The Coolest Small Cities in America

Posted on July 1, 2011


Eight reasons to downsize your next vacation.

By GQ Staff
Want a real break? Forget the hassle of getting in and out of America’s metropolises—with their $400 hotel rooms and mobbed tourist attractions. Instead, hit these miniopolises, where top-notch food comes straight from the farm and your third round is on the house. Here are eight reasons to downsize your next vacation.

Charleston, South Carolina

Mind-blowing shrimp ‘n’ grits just minutes from an awesome southern surf scene. To wake up under the ornate fourteen-foot ceilings of the Wentworth Mansion is to wonder if some southern heiress took you home with her the night before. The stately digs were once the city’s finest home, and they make you feel not like you live in Charleston but like you own it.

Plus, you’re within walking distance of the Hominy Grill and its unparalleled shrimp ‘n’ grits—a dish that earns its place on breakfast, brunch, and lunch/dinner menus, and makes you want to stretch out on your daybed at the Mansion.

Instead, follow signs to Folly Beach and keep heading east along the water until you’re past the cars parked under the palmetto trees. You can sleep off breakfast in the sun, but between the temperate climate and generally mellow swell, it’s a good place to pick up surfing—or to shred if you can. Southern hospitality extends to the water: You won’t find friendlier locals on the East Coast.

Portand, Maine

You can walk anywhere in this town — even in December. Here are your marching orders.

Fore Street is one of America’s best restaurants, but skip the dining room for a dozen oysters at the bar—where the barmen greet you as if it were your private club—and wash them down with an iced Maine vodka or a microbrew. You’re a three-minute walk from the happy-hour crowd at J’s Oyster, which offers a harbor view, oysters for $7 per half dozen, and Christmas lights that never come down.

It’s a forty-minute ferry ride to Diamond Cove—the kind of island where George H. W. Bush pulls up on his cigarette boat. The lobster roll from the Diamond Cove General Store involves an entire lobster, steamed to order. Crisscross the island on footpaths (no cars are allowed) and, at low tide, trek across a sandbar to Little Diamond Island to catch the ferry back.

Sante Fe, New Mexico

The air is thin in the country’s highest state capital, but it’s always perfect riding weather here. Mount up a dual-suspension Rocky Mountain 29er at Mellow Velo, because extra-large wheels carry momentum on swoopy high-desert terrain and city streets alike. It’s a fifteen-minute pedal to Cerro Gordo Road, where a left turn after the pavement ends will dump you into the Dale Ball Trails, a well-marked thirty-mile network of single-track. If you’re just in from sea level, don’t feel bad when women jogging with their dogs zip past you.

The Anasazi Indians of New Mexico were cliff dwellers—pioneers of early civilization’s precursor to the apartment building. Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, with its sandstone walls, kiva fireplaces, and handwoven carpets, is a boutique tribute to their ingenuity, and the best hotel in town.

Providence, Rhode Island

For years, Providence has been heralded as the arts-and-culture center of New England—in large part by developers who dreamed of replacing the resident artists with Boston yuppies. Thankfully, that dream is dead. Because what Providence lacks in fratty Irish bars, it makes up for with a vibrant art scene and the renegade character of a bastard son.

Nights out begin at AS220, a downtown restaurant, gallery, and art studio—before moving across the highway to West Side bars like the pleasantly divey E&O Tap or Julian’s, the epicenter of Providence’s scene, where paintings by local artists deck the walls and everyone knows—and likely plays in a band with—everyone else.

The next day, you’ll find the same crowd recovering down the street over brunch at Nick’s. While you’re waiting for a table, browse the shelves at Armageddon Shop, purveyor of Providence-made music and the city’s iconic Technicolor silk-screened posters. The clerks may give you a funny look if you tell them you’re “on vacation” in Providence; better to say you’re just avoiding Boston.

Raleigh, North Carolina – Poole’s Downtown Diner

Poole’s serves late on Saturday night, and even though you’re stuffed with macaroni au gratin and buttermilk fried chicken, you ask the hostess what time they start serving Sunday brunch. It’s the triumph of logic over satiation: You will have to eat tomorrow, and this is clearly the best food in town. The polished retro space—once an honest-to-God diner—looks just as good in daylight. The crispy catfish entrée is re-imagined as a BLT; the wine list loses none of its appeal. You’d have to wait till Monday to catch another dinner, which seems like not a bad idea.

Boulder, Colorado – Frasca

A frasca is an old-school farmers’ hangout in Friuli, Italy, but Frasca the restaurant, in a posh piece of Boulder, is a happy cult of new-world Friulian obsessives. Led by chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, they’re riffing on the culinary heritage of the Italian region using Colorado’s finest produce. If you put Frasca in downtown Manhattan, it would compete with the best Italian restaurants in the city. If you put it in the middle of Friuli, the locals would likely recognize a reflection of their better culinary selves and travel to pay homage, just as we do.

Athens, Georgia

I’ll be fine if I never see another rock show in New York City. The scrum for tickets starts two months ahead of time; the well drinks cost $8. To paraphrase Johnny Paycheck, you can take all that and shove it. Instead, I’ll take the scene in Athens. The city’s best venues, the 40 Watt Club and the Caledonia Lounge, both host bands that play big venues in big cities and hit all the right notes: cheap cover, good sound.

Louisville, Kentucky

Here’s a pocket of our culture where where dirt-cheap field-level tickets are available at the walk-up counter, where kids can run the bases after the game without getting tased. Enjoy the slightly absurd undercurrent. Free gas-card giveaways! Win-or-lose fireworks! Appearances by semifamous local animals! We’re fans of the Louisville Bats, a Triple A club that draws more than 8,000 fans per home game. That’s just enough to summon a genuine crowd roar, but never enough to jam up the line for the bathroom trough.