What makes a city a great place to live? By our definition: good jobs, reasonably priced homes (see mortgage rates in your area), decent schools, great health care and manageable size are all part of the mix. We started with metro areas that have a population of 1 million or less and came up with a list of cities that met those criteria. Then we whittled the list to ten cities and sent Kiplinger's reporters to each one to find the ingredients that make them special: say, a gorgeous setting, a green sensibility, a brainiac population or a rah-rah sports culture. Want to see a moose on your daily walk? Live in Anchorage. Rub elbows with celebrities? Santa Fe's the place. Billings has an Old West vibe; Dubuque, the Mississippi; and Little Rock, our number-one pick, has something for everyone.
See a Slide Show Version: 10 Great Places to Live, 2013
1. Little Rock, Arkansas
Set between the Ouachita Mountains and the Arkansas River and known for its rolling hills and ubiquitous trees, Little Rock offers far more than a lovely setting. It is the capital of Arkansas and its largest city, as well as the state center of business, health care and culture. With a population of nearly 200,000, it has the amenities of a larger city but is small enough that you can feel part of the community.
Courtesy of Cameron Huddleston
That community includes people of all ages. Residents fill the streets of the eclectic Hillcrest neighborhood to mingle, shop and listen to street music on the first Thursday of each month. Young professionals meet with leaders of major companies as part of Create Little Rock, a networking program. Retirees stay active by volunteering, as 80-year-old Bob Gee does for the Clinton School of Public Service. "There is something here to catch the interest of almost anybody," Gee says.
Thanks to its location, Little Rock provides plenty of opportunities for hiking, running, cycling, boating, fishing and hunting. Among the many cultural offerings: museums and fine art galleries, a repertory theater, a symphony orchestra, and a performing arts center. Downtown, you can roam the 33-acre Riverfront Park or enjoy eateries ranging from food trucks to fine dining. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library brings in speakers from around the world.
Little Rock employers include the state government, two major universities, Windstream Communications (a telecommunications company), Caterpillar and IT company Acxiom. At 6.6%, the unemployment rate is below the national average (currently 7.6%). Housing costs are below the national average as well. You can find a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot house for as little as $169,900 in a family-friendly neighborhood in West Little Rock. And residents can get first-rate medical care at several hospitals and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, a world-class center for treating multiple myeloma.
Little Rock Central High School -- the site of desegregation battles in 1957 -- is now a top-ranked high school, but the city also has its share of underperforming public schools. Mayor Mark Stodola has introduced several initiatives to help improve those schools.
What the locals love: The annual Riverfest performing arts celebration, the paved trail system along the Arkansas River, the mild winters and the lack of traffic. You can get from one side of town to the other in less than 20 minutes. Follow #kipcities on Twitter to see what else there is to love about Little Rock.
2. Burlington, Vermont
On the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, Burlington boasts a cozy feel and stunning beauty, plus a vibrant and varied economy. Eds and meds are big -- the city is home to the University of Vermont and regional health care provider Fletcher Allen. IBM is nearby and other tech companies are growing, too. Champlain College's programs in digital technology have led to start-ups, and Dealer.com, which provides software for auto dealers, plans to add 200 jobs annually for the next three years. Result? Plentiful jobs. Unemployment is just 3.5%.
Courtesy of Jessica Anderson
Green is important in the Green Mountain State: Burlington claims the first utility in the country to focus on energy efficiency in the community. Eco-friendly product maker Seventh Generation, solar companies Draker and AllEarth Renewables, and wind supplier NRG Systems round out the area's green offerings. Mayor Miro Weinberger says the goal is to power the city fully with renewable energy -- and Burlington isn't that far off. Even local brewer Magic Hat converts by-products into methane gas to generate one-third of the brewery's electricity.
The city has a penchant for creative problem-solving. In the 1970s, as downtowns across the nation were dying, Burlington created the Church Street Marketplace. One of the most successful pedestrian malls in the country, its mix of boutiques and eateries keeps locals coming downtown. Ten years ago, two inner-city schools were failing. The city turned both into magnet schools, one for the arts and the other concentrating on sustainability, and now both of them are highly sought-after.
Tucked between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, Burlington boasts stellar vistas year-round. In warm weather, residents enjoy hiking and biking -- an eight-mile bike path runs along the lake. As for the winter, yes, it's cold (the average temperature in January is 19 degrees), but you're just half an hour from the ski slopes. For $330,000, the average price of a single-family home, you can buy a spacious three-bedroom house with a big yard in the New North End or a more modest home in the South End.
What the locals love: Farm-to-table food at spots such as the Farmhouse Tap & Grill and Skinny Pancake creperie, easy access to ski slopes, and spectacular views. Follow #kipcities on Twitter to see what else there is to love about Burlington.
3. Bryan-College Station, Texas
College Station and the adjoining Bryan, together known as Aggieland, represent a cultural, economic and educational powerhouse in the bucolic southeastern part of the state.
Brimming with Texas hospitality and steeped in tradition, the cities attract and retain college students, young professionals, families and retirees with their highly educated workforce, exemplary public school systems, low crime, 1,800 acres of parks and golf courses, excellent hospitals and an affordable cost of living. The performing arts add to the region’s cultural landscape. And have we mentioned college sports? Suffice it to say, they're big in Aggieland.
Courtesy of Marc Wojno
The main driver of all this energy is Texas A&M University, whose research facilities provide business opportunities to the region and jobs to graduates who stay in Aggieland. Big-tech firms have moved into the area: Motorola recently tapped A&M as one of eight universities (including Caltech, Harvard and MIT) for a research partnership. The federal government has made its presence known as well. Last year, the A&M System received a $286 million contract for a federal center that, in part, develops vaccines against influenza. The area expects to add 1,000 jobs in the next five years.
Bordering Bryan, the biomedical corridor has boosted the economy, allowing the city to renovate landmarks and add retail and restaurants. A three-bedroom home in Bryan runs $153,000, on average; in College Station, it's $165,000.
Aggies young and old are passionate about their football. A $450 million renovation of the 86-year-old Kyle Field will bring the total number of seats to 102,500, making it the biggest stadium in the Southeastern Conference, which A&M joined last year. Conference membership is expected to add $120 million to the local economy each season.
The region has its challenges. Summers can be brutal. And game-day traffic can give even the most avid Aggies a Texas-size headache.
What the locals love: Guest lectures at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum; hiking, fishing, horseback riding and ranching; and, of course, college football. Follow #kipcities on Twitter to see what else there is to love about Bryan-College Station.