If you’ve longed to take a European adventure to the cities you’ve seen in movies and fantasized about visiting, you’re not alone. An average of 7 million people a year check a box on their bucket lists by gazing up at the Eiffel Tower. Another 30 million sip high tea and take photos of Beefeaters in London.
While those experiences are wonderful, they’re not such a treat anymore. As more travelers gain passports and jump the pond, the places you’ve probably dreamed of seeing are now overrun with tourists, not to mention overpriced and over-hyped.
As a travel writer, I get the opportunity to go on a couple new adventures every month. None of them are to Paris or Rome or Las Vegas, and that’s deliberate. I spent my life chasing those destinations, only to find myself trapped in traffic, waiting in lines, and dodging selfie-takers.
The small towns, I’ve determined, are where the action is, and I’ve never been happier traveling since I traded in the “must sees” for the “haven’t been discovered.” Right here in America, we can find hidden gems and beautiful landscapes, and – in one of the worst economies we’ve seen – all at a reasonable price.
Here are three small towns worth a visit
For the Music Lover
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Don’t let this tiny town fool you – what it lacks in size it more than makes up for with star power. It is home to two recording studios where some of the biggest stars in the world produced Grammy Award-winning songs. You can tour and hear their stories at the original Fame Studios, where Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and The Osmonds got their start. Still in operation, the studio now hosts the likes of Alicia Keys and Jason Isbell. Then be sure to check out Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where the biggest names in music have recorded their signatures sounds. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bog Seger, Mavis Staples, Cher – they’ve all made music here.
For the Wine Lover
30 minutes from Napa, you’ll find Fairfield, just waiting to be discovered. Fairfield is home to its own distinctive wines, and you can taste them here in a less crowded, more affordable setting. Wooden Valley Winery shines with its Lanza Sangiovese, a refreshing delight in the land of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Suisun Valley Wine Co-Op is a hip, cool, and casual stop that brings three micro-wineries together under one roof – just grab a glass of your favorite varietal and sit at a picnic table outside, listening to live music. Traveling with the family? Fairfield is home to the company headquarters of Jelly Belly and offers fun factory tours the kids will love. The older folk will enjoy the Western Railway Museum, and their grandkids will love the train ride through the Suisun Valley that comes with each admission ticket. Close out the day with sunset kayaking and bird watching on the marsh.
For the Nature Lover
Jackson County, North Carolina
Imagine a place with more waterfalls than you can count. Now imagine mountains, wildflowers, scenic bridges and vistas as far as the eye can see. It sounds like heaven and it is, right here in North Carolina. The outdoors beckon, and with hiking trails for every level and ability, everyone can answer the call of the wild. Drop a line in one of the many rivers and lakes that dot the landscape, take a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway, or ride the rapids on one of three white-water rivers. The weather here is perfect for leaf peeping in the fall and skiing in the winter, so it’s never a bad time to visit. And with newly renovated and well-appointed properties, you can stay in style at High Hampton, Wells Cashiers, or Hotel Cashiers without breaking the bank.