Great American Cities for Creatives (That You Can Actually Afford to Live In)

Now's the perfect time to start plotting your next act.

Charm City is packed with outside-the-box museums. | The Baltimore Museum of Art
Charm City is packed with outside-the-box museums. | The Baltimore Museum of Art

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. (Unless otherwise noted, Apartment List’s Rentonomics tool accounts for the rental stats.) As we all look toward what's next in the world, now's the perfect time to start plotting your next act.

a hot air balloon festival
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the world's biggest balloon festival. | Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Metro area population: 559,202
Median 1BD rental: $995
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

Nashville, Tennessee
Cheekwood-Art & Gardens is one of Nashville's expansive greenspaces. | Joshua Ness/Unsplash

Metro population: 660,062
Median 1BD rental: $1,278
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

people at an evening arts festival
In OKC, you can get big city feels without high prices | Visit OKC

Metro area population: 637, 284
Median 1BD rental: $933
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, 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

multiple groups of people having picnics in a sculpture garden
Baltimore's museums offer everything from live performances to picnic spots. | The Baltimore Museum of Art

Baltimore, Maryland

Population: 614,700
Median 1BD rental: $1341
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

Ft. Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins offers the best of Colorado at a fraction of the price. | Odell Brewing Co

Population: 162,511
Median 1BD rental: $1,313
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

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Madison's passions range from politics to art. | Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Madison, Wisconsin

Population: 252,086
Median 1BD rental: $1,235
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

A family crosses South Street, an eclectic, funky shopping district in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In Philly, lifers and transplants alike are welcome to experiment, collaborate, and thrive. | James Kirkikis/Shutterstock

Population: 1.6 million
Median 1BD rental: $1,101
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

Looking Down the Street Past a Colorful Art Piece at the Raleigh "Artsplosure" Festival
Raleigh's Artsplosure Festival is just one of the cities many creative events. | Wileydoc/Shutterstock

Raleigh, North Carolina

Population: 467,665
Median 1BD rental: $1,502
So much more than a nice halfway point during a drive from New York to Florida, the welcoming, liberal capital of North Carolina will let you be a big fish in a small pond of creatives and still afford rent, a parking spot, dinner, and drinks. Raleigh is often dubbed the “Smithsonian of the South,” since visitors can enjoy free entry to historic attractions and museums including the North Carolina Museum of History. Just a few minutes drive from NC State University, scattered throughout downtown you’ll find coffee shops, galleries, co-working spaces, and independently owned restaurants, including a few by philanthropist and James Beard Award Winner, Ashley Christensen. First Friday each month results in open doors and complimentary beverages as local businesses like CAM, Artspace, and Raleigh Denim Workshop invite residents and visitors inside to check out new art and apparel.

The city’s population continues to grow: according to Visit Raleigh, it currently sits at some 467,000 people, but some estimates claim that as many as 94,000 people have moved here since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Luckily, if you’re feeling surrounded, other creative centers lie close at hand: Raleigh sits smack dab between Seagrove, the pottery capital of the United States, and the Blue Ridge Mountains, which have drawn artists and outdoorsy types for years. —Mikkel Woodruff

Detroit, Michigan
Once you're a Detroiter, you're always a Detroiter. | Brandon Zack/Unsplash

Population: 677,155
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

Tucson Downtown
Downtown Tucson is the desert city's art center. | Tucson Downtown

Tucson, Arizona

Population: 539,216
Median 1BD rental: $1,011
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

people on a beach near a large building
For the Tri-State area, Asbury Park's got surprisingly solid deals | Asbury Park Now

Metro area population: 15,234
Median 1BD rental: $1,850 (from Zumper)
This seaside city isn’t afraid to wear its rock n’ roll heart on its sleeve—and with hometown heroes like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, who would be? Both those legends and countless others have taken the stage at Stone Pony, an almost-50-year-old music venue that draws enthusiastic crowds for head-banging shows. While Stone Pony is one of the most well-known historic music spots in town, it’s far from being the only one: from The Wonder Bar, home to the iconic happy “Yappy Hour” for dogs, to Asbury Lanes, a concert venue-meets-vintage bowling alley with a retro-styled diner attached, Asbury Park is infused with places where music nerds will feel right at home.

But it’s not just the music scene that makes this Jersey Shore town a cultural hub. A stroll down Asbury Park Boardwalk will give you a front-row seat to its vibrant wall murals, many of which are made possible via the Wooden Walls Mural Project, an initiative bringing art to the city through collabs with local and international artists. Speaking of international, that’s what you’ll find when looking for a bite in Asbury Park, from Neapolitan pizza at Porta, one of the many LGBTQIA+ businesses in town, to MOGO Korean Fusion Tacos, which serves up tacos, burritos, cheesesteaks, and doughnuts. Friends and family coming to check out your new city? Send them to the Asbury Hotel for Victorian-era style with a rock n’ roll twist. —Nicoletta Richardson

a botanical garden lit up at night
Let the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden inspire your next work of art. | Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Population: 223,787
Median 1BD rental: $1,166
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

Salt Lake City, Utah
The Salt Lake City Library is a work of art unto itself. | Michael Hart/Unsplash

Population: 195,701
Median 1BD rental: $1,088
SLC has slowly been shedding its rep as a hipness vacuum. Yeah, the laws say that the barman will probably measure your shot at the local tavern and, no, you can’t really escape places like Temple Square, but every hero needs an enemy! Have you seen SLC Punk!? This is a town where, oddly, the reputation of the prudish outweighs the fun stuff. Go ahead and curse, drink coffee, and not pay the tithe. Being the hip, creative type in a town where you’d least expect it is, well, creative in and of itself. Plus, Salt Lake boasts that huge body of water (right next door) and some of the best skiing in the world just an hour away. It’s a distinctly gorgeous place and, if you want some time to work on the next version of Under the Banner of Heaven, just get a gig working the lift lines at Park City. —Colin St. John

Iowa City is home to the country’s oldest (and best) creative writing programs, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Iowa City is home to the country’s oldest (and best) creative writing programs, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. | Eduardo Medrano/shutterstock

Iowa City, Iowa

Population: 76,000
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

city market kansas
Browse the city market in Kansas City. | Zachary Spears/Unsplash

Kansas City, Missouri

Population: 152,069
Median 1BD rental: $868
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

reno
Reno is like a safari for great street art. | Courtesy of Reno Tahoe

Population: 242,633
Median 1BD rental: $1,111
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

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