Posted: May 28, 2013 10:00 AM
If your weekends are filled with visits to big box stores and ubiquitous coffee chains you're likely missing out on overlooked neighborhood gems. What would it take to get you into a new neighborhood, café or specialty grocery store?

I recently challenged myself and a few friends to find (and share about) the places that make their city special. Because frequenting the mom and pop shops can give us a unique connection to our surroundings and a deeper understanding of community.

For example, my local frozen yogurt shop exclusively employs kids from the local high school, giving many teenagers their first job opportunity. Their tip jar is known to locals at "The College Fund." The children's book store down the street donates a portion of each sale to a neighborhood elementary school if the purchaser has a child who attends there. It's a favorite stop for my 4-year-old who recently met Fancy Nancy in person and had her book autographed by the legendary illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser. It was an epic moment in her toddlerhood.

My city is also home to one of only three truly authentic Japantowns left in the U.S. It's lovely, especially now when the cherry blossoms are showing off and literally in my backyard. But it took a little more exploring to find a truly authentic Japanese market that also happens to be home to a game-changing mochi pastry shop.

I highly recommend making a short list of cool things you've yet to explore and plan a day of adventure... in your own backyard. Here's some inspiration for breaking the chain gang habit and discovering some new favorites.

Cozy cafes

Melissa McArdle of Reverie-Daydream

Crush-worthy Location^Cibo Café, Sausalito, California

Cibo cafe Sausalito, CA

"Cibo Café claimed my heart the moment the doors opened in Sausalito. Incredible coffee, mouth-watering food made with local ingredients, and a meeting place for the community, our friends... It is our church, our kitchen away from home. We go to satiate our hunger and thirst, but we mostly go for the comfort of knowing someone from our tribe will always be there ready to share a smile or offer a warm hello."

Kimberly Taylor of Kimberly Taylor Images

Crush-worthy Location^Oddfellows Café, Seattle, Washington

Oddfellows Café, Seattle, Washington

I love the atmosphere of Oddfellows Café on Capitol Hill in Seattle. It is the sort of place you bring your notebook to sit and ponder and make notes. It is easy to lose track of time there, enjoying their baked goods with a cup (or two) of coffee. I often stay through lunch, which is something between light and fresh and comfort food, reminding me of how good something simple can be.

Leaving home without leaving

Estelle Hayes of Pink Moon Daily

Crush-worthy Location^Mitsuwa Marketplace, San Jose, California

Mitsuwa Marketplace, San Jose, California

I could roam the aisles of Mitsuwa for hours. It's a cross between Whole Foods and London's famed Harrods, but full of authentic Japanese goodies. The mochi cream pastries are impossible to resist and my daughter is a sucker for the candy section. But my favorite part of the store is their gourmet tea salon. It's a haven for tea lovers and there's always something special brewing for sampling. I frequently come away from this Japanese mega store with something unique and exciting for my family's taste buds.

Crush-worthy Location^Almaden Valley Nursery, San Jose, California

Almaden Valley Nursery, San Jose, California

One of my favorite things to do on a morning off is wander through the flower nursery just after it's opened. All the plants have just been watered and the entire place smells earthy and fresh. The closest family-owned nursery to my home is designed like a park, with winding pathways that lead to mini citrus groves and row upon row of rose trees. There's a constant soundtrack of trickling water from the dozen or so fountains tucked among the magnolias and maples. I always leave with a pretty little plant baby for my own garden and a renewed spirit.

Crush-worthy Location^Hicklebee's Books, San Jose, California

Hicklebee's Books, San Jose, California

A stroll through Hicklebee's is a delight for children and adults. It's filled with quality books and toys for children of all ages. Authors and illustrators get rock star treatment, often drawing standing-room-only crowds of giddy littles waiting for autographs. One corner of the store is devoted to its museum, where book memorabilia is proudly on display and literary dignitaries have scrawled on the walls. It's a magical place where I'm reminded of the transformative power of stories and the importance of imagination.

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