10 Small Towns in the U.S. That Feel Like Stepping Back in Time
Sometimes, a good old-fashioned dose of nostalgia is all you need for a great trip.
Maybe you want to feel like you've just stepped through a Norman Rockwell painting. Perhaps you want to experience the elegant olden days of the Victorian era. Or, it could be that you just want to find that sense of nostalgia from a simpler time. Across the country, there are countless small towns that retain their old-fashioned charm, from nautical villages to Mayberry-esque Main Streets. We consulted travel experts to find 10 of these locales that are fun places to visit if you're looking for a dose of sentimentality. Read on to explore the best small towns in the U.S. that feel like stepping back in time.
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Granville, Tennessee is truly like stepping back to the 1960s. According to It's a Southern Thing, "Everywhere, there are touches of Mayberry, the fictional town from The Andy Griffith Show—plywood cutouts of characters like Andy, Barney, and Otis; an Andy Griffith museum; and a replica of the squad car used in the show." There's also an I Love Lucy Museum, as the town received a collection of memorabilia related to the show.
Mary Katelyn Price, communications specialist at the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, says one particular spot not to miss is the 1880s T.B. Sutton General Store, "where you can browse historical artifacts, purchase handmade items, and enjoy delicious country cooking." You can also catch a live bluegrass show each weekend.
Price's other recommendations include the Whistle Stop Saloon, which is "set up like an old ice parlor and features artifacts and mannequins that tell the story of moonshine and whiskey in Tennessee," and the Antique Car Museum.
There are three bed-and-breakfasts in the heart of Granville, but you can also opt to stay at the Wildwood Resort and Marina, a lakeside retreat with lodging options ranging from airstream trailers to tiny cabins to houseboats.
Chagrin Falls, Ohio
About 40 minutes southeast of Cleveland, the village of Chagrin Falls is quintessential Americana with the added twist of having a waterfall located right in the middle of its downtown. Surrounding the falls are "lovely brick edifices and sidewalks adorned with street lamps and colorful baskets of flowers," says Jocelyn Xamis Wolters, a preservationist and co-founder of the travel site Wolters World. She says you'll also find "loads of well-preserved buildings from the 1800s," boutiques, restaurants, antique shops, and art galleries in this former mill town.
Wolters points out that the most popular spot downtown—which is also the Instagram shot you'll want to snap—is Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop. "The brightly painted façade reflects its 1875 construction, but the popcorn is a new thing, started in 1949," she says.
This is also a town where you'll find nostalgic community events throughout the year, according to Cleveland.com. This includes an art festival, Shakespeare in the Park, sidewalk sale, farmer's market, and a documentary film festival.
For a place to stay that straddles the past and present, check out the Inn of Chagrin, a quaint hotel downtown that was recently remodeled by fashion designer Christian Siriano.
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The "Bourbon Capitol of the World" is also an 18th-century time capsule. Bardstown is Kentucky's second-oldest town, and "around 200 buildings in the core of the town are on the National Register of Historic Places," says travel writer Kate Byrne, who also notes that many of these structures pre-date the Civil War.
But what really makes this town unique is its bourbon history and the still-thriving culture and economy surrounding it. Within 16 miles of the town center, which is known as Court Square, there are "11 unique distilleries," according to Visit Bardstown. Most of these distilleries, both big and small, offer tours where guests can learn about the bourbon-making process and local roots.
To get the true feel for the town, Byrne recommends taking Visit Bardstown's self-guided walking tour, which includes an impressive 48 sites all within a short distance. She says one spot you don't want to miss is Talbott Tavern. It was built in 1779 as a stagecoach stop, and today is a restaurant and small inn. Visit Bardstown says that it's the oldest bourbon bar in the world.
Another fun thing to do is visit My Old Kentucky Home State Park, the farm that inspired Stephen Collins Foster's famous song, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" Tour the 200-year-old mansion or watch an outdoor period drama about Foster.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Set in Lake Huron, Michigan's Mackinac Island is a true old-timey town. "In 1898, automobiles were banned and the same modes of transportation remain today—bicycle, horse, and foot," explains Liz Ware, vice president of sales and marketing at the local Mission Point Resort.
In the early 20th century, the temperate island became a summer destination for families from Chicago and Detroit. "Victorian-style cottages, hotels, and a small downtown area were built and flourished," says Ware. "Upon arrival to the island by ferry, one can see these magnificent old cottages perched high upon the island's East and West Bluffs centered by the Fort Mackinac, built in 1715." You can also explore them up close on a horse-drawn carriage tour.
One of Mackinac Island's claims to fame is its historic fudge shops. "Downtown shops make 10,000 pounds of fudge each day in season," according to the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau. Stop in to taste samples and see the fudge-making in action.
You'll also want to see the American Fur Company Store, a general store that is "time-stamped from the 1820s when Mackinac Island was the bustling center of the North American fur trade," explains Mackinac State Historic Parks.
And to step further back in time, visit Colonial Michilimackinac, a recreated 18th-century fort and fur trading village comprised of 16 buildings that take you back to the days of the American Revolution.
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Bristol, Rhode Island
When it comes to historic Rhode Island, Newport may get all the attention, but nearby are several smaller towns that harken back to the area's old maritime days. One such place is Bristol, "the most patriotic town in America," according to Francesca Dolan, communications director at Discover Newport.
Bristol is home to the country's oldest Fourth of July parade, for which "the town's dedicated volunteers spend a year preparing," says Dolan. The festivities last three weeks and include public concerts, a carnival, and a pageant for Ms. Fourth of July. Residents decorate their houses in red, white, and blue, and owning a home on Hope Street, the parade route, "is as desirable as having one along the waterfront," Dolan notes.
If you're unable to travel in July, you'll still get plenty of old-time charm in Bristol. Dolan suggests visiting Coggeshall Farm, an 18th-century coastal tenant farm that is now a museum, and touring the mansion and beautiful grounds at Blithewold Museum and Arboretum.
Hammondsport, New York
If you're a fan of Gilmore Girls, you know that one of the key elements of the fictional small town setting of Stars Hollow is its town square anchored by a gazebo. That's exactly the setup in Hammondsport, New York, located on the southern end of Keuka Lake (one of the 11 Finger Lakes). Stephanie Goodwin, accounts director of McCue PR and a Hammondsport native, says that this "turn-of-the-century bandstand gazebo" even hosts live bands during the summer.
The town square is surrounded by historic buildings from the early 19th and 20th centuries. "In fact, visitors can stay and eat at the recently renovated hotel and restaurant, The Park Inn, the oldest building on the square, [which] was originally built in 1828 and has served as a tavern and inn since 1861," says Goodwin. She also recommends having breakfast or ice cream at Crooked Lake Ice Cream Company. "You can still grab an ice cream cone at the historic wooden bar."
Once you're done strolling around the downtown and meandering along side streets looking at Victorian-era homes, don't miss what the Finger Lakes are famous for—wine! "Hammondsport is the birthplace of grape growing and winemaking in the Finger Lakes where Reverend William Bostwick planted the first vineyard in 1829," shares Goodwin. She notes that Pleasant Valley Wine Company was the country's first bonded winery when it opened in 1863. "The winery is still in operation and visitors can take a tour of the winery and its incredible historic buildings."
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This northern California city is well known for the Redwood Sky Walk and the Sequoia Park Zoo. "But visitors are often surprised to learn that the City of Eureka's entire Old Town and waterfront area is on the National Register of Historic Places, and more than 90 percent of our old town buildings are original structures," notes Leslie Castellano, city councilwoman and executive director of local nonprofit Ink People.
What's most visually striking about Eureka is the multitude of Victorian homes, many of which were constructed during the 19th-century lumber boom and built of original redwood. Two can't-miss sites, both examples of colorful Queen Anne-style architecture, are the Carson Mansion ("one of the most photographed buildings in the world," says Castellano) and the Pink Lady. You might think you're walking by life-size dollhouses!
To see the rest of this charming town, there are history, art, and architecture walking tours. In addition, you can "explore the Humboldt Bay's maritime history aboard the historic Madaket Ferry, take in live music at one of the city's many historic bars, or dance in the streets at a Friday Night Market or Monthly Arts Alive event," says Castellano.
Whidbey Island is located just north of Seattle in Puget Sound. According to Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism, it is "an island that harkens back to a simpler America," complete with seaside main streets, ferries, historic farms, and much more.
One of the most charming spots here is Coupeville, which is Washington's second-oldest town. "Visit downtown Coupeville on Front Street and you will find 100-year-old buildings," notes Suzanne Howell, the publisher of Exploring Whidbey Island. She also says not to miss the Coupeville Wharf that rests on Penn Cove, where you'll enjoy "charming stores such as an ice cream shop, bookstore, wine tasting room, gift shops, and much more."
For more of that old-time feel, Howell suggests visiting one of the local farm stands where you can buy fresh produce or pick your own during certain seasons, as well as the Coupeville Farmer's Market. There's even a drive-in movie theater nearby.
In terms of where to stay, there are plenty of historic options. Book a room at the Compass Rose Bed and Breakfast, a restored 19th-century Queen Anne Victorian, or the Anchorage Inn, another Victorian-style B&B that overlooks the water.
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Legend has it that when General Sherman was burning confederate cities during his Civil War March to the Sea, he came to Madison, Georgia, and said it was "too pretty to burn." That's the story that Jennifer Rosa, executive director of the Madison Morgan County Convention & Visitors Bureau, relates. True or not, the lovely town remains remarkably intact today, and Rosa says it "exemplifies small-town southern hospitality and charm."
Madison is another town that's punctuated by a central town square, which is "anchored by historic City Hall and the Morgan County Courthouse, an elaborate Beaux Arts-style building built in 1905," notes Rosa. This downtown area has lots of lovely shops, but it's especially popular for its 200+ antique dealers and newer home decor and interior design shops, according to the Visitors Bureau.
But to truly feel as though you're back in the 19th century, Rosa suggests the self-guided walking tour of the Madison Historic District. You'll see 28 historic sites, including several Greek Revival mansions that look like they're straight out of a bygone era.
St. Peter's Village, Pennsylvania
St. Peter's Village is just a quarter mile in length, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm. According to an article in Uncovering PA, "The community was founded in the mid-1800s as a company town in a narrow ravine along the banks of French Creek. The town was the home to workers at the iron ore mines and quarry that were located in the woods near the settlement." Today, the aesthetics haven't changed much, and the quaint downtown is lined with shops and restaurants.
The Chester County Conference & Visitors Bureau notes that "St. Peter's Village seems to resonate with artists and collectors." You'll find glassblowing, woodworking, and antique galleries along Main Street, as well as Village Arcade, "a classic haven of 25-cent vintage pinball machines."
For some sweet nostalgia, the Visitors Bureau suggests the Village Scoop Ice Cream Shop, an "old-fashioned gem" overlooking the creek, and Saint Peter's Bakery, which makes their sourdough bread using a 100-year-old starter.
The Inn at St. Peter's Village is a lovely place to stay. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it also overlooks French Creek and feels like stepping back in time.