The Small Town of Tulia, Texas
Tulia, Texas © Charles Henry

7 Tips for Enjoying a Small Town Stopover

Spending a night or two in Boringsville is an inevitable part of long term travel: you need to make a train or bus connection, or it’s the only place you can find some accommodation. Whatever the reason, there’s no need to make your stay in a small, insignificant town boring. It can be even better than hitting the big smoke or camping out in the national park, you just have to know how.

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Tip #1: Start with the Right Attitude

Change the name of this place you’ve landed in. Replace Boringsville in your head with the idea that you can have a one-day adventure here. I absolutely believe that there is something interesting to see and do in every town and village on earth. If you can’t prove this true, then you’re just not trying hard enough.

Tip #2: Get a Map

Small towns often have a surprisingly large network of streets to explore. If there’s a tourism office (yes, even small towns have one, very often!) ask for a map there, or otherwise try at your hotel or motel or at a gas station. Nearly every time I’ve done this I’ve been surprised to discover that the town actually extended somewhere away from the main street, into areas I probably never would have discovered if I’d just been wandering aimlessly.

Scour the map for hints on interesting places, too. Local cemeteries can often provide some interesting stories or a photogenic landscape, for example. Check for nature trails, parks, churches and historical buildings and mark any places you’d like to walk by.

Byers, Texas … Downtown © anyjazz65

Tip #3: Find the Local Museum

“This place won’t have a museum!” is a sentence I’ve heard many times (often in my own head). Recently I spent a night in Merredin, a small town in the Western Australian wheatbelt region, and this phrase was proved absolutely wrong once more. They had more than one museum! One was a cute Railway Museum literally in the top of the railway station building, and there was a Military Museum too.

One catch in a lot of small towns is that these museums only have limited opening hours, so check into the situation early to make sure you don’t miss out. (I say this from experience since I didn’t get to see Merredin’s Military Museum!). These small museums say a lot about the local people and what’s important to them and you can often find some real gems of information.

Tip #4: Talk to the Locals

In every small town I’ve ever visited, the locals are so surprised to see an interested tourist that they’ll go out of their way to help you out. They’re proud of their hometown and want others to know why.

It’s usually pretty easy to get chatting with a local in a small town. Walk into any shop or talk to the people at the hotel, and with the slow pace of life in most such towns they’re bound to have time to talk to you. Tell them that you’re interested in learning more about the town and ask for suggestions on where you can go. In the past this approach has got me a lift with a restaurant owner’s brother out to a small church a few miles away from the Russian village I was visiting, to see something beautiful that very few tourists ever lay eyes on.

Small Town Boy, Brasil © Leonardo Bighetti

Tip #5: Give Yourself a Project

Even a town that appears to have nothing special about it is still a minefield of potential activities for you. Once stuck in a small village in outback New South Wales for a day to get a bus connection onward, I noticed that in this town, like many, the town name was included in pretty much every shop name and in many other places too. I started wandering the place with my camera taking photos of each version of the town name and later Photoshopped them into an interesting collage — unfortunately the biggest impression was that the town needed to take some care to upgrade its decaying signage.

Nearly every traveler’s got a digital camera these days, so look out for your own project: roof colors, window shapes, trash cans, whatever takes your fancy. Without a camera, you can also find some projects to spend your time on: surveying the kinds of people who shop in the town each day or checking car license plates to see where they’re from. Be open to any kind of distraction and you’ll be quite amazed how interesting these small details can become.

Tip #6: Be Proud to be a Pioneer

Plenty of travelers can say they’ve been to Paris or Sydney but a lot fewer can claim knowing much about the world’s millions of smaller towns and villages. Spending time in a smaller place gives you the chance to gather unique stories that you’ll reminisce about for years to come.

When I was backpacking through Estonia and got to the western island of Saaremaa, most of the travelers around me stopped there and hit the pizza shop. But I’d seen a tiny spot on my map and read that I could get a boat across to Abruka Island, a settlement of some 14 people. I spent a fabulous day there walking across fields with a local dog who adopted me, checking out the local ceremony and even got a concert out of it — a group of church choir singers from the mainland happened to be there that day to sing for the local residents. I’ve never met anyone else who’s made the trip to Abruka Island, so I’m proud of my interesting day there.

Tip #7: Enjoy the Relaxation of a Small Town Outing

A small town stopover is really a huge blessing. Whether you’re mostly hiking national parks or doing heavy city-based sightseeing, breaking up your trip with a short stay in a small, quiet town is a great way to refuel your energy and start to see things with fresh eyes again. Sleep a bit later without feeling guilty that you’re missing out on too much; spend an afternoon in the local café reading a book or catching up on writing a few postcards; or stretch your legs with a long walk after too much time on trains or planes.

Enjoy the chance to relax a little — after all, traveling is meant to be fun, so make the most of every situation you come across.

  1. I have found Geocaching to be great for this. The geocaches are usually placed by the locals, in places that are interesting, unique or worth visiting, and typically from a local’s perspective, not a tourist’s perspective. I have found some great hikes, river walks, out-of-the-way parks and hidden gems on my adventures.

  2. Cities are great, but small towns are where you really get to know the realities of a country.

    Like when on a whim, we diverted from our road trip itinerary and drove to Hoven South Dakota at the suggestion of a road crew guy.

    Being from California, it was a good surprise to meet down to earth people that actually wanted to talk to us and help us out. We love small towns like Hoven.

  3. Another great thing about the small towns is that their cafes, coffee shops, and bars tend to be less crowded, allowing for decent conversation with their patrons or employees.

  4. Great ideas here … I’ve always wanted to drive cross-country and explore these kinds of places.

    I’m living in Central Illinois right now, and there are plenty of places like this in my backyard, so to speak. Thanks for inspiring me to explore them!

  5. Great article! I spent a summer working in a historic house in a small town and really enjoyed meeting tourists who stopped by. I strongly encourage people to take your advice.

    One thing I’d like to add though: I’ve found that many places, including small towns, have free walking tours (usually available online or through the tourist office). The tours usually provide a basic map and some historical information to get you started with the exploring.

  6. I don’t know.. sometimes I think it’s allowed to say that some place is just plain old boring. And when you start making photographic collages of the local trash cans you might have reached that point.

    But I think your article is great :) Unexpected stops in small towns can be great – you arrive with no preconceptions, open for anything. I’ve had some great stopovers in small places.

    I want to add one point to your list:

    If you can afford it, check in to a up-market hotel if the town has one. They’re always a lot cheaper outside the tourist trail, and you can use the stop to relax, pamper yourself and get back some strength for further travel. Look out for the other guests in the same hotel, they might not be your normal travelers and could have some interesting stories to tell about why they too came to this place.

  7. Great tips – I totally agree that sometimes small towns can be as interesting as cities, plus the locals often have more time for you. We worked all over Austria last year for a week at a time in each place, and the small towns were the best. Some of them had the weirdest attractions (HopLand, anyone?)

    It’s a pity most guidebooks don’t have room to mention the smaller towns, but if you want to win a Lonely Planet book, visit – there’s a competition running.

  8. Awesome tips! Little town stopovers can provide some of the best, most fun memories of a trip/vacation. All big cities have art museums, but how often can you say you saw an alien museum or the world’s biggest ball of twine?! Priceless. Also, assuming that small towns are weird and boring is so ignorant. Being a travel snob never helped anyone broaden their horizons. Basically, you get out as much as you put in.

  9. Great article,
    being from a small town, it’s all about gettin into the local knowledge, talking to the oldtimers and having a schooner in the pub!

  10. I always enjoy doing this apart from the map thing, coz the town/village I visit doesn’t always have a map. To stop over a small place always helps you to see people with honest comments & point of view.

  11. Funny that the same kinds of towns we dismiss as “boring” at home are just like the towns we find so quaint and authentic when we are traveling. Sometimes it’s good to pretend you are a visitor, even when you’re not.

  12. With the explosion of microbreweries in the US and abroad, even many small towns now have one. Even if you only stop in for one, it’s a great place to meet locals, enjoy a very regional brew that may contain regional ingredients, and relax.

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