Great American Cities for Creatives (That You Can Actually Afford to Live In)
Now's the perfect time to start plotting your next act.
Once upon a time, there was something poetic about the struggling artist. But those days are long gone, as is the possibility of living in historically culture-rich places like New York, LA, San Francisco, Austin, and Portland where—unless you’re the second coming of Andy fucking Warhol—you’ll likely find the rent prices bafflingly, soul-crushingly high. Luckily, despite what the coastal elites and “Keep X Weird” crowds may have you believe, it's entirely possible to find creative fulfillment in places where the cost of living is a little more reasonable.
This country is full of cities where writers, musicians, illustrators, makers, and tinkerers of all stripes can create and reside comfortably. We looked for spots that fall on the full livability spectrum: artist communities; a good dose of nature; a food, art, beer, and/or music scene; and a level of relative affordability that actually allows you to partake therein. As we all look toward what's next in the world, now's the perfect time to start plotting your next act.
Metro area population: 559,374
Median 1BD rental: $1,006
Next time the powers that be create a show based in the ABQ, they should seriously consider the addictive qualities of green chile as a plot device. You know you’ve attained hero status when you can eat it three times in a day: on some eggs for breakfast, a bowl of it at high noon, and a heavy dose for your burger at dinner. When that spice hits, it might just send you into a creative euphoria. Ok, maybe that's an overstatement, but try Frontier or Sadie’s and you won’t want to ever leave town again.
If New Mexican cuisine doesn’t make you feel as though you’ve been transported to another country altogether, the city’s Pueblo Revival architecture and the striking Sandia Mountains will. Albuquerque, the state’s biggest city, has made leaps in recent years toward being as diverse and cosmopolitan as you’d expect from a major US hub.
It's a place with a wealth of craft breweries, excellent restaurants, and endless opportunities to explore the desert landscape, whether you're seeing it from a trail, via kayak along the Rio Grande, or from the comfort at one of the aeronautical wonders of the world's largest hot air balloon festival, October's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. —Colin St. John
Metro area population: 51,534
Median 1BD rental: $1,209
Given the number of corporate behemoths—Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Microsoft, you name it—who’ve built their billion-dollar dragon lairs in and around Seattle, it should come as no surprise that normal people with normal salaries need an alternative. Enter: the state capital of Olympia, just an hour away.
Washington’s generally gloomy weather has inspired artists, gastronomes, and beautifully melancholic souls not just in the state’s biggest city, but in its capital as well; just look to Rainy Day Records (name checks out!), zine stockist Last Word Books, or gothic music venue Cryptatropa Bar for proof.
It’s also got its fair share of museums, both traditional (Splash Gallery, Van Tuinen Art, The Mark Gallery) and unusual (the Olympia Pinball Museum), as well as a smattering of solid breweries, which any trip to the Pacific Northwest should guarantee. Plus, when all is said and done, that world-famous Washingtonian nature is even closer at hand than in Seattle: here, Olympic National Park is basically your backyard. —Emma Banks
Metro area population: 65,645
Median 1BD rental: $1,365
Apparently, if your city is called Portland, you have to cater to creatives no matter what coast you’re on. Maine’s take on the city feels like an older, denser concentration of cuteness, with brick buildings, cobblestone lanes, and gas lamps on the exteriors, but a modern design approach that keeps interiors current. The Portland of the East is also so far north as to basically be Canada—so while residents may need to withstand long but sports-filled winters, they'll ultimately be rewarded with utterly green summers, all within decent proximity to romantic, lighthouse-lined beaches and the only National Park in the Northeast.
The city also balances refreshingly sleepy weekdays with buzzy weekends: On the first Friday of every month, the Portland Museum of Art opens to the public for free, and the numerous galleries throughout the Arts District take advantage of the bustle by putting on excellent exhibits of their own. Portland’s flea markets also erupt on the weekends, stirring crowds scouring for the latest-of-the-oldest retro looks.
The culinary and mixology scenes are an art in and of themselves, with bars like Blyth and Burrows often packed and the Independent Ice Co. taking all the spillover. Sichuan Kitchen has some of the most sought-after dishes in town, while the Highroller Lobster Co. is there for your prerequisite Maine meals. —Danielle Hallock
Metro population: 663,750
Median 1BD rental: $1,286
Nobody really needs to co-sign on Nashville's coolness. Its musical reputation is unmatched. Its bar scene is legendary. Its food is world-class without the stuffiness that comes with that designation. Tech startups manage to thrive without inherent douchiness. Art is everywhere. And since it's relatively affordable, getting in on the action is doable.
One of the best parts about Nashville is that a lot of its finest gems are totally free. It’s called the Music City for a reason; the place holds 120 live music venues, and some of the best shows you’ll see are the ones at little hole-in-the-wall honky-tonks (but still opt for the big shows at Nashville Opera and Jazz Workshop, at least once). You can also spend days exploring its 3,000 acres of biking, walking, and even horse trails, which are just part of the city's landscape. And then there's the food. Celeb chefs make a home there for the same reason others want to: quality of life. And hot chicken. —Liz Newman
Metro area population: 643,692
Median 1BD rental: $860
For creatives looking to find inspiration in their urban surroundings without being choked out by absurd rent prices, Oklahoma City may be just the ticket. Surprising and stereotype-defying in every way, this mural-clad, on-the-rise city was one of only 14 in the US to add more than 100,000 residents in the last census, leap-frogging the likes of Las Vegas and Portland to become the nation’s 22nd largest.
What’s more, OKC was recently ranked number one in the nation for street art, its museums are Leonardo DiCaprio-approved, and its restaurants are among the best in the country—not to mention that thanks to the low cost of living, residents can actually afford to enjoy it all.
Replete with distinct neighborhoods, galleries, queer spaces, breweries, and independent shops, along with mild weather that allows for year-round festivals, al fresco laptop sessions, and patio hangs, OKC has the easy, traffic-free living of a small town with the amenities—and increasingly diverse population—of a much larger metropolis. As exemplified by the city’s most hallowed site, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, at its core, this is a community that rose from tragedy with a unified sense of camaraderie—a sentiment shared by newcomers of all creative persuasions. —Matt Kirouac
Median 1BD rental: $1,077
Typically portrayed in monochromatic images of concrete and formstone, Baltimore is actually full of color and bursting with creative energy. Take in Billie Holiday and Divine murals, kaleidoscope swirls on buildings, rainbow row houses, primary color pops on bridges, and chaotic layered street art almost everywhere you look. Follow @thebmorecreatives for proof: Here, the (relatively) low cost of living combines with a unique spark that inspires everything from the local musicians being spun on WTMD to the artists who make up the Charm City Craft Mafia.
The city's also simply packed with outside-the-box museums. The American Visionary Art Museum is focused on the self-taught artist, the Baltimore Museum of Art pledged to only buy work from female artists, the Walters Art Museum developed an app for virtual tours, and the Creative Alliance throws epically weird parties (even online!). No wonder this is a place that counts among its luminaries everybody from John Waters and Joyce Scott to modern masters Kondwani Fidel and artist Amy Sherald, who was commissioned to paint the official portrait of Michelle Obama. With inspiration all around and residents who embrace the eccentric, consider Baltimore the creative heartbeat of the Mid-Atlantic. —Jess Mayhugh
Metro area population: 62,729
Median 1BD rent: $1,039
Remember when Portland wasn’t as costly as New York and San Francisco? Yeah, at this point, neither do we. Thus, it’s time to move on to greener (and less expensive) pastures.
Springfield (which, though technically a separate city, lies essentially intertwined with neighbor Eugene) has perhaps done more for creative inspiration than any other locale on this list. Cartoonist Matt Groening grew up just down the road in the Rose City, but it was Springfield whose likeness he would use as the backdrop for The Simpsons, a cultural staple that inspired generations of animators, filmmakers, comedians, and—most recently—fashion houses.
What lies in store for those who decide to make Homer and Marge their neighbors? The museums and youthful vibes of the University of Oregon down the road in Eugene, the misty shores of the Oregon Coast just over an hour away, and miles and miles of pristine hiking and biking trails that permeate basically the entire state. Even better, you’re not far from the Willamette Valley and its more than 25,000 acres of vineyards, where you can finally learn to taste the difference between a chardonnay and a sauvignon blanc…and drink too much of either/or. —Tiana Attride
Median 1BD rental: $1,306
When you’re having trouble coming up with a new subject for a painting or are experiencing writer’s block, what to do? Drink beer, of course. And you’d be well-suited here, as Fort Collins is one of the finest ale towns in the land, with the likes of New Belgium, Odell, Ft. Collins Brewery, and Funkwerks cooking up world-class suds. The town’s dispensaries, gorgeous vistas, and college-town lifestyle (Colorado State University is a major player here) are sure to get the creative juices flowing.
The city still has an under-the-radar affordability, allowing for a full Colorado experience—think great weather, hiking, fishing, biking, skiing, rafting, golfing, watching ThunderCats DVDs under the influence—all with a cost of living at a fraction of Denver, Boulder, Aspen, or Vail. Plus, you won’t catch any holier-than-thou ego trips that you might find in some of Colorado’s more expensive places. This is a place where you can do your own thing and wave your freak flag without fear of comeuppance. —Colin St. John
Median 1BD rental: $1,233
In Madison, long a hotbed of fiery politics, you’ve also got a battleground for the direction of middle America. This is a city that stakes out big ideas, defends them ferociously, and maybe puts on some public theater, in the cold, when the legislature disagrees. It's also—perhaps worth mentioning—a very pretty town.
This city named for a president, where 39 streets are named for the men who signed the Constitution, is about much more than the capitol building. Walk out its doors, a mile from the University of Wisconsin campus, and you’ll be on State St, the de facto main drag for college student shenanigans and a haven for restaurants, live music, and art—including the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
If you’re in a pensive mode, duck into Paul’s Book Store, a 1954-vintage repository of used books, or saunter past the offices of the century-old liberal magazine The Progressive. And while the college crowds can take over the streets, you can always get away from people in general—the city, concentrated on an isthmus between two large lakes, includes three more lakes within its borders. —Sam Eifling
Median 1BD rental: $1,085
As the fifth-largest city in America, Philly has a lot riding on its shoulders, but if you thought this very-green town was all cheesesteaks and Gritty, think again. Here, lifers and transplants alike are welcome to experiment, collaborate, and thrive. At the Pen & Pencil Club, journalists debate headlines alongside hospitality pros in America’s oldest members-only press club.
Art and activism intersect at pop-up exhibits and public street art takeovers. Walk around town and you’ll find works by artists like Nilé Livingston, a native Philadelphian whose arresting murals of James Baldwin and Grace Jones turn heads. Conrad Benner of Streets Dept, meanwhile, documents the city’s buzzing street art and mural scene by organizing events, exhibitions, and tours around the artists themselves.
Though Philly has some college-town vibes thanks to its dozen-plus colleges (almost half of them art schools), the city's food and booze scene slay. South Philly’s East Passyunk neighborhood alone is home to multiple James Beard nominees, Top Chef winners and Chef’s Table subjects. Over in West Philadelphia, resourceful residents are building their own urban farms. If you’re feeling parched, head to Fishtown and Kensington, where craft cideries, distilleries, and breweries are refining drinking palettes.
All in all, this big city with small-town tendencies cultivates mission-minded artists, tech-savvy creatives, and rebellious talent who are just as energized by Super Bowl parades as civic engagement. —Alisha Miranda
Metro population: 1,395,634
Median 1BD rental: $995
What do Bonnie Prince Billy, Muhammad Ali, Jennifer Lawrence, Gus Van Sant, My Morning Jacket, Bryson Tiller, and Hunter S. Thompson all have in common? That’s right, they all hail from Derby City, a recently reinvigorated riverfront city that’s got far more to offer than bourbon and Hot Brown (though, there’s plenty of that, too). Come for the pleasant weather, old-school ambiance, and friendly faces, then stay to find your place among Louisville’s vast and vibrant patchwork of neighborhoods, each touting its own distinctive personality.
Charming bungalows and historic shotgun shacks share sidewalk space with cheery cafes, coffee shops, markets, and bars in residential enclaves like Clifton, Crescent Hill, Smoketown, Germantown, and the Highlands. In Nulu, industrial loft-dwelling hipsters sip locally brewed craft beer and peruse the wares at independent bookshops and boutiques.
Once dusty Butchertown is rapidly coming into its own, offering sports fans and discerning boozehounds plenty to write home about, while Downtown’s stellar lineup of big-name distilleries and satellite tasting rooms, world-class arts and cultural museums, sleek hotels, and buzzy restaurants keep budding creatives busy between studio sessions. And did we mention that the median rent is under $1000 per month? Exactly. —Meredith Heil
Metro population: 139,734
Median 1BD rental: $1,170
Yet another quaint college town that could, this North Texas gem lives up to its reputation as “Little Austin” thanks to an unwavering stream of acclaimed musical performances, cutting edge breweries and cocktail bars, thought-provoking public art displays, cool chef-driven restaurants, and locally-geared specialty shops. Resident institutions University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University are behind the local obsession with all things live music, as each boasts renowned music programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
A burst of colorful murals beckons from nearly every side street flanking stately Courthouse Square, whimsical installation Chairy Orchard never ceases to amaze, gorgeous Victorian architecture abounds, and hearty pub-style eateries keep folks good and sated. The best part? Unlike the real, increasingly overcrowded Austin, this diamond in the semi-rough claims a year-round population of just under 140,000—meaning a lot of the folks around these parts are—gasp—actually from here. —Meredith Heil
Metro area population: 6,507
Median 1BD rental: $1,150
Residents of Vermont love to keep somewhat quiet about their sparsely-populated, open-minded, mountainous enclave. And you don’t have to go as far north as Burlington—nor as high in rent—to live in a town that welcomes all walks of life. Brattleboro sits just above the border of Massachusetts, right next to the artsy Berkshires and a mere hour from MASS MoCA—but the creative juices don’t stop at the state line.
In the center of Brattleboro, you’ll find the Vermont Center for Photography, a cutting edge gallery and workshop; The In-Site Photography Project, offering classes and artists residency programs; a school of dance that regularly hosts modern and burlesque dance classes; the Art Deco Latchis Theater, which puts on occasional music events; and a few art galleries along Main Street.
The city's industrial brick buildings now house artisan and antique shops, a couple of bicycle businesses, and a record shop, as well as a few breweries and a beer garden to keep Vermont’s craft brew legacy strong. It all comes wrapped up in the state's namesake: those looming mountains, which blaze gold in the fall and brilliant green all summer to keep you inspired. —Danielle Hallock
Median 1BD rental: $696
Contrary to visitors’ Instagram feeds, Detroit inspires creativity beyond black-and-white ruin porn. The D's been through a lot, but there is perhaps no more resilient city in America, and that strength manifests in endless forms, like its ever-changing, globally influential music scene. Art deco and brutalist architecture cohabitate, industrial and lakefront beauty blend, and culinary innovators walk in stride with old-school coney shops.
Detroit's a city of sprawl, with a 4.3 million-strong metro area spanning hipster strongholds, immigrant enclaves, and tight-knit inner-city neighborhoods whose decimated pockets belie a huge sense of community. Creatives are drawn by the promise of cheap real estate and artistic freedom, and while sometimes that can cause disruption—cue the (absolutely valid) criticisms of luxury brand Shinola and the dangers of gentrification—Detroit works extra hard to ensure that newcomers are part of its evolution, not its transformation, so long as they arrive ready to embrace the city for what it is. —Andy Kryza
Metro area population: 7,696
Median 1BD rental: $550
If there’s one thing you should know about us, it’s that we love ourselves a cowboy town; if there’s a rodeo to witness or a hoedown to throw down, we’ll be there. But Livingston—with its bonafide Old West-style main strip, divey watering holes like The Mint or The Stockman, and snow-capped mountain backdrop—sets the standard extraordinarily high.
For years, this place has drawn not just cowboys, but also creative types: poet Jim Harrison, artist Russell Chatham, and the late, great culinary icon Anthony Bourdain have all wandered these streets, while director Robert Redford cemented it as a part of film history by making it the setting for A River Runs Through It.
Today, you’ll find that Livingston is still equal parts the Wild West (stop in for a sunset drink at the Old Saloon, opened in 1902, or for a big juicy Montana steak at Rib & Chop House) and Old Hollywood (plenty of filming still goes down here, including for shows like Paramount’s Yellowstone). Whichever vibe you come for, one soak at Chico Hot Springs or a weekend hike in Gallatin National Forest will make you want to stay. —Jay Gentile
Median 1BD rental: $959
Tucson could have given us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings—and been content with this one true masterpiece. But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing equally from indigenous cultures, its Mesoamerican geography, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.
Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene, with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a Tex-Mex adjacent dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs. Tucson also happens to host one of the country's biggest annual gem & mineral shows each winter, when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world. —Andy Kryza
Metro area population: 2,946,000
Median 1BD rent: $981
As far as large Midwestern metropolises go, Minneapolis is hands down one of the most welcoming, affordable, and inspiring of the bunch. (That’s if, of course, you can withstand the sub-zero temperatures.) Home to a loyal base of born-and-raised Minnesotans, regional transplants, and a sizable immigrant community, the Twin Cities combines striking old-world architecture, unbeatable dive bars, and extremely reasonable rents with an ever-evolving arts and culture scene that’s as self-motivating as it is innovative.
A handful of colleges keep the young guns flowing in while a history steeped in boundary-pushing icons—we’re talking Prince, Lizzo, the Replacements, photographer Alec Soth, writer Marlon James, painter Leslie Barlow, poet Robert Bly, actor Faysal Ahmed, and more—continues to influence and elevate the form.
Public art is easy to come by, as are easy-going social hubs like breweries, distilleries, museums, green spaces, activist collectives, indie galleries, recording studios, and local theaters. And hey, will snowfall averaging nearly 55 inches per year (that’s double the national average, by the way), there’s no better place to hunker down inside and make something cool while gorging yourself on life-giving Jucy Lucies. —Meredith Heil
Median 1BD rental: $1,114
This Old South town has basically become the Brooklyn of the Southeast. Most of that is because of Carytown, also known as the Museum District, which is home to the 1920s Byrd Theater(a $4 movie theater that plays new releases). Then there’s the Jazz Festival and Richmond Mural Project, an annual event when artists outfit the city in more than 100 murals.
But here’s the clincher: Richmond has the southern hospitality, the art, the food, yet it’s still in Virginia. Meaning you get acres of shoreline, river rapids, mountains, and perhaps most importantly, affordable prices. If you aren’t packing for your move right now, maybe this will help: it’s the town that birthed Jimmy Dean the Sausage King. Eat your heart out, Abe Froman. —Liz Newman
Median 1BD rental: $859
Home to the country’s oldest creative writing program and what’s considered one of the top graduate writing programs in the US, it’s little wonder why Iowa City is a haven for writers. Students make up about half the population here, which is actually great for residents: A local university means access to free or cheap musical performances, book readings, and workshops.
Arts Iowa is a wonderful resource for theater, dance, and art events, and film buffs will feel right at home thanks to FilmScene, a nonprofit and cinema screening indie, foreign, and documentary films. Bonus: Concessions serves wine and beers exclusively from Iowa breweries on tap.
Though you’ll probably want a car if you’re not a student, the city is pretty easy to get around using public transportation, by bike or on foot. In fact, downtown Iowa City is home to the Ped Mall, a—you guessed it!—pedestrian mall where you can shop, eat, and enjoy live music performances throughout the summer when writer’s block strikes. —Liv Lawson
Metro area population: 202,600
Median 1BD rent: $844
Lay to rest the idea that South Dakota is little more than flat land shaken up by the occasional (but devastatingly beautiful) national park or kitschy roadside attraction. Where was once little else but a few main streets surrounded by deep forest now lie a number of fast-rising small towns, among them Rapid City, Deadwood, Belle Fourche, Custer, and—our personal favorite—Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota.
First and foremost, you’ll find that Native American culture is wonderfully strong here. That should be evident in the name, but you can get to know the heritage of the Sioux tribes at the annual Native American Day Parade in October, in Good Earth State Park (one of the oldest continually-inhabited places in the country), or by taking the Native American Attraction Trail, which stems from Sioux Falls and stretches throughout the state. Downtown, the streets are lined with cocktail bars and dives, a sculpture walk, and grade-A restaurants like Parker’s Bistro and decades-old Minervas, all punctuated by the waterways of Falls Park, a 123-acre greenspace in the heart of town. —Tiana Attride
Median 1BD rental: $723
Kansas City offers a chance to enjoy some of life’s better indulgences: jazz, barbecue, and affordable rent. The Missouri city (not to be confused with its Kansan counterpart) offers world-renowned tastes of both music and meat throughout town, but particularly in and around the 18th Street and Vine district, a historic neighborhood that's seen a lot of recent investment.
Kansas City was named a “City of Music” by UNESCO in 2018, somehow the only city in the US to own that distinction. It’s only appropriate that you hit Blue Room Jazz Club in the American Jazz Museum, or the Mutual Musicians Foundation, a recognized historic landmark in its own right. It's also got a world-renowned barbecue scene known for burnt ends, fatty end cuts of brisket that go toe-to-toe with the pit masters of Texas in both the quantity of pits and the quality smoked within. Traversing between BBQ pits, breweries, and venues has never been easier, either: the city offers a RideKC system that includes a standard bus, bus rapid transit, and a streetcar that looks closer to a light rail. —Howard Oates
Median 1BD rental: $1,042
Reno is so much more than a mini-Vegas. Sure, you could spend your days in dank dark casinos, but you’ll miss out on hundreds of street murals around the city, many by local artist Erik Burke or curated by Art Spot Reno, an online events calendar that evolved into an officially recognized nonprofit. The volunteer organization leads Art Walk Reno (a two-hour Downtown gallery tour on the first Thursday of every month) and offers a free interactive map for touring the city's murals on your own.
Or just hit up the Nevada Museum of Art, the state's only accredited art museum. The home base for many desert-bound Burners, Reno puts on fantastic shows, with great restaurants barking at the door of Vegas' culinary renaissance and a solid brewery scene nobody seems to have noticed yet. And if the stunning Tahoe-Pyramid trail between Reno and nearby Tahoe doesn't inspire your artistic side, maybe you belong in that dank basement casino after all. —Andy Kryza
Metro population: 175,506
Median 1BD rent: $920
On its surface a sleepy college town stashed in a bucolic corner of the Hoosier State, Bloomington might just be the Midwest’s best-kept secret when it comes to creativity. Between the surprising plethora of hot-shot indie record labels (Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and the late Plan-It-X Records), the lively, youthful buzz perpetuated by Indiana University, the incredible (and incredibly diverse) restaurant scene, and the dirt-cheap cost of living, this is prime not-so-starving artist territory.
Top touring musicians routinely cycle through on their way to and from Chicago, making a pit stop to play a bargain-priced show in one of Bloomington’s many intimate, laid-back venues. Elsewhere, intellectual musings fill the air at beer-fueled hangouts like the Video Saloon (aka the Vid), Alley Bar, the Root Cellar, the Bishop, Atlas Ballroom, and the wonderfully queer-centric Back Door, while quirky cafes like the Runcible Spoon, Hopscotch Coffee, and Soma Coffeehouse and Juice Bar cater to the latte-minded set.
Natural beauty also surrounds the town, courtesy of gaping limestone quarries and breezy lakeside escapes. And when you’re hungry, you can always expand your palate by dipping into celebrated eateries that run the gamut from vegan comforts and award-winning farm-to-table ventures to pioneering brewpubs and, curiously enough, some of the country’s best Tibetan cuisine. —Meredith Heil