Best Places to Live

2013 10 Best Small Towns

People across the country are in search of authentic communities with unique atmospheres, colorful characters and a true sense that there is no other place like it. Sprinkled between major highways and busy airports are drive-by or fly-over cities offering a slower, and some say richer, slice of life.

To find the Top 10 Best Small Towns in America for 2013 we narrowed down our search to micropolitan areas. We steered clear of big-city suburbs and places considered part of a larger metropolitan region, which we included in the Top 10 Small Towns 2012 list. Next, we examined populations and economic growth rates to see which of these towns were attracting new residents and businesses. Then we looked at how they scored on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Amenities Scale. Finally, we talked to people who live in these towns, assessed the amenities they offer, and compared employment rates, cost of living and other economic factors. Other sources included the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Labor and town representatives.

"The best small towns all have one thing in common: something unique that sets them apart from other towns," says Mitch Moody, president of Growing Your Town, an economic development consulting company that works with small to mid-size cities. "A distinctive identity is absolutely vital if a town is to stand out among all the other small towns vying for attention from businesses and the general public," he says.

We also considered an area's intangible factors: a less hurried atmosphere, tight community bonds, good schools, environmentally friendly planning, an emphasis on family values and historic preservation.

Whether you're looking for a place to settle down, or an authentic spot to visit, check out our picks for the best small towns in the country.

Ranking Criteria
Population
Distance from major city
Natural Amenities Scale
Employment rate
Cost of Living
Quality Schools
  • 10

    Cambridge, MD

    Population: 12,534
    Photo: David Harp

    Eastern Shore traditions endure in Cambridge, MD, where the biggest party of the year is the annual Crab Cook-Off, and watermen still pull up to the docks at J.M. Clayton Co. to sell their catch of the day. Yet, a renaissance is underway in this waterfront town, one of the oldest colonial cities in Maryland, which overlooks the Choptank River near Chesapeake Bay. A mix of private and public renovation projects reinvigorated the tourism industry in Cambridge, while also enhancing the quality of life residents enjoy. Improvements to streets, playgrounds, parks and parking lots helped bring residents and businesses back to the city's downtown area, which thrives with independent shops, boutiques, restaurants and galleries.

    Many and varied events bring people to downtown and waterfront parks, including powerboat and sailing regattas, concerts and seafood festivals. The Dorchester Center for the Arts, one of many attractions in Cambridge, features changing exhibits and offers classes and workshops. It's common to find artists perched on piers, painting nautical scenes as fishermen catch catfish, perch and trout from the river. Locals spend leisure time gathered in cozy pubs, soaking in sunshine while walking along the shoreline and playing sports on the city's athletic fields. Seafood pulled from the bay just hours earlier fills the menus at many restaurants in Cambridge like Leaky Pete's Oyster & Wine Bar, Jimmie & Sook's, Snappers and Portside. People can find fresh, local fruits and vegetables, meats, and baked goods at the town's popular farmers market.

    Growth rate (2010-12): 1%

    Size: 10 square miles

    Average commute: 23 minutes