4. Santa Fe, New Mexico
Wander among the pueblo-style structures of Santa Fe’s downtown on a sunny day (and what day isn't?) and you'll see why residents happily call this city home. Craftspeople spread their wares outside the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, once Spain's seat of government in the Southwest and now part of the New Mexico History Museum. Nearby, restaurants such as The Shed serve dishes reflecting the Spanish and Native American influence -- and smothered in fresh red or green chile sauce. To the southeast, fine-art galleries line Canyon Road.
See Also: Find the Best City for You
Courtesy of Lisa Gerstner
Culture is literally in the air in Santa Fe. There are free outdoor concerts at the central plaza bandstand all summer long, and six miles from the heart of town the spectacular outdoor amphitheater enthralls opera-goers. Outdoor enthusiasts can hit the hiking and biking trails that run through the surrounding terrain or head to the ski slopes at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about a half-hour drive from downtown. Getting around sections of downtown, at least on foot, is more of a challenge: To encourage walking, efforts are under way to improve sidewalks and clean up the areas between popular attractions.
Tourism, the state government and the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory dominate Santa Fe's economy (the unemployment rate is 5%); the health care sector is expected to grow as the percentage of people older than 65 increases. To further diversify the economy -- and encourage young people to stick around -- the city fosters entrepreneurship, especially in areas such as green technology and media, and supports start-ups through the Santa Fe Business Incubator. The TV-and-film industry has blossomed in the region; Charlize Theron was recently spotted around town, and other celebrities regularly show up.
Santa Fe's cost of living is a little higher than in other parts of the state. For a three-bedroom home in the Casa Solana neighborhood, prices start at about $240,000 to $300,000. New houses must meet the city’s green building code, enacted to conserve the area’s limited water resources and save energy.
Many of the public schools are underperformers, so some families choose to live in districts with better schools or send kids to one of 43 private schools in Santa Fe County.
What the locals love: The diversity, the climate and the free "Music on the Hill" concert series, which features jazz performers on Wednesday evenings in the summer. Follow #kipcities on Twitter to see what else there is to love about Sante Fe.
5. Columbia, South Carolina
Surrounded by towering pines and bursting with hospitality, Columbia is as sweet as the area’s ever-present tea, thanks to the diversified economy, family-friendly atmosphere and central location.
As the state capital and home to Fort Jackson, the largest military training base in the country, Columbia has plenty of government jobs. It also boasts six colleges, including the flagship University of South Carolina -- you'll find Gamecocks spirit wherever you go. Manufacturing and insurance companies add to the mix. Seven major hospitals provide both jobs and top-notch medical care. Columbia’s balanced approach has yielded robust growth in the past few years; unemployment is 6.9%.
Set halfway between the mountains and the Atlantic and within two hours of Charlotte and Charleston, Columbia's location is a big draw. But the city has its own attractions, including an art museum, a children's museum and Riverbanks Zoo, rated one of the top ten in the country. Three rivers converge downtown, so a bike ride along Riverwalk or an afternoon of tubing is always on the menu, as are boating and water sports on nearby Lake Murray. Although the city lives up to its motto, "famously hot," in August, annual temperatures average a moderate 65 degrees.
Reasonably priced housing and good schools (including some that are tops in the state) make the Columbia area ideal for families. A three-bedroom, two-bath home in the leafy Shandon neighborhood averages $250,000.
Columbia's downtown combines historic facades with hip boutiques and eateries.
What the locals love: Outdoor living, Southern hospitality and South Carolina -- grown items on menus at local restaurants, such as the Oak Table. Follow #kipcities on Twitter to see what else there is to love about Columbia.
6. Billings, Montana
Sure, it's beautiful. And yes, it’s a short trip from Yellowstone National Park. But Billings is much more than a tourist destination. It's a regional economic hub with a stunningly low unemployment rate of 3.7%, affordable housing and an active, outdoorsy community. It's big business in Big Sky country.
Major employers in Billings, which is dotted with oil refineries and bisected by a medical corridor, include St. Vincent and Billings Clinic hospitals, First Interstate Bank, the local school district, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips. Montana State University and Rocky Mountain College add jobs and 6,000 students to the mix.
Courtesy of Susannah Snider
Downtown is a work in progress as the city rehabs abandoned buildings and transforms lots into pocket parks and living spaces. Folks from neighboring communities come for the shopping (Scheels, a sporting-goods store slated for completion in 2014, will include, of all things, a Ferris wheel) and to dine at the breweries and quiet bistros along Montana Avenue.
Winters? Locals insist that they live in the "banana belt," a balmy spot surrounded by a cold region. Thanks to sudden temperature swings, you can be shoveling the walkway before breakfast and golfing after lunch. The landscape looks like the set of a spaghetti Western, with steep sandstone rock faces, dusty paths (rattlesnake alert) and the rushing Yellowstone River. When locals aren't kayaking the river or biking along the rimrocks, they're gathering at Dehler Park to cheer the Billings Mustangs, a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds.
Housing ranges from the historic homes along Clark Avenue to the new community of Josephine Crossing, where a three-bedroom home starts at about $200,000. Billings lacks a sales tax to fund public projects, but a recent $2.3 million levy will help reduce overcrowding in the schools and update classroom technology.
What the locals love: The romantic Cafe Italia and breweries on Montana Avenue (and everything outdoorsy). Plus, visiting the Western Heritage Center for kid-friendly programs about Billings's history. Follow #kipcities on Twitter to see what else there is to love about Billings.