From New England’s weathered wharves and quintessential red barns, to the lakes, mountains, and forests of the Adirondacks, the Berkshires, and beyond, the Northeast packs big-time appeal into a small area. Below, check out the top towns New England towns to visit this summer and what they each have to offer.
1. Kennebunkport, Maine
All the features that attract visitors to the Maine coast are in Kennebunkport, where the idyllic image of a New England summer is a reality. Originally settled in 1653, this river-meets-sea town has beautiful beaches (among them Goose Rocks, Gooch’s, Arundel, and Colony), a picturesque lighthouse, and an atmospheric town center festooned with flower baskets and flags.
With its long shipbuilding history, Kennebunkport is also rife with elegant sea captains’ mansions, many now operating as distinctive inns. The community is home to over 3,500 residents — the most famous of whom were the late President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, who vacationed at their oceanfront family compound here for many decades.
Dock Square is the spot to shop for local artwork and handicrafts, as well as to check out the stellar food scene that appeals equally to seafood aficionados and beer lovers. For active vacationers, Kennebunkport offers summer water sports like sea kayaking, surfing, sport fishing, and whale watching. Plus, golfers can play a dozen local courses, while fans of historic architecture can book a guided walking tour. Other worthy sights include the Seashore Trolley Museum (the oldest and largest mass-transit museum in the US) and the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, a birders’ paradise.
Throughout Kennebunkport, a welcoming, small-town ambience has turned it into a four-season destination. While summer is sublime, even winter — with powdered-sugar snow and Santa arriving by lobster boat — is full of charm.
Kennebunkport is about 40 minutes north of Portland, Maine. Its peak tourism months are June to October, but the town is open for business year-round — even wooing couples in February with Paint the Town Red lodging and dining packages. Stay at one of Kennebunkport Resort Collection’s nine properties. Don’t leave without trying a lobster roll at the Clam Shack (the fried clams are equally awesome) and sipping craft beer at a local brewery like Kennebunkport Brewing Company.
2. Lake Placid, New York
Lake Placid is world-famous for its winters — the upstate New York town’s piles of annual powder and picturesque peaks have earned it not one but two stints as the host of the Winter Olympic Games. But there’s more to do in this idyllic hamlet than ski jumps and toboggan runs. During snow season or the dog days of summer, people find plenty of reasons to make a day (or two) of it by the water.
But first, it’s worth noting that the lake that most locals are talking about isn’t Lake Placid, but rather Mirror Lake, a larger body of water that sits in the middle of town. Nearly everything worth seeing and doing around here is right on its banks, from the artisanal shops, souvenir spots, and homey restaurants lining Main Street, to the year-round activities (kayaking and boating in summer; ice-skating and dog-sledding in winter) on and around its waters. Beyond the lake, a trip up the gondola to Whiteface Mountain is a must for both skiers and sightseers.
Of course, it’s impossible to experience this athletic town without a little bit of Olympic action. Visitors can head to the top of the ski-jumping complex for sky-high views from the nearly 400-foot-high platform. For something more daring, thrill-seekers can try their hand at bobsledding, tearing down the 4,921-foot track at more than 50 mph (not to worry — riders share the sled with a professional). It’s not exactly placid, but it’s definitely quintessential Lake Placid.
For a peak Adirondack experience, there’s no more authentic place to stay than Lake Placid Lodge, a collection of historic cabins that sits on the real Lake Placid, just a few minutes’ drive from the center of town. There, you’ll share the water with the lucky few who have private homes along its shores. To get your bearings, head to the Totally 80 exhibit, commemorating the 1980 Games, at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum. Then take a delicious stroll down Main Street, from Saratoga Olive Oil Co. in the north to the Pickled Pig in the south. End the day at Peak 47, where the après-ski scene is lively year-round.
3. Hershey, Pennsylvania
Hershey doesn’t take its slogan — “The Sweetest Place on Earth”— lightly. A visit to the town named for confectioner Milton S. Hershey is all about chocolate and the company that introduced it to America.
When Hershey chose his birthplace — the tiny Pennsylvania Dutch village of Derry Church — as the site of the world’s largest chocolate plant, he set out to create the perfect company town of sturdy brick houses and shady streets. With money from the monumentally successful enterprise, he lavished his workers with parks, theaters, hotels, and other attractions, creating a playground that now draws more than 3 million visitors a year.
Hershey Park, born when the entrepreneur built a roller coaster to celebrate the town’s 20th anniversary, now boasts 13 thrill rides, including Stormrunner, which goes from 0 to 70 mph in two seconds. In the 11-acre Boardwalk water park, attractions range from the Breakers Edge water coaster to the huge Whitecap Racer water-slide. More than 200 North American animals, including armadillos, Gila monsters, vampire bats, bears, wolves, and big cats, dwell at ZooAmerica. Vintage-car enthusiasts marvel at the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum. After all the action, Hershey Gardens — with 23 acres of themed botanical gardens, fountains, and a Butterfly Atrium — offers a quiet, peaceful interlude.
And chocolate tasting? It’s everywhere in Hershey’s Chocolate World, a sprawling marketplace where a free Chocolate Tour whisks passengers through a Willy Wonka‒esque world of singing cows and whirling machinery. Other activities include a Create Your Own Candy Bar experience, as well as the 4D Chocolate Mystery, in which viewers have fun playing detective for a day.
Accommodations within Hersheypark come with “Sweet Start” access, allowing you into the park an hour ahead of the crowds. Options include the circa-1933 Hotel Hershey, the Hershey Lodge, or the more affordable Hersheypark Camping Resort. Duck Doughnuts lets you watch your decadent treat being made. The Mill makes for entertaining dining in a three-story restored granary.
4. Camden, Maine
This mid-coast enclave on scenic Penobscot Bay has the kind of all-American good looks that rival towns covet. Gently rolling green hills surround a deep-blue harbor crisscrossed by white sailboats. The High Street historic district encircles the Camden Amphitheater, a gathering spot for craft fairs, concerts, and movies. And a landmark red-brick public library, built with funds raised by residents, dates to 1928.
A summer playground for sailing enthusiasts, Camden is also a popular destination for kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing, while lighthouse enthusiasts will find a dozen historic examples nearby. Even those who prefer land-based activities — from shopping, wine tasting, and gallery hopping to hiking, rock climbing, and horseback riding — will find themselves in love with this small but diverse town.
When in Maine, eating lobster is a must, and the area offers plenty of opportunities to snack on classic lobster rolls (or slip on one of those big paper bibs and tackle the whole thing — shell, tail, claws, and all). Sailing on a vintage schooner is another favorite pastime here: Camden-based Maine Windjammer Cruises hosts multi-day excursions on its fleet of five vessels, while other operators offer day tours. Yes, this small town has what it takes to create envy — and wonderful vacation memories.
Camden is located just north of Rockport and Rockland, home to world-famous outlet shops and numerous art galleries, respectively. The best months to go are June to October, but travelers who embrace the cold can visit during Camden Winterfest in February for ice carving, toboggan racing, movies, music, and more. Stay at luxurious Camden Harbour Inn for the ultimate romantic escape or pack a tent for a family camping trip in Camden Hills State Park. Venture to nearby Wiscasset for a lobster roll at traditional seafood shack Red’s Eats.
5. New Hope, Pennsylvania
In New Hope, history runs so deep that you can take a horse-and-buggy ride down Main Street and not feel completely conspicuous. Yet it’s also an LGBTQ-friendly haven for the arts, where vintage shops flaunt distinctive duds and street performers keep things lively from dawn to dusk.
One of New Hope’s biggest draws is the Bucks County Playhouse. Opened in a former gristmill in 1939, the theater presents summer stock at its finest on a stage that once featured the likes of Robert Redford and Grace Kelly. Meanwhile, local artists present their work at the New Hope Arts Center and local crafts are on display in shops such as the Soap Opera Company, the Red Tulip Gallery, and the Topeo Gallery, which shines with multihued blown glass.
Running right through town is the Delaware River, offering water activities from tubing to rafting. Bucks County River Country organizes exciting expeditions and rents kayaks, rafts, and canoes. Alongside the river is the Delaware Canal Towpath, a 60-mile walking and biking route that links the towns of Easton and Bristol. Train enthusiasts come from afar to ride the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad, with its vintage 1925 steam engine and open-view car. Directly across the bridge from New Hope is its sister town of Lambertville, New Jersey, home to more shops and galleries, as well as the Howell Living History Farm, a petting zoo with costumed guides.
Have a meal at Ferry + Main, the restaurant at the 300-year-old Logan Inn, which offers cozy lodging just steps from the Delaware River. Porches on the Towpath comprises eclectic rooms in a former granary and two carriage houses. Taste local wines at Main Street Wine Cellar or go all-in on the Bucks County Wine Trail. Head to The Salt House, in a stone building that dates back to 1751, for elevated pub fare. The eatery features an outdoor patio, an upstairs library lounge, and a toasty fire in its downstairs tavern in the winter months.
6. Stowe, Vermont
This 19th-century farming town-turned-mountain resort retains the charm that first lured visitors from Boston and beyond to ride the train up Mount Mansfield and play amid the mountain scenery. Still, it wasn’t until Swedish immigrants introduced the town’s residents to skiing that Stowe truly earned its place on the vacation map.
Today, Stowe is a year-round destination where snow sports dominate the winter months while late spring, summer, and fall draw outdoor enthusiasts of all types. Paddlers love nearby Waterbury Reservoir, which recently added new boat ramps, while those looking to swim and fish head for Sterling Pond, accessible by a 2-mile trail. Right in town, the paved 5-mile Stowe Recreation Path follows the river all the way to Top Notch Resort.
Covered bridges, steepled churches, and brightly painted clapboard storefronts make Stowe Village the epitome of quaint, with plenty of art galleries, shops, restaurants, and cafés to keep visitors busy. The Helen Day Art Center and the Little River HotGlass Studio both offer eye-pleasing pieces, and festivals such as the Stowe Foliage Arts Festival and Stowe Jazz Festival keep the town lively. No visit would be complete without a trip to the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum in the Old Town Hall, which presents a vibrant view of the history of winter sports.
Considered one of the most scenic drives on the Eastern seaboard, Route 108 ascends through the rock chasm known as Smugglers’ Notch. Along the way, lushly forested hiking trails crisscross Smugglers’ Notch State Park and ArborTrek Canopy Adventures offers zip line and ropes courses for all ages.
To take advantage of Stowe’s walkability, choose a Stowe Village hotel such as the elegant Field Guide or historic Green Mountain Inn. For a more rustic mountain-lodge experience, choices include the expansive Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa and the Trapp Family Lodge, built by the real-life Sound of Music family. Taste the craft beverages at Stowe Cider and The Alchemist brewery, the latter of which offers visually stunning art to enjoy as you sip.
7. Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Lying at the foot of Monument Mountain and Mount Everett, Great Barrington has been a cultural hub ever since the hippies headed here in the 1970s to establish organic farms and ceramic studios.
In recent years, this corner of the Berkshires has stepped up as a destination for farm-to-table food, and the Great Barrington Saturday farmers’ market brims with artisanal cheeses, fresh fruit preserves, and organic produce. Newer shops, galleries, and eateries — like Brooklyn restaurateur Mark Firth’s Prairie Whale — reflect the town’s current influx of weekending hipsters.
Literary and artistic history have always informed the Berkshires vibe; bookworms can immerse themselves in both at The Mount, author Edith Wharton’s home in nearby Lenox, and at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The area is rich in African American history as well: Visitors can explore the childhood home of civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois and tour Ashley House, home of Elizabeth Freeman, a slave who helped to end slavery in New England.
Hiking is everywhere here: Eight Appalachian Trail waypoints form a semicircle around town, and three state reserves — East Mountain State Forest, Beartown State Forest, and Fountain Pond State Park — are all within a 15-minute drive. Berkshire Botanical Garden is a gardener’s paradise and more, with sculptures, rotating art exhibits, and workshops in cider-making, beekeeping, and herb-drying.
Retro-refitted Briarcliff Motel turned a 1960s roadside stopover into a place where families and 20-somethings alike gather around a firepit. At Race Brook Lodge, guests enjoy live weekend music at the on-site Stagecoach Tavern, then fall asleep to the babbling of the lodge’s brook. Treat yourself to all-natural ice cream, sorbet, and gelato at SoCo Creamery on Railroad Street.
8. Hudson, New York
Notable as the first incorporated city at the time of the original 13 US colonies, Hudson is an industrial-age relic turned mecca for New York City creative types. Calling itself “Upstate’s Downtown” and drawing on its natural beauty (the area was the inspiration for the Hudson River School of landscape painters), Hudson has experienced a revival over the past two decades, as forward-thinking artisans, culinary entrepreneurs, and interior-design aficionados flock to this riverside burg.
On mile-long Warren Street, 18th-and 19th-century buildings that once served as factories and warehouses now hold dozens of galleries, restaurants, antique shops, and home-decor boutiques. Chic hotels are packed on weekends — especially in summer and fall, as the verdant landscape transitions from soothing green to vivid orange and gold. Farmers markets, art festivals, and live music also contribute to the collective cool factor of Hudson’s renaissance. But, lest the destination become too hip for its own good, the serene Hudson Valley surroundings defuse any pretentiousness.
Reachable by car or Amtrak from New York City in about two hours, Hudson makes for a great day trip or weekend getaway. Stay at the charming Wm. Farmer and Sons (which also features a gastropub with an extensive whiskey selection), and stop in for mussels and Belgian frites at the Red Dot. Another highlight: the Olana State Historic Site, Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church’s former studio and home, originally designed by architect Calvert Vaux in 1872. You may want to time your visit to the performance and exhibition schedule at historic Hudson Hall, which dates to 1855.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, America’s Best Small Towns, in 2022.