From coastal destinations with stunning natural scenery to hidden gems with historic architecture, these are some of the most beautiful small towns in America.
By Carrie Dennis Published on January 29, 2023
What makes a town beautiful? The answer is, naturally, subjective. Perhaps you have a penchant for windswept coasts. Or, maybe you love historic architecture. Do you favor human-made elements or natural scenery? To offer a glimpse at a variety of gorgeous places around the U.S., we considered destinations from coast to coast. Here are 20 of the most beautiful small towns in America, all with a population under 20,000.
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For epic views of Turnagain Arm — a narrow waterway in the northwestern part of the Gulf of Alaska — glaciers (seven, to be specific), and snow-capped peaks, look no further than Girdwood, a resort town south of Anchorage. Visit Alyeska Resort to ski in the winter and hike during summer. No matter when you visit, you can take the aerial tram to the Bore Tide Deli and Bar and award-winning Seven Glaciers restaurant for majestic vistas.
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Here’s the thing about Sedona: It's objectively stunning. And that's especially true of its red rocks. The buildings that sit in the middle of these formations tend to blend into their surroundings and let the red sandstone buttes and spires do the work. Also located in Verde Valley, nearby Clarkdale is surrounded by green with red rocks hemming the horizon, giving Sedona a run for its money, with the added bonus of a delightful downtown.
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Picture this: colorful homes rising into the hills above a stunning blue bay banded with bright white boats. That’s Avalon, the only incorporated city on Santa Catalina Island, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it's a destination in the middle of the Mediterranean. Home to Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens, Lovers Cove (a marine sanctuary), and the iconic Catalina Casino and Avalon Theatre, this resort community will make you feel like you’re a continent away while still remaining firmly in Los Angeles County.
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The town of Palisade in Colorado's Grand Valley is an agricultural haven (think blossoming orchards, lavender fields, and acres of vineyards). "One of the greatest ways to get a sense of the beautiful orchards and wineries is through the Fruit & Wine Byway,” Timothy Wolfe, director of the Colorado Tourism Office told Travel + Leisure. “There are three routes that make up the byway, each going through some of the Centennial State’s best wineries.”
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Little St. Simons Island, Georgia
The beauty of this island is that it’s largely undeveloped — it's only accessible by boat and just 32 guests are allowed to stay overnight at a time. “It’s easy to agree with T+L readers who chose Little St. Simons Island [as one of] the best islands and resorts in the continental U.S.,” said Mark Jaronski, deputy commissioner for Explore Georgia. The barrier island is a naturalist’s nirvana — fishing, hiking, kayaking, birding, and other eco adventures can all be found here amid the salt marshes and garlands of Spanish moss.
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Lanai City, Hawaii
Lanai, the smallest inhabited island in the Hawaiian archipelago that travelers are allowed to visit, is often called “Pineapple Island” because of its past as a pineapple plantation. Today, the destination has traded pineapple production for luxury resorts and golf courses. Most of the island’s restaurants and shops are in Lanai City, near Dole Park.
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Wallace packs a big historical punch for a town of its size — it's on the National Register of Historic Places for its pedigree as a silver mining community. The town’s streets are lined with charming antique shops, museums, cozy restaurants, and craft breweries, and it’s also the gateway to five nature trails: Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, Northern Pacific Trail, Route of the Hiawatha, Milwaukee Scenic Alternate Trail, and Centennial Trail.
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One of the first towns in Kentucky, Bardstown is the epitome of southeastern Americana aesthetic: Federal and Georgian architecture, a grid layout, and cobblestoned paths. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. “Bardstown is undoubtedly the most authentic bourbon destination in the world, with beautiful rolling hills and rickhouses leading the way to a picturesque downtown that resembles a Norman Rockwell painting,” said Samantha Brady, executive director Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist and Convention Commission.
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“Considered one of Maine’s prettiest towns, Camden sits along Penobscot Bay, its working harbor filled with fishing boats and windjammers,” Jennifer Geiger, communications manager for the Maine Office of Tourism, told T+L. “Overlooking the town is Camden Hills State Park, which is ideal for day hikes to see mountains and islands in the bay all in one breathtaking view.” Add in a historic downtown and daily whale and puffin cruises you'll see this town really is a thing of beauty.
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On the coast of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, you’ll find Leland and Fishtown, a tourism dream team composed of a working commercial fishing village and a community of people who love their summer cottages. Leland is a special place virtually untouched by time. For instance, it has no stoplights. And the oft-photographed Leland canal epitomizes Michigan’s lakeside charm.
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Taos, New Mexico
Did you know that during the spring in Taos, you can ski one day and mountain bike the next? That’s the beauty of New Mexico’s high desert weather. Sheltered by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Taos is perhaps best known for its adobe buildings, the star of the scenery being Taos Pueblo, a collection of dwellings that have been inhabited for more than 1,000 years. Taos Pueblo is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Medora, North Dakota
Here’s a wild statistic: Medora only under 150 year-round citizens, but 200,000 visitors come through each year. They come for many reasons, a big one being the surrounding area, which is largely part of either Little Missouri National Grassland or Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Visitors can spot bison, hike around the area, and explore sandstone buttes and hoodoos — the majesty of the Badlands is present in almost every activity. “The Badlands make a stunning backdrop for Bully Pulpit Golf Course and the Medora Musical,” said Kaelee Wallace, marketing manager of Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.
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“Joseph — surrounded by snowcapped mountains, pastoral green fields, and the beautiful Wallowa Lake — offers one of the most stunning views in Oregon,” said Allison Keeney, manager at Travel Oregon. That’s not to say human-made items don’t deserve their own moments, too: Main Street, which runs through the center of the town, features centuries-old buildings and epic bronze sculptures of historic figures, including members of the Nez Perce tribe.
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Leavenworth is a beautiful Bavarian fantasy come to life in the magnificent Cascade Range between Seattle and Spokane. In the 1960s, the townspeople decided to drum up tourism by collectively agreeing to theme the town like a Bavarian village. It’s on the sunny side of the state, which means you can revel in Bavarian traditions amid remarkable river and mountain views any season you like.
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Bayfield, on the shores of Lake Superior, offers a combination of coastal charm and Victorian beauty. “Bayfield is also the gateway to the Apostle Islands, a collection of 21 heavily wooded islands trimmed with sandstone cliffs, lined with miles of pristine sand beaches, and protected as a National Lakeshore,” said Anne Sayers, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. “Visitors enjoy incomparable stargazing, including occasional glimpses of the northern lights, kayaking the sea caves, and visiting a collection of historic lighthouses.”
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The Rodeo Capital of the World comes with wide-open spaces, breathtaking canyons, and the Shoshone River flowing along the northern edge of town. Its cowboy history runs deep, too: “In the late 1800s, Colonel William F. 'Buffalo Bill' Cody passed through the region. He was so impressed with the scenery, farming, and hunting opportunities, as well as its proximity to Yellowstone, that he started up the town we know today as Cody,” said Piper Singer Cunningham, communications senior manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism. “As you coast through modern-day downtown Cody, you can still see, feel, and experience that Western vibe that began so many years ago.”
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Edenton, North Carolina
Where to begin? Perhaps the postcard-perfect 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse? The Georgian architecture of the 1767 courthouse? Tree-lined streets and gardens throughout town? Harbor views with moss-draped bald cypress trees? Colonial-era Edenton is as steeped in history as it is stunning. “For all its head-turning beauty, Edenton is anything but prim and proper,” said Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina. “The town has spirit... You’ll find it reflected in lively shops and restaurants, and the stories of the people who perpetuate Edenton’s unending appeal.”
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Galena, an approximately three-hour drive from Chicago, looks like a town straight out of a Hallmark Christmas movie. But it doesn’t have to be snowing and decked in white lights to be picturesque — Galena shines in any season. Historic Main Street, which dates back to the 1800s, has more than 125 independently owned shops, restaurants, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts. You won’t find chains or franchises here. Beyond town, biking and hiking trails with views of towering bluffs abound.
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“When we talk about beautiful small towns in Missouri, there are many options to consider, and one that’s always part of the conversation is Hermann,” said Stephen Foutes, director of the Missouri Division of Tourism. And for good reason: Hermann sits amid rolling hills along the Missouri River, surrounded by wineries. It’s often referred to as Missouri’s Rhineland because of the area’s rich German heritage.
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Cape May, New Jersey
“When you get there, you are struck by the beauty of Victoriana,” said Diane Wieland, director for Cape May County Tourism. “All the different colored painted houses...the gas lights. Then, there's a beautiful expansive beach.” Cape May’s pleasing aesthetics are obvious, but that's not the only thing contributing to its overall charm — there are no hotels or chain restaurants, nothing contrived. Wieland added, “This is the experience you’re going to get. And this is what we live every day.”