America's coolest small towns, 2013

This year’s winner in voting for America’s coolest small town has a population of 9,369 and a history of 257 years.


After 96,605 votes and 2,415 comments in support of 924 towns, the list of contenders was trimmed to 15. Among those finalists, Lititz, Penn., was the undisputed winner for 2013, unlike last year, when two other towns tied for No. 1.

What makes a coolest small town? The town must have a population under 10,000. It also needs that indescribable something: independent shops, a sense of energy, an epic backyard, culture, delicious coffee. In other words, cool doesn't necessarily mean quaint: We wanted towns with an edge and a heart.

Read on for more on Lititz and nine other nominees.

Winner: Lititz, Penn.

(Population: 9,369)

Founded in 1756 as a Moravian community, Lititz takes its 250-year history seriously even as it embraces its vibrant present. This Lancaster County town's Lititz Springs Park has been a center of town life since the 18th century, when it was the site of public concerts, and houses a welcome center in a replica of a 19th-century Reading & Columbia Railroad depot.

The Lititz Historical Foundation offers costumed guided tours and a museum that includes Native American artifacts, a replica of a Moravian home, and a heritage garden. But, of course, the past is only the beginning in Lititz, where visitors can quaff handcrafted ales at the Appalachian Brewing Company of Lititz, savor homemade ice cream at Greco's, or shop for furniture made by noted Lancaster County craftsmen.

Bay St. Louis, Miss.

(Population: 9,260)

You might call Bay St. Louis the little town that could. Hurricane Katrina made final landfall near this Mississippi Gulf hamlet in 2005, lifting homes off foundations, crumbling bridges, leveling businesses, and killing 12 people in its wake. But the storm didn't crush the spirit of Bay St. Louis.

Evidence of renewal can be found at every turn, like at the Mockingbird Cafe. First opened to serve Katrina volunteers and locals, it's now a neighborhood mainstay in Historic Old Town, serving up frothy lattes and their belly-filling signature Mockingburger. Also calling the 300-year-old neighborhood home: a quirky mix of restaurants, galleries and Creole cottages and inns.

Once a month, the district opens its doors for Second Saturday Artwalk, a day filled with art shows, live music and regional food specialties. Beach Boulevard's restored 19th-century waterfront homes are just a few blocks away, and the historic Bay Town Inn bed and breakfast is being rebuilt. Also under way: a $21.1 million harbor project that includes a 1,100-ft pier and a recreational beach, due for completion in 2014.

Camden, Maine

(Population: 3,570)

We've all been faced with the classic vacation dilemma: the mountains or the beach? But there's no need to settle, because Camden's got them both covered. This mid-coastal town located on Penobscot Bay is one of only two places on the Atlantic seaboard where the mountains meet the sea.

Those gorgeous vistas have been attracting vacationers to this former ship-building town since the 1800s, when wealthy families snatched up properties to build summer homes. Today, many of those mansions and estates have been converted to inns and bed and breakfasts, most within walking distance of the harbor.

Go ahead, it's not cliché to dine on Maine lobster paired with a local wine at Fresh, a waterfront restaurant on Bay View Landing. Afterward, browse the galleries, antique shops and general stores on Main Street for one-of-a-kind crafts, clothing and jewelry. When the ocean is calling, take sail from Camden Harbor on a tall-masted schooner cruise that explores the Maine coast, lighthouses, islands, and coves. Left your sea legs back at the B&B? No problem. Camden Hills State Park offers 30 miles of hiking trails in 5,700 acres of wooden hills including Mt Battie, an 800-foot summit with stunning views of the bay.

Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

(Population: 967)

You might say Elkhart Lake runs on two speeds: adrenaline-pumping fast and good-ol'-days calm. Just outside of town, in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, speedsters can find Road America, a four-mile off-road race circuit built in the 1950s where racers have been known to pass the 200 mph mark.

But back around the lake—crystal blue, spring-fed, cedar-lined, and 120-feet deep—the pace is decidedly more relaxed. At the three lakeside Victorian-era resorts, activities such as pontoon boating, wakeboarding, and summer bonfires will call to mind those long-lost memories of summer camp.

Flagler Beach, Fla.

(Population: 4,484)

Twenty miles north of Daytona Beach on A1A, Flagler Beach couldn't be more different from its party-hardy neighbor to the south. In fact, the area seems to attract more sea turtles and right whales than spring breakers. And it's not hard to see why: This thin strip of a beach town, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, has remained significantly less developed than its neighbors.

The six miles of pristine sand—which boast an orange hue thanks to crushed coquina shells—are only interrupted by one fishing pier. In town, the vibe is laid back and retro, thanks to spots like Grampa's Uke Joint, which sells ukuleles, and High Tides at Snack Jack, a 1950s fish shack that attracts surfers with funky dishes like tuna reubens, ahi club sandwiches, and sake Bloody Marys. 

Glenwood Springs, Colo.

(Population: 9,614)

For a Rocky Mountain town, Glenwood Springs is surprisingly focused on water. Sitting at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers, 40 miles north of Aspen, the town is home to the largest natural hot springs pool in the world, which has attracted the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Doc Holliday, and Al Capone since the opening of a lodge in 1890.

 In addition to soaking in the steamy springs—even when there are feet of powder on the ground—you can try water-centric activities from whitewater rafting to fly-fishing to kayaking. As you can probably tell from the waters bubbling up under Glenwood Springs, there's as much going on underground as there is above it. Below the town are miles of caverns, filled with creatively named formations like cave popcorn, moonmilk, soda straws, and cave bacon.

Greenville, K.Y.

(Population: 4,312)

That particularly Southern combination of down-home charm and old-fashioned grandeur is old hat in Greenville. Founded in 1799 and settled by Revolutionary War veterans, it grew over the next century into the seat of one of the South's most profitable coal-mining regions. That history is reflected in the enduring elegance of city landmarks such as the 105-year-old Beaux Arts courthouse and 111-year-old Palace Theater.

On Main Street, laid-back locals and mom-and-pop establishments evoke the guitar and harmonica twangs of folk songs. You might even hear John Prine's "Paradise" as you stroll the streets—the renowned singer-songwriter penned some of his most famous lyrics about the coal-mining history of Greenville and the surrounding area. The town's musical legacy lives on at Rockford's Place Café: part eatery, part jam session venue, it adds a little funk to the Greenville scene.

Gulf Shores, Ala.

(Population: 9,741)

Folks in this Gulf of Mexico beach town must get tired of hearing tourists do their best Bubba impersonations. But comparisons to Forrest Gump’s shrimp-loving sidekick are only logical: Each October since 1971, the town hosts the National Shrimp Festival, often attracting over 250,000 people with shrimp cook-offs, concerts, and sandcastle contests. If you don’t make it here during the three-day festivities, don’t fret.

Shrimp shows up on menus all around town, including the dockside Lulu’s at Homeport Marina, which is owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy. Like much of the Gulf of Mexico, the area was hit hard by the 2010 BP oil spill. But, ironically, the area’s powdery white beaches got an unexpected PR boost from the disaster and subsequent successful cleanup): For many Americans, it was the first time they learned Alabama even has beaches!

Quincy, Calif.

(Population: 1,728)

This gold rush town on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where prospectors flocked in the rush of 1849, remains a mother lode of attractions for those who like to spend their days in the wild but welcome some culture and pampering in the evening. Nearby Bucks Lake Recreation Area is the kind of place you can visit every weekend and never quite do the same thing twice, including world-class fishing, water-skiing, hiking in warm weather, and winter snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

Back in town, the historic 1920s-era courthouse is just one of several architectural gems. Pick up a self-guided Heritage Walk tour pamphlet at the Plumas County Museum, behind the courthouse, and explore downtown's murals depicting scenes from the area's history. Then take your pick of excellent pub and café fare that, true to Northern California tradition, belies its small-town locale.

Watkins Glen, N.Y.

(Population: 1,859)

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about New York's Finger Lakes region isn't that it's home to stunningly beautiful and, yes, finger-shaped, bodies of water, but that there is so much else to see and do here. Award-winning wineries, awe-inspiring gorges and waterfalls, and a racetrack that draws visitors to auto-racing events are also front-and-center.

If you want to spend a day (or two, or a week) in nature, Watkins Glen State Park offers a series of jaw-dropping waterfalls, and the Finger Lakes National Forest (the only national forest in New York State) is heaven for the trail-happy hiker. Watkins Glen International Racetrack draws crowds to NASCAR races and other auto events. To get a taste of the vineyards of Watkins Glen and its neighboring communities, set out on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which includes 50 local wineries, many renowned for their light, crisp Rieslings.

See more finalists for America's coolest small town.