America’s Coolest Small Towns
If your geographic preferences fall somewhere between major metropolis and Iowan farm town, consider escaping to the mid-sized cities of urban America. From a Lake Michigan beach town with killer farm-to-table fare, to an artistic enclave in Northern California, to a burgeoning beer capital in the heart of Dixie, contributor Emily Saladino charts a course to the coolest places to visit this summer.
Nicknamed the “Napa Valley of beer,” North Carolina’s most alternative city is home to 18 craft breweries and outposts of national labels like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. But there’s more to Asheville than meets the pint glass. Start your day with biscuits and local sausage gravy at Biscuit Head, a popular brunch spot in once-gritty West Asheville. Walk it off with a quick day hike along the Appalachian Trail, and then catch a show at legendary music venue the Orange Peel. Round out your night with bocados at Curate, a tapas bar opened by elBulli-trained chef and Asheville native Katie Button, or head back to the west side for a pour from one of 40 bourbons on offer at honkytonk dive The Double Crown.
Creativity abounds in this small seaport in Northern California’s Redwoods region. Rumored to have the most professional artists per capita statewide, Eureka Books hosts a monthly event, Arts Alive, in which 80 galleries, theaters and museums open their doors for an after-hours arts crawl. Check out Victorian architecture and views of Humboldt Bay in Old Town; then browse vintage maps and 50,000 rare and out-of-print titles at Eureka Books. Concoct a potion from Humboldt Herbals’ 500 organic herbs and spices, or sip microbrews at Lost Coast, an award-winning brewery run by two local women in a former Knights of Pythias building.
What Manhattanites call “upstate” is a mere 115 miles from New York City, making the scene in Hudson a little bit country, a little bit Roche Bobois. Sample rye bread and farm cookies at neighboring Hawthorne Valley and Old Field Farms, then return to Hudson’s bustling Warren Street to work in a little town time. Peruse mint-condition Arne Jacobsen and Louis Paulson antiques at Neven & Neven Moderne furniture store, and taste acclaimed farm-to-table dishes courtesy of Zak Pelaccio’s Fish & Game or David Chicane’s new Food Studio Hudson restaurant.
R.E.M., the B-52’s and of Montreal’s home base maintains a fiercely independent spirit. Orange Twin, a local record label best known for alternative acts like Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power, operates an artistic co-op and annual concert series in a former Girl Scouts’ summer camp just north of downtown. Creative types convene at Creature Comforts, a brewery and tasting room that opened in a former Snow Tire auto shop last year, or at The Old Pal, a neighborhood watering hole favored by James Beard Award-winning Athens chef Hugh Acheson. Still thirsty? Check out Terrapin’s 40,000-square-foot downtown brewery, which has a performance space for local bands.
Goat’s milk Brie for everyone! The confluence of affordable real estate, creative energy and rich natural resources give southern Maine’s unofficial capital a swinging food scene. Slurp bivalves with Tabasco- or kimchi-infused ice at Eventide oyster bar, sip microbrews with endearingly earnest beer geeks at Novare Res Bier Café, indulge in Japanese-accented brunch at Miyake, and get down at Hunt & Alpine Club, a vaguely Nordic bar and gastropub opened by a Clyde Common alum.
There is more to Telluride than private jets and pristine powder. The former mining town has a thriving arts and music scene, courtesy of a renowned film festival, jazz celebration and, if you’re feeling funky, an annual Blues & Brews fete frequented by George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic. This summer, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (June 18-21, 2015) celebrates 42nd years of bringing performers like Sam Bush, Peter Rowan and Janelle Monae to a picturesque soundstage beneath the San Juan Mountains.
Santa Fe, NM
A major revitalization in Santa Fe’s Railyard District brings fresh creative energy to the self-proclaimed City Different. The area just south of the Plaza now has contemporary arts galleries like LewAllen Galleries and Site Santa Fe, plus a weekly farmers’ market, outdoor performance space and a ten-acre Railyard Park, designed by Ken Smith and Frederic Schwartz. Don’t miss the 135,000-piece Museum of International Folk Art, or the buzzy scene at Joseph’s, a gastropub in a small adobe downtown – but mind the elevation. Booze hits hard at 7,000 feet.
Key West, FL
The southernmost city in the continental United States shows off its sophisticated side at new restaurants like 430 Duval, chef Andrew Nguyen’s newly opened Floridian-Cuban-Asian hybrid. The buzzy spot inaugurated a $10 million renovation of the historic Crowne Plaza Key West La Concha. Explore the city’s best beach on bicycle with a morning ride along Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, and then caffeinate with a perfect café con leche at Five Brothers, a Southard and Grinnell Street institution for more than 70 years.
Traverse City, MI
This little town on the northern shore of Lake Michigan inspired Mario Batali to wax patriotic on national television and Michael Moore to launch a film festival in 2004. Come see what the fuss is about at Traverse City’s award-winning craft brewery, Jolly Pumpkin, as well as several shockingly good local wineries. (Try Two Lads’ Cabernet Franc, or the signature meritage blend from Bowers Harbor.) The Cooks’ House and Mission Table restaurants serve stellar seasonal fare, and Grand Traverse Pie Company bakes the region’s signature stone fruit into nationally revered cherry pies.
Quality of life and craft beer are high in this once-dusty city 175 miles southeast of Portland. Snuggled up to the eastern peaks of the Cascada Range and the Deschutes River, Bend has active pursuits like hiking, rock-climbing and white-water rafting, plus the sort of mountain snowmelt that makes brewers’ hearts skip a beat. Sustain yourself with snacks from Sparrow Bakery, which serves breakfast sandwiches on house-made croissants all day, or feast on Hawaiian poke and Kalua pork at the evocatively named Big Island Kona Mix Plate, a casual canteen in Old Mill District.