- Culture + Design
- Landmarks + Monuments
Cheers to these small towns for great Main Streets, where you can admire architecture, sample the local flavor, and find a lost America.
Saratoga Springs, NY
America’s Greatest Main Streets
Saratoga Springs, NY
Historic Broadway Avenue looks like a Main Street on steroids, with grand buildings of Beaux-Arts and Colonial Revival styles. It feels almost heroic in scale, but when crowds fill the streets to browse and nosh, it takes on a more accessible feel. Sidewalk cafés and benches beside flowerbeds are perfect for people-watching—especially when the tony thoroughbred set comes to town for the summer horse-racing season.
Worth a Stop: Saratoga Spa State Park captures a slice of yesteryear, when visitors thronged here for the healing waters.
Driving across America, it’s all too easy to lose your mooring amid the commercial thicket of the same old fast-food outlets and big-box stores.
But push on a mile or two beyond the interstate exit, and you may discover a town that’s anchored by a distinctive Main Street—one with grand architecture, eclectic small businesses, and community-oriented features like a park or theater. Often it thrives thanks to locals who have made a conscientious effort to fight the general decline of Main Street.
Related: America’s Best Little Beach Towns
The work of such activists and preservationists is acknowledged each year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Great American Main Streets Awards and by the American Planning Association’s Great Places in America: Streets. We scoured their recent designations to select the most vibrant, distinctive downtowns worth the trip.
You’ll find these great Main Streets across the U.S., from mining towns like Silver City, NM, to stately, red-brick Staunton, VA. Yet our list does skew east of the Mississippi, favoring towns that were established before the age of the automobile—and so display the DNA of a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment.
Not that a walkable layout can guarantee a thriving Main Street. Take York, PA, where the 1978 shuttering of the last of four downtown department stores triggered a period of decay. The turnaround was slow going, as landowners aided by various programs renovated nearly every Victorian and Classical Revival façade. Now, on the first Friday of each month, local businesses stay open late, with special events and discounts.
Port Townsend, WA, went through its own reinvention. Expecting a shipping boom, 19th-century residents built out the town in high Victorian style—only to find themselves on the wrong side of Puget Sound when the railroads connected to Seattle. It’s been reborn as an arts center around the main drag, Water Street.
Second chances are just as American as a homespun Main Street, and with the recent economic downturn have come do-it-yourselfers seeing opportunity in cheap abandoned storefronts and converting them into bakeries or boutiques.
So it’s well worth driving the extra few miles to see what Main Street lies ahead. Let us point you in the right direction.