According to Mark Twain, “In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”
If only Twain were around to experience the growing popularity of the “literary pilgrimage.” These days, book lovers trek far and wide to visit anything and everything associated with literature. Whether reading “My Antonia” surrounded by the prairies of Red Cloud, Nebraska, or making the traditional offering of a pen to the gravestone of Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts, there are few moments more powerful than experiencing first-hand those things we’ve learned to love through literature.
For this list, we’ve found 30 great small towns sure to please any book-loving literary pilgrim. Some, such as Monroeville, Alabama, are known for one specific, but beloved, author or book, while others, like Concord, Massachusetts, have a long literary history of famous names and places. Still others, like Newport, Oregon, have unique destinations made especially for book lovers who just want a quiet and inspiring place to, you know, read. But whatever they’re known for, the small towns on this list are sure to make you feel — “in some mysterious way” — a little closer to the words on the page.
1. Covington, Georgia
Located just 30 minutes outside of Atlanta, Covington, Georgia is the perfect destination for those who enjoy classic Southern literature. Located right there in town is the Twelve Oaks Bed & Breakfast, a stately mansion complete with columns said to have been the inspiration for the Twelve Oaks plantation in Gone With the Wind. The mansion, which survived General Sherman’s famous march and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the perfect place to spend a night or two while making day trips to the Margaret Mitchell House in nearby Atlanta, or Savannah for the sights made famous in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
2. Decatur, Georgia
Each Labor Day weekend, bibliophiles from all over the country flock to small Decatur, Georgia for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Decatur Book Festival. Each festival hosts upwards of 600 publishing industry insiders and authors, some of the past of which have included Erica Jong, Roxane Gay, Samuel R. Delaney, Damon Tweedy, and Amy Stewart, to name a few. The wide variety of events and speakers makes the festival a popular option for readers and writers alike. Best of all, it’s all free!
3. Salinas, California
These days, the small town of Salinas, California is practically synonymous with the name John Steinbeck. Indeed, he wrote many of his best known works in and about the area now known as “Steinbeck Country,” including The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. The national Steinbeck Center in Old Town hosts various exhibits of memorabilia, personal items, and festivals dedicated to the author and his books. Nearby, the Steinbeck House, once the writer’s birthplace and boyhood home, has been turned into a well-recognized restaurant.
4. Key West, Florida
Sun, surf, and umbrella drinks may be reason enough to visit Key West, Florida, but book lovers will also enjoy the Keys for its perennial tribute to one-time Key West resident Ernest Hemingway. Visit the Hemingway Home & Museum, where he wrote many of his novels and short stories, to see Hemingway’s impressive collection of Spanish furniture, mounts from his African safaris, and his pool — the first in-ground pool in all of Key West. As an ode to Snowball, the six-toed cat Hemingway owned, 40-50 Snowball-descended six-toed felines roam the island, each of which bears a name like Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, and Hairy Truman. Also on Key West is Tennessee Williams’ house (which he owned from 1949-1983), Robert Frost’s cottage, the John Hersey House, the Elizabeth Bishop House, and others.
5. Amherst, Massachusetts
It’s no wonder why fans of the great Emily Dickinson flock to Amherst, Massachusetts. The small New England town is home to the Emily Dickinson House & Museum, which is housed in — you guessed it — the 1813 home in which Dickinson was born and raised. The museum includes nearly 8,000 objects, including family furnishing, Dickinson’s artwork and early poems, her piano, her writing desk, and various other personal effects.
6. Waco, Texas
Book lovers and architecture fans alike will love the Armstrong-Browning Library at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Funded by two men who sought to create the “most beautiful building in Texas,” the library is a three-story, Italian Renaissance-style masterpiece complete with 62 stained glass windows, massive marble columns, ornate ceiling designs, and scores of other amazing details. And that’s not even mentioning the books! While some might wonder about the need for such an expensive, ornate library, those who built it have a simple explanation: If the “compelling beauty” of the building could inspire someone and “give the world another Dante, another Shakespeare, another Browning, we shall count the cost a bargain.”
7. San Marino, California
If your breath quickens at the first sign of incunabula — books printed before 1501 — then a trip to San Marino, California should be in store. Situated on the appropriately named Oxford Road is The Huntingdon’s Rare Books Collection and the second-largest stockpile of old books in the United States. There, you’ll find such treasures as a copy of Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible (one of 11 surviving copies printed on vellum) and a 1623 “first folio” edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, published seven years after his death.
8. Concord, Massachusetts
If you are a fan of 19th century American literature, there is likely no better place for a literary pilgrimage than Concord, Massachusetts. Once the home of such greats as Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, a walk through Concord will take you past charming The Concord Bookshop, Walden Pond (open to swimmers in the summer), The Old Manse (Emerson and Hawthorne both called it home at different points), The Ralph Waldo Emerson House, and The Orchard House (where Alcott wrote Little Women). Best of all is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery’s “author’s ridge,” a peaceful corner where Alcott, Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne are resting for eternity.
9. Amelia Island, Florida
Deemed one of the best literary festivals in the country, Amelia Island, Florida is the place to be in February of each year. Book lovers, best-selling authors, and literary industry insiders flock to the island just north of Jacksonville for all things book-related. Past authors have included Lisa Black, Olivia deBelle Byrd, and children’s author Christina Farley. The festival takes place in the island’s historic district, where horse-drawn carriages pass first-class restaurants, quaint antique stores, and — of course — book shops aplenty. As an added bonus, the festival helps support local schools and the library system, promoting the Authors in Schools program and other book-related endeavors.
10. Oxford, Mississippi
It is estimated that a whopping 25,000 literary pilgrims find their way to Oxford, Mississippi each year. Many of these are fans of William Faulkner, whose stately mansion, Rowan Oak, was home to the Nobel Prize-winning author for more than 40 years. Other visitors just hope to spot one of their favorite authors the way one might visit Hollywood or Beverly Hills. John Grisham, Jesmyn Ward, Steve Yarbrough, Richard Ford, Donna Tartt, Willie Morris, and Larry Brown have all called Oxford home in recent years. Book lovers shouldn’t leave town without visiting Square Books, a well-known independent bookstore celebrated for its large selection of books on the American South and by southern writers.
11. Salem, Massachusetts
Most people think of cringe-worthy historical events when they think of Salem, Massachusetts. Those inclined towards more literary tastes, however, think of a charming town with a number of one-of-a-kind bookstores and libraries. Perhaps the most impressive of such places is the Salem Athenaeum, a 50,000-strong collection of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century literature. The Phillips Library and the Salem Public Library are both nearby. Both house unique collections in architecturally stunning and historically significant buildings. But the pride of Salem is the House of Seven Gables, now a National Historic Landmark. A beautiful museum set on 2.5 acres near the harbor, the House was once home to Susanna Ingersoll (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cousin), and inspired his book of the same name.
12. Charlottesville, Virginia
Once home to Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, Virginia is a beautiful area known for horse-dotted hills, Civil War history, and the prestigious University of Virginia. But it turns out Charlottesville attracts a number of book lovers, too. Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner both spent time at the University (Poe as a student, Faulkner as a teacher), and visitors can still peek in on the former’s old dorm room. Charlottesville is also home to the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual event featuring readings, writing events, and interviews with some big names (many of whom live in the area). While you’re strolling downtown, be sure to stop in at Blue Whale Books and New Dominion Bookshop, both of which are classical independent book stores featuring a healthy variety of book-related events.
13. Oak Park, Illinois
If you’ve exhausted the many literary sights of Chicago, head 10 miles west to Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is home to the Hemingway Birthplace Home and Museum which houses thousands of artifacts from the writer’s life, including family photos, early writings, and letters written in Hemingway’s own hand. Nearby is The Book Table, a family-owned bookstore that describes itself as “fiercely independent.” They have a huge selection of art books (did we mention that the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio is steps away?), and even offer a deep discount on new books. For kids, the Magic Tree Bookstore has a huge selection of children’s books, and even offers a variety of literary events throughout each month.
14. Monroeville, Alabama
Monroeville, Alabama is best known as the hometown of literary greats Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Every year, thousands of literary pilgrims flock to Monroeville in search of the small southern town that inspired Lee to create Atticus, Scout, Jem, and the other beloved characters of To Kill a Mockingbird. A To Kill a Mockingbird-themed mural greets visitors on their way in, while annual performances of the classic kick off the Alabama Writers’ Symposium hosted by the town. Finally, a Boo Radley-inspired Birdhouse Trail and tours of the Old Courthouse Museum offer inside looks into the childhood of Lee and Capote.
15. Lowell, Massachusetts
Author Jack Kerouac inspired an entire generation with his unique coming-of-age novels such as the classic “On the Road.” Lowell, Massachusetts, the mid-size town where Kerouac was once a resident, is such a fan of the author that they have Kerouac Park, complete with sculpture gardens and inscribed quotations by the “father of the beatnik movement.” Kerouac Park is a wonderful place to sit with a good read at any time of year, but visit in October for a true Kerouac experience: the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival features readings, musical performances, tours, and special exhibits.
16. Hannibal, Missouri
Though historically significant sights associated with legendary author Mark Twain can be found all over the United States, the closest one can get to Twain’s inspiration is undoubtedly Hannibal, Missouri. The small town is home to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which is full of information and artifacts surrounding what is arguably one of the most interesting figures in all of American history. Though annual events pay tribute to Twain (including the Tom & Becky Swim Meet), literary pilgrims can experience Hannibal through the eyes of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer at any time of the year by exploring the Mark Twain Cave, taking a ride down the Mississippi on the Mark Twain Riverboat, or catching one of the many old-fashioned shows featuring Mark Twain “himself.”
17. Mansfield, Missouri
Those who loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books are sure to love a visit to Mansfield, Missouri, which does a wonderful job celebrating its most famous one-time resident. The Laura Ingalls Wilder/Rose Wilder Lane Historic Home and Museum exhibits hundreds of artifacts spanning over a century of the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder pioneer families. Pa’s fiddle, the handwritten manuscripts for the Little House books, various keepsakes, tools made by Almanzo, Laura’s needlework, and so much more is all there. The town also hosts Wilder Days, an annual festival complete with costumes, presentations, and a fiddling contest. Be sure to take a quiet moment to visit Laura’s grave as well.
18. Iowa City, Iowa
As is expected of the third city to have become a UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa City is a true book-loving, literary town. Grab your favorite Vonnegut title and stop in at Donnelly’s Bar on Dubuque Street where Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, John Irving, and Dylan Thomas all spent a fair bit of time. Prairie Lights Books, Haunted Bookshop, and Murphy-brookfield Books are all great places to pick up titles old and new. Fans of W.P. Kinsella’s 1986 novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy will enjoy a walk to the Black Angel Statue, which in the book comes to life and plays right field in a biblical baseball game. If you’re a writer too, check out the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where you can gain peer support and unparalleled instruction for a weekend or a full week.
19. Newport, Oregon
Anyone who loves books and reading has yearned for that opportunity to disappear from the world with a good book in hand. Thanks to the owners of the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, book fiends can do just that. The hotel — which doesn’t allow any television, telephone, radio, or Wi-Fi distractions — is all about embracing a good book and the simple pleasure of reading. You can find a cozy spot in one of the themed rooms (with such apt names as “Classics,” “Best Sellers,” and “Dr. Seuss”), or head down to the beach and read to the background noise of surf and a gentle breeze.
20. McAllen, Texas
When small town McAllen, Texas wanted to turn its abandoned Wal-Mart warehouse into something that could benefit the community, Minneapolis-based architects Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. stepped in to create one of the most impressive libraries in the entire nation. In addition to thousands of books of all types and reading levels, “Megapendants,” large signs emblazoned with genre names, hover over reading areas known fondly as “respites.” Several quiet rooms, multiple computer rooms, a volunteer-run bookstore, and a cafe also exist inside the readers’ paradise.
21. Red Cloud, Nebraska
Thanks to authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather, the prairie stories of the 19th century practically became their own genre. For those who want to step back in time and experience the prairie as closely as possible these days, Red Cloud, Nebraska is the place to be. The town and the surrounding landscapes are all prototypes for novels like O Pioneers, My Antonia, and The Song of the Lark, while even the people of Red Cloud seem to have stepped right from their pages. The Willa Cather Foundation owns 11 buildings in town, the most popular of which is Willa Cather’s childhood home, where Cather’s high chair, alarm clock, furniture, coffee pot, and other household items are on display. Finally, grab your favorite Cather book and spend some time in the Cloverton Cemetery, where Anna/Antonia is buried, and enjoy as the spirit of the prairie surrounds you.
22. Elmira, NY
23. Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts
Author, illustrator, playwright, and costume designer Edward Gorey published more than 100 of his own works, and illustrated countless others. Indeed, if you have ever looked through any number of books with illustrations, then chances are good you have picked up something drawn or written by Gorey. Fans can head to Yarmouth Port to visit the Edward Gorey House, where he lived from 1979 until his death in 2000. The House does a wonderful job of preserving Gorey’s unique creativity, and even highlights his life-long commitment to the welfare of animals.
24. Big Sur, California
In 1957, author Henry Miller called Big Sur, California “a big lazy Buddhist paradise [where there are] not only writers and artists, but ping-pong and chess players.” Even today artsy people love Big Sur. The home in which Miller lived for two decades is now the impressive retreat that is the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a library/cafe/museum with a sign that promises that “nothing happens.” After a visit to the library, take a drive along Highway 1 or some of the pretty backgrounds to see firsthand what Jack Kerouac described in his novel Big Sur. Finally, a stay in Big Sur is the perfect spot from which to explore nearby Monterey and Salinas, known to book lovers as “Steinbeck Country.”
25. Tarrytown, New York
The state of New York may want you to say you’re going to “Tarrytown,” but the idyllic upstate hamlet will always be known to book lovers as Sleepy Hollow, inspiration to Washington Irving and home of the legendary Icabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. In fact, not much has changed in Sleepy Hollow since Irving’s days. His home, Sunnyside, is still there, along with his grave just behind the Old Dutch Church. Lyndhurst Mansion, the Rockefeller Estate, and Kykuit, all of which appear on the National Register of Historic Places if not the pages of classical literature, are inspirational enough to be worth a visit in between antiques shopping and searching the cemetery for a headless horseman.
26. Rockville, Maryland
Much quieter than the bustling nearby city of Washington, D.C., Rockville, Maryland is the home of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, are buried. Fans of Fitzgerald’s roaring twenties novels will enjoy a few quiet moments near his grave, on which words from his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, are inscribed: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Additionally, Rockville is the perfect place to stay for day trips into D.C. to view such literary sights as the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Statue, the Walt Whitman excerpts at the Dupont Circle Metro Station, and Langston Hughes‘ former home the Georgia Douglas Johnson House.
27. Lenox, Massachusetts
Head to Lenox, Massachusetts to visit the impressive and stately home where Edith Wharton lived from 1903 until 1908. Known as “The Mount,” the mansion draws plenty of visitors simply for its architectural impressiveness and literary significance, though the 100 acres The Mount sits on is full of gorgeous landscaping, with plenty of secluded and peaceful spots in which to rest with your copy of The Age of Innocence. Be sure also to check out the charming dog cemetery, where many of Wharton’s most beloved pets rest. If you are unable to visit Lenox in person, check out the beautiful Vogue photo series in which designer Nina Ricci as Edith Wharton is lovingly photographed throughout the house and grounds.
28. Chelsea, Michigan
Seeing and listening to an author read his or her own work is a special and intimate experience, so imagine how special it must be to experience multiple authors from all genres and all parts of the country read their work in interesting places. That’s the premise for the annual Midwest Literary Walk, which takes place each April in Chelsea, Michigan. Book lovers and critically acclaimed authors spend the day traipsing through Chelsea’s quaint historic district, stopping in at places such as the Purple Rose Theater, the Chelsea Train Depot, the Chelsea District Library, and the Chelsea Alehouse. At each stop, public readings occur over a quick snack or drink, and plenty of good literary conversation. Best of all, the Walk is free for the public to enjoy!
29. Gaithersburg, Maryland
One of the top annual literary events in the country, the Gaithersburg Book Festival attracts hundreds of award-winning and best-selling authors, poets, and songwriters from across the country for a celebration of the written word and “its power to enrich the human experience.” The festival takes place in the heart of Olde Towne Gaithersburg, in a park-like setting where visitors can stroll from author readings, to book signings, to sales, to special exhibitions. In the past, visitors have enjoyed authors such as Gennifer Choldenko, Jeffery Deaver, David Lubar, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Marisa de los Santos, and Anne Enright, among many more.
30. Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, Canada
While a visit to this one might require a longer drive and a passport, any former (or current!) little girl is bound to enjoy a visit to Prince Edward Island, made famous by Lucy Maud Montgomery’s stories of Avonlea and Anne of Greene Gables. In picturesque Cavendish is the Green Gables Heritage Place, the gabled house that inspired Montgomery — it even has Lovers Lane and the Haunted Wood! Near Montgomery’s former home (where her relatives still reside) is Avonlea Village, a recreated rural community based on the village in which Anne lived. Here, eclectic shops and restaurants, a 19th century school house, and frequent children’s shows will you feel like you’ve just stepped from the pages of one of Montgomery’s books. Charlottetown, Silver Bush, Borden-Carleton, and Gateway Village are all nearby and offer their own pieces of Anne of Green Gables magic.