There’s something about small towns that ignite our imaginations. Maybe it’s the charming main streets lined with century-old structures, now filled with artisan shops and cozy family-owned breakfast eateries, or the meandering rivers that run through downtown centers and majestic mountains that rise in the not-too-far distance, offering access to a world of activity. Or perhaps it’s one-of-a-kind museums, attractions and festivities that are brimming with hometown pride. This year, we’re not only highlighting towns that embrace all these qualities, but those that are also celebrating a milestone anniversary, marking a major historic event, or unveiling a new museum or festival (there’s even one town on the list that’s been completely transformed by a television show) that make visiting in 2018 particularly special.
As in the past, we’ve once again turned to geographical information company Esri to help sort through the country’s many small towns (those with a population under 20,000). From there, we compiled a list of 20 that combine historic elements with distinct cultural offerings, natural beauty and everything from the country’s oldest whitewater rafting festival to legendary pirate lore.
Our 2018 list includes the Pennsylvania town that gave us Mr. Fred Rogers, a seaside hamlet that sits at the doorstep of Northern California’s coastal redwoods—the tallest living trees on Earth—and an Idaho resort town that’s been recognized for its clear night skies. Get ready to explore!
20. Corning, New York (Population: 10,925)
When what’s now Corning Incorporated first relocated to this former lumber town in New York’s southern Finger Lakes region 150 years ago, no one quite knew the impact one of the world’s biggest glassmakers would have on its surroundings. Now the hands-on Corning Museum of Glass is celebrating the “Crystal City’s” legacy with a summer’s worth of activities. Their mobile GlassBarge, which sets out from Brooklyn—where the company originated—at the end of the month, will retrace the outfit’s move, a century and a half ago, up the Hudson River, west along the Erie Canal and to Corning on September 22. It’s the city’s part in New York’s larger Erie Canal Bicentennial anniversary.
Downtown’s Gaffer District—“gaffer” is another name for glassblower—is Corning’s main hub, a five-block walkable stretch of historic stone and brick buildings filled with antique stores, boutique and name brand shops, and dozens of diverse bars and restaurants like the step-back-in-time Hand + Foot, where craft cocktails, creative sandwiches and board games are par-for-the-course.
The city’s award-winning Centerway Walking Bridge doubles as a “suspended park” between the Gaffer District and the glass museum across downtown’s Chemung River, and is just one of Corning’s impressive cultural offerings. There’s The Rockwell Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate housed within Corning’s original City Hall building, which showcases the American experience through art—including a gallery devoted to Andy Warhol. Those interested in living history (and live blacksmith demos) should beeline for the Heritage Village of the Southern Finger Lakes, with nearly a dozen buildings including an 1850s log cabin and the historic 1796 Benjamin Patterson Inn that capture what area life was like during the 19th century.
Just outside of Corning, hikers have plenty to keep them satisfied with portions of both the 950-mile Finger Lakes Trail system and the overlapping Great Eastern long-distance trail nearby. The town sits on the cusp of three rivers, making it especially popular for kayaking and canoeing. The wineries for which New York’s Finger Lakes region is known make for a sweet aprés-adventure scene. Just a half-hour drive away in Hammondsport are cellars like Dr. Konstantin Frank, with its Reisling pours and spectacular views of Keuka Lake.
19. Hanapepe, Hawaii (Population: 2,638)
It’s been 25 years since Steven Spielberg’s epic blockbuster Jurassic Park first brought dinosaurs back to life on the big screen, but visitors to Kauai’s Hanapepe—a town on the Hawaiian island’s south shore—still can’t get enough of one of the film’s most recognizable features: the opening scene’s towering Manawaiopuna Falls. Each action-packed sequel, like this June’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, ignites renewed interest, though the only way to see these normally inaccessible 400-foot falls (they’re located on private land) is by air. Not only does Island Helicopters offer prime views of the iconic attraction; it’s also the only operator permitted to land at its base.
Of course, “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town,” as the locals call it, is an attraction in itself, one with a history that includes immigrant entrepreneurism and its early 20th-century years as a G.I. hub. Today the bulk of Hanapepe’s original colorful and rustic nearly century-old wooden structures still stand, lending the bohemian village an authentic Old West vibe. Hanapepe (the name means “crushed bay” in Hawaiian) even served as inspiration for the Disney film, Lilo and Stitch.
Restaurants run the gamut from traditional Hawaiian fare like huli huli chicken (grilled chicken marinated in a sweet pineapple, ginger and garlic sauce) to locally sourced Japanese-style cuisine, and there are plenty of shopping opportunities. Hanapepe is home to the western-most bookstore in the United States, a Hawaiian spice company, and Banana Patch Studio, a treasure trove of hand-painted pottery, art cards and ceramic tiles all created by more than 20 artists in a former bakery and pool hall. In fact, Hanapepe is known as Kauai’s art capital, something that it highlights each week during Friday Night Art Walk, when more than a dozen art galleries open their doors and offer visitors the chance to talk with local artists.
For a fun thrill, take a walk across Hanapepe’s precarious Swinging Bridge, then chow down on some of the best taro chips around from the town’s Taro Ko Chips Factory to ease your adrenaline rush.
While area beaches are plentiful, Salt Pond Beach Park (named for traditional Hawaiian salt collecting ponds—manmade salt flats created for sea salt harvesting) is a must for its shallow snorkeling pools and reef protected waters. Just outside of town near Ele’ele’s Port Allen Harbor is Glass Beach, covered in millions of bits of colorful sea glass in shades of blue, amber and aqua.
18. Dublin, Georgia (Population: 16,100)
It’s been 50 years since shots rang out in Memphis, but the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., continues to reverberate worldwide. This is especially true in Dublin, a central Georgia city midway between Savannah and Atlanta where the future Civil Rights leader gave his first public speech at 15 years of age. King delivered “The Negro and the Constitution,” his submission to an oratorical contest sponsored by the Colored Elks Clubs of Georgia, at Dublin’s First African Baptist Church, which is now part of its larger MLK Monument Park, with a colorful, interactive mural by Georgia artist Corey Barksdale and audio stops, including a young man reading King’s submission, opened last year. The church is also part of the newly launched, self-guided Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Trail, chronicling Georgia’s role in the Civil Rights Movement in 28 distinct stops statewide.
Historic and architectural landmarks permeate Dublin’s downtown, and many of them are part of the city’s downloadable audio walking tour, including Railway Park—which commemorates the role of railways in Dublin’s development—and the city’s own Carnegie Library. It’s also home to some top-notch eateries, including Deano’s Italian Grill, with its signature pan-seared shrimp and garlic cheese grits, and the only imported Italian wood oven in Georgia. Southern-style rotisserie bistro Company Supply occupies a completely restored 120-year-old dry good store (and sports a full bar stocked with local micro brews), while Holy Smokes, dishes out award-winning barbecue from a stationary food truck. Pair a meal with a show at the renovated Theatre Dublin, a former Art Deco-style movie house that now hosts music and theatre performances as well.
Soak in a bit of natural reprieve at the River Bend Wildlife Management Area, home to primitive campsites, pristine fishing waters, wildlife such as alligators and the elusive Swainson’s warbler, and approximately 1,700 hiking and biking trails that wind through remote cypress swampland. Or bed down at the Dublin Farm Bed and Breakfast, a four-guest room country retreat on 35 acres, complete with donkeys, horses and its own restaurant, serving up ever-changing Northern Italian fare.
A local citizen named Dublin after his own hometown in Ireland in 1812, so it makes perfect sense that the city’s banner event is its annual St. Patrick’s Festival, a six-week-long celebratory extravaganza featuring more than 40 events, including its backyard-style Pig in the Park BBQ Championship, an arts and crafts fair, and a family-themed St. Patrick’s Day parade.