“I live near Decatur Square, so I just walk out my door when I get a craving for a particular food,” says Susan Puckett, 56, a cookbook author in Decatur, GA.
Not only is her hometown square accessible and buzzing with activity, it’s also picturesque—with a traditional courthouse and a gazebo illuminated nightly, as well as public art. Valentine is a life-size sculpture of an older couple on a bench, heads leaning together. “Every time I walk by, it makes me happy,” reflects Puckett.
Town squares across the U.S. were built to inspire that kind of goodwill and be the hearts of their communities, often with stately landmarks like a courthouse and surrounding colorful shops and cafés. We went in search of the squares keeping that spirit alive, emphasizing smaller towns (populations of 50,000 or less) and those such as the Yavapai Country Courthouse Plaza in Prescott, AZ, that have been honored by organizations like the American Planning Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In New London, CT, Parade Plaza reopened in 2011 with a 100-seat amphitheater and the Whale Tail Fountain, where kids like to splash around. The improvements complement longtime attractions at the square like the schoolhouse where Nathan Hale once taught. At similar squares, farmers’ markets, free concerts, and holiday celebrations keep locals and visitors entertained year-round.
“By day, locals have breakfast or lunch or shop there,” says Jordan Hoefar, of The Square in San Marcos, TX. (Try Rhea’s Ice Cream, which specializes in unconventional flavors like avocado-coconut and maple bacon.) “By night, the square becomes a popular bar scene,” adds the Austin-based public relations specialist.
The bar scene around Court Square in Bardstown, KY—one of the nation’s prettiest with a gingerbread-trimmed brick courthouse—revolves, naturally, around bourbon, while Jackson, WY, has its own regional spin. Jackson Town Square gets a Wild West look from four massive arches made of elk antlers and from the scenic backdrop of the Teton Mountains. Saunter over to the nearby Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, with saddle barstools and a crowd known to include off-duty ranchers, tourists, and the occasional celebrity.
Set your sights on a road trip or weekend getaway to one of these small towns, and make the square your first stop.