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When it comes to culture and history-rich destinations, big-name cities like Paris and Rome often take the crown. And while these lively metropolises can be easier to access, it’s the small towns — sometimes isolated by geography — that discerning wanderers will appreciate most. With compact and walkable town centers, main squares adorned with historic structures that now house fine-dining restaurants and chic boutiques, the small towns of America teem with culture and heritage, and the charming design styles will have any architecture lover spellbound.
Pella, Iowa, located southeast of Des Moines, was founded in 1847 when around 800 Dutch immigrants fled to escape religious persecution. Today, it is a piece of the Netherlands found in the American Midwest. One of its most recognizable structures is the Vermeer Windmill, an 1850s-style grain mill built in the Netherlands and reassembled in Pella. Standing over 124 feet tall, it is the largest working windmill in North America, harkening back to Pella’s agricultural history and Dutch heritage. The windmill is located near the Historical Village, which boasts traditional 19th-century Dutch buildings that are festively decorated for Kerstmarkt, an annual holiday market. Another opportune time to visit Pella is during the spring for “Tulip Time” as the town’s famous flowers enter peak bloom.
Situated on the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel-by-the-Sea looks more like a fairytale village than a California beach town. Encompassing a single square mile, the village was constructed in the 1920s and became a place for creatives to call home, from entertainers Clint Eastwood and Bing Crosby to authors John Steinbeck and Jack London. Storybook cottages line the streets in town center, housing restaurants, high-end shopping, and boutique inns, such as the 100-year old L’Auberge Carmel, which boasts a Michelin-star restaurant. Nearby, a contrasting piece of local architecture is found at the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum, a Spanish colonial structure built in the 18th century that now features four museums with artwork, religious relics, local heritage exhibits, and gardens.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Wild West figures like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane once roamed the streets of Deadwood, a small town in western South Dakota that was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961. Founded in 1876 after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, many of the town’s wooden buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1879, but its stone and brick buildings remained. This resulted in the surprising Victorian aesthetic of downtown Main Street, as seen at the Adams House, a 19th-century Queen Anne-style home turned museum featuring original furnishings, stained glass windows, and fine oak interiors. Shops, rodeos, saloons, museums, and casinos now fill the rest of the town’s historic buildings.
Rosemary Beach, Florida
Rosemary Beach is located off of one of Florida’s most scenic coastal routes, 30A, on the Gulf Coast. If the warm, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico weren’t enough to entice visitors, this town’s stunning architecture might do the trick. Named one of America’s most romantic small towns by CNN, Rosemary Beach’s design was inspired by larger southern cities like St. Augustine, New Orleans, and Charleston, and features neo-traditional architecture (with a beachy flair), accompanied by hidden gardens, inviting porches, tree-lined patios, and cobblestone streets. One of the most recognizable hotels in town is the Pearl Hotel, ranked as the #10 hotel in Florida by the Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards. The 55-room boutique hotel boasts a rooftop bar, seaside spa, Old World European architecture, and signature black and white awnings.
Corning, New York
America’s “Crystal City” is located in the Finger Lakes region of New York and is home to the largest glass museum in the country, the Corning Museum of Glass, featuring glass art, glass-making, and historical artifacts. This charming town also features an abundance of fine architecture — even its Centerway Square, with its signature clock tower, was named one of America’s “Most Beautiful Town Squares” by Travel & Leisure. Many buildings here feature a historic revival style, including the Old City Hall. The nearby Gaffer District is home to five blocks of boutique shops, craft breweries, and eclectic, farm-to-table restaurants. Some of these buildings point to a Gothic influence for their elongated and pointed windows, while others feature heavy stone arches and towers, signaling a Richardson Romanesque style of architecture.
Step into a quintessential Bavarian alpine village without even traveling to Europe. Helen is a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia, right on the edge of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Known for its surrounding vineyards, gingerbread-trimmed buildings, and cobblestone streets, it was modeled after small German towns like Bamberg and Lindau. Despite having a population of less than 600 people, the two-square-mile town is one of Georgia’s most-visited destinations. It owes its existence to a successful gold mine in the area, and was later founded as a logging town in 1913. In 1968, Helen experienced a total overhaul to drive tourism to the area, transforming it into a whimsical village. Grab your lederhosen and visit during Helen’s annual Oktoberfest to enjoy authentic German fare and entertainment.
One of Maine’s prettiest coastal towns, Camden enjoys a picturesque location at the foot of Camden Hills along serene Penobscot Bay. This mid-coastal destination celebrates a lengthy shipbuilding history, its legacy evident in the fleets of windjammers docked at the quaint harbor. Wander the charming neighborhoods of Camden by foot, perusing the contemporary art galleries and locally-owned boutiques that line Main Street, and land among the enchanting blend of Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian-style homes-now-turned-B&Bs in the town’s secluded residential areas. Stay at the Queen Anne–style Hawthorn Inn, one of 66 homes listed on the National Register of Historical Places, and discover the sheer concentration of preserved 19th-century homes in this High Street Historic District. Visit the Colonial Revival–style Camden Public Library and the amphitheater just behind it for views of Camden Harbor Park that extend to the waterfront.
St. Francisville, Louisiana
A popular overnight getaway and day-trip destination from New Orleans, Louisiana’s St. Francisville has long enticed visitors with its timeless charm, rich history, and culture. Wander the St. Francisville Historic District and identify the architectural styles that have deeply influenced this destination since its existence, observing the Georgian Revival Courthouse from 1905 and the Romanesque Revival–style Bank of Commerce & Trust built in 1909. Or indulge in the town’s colorful past at West Feliciana Historical Museum, which takes residence in an 1890 restored hardware store. Its neighborhoods fringed by dripping Spanish moss, St. Francisville evokes a kind of everlasting tranquility.
Laidback Hanalei lies on the north shore of Kauai, the Hawaiian chain’s oldest island. Backed by majestic emerald peaks and tumbling waterfalls, and overlooking the shimmering waters of picture-perfect Hanalei Bay, this tiny town attracts sun seekers and passionate surfers. Hanalei’s architectural style illustrates the history of the many who’ve settled here over time, including indigenous Hawaiians, Russian and European traders, New England whalers, and missionaries. Constructed in the 1800s, the green shingles, charming bell tower, and exquisite stained-glass windows of the American Gothic–style Waiʻoli Huiʻia Church make it Hanalei’s distinguishing landmark. Swap your mainland lifestyle for some island living, and hike the rugged Nā Pali coast, spending afternoons sampling quintessential island foods of freshly prepared poke, colorful shaved ice, and enticing acai bowls from casual food trucks.
A tranquil locale on the banks of the Ottauquechee River, Woodstock is tucked in the Green Mountains of Vermont’s Windsor County. Brimming with New England heritage, the town’s central square, the Green, is enveloped by Late Georgian, Federalist, and Greek Revival homes and public buildings that date back to the early 19th century. Visit the Norman Williams Public Library, constructed of pink sandstone, or meander the peaceful backroads of Woodstock to Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Vermont’s sole national park, established in 1992. Take to its wooded trails for a rural experience, and discover the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion that was built in the 1800s. A brick home originally constructed in the Federal style, this mansion underwent dramatic renovations under the hands of new owners and now remains in its Queen Anne style.
Taos, New Mexico
Recognized as the soulful heart of the Southwest, northern New Mexico’s town of Taos is a culturally and historically packed destination. Its mud-brick buildings and old time mercantile storefronts are backed by dramatic snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range for an enchanting and almost otherworldly landscape. Visit the town’s San Francisco de Asis Church, which celebrates over 200 years of history: Its adobe facades and intricate curves and angles have been documented by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. Budget enough time to witness Taos Pueblo’s complex of multistoried adobe buildings, which have been continuously inhabited by Native Americans for centuries. It’s a must-visit destination three miles northeast of downtown Taos for historians fascinated by Pueblo Indian history and culture.