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With magnificent microcultures, natural beauty and captivating histories, these bite-sized American towns make the perfect weekend escape or road-trip pit stop. Venturing from the New England coast to a New Age mountain retreat, we’ve found the best places to escape the big city and get some low-key R&R.
1. Leavenworth, Washington
Framed by the Cascade Mountains, this Bavarian-style town is the benchmark of topographical charm. Visit during the holiday season, when horse-drawn sleighs and twinkling lights line Leavenworth’s streets – the Nutcracker Museum, home to some 7,000 figurines, makes for especially festive entertainment. It’s small wonder that Oktoberfest is one of the key calendar dates here, but Leavenworth Wine Country and the nearby hiking trails that thread across the Pacific Northwest have year-round appeal.
2. Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Nestled in a steep valley, Eureka Springs is the turf of leather-clad bikers, hippies and Arkansas’ most progressive LGBTQ+ policies. The state’s two famed Christian landmarks can also be found here – the 66ft Christ of the Ozarks and Thorncrown Chapel. Gingerbread architecture gives way to a Victorian-era downtown, the entire area of which is on the National Register of Historic Places so chain stores are banned from opening shop. Relax in the natural springs that give the town its name or zipline through the Ozark Mountain Forest.
3. Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
A jewel on the Pacific Coast Highway, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a haven for creatives; Doris Day and Bing Crosby lived here, as did Brad and Jen, and Clint Eastwood is a former mayor. Flaxen sands, shoreside cliffs and wispy cypress trees typical of the Monterey Peninsula are a short walk from whimsical cottages, independent boutiques, cafés and the 18th-century Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo, a National Historic Landmark. The city may be small but its calendar is big on events – the Carmel Bach Festival is a local favourite.
4. St Augustine, Florida
Founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1565, this is among the oldest European settlements in the US. Along cobblestone streets Moorish-revival architecture rubs shoulders with antique shops and lively cafés. Explore the 17th-century fortress of Castillo de San Marcos, soak up rays on the beachside Anastasia State Park, or retrace the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. along the Freedom Trail – the civil rights activist was arrested here in 1964 after trying to dine in the whites-only Monson Motel.
5. Ketchum, Idaho
“Small town, big life” is Ketchum’s motto. At the heart of Idaho’s Sun Valley, it’s a nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts who come for hiking, whitewater rafting, hot springs and world-class ski runs. Yet nature isn’t the only USP. Ernest Hemingway worked and died here – literary boffins should book Suite 206 at the Sun Valley Resort where the author completed For Whom the Bell Tolls. Get your culture-fix at the Sun Valley Centre for the Arts or admire high-altitude flora at Sawtooth Botanical Garden. Light pollution is strictly controlled in Ketchum, so gaze skyward come nightfall for stellar views of the Milky Way.
6. Marfa, Texas
An 1880s waterstop, this unassuming city in the Chihuahuan Desert became a creative magnet when artist Donald Judd moved here in 1971. Today Marfa is a place of gas stations–turned–galleries, crystal-filled corner shops, and laundromats serving lattes. Tour the Chinati Foundation – at sunrise is best – before driving along Highway 90 for Elmgreen and Dragset’s famed Prada Marfa installation. Coincide your visit with the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love for good tunes, great art, camping, sandlot baseball and stargazing.
7. Galena, Illinois
Step into a bygone era on the banks of the Mississippi River. In this Midwestern town, trolley cars cruise down the six-block Main Street, along which 19th-century buildings house small galleries, antique stores and independent shops. Walk off lunch from local hotspot Fried Green Tomatoes along the Galena River Trail before poking around historical sites such as the home of Civil War hero and former US president Ulysses S. Grant.
8. Sitka, Alaska
If you loved The Proposal as much as we did, you’ve probably heard of this remote fishing settlement (filming actually took place in Rockport, Massachusetts). Only accessible by air or sea, Sitka is prime territory for going off-grid with natural pursuits such as wildlife watching, kayaking, hiking up the dormant volcano of Mount Edgecumbe and spotting totem poles in Sitka National Historic Park. Visitors may spy a few onion-shaped domes too; the city – then called New Archangel – served as the capital of Russian America until 1867.
9. Mystic, Connecticut
Gazing over the Atlantic, this charming New England village is a go-to for a rich seafaring past and present. It’s home to the US’s largest maritime museum, centuries-old docks and an aquarium housing some of North America’s only beluga whales – during Mystic’s Holiday Boat Parade, even Santa arrives by tugboat. Some of Connecticut’s best state beaches – Misquamicut, Watch Hill – are within a 30-minute drive too. For a slice of the silver screen, stop by Mystic Pizza, the setting of the eponymous 1988 film starring Julia Roberts.
10. Jackson, Wyoming
This small town located between Yellowstone National Park and the jagged peaks of Grand Teton National Park isn’t just for cowboys. With the best of the great outdoors – hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, paddling, fishing, wildlife spotting – and a cultural offering that spans food and art – you’ll spot a Warhol at the National Museum of Wildlife Art – this town is a crowd-pleaser. Come autumn, take the five-minute drive northeast to visit the National Elk Refuge.
11. Stowe, Vermont
The site of Mount Mansfield – Vermont’s highest peak – this quintessential New England town is known as “The Ski Capital of the East” thanks to its pristine, powder-dusted slopes. Hiking, biking and canoeing are great year-round, but perhaps best enjoyed in autumn when hickory, maple and birch trees paint the mountainside amber. Don’t miss the Austrian-style Trapp Family Lodge, a chalet owned by the same Von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame. Sweet tooth? Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream factory is in nearby Waterbury.
12. Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
Home to the Tiwa Tribe for more than a millennium, this otherworldly Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the oldest continually occupied places in the US. While much of the historic architecture and culture remains, the town is a thriving artistic colony. Tucked in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, its red-rock canyons and sapphire desert skies backdropped by snow-capped mountains have inspired painters, sculptors and writers since the late 19th century. Vistas along the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway are nothing short of ethereal.
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