Halfway there – top ten – small towns

Following on from our blog about our top ten favourite restaurants from the states we’ve visited so far, now it’s the turn of small town America to get a ranking. We always find small towns to be among the absolute highlights of our trips. Sure, big cities are great fun but there’s so much of them. With a small town you can walk around the whole place in an afternoon, and you can get to know some of the locals to boot. Here is a selection of ten (well, eleven actually, we cheated) of the best we’ve seen so far:

10. Lockhart, Texas (population 12, 900) and Lynchburg, Tennessee (population 6,300)

The courthouse building in Lockhart
The courthouse building in Lockhart

This is the bit where we cheated a bit. We didn’t actually sleep in either of these towns so we can’t comment on what the accommodation is like, but we had such a fun time in both that we couldn’t leave them off the list. Lynchburg is of course famous as the home of Jack Daniel’s, and the distillery dominates the town. The biggest store is the Jack Daniel’s gift shop, and the smells wafting over from HQ just a few hundred feet from the town itself are ever-present. Lockhart meanwhile is a small Texan town between San Antonio and Austin. It could justifiably claim to be the home of BBQ in Texas with three of the very best eateries: Black’s, Smitty’s and Kreuz Market. We stopped for lunch at Black’s and it was an unforgettably delicious experience.

9. Brewster, Massachusetts (population 10,000)

Sunset over Cape Cod
Sunset over Cape Cod

On the approach to Cape Cod there are a series of small towns like Sandwich and Brewster that typify the Cape experience. We chose to make our stop in the latter, and we’d urge you to as well. We stayed at the Old Manse Inn, just a stone’s throw from the famous Brewster General Store, and about a 15 minute walk from the beach where we saw a beautiful sunset. As you would expect on Cape Cod you’re never more than a few minutes’ drive from great seafood and we had a delicious lobster at The Lobster Claw. There’s no shortage of beautiful towns on Cape Cod and all of them have their merits, but Brewster was a great stop for us.

8. Woodstock, New York (population 5,800)

Just one of many hippy shops in Woodstock!
Just one of many hippy shops in Woodstock!

Most famous as the home of the 1970s Woodstock Festivals (although the actual festivals were held 60 miles away) Woodstock is now a sleepy New York state town near the Catskill Mountains. We stopped there out of convenience more than anything else, but we found it to be a lovely and welcoming stop with a few quiet pubs and restaurants dotted along a short Main St. There’s also the panoply of shops selling tie-dye and Hendrix posters, but we think they can be forgiven for that! We stayed at a converted motel just outside of town, the Inn on the Millstream which is set in some really lovely grounds and does a spectacular home made granola.

7. Bryson City, North Carolina (population 1,400)

Soda Pops soda fountain in Bryson City
Soda Pops soda fountain in Bryson City

It calls itself a city, but this is a town. And a small one at that! Nestled in the awesomely beautiful Smoky Mountains National Park Bryson City is about half way between Asheville and Knoxville. It’s a great place to stop if you’re winding your way down the Blue Ridge Parkway (which you really should be doing), there’s only really a couple of streets but on one of them you’ll find a brilliant little soda shop. The road crosses over a river and the railroad runs right through the town. We stayed at the confusingly named Charleston Inn just outside of town which was really comfortable and did a great breakfast. All in all this small town made for a relaxing and friendly stop.

6. Eureka Springs, Arkansas (population 2,000)

Christ of the Ozarks - but don't let that put you off Eureka Springs!
Christ of the Ozarks – but don’t let that put you off Eureka Springs!

We were excited to go to Arkansas but aside from the Bill Clinton Library and Little Rock Central High School, we decided that rural Arkansas was a better bet for staying the night than the state capital. We landed on Eureka Springs and we were not disappointed. From the outside its a curious mix of the hippy alternative (it is famous for arts and crafts) and the excessive godliness (there’s a giant statue of Jesus looking like a milk carton not far from the town where you can watch the “Great Passion Play”) so we weren’t sure what to expect but when we arrived we found more of the former and less of the latter, and its much better for it! We stayed in some beautiful cottages on the edge of town and after a short walk into town for a drink at Henri’s cocktail bar we made our way back up the hill to Bubba’s BBQ where we ate what we considered to be the best brisket sandwich ever (we hadn’t been to Texas yet…). It’s a little chintzy and there’s a lot of tourist tat, but the surroundings are beautiful and the people are as welcoming as they come.

5. Mendocino, California (population 900)

Another sunset, the Pacific coast this time
Another sunset, the Pacific coast this time

You’re going to California, you can hardly not pay a pilgrimage to wine country but you find the Napa Valley is prohibitively expensive…what are the alternatives? Well we found Mendocino on the northern California coast to be the perfect option. There are wineries nearby, Pacific Star is just 15 minutes up the road, and Mendocino’s location right on the Pacific coast is stunningly beautiful. There aren’t many state parks on the California coast but the Mendocino Headlands is one of the loveliest. After dinner at the Mendocino Cafe we walked down to the headland to watch the sun go down. Mendocino itself is made up of just a few streets but there are plenty of restaurants, bars and ice cream joints to keep you entertained.

4. Berlin, Ohio (population 900)

Boyd and Wurthmann's in Berlin, Ohio
Boyd and Wurthmann’s in Berlin, Ohio

We now count ourselves as having been to two of the great Berlins of this world. The German capital is a magnificent city but its northern Ohio namesake is (albeit in very different ways!) also a fantastic place to be. We’d dabbled in Amish Country when we visited Pennsylvania but this was the first time we were staying the night. We picked the stunning Amish Country Lodging treehouses for the night and couldn’t have hoped for a better time. The countryside in the area is beautiful so sleeping among the pine trees seemed apt. Its just a short drive from the treehouses into the town itself and while there’s not a huge selection of places to eat you need look no further than Boyd and Wurthmann’s for good old home country style cooking.

3. Cottonwood, Idaho (population 900)

The countryside around Cottonwood is awesome
The countryside around Cottonwood is awesome

You might struggle to even call Cottonwood a town, but there was no way we could do a top ten of little places in America without including this gem. We were drawn here by the Dog Bark Park hotel, that is, a hotel inside a giant beagle (obviously) and that is reason enough on its own to come to this part of Idaho. But there’s more to it than that. There are the beautiful rolling corn fields punctuated by the occasional bright red barn to remind you that this is one of America’s most important agricultural areas. There’s the tiny little mall in the centre of town where you can’t buy much, but there are plenty of smiles on offer. Just outside town there’s the Monastery of St Gertrude and best of all in neighbouring Keuterville (even smaller!) there’s the wonderfully welcoming Keuterville Pub n’ Grub. This isn’t far from Small Town America at it’s very best.

2. Clarksdale, Mississippi (population 17,000)

At the Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale
At the Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale

A lot of the Deep South weighs heavy with the history of blues music, but in Clarksdale it really is inescapable. Legend has it that at the crossroads going towards the centre of town the famous bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a successful music career. Not far from there is the Delta Blues Museum where you can see, among other things, Muddy Waters’ shack and just across the street from there is the famous Ground Zero Blues Club. Music really is everywhere in this part of rural Mississippi. There’s also, as it happens, a great hotel; the Shack Up Inn is a little rough and ready but is undoubtedly one of the best places we’ve stayed (watch out for another top ten on that!). Clarksdale really gets inside your head and your heart, we can’t wait to go back.

1. Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts (population 1,700)

Shelburne Falls' Bridge of Flowers
Shelburne Falls’ Bridge of Flowers

It’s a bit predictable, picking a New England town as number one isn’t it? But what the hell, we’ve done it anyway. Maybe it doesn’t have the soul of a Clarksdale, or the quirks of a Cottonwood, but Shelburne Falls was an unforgettably brilliant stop on the first leg of our quest for the 50 states. Tucked away in the Berkshire Hills not far from the border with New Hampshire this tiny town has so much going for it. From the famous glacial potholes and Bridge of Flowers to some great little restaurants and a fun soda fountain. There’s also the community-run Pothole Pictures where we watched Ghostbusters, and apart from all of that its a gorgeous town nestled in some equally gorgeous countryside. Predictable it may be, but some small town somewhere will have to go a long way to beat Shelburne Falls!


2 thoughts on “Halfway there – top ten – small towns

  1. I spent a night in Mendocino last year and loved the history of the town. I went for a run in the headlands in the morning and it was really gorgeous. We stopped at Pacific Star winery too! It’s definitely hard to beat the charm of small towns.

  2. We were very glad we got priced out of Napa in the end, Mendocino was so nice. Anywhere that gives you a daily sunset over the Pacific can’t be bad! We like to fit in at least a couple of small town stops on each of our road trips, you can get to know a place really quickly.

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