Built around Smith College, the prestigious and historic women's school, Northampton is just down the road from Amherst and its co-ed college, in one of the most densely academic regions in the country. But it would be wrong to dismiss it as just another snooty New England college town—the surrounding rural area keeps Northampton fresh and folksy. And the scenery, in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, is spectacular, including the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary and nearby Mount Tom State Reservation, an excellent place to watch migrating hawks and falcons. The town itself—just a couple hours' drive from Boston and New York City—is full of quirky little restaurants, unexpected boutiques, as well as Smith's impressive art museum and botanical garden. And, yes, its lefty label is well deserved: almost 70 percent of its voters are registered Democrats.
- Vibe: Liberal enclave with rural roots
- Population: 28,411
- Median housing price: $251,900
- Average number of sunny days: 189
They don't call this the Horse Capital of the World for nothing: Just moments outside Lexington's bustling downtown, you'll be surrounded by miles of white-fenced and emerald-green horse farms, producing some of horse racing's top thoroughbreds—and plenty of local entertainment. But residents, who are just as likely to be beer-drinking college basketball fans as julep-swigging Derby lovers, say this is one of those rare southern towns that offers four distinct seasons, and the relaxed graciousness of the Old South. In the heart of bluegrass music country, Lexington also boasts rich African American roots, an impressive history—Mary Todd Lincoln was born here, husband Abe about 80 miles to the southwest—and distilleries that produce some of the world's best bourbon.
- Vibe: A cool combo of bourbon, bluegrass, history, and horses
- Population: 279,044
- Median housing price: $143,080
- Average number of sunny days: 188
Texas Hill Country
Forget about tumbleweeds. Set in the heart of Texas, this region is beloved for its lush countryside, which stretches toward San Antonio and Austin with rolling hills and miles of wildflowers. Yes, you'll feel the spirit of old Texas, with all its Mexican influences, but in the Hill Country, that's all softened by the European flavors of the Germans who settled here. Sit in a beer garden, and enjoy a sandwich and fresh country air, or drive to Luckenbach, made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Hill Country residents tend to be both conservative and churchgoing (about 80 percent in Fredericksburg are registered Republicans, and 75 percent describe themselves as having a religious affiliation), and they're happy to brag (this is Texas, after all) about everything from the region's lavender farms and burgeoning wineries to Enchanted Rock, the second-largest natural granite dome in the United States.
- Vibe: Old West bravado mixed with European charm
- Population: While plenty of small towns dot this area, some of the best-loved are Fredericksburg (10,873), New Braunfels (51,804), and San Marcos (50,373)
- Median housing price: $126,000
- Average number of sunny days: 228
Oxford, described by its fans as the quintessential southern town, may be best known for its famous residents, such as author William Faulkner or New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. But there are plenty of other reasons to love living here. Residents say you'll always be warmly greeted as you wander around the gracious town square, whether you stop for a morning pastry at the Bottletree Bakery or the award-winning fare at the City Grocery. Home to the University of Mississippi and its 15,000 students, Oxford also boasts an impressive volunteer community, plentiful golf courses, and the university's Blues Archive, one of the world's most extensive collections of blues recordings. And, of course, the town worships football: for Ole Miss' home games, the Grove is the liveliest place in the state, as fans pack the ten-acre area with elaborate tailgate spreads.
- Vibe: Football meets Faulkner
- Population: 14,911
- Median housing price: $185,750
- Average number of sunny days: 217
Walla Walla, Washington
A food lover's paradise, this small town—once best known for its onions—also now supports more than 100 wineries, many critically acclaimed. Residents don't just love the great restaurants and the cabernets, merlots, and syrahs that have put it on the map. They also appreciate the area's strong agriculture, which produces wheat, beef, and, of course, apples. About a five-hour drive from Seattle or Portland, Oregon, Walla Walla has its own lively art and antiques scene, and fun festivals such as its annual Balloon Stampede. Outdoorsy options are intense: hiking, camping, fly-fishing—especially for rainbow trout—and elk hunting, as well as plenty of winter sports.
- Vibe: Napa, minus the attitude
- Population: 30,794
- Median housing price: $144,930
- Average number of sunny days: 188
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