America’s Best Small Towns for Travelers, Part 5

A tree shaped sign with Crooked Tree Arts Center written on it.

Crooked Tree Arts Center, Petoskey, Michigan. Photo © Laura Martone.

Four weeks ago, I started a lengthy series about America’s best small towns for travelers. In the first few parts, I covered nine of my favorite small towns (each of which has a population of less than 10,200), ranging from Astoria, Oregon, to Deadwood, South Dakota, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For a little break, I offered two posts about some helpful mobile apps and fun road-trip giveaways, but given that the Fourth of July holiday is tomorrow, I think it’s high time to return to my “small town” series. After all, the nation’s Independence Day is a wonderful time to visit these all-American towns.

So, here are the next three towns on my list, all of which can be found in the American Midwest:

Galena, Illinois

Boasting little more than 3,400 residents, the town of Galena lies about 16 miles downriver from Dubuque, Iowa, alongside the mighty Mississippi River, the ostensible border between Iowa and Illinois. As with many of the towns on my list, Galena offers a wholesome step back in time, with its historic 19th-century architecture, much of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here, you’ll see everything from Italianate and Greek Revival to Georgian and Queen Anne architectural styles—in a town that once served as a bustling lead-mining base and a core transportation hub for steamship, railroad, and highway traffic. So, it might come as no surprise that history buffs will especially appreciate Galena, where you can tour sites like the DeSoto House Hotel, allegedly the state’s oldest operating hotel; the Elihu B. Washburne House State Historic Site, once home to a popular congressman and friend of Presidents Lincoln and Grant; and the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site, apparently bequeathed to the Union general and future president by several grateful Galena citizens following his Civil War victory. Other Grant-related attractions include the Old Market House State Historic Site, which features several Grant artifacts, and the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum, which houses displays concerning President Grant as well as historical exhibits about Galena’s lead-mining and steamboating heritage.

Of course, travelers to Galena can also enjoy strolling amid art galleries and antiques stores on Main Street, sampling assorted vintages at the town’s wine bars and tasting rooms, pampering themselves at one of the local day spas, and relishing a plethora of outdoor activities in the surrounding countryside, from hiking and fishing in the nearby Apple River Canyon State Park to golfing on four separate courses at the Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa. For more information about Galena, consult Christine des Garennes’ Moon Illinois.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Roughly 120 miles east of Galena lies Lake Geneva, a place that’s equally pretty in summer or winter. In fact, when I lived in Chicago, I used to hop across the Illinois-Wisconsin border for weekend getaways in this lovely place, situated, as the name indicates, on the shores of nine-mile-long Geneva Lake. Established in the 1830s and filled with a variety of historic and contemporary mansions, such as the Golden Oaks Mansion, which was constructed in 1856 and now serves as a bed-and-breakfast, this popular resort town, with a population of roughly 7,500, lures travelers from Chicago, Milwaukee, and other Midwestern towns for annual events like the wintertime Festival of Lights and various Fourth of July fireworks displays over the lake. While Lake Geneva boasts a plethora of restaurants, art galleries, antiques shops, and other specialty stores, it’s the outdoor diversions that abound here, including beaches, golf courses, boat cruises, fishing charters, all manner of water sports, as well as ziplines via Lake Geneva Canopy Tours. Even in the winter months, you can embrace everything from ice skating to sledding to snowmobiling. As with many resort towns, you’ll also find a wide assortment of lodging choices here, including waterfront resorts, cozy cottages, and wooded campgrounds. For more information about Lake Geneva, consult Thomas Huhti’s Moon Wisconsin.

Petoskey, Michigan

As evidenced by my previous posts about Petoskey stones and the American Spoon eatery, it might come as no surprise that the coastal community of Petoskey is one of my favorite small towns in America. Located alongside Little Traverse Bay, not far from Lake Michigan, this town of about 6,040 residents offers a slew of seasonal diversions, including beaches, fishing charters, water sports, golf courses, and cross-country skiing trails. In summer, you can search for Petoskey stones at Petoskey State Park—or else shop for them at any number of jewelry boutiques and gift stores in downtown Petoskey. Art lovers might also enjoy touring the town’s art galleries as well as the Crooked Tree Arts Center (pictured above), which features live concerts and dramatic performances as well as regional artwork displays. Visitors can also learn about Ernest Hemingway’s connection to the area at the Little Traverse History Museum, tour the Victorian homes of nearby Bay View, and experience area wineries, state parks, and resort towns like Charlevoix and Traverse City. Another area attraction worth visiting is Boyne Mountain, where you’ll find a day spa, biking and horseback riding trails, championship golf courses, and downhill ski slopes, among other seasonal and year-round diversions. For more information about Petoskey, consult my Moon Michigan guidebook.

So, as I’ve asked in my previous “small town” posts, have you ever visited any of these places? If so, do you agree with their inclusion on this list—and if not, why not?

In the meantime, stay tuned for my next post, which will highlight three more of my favorite small towns, spread throughout the Southern states. And don’t forget to enter for a chance to win signed copies of my Moon Michigan and Moon Florida Keys guidebooks. As stated in my previous post, you can enter by simply sharing your favorite road-trip memory or preferred road-trip destination as a comment below this post, via an email to laura@wanderingsoles.com, or as a post/comment on either the Moon Michigan Facebook page or the Moon Florida Keys Facebook page. I’ll be accepting entries until 11:59 p.m. PST on Tuesday, July 10th. Good luck!

Leave a Reply