50 Best Places To Live
We rate the healthiest, sexiest, most fun, and most affordable towns in the land. You reap the benefits.
Start packing. There's a town in the following pages for every interest -- and for every budget. And this year we made great strides in how we came up with our rankings -- including more data (almost 50 variables in all, from stress levels to the number of bars per capita), newer data (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau, and other official sources), and a greater emphasis on active living (we've weighted certain variables, such as the amount of wilderness nearby, more heavily). But a few things remain the same: The west still dominates; college towns sure rate highly; and, if you move to anyplace on this list, you'll have no excuse for getting bored.
Boulder: The view from the Pearl Street overpass, downtown with the University of Colorado
and Chautauqua Park sloping up into the thrusting granite faces of the Flatirons.
Metro Population: 278,230 • Median Household Income: $59,808 • Median Home Price: $259,100 • Climate: Perfect Rocky Mountain summers in the 80s; not-too-snowy winters
They come from everywhere, Boulderites. From Tallahassee, Sheboygan, L.A., New York. Especially New York. But that isn't why Boulder, a stony little college town turned mini-metropolis that abuts the Front Range of the Rockies, is the outdoorsman's NYC. No, Boulder hit No. 1 on this list for the third year in a row for a simple reason: There is no town that offers so much, on so many levels, to so many people. Want to run your dog on 40,000 acres of open space at the edge of town before clocking in at your tech job? Practice your Eskimo roll and then walk two blocks for a spicy tuna roll? In Boulder, you can. "I moved here 12 years ago, near the end of a long career," says six-time Ironman winner Dave Scott. "There are lots of urban amenities, and an athletic, healthy atmosphere like almost no place else."
Boulder was founded in 1858 as a gold-mining town, but the city the world knows today was founded on the weed-sale profits of a few enterprising outdoorsy types who snatched up property in the 1970s -- or so it's rumored. They must have told a few friends, because high demand is driving the median home price up toward the $300s (annual appreciation is 11 percent). Spend big here ($700,000 and up) and you'll likely have an open-space trailhead within eyeshot of your North Boulder living room; buy on a budget (under $250,000), and you're looking at a fixer-upper townhouse a few miles from the Pearl Street pedestrian mall, the city's social hub. Which is to say that Boulder's appeal -- 246 days of sunshine, a scant 14 snow days a year, drive-up access to Colorado's 24 ski resorts, upscale groceries, creative restaurants, a ring of open space around town -- is a mixed blessing. Population has nearly doubled since 1971, to 100,000 residents (with 200,000 more in the suburbs of Longmont, Broomfield, and Westminster, which were veritable truck stops until the '90s). And it's not the most diverse population. Half of Boulderites are home-owners. Half are single. A third have college degrees. Seventy percent voted for Kerry and likely know someone who works at the New York Times.
Job-wise, Boulder fancies itself the Silicon Valley of the Rockies, with firms such as IBM and Sun Microsystems keeping 8,000 people in Gore-Tex, and a few dozen smaller companies taking up the slack. Then there's the retail and restaurant end of things, which accounts for 40 percent of Boulder's tax dollars. And, of course, there's the University of Colorado at Boulder, with its 30,000 students and faculty. Fortunately, the last 10-plus growth years have rendered the college scene more of a backdrop than a social force. Yes, there's "the Hill," where Abercrombie-clad frat boys burn sofas as if by birthright. But avoid the Hill and Boulder is a damn near perfect place to live -- especially if your definition of perfect includes yoga-fit tri athlete moms and Sunday outings to the Continental Divide. --Mike Kessler
BEST BIG CITY
San Diego, CA
Metro Population: 2,930,890 • Median Household Income: $49,886 Median Home Price: $465,750 • Climate: Never too warm or cold Sunshine 267 days a year. Average temps right around 70. An achingly beautiful stretch of coast. The best fish tacos this side of the border. This is the stuff of dreams -- and just a sampling of what makes San Diego the most livable big city in the land. "Any day of the year can be like summer here -- and usually is," says SD native and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton. The result is a culture bent on the outdoors, whether it's riding waves at La Jolla Shores, building bonfires at Mission Bay, or knocking back cold ones at Ocean Beach's Sunshine Company Saloon, one of many local rooftop bars.
What's more, the city's economy is growing -- projected job growth is 8 percent higher than the U.S. average -- due to the computer and biotech industries and companies that turn here as an alternative to L.A. And somehow, San Diego has been able to keep pollution, traffic jams, and unmitigated urban sprawl largely at bay. Which leaves you more time to soak up the good vibes, something Walton is expert at. "You're never limited here," he says. "You can live a life of total freedom." --Geoff Van Dyke
Metro Population: 130,500 • Median Household Income: $41,236 • Median Home Price: $186,000 • Climate: Dry and mostly cool
"My first day in Bend I skied in the morning, then went fly-fishing all afternoon," says Justin Wadsworth, three-time Olympian and champion adventure racer. "I moved here immediately." Smart man. Set in the middle of a high desert plateau surrounded by volcanoes that straddle the Pacific Crest Trail, Bend has more drool-worthy contour lines than any other town in the land. Plus, the job market, once confined to sawmills, is now a dynamic mix of high-tech, hospitality, and light manufacturing. Need we say more? (Well, okay: As much as $84 million is being spent on new trails and parks, and rapid growth -- a projected 62 percent over the next 20 years -- means real estate is a killer investment.) --Christian Debenedetti
Santa Fe, NM
Metro Population: 156,280 • Median Household Income: $46,724 • Median Home Price: $252,540 • Climate: Dry, sunny, and cool
To eat red or green chile? To hike the mellow Chamisa Trail or step it up on the steep Windsor Trail? To sip frozen margaritas or go gallery-hopping on a Friday night? Such questions loom large in the minds of Santa Feans, many of whom are transplants from cities like New York and L.A., where noise pollution and deprivation of clean air have proven to send stress levels through the roofs of pricey, shoe boxsize living quarters. Life, simply put, is simpler in Santa Fe. And far less hectic.
Stress management has become big business here: A teeming population of massage therapists, acupuncturists, yoga instructors, and meditation gurus see to it that people's reported stress levels are suppressed to nearly half the national average. Unemployment is low, 10 percent of people work from home (there are many artists and writers), and rates of both violent and property crime have sunk in recent years. Even prospective landlords are in on the relaxation game: They're more likely to ask for your astrological sign than run a credit check. True, real estate prices are high (almost 50 percent above the national average), but space in the greater Santa Fe area is more than six times as abundant as in most other urban areas (many folks live outside of the town proper, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains). And with such a perfect climate, who can stay upset about anything for too long anyway? A piñon-scented breeze blows in from the mountains even on the 82 days of the year the sun doesn't shine. You can take a half day and ski in the winter (there are four resorts nearby) or hike in the summer (on the surrounding 1.5 million acres of national forest). And, in a pinch, you can always go with the frozen margarita. --Claire Martin
Metro Population: 247,930 • Median Household Income: $47,121 • Median Home Price: $192,740 • Climate: Perfect summers in the 70s; long, severe winters with 74 inches of snow
Strip the congestion, grime, and crime from a city, and what's left? Portland, Maine. This old harbor town is the healthiest urban center in the country -- when taking into account factors such as air and water quality, cholesterol, diabetes, and medical care.
"We're not so crowded that we're a concrete jungle," says Stephen Stinson, fitness director of the local Bay Club gym. "Here I am in downtown, and I'm a minute from a running trail." Portland has a network of well-lit, well-trodden paths, and Stinson's favorite, Back Cove, is a 3.5-mile loop around a small inlet, with views of the smog-free skyline. Then there's the kayak put-in at East End Beach. And within an hour are the White Mountains.
With so much to do it's no wonder that the city's obesity rate is a low 15 percent (compared to 21 nationally). Add to that the glut of organic-food stores, one of the country's most stringent smoking bans, and twice as many doctors per capita as the norm, and the clog-wearing yuppies here seem like they're onto something. Not that Portland is all granola. The city's cobblestoned Old Port is the hottest restaurant scene north of Boston, and it's the best place for lobster anywhere. Home prices, too, tend toward excess. About $490,000 will get you a three-bedroom, two-bath Victorian by the bay. Still, at least the expenses don't get a rise out of people: High blood pressure is 8 percent less common than in the rest of the U.S. --Greg Melville
Metro Population: 3,146,740 • Median Household Income: $57,749 • Median Home Price: $161,120 • Climate: Lovely (if humid) summers on the water; severe and stormy winters below zero, with 46 inches of snow Still largely inhabited by the offspring of its Scandinavian settlers, Minneapolis (and its twin, St. Paul) thrums with the Protestant work ethic. Offices are humming by 8 am, and weekends are filled with snow-clearing and wood-chopping. Yes, here where the thermometer plunges below freezing half the year, a hearty constitution is a necessity. But so is independent thinking. Consider: The same people who voted ultraliberal Paul Wellstone into the Senate for so many years chose a feather boawearing, libertarian former pro wrestler as their governor. Garrison Keillor lives here, and so does Prince.
What does it all mean? Here's what: Folks here are smart. The state boasts some of the highest average SAT scores in the land, and 41 percent of Twin Cities residents have a two-year college degree or higher. Sometimes dubbed "cultural Eden on the prairie," the Twin Cities rival the bigger and better-known tastemaking cities on the coasts when it comes to sophistication. Minneapolis alone is home to 30 live theaters and three of the country's finest art museums. The area boasts 16 four-year colleges, high newspaper readership, and 132 public libraries.
But Twin Cities residents aren't all eggheads. There's fishing and sailing on dozens of lakes nearby, and there's more than enough good work (the area is home to major U.S. corporations such as 3M, General Mills, and Target), making for consistently low unemployment. The kicker: The cost of living is just slightly higher than the national average. --Geoff Van Dyke
BEST SPORTS TOWN?
We weighed everything from championships to stadiums to sports bars, and Chicago and Boston came out as the top spots for sports fans. But you really can't judge a sports town without factoring in the intangibles -- passion, loyalty, tradition, curses. So you make the call: Vote for one of these two and we'll publish the results in an upcoming issue.
Photo Credit: Robert Castellino April 2005
Boulder Ranked #1 City to Live in - Men's Journal
Friday, March 18, 2005 12:00 AM