Small Towns We Love

Above Image | Amy Mikler The best small towns know how to live big: Mount Dora, Florida.

Southern Travel + Culture

Five great little communities that are well worth a visit—or perhaps even a move.

By Paula Disbrowe

We're drawn to pocket-size communities because they serve up the simple pleasures of broad porches, biscuit breakfasts, and lazy strolls under ancient trees with deep, deep roots. They sound like homegrown music and taste like fruit cobblers and country ham. In a small town, you can savor a region's culinary heritage, immerse yourself in its culture, and encounter local artisans who are fully committed to their crafts—whether their medium is pottery, pizza, or bourbon. Usually, the charm and character of these towns aren't fortuitous but hard-won, because the best of them actively preserve and revive their historic structures, keeping their downtowns vibrant. Here are some of our favorites—each one a small hamlet with a big heart.

Mount Dora, Florida

Population: 12,534


About 30 miles from Orlando and almost equidistant from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Mount Dora would make a great base camp for vacationers, but residents consider this peaceful retreat a reason to stay put. Established in the 1880s, the charming village is known for treelined streets, antiques, historic inns, and a welcoming small-town atmosphere.


Located on Lake Dora, the historic community is steeped in Southern hospitality, replete with water-centric sports (it's known as the "Bass Capital of the World"), and conducive to relaxed afternoons on broad porches. Gorgeous antique boats are revered and collected, leading to sunset socializing on the water. Year-round festivals draw locals and visitors together for art, music, and more.


After sweet dreams at the Lakeside Inn, have breakfast in its Beauclaire Dining Room. You're in one of the last remaining grand Victorian hotels, so by all means have a mimosa. Built in 1883, the inn features five brightly painted yellow-and-white buildings with 87 guest rooms and suites, a lakeside swimming pool, and a veranda lined with rocking chairs.

After a stroll under large moss-draped oak trees, start shopping. Renninger's Vintage Antique Center and Farmer's & Flea Market ( is a weekend vendor selling antiques, produce, and more in two buildings and multiple open-air stalls. Downtown, Oliver's Twist Antiques ( is an eclectic retailer offering a range of antique furniture, jewelry, and more, plus estate-appraisal options. You can pick up a good poolside read or two at Barrel of Books and Games (, Chrissy Stiles' popular independent bookshop.

Grab a table in the courtyard of The Goblin Market Restaurant, a bistro and local favorite since 1996, for a range of global flavors, including Irish Whiskey Onion Soup. Or stop by the Copacabana Cuban Cafe for lunch and a refreshing mojito.;

Then take a little time to admire the exquisite collection at Modernism Museum Mount Dora, which explores the work of the American Studio Arts Movement and includes such masters as Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima. Pick up a few quirky souvenirs—maybe a Kandinsky-print wallet—at the museum gift shop.

Walk across the street for an aperitif and dinner (a multicourse tasting or a beer and burger) at 1921 by Norman Van Aken, set to open this month. The restaurant's namesake celebrity chef was seduced by the town's charm. Named for the year emblazoned on the building's facade, the restaurant will serve Southern-inspired dishes like barrelfish with fried Florida oysters and curry sauce. "Mount Dora is the kind of place where you feel an immediate sense of trust and warmth emanating from its collective heart," says the chef.


Departing from Lakeside Inn, Premier Boat Tours offers daily, two-hour ecotours that take you on a water excursion through towering cypress trees. You're likely to spot herons, egrets, turtles, and alligators.

Bardstown, Kentucky

Population: 12,998


Kentucky's second-oldest city and the "Bourbon Capital of the World," Bardstown sits at the head of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and it's home to six distilleries. Much of the local culture revolves around this industry—roughly 80% of the world's bourbon is housed within 20 miles of downtown—but Bardstown's appeal runs much deeper.


This town has an eclectic population, a mix of longtime residents and a younger generation who have lived elsewhere and returned with a new appreciation for their roots.


Have a good night's sleep and a full country breakfast at Bourbon Manor Bed & Breakfast Inn ( Check out the grand homes on North Third Street, aka "Distiller's Row." The Historic District, framing Courthouse Square, buzzes with restaurants and shops such as Gallery on the Square (, Shaq & CoCo (, and Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace (

Explore the lush grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park, and have lunch nearby at Kurtz Restaurant, which has been serving Southern fare since 1937.;

Drive to Willett Distillery, a family-run boutique operation that was founded by Thompson Willett in 1936. Take the distillery tour, which ends with a tasting.

Stop by Old Talbott Tavern, which has welcomed travelers since the late 1700s. Brothers Jim and John Kelley—owners of the restaurant, bar, and six-room B&B—recently purchased two adjacent buildings that were built by their great-grandfather and are converting them into 15 guest rooms.

Walk around the corner for a bittersweet boulevardier cocktail at Harrison-Smith House. Chefs Newman Miller and Josh Smouse use locally sourced ingredients to create what Miller describes as food "of a place."


This month marks the 25th anniversary of the six-day Kentucky Bourbon Festival, a popular family-friendly celebration.

Comfort, Texas

Population: 2,363


Like the nearby town of Fredericksburg, Comfort is an absurdly charming Hill Country town, but it's quieter—and locals like it that way. German immigrants established Comfort in 1854, and its historic downtown (distinguished by more than 100 buildings dating back to the 19th century) is among the best preserved in Texas. A short drive in any direction serves up the rugged beauty of the Hill Country—wildflowers, peach and pecan orchards, vineyards, and pasturelands populated with horses and baby goats.


Descendants of original pioneer families still compose much of Comfort's population. Others have migrated here for its beauty and slower pace. "The people who live here are what make Comfort so special," says Lisa Jenkins, who moved to town with husband Phil to open Camp Comfort, a historic bowling alley they transformed into a stylish bed-and-breakfast. "We have such a diverse group of residents, yet we all come together to form this little tight-knit community," she says.


Rise and shine at Camp Comfort, where you can sip your coffee by Cypress Creek before heading to the historic Social Hall for fruit, yogurt, granola—and a side of board games. There's no front desk at this non-hosted B&B, but well-appointed rooms and thoughtful touches (cookies all day!) don't leave you wanting. The stylish cabins frame a spacious courtyard stocked with fire pits, plenty of wood, mod orange chairs, and cozy wool blankets— everything you'll need for stargazing later that evening.

But first there are treasures to find, so start shopping. At Blackbird Antiques & Interiors (, Karen Frias sells a mix of vintage finds, succulents, rugs, and high-thread-count linens, but the biggest draw might be her pugs, who actually receive fan mail. That's typical of this friendly town. "When I moved here 12 years ago, I immediately relaxed," Frias says. "It felt like home."

Next door at Tinsmith's Wife (, find inspiration for every kind of needlework in the store's colorful spools of high-quality fibers and yarn. They also offer classes. Home to dozens of vendors, the sprawling labyrinth of Comfort Antique Mall (830/995-4678) has everything from funky birdcages to vintage kitchenware.

Follow locals to High's Cafe & Store, where owners Brent Ault and Denise Rabalais serve fresh salads and pastries, along with just about anything you could possibly want for lunch, including The Big Easy, a hot muffuletta.

Afterward, head across the street to Hotel Faust, a historic landmark built by noted architect Alfred Giles in 1880. The main building is the original two-story hotel that once welcomed stagecoaches. The property has been extensively renovated, but its deep porches, outfitted with rocking chairs and bikes, provide the same simple pleasures enjoyed a century ago.

Call ahead to reserve your dough at Comfort Pizza, because they make only so many pies per night and inevitably sell out. Housed in an old gas station, the wood-fired restaurant has amassed a passionate following for its pizzas and ambience: There's a scattering of tables and colorful metal chairs underneath live oak trees.


Bending Branch Winery is a 56-acre vineyard that produces award-winning varietals like Tannat, the signature grape here. Sip a crisp Picpoul Blanc, among others, at the vineyard's tasting room or at Branch on High, a satellite location in downtown Comfort.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Population: 2,095


A peaceful spot nestled in the northwest corner of Arkansas, Eureka Springs is known for scenic beauty and rushing mineral waters; plus its entire downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its winding mountainside streets feature cliff-hugging Victorian homes, quaint inns, and a vibrant arts and music scene (with around 30 galleries downtown).


You'll find 400 artists working in just about every medium here, but Eureka Springs also attracts musicians and anyone else drawn to its slightly off-the-grid culture. Year-round festivals celebrate everything from the blues to UFOs, enhancing the eccentric scene.


Start at Brews, which doubles as a java joint and taproom with live music at night.

Once you're caffeinated, start your gallery stroll on Spring Street. Don't miss Zarks Gallery (, Iris at the Basin Park (479/253-9494), and The Crochet Room (479/244-0758). For lunch, veer slightly off the beaten path to Oscar's Cafe (479/981-1436), where a British chef serves homemade sausages, dill biscuits with egg and caper salad, and a swoon-worthy bacon, Brie, and roasted tomato sandwich.

Drink in the evening light and a glass of wine on the patio of The Stone House (479/363-6411), a wine-and-cheese bar, or head to Aquarius Taqueria (479/253-6888) for homemade corn tortillas and the best margaritas in town.

In Eureka Springs, the most unusual lodgings take you into the woods. Located in a 15-acre wooded sanctuary, Crescent Cottages were designed by David W. McKee, a student of Arkansas' own architectural legend E. Fay Jones, and blend 1900s Craftsman-style design with modern flourishes. Treehouse Cottages, designed and hand built by Terry and Patsy Miller, offers unique lodging in two locations: on a wooded hillside near downtown and in a 33-acre pine forest a few miles away. Each elevated cottage has a high wraparound deck. crescent;


Design buffs should check out Thorncrown Chapel, which has received numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects.

Leipers Fork, Tennessee

Population: 650 (on 1,100 acres)


Located in Williamson County, on the Natchez Trace Parkway, Leipers Fork is a charming village where the vibe is easy like Sunday morning. Its lush landscape offers a picturesque backdrop for boutiques, galleries, and down-home Southern fare. At day's end, all roads lead to live music.


"We're not really a city so much as a wide spot in the highway," says Aubrey Preston, the preservationist and real estate developer who championed the effort to rescue the area's pristine land. He and others rallied to protect the existing culture when enthusiastic newcomers (like Justin Timberlake) started moving in. Preston describes the community as "culture junkies" who appreciate simple pleasures like a "Leipers Fork hang," when locals gather on a porch for food, drink, and laughter.


Join the cast of characters at the Country Boy Restaurant (615/721-8109) for breakfast. Just down the street, Alexandra Cirimelli runs Serenite Maison (, a boutique specializing in European antiques, exclusive lines of jewelry, vintage instruments in the front "picking corner," and more. Nearby at Finds in the Fork (, former music photographer Karen Whitford sells music-inspired merchandise.

A little farther down, explore Leiper's Creek Gallery, The Copper Fox, and David Arms Gallery.;;

Before dark, check into Tin Roof Cottage, a cute two-bedroom house with a porch swing ( Then follow the sound of a strumming guitar. You never know who will take the stage at the original Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant, especially on Thursday's open mike night. Chances are, you'll run into current owner Rob Robinson (look for the ZZ Top beard), a Nashville music industry veteran. Order a cold longneck, a catfish sandwich, and sweet potato fries, and settle in.


Take a tour of the just-opened Leiper's Fork Distillery, which produces small-batch whiskey from local ingredients and limestone-filtered water.