol. Start on Florence Avenue where residents display wild life-sized artworks made from recycled trash in their front yards for three blocks. Then venture a little farther to hike, mountain bike, and kayak in the plentiful open space that surrounds Sebastopol, such as the Laguna Wetlands Preserve, Sonoma Coast State Park, and Ragle Ranch Regional Park. Head to the town on April 12 and 13, 2023 to even plan your visit to the latter around next year’s Gravenstein Apple Fair. Autocamp has an Airstream glampsite on the Russian River about 15 miles northwest of Sebastopol that makes for an excellent base for your explorations, but there are plenty of inns, Airbnbs, and Hipcamp sites nearby as well. — Alex Bresler
If you’re on the southern Utah national parks circuit, you’re likely to drive through Escalante en route to Capitol Reef from Bryce Canyon. (Zion is roughly 2.5 hours west, and Canyonlands and Arches both lie approximately four hours east.) But Escalante is worth a stop on its own. Located along Scenic Byway 12, one of the most beautiful byways in the country, Escalante is the gateway to Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument — a nearly two-million-acre swath of public land that’s just as phenomenal as any of Utah’s national parks.
One of the biggest benefits to visiting Escalante-Grand Staircase over neighboring national parks is the ease of cost-free, permit-free camping on Bureau of Land Management land — just be sure you’re prepared if you pick Escalante for your first go at #vanlife. The irony is that Escalante is full of rustic yet luxurious lodging that will make you want to book a bed for the night, including Yonder Escalante, the glampiest RV park in town.
Like its accommodations, Escalante’s restaurants have no business being as delicious and varied as they are, from artisan pizza and craft beer at Escalante outfitters, to smothered burritos at Georgie’s Outdoor Mexican Cafe, to natural groceries at the Escalante Mercantile. In the next town over, Boulder, there’s a James Beard Award-winning farm-to-table restaurant called Hell’s Backbone Grill with ingredients so fresh they’ll make you forget you’re dining in the desert.
Being fed — and hydrated — is particularly important in Escalante given the wealth of outdoor recreation you’re likely to participate in 90- to 100-degree heat. (Escalante is a predominantly seasonal town, after all, catering primarily to summer visitors.) Slot canyons are a quintessential activity in the area, notably Zebra, Peek-a-Boo, and Spooky. Lower Calf Creek Falls is one of the most popular hikes, meandering three miles one way before you reach a 130-foot waterfall backed by a crescent-shaped rock formation. For something gentler, you’ll get a good dose of scenery while driving through Devil’s Garden.
Because Escalante opens to a national monument rather than a national park, it feels like an anything-goes hideaway from the crushing crowds at parks like Zion and Arches. The town has a dedicated following, though, and with the uptick in vanlifers, glampers, road trippers, and general outdoor travelers over the past few years, Escalante’s hidden vibe might not be the case for much longer — yet another reason you should plan to get there in 2023. — Alex Bresler
About 100 miles south of Tucson, Bisbee embodies the new Old West. These days, the former copper-mining town channels its work ethic into more creative pursuits, starting with the artisans who sell goods like olive oil, honey, soap, jewelry, apparel, and pottery on Main Street. You can still get a sense of what old-town Bisbee might have been like thanks to its finely preserved early-20th-century downtown — as well as mine, museum, and heritage site tours. That said, visitors will be happy with what’s modernized. The food scene comes to mind — vegan fare, Vietnamese noodles, tapas, and craft beer included.
Outdoor activities like hiking, off-roading, and birding in the Mule Mountains surrounding Bisbee are particularly popular. That means the best way to decide when you want to visit is around the town’s full and eclectic events calendar. On the second Saturday of every month, there’s a Bisbee After 5 Artwalk, which also co-hosts the annual Bisbee Plein Air Festival in October that brings artists together to set up their easels outside and — quite literally — paint the town. October also sees the BRATS (Bisbee Rolling Arts Transport Society) Festival where locals parade their fun and funky handmade soap box derby cars through the street.
Holidays in Bisbee are equally riotous. Alongside obvious festivities for the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, Labor Day Weekend transforms downtown Bisbee into one big Roaring 20s-themed party, and Pride coincides with Father’s Day spanning three days in June. Some of Bisbee’s annual events also support good causes, such as November’s Mariachi Festival that donates its proceeds to the Bisbee Coalition for the Homeless and September’s Blues in Bisbee music festival that doubles as a benefit for the Easterseals Blake Foundation. — Alex Bresler
Ever since Ernest Hemingway came to Sun Valley in 1939 as part of a campaign to boost tourism, the town has been a giant among ski resorts. But as far as downtown appeal goes nowadays, the tiny town next door, Ketchum, pulls more weight in Blaine County.
One reason Ketchum seems to have more character than Sun Valley is that it’s been around more than half a century longer. It started as a trapper settlement in the late 1800s, experienced a silver-mining boom before the turn of the century, flourished into a full-fledged Old West haven, and even spent a stint as an epicenter of the sheep industry. The latter is still celebrated annually with a five-day Trailing of the Sheep Festival that includes lamb feasts, wool fests, and a parade starring 1,500 sheep that’ll take place from October 4 through 8 in 2023. Another festival, Wagon Days, pays tribute to Ketchum’s mining heritage every Labor Day weekend with one of the biggest non-motorized parades in the Pacific Northwest.
Yet, like Sun Valley, Ketchum is located at the base of Mount Bald (or Baldy, as the ski area is affectionately known). That means hikers, mountain bikers, skiers, and snowboarders have access to the same 400-ish miles of singletrack and 3,400 vertical feet whether or not they save up to stay at the classic (but pricey) Sun Valley Resort. In its place, Ketchum’s Main Street presents properties like the funky Hotel Ketchum motor lodge and modern-luxe Limelight Hotel, alongside tons of art galleries; breweries, taprooms, and brewpubs; and restaurants.
True to its latest reputation as a central Idaho culture hub, downtown Ketchum also hosts several art walks organized by the Sun Valley Art Gallery throughout the year, as well as an annual Ketchum Arts Festival that’s free to enjoy and scheduled for July 8 through 10 in 2023. — Alex Bresler
Half Moon Bay, California
This crescent-shaped bay on California’s coast just 40 minutes outside San Francisco is an ideal spot for a weekend getaway or a day trip. Half Moon Bay has a cozy small town atmosphere with a population of just 11,000 people and a town center that was built in the 1800s. It is, in short, the very definition of charming. But that doesn’t translate into boring.
The town of Half Moon Bay has plenty to offer window shoppers, and a casual walk down Main Street should be on your to-do list. Stop by Half Moon Bay Wine and Cheese Company, where you can grab provisions for a beach picnic or a quiet evening in. For food, HMB Coffee Co. is a go-to for a breakfast. Later in the day, you can try the locally famous lobster roll at Sam’s Chowder House and relax with a beer at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. Every October, Half Moon Bay hosts the Art & Pumpkin Festival.
However, Half Moon Bay is really a town for people who like to spend most of their time outdoors. Visitors can kayak at Pillar Point Harbor with Half Moon Bay Kayaking Company, or take in the salty sea air during a casual walk along the four-mile stretch of Half Moon Bay State Beach, which includes secluded Pelican Point Beach with its stunning views of the town’s signature bluffs. The beaches of Half Moon Bay are also legendary for tide pool exploration – an especially fun activity for families – where the seaweed covered pools are teeming with sea life.
Hikers can keep themselves occupied at the Half Moon Bay Coastside Trail, an offshoot of the California Coastside Trail. You’ll be treated to bird watching opportunities and majestic views of the Pacific Ocean and the legendary surfing spot the Mavericks. The trail is around 7.5 miles long and includes equestrian trails, too. Explore Devil’s Slide trail, a 1.3 mile paved cliffside walkway open to bikers as well as walkers – look out toward the ocean as whales and seals are often seen from there.
The place to stay in Half Moon Bay is the Ritz-Carlton, situated atop one of the bay’s iconic cliffs, overlooking the beach. Though the hotel is a luxurious indulgence, it’s a worthwhile one. For a cozier atmosphere, the Half Moon Bay Lodge is another solid option. — Elisabeth Sherman
Located in dry, hilly, and mountainous Eastern Washington three hours from Seattle, Chelan is a 4,000-person lake town that’s similar in atmosphere and appeal to Lake George in upstate New York. Chelan vacations are often centered around Lake Chelan, where swimming, boating, and water sports offer endless opportunities for adventure (or at least until you get tired). But though the lake is really the central hub of activity in Chelan, there are activities here to entertain every type of traveler.
The Chelan area is an official AVA, and there are wineries surrounding the lake on all sides. Wine tasting in Chelan is a great option for those who prefer to admire the lake from afar. Rocky Pond Estate Winery, Nefarious Cellars, and Tsillan Cellars are among the top rated wineries for tastings and vineyard tours.
If you want to be out on the water but you’d rather work than relax, Lake Chelan offers world class opportunities for trout and bass fishing. In fact, anyone who prefers to spend most of their vacation outdoors is going to love it here. There are around 100 campgrounds in Lake Chelan State Park – some of them on the shoreline, so that you can be close to the water – but book your spot in advance, because they get crowded in the summer.
Once you’re ready to dive into the lake, there is a lagoon and sandy beach at Lake Chelan State Park that is popular among swimmers. Vacationers can also rent kayaks, pontoon boats, and jet skis on the lake. Just 10 minutes from Chelan is Beebe Bridge Park, where you’ll find another unforgettable swimming hole — one of the few safe places to swim in the Columbia River. You’ll also find first-rate water sports in Chelan Falls, 10 minutes from Chelan, where the Chelan River is known for legendary white water rafting trips.
If you can bear to leave the lake, a hike in Chelan is an arduous but worthwhile adventure. The Chelan Butte Trail is 7.5 miles, but the reward is astonishing views of the Cascade mountain range. — Elisabeth Sherman
St. George, Utah
At about an hour’s drive from Springdale – the gateway town to famous Zion National Park – St. George is often overlooked as a place to stay when visiting southwest Utah. But the fact that most people don’t stay there makes it all the more compelling, as the town’s nearby state parks (just as gorgeous as the state’s five national parks) are rarely crowded. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that St. George is home to some of Utah’s best mountain biking, as well trailheads through red rock canyons, lava tubes, and the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve – home to America’s indigenous “monster”: the bright-orange, two-foot-long gila monster.
2023 is a fantastic time to visit St. George for visitors who want to avoid overcrowded national parks and have a long weekend of serious adventure. Because St. George has its own airport, it’s a relatively easy place for a weekend trip. And because most people base themselves in Springdale, St. George hotels are more affordable and there’s never a long wait at area restaurants, including the high-end Wood. Ash. Rye. restaurant at the hip Advenire Hotel.
Travelers should also explore Snow Canyon State Park (known for being as beautiful as any national park), home to red rocks, explorable lava tubes and lava caves, and narrow canyons. Mountain bikers will want to go to Gooseberry Mesa, where technical and slickrock trails of all levels offer views from 5,200 feet above sea level. Bike rentals are available at stores like Over the Edge Sports. Wildlife enthusiasts will want to take their long camera lenses to Red Cliffs Desert Reserve to try to observe the rare gila monster, the US’s only poisonous lizard.
Visitors inclined toward libations post-hike should check out Station II Bar by Zion Brewery. Inside a historic firehouse, the bar serves up the famous brews of Zion National Park in St. George, complete with rotating outdoor food trucks. — Suzie Dundas
The first time I saw Homer was after an eight-hour drive through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in a failed attempt to see moose, caribou, or grizzly bears. But when I arrived in Homer, passing vivid red, waist-high fireweed with the backdrop of the bright blue Cook Inlet and Lake Clark National Park’s towering Aleutian Range in the distance, I knew it was worth the trip.
At the far southern tip of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Homer is a town of two parts: the mainland town of around 6,000 people, which serves as the starting point for wildlife tours and fishing trips and is full of artists, oddballs, and free-spirited Alaskan hippies; and the Homer Spit, a four-mile-long stretch of land dotted with fresh seafood stands, shiplapped (and seaside) ice cream shops and art galleries, and driftwood-covered beaches ripe for beachcombing.
For many visitors to Alaska, Homer is a mere pit stop, a place to spend an hour while they wait for their water taxis to island resorts like Stillpoint Lodge. But in 2023, I recommend spending an extra day in Homer to visit the interactive Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center, take a grizzly bear helicopter tour, paddle your way along the town’s rocky mainland coastline, or wet your whistle at local stops like Homer Brewing Company or nearby Bear Creek Winery (which has a very reasonable $5 tasting fee).
Summer is the prime season to visit for the most lodging, dining, and activity options. The mid-August Salmonfest (just north in Ninilchik) is one of Alaska’s biggest music festivals, complete with global headliners. But the most diverse event is September’s Alaska World Arts Festival, offering two weeks of comedy shows and concerts, performances, art classes, workshops, and dance performances throughout more than 50 Homer venues. — Suzie Dundas
There are three main things that Kentucky is famous for: horse races, bourbon, and something or other about fried chicken. But none of those defining Kentuckian elements apply to Paducah. If there’s one word that characterizes this small town of 25,000 people, it’s “artistic.” Art in all shapes and forms is everywhere in Paducah, making it a great town to explore on foot with your eyes peeled.
One obvious example of the creative character of Paducah is the immense floodwall meant to protect the city against the waters of the Ohio River. The slabs of concrete have been turned into giant canvases that tell the story of the town, and you can easily spend a couple of hours enjoying the painting and story-telling skills of the artists. There’s also the Bricolage Art Collective on beautiful Market House Square where you can purchase funky local creations, from t-shirts to stickers to art prints. Market House Square is filled with art galleries, artisan jewelers, ceramic tile art, and more that take the downtown area to a new level of charm. Walk around with a pastry from historic Kirchhoff’s Bakery and Deli in hand and take in the atmosphere. Across the way from Market House Square is the wonderful National Quilt Museum – even if you’re not into textile art, you won’t regret a visit. Even better, make your way to Paducah from April 26 to 29 in 2023 for the annual American Quilter’s Society QuiltWeek. The town blossoms during the event and art lovers of all persuasions will have the time of their life.
While downtown is the heart of Paducah’s artistic quality, don’t just stick to this area. Walk along the main street, Broadway, and take a good look at the local architecture and pop into the many antique shops for affordable treasures. Then make your way north to the peaceful and stunning Lower Town Arts District where you’ll walk by grand mansions on leafy streets and more art galleries. Stop by Café de Fae on Sixth and Madison for a refreshment and a browse through their small shop full of fun local creations. — Morgane Croissant
St. Augustine, Florida
Anyone who’s watched a week of Jeopardy! probably knows this city in northeast Florida is the oldest European city in America. But few outside the Sunshine state are aware of how much it offers beyond the answer to a trivia question.
At 457 years old, St. Augustine is awash in history, from the Castillo de San Marcos to the walled old city filled with buildings dating back centuries. As is the case in 457-year-old cities, nearly everywhere in town is rumored to be haunted, from the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse (where a maligned former pupil still can’t seem to leave) to Stogies cigar bar where poker players who died in a fire haunt the bathrooms. Haunted tours are the best way to discover both the history and the supernatural sides of the city, and are best done on your first night in town.
The Old Jail Museum might be the coolest former correctional facility that’s not a national park or hotel, giving a grim look at how inmates were kept in the days before air conditioning. Not far away, you can also do a ropes and zipline course over alligator pits at Crocodile Crossing. Of course, this being Florida, beaches are always nearby, and just south of town you’ll find one of the state’s most underrated beaches at the Guana River Preserve. The grassy dunes and golden sand feel like a remote coast of Africa, and most days you’ll have it all to yourself. — Matt Meltzer
Rapid City, South Dakota
Set in the underrated grandeur of South Dakota’s Black Hills, Rapid City is best known as an easy starting point for a visit to Mt. Rushmore. And while the city certainly leans into its “City of Presidents” persona (statues of every president sit on street corners downtown) the famous monument is probably the least impressive thing you’ll find here.
Rapid City serves as a jumping off point to the Black Hills. Yes, that includes Mt. Rushmore. But it’s also where you’ll find staggering granite canyons in Spearfish, and one of America’s prettiest roads along the Needles Highway in Custer State Park. Buffalo abound around Rapid City, and you’ll often spot them along the side of the highway when venturing out to the moonscapes of Badlands National Park, or to America’s most famous roadside variety store at Wall Drug.
In town, you’ll find a small mountain city where rugged independence and college town creativity collide. Live venues like Iron Phnx and the Tinder Box offer a surprisingly varied music scene, which can also be enjoyed over local beer and burgers at Firehouse Brewing. Downtown Rapid City is delightfully walkable, where you can step outside your room at the historic Hotel Alex Johnson and ice skate in Main Street Square, or play vintage video games at Press Start.
Eating in Rapid City is also an adventure, where you’ll find everything from first-generation Nepalese cuisine at Kathmandu Bistro to the best waffles in the state at Tally’s Silver Spoon. Rapid City is the kind of place where you stop for a night and think, “I really want to spend more time here.” So if you’re planning a trip to Mt. Rushmore, etch out a few more days to explore. — Matthew Meltzer
Set along the shores of Lake Superior, this longtime iron shipping hub has evolved far past its maritime history, and it has turned itself into an enjoyable place to post up while exploring the wilderness of northern Minnesota. First, it’s the starting point for the most scenic road trips in America, the North Shore Scenic Drive which runs from just north of the city to the Canadian border.
But the city isn’t just a point on one end of a famous road. It’s a port city steeped in history, which you’ll learn perusing the art and culture at the downtown Train Depot before embarking on an idyllic train ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. Once back in town, kick back with beers at the city’s oldest brewery at Fitger’s, set in an 1857 stone structure that looks a little like a castle on the lake. Once you’ve enjoyed the lakeside views from the patio, head about a half mile away to a real-life castle at the Glensheen Mansion and stroll through its private cemetery.
Duluth is also only about 80 miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, meaning you can make an easy day trip up to some of the most jaw-dropping wilderness in the Midwest. Or stick closer to town and explore the 42 miles of biking and hiking trails along the Duluth Traverse. Reward yourself for all your outdoor activity with a beer at Bent Paddle, a regular after-ride spot for the city’s active locals. Then feast on first-rate brisket at OMC Smokehouse or gourmet pizza at Lulu’s. — Matt Meltzer
Reindeer yoga and neon pink night skies? Yes, please.
The aurora borealis – more commonly known as the northern lights – is one of the most fascinating natural phenomena on the planet. The weaving, twisting, dancing colors of green and pink in the sky are caused by solar storms on the sun. Those storms send charged particles flying toward the Earth. When they get close, they’re pulled into the atmosphere near the poles and create a particle gas reaction that lights up the sky. Unfortunately, the main way to see them is to take a long, expensive northern lights Iceland trip at the peak of winter.
Unless you go to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Fairbanks is a short four-hour flight from Seattle, which is selling point enough to use it as an entry point to a more extended Alaska trip. But more importantly, it’s one of the best, and most accessible, places in North America to see the aurora borealis. Make 2023 is the year to realize that, yes, you can do Alaska in a long weekend.
Fairbank’s inland location gives it a leg up for aurora viewing, as clear nights are far more common away from the coast (sorry, Anchorage). And because the town is so small (population 32,000), it’s easy to find silence and darkness. Naturally, Fairbanks leans into this compelling fact, and hotel options range from the clear bubble domes and romantic, glass-walled cubes of the luxe Borealis Basecamp to the log cabins at Taste of Alaska Lodge, which are an affordable choice for aurora viewing and photography.
While most winter visitors are drawn by the lure of the aurora (Fairbanks makes it easy with a photography map and aurora tracker), the daylight activities are some of the most compelling in the world, too. Travelers can visit a dog mushing camp and learn to steer sled dogs through the woods, hike with reindeer through a boreal forest (or opt for reindeer yoga), or take a helicopter across the Alaskan wilderness before landing at a private, mountain view hot spring. Summer, of course, is also as gorgeous as one would expect from the Land of the Midnight Sun, and Fairbanks is the ideal jumping-off point for a hiking trip and longer wildlife-viewing drive into the Arctic Circle.
But the best – and I do mean best – reason to go to Fairbanks is that you can see the northern lights almost year-round. There’s a good chance of seeing the sky come alive on clear nights from mid-August to mid-April after sunset (which, in fairness, happens pretty late in mid-August in Alaska). Still, February is likely the best time to visit as its home to two amazing festivals: the incredibly impressive Alaska ice carving world championships, and the Festival of Native Arts celebrating art, culture, and dance from Indigenous groups in Alaska and beyond. If you’re planning your trip, consider flying into Anchorage and taking the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Train, which offers show-stopping views of snow-covered Denali as it zooms toward Fairbanks. — Suzie Dundas
Hood River, Oregon
Oregon is loaded to the brim with small towns that exude PNW charm, ranging from small towns near springs and waterfalls to coastal villages in rocky coves surrounded by towering trees. But unless you’re planning on a year-long road trip through the state, you’ll need to pick one place to base yourself. And for travelers looking for a cool, quirky small town near the best of the Pacific Northwest, look no further than Hood River.
The small city sits in the shadow of Mount Hood in the Cascades Mountains on a particularly lovely bend of the Columbia River. First developed as a hub for timber and agricultural shipping, the brick storefronts that once housed canning facilities and warehouses now house artisan craft shops, distilleries and breweries, and hip third-wave coffee houses.
The town’s main draw is its proximity to the 90-plus waterfalls of the nearby Columbia River Gorge, though it’s also a world-class windsurfing destination. Other on-water activities include sunset and sailing tours on the river, paddling, and whitewater and stand-up paddleboard tours. And recreation on land ranges from winery-to-winery cycling tours to mountain biking, fly fishing, hiking through old-growth forests, or pedaling railbikes through orchards and past stunning scenery.
Culturally, Hood River has far more going on than you may expect from a tiny, rural town. It’s received national recognition for its public art scene and annual events range from a huge food, harvest, and music festival every October to the April CiderFest and weekly street fairs with live music.
Westcliff Lodge has comfortable but affordable riverside glamping tents during the summer, and the Hood River Hotel is a walkable downtown property that mixes hipster vibes with decor paying homage to its designation on the National Register of Historic Places. It also hosts everything from live jazz nights to murder mystery dinner parties in the lobby.
After hiking, waterfall jumping, or orchard touring, don’t miss a chance to dine at Solstice Hood River, a beloved pizza joint with creative ingredients like cashew pesto and pineapple chutney. Afterward, grab a cocktail at Camp 1805 distillery and tasting room; the current favorite is the “David Bowie,” with serrano vodka and passionfruit. And for breakfast the next morning, brave the line to grab a cinnamon roll from Bette’s, though the seasonal marionberry pastries are also a must-try. — Suzie Dundas
There’s no shortage of small California wine towns. And while there’s nothing wrong with picking a destination for the world-class wine alone, there are certain small towns that provide so much more. Buellton, located just inland off of California’s central coast at the cross section of Highway 101 and State Route 246, is one of those places.
Oenophiles likely recognize the town from scenes in the 2004 movie Sideways. The pinot noir is indeed all that the movie makes it out to be, as is the chardonnay. Both benefit from warm days and cool nights, which also happen to be just as enjoyable for people as they are for grapes.
Nearby Babcock Winery is a long-time staple in the area with an eclectic tasting room at the winery to go along with award-winning wines. Ken Brown Wines is another regional favorite with a tasting room in town, or you can opt for a smaller operation like the natural wine focused Roark Wine Co. McClain Cellars has an arcade and games to go with your wine, while Brick Barn Estate offers vineyard views. The full list of tasting rooms and wineries would take weeks to visit — especially if you include the surrounding towns of Solvang, Los Olivos, and Lompoc. And don’t forget to break it up with award-winning breweries Firestone Walker and Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. While it’s easy to find something you like, note that most wineries require reservations for tastings.
With good wine comes good food. The Hitching Post II should be at the top of your list for food made with local ingredients and tri tip cooked Santa Maria barbecue style. Or get a taste of Buellton’s cattle ranching roots with steak and ranch beans at AJ Spurs. Open since 1947, Ellen’s Danish Pancake House is a popular spot for all-day Swedish pancakes and Danish sausages (though you can’t go wrong with anything you can pour the house-made salsas on).
As easy as it would be to spend every moment eating and drinking, there’s plenty else to add to your to-do list. Hikes in the area take you to waterfalls and hot springs (try Nojoqui Falls Trail and Gaviota Hot Springs). Mendenhall’s Museum of Gas Pumps & Petroliana has a collection unlike any other, and you can get up close and personal with emus and ostriches at Ostrichland USA. A short drive away, the Chumash Casino draws live acts and has a range of table games and slots.
Opt for boutique accommodations when you stay. The newly renovated Hotel Hygge is a motel that lives up to its ultimate-comfort name. Sideways Inn is another renovated motel that gets its name from the movie and is perfect for anyone centering their visit around wine. For something different, Flying Flags has glamping safari tents, vintage airstreams, and cottages with communal entertainment like bocce ball, horseshoes, and Santa Marie-style barbecues on Friday nights. — Nickolaus Hines