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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
Rebecca Dalzell
&
Jen Woo
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If you think the 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, you've got options. Americans made big moves over the past couple of years, seeking refuge in smaller cities with larger shares of outdoor space—some of the most densely populated cities noticed a departure as sleepier cities snapped awake with 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 accessible fine dining. Honestly, some of them just have better weather—and we could all use a little extra vitamin D! Not sure where to begin? Check out the best family vacations in America to test the waters before taking the plunge.

Best places to live in the U.S.

Austin, Texas
Photograph: Courtesy of Unsplash/MK Tangonan

1. Austin, Texas

After a surge of newcomers, Austin is now a top city for real estate with homes being 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, California makes up 8%, followed by New York and Florida. Why is Austin such a hotspot? With a thriving music scene, beautiful outdoor spaces, a range of cultural institutions, and a growing reputation as “Silicon Hills” (Austin is one of the top venture capital cities in America), it’s not hard to see why.

Denver, Colorado
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2. Denver, Colorado

Denver is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, with 50,000 new residents between July 2019 and July 2020 alone. Educated millennials lead the charge, drawn to Denver’s cool music scene, array of breweries, 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. 

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3. Boulder, Colorado 

As a mecca for nature lovers, Boulder is home to stunning scenery, an absurd amount of hiking trails, and great access to skiing nearby. But at the core of this city’s charm lies its penchant for wellness—you'll find plenty of alternative medicine here, not to mention a good helping of healthnuts and fitness enthusiasts who've made it an ideal place for active families and young professionals. 

4. Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina

With Duke, North Carolina State, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill all nearby, this area is often praised for its quality of life, excellent education system, and strong economy with a foundation in research and tech (companies like 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.

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

5. Colorado Springs, Colorado

We know what you're thinking: Colorado again? Well, 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 after an influx of new residents. 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.

6. 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 (like Wellmark Blue, Cross Blue Shield, and Allied Insurance) based in the city.

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7. 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’s evolved into a center for culture, education, entrepreneurship, and commerce. Home to the headquarters of seven Fortune 500 companies, there is an abundance of jobs at major brands like Tyson Foods and Walmart. 

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

While attractions like museums and sports stadiums are obvious reasons for its big city appeal, the Twin Cities 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) and changing seasons to keep it interesting, not to mention a steady stream of music festivals and baseball games to please the crowds. Plus, a science-focused industry with companies like Xcel Energy and Medtronic keeps the Twin Cities region sharp while the headquarters of retail giants like Best Buy and Target provide a range of work opportunities.

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9. 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 1960's 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 flourishing with new shops and restaurants—luckily, the city still maintains a low cost of living. 

Portland, Oregon
Photograph: Courtesy of Unsplash/Trang Nguyen

10. Portland, Oregon

Drive around leafy, tree-lined Portland and you're likely to spot the slogan "Keep Portland Weird" peppered throughout the city. And while Portland embraces its weird and wonderful status, the green city still has its wits: the population holds 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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Portland, ME
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Maine

11. Portland, ME

No, you're not seeing double: this is a different Portland than the one above, but still a popular Portland nonetheless. Although it's Maine's largest city, it keeps a tidy population of around 66,000, maintaining a laid-back lifestyle right on the water. A burgeoning arts and culture scene keeps the city entertained, and it's even sometimes referred to as Portlyn—a.k.a., Maine's equivalent to Brooklyn. 

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

12. 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 cafes, indie bookstores, theaters, and wide assortment of tasty eats including Japanese, Indian, and Korean fare. 

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Seattle, Washington
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13. Seattle, Washington

Nestled between the water, mountains, and evergreen forests, the Emerald City has a plethora of cultural offerings like the Seattle Art Museum, Asian Art Museum, and Pacific Science Center. Paired with its bustling music and food scene, Seattle is an ideal city to just enjoy life. Add in a concentration of tech, healthcare, maritime, and manufacturing jobs, and you've got yourself the perfect blend of work and play. 

Madison, Wisconsin
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14. 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. Due to the city’s young professionals, college students, and families, Madison has much to offer—it's a hotbed with a large range of job opportunities in healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, and as the home of University of Wisconsin at Madison, education.

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15. Grand Rapids, Michigan

With over 80 breweries, Grand Rapids is known as the self-proclaimed “Beer City USA,” but also holds so much more. You'll find plenty of live music and public art as well as a market dominated by healthcare and education—on top of it all, there's no shortage of outdoor recreational activities and affordable housing. 

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