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America's Best Small Towns

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© Ryan Bonneau / Property of the Telluride Tourism Board.
LAUNCH SLIDESHOW

From world-class theater under the stars to contemporary art in the desert, the only thing small about these towns is their populations.

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The 2012 Census confirmed what most Americans already suspected: These days, more of us are choosing to live in cities. Yet as we downsize to high-rise apartments and squeeze onto subway cars, it’s hard not to yearn for the pleasures of space and small-town living.

“I know my neighbors are going to be there for me when I need them,” says Spring Green resident and president of the town's Chamber of Commerce Sara Young. The sense of community is what drew her to this Wisconsin town of just over 1,600 residents. But it was Spring Green's enviable concentration of culture that kept her there, a pattern we noticed in several of the towns on our list.

Young describes her neighbors as “an interesting mix of artists and rural Wisconsinites.” Many of the former migrated after the American Players Theatre set up shop in 1979 and built its stunning 1,148-seat outdoor amphitheater on the banks of the Wisconsin River.

A haute arts scene is another defining trait that has made many of the country's small towns into bigger cultural destinations. Take Florence, Ala., which is quickly becoming the fashion capital of the South, thanks to the flagship store of celebrated American designer Billy Reid. Or Marfa, Texas, which adopted contemporary artist Donald Judd and transformed itself from a dusty West Texas pit stop into a must-visit destination for the art world cognoscenti.

It's not always change, however, that makes a small town especially great. Thanks to strict zoning restrictions, 85 percent of Galena, Ill., is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, giving visitors the chance to slip back in time while strolling between beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings along its charming Main Street.

Berea, Ky., has taken a different approach to preserving its past. Inspired by the mission of its eponymous college, which grants students a free four-year education in exchange for their labor in Berea's impressive arts and craft economy, the town's high concentration of artists offer impromptu workshops and demonstrations to anyone passing through.

It doesn't feel gimmicky either. “We're not a theme park where we schedule a basket-weaving demonstration at 2 p.m.,” says fifth-generation Berean Belle Jackson. “This is a place where real artists are doing art.”

Jackson, who also serves as the town’s executive director of tourism, is quick to point out that Berea is a place where people are also thinking about the future. Case in point: The town's oldest hotel is now Kentucky’s only Gold-certified LEED building and even has a charging station for electric cars out back.

The peaceful cohabitation of old and new brought Berea some unexpected press in December 2012. The town was included on a list, along with Jerusalem, Angkor Wat, the Vatican and Mecca, of optimal places to be in case the Mayan calendar's end-of-the-world prediction came true. When asked why she thought Berea was chosen to rub shoulders with such iconic cities, Jackson paused. “Who knows—but the world didn't end and we're still here, so come on down!”

To check out all of the small towns that made our list, click here.


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