You’ve probably seen the lists: “Best Cities to Start a Business.” “Friendliest Towns in America.” “Safest Cities in the U.S.” And on and on. But many times, these lists feature communities that while safe, or inexpensive, are sorely lacking in culture, entertainment and other amenities. We’ve compiled a list of 10 small towns and cities that won’t break the bank, but are also very livable, loaded with character, history and plenty of amenities. Our list of well-rounded communities all boast around 100,000 or fewer residents — in keeping with a U.S. government definition that “mid-sized cities” exceed 100,000 in population. Regardless of whether you call them a “city” or a “town,” these places offer all, or most, of the attributes — a good economy, low crime, culture, entertainment and activities — that people generally look for when putting down roots.
10. Morgantown, West Virginia (2010 population: 29,660)
This county seat flies in the face of any conceptions about depressed, coal-mining hamlets in the state. Located within easy driving distance of Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., Morgantown is home to West Virginia University, one reason the town boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country (5.4 percent as of May 2012). You certainly don’t have to be wealthy to live there; in fact, Morgantown’s cost of living is 7 percent lower than the national average. The university isn’t the only heartbeat of the community, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Morgantown among its dozen “Distinctive Destinations,” thanks to a history predating the American Revolution as well as “splendid architecture” and its “exquisite setting.” By “setting,” the Trust is probably referring to its proximity to some of the state’s nearly 2,000 miles of mountain streams and rivers flowing through the Appalachians. From lazy rivers to raucous rapids, the area is a haven for outdoor lovers.
9. Temecula, California (pop: 100,097)
Located in the heart of Temecula Valley Wine Country — an hour’s drive from San Diego, Palm Springs and Orange County — this southern California city boasts the second-lowest crime rate in the country, according to the FBI. At only 72 violent crimes per 100,000 people, some crime indicators are more than 10 times lower than the national average. Relocate-America.com also applauded the city in 2010 as among its “Top 100” communities due to its average household income (more than $90,000), educated population (more than 60 percent have attended college) and, in that vein, high-quality school system. Aside from its location among the rolling hills and vineyards spanning some 35 wineries, Temecula’s Old Town features a collection of historic 1890s buildings, hotels, boutiques, antique stores and specialty grocers, as well as a growing nightlife. Its rich history goes back much further, though, to at least 900 A.D., and the Native Americans celebrated at the city’s museum and many festivals.
8. Portsmouth, New Hampshire (pop: 21,233)
This nearly 390-year-old seaside town boasts the lowest joblessness rate of any town on the list, at 4.1 percent (May 2012), the 10th lowest of any metro area in the country. Located along the small Piscataqua River, which divides New Hampshire and Maine, Portsmouth is distinguished from other regional seaside destinations like Nantucket and Cape Cod in that many of its residents stick around full time, adding to the year-round vibrancy and energy of its particularly colorful downtown area. In fact, its downtown is dotted with a dozen indie theaters, a half-dozen art galleries and an annual film festival. While Portsmouth’s amenities rival that of communities many times its size, it’s also an hour’s drive from Boston and a five-hour car ride from the Big Apple. History buffs will get a big kick out of the beachy community, thanks to shipping roots that can be traced back to the 1620s. In addition to being honored for its walkability as well as among America’s “prettiest towns,” Portsmouth was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a “distinctive destination,” with the Trust characterizing it as a “stimulating mix of historic buildings, sidewalk cafes, great restaurants, art galleries, jazz clubs and distinctive artisans’ boutiques.”
7. Logan, Utah (pop: 48,174)
Located about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City in the Wasatch Mountains, Logan boasts a booming economy (4.7 percent unemployment), a cost of living nearly more than 10 percent below the national average, and affordable home prices averaging around $190,000 — with three-bedroom properties touting large acreages available for not much more than that. But this community, home to the main campus of Utah State University, offers more than just respite from the high prices of other metros. Its Utah Festival Opera hosts many performances throughout the year, as well as gallery walk events, a summer arts fair and the Cache Valley Gardeners’ Market, named one of the best farmer’s markets in the country. Thanks to its mountain location, Logan also presents opportunities for adventure, including high-elevation hiking, camping, snowmobiling, rock-climbing and skiing at the 7,800-foot-high Logan Canyon overlooking Bear Lake, which has been dubbed the “Caribbean of the Rockies,” thanks to its stunning turquoise waters.
6. Asheville, North Carolina (pop: 83,393)
This community an hour’s drive from Greenville-Spartanburg and two hours from Charlotte and Knoxville, bears the distinction as the “San Francisco of the East” and the “Paris of the South.” Asheville fills such big shoes, in part due to its storied arts and crafts and culinary scene; it’s home to more microbreweries per capita than any other city in the U.S., 250 independent restaurants and the eclectic River Arts District featuring upwards of 165 artists in working studios fashioned from more than a dozen turn-of-the-century industrial buildings. The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway runs right through town, connecting the Great Smoky and Shenandoah national parks, and serving as a launchpad for hiking, biking and other activities in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many visitors end up staying, thanks to Asheville’s distinction as “Western North Carolina’s business hub.”
5. Mill Valley, California (pop: 13,903)
With all the amenities of San Francisco just a 14-mile hop south via the Golden Gate Bridge, Mill Valley’s geographic setting stretches from marshland to canyon, with 2,571-foot Mount Tamalpais looming over town. Mill Valley is home to an eclectic mix of retailers — from trendsetting boutiques and organic grocers to old-time milliners and art galleries, as well as the legendary Sweetwater Music Hall where Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Garcia strummed away. As its ideal location suggests, Mill Valley is also a nature-lover’s paradise, with nearby Muir Woods National Monument and Stinson Beach offering plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. The town itself features more than a dozen trails, going by names like “Pixie” and “Zigzag.” But perhaps its most famous trail is “Dipsea,” home each June to the oldest cross-country trail running event in the U.S., the 7.5-mile Dipsea Race. It’s become so popular that you have to qualify for the race; less than half the people who apply actually secure a spot.
4. Dubuque, Iowa (pop: 57,789)
This Mississippi River town’s Victorian homes and historic structures, high up on the bluffs overlooking the river or nestled alongside it, remind you of something from an old western or a historic town like Deadwood, South Dakota. And, indeed, Dubuque has a long and colorful history as one of the oldest settlements west of the Mississippi — going back to the 18th century French-Canadian fur trade. While a manageable three-hour drive northwest of Chicago, Dubuque is lauded for its low crime and unemployment rates, as well as its affordable and charming homes. For a town of such relatively small size, it boasts many distinctive neighborhoods, like Cable Car Square/Cathedral Square and the Warehouse District. Its Port of Dubuque in the downtown area retains many National Register of Historic Places-designated structures, as well as significant investment and new construction in recent years. The town features many quirky and distinctive features, including the world’s shortest (296 feet) but steepest (74 degrees in places) railway, the Fenelon Place Elevator, transporting visitors up and down one of the big bluffs dominating the river city’s landscape. It’s also home to caves with unique formations, ancient Native American burial mounds, and numerous wildlife areas and nature centers offering everything from trout fishing and cross-country skiing to paddle-boating and kayaking.
3. Charlottesville, Virginia (pop: 43,475)
Located 115 miles southwest of D.C., Charlottesville was built as an “academic village” — a distinction that has resulted in a thriving climate for innovative startups and a robust economy. The town Thomas Jefferson once called “home” has grown up around the University of Virginia, which employs one-fourth of the local workforce. Charlottesville is not, however, a “typical” energetic college town, in that so much of this energy coexists with a rich history; Jefferson’s Monticello, for example, sits just a few miles from its downtown mall, and statues of Civil War heroes, renovated landmarks and plantation manors speak to its antebellum days. The community is also within reach of the famed Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as the Wintergreen Resort and Rivanna River — the latter of which provide opportunities for rafting, kayaking, snowboarding and skiing. The junction of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive is just 20 minutes west of downtown.
2. Sarasota, Florida (pop: 51,917)
This city on Florida’s Gulf Coast has long been recognized as a haven for retirees, but there is literally something for everyone here, from a thriving arts scene to sparkling white-sand beaches, including Siesta Key, regarded as one of the best beaches in the U.S. Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the second-largest acute care public hospital in Florida, has been cited for its excellent care. Did we mention the great weather year-round? The town’s real estate market took a beating during the Great Recession, but the depressed prices offer great values for newcomers.
1. Boulder, Colorado (pop: 97,385)
Located at the base of the Rocky Mountains and home to the state’s largest university, Boulder has been recognized, among other accolades, as a top vacation destination, best place for foodies, tops for both bike-friendliness, health and its fit and well-read populace — and all these accolades were earned in 2012 alone! In addition to its wealth of hiking and biking trails, as well as its area ski resorts, the city has earned a reputation as being particularly progressive, artsy and entertaining, probably thanks to the flock of hippies who “immigrated” here in the late 1960s and its biggest employer, the University of Colorado. Its walking-friendly retail district, the Pearl Street Mall, sits in historic downtown Boulder and is home to sidewalk cafes, galleries, boutiques and free entertainment courtesy of street performers. It’s also a big festival town, boasting everything from the more underground “Shoot Out 24 Hour Filmmaking Festival” to its Colorado Chautauqua series of lectures, music, cinema, educational classes and nondenominational worship services, and its “Bolder Boulder” — one of the largest road races in the world, drawing more than 50,000 people to the city each Memorial Day.