For those of you about to travel to a small town this summer, we salute you! Sure, New York City, Los Angeles and Miami are all fabulous, but then again so are the many heartwarming towns that dot the United States; these are the places whose names never grace the cover of popular travel magazines. America’s best small towns march to their own tune, all while preserving local culture and history in a setting that metropolitan America hasn’t known in years. While certainly not a comprehensive list, these four communities are the perfect locales to experience another side of the American Dream.
One of the country’s best-kept secrets lies just south of the Canadian border in Lake Erie. Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island is home to roughly 130 permanent residents, but during the summer the population swells as a slew of festivals help ignite the small town’s famous (and friendly) island vibe. Known affectionately as the Midwest Key West, Put-in-Bay features a long list of lively bars and restaurants—like the Goat Soup and Whiskey Bar, where local favorites include fresh basil mojitos and perch tacos—antique stores, colorful marinas and a main street that would make even Walt Disney weep.
Turquoise water and sugar-white sand are the main attractions of this Barrier Island on the Gulf Coast. This is classic Florida at its best. The high-rise condos and fast food joints that have become so prevalent in other coastal communities are non-existent on Anna-Maria Island, where preserving the island’s heritage is a top priority. The seven mile island boasts three cities—Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria—with each bringing their own flavor to the island and offering something for everyone.
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cayucos is one of the Golden State’s last classic beach towns. Like a harmonious buffer between the cold blue Pacific seas and rolling foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, this central coast city escaped the wrath of California’s multiple housing booms, in part because of Cayucos lack of water, which helped keep development to a minimum. The town’s main drag features the restored Cass House, a B&B and gourmet restaurant, which is the the former home of Cayucos founder Captain James Cass. And nearby, the small family vineyard of Cayucos Cellars and the century-old Cayucos Tavern and Card Room help to keep the spirits high in town.
Despite being Hawaii’s fifth largest island and boasting some of the world’s tallest sea cliffs, Molokaʻi isn’t exactly on too many people’s travel radar, and trust me that’s a very good thing. The island’s central town is Kaunakakai and if you blink while driving through, well, you just may miss it. Kaunakakai, which keeps much of its early 20th-century paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) charm, is where the majority of the island’s shops, restaurants and grocery stores are located. It’s also here in the back alley of the main drag where locals and visitors wait after dark for Kanemitsu’s Bakery famous fresh hot bread and just down the street fisherman watch the world roll by from the island’s main harbor and Hawaii’s longest pier. Though, what makes Molokaʻi special isn’t just one thing; instead, it is a sum of all of its parts—rich Hawaiian traditions, empty white sand beaches and views that are like no other place in America—and Kaunakakai is simply the icing on the cake, or in this case, the diacritical mark in Molokaʻi.