When it comes to places to take a vacation, it’s easy to think of America’s big cities: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Miami. But America is filled with wonders that are less heralded but no less magnificent, from the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest to the moss-draped bayous of the South. Along the way, there are sparkling caves, thundering waterfalls, quirky festivals, historic buildings, inspiring art and world-class food—all packed into towns with a smaller population than many college campuses.
For the fourth annual version of our list, we once again worked with the geographical information company ESRI to sort the nation’s small towns (those with a population under 20,000) according to their number of cultural attractions, historical sites, nature opportunities and food-and-drink destinations, then researched to find the places commemorating important anniversaries, openings, renovations, recoveries and other milestones in 2015. Think of this list not as a ranking but as a menu, with something for every taste—whether it’s country bluegrass, Florida’s white beaches or Alaska’s blue mountains.