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10 inviting small towns and cities to visit

By foot and bicycle are the best ways to explore the region's charming small towns and cities, like St. Francisville, Louisiana. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Good things come in small packages, as the saying goes. That’s evident in the towns and small cities that populate America’s central corridor. While the bright lights of major metropolises might be alluring, smaller communities shine with distinctive charms. These 10 walkable, yet sometimes overlooked, destinations offer cuisine, museums, and outdoor activities just as enticing as those in large cities.

Jump to: Arkansas | Illinois | Indiana | Kansas | Louisiana | Mississippi | Missouri

1. Hermann, Missouri

Couple touring the wine cellar at Stone Hill Winery.

Explore the winemaking heritage of Hermann at several wineries, including Stone Hill Winery. Photo courtesy

German settlers planted grapevines in the rolling hillsides of Hermann in 1837, cultivating an enduring heritage of winemaking and hospitality. Taste the legacy year-round at a family-owned winery such as Stone Hill, Adam Puchta, or Hermannhof (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol). The town hosts a full slate of festivals throughout the year, headlined by Wurstfest (March), Maifest (May), and Oktoberfest (October).

As you wander around this picture-book village’s red-brick buildings, you’ll find distilleries, shops, and distinctive eateries. The Tin Mill Restaurant occupies a repurposed 3-story grain elevator that dates to the 1840s.

At the Hermann Farm, take a carriage ride (adults, $15) or sign up for tram or carriage tours of the 200-acre farm that showcase an 1847 Greek Revival house, agricultural history, and a distillery (adults, $20).

You may also like: Tank Trip: Things to do in Hermann, Missouri

2. Hannibal, Missouri

Family of 4 standing outside the Mark Twain home with tour guides.

Historic Hannibal celebrates native son Mark Twain at a variety of places in town, including his boyhood home. Photo courtesy

With Hannibal’s cobbled paths and preserved buildings, it’s easy to imagine author Mark Twain’s famous character Tom Sawyer trying to trick you into whitewashing a fence. You’ll be immersed in tales of Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, in this quaint Mississippi River town that’s more than 200 years old. Tours of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum include 8 Twain-related sites (adults, $14).

In brick storefronts downtown, you’ll find art galleries along with boutiques that specialize in antiques, primitives, home decor, and seasonal gifts. Head underground just southeast of downtown at the Mark Twain Cave Complex, the inspiration for McDougal’s Cave in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (adults, $24.99). Step back to the 1950s at Becky Thatcher’s Diner, which serves breakfast all day and lunch.

3. Nauvoo, Illinois

Red brick buildings along a street in Nauvoo.

In quaint Nauvoo, learn about the town's intriguing history by touring restored buildings. Photo by Rebecca Williamson

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled Nauvoo from 1839–1846. Before religious persecution forced them to flee west, they built a city that rivaled Chicago at the time. In this tranquil town, eateries and shops line Mulholland Street, the main thoroughfare. Pick up souvenirs and seasonal gifts at the Allyn House.

Learn the town’s intriguing story at the Historic Nauvoo Visitors Center and the Joseph Smith Historic Site (closed until April 2024). Free tours of historic buildings include a printshop, a tin shop, and a gun shop owned by Jonathan Browning, who designed the first repeating rifle. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, children will especially enjoy the free rides in horse-drawn wagons and carriages.

4. New Harmony, Indiana

Overhead view of a hedge labyrinth.

Discover a peaceful getaway to New Harmony, where experiences like a hedge labyrinth encourage you to slow down. Photo courtesy Historic New Harmony/University of Southern Indiana

Seeking peace and quiet? Affordable, art-loving New Harmony has a single stoplight. Two short-lived utopian experiments in the early 1800s in this Wabash River community harvested cultural, educational, and scientific gains. Get oriented at the modern steel-and-glass Atheneum, which serves as the hamlet’s visitors center.

Shops in New Harmony.

Preserved historic buildings in New Harmony now house galleries and shops. Photo courtesy Historic New Harmony/University of Southern Indiana

As you stroll downtown, pop into art galleries and shops like Firehouse Antiques & Advertising, where you can peruse vintage wares in a restored 1890s fire station. Find serenity among the Harmonist Labyrinth’s lush shrubs planted in concentric circles around a small stone building. Peacefulness also pervades the Roofless Church, a cedar-shingled dome with an opening at the top set in a scenic park-like setting.

You may also like: 10 architectural wonders you have to see

5. Lawrence, Kansas

Diners, buskers, and shoppers on a street in downtown Lawrence.

A stroll along Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence leads to cafés, galleries, and boutiques. Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Quirky and vibrant describe Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas. You’ll find abolitionist history and a thriving arts scene.

Stroll down Massachusetts Street (known locally as Mass Street) for boutiques, coffee shops, and fine food like Cajun gumbo at Terrebonne Po’ Boys. Sip a glass of beer at Free State Brewing Company, which became Kansas’ first post-Prohibition brewery when it opened in 1989.

Visit on the last Friday of any month for the Final Fridays art walk downtown and in the Warehouse Arts District. The area also comes alive with street performers during late May’s annual Lawrence Busker Festival. For other free cultural pursuits, explore the city’s sometimes violent past at the Watkins Museum of History, and admire a world-class collection at the Spencer Museum of Art.

You may also like: A quick guide to Lawrence, Kansas

6. Bentonville, Arkansas

Visitors admiring a display at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The arts thrive in Bentonville, home to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Photo by Drager Creative/Courtesy Visit Bentonville

Art and adventure top the allures of Bentonville. Start with art, much of it offered free by the Walton family of Walmart fame. Alice Walton founded the culture-meets-nature Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Another Walton family initiative, the Momentary, highlights performing and visual arts in a repurposed cheese plant.

The Scott Family Amazeum children’s museum (visitors 3 and older, $12) and free Museum of Native American History round out must-see destinations.

Mountain bikers love the extensive network of trails that crisscross the area’s rolling Ozark hills. The town has earned a reputation as a premier destination for the sport.

Bartender shaking up a cocktail behind the bar.

Downtown Bentonville boasts a vibrant food scene with award-winning restaurants and hip watering holes. Photo by Drager Creative/Courtesy Visit Bentonville

Prefer exploring on 2 feet? Stroll the Bentonville City Square and downtown environs for boutiques and restaurants whose menus run the gamut from tacos and sushi to wood-fired pizzas and crepes. In the lively 8th Street Market, toast the town at Bike Rack Brewing Company, one of several area brewpubs.

You may also like: Why mountain bikers, art lovers, and foodies are visiting Bentonville, Arkansas

7. Hot Springs, Arkansas

Couple and relaxing on a bench, their dog seated beside them, on Bathhouse Row.

A stroll along Hot Springs' opulent Bathhouse Row is a step back in time. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Water has long been a buzzword in Hot Springs. Native American tribes, the first of which arrived about 3,000 years ago, bathed in the area’s thermal waters, and bathhouses began springing up in the late 1800s.

Relax in the soothing waters at the Buckstaff Bathhouse (starting at $40) or Quapaw Baths & Spa (starting at $25). Stroll the stately Grand Promenade, a brick-paved ½-mile shady trail above the elegant Bathhouse Row.

Take a break from the art galleries dotting downtown and stop at the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum, the visitors center for Hot Springs National Park. Learn about the history of bathing as well as the town.

Sample the spring waters at the Hot Springs Jug Fountain. Adults can find another tasty option at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, which uses the thermal water to craft its beers. It’s the only brewery in a national park.

You may also like: A guide to visiting Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas

8. Natchitoches, Louisiana

A trio of shoppers looking at kitchenware.

In Natchitoches' 33-square-block historic district, the variety of shops includes Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile, Louisiana's oldest general store. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Founded in 1714 along the picturesque Cane River, Natchitoches (nack-a-tish) is the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory. Free walking tours of its National Historic Landmark District begin at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. They showcase early Caddo Indian history, the French and Spanish colonial period, and the era of plantations and slavery.

This historic district encompasses 33 square blocks. Savor authentic Creole and Cajun flavors, pop into art galleries, and shop one-of-a-kind boutiques. 

Let nostalgia kick in at the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile, whose 1863 founding makes it Louisiana’s oldest general store. Experience more history near downtown at Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, which features replica buildings of the early 1700s garrison.

You may also like: Don’t miss these 10 underrated national park sites

9. St. Francisville, Louisiana

Trio of women relaxing in porch rocking chairs.

Porches in charming St. Francisville invite lingering. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Moss-draped live oaks and restored buildings line roadways around St. Francisville. This quintessential small Louisiana town dates to the early 1800s. In a short stroll, you’ll pass shops, bed-and-breakfasts, and eateries. Duck into the District Mercantile for apparel, antiques, seasonal gifts, and souvenirs.

The picturesque area inspired John James Audubon. He briefly stayed at the Oakley Plantation in 1821 while working on his seminal Birds of America book of illustrations. Discover his legacy as an artist, teacher, and naturalist on tours of the Oakley House at the heart of Audubon State Historic Site (adults, $10).

More natural wonders await at nearby Afton Villa Gardens, a 25-acre oasis that’s open March 1–June 30 and October 1–November 30 (adults, $5).

10. Natchez, Mississippi

Boat sailing along the Mississippi River.

You can enjoy Mississippi River views from most places in Natchez, home to more 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy Visit Natchez

Celebrating its preserved heritage, Natchez boasts more than 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. Hugging the Mississippi River and dripping with Southern charm, the city’s attractive downtown feature scores of restaurants, galleries, music venues, and shops, like Silver Street Gallery & Gifts for home decor, art, apparel, and jewelry.

Before the Civil War brought slavery to an end, plantation profits were invested in lavish estates like octagonal Longwood. Tours showcase the mansion that was left unfinished after craftsmen fled the impending war (adults, $25). Explore additional private and museum homes during Fall and Spring Pilgrimage tours.

In recent years, some locations have endeavored to shine a light on slavery in Natchez’ history in addition to more traditional topics like architecture and gardening. Discover Native American heritage at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, featuring a visitors center, nature trail, and mounds.

Janice Denham is a freelance writer from Kirkwood, Missouri.

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