4 Reasons You Should Try Small Town Travel + What To Do When You Get There

Why should you try small town travel? It's cheap, it's relaxing, and those businesses appreciate you! #smalltowntravel #budgettravel

When you hear the words ‘small town travel’ is your immediate reaction “What now?” or “Why would I go to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin when I could go to NYC?”

If you’re narrowing your eyes doubtfully at me right now, I beg of you: Hear me out! There are so, SO many reasons to vacation in small towns or make smaller cities a travel destination.

And I should know. I grew up in a town of 2,000 people in rural Minnesota.  My hometown has one stoplight, three bars, one grocery store, and 10 churches.  Cheryl Strayed and I interned at the same tiny newspaper (about a decade apart, obviously) and my high school mascot is a turkey. (Yes, really.)

These days I live in the Twin Cities, which has a population of 3.2 million when you include suburbs.  I know that rush hour starts at 3:00 pm, I know which neighborhoods to avoid at night, and I know which bars serve delicious $12 cocktails.

And though I love me an overpriced cocktail as much as the next person, I’ll probably always be a country girl at heart. Few things make me happier than a sunny corner booth in a cheap diner or jumping off a rickety dock into a lake. I know a lot of people think small towns and rural America are boring and/or full of rednecks, but I disagree.

4 Reasons You Should Try Small Town Travel

Traveling to small towns is soooo much less stressful

You will see the stars at night and hear the birds in the morning. You won’t spend half your vacation sitting in traffic.  You can wear those Adidas sandals from 1999 and no one will judge you. The air will smell like lake/grass/skunk and you will love it.
There might not be wifi and for this you will thank the stars above (the ones that you can see because there’s no light pollution.)

Smaller cities are so much more affordable

You can order a round of drinks and a bag of peanuts for $9.  At the golf course, the most expensive steak dinner on the menu is $15. Museums are free or maaaaybe $7. Lattes are $3.75 and antiques are affordable.
And so is the lodging! This well-reviewed, cutely-decorated two-bedroom cabin that’s 400 ft from a lake is $65 a night! This apartment sleeps three, is in the mountain biking capital of Minnesota and is THIRTY FIVE DOLLARS a night. (P.S. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!)

The people are (usually) very, very nice

The citizens of New York, Savannah, and San Diego might be a bit worn down by the never-ending tourists and the vacation rentals that eat up available real estate. But small towners? They’re (usually) delighted to meet out of towners and tell them all about what their town or city has to offer.

Want to chat with your waitress for 15 minutes about the weather?  It’s happening.  Want to know where there’s a good swimming beach? The guy at the gas station will probably tell you about five fantastic swimming beaches. Strangers will help you when they see you struggling with, well, anything.

You’re supporting an economy that needs it

Many rural communities are struggling financially.  There are very few high paying jobs in small towns, so many young people move to the city and the little towns are slowly drained of their most promising citizens. When you visit small towns and shop at small, independent businesses, you’re supporting the entire community.

Ideas for a small town travel

  • Canoe around a lake
  • Paw through awesome, not-picked-over, totally under-priced thrift and antique stores
  • Ride your bike on a gravel road
  • Buy produce from a roadside stand
  • Go to a county fair
  • Sit on a porch and drink something cold
  • Cook something over a fire
  • Attend a local theater production or high school sport event
  • Pick wildflowers
  • Spot wildlife, nudge your friend and yell ‘looooook!”
  • Read a book on a dock
  • Enjoy a diner breakfast with pancakes and bottomless coffee
  • Listen to loon calls
  • Two words: tire swing
  • Partake in local delicacies: walleye fingers? butter cake?
Do you live in a small town?  Would you ever vacation in one?
Photo by olivia hutcherson on Unsplash

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  1. Kerry

    Totally agree with you on this one! I'm from a very small town, and while I hated it growing up, now I definitely appreciate renting a cabin somewhere and just chilling out.
    Also, SO COOL that you & Cheryl Strayed interned at the same paper! I saw her read a couple of weeks ago and she was fantastic 🙂

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Right?! When I found out that she grew up in MacGregor (an even smaller town north of my hometown) I was thrillllllled! 😀

  2. Alicia Johnston

    All of the above. This is why I love spending time in northern Wisconsin and in West Virginia so much. It's funny that we have the option to turn off our phones/computers/TVs at home, but when the option to use them is actually taken away (no data or wifi?!) it is hugely refreshing.

    Alicia / Jaybird: Home in Motion

  3. beginswithlemon

    I grew up in a small town — about the size of the one you describe — and this bookish city-girl hated every minute of it. Most of our vacations are added to the beginning or end of work trips, so they most often happen in large-ish cities. Every couple of years, though, we make it to someplace small and quiet. By far my favorite was the cabin we rented just outside of Red Lodge, Montana: creatures! no wi-fi! goofing around with the camera to take pictures of stars! hiking! kayaking in a comically small pond!

  4. Jessica Willingham

    I am from a town of about 3k. BUT within the last few years, grammy-winning country singer/songwriter Miranda Lambert, and her husband Blake Shelton, moved to our town. They love it here. Because, frankly, no one gives a shit how famous/rich you are: we are just real people who believe in manners. She opened a store downtown & it brings in a lot of new visitors. It's been great for our little community. I live in College Station, TX now but go home as often as I can. I miss the stars!


    • Sarah Von Bargen

      That's so cool! Miranda seems so sweet and I love her 'Momma's Broken Heart' song!

  5. Lisa

    I love getting out to the country! I will always be a city lass but the country just can't be beat as the perfect place to escape, relax and recharge.

  6. Mollie @ Jennings Brae Bank Farm

    Oh! Aitkin Bakery! I'm so glad to see they are still there. We used to buy a huge bag of cookies for just a few bucks on our weekly trip to town. (I used to work at Long Lake Conservation Center)

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Sadly, it's closing down 🙁 It's not up to code and the owners can't afford to make the necessary changes.

    • Mollie @ Jennings Brae Bank Farm

      That's too bad. I never thought a thing about code – it was like buying Grandma's homemade cookies!

  7. Sarah M

    I totally agree, you will feel so much better! I am from the midwest (although a 250,000 people town, it still feels smaller to me because everyone seems to know everyone-somehow) where the small towns are just mere 10 minutes away from where I live. You will NEVER find better produce for better prices at the little road stands, the local festivals are cute and totally cheap, and the people are so nice. Where I'm living now (outside Vancouver) it's so different. I recently went camping and just about had the wind knocked out of me when we took the primitive sites for $21/night! Holy crap, and for nothing but a pit bathroom, no showers. I am used to the $5-7 range for that. I am realizing after about a year living here that I will need to eventually buy in an area where there is mostly farmland, less apartment buildings and just deal with being farther away from everything. The difference on my sanity is immense.
    Sarah M

  8. kelsiemonster

    I love this. My grandparents have a lakehouse in Jamestown, PA – in the absolute middle of nowhere. It's like going back in time when we visit: no wifi, no cell service…no problems. Just make a s'more, have a beer & take a kayak out onto the lake. Heaven.

  9. Melanie Taylor

    I think I grew up with the best of both worlds. I lived outside of a medium-sized city (~25-30K), not quite in the country, but close. A few fields and farm animals nearby, but mostly single family homes on large lots. Stars every night and exploring the undeveloped woods and creek behind our house every summer. Catching dozens of toads, climbing trees, running around barefoot. Some relatives lived even further out. In one direction, an aunt had a pool surrounded by horse pastures and tobacco fields. In the other, an uncle had a camper set up in a permanent campground on Kentucky Lake where we'd swim and ski (well, I only tried once but have the scar to prove it) and fish from the pontoon boat in our family's secret catfish hole.

    These days, I live in a different medium-sized city (33K), not downtown, but very close to town. This city is close to a large city (200K) to which I commute daily. It's definitely different from how I grew up. I will say that I'd love to move just a little bit further out and get back the woods and starry skies…

  10. mrs3084

    I'm sold. Totally sounds magical. Seeing the stars + lots book reading & coffee. Sigh.

  11. Gigi

    Oh, I love this! I try to vacation in small towns and/or near nature whenever possible. Love the sound of birds in the morning, views of the stars, etc.

  12. Miranda

    No way! My grandma lives near McGregor! We always spent Christmas there growing up–skating on a pond, cross country skiing under the moonlight, winter bonfires. Sigh. That's the magical stuff that you can't quite recreate in the cities.

  13. Courtney

    Just drove across the country and back. I realized that the little country places were nice but they drove me a bit crazy. I grew up in pretty-much-rural PA and moved to NYC when I was 17. I always thought I had a longing to go back to the countryside, but nope, I'm a city girl now through and through.

  14. Jimmy Braddox

    Perhaps, skipping the city streets is one of the most paid-off experience I always want. Even for a day or two, many would actually treasure the scent of grassy fields and the welcoming embrace of the sun. They serve fresh food, newly cooked and delicacies that they are very proud of! Vacation rules. Seriously.

  15. Anonymous

    Oh the tire swings – nothing like the pleasant surprise of a wet bottom in the heat of summer because those wicked things don't ever dry out!

  16. Megan

    Seeing the stars out in the country with fresh air is one of the most magical things. I often go down to Kanab, UT for the 4th of July, and it is the best! This year we saw the annual parade, where all the locals (including my grandparents) have their "spot"–and they all know each other. We stopped by lunch in Glendale where there was a crockpot soup contest (yes, I know, on the 4th of July). There's no wi-fi, so you go shooting or sit around and talk, check out the rock shops (there are like 5), and then go for the town dinner (like, the town serves you dinner) and watch fireworks off the red rocks at night.

  17. Julie

    My mom and dad grew up in Aitkin. Rasley Oil? My maternal grandparents started and ran that business for many years. My dad's father was the town doctor. We used to vacation there every summer in the 1980's and 1990's. My favorite thing to do was to swim and catch sun fish at my grandparents' cabin on Farm Island lake. I also love going to the county fair and Riverboat days. And now this world is a little smaller. 🙂

    I don't live in a small town, but I do enjoy visiting small towns on vacation. The slower pace and the people who tend to be friendly and knowledgeable about their community are my favorite parts of small town visiting.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      SHUT UP I GREW UP ON FARM ISLAND LAKE. My parents still live on it! Too, too funny.

  18. Pearl

    I'm not usually a country kind of girl but you know what? You've made it sound so nice that I'm really craving a weekend away now. I think you had me at $9 for a round of drinks -)

  19. Heidi Jo

    I absolutely love this! I grew up in a small town in ND (very close to the MN border, in fact) and I think you describe things perfectly. I still live in a pretty small town, but I try to make it out to the country every weekend to relax. I throw on some cowboy boots and a straw hat and just chill out. It's wonderful and nothing can compare to it. I especially love that you mention the night sky. Great post.

  20. Teri Ahlm

    I grew up a Pioneer, and we used to play against the Aitkin Gobblers in sports! I don't visit often but I do still have family in Pierz. Fun post!

  21. Julia Hudson

    I will be happily sharing this article – my dad's family is in rural (even smaller than your hometown, if you can believe it) Arkansas, and when I went to visit this summer it was the most relaxing trip I had taken in a LONG time. Rock.

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