Main Street in Hanover, New Hampshire.
by Eric Hurwitz. Article updated on 4/17/2020
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I am a sucker for those Hallmark movies that portray small-town life. How about you?
You know, those idyllic places where local shops, restaurants and diners look so inviting and people are friendly, welcoming, and always willing to go the extra mile to help out others. Often in Hallmark movies, the whole town enthusiastically shows up at tree lighting ceremonies, community dances, pie contests and other special events. The small towns are usually picture-perfect, but sometimes Hallmark Movies center on a small town with just "good bones" -- that is, a community with a cute look that has seen its better days. In these films, the people never lose faith and that actually makes those locations quite attractive and the movie even more rewarding to watch.
Hallmark movies are usually spot-on when portraying small-town life -- often in the form of a Christmas movie -- but these premier presentations debut year-round with other seasonal themes. No matter what the conflict, strangers quickly become friends and the dialogues are often touching -- thus, reflecting a simpler time and place that many of us long for in our faster-paced world.
Do these type of towns actually exist in our New England? Well, to some degree, yes. While a nation divided on issues has often sadly, impeded our ability to get along, the chance to visit or even live in a small New England town gives us enough reminders of the wholesome, old-fashioned ways of yesteryear when life seemed a little more kinder and innocent -- and we were more accepting of each other. While no community is perfect, here are a few New England towns (and some cities that look like small towns) that seem unified, friendly, wonderfully historic, and with a good dose of small-town charm...
BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND
Downtown Bristol, Rhode Island.
Bristol has to be one of the most underrated towns in all of New England. Many bypass this small Rhode Island town to arrive at Newport or Providence, but Bristol easily could serve as a standalone destination. The quaint, tree-lined downtown is filled with great shops, galleries and restaurants and leads to stunning water views of the Narragansett Bay. Walkable (or bikeable) from the downtown is the East Bay Bike Path that spans 14-plus miles to Providence. The huge historic homes that line the main and side streets in the downtown district are something to behold. Interesting note: Bristol is home to the oldest Fourth of July Parade in the country, dating back to 1785. That American spirit can be seen year-round as the town center sports a red, white and blue median strip line! Also while in town, be sure to check out the 464-acre waterfront Colt State Park as well as Blithewold Mansion, Garden and Arboretum with its spectacular gardens.
Downtown Dedham, Massachusetts.
Do you know how in some of those Hallmark movies, all real estate developers are considered evil and insensitive as they strive to wipe out a slice of small-town America, for say, a state-of-the-art resort? Well. it's simply not true and Dedham is the perfect example. When Legacy Place came into town as a major Boston area shopping destination, locals worried that it would decimate nearby Dedham Square, the downtown district in this south-of-Boston suburb. But in the true New England spirit, a grassroots community organization named Dedham Square Circle brought together residents, business owners, building landlords and elected and appointed officials and Legacy Place, amongst others, to help evolve downtown Dedham. Prior to 2006, It was a decent town center but nothing special and certainly on the eve of a downfall with Legacy Place in town. Involved townsfolk, however, followed the National Trust for Historic Revitalization "Main Street" program as a foundation to turn things around and came through in a way that is, today, quite remarkable. Within 15-plus years, Dedham Square turned from a frog into a prince with a fabulous mix of shops and restaurants, improved traffic and sidewalk patterns, a refreshing of the district's historic template and some of the best store signage you'll ever see in the Boston suburbs. Additionally Dedham Square possesses a modern-day downtown rarity in the form of an old-fashioned movie theater, the Dedham Community Theater that dates back to 1927. Also, famous children's' book author and illustrator, Peter H. Reynolds, owns a tremendous kid's bookstore, the Blue Bunny. Although Dedham Square doesn't have the history of Lexington or Concord, Mass., I regard the town center right up there with those two famous towns, and with a better dining scene. What a great success story! Hallmark should make a movie here, portraying the way people can work together -- even big business -- to create the nearly ideal downtown. I can see it now: Andrew Walker and Danica McKellar bumping into each other with coffee spilled onto a shirt and a budding romance between each other and a resolve to save a downtown! Nice that it happened in real-life, though, as in the case of Dedham Square.
A few generations ago, downtown Newburyport looked like it could use an overall power wash and paint job to go along with more businesses replacing empty storefronts. Like somebody waved a magic wand over the small-city seaport, Newburyport transformed its downtown into a near picture-perfect central district. The food scene is diverse and continually evolving and the storefronts nearly fully occupied with virtually every type of shop you would expect in a small town. The 18th-century brick buildings and sidewalks have a refreshed look and the water views where the Merrimack River leads to the Atlantic Ocean look like the prototype for a classic New England coastal getaway. Additionally, the big old homes lend a wonderfully familiar sense of neighborhood community. There's definitely a "WOW factor" in this special destination about an hour's drive north of Boston.
Downtown Concord, Massachusetts.
Concord, a beautiful semi-rural town west of Boston, features a quaint, walkable downtown with lots of interesting local shops and restaurants, and a book load of history. It is, after all, a major contributor to the birthplace of our nation as the Revolutionary War started here. Famous writers like Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne also called Concord their home -- the perfect, thoughtful, reflective community to write whatever came to their brilliant minds. Today, Concord does look like something out of a Hallmark movie with all those downtown businesses showcasing colorful storefronts and competing signage that brightens up the area. It is a wealthy town, but you won't see many of those "rich antagonists" seen in the Hallmark movies that have no use for the down-to-earth, working-class man or woman that could never be good enough for their spoiled offspring. People say "hello," they mean it, and seem, for the most part, very welcoming.
The beauty of the area makes Concord special, too, including Walden Pond, the Old North Bridge, Monument Square (you can read about this beautiful town common in Massachusetts Town Greens) and the historic, leafy Concord's Colonial Inn.
Keene, New Hampshire
Keene, New Hampshire.
Keene features one of the widest main streets in America, a wonderful town common with gazebo, and a truly nice downtown that has a higher number of local stores and restaurants than most other New England towns. Maybe that's because Keene is technically a city, but one look at this appealing downtown has "small town" written all over it. From Lindy's Diner to the Colonial Theater, Keene looks like a larger version of Mayberry RFD with its old-time vibe (interestingly, juxtaposed with liberal Keene State College) and people out and about walking the delightful central district streets at any time of the day.
Stonington Borough, Connecticut
Stonington Borough, Connecticut.Photo source Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonington,_Connecticut#/media/File:Water_Street_at_Church_Street,_Stonington,_CT.JPG.
Tucked away by the coast in Stonington, this quaint little neighborhood has a classic New England seaside community vibe with a 17th and 18th century feel every step of the way through the narrow, tree-lined streets. Stonington Borough is actually the oldest borough in Connecticut, chartered in 1801.
The quiet, untouched village-like setting features wonderful Greek Revival, Federal and Colonial architecture, a beautiful, picturesque harbor, interesting little shops, majestic old churches, great "neighborhood" restaurants and a solitude that makes you feel like your miles away from everything. Late in the day, the streets are virtually empty which allows residents and visitors to feel totally at peace. It's just you, the fresh ocean air and a few birds chirping. If you have visited more commercial New England communities and were disappointed by the commercialism and crowds, then Stonington Borough is the perfect New England getaway for you.
Northeast Harbor, Maine
Northeast Harbor, Maine.
Located close to the spectacular Acadia National Park, Northeast Harbor seems like a hidden community when compared to lively Bar Harbor. That's a good thing for those looking to visit a more quiet place that might have small-town, Hallmark movie written all over it that more any other towns we have visited in New England. The downtown -- located a few minutes walk from the impossibly beautiful harbor -- features lots of delights including the Docksider seafood shack for great Maine lobster; the Colonel's Bakery for small-town conversation and enough burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, sweets and coffee to make everyone happy; and the neighborhood Pine Street Market where everyone seems to know each other in a setting that reminds one of the old-time grocery store. I could walk the 200 yards or so of the downtown, back and forth, all day! Everyone seems so humble, friendly and laid-back here. And those water views remind me of a more modest version of the appealing Cedar Cove (a former Hallmark series) waterfront location. Northeast Harbor ultimately offers the best of both worlds: a downtown with enough to do and an isolated, still, scenic feel that forces one to relax.
Wickford Village, Rhode Island
Wickford Village harbor in Rhode Island.
Wickford Village is actually part of North Kingstown, Rhode Island but differs from the rest of the town with its well-defined central district and a distinct sea captain's town-feel with picturesque waterfront streets. No one I know in my New England town is all that familiar with Wickford Village, which suggests it is an ideal hidden New England community. The beautiful harbor views with boats and a sense of serenity, the tree-lined streets with old homes from the 1700 and 1800s, stately churches, outdoor waterfront cafes (try the Beach Rose for some delicious chowder and a lobster roll) and an unassuming but wonderful mix of shops (remarkably, more than 50 owner-operated) make Wickford Village a perfect place to spend a day or extended vacation. Although Wickford Village's downtown is relatively small, the shopping scene includes clothing, books, jewelry, crafts, galleries, gifts, as well as the Kayak Centre at 9 Phillips St. when in the mood to navigate beautiful Wickford Village harbor. What's more, the seasonal events are tremendous: the Christmas season when lights and designs give Wickford Village the look of a cute, little toy village; the Wickford Art Festival in July; and Daffodil Days in the spring.
Downtown Wickford Village, Rhode Island.
Downtown Montpelier, Vermont. Photo By GearedBull - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2660877
Funny, Montpelier doesn't feel like a state capitol. Sure, you'll see the statehouse dome and official-looking people walking around town. On the other hand, Montpelier has small town appeal as the smallest state capitol in the country with a population of just under 8,000. It's a great walking town situated in the mountains and with virtually every small town delight you could ever want: book stores, ice cream places, two independent movie theaters, a coffee shop, a toy store, a farmers market, a lively arts and culture scene, beautiful historic homes, green spaces and lots of community events. People love to stroll the downtown, and it's easy to see why.
The Town Common in downtown Walpole, Massachusetts.
Walpole is known as "The Friendly Town," so that's a good start for being included in this article. Incorporated in 1724, Walpole still features many quaint downtown elements including a town common that dates back to 1739 (including a beautiful stone bandstand and fountain), a train station from 1883 and a former town hall building dating back to 1881. The great thing about Walpole is that within its quaint but bustling two blocks, you'll find 12 restaurants (eight of which are full service) and mom and pop stores that sell gifts, collectibles, clothing, yarn, quilts and refurbished furniture. The number of community events is off the charts year-round and often announced on a large board at the town green. Right off Main Street in Common Street with a lovely concentration of big, beautiful old historic homes with large front lawns. Clearly not a vacation community, this residential suburb of Boston has held onto its quintessential New England feel, especially in the downtown district. Outside of the center, though, you will find some wonderful small-town elements like the 350-acre Adams Farm (perfect for a light hike), the scenic Walpole Town Forest that hugs the Neponset River, 89-acre Bird Park with its rolling hills, stone bridges, ponds and paved walkways, and Turner Pond that features supervised winter ice skating and a cozy fireplaced lodge overlooking the pond. There, everyone gathers for hot chocolate, coffee, snacks and sometimes dinners brought in to share by local residents.
Hanover, New Hampshire
Hanover, New Hampshire.
Bill Bryson, in his book, The Lost Continent wrote about Hanover as one of the best places to be in the United States. Highly critical of many other United States towns, Bryson felt differently about Hanover and became connected to the unpretentious, genuine feel of the town. He, in fact, enjoyed Hanover so much that he eventually moved there! It is easy to see why: the downtown is quaint with an old-fashioned Main Street, a big town common, and many mom and pop shops and restaurants with attractive signage. Contiguous with leafy Dartmouth College (an Ivy League college), the Hanover downtown district makes for a great walking town. Within close proximity to the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Sunapee and White Mountains regions of New Hampshire, Hanover might just be the nicest town in the area! Hanover is a fabulous walking town. It would be hard to find a better small-town downtown to stroll. Also, the downtown features some nice, low-cost, welcoming small town restaurants like Lou’s and Everything But Anchovies, as well as interesting retail stores like the great Dartmouth Book Store.
Located far away in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom (pretty close to Canada), Lyndonville is a pleasant little village in Lyndon that doesn't have the sparkle and shine of other towns mentioned in this post, but often comes across as friendlier and more close-knit. While the downtown does have a decent amount of stores and a few restaurants (try first, though, the great Lyndonville Diner, just outside the central district), it's really the refreshing mountain air, the honest, hard-working folk and the feeling of a simpler time and place that helps make Lyndonville a town that would look great in a Hallmark movie. Near skiing and hiking destinations and places to go maple sugaring -- along with some of the most beautiful rural countryside in all of New England -- Lyndonville is a little village surrounded by the big mountains, which all adds up to a most inviting place to visit, or even lay down some roots. The people aren't rich here, but have a wealth of dignity and love for their neighbors and hometown. You can see that walking the downtown.
Revitalized Montgomery Ward building now houses several thriving small businesses.
Once nearly a ghost town 25 years ago, Putnam -- situated on the Quinnebaug River -- has reinvented itself as an antiques and foodie destination but not in an obnoxious and touristy way. No matter how many visitors come here, Putnam will always seem like a small town at heart. It's easily walkable and appealing: the Antiques Marketplace features 20,000 sq. ft of antiques shopping with more than 100 independent dealers offering up to 300 spaces of virtually every category of antiques. Jeremiah's Antiques & Shoppes (26 Front St., 860) 963-2671) serves as another major antique shopping destination with an impressive collection of antiques for all budgets. The restaurant scene is quite remarkable for a town of this size, and includes traditional and American fusion cuisines, as well as sushi, Asian, Italian and deli-style, a brewpub and a few coffee houses. Many buildings have been revitalized, including the former Montgomery Ward store that now houses several mom and pop businesses.
"We are not your cookie-cutter town," said Chris Coderre, business coordinator for the Putnam Business Association. "We have kept the quaint New England downtown vibe, but it isn't just vintage. We have galleries, theater and many restaurants. Our motto is 'Vintage feel, modern appeal.'"
Shelburne Falls and Buckland, Massachusetts
Downtown Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
All walks of life seem to peacefully co-exist in sleepy Shelburne Falls and Buckland, located in Shelburne at the foothills of the Berkshire of Western Massachusetts. While the small downtown in Shelburne Falls is quite appealing with the Foxtown Diner and Baker Pharmacy (featuring an ice cream and soda fountain), two attractions that add a wonderful bonus to the appeal of this historic area: The Bridge of Flowers and Glacial Potholes. The one-of-a-kind Bridge of Flowers is a must-see New England travel attraction as this former trolley bridge features 400 ft. of more than 500 varieties of flowers, shrubs and vines! The best times to see the Bridge of Flowers: the spring when flowers bloom, summer when everything seems to be in bloom, and in the fall when the surrounding foliage lends an added depth to an already beautiful location.
Bridge of Flowers.
The Bridge of Flowers continues to grow from donations and the work of local volunteers, with colorful displays from approximately April to October. Additionally, you’ll find many things to do on the other side of the bridge in Buckland, including McCusker’s natural food coop, the West End Pub with lunch, dinner and great water views, and Mo’s Fudge Factors with great fudge and Bart’s homemade ice cream.
The Ancient Glacial Potholes Geological Wonder at the end of Deerfield St., in Shelburne Falls, where, according to a local sign, potholes were “ground out of granite during high water of the glacial age. By whirlpool action of water and gyrating stones of varied sizes. Some of the grinding millstones may still be seen in the smaller potholes. Over 50 such exist in this confined area known in Indian Days as “Salmon Falls.” These potholes vary in size from 6 inches to 39 feet in diameter!
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