These towns all have fewer than 10,000 people—but they can rival larger cities when it comes to good food, culture, and quality of life.
1. Port Jervis, N.Y.
By Karen Tina Harrison
Nearest city: New York, 93 miles
Priced out of New York City by rising rents, many artists and shopkeepers are moving to this old railroad and canal hub on the Delaware River. "You can own a house with real character at a price that's unheard of downstate," says Mark Washburn, who opened an arts and crafts furniture store, Bungalow Antiques & Unusuals, with his partner, Billy Stephens, last year (80 Front St., 845/858-8021).
Cheap commercial real estate also attracted Gordon Graff and Debbie Raia. They started a gallery, UpFront Exhibition Space, four months ago to showcase the works of emerging artists and to host poetry and short-story readings (31 Jersey Ave., 845/856-2666, upfrontexhibitionspace.blogspot.com). The couple also owns Twenty Seven Gallery, an antiques store up the street (27 Front St., 845/856-2727).
Visitors can stay at the 1880s Erie Hotel, which has nine single rooms (9 Jersey Ave., 845/858-4100, $70). The best dining option is Restaurant at 20 Front, housed in a neoclassical former bank. Chef Daniel Weber cooks American dishes like chorizo-stuffed pork chops and butternut squash risotto (20 Front St., 845/856-8955, twentyfront.com, pork chops $24).
2. Manitou Springs, Colo.
By Sharlene Johnson
Nearest city: Colorado Springs, 6 miles
One of the things Fred Mutter loves most about Manitou Springs, where he relocated three years ago, is that its residents come from all walks of life. "There's a huge range of people who live here, from scientists and businessmen to new-age hippies," he says. "It's really an eclectic group." His store fits right in: Kinfolks Mountain Shop sells outdoor gear, but it's also a bar and live-music venue (950 Manitou Ave., 719/685-4433, kinfolksmanitou.com). In fact, you won't find any chain stores in the Victorian-era buildings crammed into the narrow valley at the foot of Pikes Peak.
WeUsOur Artists Market has unusual art on display, such as giant pottery teapots and portraits painted with coffee (10 Ruxton Ave., 719/685-9702), while Cripple Creek Dulcimers & Guitars is run by a tie-dye-wearing former mayor, Bud Ford, who bears a striking resemblance to the late Jerry Garcia (740 Manitou Ave., 719/685-9655, dulcimer.net).
At The Maté Factor café, wraps of hormone-free turkey share the menu with maté, a beverage popular in South America (966 Manitou Ave., 719/685-3235, matefactor.com, wrap $5). Last year, the town's 19th-century former bathhouse was renovated into lofts and a restaurant, Adam's Mountain Café, which offers a hodgepodge of cuisines, including African, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian (934 Manitou Ave., 719/685-1430, adamsmountain.com, jerked chicken $19).
3. Yellow Springs, Ohio
By Peter Mandel
Nearest city: Dayton, 21 miles
Yellow Springs has been a beacon for artists, activists, and creative thinkers since progressive Antioch College opened in 1852. "You can breathe here and feel very comfortable expressing yourself," says Kim Korkan, co-owner of The Winds Cafe & Bakery, which serves dishes using ingredients mostly from local farms (215 Xenia Ave., 937/767-1144, , rhubarb halibut $24).
Although the college was forced to close this summer because of financial problems, Yellow Springs is thriving: The main drag, Xenia Avenue, is lined with shops, cafés, restaurants, and galleries. No Common Scents sells more than 250 varieties of herbs and spices from across the globe (1525 Xenia Ave., 937/767-4261, ), and Clemente Ullmer's shop, La Llama Place, is stocked with crafts from South America (224 Xenia Ave., 937/767-8650, ).
Across town, the Yellow Springs Dharma Center, a Buddhist retreat draped in Tibetan prayer flags, holds meditation and chanting sessions (502 Livermore St., 937/767-9919, ). Public art has taken on a new meaning in the town, as well. One day, knitting appeared wrapped around a tree downtown, and soon passersby were bringing yarn to add to it. Now, the signposts up and down Xenia Avenue are covered with knitted "graffiti."
4. Mazomanie, Wis.
By Erik Torkells
Nearest city: Madison, 24 miles
"I got tired of driving through a ghost town," says Bob Brumley when asked why he founded his artists' co-op, the Iron Horse Gallery (18 E. Hudson St., 608/795-2789, ). The co-op began in 2006 with five artists and now has 18—as well as a café, A Better Buzz. Mazo (may-zoh) is chockablock with artists, many of whom were drawn here by the historic downtown and cheap real estate. "You can't swing a stick in these hills without hitting an artist," says Brumley.
Along with galleries, Mazo boasts the Mazomanie Historic Arts Center (103 Crescent St., 608/575-9390, ) and Mazomanie Movement Arts Center, a dance studio with a circus camp (2 Brodhead St., 608/795-0014, ). Even the Wall Street Gallery & Bistro exhibits artwork (14 Brodhead St., 608/576-6694, , pastas from $15). But there's more to life than art.
You can buy Wisconsin-made souvenirs at Walter's General Store (34 Brodhead St., 608/795-4455); stay at the Walking Iron B&B, an 1865 Italianate house (21 State St., 877/572-9877, , from $90); and rent bicycles at ProCycle (30 Brodhead St., 608/795-0019, ). Ask politely and the staff might tell you how to get to the clothing-optional Mazo Beach—or Bare-Ass Beach, as it's known among some in town.
5. Point Reyes Station, Calif.
By Scott HutchinsPopulation: 818
Nearest city: San Francisco, 39 miles
The dilemma in Point Reyes Station is what to do first: explore Point Reyes National Seashore (415/464-5100, ) or just wander around and eat. At Toby's Feed Barn, second-generation owner Christian Giacomini runs a farmers market, gallery, and yoga studio, while still selling hay and salt licks. Also inside, the baristas at Toby's CoffeeBar pour cappuccinos with rippled hearts in the foam (11250 Hwy. 1, 415/663-1223, ).
Nearby, Cowgirl Creamery produces excellent soft-ripened cheeses, such as the Pierce Point, which is made from organic whole milk, washed in organic Riesling, and rolled in herbs (80 Fourth St., 415/663-9335, ). When you're ready to experience some nature, Chicago native Laurie Manarik leads hiking trips to see seal pups and conducts nighttime kayaking excursions to check out bioluminescence in nearby Tomales Bay (Point Reyes Outdoors, 11401 Hwy. 1, 415/663-8192, ).
The bay's oysters, it must be said, are the best around. Eat them where locals do—up the road at The Marshall Store (19225 Hwy. 1, 415/663-1339, ). The beautiful scenery may make you want to put down roots. "After my first visit after college, I spent the rest of my life figuring out how to live here," Manarik says.