Move over New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. For the average American, the best cities to live in now are no longer our biggest.
If the American dream – at least a big part of it – is progress, prosperity, a thriving community and the possibility of owning a home, the best US cities to live in now are small or mid-sized.
Coast to coast, places like Boulder, Colorado, Raleigh, North Carolina and Santa Fe, New Mexico are the new frontiers of growth, innovation and opportunity, offering fast-growing economies, rising salaries and a better quality of life at a more affordable price. In other words, they’re modern-day boomtowns, and the statistics show Americans are flocking to them.
Large numbers of people are saying goodbye to crowded coastal capitals and their astronomical living costs, traffic-choked roads and commutes on strained public transport systems that are scarier than a Jordan Peele film. From 2010 – 2017, the populations of New York City and Los Angeles grew 5.5%, and Chicago grew less than 1%. Meanwhile in the same period, Boulder’s population increased by ten%, Miami, FL saw a 15% rise, and Charlotte, NC grew a staggering 20%.
So, which US cities are the best to move to now? According to figures released by finance website GoBankingRates, based on five years’ worth of data, these 10 cities have rising incomes, growing populations – good for small business – and the cost of living is still reasonable. Better write that resignation letter and call the removalists.
1. Charlottesville, Virginia
It has a population of almost 50,000, but Charlottesville, Virginia “somehow manages to maintain a small town feel,” said local Kelly, 31, a Program Manager for the Institute of Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia. “People are so friendly and everything is within a close proximity. There are so many amazing outdoor activities; hiking and cycling are really popular in C’Ville, helped by the proximity to Shenandoah National Park.”
Where to live: North Downtown, Fifeville or Belmont to be closer to the center, Fry’s Spring, Woolen Mills or Greenbrier are a 10-minute drive to the action.
Where to eat & drink: Bodo’s Bagels for New York-style bagels and sandwiches, MarieBette for breakfast or brunch, Beer Run, a restaurant-meets-bar-meets-craft beer extravaganza, and Vivi’s Cakes for dessert.
What to see: Wander the historic University of Virginia campus, and the mansions of two former American presidents; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier. At Carter Mountain Orchard, pick your own fruit from April through November, taste cider made from apples picked from the grounds, and take in the views of the rolling green hills of Charlottesville.
2. Santa Cruz, California
About an hour south of San Francisco, skateboard and surfing culture reign supreme in Santa Cruz. The city of 65,000 offers a laid-back lifestyle by the ocean, surrounded by national parks, without missing out on good restaurants, culture and nightlife. Locals make the most of their 29 miles of beach by relaxing on the sand, surfing, paddle boarding, sailing and soaking up the colourful Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its charming theme park.
Where to live: Downtown or Seabright/Midtown to have hip eateries on your doorstep, Westside, Live Oak/Pleasure Point for a little more room.
Where to eat & drink: Soif, Bantam or HOME for dinner. For casual eats during the day, hit up the Picnic Basket or Steamer Lane Supply. There’s been an explosion of craft breweries in Santa Cruz in recent years; at Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House you can taste from more than 30 rotating brews on tap and snack on hearty bites like tacos and fish and chips.
What to see: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz Wharf, Natural Bridges State Beach, the West Cliff Drive coastal walk, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and the Garden of Eden, a tranquil swimming hole surrounded by towering trees in Henry Cowell Redwood State Park.
3. Fayetteville, Arkansas
Fayetteville attracts young professionals and families looking for a slower pace of life compared to the major metropolises. Home to the University of Arkansas, the college town has a thriving arts and culture scene. In the warmer months, day or weekend trips to the stunning Ozark Mountains, about a two-hour drive east, is the thing to do, while in winter, AKA football season, it’s all about barracking for the local college team the Razorbacks.
Where to live: Johnson or Tontitown are the best if you want to be close to the center of Fayetteville, otherwise Bentonville and Cave Springs, 15 – 20 miles north of downtown, are the most sought-after neighbourhoods to live in.
Where to eat & drink: James at the Mill is a sophisticated restaurant serving contemporary American fare with a French influence; for a southern feast head to Penguin Ed’s BBQ for smoked meats; The Common Grounds is an upscale cafe, restaurant and bar with a bustling atmosphere day or night.
What to see: West Dickson Street, Clinton House Museum (the former home of Bill and Hillary Clinton), the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, Razorback Greenway (a 36-mile hiking and biking trail), or from mid-March to mid-October, see a movie at the drive-in theatre, one of the last in the country.
4. Santa Fe, New Mexico
After visiting the city several times on vacation, Rachel, 35, who works as a staff writer for a university, made the move from Illinois to arts hub Santa Fe.
“I love the eclectic, artistic culture of the region,” Rachel said. “Art galleries and craft shows abound, vibrant colors decorate homes and businesses – even people dress more colorfully. I also adore the climate of the south-west. No humidity, clean air, hiking and beautiful scenery. It’s a wonderful place for the outdoorsy! Also, the Santa Fe region is much more in touch with its indigenous cultural heritage than many other places around the US.”
Where to live: The aesthetically pleasing Historic East Side, with its adobe homes, is walking distance to the Canyon Road arts district and downtown; South Capitol, a 10-minute drive from the center has the Railyard Arts District.
Where to eat & drink: Local institution Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen for lunch or dinner to experience New Mexican cuisine (and about 100 twists on the margarita); Café Pasqual’s for breakfast (but arrive early; the queue often stretches down the block); Los Patrillos for traditional Mexican food.
What to see: Immerse yourself in art: there’s Meow Wolf, an enormous interactive art experience that’s like a contemporary art exhibition had a baby with a funhouse, the Georgia O’Keefe permanent exhibition, and many more galleries and museums. Also, go hiking. There are many trails of varying difficulty around Santa Fe, including the Atalaya Trail and the Dale Ball trails.
5. Naples, Florida
The exclusive enclave of Naples claims to be the golf capital of the world, with more than 80 championship courses, and offers spectacular white-sand beaches that are cleaner and less crowded than those in other parts of Florida. A lot of wealthy people call Naples home, but everyday Americans are also drawn here because business booms year-round – in winter there’s an influx of northerner’s escaping the snow, while in summer the city thrives with vacationers – and there are still reasonably priced homes to be found.
Where to live: If you’re a multi-millionaire, you’ll feel at home on eye-wateringly expensive Gulf Shore Boulevard or Pelican Bay. Otherwise, there are more affordable neighborhoods such as North Naples and Golden Gate.
Where to eat & drink: Sea Salt Naples, an upscale seafood restaurant with an airy outdoor terrace; Gumbo Limbo, for casual eats, cocktails and an ocean view (perfect for sunset); Pinchers for no-fuss seafood and fried food.
What to see: Naples’ best asset is beaches; Vanderbilt Beach Park, Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park, Lowdermilk Beach Park and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park. Wander Naples Pier, shop at Tin City and see more than 100 classic American cars at the The Revs Institute for Automotive Research.
6. Raleigh, North Carolina
“Raleigh is unique for so many reasons,” said Dana, 27, who works in content marketing and recently relocated to North Carolina’s state capital.
“The culture is a mix of Southern hospitality and transplants. The conveniences, relatively light traffic, proximity to both mountains and beaches, climate, and food scene can’t be beaten.”
Where to live: Downtown Raleigh is the most central neighbourhood; Oakwood and Cameron Village are hip areas walking distance from downtown; Boylan Heights and Hayes Barton are more exclusive areas known for beautiful historic homes about a 10-minute drive the city center.
Where to eat & drink: Chanticler Cafe and Le Farm bakery are cosy spots for a casual meal, Lugano’s is arguably the best Italian in the city, Brewery Bhavana is an achingly hip brewery/dim sum restaurant/book store/florist.
What to see: Take a self-guided walking tour to see the Raleigh Murals, explore the eclectic North Hills neighbourhood, visit the North Carolina Museum of Art, choose from more than 350 beers on tap at the outdoor Raleigh Beer Garden, in warm weather, soak up the sun in Pullen Park.
7. Miami, Florida
“In Miami, no matter where you’re from, you’ll feel welcome,” said Natasha, 26, who works in marketing and social media at a tech-start-up. She moved to the glittering beach city on the southern tip of Florida almost two years ago.
“There are so many different cultures, and even though some are so different from each other, they all blend together perfectly.”
Where to live: South Beach, if you want to be right in the action surrounded by buzzing nightlife; South Miami is good for those who want quiet, more space and a short commute to downtown; Brickell for an inner-city, urban feel.
Where to eat & drink: Lagniappe for food, drinks and live jazz; 27 Restaurant for a quintessential Miami menu – modern and influenced by Latin American, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines; Alter for an inventive tasting menu; The Broken Shaker for craft cocktails by the pool; All Day for breakfast and coffee.
What to see: Little Havana, Wynwood Walls (the arts and dining district where colourful street art covers every building), The Perez Art Museum (PAAM), the art-deco architecture of South Beach, the rooftop pool at The Betsy Hotel.
“I work remotely and love to ski. After testing out different cities in Colorado I fell in love with Boulder,” said Caroline, a 27-year-old freelance writer who moved to the town at the base of the Rocky Mountains about two years ago.
“There are so many outdoor activities to do in and around Boulder - it’s impossible to get bored! Also, there is a real winter in the mountains, but it’s usually not winter-y in Boulder for more than a couple of days at a time.”
Where to live: Downtown Boulder, The Hill and Chautauqua to have restaurants, bar and action on your doorstep; South Boulder for a more residential feel; East Boulder or North Boulder are considered up-and-coming.
Where to eat & drink: Rayback Collective, a beer hall and food truck park; Curry & Kebob for cheap Indian food; Laughing Goat for good coffee and live music; Cured for amazing sandwiches, meats, and cheese; Alpine Modern Café for good coffee and sandwiches and an all-round stylish place to hang.
What to see: Go hiking in stunningly scenic Chautauqua Park; head to Pearl Street to eat, shop, watch live performers and soak up the atmosphere; see live music at the art-deco Boulder Theater concert hall downtown or the Red Rocks Ampitheatre, a concert venue carved into the side of a mountain.
9. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Sioux Falls has been a city on the rise since Citibank moved its headquarters there in the 80s, which brought thousands of jobs and had a flow-on effect for local business, and the city has been growing rapidly ever since. It’s inarguably isolated, but Sioux Falls has a burgeoning culinary scene and is immersed in natural beauty – the Big Sioux river flows through downtown.
Where to live: Downtown and North End East to be close to the center, All Saints for a quiet, historic feel – many of the homes are landmarks buildings.
What to eat & drink: Phillips Avenue Diner for burgers and classic home-style food in a retro setting, WoodGrain Brewing Co. for craft beer, Falls Overlook Café, for coffee and light bites in a restored hydro-electric plant overlooking the river, and Crawfords for upscale American fare in a cosy, low-lit setting.
What to see: You can’t go all the way to Sioux Falls and not see its namesake, the gushing waterfall in Falls Park. The Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk is a trail of large conceptual art installations downtown that change every year. Snow sports are the main activity in winter. Conversely, in summer, hiking is popular; try the Leaders Park Trails and the Prairie Vista Trails.
10. Reno, Nevada
Close to the border with California and just north of Lake Tahoe, Reno, Nevada has seen a boom of tech start-ups that’s brought an influx of people from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. House prices aren’t exactly cheap in Reno, but the city of 250,000 is growing rapidly regardless, with new residents drawn by job opportunities, shorter commutes and closer proximity to skiing and hiking when compared with Los Angeles, San Francisco and many other major US cities.
Where to live: Downtown to be in the heart of the action, Idlewild Park for more space and greenery, Meadowood for a suburban feel and short commute to the center, Virginia Lake for peace and quiet, a five to 10-minute drive to downtown.
Where to eat & drink: 4th Street Bistro for modern-American fare in an elegant converted former home; Squeeze In for a classic American menu for breakfast or lunch where mimosas and bloody marys are encouraged; Campo for modern Italian food, where everything is made from scratch, in a casually elegant room.
What to see: The Nevada Museum of Art, the Truckee River Walk, Eldorado Resort & Casino, the Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center, and a few days in Lake Tahoe for skiing in the winter or swimming and hiking in summer.
Images: Unsplash/ Ashley Satanosky, Getty