Start a business, surf on your lunch break, buy your dream home — here are 10 cities and towns where life is good. For our list of the 50 best places to live in the U.S., pick up the April issue of Men’s Journal, on newsstands now.
Southern California used to be full of laid-back, middle-class beach towns. One by one they have disappeared — the locals pushed inland, their modest neighborhoods razed to make room for trophy homes and luxury condos. And then there’s Ventura. This sleepy city of 106,000, located midway between Malibu and Santa Barbara, remains refreshingly unpolished, “like a 1961 Ford pickup that’s been well kept,” says C.J. Paone, a 44-year-old architect who’s lived here for 11 years. The city’s blue-collar roots are evident in the fleets of commercial fishing boats in the harbor. Main Street has more thrift stores than chain stores. Cross Highway 101 and head toward the Santa Ynez Mountains and you’ll spot — or at least hear the roar of — vintage hot rods. Ventura County was a drag-racing hot spot in the 1950s and remains full of gearheads and high-end custom shops.
Patagonia, with a workforce of 550, is one of Ventura’s largest employers. A start-up incubator funded by the city is hatching new businesses, particularly in health care and technology, such as the Trade Desk, a five-year-old firm that provides services to digital advertisers. “My board has asked me multiple times to move to New York,” says Jeff Green, the company’s co-founder. “But we’ve made the choice to be in Ventura; it’s one of the best-kept secrets in California.”
Underappreciated, of course, also means undervalued. In Midtown, a neighborhood of modest single-story bungalows, a three-bedroom, turn-of-the-century Craftsman can be found for around $600,000. And good public schools mean you don’t have to send your kids to a private-school money pit.
That was a big part of the draw for Phil Graves, who recently moved here from Berkeley to run an investment fund at Patagonia. “Ventura is a better fit for us,” he says. “The weather is 65 to 75 degrees all year, so we’re at the beach with the kids on weekends. And at least a couple of days a week, some buddies from Patagonia and I might go on a bike ride to Ojai and back during lunch, about 20 miles. They’ve got showers here on Patagonia’s campus. Or if you’re pressed for time and you run to your meeting sweaty and stinky, nobody cares. It’s very, very chill here.”
One of the many joys of living in Nashville is the way music suffuses life on an almost atomic level. On any given night, someone might lean into your ear, point to the guy on the pedal steel guitar, and rattle off a list of classic recordings he played on or tell you he wrote a song you know by heart. Talk to a computer programmer here and there’s a good chance he’ll compare coding to songwriting.
But Music City is changing, and fast. It was the second-fastest-growing U.S. city in 2013 and boasts the strongest employment growth of any large metropolis since the Great Recession. You can see it in the condo towers, office buildings, and new hotels that now cast a shadow over the city. (Some old-timers refer to their town as “Little Dubai.”) And you can taste it in one of the most buzzed-about restaurant scenes anywhere, in which a classic meat-and-three like Swett’s thrives alongside the postmodern cuisine at the Catbird Seat. Musicians still flock here, and it’s the headquarters of Jack White’s mini-empire. But a new wave of artists, designers, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs is putting down roots, as well.
Drew Bryant is a case in point. Last year he left Chicago, and a well-paying gig as a personal chef, to open his first restaurant, the French-inspired Porter House Bistro in East Nashville, where rent is half of what it would have been in the Windy City. In Chicago, Bryant and his wife shared a cramped 700-square-foot apartment. Now, for the same price, they have a house three times that size, with a yard, and trees. Even with the drama of running a restaurant, life in Nashville “is a lot less stressful,” he says.
Homes like Bryant’s in his leafy north side neighborhood (literally: The neighborhood is home to more than 100 tree species) fetch about $400,000. That same $400,000 could get you a bit more yard and more likely a Craftsman in the East Nashville neighborhood near his restaurant. A glut of new construction can barely keep up with demand, though, and the area’s early-20th-century Victorians don’t come on the market often.
The industries that have drawn people here for decades — music, health care, education — have been joined by a steadily growing tech sector, which recently got a boost when Nashville was named one of four metro areas to get the ultra-high-speed internet service Google Fiber. That announcement was made at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, which is housed inside a repurposed trolley barn, not far from the Ryman Lofts, the two-year-old housing development built especially for artists and musicians. Along the same stretch, the long-beloved dive the Hermitage Cafe thrives near the boutique coffeehouse Crema — the old Nashville coexisting with the new.
“The city feels more dynamic and diverse than it’s felt in years,” says Kate O’Neill, who moved to Nashville a dozen years ago to become a songwriter. But her tech chops were in higher demand, and she’s now CEO of KO Insights, a marketing-strategy firm. O’Neill and her team have worked with clients such as Amazon, Nike, and the Grand Ole Opry — a trajectory that proves as good a metaphor as any for the city she calls home.
Wandering around Maine’s biggest city, it’s hard not to wonder where all the boat-shoed Republicans have gone. The vibe in Portland these days melds Mainers’ natural druthers for all things woodsy and homespun with a bohemian, creative-class streak that’s more commonly associated with that other Portland.
Both the rocky coast and the New England high country sit on the city’s doorstep. On weekdays during the warmer months, nine-to-fivers will often put in for an evening paddle on Casco Bay or crowd the waterfront decks at Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room. Just north of city limits, the suburb of Falmouth offers a 45-mile network of forested, mostly singletrack trails protected by a local land trust. “You can stay pretty close to town but still be out in the woods, and ride for hours,” says Matt Robbins, an ad agency production manager. And the surfing (that’s right, surfing) is even closer. “I can drive to Higgins Beach in 10 minutes, surf over lunch when nobody’s there, and be back at work within an hour,” says Eli Cayer.
Cayer, 41, is the founder of Urban Farm Fermentory, a purveyor of hard ciders and kombuchas housed in an old warehouse in the rebounding, postindustrial East Bayside neighborhood (it’s nicknamed Yeast Bayside for all the microbreweries located there). Yet even as it trends artisanal, Portland’s waterfront has retained its working-class vibe (and slightly fishy smell), with plenty of lobstermen and seafood processors. Home prices have stayed steady, too. For $230,000 you can get a single-bedroom condo in the East End, within walking distance of the Old Port nightlife as well as the trails and beaches of the Eastern Promenade. Across the Fore River in South Portland, the same sum will get you a yard and a three-bedroom bungalow. Winters in Maine are no joke, with nor’easters dropping heavy snow well into April. But nearby are a half dozen ski resorts, as well as a host of innovative yet unpretentious farm-to-table restaurants. In the new Portland, that’s one way residents stay cozy and satiated through the freeze.
Think of Oregon, and a hazy green vista comes to mind, a valley of evergreens behind a veil of perpetual rain. It’s easy to forget that half of the state is desert. It’s the other Oregon, and Bend is its bustling metropolis.
A former logging town on the edge of the Cascade Range, where dense pine forest gives way to desert junipers and sagebrush, Bend is sunny and mild all year round. It’s connected to millions of acres of wilderness by a network of running, hiking, biking, and ski trails that range from the Deschutes River, through town, up onto Mount Bachelor, and out into the wild, arid plateau of Central Oregon along the Oregon Desert Trail. There’s world-class climbing in the canyon at Smith Rock Park, Class V whitewater, and abundant trout, steelhead, and salmon, all close to town.
The thing is, and this is key, the people who live in Bend actually do all these things — getting outside is built into the routine of daily life, along with work, family, and community. “You can do it all here,” says pro cyclist Chris Horner, who’s lived in Bend since 2000. “I just hop on my bike and go. You’re always close to downtown, but you can get out of town in five minutes.”
The job market is limited; tourism, a nearby medical center, and Les Schwab Tires are the major employers. But there’s a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, from outdoor-oriented start-ups like HydroFlask to the micro-artisanal, with athletes, artists, and craftspeople finding ways to get by in paradise. At McKay’s, a beloved local restaurant tucked into a 1916-era bungalow, you’re as likely to find yourself elbow to elbow with a blacksmith, a surgeon, a musician, an ultramarathoner, or a microbrewer. “We’re really creating a unique culture,” says Paul Arney, a refugee from Seattle and founder of Paul Arney’s Ale Apothecary, a tiny sour-beer lab half-hidden in pine forest a few minutes outside of town. “Where I’m from was just work, work, work. In Bend, your job and career are important, but there are all these other things — creativity, family, getting outside — that are equally important.”
San Francisco, California
Once upon a time, if you were young and seeking power and fame, you headed to New York or Los Angeles. Today the ambitious flock to San Francisco. The result: Rents are skyrocketing, luxury condos pop up while cherished lesbian bars close down, protestors hurl themselves before Google buses, and legions of would-be moguls search for new stuff to disrupt.
Do you really want to live here? Yes, you do.
The future is being made in San Francisco, and people know it. “Everyone you meet is working on something they believe has the potential to make an impact,” says David Hegarty, who moved here from Seattle five years ago, and after three failed start-ups, finally struck a nerve with Fixed, an iPhone app that helps users deal with parking tickets. Hundreds of start-ups like that are now based in the city’s South of Market district, amid omakase sushi joints and raw-food bistros.
On the other hand, the median home price here is nearly $1 million. In Hegarty’s Noe Valley neighborhood, a two-bedroom apartment rents for $5,000.
Who can afford to live like that? Most longtime residents will tell you: “Douchey guys driving Teslas.” Wen Shen, a surgeon here for 20 years, often gripes about the way his city is changing. Yet, when offered the chance to relocate not long ago, he decided to stay put. Why? Well, there was that “mind-blowing” dinner at Kin Khao, a Thai place near Union Square. And then there’s this: Amid so much change, it still is San Francisco. “When I’m driving home, I go up the back side of Twin Peaks,” Shen says. “When I crest over the top of the hill, I look straight out at the Marin Headlands and see the opening of the bay. The little hit of beauty, it’s one of the best moments of my day.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans cannot be understood without grasping its relationship to alcohol — but that’s probably the most misunderstood thing about the place. While the city may always be best known for a few drunken, bead-grabbing blocks of Bourbon Street, no one moves to New Orleans for Bourbon Street. Post-Katrina, the city has evolved into something more than a party town: It’s become a magnet for young entrepreneurs and a haven for those fleeing pricey, work-obsessed towns with none of NOLA’s inimitable flavor.
Although you don’t have to be sauced to embrace life here, the city still embodies the best qualities of drunkenness: total abandon, a resistance to sound judgment, a casual warmth. Spend just a few weeks in town and you’ll find yourself part of a community; an afternoon yoga class leads to a backyard crawfish boil, where you meet the crew you end up marching with in a second-line parade the following day. (New Orleans celebrates just about everything — from local produce and po’boys to funerals — with brassy, ragtag parades.) “We’ve got all the dynamism of a big city but on a human scale,” says Pableaux Johnson, a photographer, writer, and 15-year resident, whose Monday-night red-beans-and-rice dinners pull together a wide cross section of the city — actors, chefs, artists, activists, musicians, you name it. “People forget how small we are because we cast such a big shadow,” Johnson says. The population stands at just over 340,000.
The latest wave of newcomers includes postgrads starting food-truck empires, filmmakers taking advantage of Louisiana’s generous tax credits, and self-employed 30-somethings lured by housing stock that is both majestic (wrought iron balconies, tropical gardens) and affordable (a 150-year-old Creole cottage can be had for about $350,000). As always, New Orleans has the nation’s highest density of dive bars. But now there’s a gallery scene along St. Claude Avenue, a slew of inventive pop-up restaurants, an organic food co-op, and even a burgeoning tech community fueled by Launch Pad, a well-regarded start-up incubator.
The Big Easy is not so easy in a number of ways — the crime rate remains high enough that no one walks alone at night, the public school system is a shambles, and steady jobs can be hard to find — but it’s still a place of rare charm and opportunity. “The things that once made places like Austin and San Francisco such bohemian draws are possible here,” says Laura Stein, who moved from Brooklyn four years ago and now runs Dancing Grounds, a dance studio (which doubles as a community outreach center) in the resurgent Bywater neighborhood. “To do what I’ve done here in New York, I’d have to be a trust fund millionaire.”
The Roaring Fork Valley is Colorado’s latest too-good-to-be–true Rocky Mountain oasis, a 50-mile-long sagebrush basin bookended by the glitz of Aspen above and the decidedly blue-collar enclave of Glenwood Springs, on the banks of the Colorado River. In the middle, both geographically and culturally, sits Carbondale. The town’s just-right location has helped it avoid the over-the-top mansions and development fights seen in Aspen, and has kept home prices on a reasonable-enough level to make buying one possible without an IPO on your résumé. Working ranches and farms dot the landscape, blue-ribbon trout streams course through the valley, and dramatic peaks hover above a Main Street with a down-home attitude more common in an Iowa farm town than a Colorado ski destination. “There’s a real sense of community here,” says award-winning brewer Chase Engel, who started Carbondale’s Roaring Fork Beer Company in 2013. “Everyone is from someplace else, so you make friends fast.”
That welcoming spirit derives, in part, from a populace that is almost single-minded when it comes to its downtime passion: outdoor recreation. And Carbondale has it all, including mountain biking on Red Hill, just outside of town, weekday trail runs on the high-country plateau of 12,966-foot Mount Sopris, which dominates the town’s skyline, weekend rafting trips on the Class IV Roaring Fork River, and skiing at one of the four mountains that make up Aspen/Snowmass. Lunchtime bike rides on Red Hill are a regular part of the workday, says Ian Anderson, a partner at Backbone Media, a Carbondale-based PR firm. “We still work hard, but no one who’s living here has the goal of climbing a corporate ladder,” he says.
Residents primarily work in Aspen or Glenwood Springs, but there is an increasing number of white-collar outfits like Backbone opening shop directly in town, as have a half–dozen farm-to-table restaurants. Local chef Mark Fischer, the talent behind Town and Phat Thai in Carbondale, has been in the valley for more than 20 years now, and he’s watched Carbondale come into its own. “A lot of us ended up here because of Aspen, but made a life down valley in Carbondale over the years,” he says. “It’s where people who are going to put down roots end up.”
About two years ago, Paul Budnitz pulled up stakes and moved to Burlington, Vermont. Nothing unusual about that — this city of 42,000 on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain has long attracted outdoorsy young families. What is unusual is where Budnitz moved from: Boulder, Colorado.
You don’t often hear of people fleeing Colorado’s technology and outdoors mecca. But Budnitz, founder of the grown-up toy company Kidrobot and the handmade bicycle manufacturer Budnitz Bicycles, didn’t care for the way his city was changing. “It started to feel too Silicon Valley-ish — quite wealthy and getting more so,” he says. So he moved to Burlington.
Not only was he able to find investors for his social-media venture, Ello, Budnitz also discovered the kind of community he thought no longer existed. “Working in Vermont helps inspire original thinking,” he says. “Vermont is the America that didn’t get screwed up. It’s just doing its thing — either 40 years behind or 40 years ahead of everyone else, depending how you look at it.”
Burlington, of course, has always attracted a certain kind of seeker. Think Bernie Sanders, Jake Burton, or Ben and Jerry, out-of-towners (or “flatlanders,” as they’re known here) with big ideas about community, food, business, and the environment, who successfully turned Burlington into the U.S. capital of sustainability. It still gets its share of shaggy-haired dreamers (and ski bums), but today’s migrants are more like Budnitz — tech-savvy but laid-back, in search of a place where you can sell globally while enjoying an actual life locally.
Dan White, for instance, left a job at Groupon in Chicago four years ago to launch a deal site in Burlington. “I have a nice walk to work instead of commuting an hour and a half every day, and I can break out at five o’clock for drinks,” he says. “I think about all those hours I’m taking back each week — pure moments of relaxation.” If he needs to travel, the city’s airport has direct flights to cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. And if he is craving some culture, Montreal is only a two-hour-long drive away.
White, who is not married, lives in an apartment downtown. Families flock to neighborhoods like South End, where $350,000 will get you a cozy colonial on a tree-lined street. Burlington ranks as one of America’s healthiest cities, so your neighbors will keep you healthy, whether you’re a runner, paddler, cyclist, or yogi. And if it’s a powder day at Sugarbush or Stowe, you can expect most of your appointments to cancel.
The city is small enough that there are, basically, no degrees of separation — everyone knows everyone, and community service is a contact sport. Whether serving on a neighborhood committee or the school board, coaching kids’ sports, or grilling a mayoral candidate in a neighbor’s living room while sipping Heady Toppers, everyone has a chance to make a difference — and is expected to.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Saint Paul has long been overshadowed by its slicker, richer twin. And, frankly, the people who live there wouldn’t have it any other way. While Minneapolis has more of the pro sports franchises and corporate HQs, this once–working class city is rapidly consolidating all the cool, and quietly emerging as a laid-back, homespun alternative to Minneapolis — a small town set in the middle of a bustling metro area of more than 2 million people.
“There’s a real sense of community — 50 people will show up at the drop of a hat to discuss a regulation change at a dog park,” says Lenny Russo, the James Beard Award–nominated chef of Heartland. “Saint Paul reminds me of Charleston or Savannah in that it’s preserved its original housing stock,” he says. “There are these wonderful old neighborhoods within walking distance of downtown.”
In neighborhoods like Cathedral Hill, a young family can find a four-bedroom Victorian in good condition for about $450,000 — two-thirds the cost in Minneapolis. In Lowertown, the once-industrial zone perched on the bank of the Mississippi, old factories and warehouses have been converted into lofts for young creative-class types. The streets are packed with galleries showing local artists, unpretentious bars and restaurants, and a farmers market brimming with Midwestern-made or grown goods that’s rated one of the best in the country.
Sure, plenty of people commute to jobs in Minneapolis or the surrounding suburbs, where many of the area’s big companies are based. But the commutes are generally easy — and there’s no need to leave Saint Paul once the nine-to-five is over. And since it’s still Minnesota, escaping to the country is a breeze. “In addition to all the perks of a big city, it’s so easy to get out on a bike,” says Dan Casebeer, a longtime Saint Pauler who runs Grand Performance bike shop. “After work we bike from downtown, cross the river, and a couple of miles later we’re in the middle of this lush, rolling farmland.”
Twenty years ago, Greg Gianforte decided to base his new company in what was then the country’s most unlikely destination for a software entrepreneur: Bozeman, Montana. In 2012, Oracle bought that business, RightNow, for $1.8 billion. Gianforte could have moved anywhere. But he didn’t. “I love being able to backpack the Bridger Mountains and then eat downtown at a place like Dave’s Sushi,” he says. “It just gets in your blood.”
The RightNow sale proved to be a watershed moment for this 151-year-old town. Gianforte’s employees began hatching start-ups of their own. Out-of-towners took notice and migrated to Bozeman themselves — which helped validate the town’s newfound status as a tech center. “It’s easy to get people to move here from Silicon Valley,” says Joe Wakuski, founder of TEXbase, a Bozeman company that streamlines data management for apparel firms. Wakuski’s own life also is a powerful recruiting tool: He lives on a spread 13 miles outside of town along the Gallatin River. “In the summer I bike to work and go fly-fishing and kayaking with my son,” he says. “In winter we go skiing — either at Big Sky or in the backcountry a mile from my house.”
All mountain towns are picturesque, but few compare to Bozeman: Yellowstone lies 90 minutes south, Big Sky is an hour north, and three blue-ribbon fly-fishing rivers — the Gallatin, the Madison, and the Yellowstone — are a short drive away. “When it’s warm, there’s daylight from 5:30 in the morning to past 10 at night,” says Rob Irizarry, another RightNow alum who stayed put. “You can play in the morning and work late, or work early and play in the afternoon. It’s Bozeman’s idea of flextime.” In fact, says Molly Ambrogi-Yanson, who migrated from Salt Lake City to work at a local ad agency, “some companies even have powder- and fishing-day clauses written into their employment contracts. It’s understood that this is why you’re here.”
Bozeman’s housing stock is split in two: You either live inside the “donut” in a $250,000 starter ranch home; or you live outside of it, spending less but relying on a well and septic system. Whatever your neighborhood or day job, everyone mingles downtown. “The cowboys, the ski bums, the yoga moms — we all go to the same coffee shops and restaurants,” says Ambrogi-Yanson. And no matter where you live, says Irizarry, the commute is a breeze: “Rush hour means that instead of taking five minutes to get to work it takes six.”