New England’s Best Small Towns

From mountains to shoreline, our region offers no end of burgs filled with postcard ingredients: gleaming church spires, warm old red brick, jewel-like town greens. The 15 best towns, though, have something extra—a certain flavor that offers not just great snapshots, but also a great escape.

Camden, ME

Because… this is the Main Street of all Main Streets.

Photo by Todd Dionne

Photo by Todd Dionne

With the Camden Hills as a backdrop and an oh-so-lovely harbor, this is small-town Maine so classic it might have come off a Hollywood backlot (Peyton Place was filmed here, in fact). The most iconic view is right through the historic heart of Camden, where every block has a story to tell. —Rachel Levitt

• The one-story building that now holds the Smiling Cow gift shop was rolled down Main Street from the village green in 1919.

• The town nearly burned to the ground in an 1892 fire, which started here.

• The spire of Chestnut Street Baptist Church, built in 1837, is a focal point of Main Street.

• Boynton-McKay Food Co. opened in 1893 and still features an art deco marble soda fountain counter rumored to have cost as much as a small farm.

• After the 1892 fire, this side of Main Street was rebuilt entirely of brick.

• The town held its first, and only, lobster festival here in 1947—with all-you-can-eat lobster for $1. (Too many littered shells saw the festival moved to nearby Rockland.)

 

Dorset, VT

Because… this is what picture-perfect looks like.

For restless city-dwellers, driving into Dorset is like entering a Thornton Wilder scene—the perfect example of what urbanites forfeit in favor of skyscrapers and dim sum. Lined with clapboard homes and divided by a town green, Church Street is home to the requisite general store (complete with ’70s-era gas pump) and several gracious inns where days are dominated by pancakes and porch-sitting. But the town is more than a relic: In addition to penny candy, its store has a gourmet deli and a separate wine room. Perhaps that’s why there’s no mass exodus here during mud season; even the summer people come up year-round. —Brigid Sweeney

 

Exeter, NH

Because… of this guy.

Photo by Todd Dionne

Photo by Todd Dionne

Home of the redoubtable Phillips Exeter Academy, this town has long prided itself on being an incubator of young overachievers. It’s fitting, then, that a 25-year-old wunderkind has taken the helm of its highest-profile restaurant. This summer Ben Hasty—former apprentice to French Laundry star Thomas Keller—signed on as executive chef at the Exeter Inn’s Epoch, launching an “upscale bistro” menu (think steak frites with onion confit and Worcestershire butter) that draws on local ingredients. And despite Exeter’s off-the-beaten-path location, Hasty is cooking to the standards of what he deems a very worldly crowd. “People travel here from all over the globe to put their kids into Exeter,” the Maine native says, “which gives Epoch extraordinary potential to be a destination restaurant.” (That is, as long as it can keep its chef: After tasting Hasty’s charcuterie plate, a brewery heiress from Montreal proposed kidnapping him to be her personal cook.) —J. L. Johnson

 

Shelburne Falls, MA

Because… if you can imagine it, they can make it.

There’s nary a Walmart in sight in this Deerfield River hamlet, which only stands to reason: Few places are more antichain than Shelburne Falls, where everything—and we mean everything—is handmade. Its streets hum with the energy of artisans making handblown glass bowls, quilts, kitchen knives, and much more. Fans of high-end crafts meander through the Shelburne Arts Co-op and individual studios, where laid-back locals tend to decompress with a can of Bud after a day of making beautiful things. Tempted to embark on your own treasure hunt? Here are a handful of gems to inspire you. —Matthew Reed Baker

Laurie Goddard: In her studio on Bridge Street, Goddard paints dreamy images inspired by the landscapes of Japan, Italy, and the Berkshires and filtered through an abstract expressionist lens.

Stillwater Porcelain: These ceramic artisans specialize in adapting Mother Nature’s own designs—including shells, flowers, and crab apple trees—for a variety of highly detailed pieces, from dinner plates to wall tiles to soap dishes.

Angelic Glass: After watching glassblowers shape delicate ornaments, you can buy their creations right next door at the Young & Constantin Gallery.

Molly Cantor: Featuring quirky depictions of birds, farm animals, and even Shelburne Falls itself, Cantor’s pottery and sculpture may come off as playful, but her method is seriously ingenious. After molding the form from a slab of basic clay, she coats it with a different-colored clay, then carves into the layers to achieve her trademark block-print look.

Ann Brauer: An NEA grant recipient with work at the Museum of Arts and Design, Brauer pieces together mesmerizing quilts and wall hangings that evoke New England’s seasons and landscape.

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  • Dan

    Don’t miss Great Barrington Bra & Girl (GBBG) at the top of Railroad Street, the area’s only full-service bra shop, and one of the best intimate apparel and accessories shops that you’ll find anywhere!

  • lo

    also- see Brad at Allium-the best bartender in the Berkshires

  • Dan Shaw

    One of the best places to eat in GB is not on Restaurant Row–it’s Cafe Adam http://tinyurl.com/nuqhc5

  • Claudia

    If you are serious about food, this is the place. It’s a couple of miles north of town.

  • fred

    no one in Shelburne Falls drinks Bud… they (we) prefer locally made micro-brews

  • Marti

    Don’t miss Millerton NY, one of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel “10 Coolest Towns in America”. We are just 10 minutes or less to Sharon, CT and about 30 minutes to Great Barrington We’re a little bit Hip and a little bit Homey! To come on over.

  • Chris

    I have lived in Sharon all my life and it’s nice to see Sharon getting such recognition . The article got it right when it added Sharon.

  • Jonathan

    In Harvard, between orchards, you also have to go to the General Store (a gourmet/locavore paradise), get a cappuccino, sit on the Common, and look at the beautiful old houses. Then go to Fruitlands Museum.

  • Eve

    You forgot to mention the magnificent hillsides and valleys (ablaze with color right now) and the ancient pot holes and waterfalls, and my favorite – the very beautiful bridge of flowers.

  • Eve

    I forgot to mention above, I am talking about Shelburne Falls, MA.
    1

  • J

    Couple comments:
    The bad: Putnam might be quaint because of the antiques, but other than that – it’s pretty much a dump. I grew up near there.
    The good: Hancock IS a beautiful town, not to mention the incredibly nice people. It’s also next door to another beautiful town, my other hometown of Harrisville.