9 Not-So-Big Cities With Rich Cultural Scenes

Hidden gems

Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Some midsize cities in America have developed respectable dining and arts scenes. These places might not have as many restaurants, bars, museums and galleries as, say, New York or Chicago, but they hold their own in terms creativity and cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Many of the most interesting cultural enclaves in North America are actually found in smaller population centers (of less than 200,000 people) in places that are often considered fly-over country, like Marfa, Texas (pictured). A few of these colonies of cool have a long history of culture. (Santa Fe falls into this category). Other destinations are college towns or reinvented suburbs, and a few are small towns that are hard to find on any map.

Here are several small cities and towns that are big on culture, art and creativity.

Ashland, Oregon

Photo: Amy Richard/Wikimedia Commons

Ashland is a city of 21,000 in southern Oregon, a mere 15 miles from the California border. It's known for its blend of small town pleasantness and creative culture. Ashland's headlining arts event, the popular Oregon Shakespeare Festival (pictured), draws 400,000 people each year. Other fests, such as the Ashland Independent Film Festival and Ashland New Plays Festival, give the town a reputation among modern creatives looking for a place to develop their skills and show their work to the public.

Like many other creative small towns, Ashland has a university (Southern Oregon University). It also has some of the trappings of much larger cities: extensive public parks, a modestly-sized but well-respected fine dining scene and a nice menu of wine tasting rooms featuring bottles produced by local wineries.

Portland, Maine

Photo: Albert Pego/Shutterstock

Portland, Maine's largest city has a maritime history that's still tangible in some of the older sections of town. This coastal enclave of 60,000 is as close as it gets to a big-city feel in this mostly-rural state. The historic Old Port neighborhood has long been on the tourist radar, but Portland's menu of attractions has become more sophisticated.

The city's artisan eateries have been drawing food-lovers from larger East Coast cities in recent years. Bostonians and New Yorkers come for the fresh oysters, lobster and gourmet sandwiches. The Congress Street Arts District and several hip neighborhoods such as East Bayside serve up artsy vibes, highbrow culture and the kind of crafted food and drink that's usually reserved for much larger cities. Portland mixes trendy features like brewpubs with live music with more classical elements like the Portland Symphony's annual Bach Festival and a museum housed in the home of famed American painter Winslow Homer.

Palm Springs, California

Photo: tpsdave/Pixabay

Palm Springs is extremely spread out, but it's not crowded. The popular golf, arts and wellness destination has a permanent population of less than 50,000. Palm Springs is not exactly new to tourists. People started coming here in the middle of the 20th century because they thought the dry climate was good for their health. Many of the regulars during the 1930s, '40s and '50s were Hollywood celebrities.

Some describe Palm Springs by comparing it to its two closest major neighbors, saying that Palm Springs is more laid back and accessible than Los Angeles and more sophisticated and highbrow than nearby Las Vegas. The Uptown Design District features a cocktail of vintage shops and modern classic-inspired designers, while the menu of eateries includes a number of artisan and chef-driven restaurants. Since it is a tourist town, Palm Springs has a nightlife scene that is much more diverse and cosmopolitan than its population statistics might suggest.

Marfa, Texas

Photo: Sue Stokes/Shutterstock

Marfa was founded as a railroad "water stop," but it became known as an arts destination in the 1970s when minimalist artist Donald Judd moved there to escape the pretentious arts scene in New York City. Eventually, he and other artists displayed their work in a repurposed 400-acre military fort. Now run by the Chinati Foundation, this massive gallery is still a major attraction in Marfa. In fact, over the past decade, media coverage of the remote Texas town has made it a destination for curious travelers and casual art fans, not just hardcore creatives. The Prada Marfa installation (pictured) is an example of the city's interest in minimalist art.

Marfa is certainly a trendy place, with indie retail outlets, food trucks and boutique inns, including a hip teepee lodge called El Cosmico. In addition to Chinati, the town has a host of galleries including the large Ballroom Marfa and several smaller spaces. Marfa Myths, meanwhile, is an annual music festival that features a lineup of respected indie bands.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Photo: Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

New Mexico's state capital, Santa Fe, has about 80,000 residents. The small city, originally founded by Spanish colonists, has long been a center for creativity. This is even evident in the New Mexico Capitol Building, which has hundreds of pieces of art on display. Art galleries, from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum to artist cooperatives to the cartoonish Chuck Jones Gallery, provide a wide range of options for those who appreciate creativity in all its forms.

Santa Fe has a spa scene and plenty of shopping options, including the International Folk Art Market. Also, it's hard to overlook Santa Fe's history in the buildings, plazas and venues like the Museo Cultural de Santa Fe or the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (shown here.) All this said, it is Santa Fe's dining scene that might be its most exciting element. Talented chefs are creating inventive menus using a variety of cooking styles. French and Italian restaurants are well represented, and more than a few eateries are redefining and modernizing Southwestern Cuisine.

St. John's, Newfoundland

Photo: V J Matthew/Shutterstock

St. John's is the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador. It's the easternmost city in North America (not counting Greenland), and it has its own time zone (one hour later than Eastern Standard Time). Though its core features modern office buildings, this place — the oldest continuously inhabited metropolis in North America — is best known for its colonial-era architecture and colorful historic row houses. The hilly urban terrain and thriving independent businesses often earn the Canadian city comparisons to San Francisco.

Music venues, artisan restaurants and brewhouses populate George Street, the main entertainment district of the city. Museums like the Rooms (pictured, top left) and events like the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival illustrate the balance of culture, history and hipness that defines St. John's. Despite its urban attractions, numerous trails, green spaces and parks make St. John's one of the best on the continent for experiencing nature.

Rochester, New York

Photo: Sirichai netthong/Shutterstock

With 200,000 residents within its city limits, Rochester, New York, is one of the largest cities on this list. However, it is dwarfed by its state's other metropolises, New York City and Buffalo. Sitting on the shore of Lake Ontario, Rochester has a long history. Its location made it one of America's original "boomtowns." The famous Erie Canal still runs along the outskirts of the city. More recently, Kodak revolutionized the camera and film industries from its Rochester headquarters. This history of enterprise is bolstered by famous universities such as Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester.

Some of Rochester's older buildings, such as Village Gate, now house art galleries. A few of these re-purposed venues are warehouse-sized. Spring and summer bring celebrations like the Lilac Festival, Rochester International Jazz Festival and Rochester Film Festival. There is more than one beer-related event on the calendar, but wine is the beverage that brings a higher level of sophistication to Rochester. The nearby Finger Lakes is home to the East's most respected wine region, and tasting rooms, restaurants and bars serve up the best bottles that these local vineyards have to offer.

Charlottesville, Virginia

Photo: m01229/flickr

Charlottesville is a university town in central Virginia. Fodor's once named the city of 50,000 the "best place to live in America." Despite this praise, Charlottesville is probably most famous as the home of Thomas Jefferson. Both his estate, Monticello, and the campus of the University of Virginia are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The pedestrian-friendly Downtown Mall features cafes, buskers and public art that makes it feel more European than American. Alongside its open, youthful vibe, this area also features wine tasting and chef-driven restaurants. Like so many other cities on this list, easy access to nature is taken for granted in Charlottesville. The James River draws paddlers and the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park are only a short drive away.

Stratford, Ontario

Photo: Mark52/Shutterstock

Stratford is a town of about 30,000 residents in southern Ontario. It has received numerous nods from national media for its quality of life and overall pleasantness. This image is certainly helped by the local arts scene. The Stratford Festival, previously known as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, runs from April through autumn each year. Though Shakespeare plays still headline each season, there are a number of other dramatic styles represented as well. Stratford also hosts a summer music festival and other culture-related events.

Shopping in Stratford is not just about souvenirs. Options range from artisan cheese shops to antique outlets to art glass showrooms. The city has an impressive restaurant lineup for its size. Tour companies even offer culinary walking tours that lead past local artisan food shops and eateries.