12 Best Small Towns to Visit in Washington State
Nestled into the Cascade Mountains and sitting seaside on the Puget Sound, numerous small towns in Washington are worth your attention. Whether you are looking for fashionable boutiques, historical museums, or access to the Evergreen State's top adventures, the best small towns in Washington all have their own unique flair and reasons to visit, but they all share the same characteristics of jaw-dropping scenery, friendly communities, and plenty of things to do year-round.
Leavenworth first came to life in the early 1900s as a small timber community, and when the railroad diverted to the neighboring Wenatchee in the 1920s, the community all but fell apart. That is until 1962, when Project LIFE (Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone) revamped the failed timber community into the Bavarian Village it is today. To promote tourism, community leaders at that time remodeled the city's storefronts to have a facade like those you would find in the Alps of Europe. With the new look came a new lifestyle as well, one that embraces Bavarian spirit in outdoor recreation, food, and celebrations, making Leavenworth one of the most popular small towns in the entire state of Washington.
Crafted beneath jagged Cascade Mountain peaks, Leavenworth and its Bavarian architecture is a postcard-worthy image anytime of the year, but come winter, when the town is strung with millions upon millions of Christmas lights per their annual Christmas Lighting Festival, it's a whole other sight to see. Glowing beneath those lights in the winter and always within earshot of the Bavarian folk music playing live in the streets, Leavenworth has a vibrant local shopping and dining scene that, much like the bratwurst-catering München House or athletically-inclined Der Sportsman, also has a unique Bavarian twist. The mountains that lend Leavenworth its impressive backdrop, including the world-renowned Alpine Lakes Wilderness, also offer adventurous activities like mountain biking, hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and skiing all year long.
About 13 miles from the Nisqually entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, Elbe is an extremely small town with a big thing for trains. A popular place to stay in Elbe is the Hobo Inn. Serving as North America's largest collection of train cabooses, it not only provides tourists and train-enthusiasts a look at the past, but each overnight guest gets their own personal, fully-furnished caboose to sleep in.
After sleeping in a caboose, another fun thing to do in Elbe is grab a bite to eat at the Mt. Rainier Railroad Dining Company, which operates a diner, lounge, and pizzeria out of renovated train cars. To top off your visit to Elbe, the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad is a must-see and do. It departs from Elbe and takes passengers along its 14-mile loop, crossing the glacier-fed Upper Nisqually River and making a one-hour pit stop at the Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum. It provides tourists with both the knowledge and first-hand look at the timber-rich environment that has defined much of western Washington's communities and livelihood.
Only a short drive between Port Townsend and Port Angeles, Sequim (pronounced: "skwim") is one of many scenic locations on the Olympic Peninsula, but this sea-inspired community, which hosts a Lavender Festival each July, is the only one to boast the title: The Lavender Capital of North America. The driving factor of Sequim's successful lavender output is the sunny weather it receives in contrast to the typical Pacific Northwest forecast. Sequim only receives an average of 16 inches of rain per year, adding "Sunny Sequim" to its list of nicknames and providing yet another reason why tourists seem to flock to the town and surrounding area.
In addition to all that sunny weather, Sequim boasts several local coffee shops, like the Hurricane Coffee Co, as well as many other unique shopping opportunities, all surrounded by ocean waters and the Olympic Mountains. A short drive to the north, you can find the picturesque New Dungeness Lighthouse on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and to the east, the John Wayne Marina on the Sequim Bay offers dining, sightseeing, and lodging along the shore. South of Sequim is the entrance to Olympic National Park, home of the Hoh Rainforest and Hurricane Ridge, and if all of that doesn't peak your outdoor interest, then the many vibrant fields of purple lavender laid out across Sequim provide some of the most unique sights you'll see in all of Washington.
4 Gig Harbor
Just 12 miles northwest of Tacoma, connected by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge across the Puget Sound, Gig Harbor is on a bay of the same name and is perhaps the most picturesque town in the United States. Much of that stunning scenery is thanks to its historic downtown waterfront, with an abundance of boutiques, galleries, and eateries, as well as Gig Harbor's proximity to scenic areas like Kopachuck State Park and Skansie Brothers City Park. While many tourists choose to explore the unique shops and boutiques, such as the Beach Basket Gift Shop, or explore local history at the Harbor History Museum with the magnificent view of Mount Rainier, simply walking through the streets and enjoying the scenery is well worth the visit to Gig Harbor.
On Washington's North Cascades Scenic Loop Byway, the small mountain town of Winthrop deserves much more than just a drive-thru. The ample number of recreational activities available throughout the year plus the western-themed community that loves to host tourists means Winthrop has everything and more to become your next favorite small town in Washington. With access to State and National Parks, like Pearrygin Lake and North Cascades, all encompassed within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, activities like backcountry skiing, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping are common and provide superb sightseeing opportunities of the Cascade Mountains. To compliment your outdoor adventures, the town's collection of local eateries, like the Rocking Horse Bakery; eclectic shops, such as the Trails End Bookstore; and overnight accommodations, including the Sun Mountain Lodge, all have a distinct old-western theme and will help encourage you to stay a little longer.
6 La Conner
A top tourist destination, the waterfront village of La Conner, in the heart of the Skagit Valley of Washington, is the perfect storm of Pacific Northwest beauty, community, and ample access to outdoor recreation. The La Conner Daffodil Festival and Skagit Valley Tulip Festival draw crowds from across the world each spring, and painters and artists can be found trying to emulate the different tones of La Conner that blossom throughout the year. Whether you are soaking in the sea-salt aromas of the surrounding Skagit Bay or Swinomish Channel, or you're taking a break in your day to sketch the town's most notable architectural icon, the Rainbow Bridge, if it's a laid-back, relaxing sea town that you are looking for, put La Conner towards the top of your list.
7 Port Townsend
Approximately a 40-mile drive from Seattle across the Puget Sound, at the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Port Townsend is a charming seaport community that boasts quite the reputation when it comes to art, history, and natural beauty. Both the Port Townsend Historic District and Fort Worden Historic District are National Historic Landmarks, and many of the buildings still display their original Victorian craftsmanship from the late 19th century. Couple the scenic storefronts with the waterfront views, and the aesthetics alone are enough of a reason to visit Port Townsend, no matter the season.
Every year, Port Townsend holds many different cultural events in its historic streets and harbor, including the Shipwright's Regatta in February, the Port Townsend Film Festival in September, and weekly Farmers Market held every Saturday from April through December. In addition to the almost weekly cultural attractions, the area also offers a large number of opportunities for outdoor recreation, including biking along ocean paths, boating and fishing in the Port Townsend Bay, and camping in the nearby Ft. Worden State Park and neighboring Olympic National Park, creating a lifetime of reasons to visit.
With fresh seafood options, 18 miles of immaculate beaches, and more than one picturesque lighthouse by the shore, Westport embodies Washington's quintessential ocean town. Located at the tip of the peninsula known as Point Chehalis, Westport serves as the southern gate for the tourist-oriented Grays Harbor and the rest of the Pacific Ocean, giving this beach-surrounded community plenty of fun things to do in and out of the water. Whether it's chartered fishing adventures, all-day beach outings, or experiencing some of the state's best surfing, Westport has enough outdoor attractions to keep you busy all weekend long. Its top attraction, Grays Harbor Lighthouse, at 107 feet tall, is the tallest lighthouse in Washington, and provides tourists with an information center, guided tours, and the perfect spot to admire the surrounding Pacific Ocean.
Serving as one of the most accessible coastal communities of the San Juan archipelago, Anacortes is the largest city on Fidalgo Island and has plenty of fun attractions and activities. With a long list of lovely places to stay, like the Ship House B&B, plus unique shops and boutiques selling everything from antiques to accessories, as well as excellent eateries like the GERE-a-DELI or A'Town Bistro, it can be easy for your weekend to slip away from you. The reason to come back, though, isn't necessarily the shopping options, but the town's character as the quintessential San Juan Island community.
With ferry rides departing from its shores daily, Anacortes is the ideal jumping-off point for destinations like Orcas Island, Friday Harbor, or any port of call on your San Juan Islands itinerary. If you prefer the feeling of solid ground beneath your feet, Washington's most popular State Park, Deception Pass, is less than 10 miles south of Anacortes on Whidbey Island, and the challenging Mt. Erie lies at the island's center and beckons climbers and hikers from across the country. To catch a bit of the island culture, the Anacortes Art Festival in August is usually a good bet.
While the town of Chelan has many restaurants worth visiting, including the local favorite Apple Cup Cafe, it's really the easy access to outdoor adventures that puts it on the map. With miles of hiking and biking trails stemming from town and many scenic places to camp, the real attraction of Chelan comes from adjoining Lake Chelan, which stretches for 55 miles into the brimming Cascade Mountains, making it the nation's largest natural lake. Lake Chelan provides ample opportunity for water activities, including swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and boat rentals, But for the best adventure, the Lady of the Lake Ferry takes visitors from the shores of Chelan across the entire lake and into the small, tourist-friendly town of Stehekin, which serves as the front gates of North Cascades National Park.
11 Friday Harbor
Steps from the ferry landing on the eastern edge of San Juan Island, Friday Harbor is a welcome retreat from the ordinary hustle and bustle of everyday life. This scenic seaport town has enough attractions within its small geographical region to accommodate any type of vacation, as well as abundant opportunities for experiencing the San Juan Islands and the Puget Sound. Off the water, you have plenty to explore at the Whale Museum or the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, or perhaps you can find some new gems in the shops and boutiques of Friday Harbor's shopping district, Spring Street. Couple these experiences with local dining options like the Rocky Bay Cafe and overnight accommodations such as the Friday Harbor House, and you don't even have to get your feet wet to have a good time here.
Besides being a beautiful town to visit, this really is the gateway to the rest of the San Juan Islands, with places like Sea Quest Kayak Tours and the Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal. Spend some time whale watching or exploring nearby islands on and off the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway. Land lovers can venture further afield to Mount Young for a challenging hike, Lime Kiln Point State Park to see some lighthouses, and San Juan Island National Historical Park to touch upon the island's natural and cultural history.
12 Port Angeles
One of the largest towns on this list, Port Angeles, on the northern side of the Olympic Peninsula, blends plenty of amenities with a small-town atmosphere. Thanks to its great places to stay overnight, like the luxurious Lake Crescent Lodge, and fresh dining options, such as the New Day Eatery, it would be easy to spend all your time exploring the Port Angeles Downtown District. However, what really attracts tourists and new residents is the wide range of outdoor recreational activities.
One of the most popular things to do here is to use one of the many guide services to spot humpback whales in the harbor or learn about Port Angeles' Historic Downtown Underground. For those that like a little more movement in their adventures, the 60-mile paved Olympic Discovery Trail cuts through Port Angeles and offers bikers and hikers unparalleled views of the Cascade Mountain Ranges and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Port Angeles also offers some of the easiest access to Olympic National Park, with the Hoh Rainforest, Ruby Beach, and nearly unlimited backpacking and camping opportunities.