#2 Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
The Twin Cities offer a hip and progressive atmosphere with a midwestern sensibility, multiple cultural outlets, pro teams in all four major sports, a dozen universities and colleges, and a diverse economy.
What we loved: Nye's Polonaise Room, where singles, couples, families and priests enjoy the piano bar or Ruth Adams and the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band.
Okay, Twin Cities. It's time to drop that lingering sense of inferiority -- the suspicion that you can't compete with the big boys. You're a cosmopolitan gem. And for travelers who crest a hill as they approach Minneapolis, the skyline is as riveting as Oz.
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The seven-county metro area spreads out from downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are built along the banks of the Mississippi. Minneapolis is progressive and hip, but with a midwestern sensibility. Its cultural beacons include the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center. In St. Paul, there's the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, home of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera, and the Fitzgerald Theater, which hosts A Prairie Home Companion. The Twin Cities are among the smallest markets to have pro teams in all four major sports.
In addition to the University of Minnesota, which has two campuses, the Twin Cities are home to a dozen private colleges. The economy includes government plus businesses involved in retail, technology, medicine, finance, recreation, agriculture and manufacturing.
Yes, the winter weather isn't for wusses. But locals embrace the cold with winter festivals, and they make the most of every pleasant day with trails, parks and outdoor restaurants.
In a testament to the vibrancy and ease of city living, Tom Berthiaume, 57, and his wife, Cherryl Kachenmeister, 59, gave up their suburban home on prestigious Lake Minnetonka for a 2,000-square-foot loft in the warehouse district of Minneapolis, for which they paid $635,000.
Downtown St. Paul tends to be less expensive than Minneapolis. In the rapidly developing outer suburbs, you can get a newish, four-bedroom, three-bath home in Anoka County (to the north) or Lakeville (to the south) in the low to mid $300s. Visitors from the coasts will chuckle over so-called traffic congestion, and improved public transportation, including light and commuter rail, is in the works.
-- Patricia Mertz Esswein