Bigger isn’t always better. If you’re craving a slower pace, wide-open spaces, dusty bookstores, comfort gastronomy, and historic downtowns so charming you’ll swear you stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting, we have the answer.
Scenic—and surprisingly cool, these 10 small town hidden gems offer something special to the traveler willing to wander off the beaten path.
This teeny-tiny former 19th-century logging hub roughly 150 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 1 is perfect for those looking to immerse themselves in scenic beauty, nature, and small-town charm. Less than 1,000 people call Elk home, which is sandwiched between redwood-dotted hills and craggy headlands that look out on rock arches and sea stacks climbing ever skyward from the swath of boundless blue.
Take a half-mile hike from town that ends at Greenwood State Beach, where you can boat, fish, kayak, or stroll the driftwood- and shell-strewn sand. Picnic tables sit atop the bluffs for those who want the views without the trek. Grab sandwiches from the Elk Store. Hit Matson Mercantile for souvenirs of the home, garden, and kitchen variety. A quick drive will land you in other charming seaside villages, such as Mendocino, which is filled with local boutiques, cafes, and a scoop shop specializing in candy cap mushroom ice cream; or Boonville, where you can enjoy tastings of exquisite cheese (Pennyroyal Farm), wine, and beer (Anderson Valley Brewing Company).
Where To Stay
The Harbor House Inn is a collection of plush main house rooms and standalone cottages with private patios. Stays include a gourmet breakfast and access to a private cove. It is also home to Michelin-starred chef Matthew Kammerer whose 12-course tasting menu is loaded with seafood and vegetables caught and grown within miles of the inn and cooked with live fire, steam, and smoke.
Accord, New York
Upstate New York has long been a favorite weekend escape for a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of NYC. Tucked between Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskills, Ulster County’s Accord (pronounced ACK-ord) remains a little more under the radar than Hudson or Woodstock yet boasts many of the same draws — bucolic splendor in spades, rural disconnection, autumnal color, farm-fresh food and drinks, potters, townie bars, and great places to hike.
Hike or bike Stony Kill Falls in Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Head to Arrowood Farms Brewery when there’s live music on the docket. Grab cider and wood-fired pizza at Westwind Orchard. Take a photo for the Gram with “Gnome Chomsky,” once the world’s largest garden gnome, before a U-pick session at Kelder’s Farm.
Insider Tip: Visit just before Christmas, and you can return home with a freshly cut tree to decorate from Bell’s.
Where To Stay
Stonehill’s four-bedroom farmhouse and two cottages are awash in rustic-romantic minimalism. They feature organic linens, natural toiletries, house-roasted coffee, writing desks, and snack boxes stocked with epicurean provisions. Nibble on warm cookies by the nightly bonfire and pay your respects to the resident farm animals, some of whom produce the eggs you’ll enjoy during the included breakfast.
As the gateway to Glacier National Park, Whitefish allows you to motor along the breathtaking Going-to-the-Sun Road, cruise Lake McDonald aboard a historic wooden boat, and ramble along 700 miles of trails past idyllic meadows and ancient ice. This scenic destination juxtaposes urban amenities like shopping, galleries, and fine dining with alpine adventure throughout the four seasons. With a creek winding its way through town, a Rocky Mountain backdrop, smog-free skies overhead, and potentially more trees than buildings, this high-elevation Eden is easy on the eyes and good for the stressed soul.
Spring and summer have craft fairs and microbrew festivals along with whitewater rafting, zip-lining, and on-lake active pursuits like standup paddle boarding and cooling plunges at City Beach. Fall is the perfect time to hike or take a floatplane tour to get the lay of the land while leaf-peeping. Winter ushers in many snowy sports, including dog sledding, snowmobiling, and ice fishing. Ski lifts are only 15 minutes away.
Where To Stay
After a long day on the slopes or trails, revive sore legs with a hot tub soak on the roof of The Firebrand, an upscale contemporary boutique hotel. The patio is also an excellent place to sip wine at sunset, challenge friends with a game borrowed from the hotel’s collection, or wake up to a yoga class. They’ll also hook you up with bikes or snowshoes to further explore the neighborhood.
Hawaii may be one of the most popular paradises on the planet, but its sunny shores still hold a few less-developed, less-frequented gems. One such spot is the Valley Isle’s Paia. The north shore town experienced a sugar rush in the late 1800s and early 1900s when a successful plantation was operating there. After cane production ceased, it morphed into a hippie haven thanks to reasonable rents and proximity to the beach (Hookipa, Baldwin Beach). This is what protected Paia from becoming as touristy as Wailea or Kaanapali.
Its unspoiled beaches and steady breezes brought windsurfers in droves, so try your luck windsurfing, go snorkeling, or just laze on the sand. If you’re planning to hit the stores and eateries, traffic piles up in the afternoon, so it’s best to head out early and on foot. Be sure to make reservations for the famous Polynesian-inspired Mama’s Fish House early (they book out well in advance).
Where To Stay
The Paia Inn is in the middle of the action, but lush outdoor lounges and private beach access help guests tune out. If you want to totally disconnect and unplug, Lumeria Maui is a wellness retreat a few miles outside city limits on a 5.6-acre Upcountry compound. When not taking classes in meditation, metaphysics, ecology, or Hawaiian heritage, relax in the hammock forest or at the masseuse’s table at the spa.
Thirty minutes south of Nashville, life slows down in Franklin, which is home to hidden lakes and hollows, best viewed from the basket of a hot air balloon. Back on the ground, Music City’s suburb welcomes tourists with antebellum architecture, a postcard-worthy historic downtown, antique shops, Civil War history, a butterfly garden at Timberland Park, and a chance to see one of the many famous folks who’ve settled there including Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Nicole Kidman, and Miley Cyrus.
Visit five stops on the newly debuted Craft Coffee Trail to earn a prize. If you need a stiffer drink, hit the Masters & Makers Trail of breweries, wineries, and distilleries instead. Soak up the vino with homestyle Tennessee comfort food — think fried chicken, catfish, or the cobbler of the day at Puckett’s.
Where To Stay
We love The Harpeth, a 119-room luxury boutique hotel on the banks of the namesake river, a short walk from the town square. Or consider renting a refurbished home or cabin such as the Sugar Shack to live out your best Taylor Swift cottage-core fantasies among the shiplap, porch swings, galvanized light fixtures, and wicker chairs.
St. Michaels, Maryland
Easton, Chestertown, Tilghman Island, Oxford, Cambridge, Stevensville — no matter which Maryland Eastern Shore hamlet you choose to hunker down in, it will be an experience to remember. If you heart sailing, antiquing, waterfowl hunting, ogling Victorian or colonial homes, brushing up on American history, or feasting on Old Bay-seasoned crab cakes, you’ll fit right in here. But St. Michaels is particularly photogenic and charming, especially in the fall when the weather starts to turn slightly crisp, and residents and businesses go all out with Halloween and harvest decorations and displays.
Many of its best restaurants, such as Ava’s, and shops are clustered along the main drag within walking distance of the distillery that makes Lyon Rum in an old mill. Walk a few extra blocks to lay your eyes on the Chesapeake Bay or break bread at a seafood-slinging harborside establishment. Get on the water aboard a 1920 buy boat through the maritime museum’s river cruises. While there, learn more about oystering, peruse the floating fleet, and apprentice for a day at the museum’s working shipyard.
Where To Stay
A converted schoolhouse, The Wildset Hotel brings the kind of mod boho vibe that’s big in hipster hotspots like Ojai or Joshua Tree. The 34-room boutique property offers free-standing gas fireplaces and balconies in most rooms, as well as Parachute bedding, complimentary s’mores kits, and bikes to borrow. A pool and hot tub also join the amenity portfolio.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Colbert County is a mandatory pilgrimage for all music mavens. Not only can you visit the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame and the log cabin where W.C. Handy was born, but you can also tour several of the iconic studios, including FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound (MSS), that turned this remote region of the southern state into the “Hit Recording Capital Of The World” in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Be sure to check out MSS’s toilet where Keith Richards sat to finish writing “Wild Horses” or its hidden speakeasy where folks like Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, and Cher could secretly drink in a dry county. Stand at the FAME mic where Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Alicia Keys have belted out ballads. If you don’t want to rock, explore Helen Keller’s childhood home or a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed masterpiece instead.
Where To Stay
Cross the Tennessee River into the bigger burg of Florence, where you’ll find the GunRunner Boutique Hotel. Exposed brick, dark colors, clawfoot tubs, and moody lighting add an edgy gothic mood to its 10 suites, several of which are music-themed and filled with memorabilia. All rooms encircle the lively lobby bar, where you’ll inevitably end up for a nightcap and a chat with fellow guests.
Though it might seem counterintuitive to head to the desert to eat, you should show up hungry and thirsty in this suburb of Phoenix. It is home to the Fresh Foodie Trail, a culinary road trip, which travels past family farms that have been growing citrus, peaches, and olives for decades; fine restaurants like Jalapeño Bucks and Joe’s Farm Grill that are dedicated to making good use of their raw materials; and the Windmill Winery. Many offer U-pick opportunities and fall fun like corn mazes.
Plan your trip around one of Cloth & Flame’s alfresco meals highlighting regional ingredients and superstar chefs in spectacular natural surroundings like the Superstition Mountains or the cactus-speckled Sonoran Desert. Work off that meal in the same wild settings atop a horse, in a kayak, on a bike, or with your two feet (Lost Dutchman State Park, Usery Mountain Regional Park, Salt River). Boat cruises and off-road rides are sweat-free sightseeing alternatives.
Where To Stay
Schnepf Farms offers glamping in a handful of restored Airstreams and other vintage trailers. Guests can add a variety of amenities and experiences, including a hot cocoa bar, a delivered hot breakfast, and a session feeding the farm animals.
About an hour from Milwaukee, this suburb of Sheboygan was one of the nation’s first planned communities. Built as a factory town for the Kohler Company (yes, the sink and bathtub people.) with the help of Central Park landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the 4.5 square-mile village has plenty of green spaces, three churches, shops, walking trails, and the giant Kohler Design Center.
Wander the Kohler store for design inspo or take a weekday tour of the factory campus. The family also has its name on a state park (Kohler-Andrae) that features sand dunes near Lake Michigan.
Where To Stay
The five-star, five-diamond, Tudor-style American Club Resort Hotel has been the crown jewel of Midwestern hospitality for more than a century. Not bad for a building that started life as a dormitory for single male Kohler employees. Surrounded by immaculately groomed lawns, its brick exterior evokes storybook feels. You’ll never want for ways to fill your itinerary as the Club offers golf (plus an academy to fine-tune your swing skills), kayaking on the river, snow biking, a 500-acre private wilderness preserve, seven different dining options, infrared heated yoga, and one of only 85 five-star spas worldwide.
Round Top, Texas
You’ll want to mess with this Texas town if you’re a fan of relic hunting or pie eating. Located between Austin and Houston, Round Top is almost as beloved by hipsters and artists as Marfa. The mammoth antique fair started in 1967 with just 22 dealers. Now, it’s the largest in the nation, showcasing hundreds of dealers and miles of heirlooms and crafts twice a year.
Even when the antique fair isn’t taking over the town, there’s plenty of shopping around Bybee Square, Rummel Square, and Henkel Square Market, contained within buildings from the 1800s. All that bargain hunting is sure to whip up your appetite, and for that, there’s Royers Pie Haven, where you can indulge in a slice or three of the sweet n’ salty and hot coffee in the shade of an old oak. In nearby Warrenton, you can see the world’s smallest Catholic church. Also, a short skip down the road is Winedale, where the University of Texas stages Shakespeare plays in the spring and summer.
Where To Stay
Plant your precious cargo overnight at the Flophouze Shipping Container Hotel. Using recycled and reclaimed wood and materials, sourced from distilleries, schools, and even a bowling alley (the floors were repurposed into countertops!), the owners have created six memorable studios that gaze out on pastoral prettiness and vibrant sunsets. Each has a hammock and fire pit. The pool is also made from a container. If you love what you see, you’re in luck, as all of the décor is for sale.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Carrie Bell is an LA-based writer whose work has appeared in People, Fodor’s, Architectural Digest, Bridal Guide, TripSavvy, and Rolling Stone. The California native has visited 42 countries and 40 states. When she isn’t traveling, the snowglobe collector can usually be found riding a bike, binging Succession, playing board games, and consuming massive amounts of dairy products. Seriously, it’s a problem. Check out her website and Instagram for more of her adventures in wanderlust.