Article by Shaina Mishkin on Travel + Leisure and Money.com | NOVEMBER 25, 2018
Promising job growth? Relatively low cost of living? Enviable attractions? These places have it all.
You don’t have to empty your savings account to afford city living in America—at least not in these locations.
Urban areas offer a gateway to culture or a medley of activities, but they typically come with a high price tag. That’s why MONEY crunched the numbers to find big cities—those with a population of 300,000 or more—with the best of all worlds: attractions, iconic neighborhoods, a relatively low cost of living, and promising job growth.
Here are our top 10 picks for best big cities to live in. (See MONEY’s full 2018 ranking of the Best Places to Live in America.)
1. Austin, Texas
- Average Family Income: $87,389
- Median Home Price: $326,562
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 10.9%
Texas’s delightfully bohemian capital nabs the list’s top spot because of the thriving job scene, coupled with memorable food, music, and a startup culture.
Not only is Austin projected to see a whopping 10.9% increase in jobs over the next four years, but the current unemployment rate of 3% also sits below the national average. The city’s median family income is $87,389, and the median home sale price is $326,562, according to realtor.com. Much of its job growth comes from small businesses and the tech sector—Dell, IBM, and Amazon are some of the biggest employers. Entrepreneurs, take note: CNBC ranked Austin as the No. 1 place to start a business, while Forbes named it one of the top 10 rising cities for startups.
Once you do land a job, you won’t have to worry about how to entertain yourself. Dubbed the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin is bursting with talent and more live music venues per capita than anywhere else in the nation. Visitors flock to the annual South by Southwest festivals, featuring concerts, speeches, and comedy showcases.
And then there’s the food. Restaurant-rating powerhouse Zagat named Austin the second-most-exciting food city in the U.S. last year, thanks to mainstays like Franklin Barbecue and new favorites such as ramen restaurant Kemuri Tatsu-ya, which combines Texan flavors and Japanese techniques for a meal as distinctive as the city itself.
2. Raleigh, North Carolina
- Average Family Income: $82,021
- Median Home Price: $263,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 9.6%
Part of North Carolina’s tri-city university hub, called the Triangle, along with Durham and Chapel Hill, Raleigh is home to a relatively young, diverse, and educated population.
Like Austin, Raleigh is a hotspot for employment seekers: Moody’s Analytics projects the area’s jobs will grow 9.6% by 2022. Forbes this year ranked Raleigh among the top 10 cities for jobs, owing in part to its 17.25% job growth over the past five years. And people are listening: There’s been a 13% increase in population since 2010, according to MONEY’s Best Places to Live database.
Your wallet will feel the benefits too: With an average sales tax of about 7.25% and average property taxes at $2,632, the city’s cost of living is relatively low compared with our other big cities.
As the historically significant birthplace of Andrew Johnson, Raleigh is host to dozens of museums, earning it the nickname Smithsonian of the South. The North Carolina Museum of History reaches back 14,000 years into the state’s past, and at the massive North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, general admission is free.
There’s a strong sense of community as well. Every fall, the North Carolina State Fairdraws 1 million visitors to Raleigh for a 10-day festival featuring rides, music, games, and crafts from local artists. Tickets cost about $10 for adults and $5 for children.
3. Virginia Beach, Virginia
- Average Family Income: $82,927
- Median Home Price: $255,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 2.6%
The living is easy in Virginia Beach, also named one of MONEY’s best beach destinations last year. The area’s unemployment rate is about 3.1%, below the national average, and crime, relatively low among the big cities here, is also well below the national average. Despite an only 4% increase in population since 2010, the area is booming for retirees: The number of people age 50 and over grew 22% over the past eight years. But perhaps best of all, there are 213 clear days a year, giving residents plenty of time to enjoy six major beaches over 35 miles of coastline.
There’s a sandy stretch for nearly everyone, starting with the family-friendly First Landing State Park at Chesapeake Bay Beach. For surfing, head to Virginia Beach Oceanfront, or for a quieter, picturesque view, go to Sandbridge Beach.
The Sandbridge area is also home to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where you can learn about the region’s snakes, frogs, and turtles during a guided nature hike on Bay Trail. Nearby is First Landing State Park, the most visited state park in Virginia, named after the arrival of English colonists in 1607. First Landing offers outdoor activities as well as cabins, a boat launch, and swimmable waters.
Culture vultures won’t feel left out: Renowned symphony orchestras play the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, and comedians headline at the Funny Bone Comedy Club.
4. Mesa, Arizona
- Average Family Income: $64,455
- Median Home Price: $246,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 8.1%
Seeking a sunny city with easy opportunities to escape to the outdoors? It pays to head west.
Mesa, just 20 miles outside Phoenix, has experienced a 12% growth in population over the past eight years and is projected to see jobs increase 8% in the next four years. The majority of new job offerings here, unlike in Austin, are in the investment and manufacturing sectors rather than tech.
Local government leaders say businesses are moving to Mesa, as well as the surrounding East Valley area, for its low tax rate and relative affordability. Average property taxes are around $1,444, the second lowest among MONEY’s big cities, and the median home sale price is $246,000 as of March.
Once you’ve settled in, you won’t have to look far for an outdoor retreat. Mesa gets an impressive 296 clear days a year, and a whopping 115 campsites surround the area. Camping reservations for county parks can be made online as early as six months in advance. You’ll pay $32, including a reservation fee of $8, for a developed camping site with electricity and restrooms or, if you’re a bit more daring, $15 for a site with no amenities.
To learn about the area’s history, visit the Mesa Grande Cultural Park, which preserves ruins believed to be the religious center of the ancient Hohokam civilization, dating back to 1100 A.D. Admission to the ruins costs $5 for adults and $2 for children. For more insight into the Hohokam ancient people, you can check out the Park of the Canals, which features 4,500 feet of an extensive canal system used to farm corn, beans, squash, and cotton.
5. Seattle, Washington
- Average Family Income: $112,211
- Median Home Price: $676,889
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 7.5%
The Emerald City enjoys a growing job market and vibrant cultural attractions but at a cost—the median home sale price, $676,889 as of March, is the most expensive among the cities on this list. But the high price tag might be offset if you could score a lofty job at Amazon, which employs more than 40,000 Seattle residents across its 8.1 million square feet of office space. The company’s dominance has spurred other major tech giants to build their own offices—and poach local employees.
Despite the relatively high cost of living, the area provides plenty of affordable attractions. Nearly 200 wineries cover the region and are ideal for visits. Check out the Charles Smith Wines Jet City tasting room for offerings from one of the state’s largest wine producers. Be sure to also try the famous cream cheese–covered Seattle-style hot dog at Monster Dogs.
To live like a tourist, get a two-in-one ticket to Seattle’s iconic sites: the towering Space Needle and the glass-sculpture garden at Chihuly Garden and Glass. They happen to double as ideal date spots. If you’re young and looking for love, Seattle is the perfect match. MONEY named it one of the best places for millennials and singles.
6. San Diego, California
- Average Family Income: $91,199
- Median Home Price: $555,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 4.4%
With 1.4 million residents, San Diego is the most populous city to make the list. It’s also one of the more racially diverse cities in the country, with 40% nonwhite residents.
Head to the east side, and you’ll find mountains and canyons perfect for hiking, mountain biking, and fishing. The area also boasts Las Vegas–style casinos and resorts, including Viejas Casino, home to 2,200 slot machines and an outdoor concert venue. California beaches outline the city’s west side, from mile-long La Jolla Shores, perfect for children and seal lovers, to bonfire-friendly Pacific Beach, often referred to as “the Strand.” And don’t forget to visit the rare giant pandas at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.
7. Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Average Family Income: $75,795
- Median Home Price: $285,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 7.1%
About 70 miles south of Denver, Colorado Springs was recently ranked one of the country’s best tech hubs by the Computing Technology Industry Association. The city will see projected job growth of 7% by 2022, and the cost of living is relatively low among big U.S. cities, according to PayScale.
Skiers enjoy the region’s proximity to major ski getaways like Aspen and Vail, as well as the area’s surrounding resorts, including Eldora Mountain Resort, which offers 680 acres of terrain and 300 inches of snowfall a year.
Here’s a summit for the courageous: the 2,000-foot-high, one-mile hike up the Manitou Incline. Climb all 2,744 steps, and you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous views of the city below. Nonathletic types are welcomed too. The annual Labor Day Lift Off features hot-air balloons and a festival with live music, skydiving demonstrations, and a doughnut-eating contest.
8. Lexington, Kentucky
- Average Family Income: $74,531
- Median Home Price: $131,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017–2022): 4.3%
Good news for potential residents: Lexington has some of the lowest taxes among the cities on this list, with a sales tax of 6% and average property taxes nearing $1,921.
Moving to Lexington means embracing equestrian culture. Nicknamed the Horse Capital of the World, Lexington was the first U.S. city to host an FEI World Equestrian Games, in 2010, drawing half-a-million attendees. Residents and visitors alike can ride horses and ponies at the Kentucky Horse Park.
For a crash course in bourbon distilling, the Town Branch Distillery offers tours and tastings, and one of the South’s best bourbon bars, The Bluegrass Tavern, is home to Kentucky’s largest bourbon collection.
If you’re looking to root for the Wildcats, the University of Kentucky’s basketball team where NBA All-Stars Anthony Davis and John Wall got their start, head to Winchell’s Restaurant for 25 TVs and passionate fans.
9. Jacksonville, Florida
- Average Family Income: $63,735
- Median Home Price: $196,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 7.7%
As the largest metro area by landmass in the continental U.S., Jacksonville, like many other cities on our list, claims a growing job market and population. In the past eight years, the city’s population increased by nearly 9%, with a projected job growth of 7.7% by 2022. Those seeking employment, specifically in the tech industry, should head to the area’s growing job market, say ZipRecruiter and Indeed.
Visitors can support the home team by attending a Jacksonville Jaguars game at TIAA Bank Field. The coastal city also features 22 miles of mostly public and dog-friendly beaches. Learn to surf at Atlantic Beach, or brave souls might try a taste of alligator at nearby Mayport’s historic fish camps.
For a combined farmers’ market and artists’ hub, head to the Riverside Arts Market, which attracts thousands of people every Saturday. You’ll listen to live musicians, eat local bites alongside the St. Johns River, and support local artists, all in one day.
10. Columbus, Ohio
- Average Family Income: $61,513
- Median Home Price: $185,000
- Projected Job Growth (2017-2022): 5.7%
Columbus is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S.—and in the Midwest—with a population increase of nearly 11% in the past eight years and job growth of 14% in roughly the same period.
Big 10 Ohio State University is the city’s biggest employer, and you can take advantage of the college town’s vibrant culture by attending a football game at Ohio Stadium, which seats over 100,000 people. Following the game, head to the Thurman Cafe and indulge in its massive, double-patty Thurmanator burger for $21.99.
If college athletics aren’t your thing, check out one of the area’s 96 museums, such as the hands-on Center of Science and Industry, or the Columbus Museum of Art, featuring modern and contemporary works.
To create MONEY’s Best Big Cities ranking, we looked only at places with populations of 300,000 or greater. We eliminated any city that had more than double the national crime risk, less than 85% of its state’s median household income, or a lack of ethnic diversity. We further narrowed the list using more than 8,000 different data points, considering data on each place’s economic health, cost of living, public education, income, crime, ease of living, and amenities, all provided by research partner Witlytic. MONEY teamed up with realtor.com to leverage its knowledge of housing markets throughout the country. We put the greatest weight on economic health, public school performance, and local amenities; housing, cost of living, and diversity were also critical components.
Finally, reporters researched each spot, searching for the kinds of intangible factors that aren’t revealed by statistics. To ensure a geographically diverse set, we limited the Best Big Cities list to no more than one place per state.
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