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The 16 best places to live in the U.S. might just surprise you

What makes these cities the best places to live in the U.S.? The weather is just the beginning

Written by
Shoshi Parks
Contributors
Rebecca Dalzell
&
Jen Woo
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If you think the very best place to live in the U.S. is your own city, we're not here to argue. But if you're looking for a change of scenery, well, you've got options. Americans made big moves over the past couple of years, taking advantage of work-from-home policies while seeking refuge in smaller cities with larger shares of outdoor space. And as citizens departed larger metropolises, smaller and sleepier towns have snapped awake thanks to an influx of new residents.

Are we surprised? Not really. Some of these refreshed cities have serious curb appeal: access to strong education systems, better job opportunities, jaw-dropping landscapes, and actually affordable fine dining. What about cheap rent or affordable real estate?? Yeah, that's a real thing that exists when you leave expensive places like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. And frankly, some of these cities just have better weather (let’s face it, we could all use a little extra vitamin D). 

Recommended: the cheapest cities to rent in the USA

Not sure where to begin? Check out the best family vacations in America to test the waters before taking the plunge. And if you find yourself dreaming about a new hometown that's not on our list, peruse our guide to the most beautiful cities in the U.S. for a little inspiration.

Best places to live in the U.S.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
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Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota

While attractions like museums and sports stadiums are obvious reasons for Twin Cities’ big city appeal, the region exudes a friendly, oh-so-charming Midwestern nature that’s easy to love. There are plenty of outdoor activities (think cross country skiing and ice fishing) that open up as the seasons change, while a steady stream of music festivals and baseball games please the crowds. A science-focused industry with companies like Xcel Energy and Medtronic also keeps the Twin Cities region sharp while the headquarters of retail giants like Best Buy and Target provide a range of work opportunities.

Portland, ME
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Maine

Portland, ME

Portland, Maine, may not be as well known as its Oregon sister, but it's an equally lovely place to live. Although it's Maine's largest city, it keeps a tidy population of just around 66,000, maintaining a laid-back lifestyle right on the water. A burgeoning arts and culture scene keeps the city entertained; it's even sometimes referred to as Portlyn—a.k.a., Maine's equivalent to Brooklyn.

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Denver, Colorado
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Denver, Colorado

Denver is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. More than 50,000 new residents arrived between July 2019 and July 2020 alone. Educated millennials lead the charge, drawn to Denver’s cool music scene, an array of breweries, a roster of art museums, public transportation network (including a bike share), and in some cases, the state's legalization of marijuana. What else? It has 4,000 acres of parks and it's close to the Rocky Mountains—major bonus points for the Mile High City.

Des Moines, Iowa
Photograph: Unsplash / Austin Goode

Des Moines, Iowa

Locally owned restaurants, hip bars, and unique shops are among the top perks millennials and young families love about this city. Historical residences in quiet neighborhoods certainly don’t hurt either, nor does the job market, which continues to thrive with over 80 insurance companies—including Wellmark, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Allied Insurance—based in the city.

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Grand Rapids, Michigan
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Grand Rapids, Michigan

With over 80 breweries, Grand Rapids is well known as “Beer City USA.” But there's more to this place than just ales and lagers. You'll find plenty of live music and public art, plus a job market dominated by healthcare and education. On top of it all, Grand Rapids has no shortage of outdoor recreational activities and affordable housing—it’s grand indeed.

Asheville, North Carolina
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Asheville, North Carolina

With multi-hued fall foliage amid the cascading Blue Ridge Mountains, a bustling downtown, and a vibrant food and craft beer scene, it’s no wonder that artists have flocked to Asheville generation after generation. Now with a dedicated River Arts District, there are over 200 creators—including ceramicists, painters, and craftspeople—that routinely fill galleries and run art classes. If you want to be close to the arts, Asheville is spot-on.

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Huntsville, Alabama

Small compared to the other cities on this list, Huntsville may feel like an unexpected contender. The once-sleepy town made its mark in the 1960s during the space race, but continues to draw engineers at both NASA and the US Army's Redstone Arsenal. Today, the city is in the midst of yet another renaissance thanks to an influx of tech companies, craft breweries, and artists. As the fastest growing city in the state of Alabama, the downtown scene is also flourishing with new shops and restaurants—without the high cost of living found in fellow cities of its caliber.

Boulder, Colorado
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Boulder, Colorado

As a mecca for nature lovers, Boulder is home to stunning scenery, an absurd number of hiking trails, and great access to skiing. But the core of this city’s charm lies with its penchant for wellness—you'll find plenty of alternative medicine here, good vibes, and plenty of health-nuts and fitness enthusiasts who've made it an ideal place for active families and young professionals.

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Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina

Situated in the triangle formed by Duke, North Carolina State, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham are often praised for their quality of life, excellent education system, and strong economy with a foundation in research and tech (IBM, SAS Institute Inc., and Cisco Systems are all based here). For work, there's a range of employment opportunities in education, aerospace, green energy, biotechnology, and manufacturing, but this place isn't all about the resume: during off-hours, a booming microbrewery and dining scene is off the hook.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
Photograph: Courtesy of Unsplash/Brad West

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Home to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is a flourishing college town just 45 minutes from Detroit that's brimming with restaurants, bookstores, and more than 150 parks. With a well-educated population that prides itself on inclusivity, it’s a city built on an innovative, diverse economy that's particularly appealing for entrepreneurs. Millions of travelers visit each year to enjoy the eclectic shops, theaters, and wide assortment of tasty multi-cultural eats.

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Madison, Wisconsin
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Madison, Wisconsin

While cheese and curd are perhaps the first words that come to mind when considering food in Wisconsin, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear that Madison offers a unique blend of fine dining and farmer’s markets to meet the demands of the city's young professionals, college students, and families. Madison also has a wide range of job opportunities in healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, and, as the home of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, education.

Portland, Oregon
Photograph: Courtesy of Unsplash/Trang Nguyen

Portland, Oregon

Drive around leafy, tree-lined Portland and you're likely to spot the slogan "Keep Portland Weird." Yes, Portland embraces the weird and wonderful, but the green city still keeps its wits: the city's population holds far more academic degrees than the national average. You might call Portland weirdly educated, which makes it a rather smart place to live in our book. It's no wonder employers like Nike and Intel Corporation call Portland home—this place has brains and natural beauty.

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Fayetteville, Arkansas

Cozied up against the Ozark Mountains and also home to the University of Arkansas' flagship campus, Fayetteville is a charming small town that has evolved into a center for culture, education, entrepreneurship, and commerce. Home to the headquarters of seven Fortune 500 companies, there’s an abundance of jobs in town at major brands like Tyson Foods and Walmart.

Colorado Springs, Colorado
Photograph: Courtesy of Unsplash/Kevin Bree

Colorado Springs, Colorado

We know what you're thinking: Colorado again? What can we say? The Centennial State just happens to tick a lot of boxes. Colorado Springs, just an hour’s drive from Denver and close to world-class ski resorts like Aspen and Vail, is another city that’s booming in 2022. Luckily, a fresh crop of new homes continues to pop up by schools, parks, and cultural attractions to meet demand. While much of the economy and culture is driven by military jobs, there are also openings in tech and the medical industry.

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Austin, Texas
Photograph: Courtesy of Unsplash/MK Tangonan

Austin, Texas

Austin is now such a desirable city to live in that homes are scooped up faster than they can be listed. In 2020, a report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that Austin was growing at a rate of 168 new residents per day. While over 50% are from other parts of the state, Californians make up 8%, followed by transplants from New York and Florida. Why is Austin such a hotspot? With a thriving music scene, beautiful outdoor spaces with hiking trails, a range of cultural institutions, and a growing reputation as “Silicon Hills” (Austin is one of the top venture capital cities in America), it has pretty much anything you could ever want.

Knoxville, TN
Photograph: Unsplash

Knoxville, TN

Knoxville, Tennesee, drips with southern charm and basks in the warmth of sunny summers and mild winters. Playing host to the University of Tennessee and the headquarters of HGTV and AC Entertainment, the city is equal parts a center for Southern football as well as a creative hub. And, thanks to a relatively diverse population (which includes international students and faculty) and an affordable high standard of living, the food scene is diverse and delicious. 

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