America's Best Small Cities to Move to Before They Get Too Popular
The best small towns to visit in America are easy to commit to for a weekend. It doesn’t take much to fall in love with Main Street; all you need is a couple of friends, a shaded porch, a six-pack of pale ale, and nothing but time to kill for you to think, “Hmm, I could get used to this.”
But if you're going to full on move to a small town, you gotta be selective. Pick wrong and you'll be bored, underpaid, and isolated. But pick right, and you can get all the best aspects of a metropolis -- energy, creativity, charm, excitement -- without the up-yours prices and the built-in migraines.
So we asked dozens of writers around the country to find the small American cities (with max populations of around 70,000) where they'd put down roots. We looked for up-and-coming hotspots (think, Asheville 10 years ago), underappreciated gems, and towns where a person with verve could scratch out a cool life. Places where you can raise kids and those kids can raise dogs and those dogs can raise hell. And where, when your friends visit from the city, they take a seat on your porch and say, Damn, this is nice. What does your mortgage cost, again?
Hood River, Oregon
Great beer and the great outdoors within spitting distance of Portland
The Columbia River Gorge is one of the most beautiful natural features in the Pacific Northwest, a winding stretch of river sandwiched between dense forests, towering cliff faces, and more waterfalls than a TLC tribute show. Its finest town is Hood River, a Rockwellian, hilly burg unofficially known as “Portland’s backyard.” It sits at the shores of the Columbia and on the foothills of Mount Hood, plopping you into fantastic hiking, mountain biking, skiing, snowshoeing and kitesurfing. It’s also home to an inordinately large number of breweries, including Full Sail, pFriem, Logsdon Farmhouse, and Double Mountain, making Hood River one of the best small beer towns anywhere.
Every day, Portland’s traffic and rents are looking more like LA. Whether you land a job in Hood River itself, telecommute, or drive the (gorgeous) hour to Portland daily, you’re looking at rents a fraction of the big city’s (where a studio runs a ridiculous $1,500, easy). Plus you get friendly locals, great schools, fresh air, and some of the most breathtaking views in the state. It’s a wonder more people aren’t treating Portland as the weekend getaway and settling into one of America’s best, and most strategically located, small towns. -- Andy Kryza
A mountain-ringed artist's haven in the middle of the Sonoran Desert
Southeast of Tucson and 20 minutes north of Mexico are the Mule Mountains, wherein lies Bisbee, a world unto its own. Driving into the town is a thrill: you arrive from above, via a mountain tunnel, dropping past the homes, art galleries, and cute shops that now populate this old copper mining town formerly filled with brothels and bars.
Today the town is less about vice and more about cheap living in an eclectic high-desert town. The average house will cost just $130K; your neighbors will be a mix of rough-and-tumble miners, writers, painters, old-school hippies, new-wave hippies, and recovering yuppies -- including artists and University of Arizona academics who have decamped from the "big city” two hours away. Tucson’s residents flee to these mountains in the summer, as Bisbee’s mile-high elevation means a respite from the searing desert heat. They, like you, come to chill and slow down. Just remember there's a wild and fascinating universe in any direction just over the mountains. -- Jackie Bryant
Port Chester, New York
Affordable rents and a bustling downtown that’ll make you forget Brooklyn
No need to live in Bushwick or Williamsburg to feel like you’re a New Yorker. Just an hour-long train ride north from Grand Central, and you’ll find yourself in Port Chester. This Westchester County village has all the allure of a poppin’ Brooklyn neighborhood, minus the bullshit. Obscenely high rent? Not here. Mayor Dennis G. Pilla told The New York Times, “Millennials are moving here from the outer boroughs and other places because of the bang for the buck.” You can land a 1/1 apartment for $1,600, aka what you’d pay in NYC only if your aunt owns the building. Maybe you could even (hold onto your hat, now) buy.
And get this -- there’s actually stuff to do. Since the Capitol Theatre (built in 1926) was reopened in 2012 by Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro, huge acts like Bob Dylan, Father John Misty, and the Pixies have been booked. The fleeing New Yorkers ensure a healthy appetite for bars, brunches, and well-respected restos. You can hit bartaco or Mario Batali's Tarry Lodge, or scarf down a chili cheese dog from Hubba’s, a hole-in-the-wall shop that’s been around for over 100 years. Then gaze around at the once-sleepy town for people who still can’t bring themselves to admit they might one day wind up in Connecticut. -- Rebecca Strassberg
Greenville, South Carolina
A charming southern city that’s punching way above its weight
Look, you’re too late to ride the wave of brewers and artists and early-adopters that transformed Asheville in the past couple of decades. But there’s still a chance for you to put your stamp on the vastly underrated Greenville, an hour south and likewise on the porch of gorgeous Appalachian national forests. From May to October, prepare to jam into one of the country’s best downtowns to partake in the weekly Saturday Market, a mob scene of fresh produce and live music.
Fully a dozen craft breweries will keep you well hydrated, while the local food scene relishes in the home-grown and locally owned: Southern Living recently tallied some 120 locally owned restaurants in a single 10-block radius. When you need to sweat, hike to a 420-foot waterfall in the best state park in SC, right outside the city at Caesars Head. The cost of living is relatively cheap (housing is 20% less than the national average) and those beautiful Atlantic beaches are a measly four hours’ drive. It’s walkable, safe, and laid-back. That chill will come in handy when you feign surprise that your visiting friends compare your new digs to Asheville. -- Kylie Maxcy
Estes Park, Colorado
A big city refuge that’s ground zero for nature lovers
Boulder is inarguably one of the coolest cities in Colorado, surging with job prospects and all the usual cool city ingredients. But with great opportunity comes great prices, and Boulder’s also got five of the most expensive zip codes in the state. Better plan: Root down in Estes Park instead, where your 45-minute commute to the city is offset by the pleasure of having a three-bedroom house for less than two grand a month.
Yes, this is a tourist town with some tourist trappings. The population swells with over 5 million visitors every year, and the bulk of job opportunities are in the service and hospitality sectors (in addition to being one of the most haunted places in the US, The Stanley Hotel hosts a hospitality training program). Flexible work hours allow you to take advantage of the real reason you moved here, and we don’t just mean the legalized green. From downtown, it’s exactly three minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park, where you can hike, bike, swim, and get up close and personal with 3,200 elk -- or snag a job during high seasons when they double their number of employees. Come for the season (many residents are “snow birds” who go elsewhere for the winter) or come for good. -- Laura Studarus
Beer, trails, and a world-class music festival at your doorstep
If you want to make friends in this life -- real friends, the sort you’ll hang with for the rest of your days -- then spend a few winters two hours from Minneapolis. The upper Midwestern folks here have a knack for making the most of that dreary, dark season. You’ll still see bikes (with snow tires) commuting in negative temperatures, which at first may seem insane but eventually... you kind of get it. Duck out of the snow and into a warm, toasty bar -- Water Street is saturated with them -- for a pint of Lazy Monk IPA or New Glarus Spotted Cow. Eat some cheese curds, play a board game or 200, and let the winter roll on by, as it always manages to do.
Once spring rolls around, everyone starts peeling the sleeves off their pale-ass torsos and preparing to smash their way into a temperate, gorgeous summer together. The Chippewa River runs through this city, with loads of trails, parks, even beaches, and a shiny waterfront downtown is rolling in locally owned shops and locally sourced eats. June brings about the Eaux Claires music festival, started in 2015 by Wisconsin’s own Justin Vernon, where local artists share a bill with such little-known acts as Vernon's Bon Iver, Wilco, and Paul Simon. -- Kylie Maxcy
The “other” Portland hasn’t let its newfound coolness go to its head
You no longer need to fly to Colorado for your legal marijuana. Maine legislators are still deep in the weeds (!) negotiating the ins and outs of cannabis commerce, but you’re already free to grow your own. If you smell money in that smoke, or just want to legally spark up, the magic word is “Portland.” Led by a vigorous craft beer and craft spirits scene, it’s attracting ambitious young things from the more expensive, more harried East Coast cities and helping them start small businesses -- thanks, Maine Venture Fund. (And if you get nostalgic for seeing middle fingers extended in standstill traffic, Boston’s just 2 1/2 hours down the road.)
The result is a Portland that currently boasts perhaps the most restaurants and craft breweries per capita of anywhere in the country. Next year, look for official cannabis stores and social clubs. For the next several decades, look for this town to cling to its coastal blue-collar charms. Mainers are a steady people. Even now they’re already trying to head off rising rents with affordable housing developments. Leave it to New Englanders not to let a town get overheated. -- Katie Lockhart
A user-friendly, beer-infused gateway to the outdoor playground of Montana
Whatever you’ve heard about Montana -- the surreal beauty, the extreme isolation, the doggedly self-sufficient residents -- nothing can prepare you for the reality of the place. The Treasure State is in fact even bigger, more remote, and more spectacular than its reputation suggests, a sanctuary of bear-eat-bear-style wilderness that demands -- and rewards -- a deep commitment from the people who live there.
All of which sounds rather melodramatic, which is what makes Missoula the ideal incubator for aspiring Montanans. At the nexus of five mountain ranges, you’ll have quick access to excellent skiing, rafting, and hiking. But where much of the landscape is generally sprawling and inscrutable, Missoula is compact, accessible, and actually quite charming. The town’s “Hip Strip” is lined with funky cafes, boutiques, and bars; its burgeoning restaurant scene attracts talent from overpriced burgs like Seattle and Vancouver. As home to the University of Montana, it’s notably progressive and open-minded, with a longstanding history of outspoken environmental activism. Two of Missoula’s nine breweries, Big Sky and Kettlehouse, throw huge outdoor concerts during Missoula’s impeccable summer months, and, along with a few choice clubs and theaters, foster an impressive live-music scene. As in: Missoula was one of only four cities Pearl Jam played during their 2018 summer tour. -- Jonathan Zwickel
San Marcos, Texas
Music, outdoors, and barbecue -- and rent that you can still afford
Though some might think there’s no such thing as “too big” in Texas, others might argue that Austin has become exactly that. Many of the artists, musicians, and cheap rent-seekers have bounced south to San Marcos. The most hippie town in Texas is also where George Strait got his start, and has live music wafting from the bars on its historic square most nights of the week. The home of Texas State University -- further shades of Austin -- also brings together eccentric locals, students, and lately, veterans looking for the opposite of military life. The population has doubled in the past 25 years, but home prices here still sit well under $250,000.
The city sits at the base of Texas Hill Country and enjoys the crystal-clear San Marcos River, a tubing and floating destination for the entire state. An 85 mph toll road links it to San Antonio and Austin for commuters; easier is the 15-minute drive to the state’s best wineries at Duchman and Driftwood Estate. It’s also smack in the middle of Texas’ best barbecue region, with famous names like Salt Lick, Black’s, Kreuz’s and Smitty’s close enough for a quick lunch trip. -- Matt Meltzer
Scenic downtown hills and an artistic bent make for a tiny, corn-fed San Francisco
How can you pass up a town with a street called Snake Alley? It might be beyond anyone’s powers to fact-check the city’s claim that this is the “crookedest alley” in the world, but the fact that citizens want such a serpentine-award is typical of the burg’s offbeat nature. On its surface, Burlington looks like the apotheosis of scenic small-towns: sloping hills, suspension bridge cutting across the Mississippi, and a business district home to a vintage record shop called Weird Harold’s. A cost of living 22% below the national average makes buying one of the turn-of-century mansions dotting the landscape both attainable and a solid investment.
Getting out and making friends will be cheap. Besides hosting some great bands, downtown’s vintage theater savvily runs free classic films along with current low-budget indies. Recently opened wine bistros and cocktail lounges mean there’s more bartenders-per-capita than most midwestern towns. The place consistently scores higher than its neighbors on a variety of diversity report cards, while cultural center and MFA-magnet Iowa City is barely an hour’s drive. And if you do get the itch for a weekend some place with a little more concrete, there’s both a regional airport and an Amtrak station for a quick visit to Chicago or St. Louis that’ll barely cost you more than you might’ve spent on round-trip gas. -- Peter Rugg
Joshua Tree, California
A bohemian desert oasis where your backyard is a national park
Visit for the wind-chiseled landscape, the night skies painted in mesmerizing Milky Way hues, and the jaunty desert energy. Actually move for cheap (by Cali standards) rent and to be part of a hip, small-town vibe. Creative types have made Joshua Tree home to cool Airbnbs and boutique hotels tricked out with mid-century modern and bohemian flairs. They’ve also made it an absorbing town in which to settle down, even for just a little while.
You’ll eat at independent cafes and a farmers market, and spend hot afternoons at quirky thrift shops -- including one with a fun art and performance space, an Old Western-themed bar and vegan chow. You’ll bump into more gigantic-name musicians than a town this size ought to know: Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys and Foo Fighters have all recorded albums here. And your drinking buddies will be digital nomads and telecommuters who crave affordability -- think $1K a month for a three-bedroom, two-bath -- with the cultural flavor of LA. Feeling confined? Joshua Tree National Park is your backyard, and actual LA is a two-hour drive to the west. -- Michelle Rae Uy
A college town with a hippie vibe and the cultural trappings of cities 300 times bigger
The hometown of Smith College is a brainy, fiercely liberal burg where tweedy types rent or buy when they get exhausted with New York City (three hours away) or Boston (one-and-a-half hours). Think of this as the refuge urban parents sniff out to raise kids in the lap of the forests and meadows of Pioneer Valley.
“It’s a place that met all of my criteria for being able to leave Brooklyn,” says writer Valerie Reiss, who recently moved here with her husband and young son. “Great coffee, good bookstores, blue politics, an active, engaged community, and an abundance of nature.” It’s easy to recommend the fall foliage -- extra bonus if you like the snow. This is a great place for skiers, snowboarders, and the hearty, masochistic souls who actually enjoy New England winters. -- Jennifer Mattson
City comforts and endless trails in cowboy country
How does reclining in an Adirondack chair, sipping a crisp MAP Brewing kolsch, and gazing into the snow-capped Bridger Mountains sound to you? The locals say “Only in Bozeman,” repeatedly. Maybe too often. Because where else can you have a $15 wagyu beef burger, fresh from the Montana Wagyu Cattle Company just up the street in Belgrade, then throw on your hiking boots and drive 15 minutes to a trailhead in the 1.8-million-acre Gallatin National Forest? Only in Bozeman can you choose your own adventure, and complete it on your lunch hour.
Many agitated urban-dwellers transplant to Bozeman for its organic, space-filled lifestyle. Cowboys saddle up to the bar with tech entrepreneurs and university professors, and everyone, yes everyone, owns waders for fly fishing. Don’t get us wrong -- with transplants come a necessity for creature comforts, so plenty of breweries, coffee shops, and grocery co-ops exist for those who wouldn’t dare go a week without avocado toast. Cattle may outnumber the people who live here, but by no means are tumbleweeds blowing through the streets. If you truly love the outdoors, why not spend less time in the car and more time on the 2,200 miles of hiking paths circling the Gallatin, Beartooth, Bridger, and Madison mountain ranges. -- Nicole Schuman
Philadelphia’s Philadelphia is less square than you’ve assumed
You may know Wilmington as that magical place where hundreds of thousands of businesses can fit into a single PO box, but Delaware’s biggest city (which clocks in a hair above our 70K population limit, but we just couldn’t resist) has undergone massive changes in the last decade thanks to a booming job market and massive investments in the city’s cultural landmarks. Major financial institutions -- J.P. Morgan, Barclays, BlackRock -- have shifted jobs to Wilmington, sending an influx of young professionals (and their salaries) that has breathed new life into the city’s cultural landmarks like the Queen Theater and the iconic Hotel du Pont.
The city and state, meanwhile, have committed to fostering entrepreneurship and co-working spaces like The Mill and Start It Up Delaware, a public-private partnership aiming to bring tech talent to the First State. “The city really checks off a lot of boxes,” says Wilmington native and local entrepreneur Matt Van Belle. “The cost of living is cheap, you can walk everywhere, you have access to major metros via train or a short drive, some of the best beaches on the coast are an hour away.” Plus, the mad beer geniuses at Dogfish Head are only a short drive away, which means the crew at Washington Street Alehouse are always getting kegs you won’t see anywhere else. -- T.M. Brown
Cheap living and low-key good times nestled beside higher learning and high culture
The two major counties in hilly Northwest Arkansas have doubled in population inside a generation, to almost a half-million. That growth owes to a cheap, chill quality of life that has made the biggest city, Fayetteville, a mainstay on national best-city lists and a sturdy economy anchored by Walmart’s world HQ in Bentonville. You have your pick of spots if you want to start a business, raise kids who teach themselves to spelunk through creeks and woods, or just buy an actual house with an actual yard. But the very best deal might be middle child Rogers, an overlooked town of 67,000 with exactly as much pretension as its name implies.
Your conventional bases are covered: The schools are new and well-funded; neighborhoods are stacked with big parks and ever-expanding bike lanes and a 30-acre reservoir lake; winters are piddly; crime is minimal; and the worn-in Southern funk of the area melds well with newer upscale chains and craft breweries. Go further, though, and you find some holy shit features rare in small towns. You’ll be minutes from the University of Arkansas; a major airport; a minor league ballpark; and Crystal Bridges, the biggest new art museum built in America since the 1970s. And Rogers now boasts the Railyard (YouTube above), a primo mountain bike obstacle park (complete with dog park!) smack in the revived yet still quaint-AF downtown. Your kids will thank you for moving here, even as you sign their casts. -- Sam Eifling