Finding the Best Downtowns in New England

If downtowns are the “center” of your travel agenda, then New England will not disappoint with several communities offering vibrant, appealing central districts.

While many New England downtowns have fallen apart due to the rise of the “superstore,” budgetary woes and abysmal community planning, other communities have thrived through vision, determination and a commitment to excellence. These are the towns that realize that a viable downtown brings in more money, keeps people attracted to that given community, and ultimately serves as a barometer, of sorts, to what the rest of the community is like. There’s really nothing like a beautiful downtown for residents to use, travelers to visit, and those considering moving to potentially call their own.

Topping our list of the best downtowns is Guilford, Conn. Located about 20 minutes southeast of New Haven, downtown Guilford sports a stunning, large town common framed by well-maintained historic colonial homes, restaurants and coffee shops and independently-run shops. It’s not really a “mom and pop” store-type town as many of the shops are of the boutique and gallery type, but the overall feel is old-fashioned, quiet and safe. Perhaps the best thing to do in downtown Guilford is sit on a bench at the town common and soak in the New England flavor.

Running a close second behind Guilford is Wolfeboro, N.H. Perhaps if Wolfeboro had no mountains and a lake, then it would just be another town center, but when you combine the cute shops with all that glorious Lake Winnepesaukee water and the mountain ranges behind it, the town comes alive. It’s a beautiful downtown to walk with the lake and mountains behind a few blocks of shops and restaurants. Perhaps this is why Wolfeboro is known as America’s Oldest Resort Town.”

Coming in third is the town of Concord, Mass., home of the Revolutionary War. This western suburban Boston town has beautifully maintained its considerable historic origins with some of the most stunning colonial homes in the region, a magnificent looking public library, the peaceful Monument Square town common, and plenty of small shops and restaurants in its downtown and nearby Depot Square neighborhoods. The tree-lined side streets have a classic New England look with one big home after another — many with beautiful front porches, white picket fences, and backsides that keep on going and going. Beautiful, historic Walden Pond, the Concord River (great for canoeing) and the Old North Bridge are within walking distances.

Weston, Vt., is our next choice for the best downtown. The whole center is on the National Register of Historic Places! The landmark Vermont Country Store serves as the village’s retail centerpiece (you could spend a day shopping at this rustic, charming store specializing in lots of “hard-to-find” merchandise), with beautiful rural village scenes, a gazebo at the town common, classic white Vermont churches, inns and surrounding views of the revered Green Mountains.

Bringing up the rear, but still finishing as one of our favorite downtowns is Bristol, R.I. Known as the “most patriotic town in America,” Bristol has American flags displayed throughout town, a red, white and blue painted median strip in its downtown and the oldest Fourth of July celebration in America (it’s truly a spirited celebration!). Bristol seems like the proverbial “all-American” town where everyone seems to know each other, and stores that serve residents and tourists, alike (books, toys, photo supplies, coffee shops, and other delightful local small town storefronts). Bristol is also packed with restaurants, many specializing in seafood (the Lobster Pot, Quito’s, to name a few). Of course, Bristol’s location is ideal — located on scenic Narragansett and Mt. Hope Bays, you can get pleasing glimpses of the water from the downtown and even better views on the outskirts, especially at beautiful Colt State Park and the stunning Mt. Hope Bridge. Bristol is so special, many locals prefer it to another wonderful Rhode Island destination, Newport. Now that’s saying a lot!

New England has many other memorable downtowns, including Keene, N.H., Hanover, N.H., Stonington Borough, Conn., Bar Harbor, Maine, Welfleet (Cape Cod), Mass. and Montpelier, Vt., further validating that many Main Streets can serve as part of your “main” New England travel planning, or potential move.

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