Affordable American Cities You Should Totally Move To
Because Austin and Portland are full.
Over the last year, as small apartments felt increasingly cramped and high rents became increasingly restrictive, even the most die-hard urbanities started to rethink where they call home. There’s a common misconception, though, that leaving the New Yorks and L.A.s of the world means compromising something, be it comfort, culture, or verve.
The cities on this list would like a word. Within their boundaries you’ll find exemplary food scenes, communal green spaces, an undercurrent of creativity, thriving LBGTQ communities, and ample nightlife—minus the wall-to-wall people, soul-sucking traffic jams, and wallet-draining cost of living.
But you better move fast: As populations shift away from the coasts, these gems might not remain under the radar much longer. To think, 20 years ago Portland was the place artists and weirdos came to live on the cheap.
Oregon’s fastest-growing city maintains its mountain-town vibes
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,044
With its world-class beer scene, farm-to-table restaurants, and affinity for cannabis, it’s tempting to declare Bend a miniature Portland. It’s not. Here in the high desert of central Oregon, people are sportier, hardier, and some would argue, happier than in rain soaked Portland. The access to nature is unmatched, making it uniquely suited for any outdoors-lover. Climbers flock to nearby Smith Rock, skiers to Mr. Bachelor, and hikers of all skill levels head to the Three Sisters. The roaring Deschutes River is as welcoming to whitewater crowds as it is weekenders who float it with a beer from the namesake brewery in hand.
Bend has been growing exponentially over the years, but the highly walkable, twee downtown gives off a mountain village vibe that belies its population. And if you ever get a hankering for bougie donuts, Portland is just over three hours away. —Andy Kryza
St. Petersburg, Florida
A hyper-affordable beach town for the non-retired
City population: 265,098
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,308
About halfway down the west coast of Florida, this peninsula-within-a-peninsula was once dismissed as a Midwestern retiree magnet and working-class armpit. Then in the aughts, some entrepreneurs and artist types decided to restore a bunch of historic homes, start farmers markets, put murals everywhere, and create a monthly art walk. The Downtown area now hosts no less than ten breweries (35 total in the St. Pete/Clearwater region, with a whole “Gulp Coast” craft beer trail). Then there’s the celebrated Dali Museum, which houses more than 2,000 of the surrealist's works and lends out audio devices with deeply hilarious narration from the perspective of Dali's mustache.
Summer 2020 saw the completion of a $92-million pier complete with new restaurants, billowing art sculptures, waterfront activities, and space for outdoor play. Surrounded by barrier islands, with state parks and manatees galore, you're 30 minutes from one of the best beaches in Florida in Clearwater. And while the cheap rents might sound like a classic Florida real estate con, it's not. —Ashley Harrell
Des Moines, Iowa
Coastal culture at blue-collar prices
City population: 212,480
Average rent for a 1-BR: $874
Hot tip: Buy real estate in Des Moines yesterday. What was once a city lacking in housing, retail, and straight-up vitality is now topping lists of the country’s best places to live and work. An ambitious new generation is pumping the money they’re saving on rent into nationally recognized restaurants, local taps, funky shops, and a legit art scene.
The East Village—a hotbed of counterculture growing along the edges of the gold-domed capitol—is the ultimate harbinger of the city’s next era. Grab a Steve-King-denigrating t-shirt at RAYGUN, chow down on baba ganoush at Open Sesame, sit on the floor at Gong Fu Tea, and sip an East Village IPA from female-owned Peace Tree Brewing Co. You can stretch your legs with a jog around Gray’s Lake, hit up the 25-mile High Trestle Trail, or simply stroll the gorgeous tree-lined Sherman Hill neighborhood—Des Moines’ oldest—to stoke dreams of home ownership that actually feel attainable. —Jacqueline Kehoe
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Big city amenities and a whole lot of heart in America’s heartland
City population: 655,057
Average rent for a 1-BR: $806
Despite being one of the largest cities in the US by area, OKC boasts the kind of cohesive neighborhood patchwork you’d expect of larger metropolises like Chicago or New York, each pocket enriched with distinct character. It’s apparent in the Santa Fe-like architecture and ceramics shops in the Paseo Arts District, and the drag brunches and rainbow murals lining the 39th Street Entertainment District. Stockyards City is home to centuries-old steakhouses, while Film Row brings new-school culinary flair: pair gingerbread-Nutella tarts with breakfast tacos at Stitch Cafe, or chicken-fried carrots with nori-infused amaro cocktails at The Jones Assembly.
In many ways, OKC is a small town masquerading as a big city. Gone are the staggering rents and the traffic (if it takes more than 20 minutes to drive across town, something is very wrong). As evidenced by a somber-yet-inspiring trip to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, this is a community that emerged from tragedy with a unified sense of camaraderie and care for one another—a sentiment warmly shared with newcomers from all walks of life. It’s a vibrant dot in a red state, colored by friendliness and cultural diversity that’s only growing stronger in America’s heartland. —Matt Kirouac
The vibrant, outdoorsy alternative to big brother Milwaukee
City population: 254,977
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,146
If you don't know what an isthmus is before you move to Madison, you're going to learn faster than you can say "one spicy cheese bread, please." The narrow strip of land between two lakes is the beating heart of the city—and state. The activity-dense downtown has a small-town mainstreet vibe that radiates Midwestern nice energy. And that pair of lakes, Mendota and Monona, fosters an all-season outdoor playground. Rowing? Sure. Ice fishing? Of course. Day drinking Spotted Cow on a pontoon boat? You betcha.
Just west of the isthmus is the city's other centerpiece, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which keeps this town energetic, young, and always up for a house party. Tailgaters pack bars and streets around historic Camp Randall on chilly Badger football game days, because hometown pride runs deep. And why wouldn’t it? We have taverns that celebrate local traditions like Friday fish fry and restaurants that serve global specialties; endless intimate concert venues that will hopefully survive the pandemic; and primo botanical gardens and bike paths to help shed those beer and fried cheese curd calories. —Lacey Muszynski
Salt Lake City, Utah
The picturesque West waiting to prove you wrong
City population: 200,699
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,098
Truly loving SLC means embracing the word “actually” in casual conversation. Actually, the beer scene is thriving, with the likes of Uinta and Epic putting out wares well beyond 3.2% and making a case for SLC as a top-tier beer town. Actually, fry sauce is pretty good, but the formidable restaurant community embraces flavors from around the globe. Actually the art scene is buzzing, along with the nightlife. What you heard about homogeneity is right, actually… but as the city grows, so too does its diversity.
But even if all that wasn’t the case, gorgeous SLC deserves a look based on its natural riches alone, and we’re not just talking about that big-ass lake. You’ll have access to nine ski resorts in less than an hour, as well as all the hiking, climbing, biking, and other adventures afforded by a state that packs in five national parks. Rents aren’t super low at an average of $1,250, but with only about 200,000 people in the city proper, you’ll have plenty of room too spread out. —AK
Greenville, South Carolina
The small Southern city that feels much, much bigger
City population: 60,670
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,063
Greenville feels like it was focus-grouped by a committee of realtors targeting hip young homebuyers. Walkable downtown? Check. Great restaurant scene? You’ll find it at nationally acclaimed Husk, and the Gather food hall made of repurposed shipping containers. Say hi to local chefs as you peruse the farmers market in Travelers Rest, the perfect pitstop on a breezy morning bike ride down the Swamp Rabbit Trail. The beer scene is on the rise, nipping at Asheville’s storied heels, and every Friday, the Main Street thoroughfare shuts down for an all-night street party.
While coastal Charleston hogs the spotlight, slept-on Greenville has milder summers and greater opportunities; jobs in healthcare, auto engineering, and education have helped diversify the population. As for weekend escapes, it's a short drive to Charlotte or Asheville, or a few hours to the coast or the Tennessee border for majestic mountain hikes, lakes, and waterfalls.—Matt Meltzer
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Big beer and thriving arts a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan
City population: 201,890
Average rent for a 1-BR: $920
Twenty years ago, if you’d have told anyone under 60 that Grand Rapids was one of Michigan’s coolest metro areas, they would have scoffed. But while Detroit was hogging the spotlight as the state’s resurgently cool city, Grand Rapids was padding its resume. Today, you could reasonably argue that GR is the greatest beer city east of the Mississippi thanks to the groundwork laid by pioneering Founders that sprung into a 40+ brewery movement.
The city is also rich in art, food, music, and every other big-city amenity, only in a quieter package. But it won’t stay quiet for long; to goose growth, a recent investment of $1 billion is throwing up residential towers, entertainment venues, and hotels. Even still, Grand Rapids maintains the vibe of a much smaller city, and some of America’s best beach towns are a (Petoskey) stone’s throw away. —AK
An easygoing economic center makes a play for arts fame
City population: 86,751 and 51,111
Average rent for a 1-BR: $677/$855
These two towns in the upper-lefthand corner of Arkansas, about a half-hour apart from each other, are gradually merging into one of those the-secret-is-out American nooks. Anchored by the state's flagship university, Fayetteville is at once jockish and bookish, with a hippie streak that's settling into NPR-mainstream liberality. Cost, ease, and lack of pretense are the big draws here. You can buy a house with a yard for $175,000, drive 15 minutes across town, and bar hop like an undergrad on Dickson St.
Drive north a spell—or ride up the nationally acclaimed regional bikeway—and you'll find Bentonville, home of Walmart's world HQ. For years the retail behemoth fed an economy with more money than taste, but that evolved in 2011 once Walmart heiress Alice Walton masterminded Crystal Bridges, one of the largest new art museums built in America in the past 50 years. With a downtown growth spurt and movement toward creative, locally sourced eats, the town’s cultural cache only continues to rise.—Sam Eifling
Fort Collins, Colorado
A college town and craft-beer haven where farm-fresh is for real
Population: 174, 871
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,251
Home to Colorado’s second largest university (Colorado State), Fort Collins is seeing more and more graduates set up lifelong camp. With an ever-growing spate of farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, music venues, and endless outdoor recreation options—why would you want to live anywhere else?
About an hour’s drive north of Denver, FoCo (yes, it even has a hip nickname) is quickly gaining the allure—but not (yet) the price point—of its rival/neighboring college town, Boulder. The Poudre River, Lory State Park, and Horsetooth Reservoir abound with views and adventure, and reaching the town’s 20-plus craft breweries is a matter of pedaling or strolling through historic Old Town. Meanwhile, one of Colorado’s last-standing drive-in movie theaters (dating back to 1968) is nestled at the base of the foothills, further proof that everything is better when you do it outside… especially when outside is this beautiful. —Shauna Farnell
Kansas City, Missouri
A thriving arts and cultural scene that rivals the Coasts
City population: 465,005
Average rent for a 1-BR: $970
KCMO has become the unlikely stomping ground of hip urbanites opting for a three-bedroom house at a fraction of what they'd pay for a crawlspace in Brooklyn. Revitalized neighborhoods offer lofts and condos at rock-bottom prices, alongside converted industrial warehouses bustling with flea markets, artist exhibits, and pop-ups. Free high-speed internet is available to all, and a trolley system (also free) makes parking downtown a nonissue.
Along with the world-famous BBQ restaurants, an impressive list of arts, theater, and music festivals attracts diverse crowds and talent to KC year-round. The historic Crossroads neighborhood is one of the most concentrated arts districts in the nation; every First Friday (in normal times), residents flood the area for live music, street theater, food trucks, and gallery open houses. 18th and Vine is the historic hub of African-American culture here, featuring the American Jazz Museum. And for a city straddling two red states, it has fostered an LGBTQ-friendly climate that stands among the most progressive in the country. —Brock Wilbur
A creative capital embracing small businesses and change
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,129
There's no glossing over the fact that this is the former capital of the Confederacy, but Richmond doesn’t shy away from its challenging history; plans are underway to reimagine the site of a Robert E. Lee statue into an inclusive public space commemorating the legacy of slavery. Today, the diversity of the city shines—40+ percent of the population is Black—and there’s intense focus on embracing small businesses, many of which are Black, women, or immigrant owned. And unlike larger cities, you can survive as a creative without having a trust fund or five roommates.
The distinctive neighborhoods make it easy for every personality to plant down roots. Areas like Church Hill and Jackson Ward maintain their historic charms while still attracting James Beard-nominated eateries. And while "up and coming" can cause eyes to roll, if there was ever a neighborhood that fit the bill it’s Brookland Park, where a slew of new businesses—among them the city’s first Black-owned handcrafted ice cream shop, Ruby Scoops, and ready-to-eat meal specialist Brookland Park Market—seem destined for national lists. There's an excitement to this city with a rich, sometimes painful past, where East coast flair coexists with a slower pace of life only found below the Mason-Dixon line. —Patrice J. Williams.
The allure of the Pacific Northwest, without Portland prices
City population: 240,380
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,092
The Pacific Northwest boasts some of the most extreme beauty in the US, but with that comes some extreme prices. Go inland and you’ll find Boise, one of the most bike-friendly and walkable cities in the country, home to a klatch of creatives, cool kids, and tech types. Mild temperatures and the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt give residents a good reason to enjoy the clean air and rolling views of the city. It’s also a short drive from the Snake River Valley wine region, plus skiing at Sun Valley, the Sawtooth Mountains, and Shoshone Falls.
Corporations stressed by regulation in the coastal states see Idaho as more business-friendly, meaning jobs are plentiful, especially since the population is relatively small. And while the average rent has risen in the past couple years, you can still score a two-bedroom place for around $1,200. If you’re looking to buy, invest soon before “Boise prices” become part of the vernacular. —MM
A Southern haven for the active, outdoorsy, and entrepreneurial
City population: 171,863
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,023
Though we can't quite hurl superlatives at it like "Best Town Ever" (as it was named by Outside magazine, twice), Chattanooga is still an outstanding place to call home. This is especially true for entrepreneurs and startup whiz kids, as the city has roughly half the startup costs of Silicon Valley and is home to the INCubator, America's third-largest business incubator. The small-business community here is well-supported, and thanks to recent infrastructure investments, Chattanooga, of all places, boasts the fastest internet in the Western Hemisphere.
But enough business. Work-life balance is what makes this city truly special. The Chattanooga Choo Choo complex is a bona fide entertainment district, complete with a rare-guitar museum. It's also a stone's throw from mountain biking, hiking, and whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River. All this, and the median home price here is a downright reasonable $228,700, so even if you are a perpetually cash-strapped small-business owner, you won't starve while your business gets off the ground. —MM
A sunny oasis with mighty mountains, soaring cacti, and a rich culinary heritage
City population: 548,073
Average rent for a 1-BR: $796
Home to the University of Arizona, Tucson seamlessly blends the young with the old: Spanish architecture with sleek high-rises; newfangled taquerias with timeworn Sonoran hot dog stands (head to the Ruiz Hot Dogs trailer for the tastiest take on this bacon-wrapped marvel). All this is set against immense, dramatic landscapes: Tucson is sandwiched between two sections of Saguaro National Park, home to the largest cacti, and to the north, the Santa Catalina Mountains soar so high the terrain transitions into cooling conifer forests (you can even ski on Mount Lemmon).
The synergy between nature and city permeates day-to-day life in this laid-back metropolis, where people go hiking on lunch breaks, linger on patios year-round, and sip on lattes infused with prickly pear syrup and mesquite flour at neighborhood cafes like La Chaiteria in historic Menlo Park. In every sense, Tucson is a breath of fresh air, as long as you have AC to endure the scorching summer days. —MK
Where friendly neighborhood vibes coexist with a modern urban culture
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,244
Despite its population, it would still be tough to classify Pittsburgh as a "big city." Which, of course, encapsulates its appeal: the Iron City has the all the enviable trappings of a major metropolis (food! Art! Stuff to do!) while still maintaining the friendly neighborhood essence made famous by Fred Rogers half a century ago.
Outdoor types will relish the biking and hiking paths around the city, and the opportunity to kayak and paddleboard in warmer months (there are three rivers, after all). For culture, Pittsburgh is a wellspring of modern art: the Andy Warhol Museum (dedicated to one of the Burgh's native sons) is the big draw, but don't sleep on the contemporary Mattress Factory, or the many small galleries lining the streets of neighborhoods like Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. And Pittsburgh is steadily becoming a celebrated food town, where a surprisingly eclectic and diverse dining scene pairs well with longtime yinzer favorites like pierogies and Primanti's. If you can tolerate the grey winters and hilly topography, you'll feel at home before you can even down your first IC Light. —Wil Fulton
The “other” Portland hasn’t let its newfound coolness go to its head
Average rent for a 1-BR: $1,316
There’s a simmering fear that Maine’s Portland is in danger of transforming into the other Portland. Big-city transplants are endangering its uniquely Maine charms. An ultra-hip multi-purpose complex is about to change the waterfront. But here’s the thing: While Portland continues to evolve and diversify, this isn’t a city in danger of Brooklynization.
Consider this: this city—Maine’s largest—has been embracing hyper-localized, farm-to-table dining long before it became a trend. Trailblazing restaurants like upscale sandwich shop Duckfat have been at the forefront of the casual-fancy fad for years. Obsessively crafted beer has always been a way of life. Flannels and winter caps aren’t just a fashion statement—it’s damn cold here. And while newcomers are absolutely making their mark, they’re not doing so in a way that changes the ingrained qualities of this frosty coastal paradise. Which is to say, red-brick facades, drinking with lobstermen at cozy dives, and international cuisine will continue to be a thing whether you’re enjoying them alongside a blue-collar Mainer or a tech-bro transplant who keeps twisting his ankle on the cobblestones. —AK
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