America's Most Beautiful Town Squares
“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.
Centerway Square, Corning, NY
Corning got a makeover in 1989, when two blocks of asphalt street were replaced by a brick-paved pedestrian plaza with a covered stage for regular events, wrought-iron railings, and period street lamps. Treat yourself to a chocolate-chip-and-ricotta-cream cannoli from the Victorian-style Old World Café, and find a seat on a bench under a honey-locust tree facing the square’s 50-foot-tall restored clock tower.
Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza, Prescott, AZ
Mapped out in 1864, this plaza is still at the center of community life in Prescott, thanks to its appealing gazebo, a fountain, and plenty of green space—4.5 acres of lawn with American elms. Statues of cowboys are a reminder of the Southwest’s early days; trendy shops, cafés, and galleries now surround the square. The American Planning Association put the Yavapai plaza (named for its Neoclassical Revival courthouse) on its list of Great Public Spaces in America in 2008.
Historic Canton Square, Canton, MS
More than 75 colorful buildings dating back to the turn of the 20th century line this magnolia-and-oak-filled square. They’ve made it onto the National Register of Historic Places, as has the commanding 1857 Greek Revival courthouse. (The Gallery, across Liberty Street from the courthouse, still has a drawer marked “Opium” from 100 years ago, when it was a pharmacy.) The town’s southern charms lure visitors, most notably during the twice-annual Canton Flea Market Arts & Crafts Show.
Healdsburg Plaza, Healdsburg, CA
This leafy, year-round-green plaza features a “tree walk” that winds past northern California natives (oaks and redwoods) as well as introduced species like citrus and palm. Fountains and the refurbished copper-roofed gazebo add to the stately charm. Cross Center Street to chat with locals waiting in line for a “legendary” cinnamon-sugar sticky bun made with croissant dough at the Downtown Bakery.
Market Square, Portsmouth, NH
More of an intersection with very wide sidewalks at all four corners, Market Square has been paved since 1762. The white steeple of the North Church looms overhead, while the fine brick buildings on the north side represent one of the nation’s most attractive early-19th-century business districts; hop aboard a trolley for a little time travel. The American Planning Association has singled out the square and adjoining Market Street.
Court Square, Bardstown, KY
You know you’ve arrived when the stately 1892 courthouse comes into view, complete with a bell tower and flourishes like rounded arches, dormers, gables, and gingerbread. It’s the crown jewel of Court Square and makes Bardstown one of the country’s most beautiful small towns—one with an outsized rep for bourbon. Walk across East Stephen Foster Avenue to Circa, where meals come with a choice of bourbon cream sauce, bourbon barbecue sauce, or orange-bourbon vinaigrette.
The Dover Green, Dover, DE
The peaceful acre of lawn and large shade trees belie the drama that has unfolded since the Dover Green was mapped in 1717. This is where the Declaration of Independence was read to the public in 1776 and where Delaware ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Homes in various Colonial styles built in white or red brick surround the park, which keeps history alive with old-time, family-friendly events throughout the year.
Parade Plaza, New London, CT
Reopened in 2011, this triangular plaza is new and improved, with an open amphitheater that seats 100 and the 10-foot-tall Whale Tail Fountain, popular with kids who play in the water falling from the tail. The schoolhouse where Nathan Hale once taught and the 50-foot-high granite-obelisk Soldiers and Sailors Monument are two traditional attractions. In winter, the upper section is turned into an ice-skating rink.
City Square Park, Oskaloosa, IA
Oskaloosa is in America’s heartland and looks the part with this square’s bandstand, a gazebo with a flag flying high, and gracious oak, sycamore, buckeye, and maple trees. It’s the scene of summer picnics, a Christmas parade, and a regular farmers’ market. Look for the statue of Chief Mahaska, leader of the Ioway tribe, and, on the corner of First Street, his namesake courthouse, with red and white brickwork, curved-arch windows, and a four-sided clock tower.
Jackson Town Square, Jackson, WY
Four massive elk-antler arches give this square a distinctive western look. (Rotary Club and Boy Scouts collect them from fields where they hindered wagons; one single arch counts 1,948 antlers.) Laid out well before the scenic town was incorporated in 1914, the square is full of cottonwoods, with ski slopes for a backdrop. It’s a short saunter from here to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.
Decatur Square, Decatur, GA
Courthouse, gazebo, lawn, elms, and gingkos—this square has traditional elements, plus a modern plaza that’s half the size of a football field and paved in brick designs representing Creek Indian symbols. Abstract turquoise lampposts illuminate the plaza and sculptures celebrating tolerance. Don’t leave without a sweet-potato-pumpkin-pie bar from Cakes & Ale).
Village Green, Bar Harbor, ME
Old-fashioned lamps and an ornate street clock reflect the green’s 115-year history, while the locals hanging out and logging on to the free Wi-Fi show its popularity in the present. Summer brings an influx of visitors and a popular evening concert series in this town square, with easy access to boutiques and ice cream parlors. A tiered Italian-style fountain and a gazebo add to the charm of the Village Green, which the American Planning Association honored in 2012.
The Square, San Marcos, TX
The imposing Hays County Courthouse, built in 1909 and restored in 1998, dominates the square, but it’s the surrounding cafés, pubs, and quirky shops that give it life. Paper Bear, for instance, sells oddball gifts from chicken masks to underwear for squirrels, and Rhea’s Ice Cream specializes in unconventional flavors including avocado-coconut, corn, and maple-bacon—don’t come here if you want plain vanilla.