When you think of small-town America, you might envision sleepy little hamlets with quaint Main Streets, like something out of the last century, perhaps with cobblestone streets and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. And while this is indeed true of many small towns — and is part of their charm — there are many small towns with a lot happening behind the curtain that may surprise you.
Here are six communities that are real eye-openers:
- Augusta, Missouri. You may never have heard of this tiny heartland village, population about 270. But guess what? Augusta is a nationally recognized wine region, designated the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the federal government in 1980, surpassing better-known Napa Valley by a country mile. And philanthropist David Hoffmann has plans to put Augusta on the map in an even grander way, with a new five-star hotel, yacht cruises along the Mississippi River, an amphitheater, and golf course. When everyone else heads to crowded California, Augusta might be your best bet for exceptional wine tasting.
- Luray, Virginia. With a population just over 4800, Luray may seem huge compared with Augusta, but what gives it unique charm are the Luray Caverns, the largest cave system on the East Coast. It’s a geological hall of fame, with cathedral-sized rooms and ceilings 10 stories high, flowing water, and natural wonders around every bend. If your image of Virginia tends to family mansions and genteel garden parties, Luray’s unusual attraction will lure you in.
- Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Down-home charm and wild adventure find their nexus in the heart of the Smokies. Gatlinburg is a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, with more than 100 hiking trails to suit all fitness levels. And it’s one popular place: Great Smokies National Park is the most-visited park in the United States. But there’s much more going on in Gatlinburg. You can take in the breathtaking fall foliage, visit the Gatlinburg Space Needle, or enjoy Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies — especially appealing if you’re traveling with children. Fun fact: this town of just 3500 is located next door to Pigeon Forge, home to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park.
- Perham, Minnesota. So you’re a culture buff, and don’t imagine you’ll find too much culture outside major metropolitan areas? Think again. The town of Perham is home to the ITOW (In Their Own Words) Veterans Museum, the country’s only museum that houses an extensive collection of oral histories created by veterans. Antique shops and craft breweries abound, and the town is replete with art centers and festivals of every stripe.
- Santa Claus, Indiana. Ho, ho, ho, this town has dedicated its entire existence to Christmas. With a name like Santa Claus, it seemed inevitable. Holiday World is a Christmas-themed amusement park, and the town boasts more Christmas-focused stores and candy shops than probably any other community in America. Even the post office is Christmas-themed, though that makes sense: can you imagine how many people want their holiday cards to be postmarked from here?
- Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Watch Hill used to be a well-kept secret vacation destination for the wealthy, until Taylor Swift bought a home here, sending the town’s popularity soaring. The seaside locale offers miles of beaches and art galleries, antique shops and boutiques — and is home to the only Five-Diamond hotel in Rhode Island, which has hosted numerous celebrities. Pretty ambitious for a population of just 144!
These small towns with big offerings may make you alter your original vacation destination. What they lack in size they make up for in quirky or unusual sights, events, and occasions. Have fun exploring!