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12 Best Small Cities to Live in the USA

By Marcy Lovitch · July 24, 2023 · 21 minute read

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12 Best Small Cities to Live in the USA

More Americans are choosing to leave the hubbub of big cities in order to move to smaller towns, according to multiple studies. Reasons include a desire for a less stressful environment, more affordable housing and lower cost of living, and a shorter commute.

Thousands of smaller U.S. cities offer all of the above and more. But which one to choose? Below you’ll find 12 prime candidates, drawn from public data and our own personal favorites.

What Is Considered a Small City?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “urban” areas have at least 5,000 people. A midsize city has a population of 100,000 to 250,000, and a large city counts more than 250,000 inhabitants.

Our list includes small cities with a population of 5,000 to 100,000 residents.

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Why People Choose to Live in a Small City

People find life in a small city appealing for a variety of reasons. If you’re coming from a bigger city, a less populated one often means reduced traffic, noise, crowds, and pollution. You may see lower housing costs, or find you get more space and amenities for your buck. The overall cost of living also tends to be more affordable, given lower prices for groceries, gas, utilities, and dining out. Lower sales and property taxes can also be a factor.

Smaller cities can be much easier to navigate. For families, the public school system may rank higher and be less competitive (no more stressing out trying to get your kid into pre-K). Smaller populations may also result in tight communities, where residents feel safe and welcome.

Living in a smaller city can be more manageable for older adults especially, providing a peaceful and reassuring place to retire. Some retirees for whom taxes are a prime concern gravitate to small towns in states with lower taxes on retirement savings.

Recommended: Price-to-Rent Ratio in 52 Cities

Pros and Cons of Living in a Small City vs a Big City

If you’re not sure whether a small city is better for you, here are some pros and cons of each. Note that some factors — such as large populations of young singles or a slower pace — may be pros or cons, depending on your demographic.

Pros of a Small City

Cons of a Small City

Lower cost of living Fewer employment opportunities
Slower pace Limited entertainment and culture
Less crowded Too sparsely populated
More indoor and outdoor space Less access to medical care and major airports
Reduced crime Less diversity
Larger populations of families and retirees More college students, recent grads, and young singles
Quieter and cleaner, with less pollution Little to no public transportation

Traditionally, many people migrate to big cities to establish themselves professionally, since small cities tend to provide fewer employment opportunities. That may be changing due to the rise of remote work.

Pros of a Big City

Cons of a Big City

Personal autos may be optional Public transportation can be unreliable or unpleasant
Access to arts, culture, entertainment, and sporting events Higher local taxes and cost of living
Larger job market More competitive employment standards
More diverse population Potentially overcrowded
More social opportunities for singles, younger people, and couples without children Higher crime rate
Access to medical care and major airports Streets can be dirty, with greater noise and pollution

5 Tips for Living in a Small City

Whether you’re moving from a rural area, the suburbs, or a large U.S. city, a small city can take some getting used to. Here are five suggestions on how to find your way as the new kid in town:

•   Get to know the locals. They know the best places to go, from basic services to restaurants and cultural venues. Plus, they can tell you how to get there, including shortcuts, streets to stroll, and areas to avoid. And of course, meeting people helps you feel a part of the community.

•   Allow time for adjustment. A small city may not have all the amenities you had in your previous hometown. But given time, you’ll find that for every perk you give up, you’ll discover at least one new advantage.

•   Seek out like-minded people. Even in cities where the bulk of the populace doesn’t share your political or social perspectives, you can still find people who do. It might just take a little effort. Volunteering, taking a class, or hanging out in a particular neighborhood can foster new friendships.

•   Rejigger your budget. If you’re paying less than you used to for housing and essentials, don’t fritter away that extra cash. Download a good spending app and channel that disposable income toward emergency savings, retirement, or other financial goals.

•   Seek out hidden treasures. Smaller cities tend to have more mom-and-pops and independent businesses, which can be a nice change from national chains. And small cities are often rich in green spaces, hiking and biking trails, and local festivals. Make time to wander and discover all that your new home has to offer.

12 Best Small Cities to Live in the USA

To compile our list, we reviewed numerous roundups of the best small cities to live in the U.S., along with government statistics and personal anecdotes. Read on for our recommendations.

1. Tupelo, Mississippi

•   Population: 37,748

•   Median household income: $58,887

•   Median home value: $158,800

•   Median monthly rent: $825

•   Mean travel time to work: 19 minutes

•   Cost of living: 19% lower than the national average

•   Crime statistics: 1 in 649 chance of being a victim of a violent crime, 1 in 96 chance of being a victim of a property crime

Located in the northeastern part of Mississippi, 90 miles from Memphis, Tupelo offers big-city perks in a small town setting. This racially diverse area is often cited as one of the best places for young professionals, families, and retirees to live. That’s due in part to a highly rated public school system, lower crime rate, low cost of living, and pleasant year-round weather.

Each year, Tupelo attracts thousands of visitors to its museums and festivals, including the Gumtree Museum of Art and the Elvis Presley Birthplace & Museum. Tupelo celebrates its native son with an annual Elvis festival in June, and there’s a Chili fest in October.

Tupelo offers a varied culinary scene (lots of authentic BBQ and southern comfort food), plus a vibrant downtown that’s been designated a “Great American Main Street” by MainStreet.org.

2. Greenville, South Carolina

•   Population: 72,310

•   Median household income: $60,388

•   Median home value: $349,300

•   Median monthly rent: $1,078

•   Mean travel time to work: 20 minutes

•   Cost of living: 5.4% lower than the national average

•   Crime rate: 1 in 141 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime, 1 in 27 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime

If you’re looking for a picturesque setting worthy of a postcard, Greenville may be the place for you. Situated in the northwest part of the state about halfway between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Greenville is a stone’s throw from the Blue Ridge Mountains, lakes, rivers, and more than 50 waterfalls.

Greenville’s population is diverse, and the city is well-suited to families, retirees, and singles. Parents will find it appealing because of a highly rated public school system and myriad family friendly activities including Falls Park on the Reedy River, Greenville Zoo, and the Children’s Museum of the Upstate.

For older adults, Greenville is often recommended as an ideal place to settle. The pace of living is slower, the weather is mild, and South Carolina is one of the best states to retire in when it comes to taxes.

Like many smaller towns and cities, Greenville has a dedicated Main Street and lively downtown area catering to pedestrians, with wide sidewalks, outdoor plazas, and al fresco dining. “Mice on Main” is a series of nine life-size bronze sculptures scattered up and down the main drag, providing a fun scavenger hunt for all ages.

Foodies can enjoy an array of international and regional specialties, including a bustling weekend farmer’s market and several food trucks. More than 20 local breweries also serve as music venues and community centers.

The city has a rich African-American heritage, with 13 cultural sites across the greater Greenville area. Residents and tourists can catch the city’s minor league baseball team, the Greenville Drive, the Swamp Rabbits hockey team, plus professional men’s and women’s soccer teams.

Expect mild, comfortable temperatures during the fall, winter, and spring months in Greenville, but the summers can be hot and muggy.

3. Ames, Iowa

•   Population: 66,950

•   Median household income: $54,339

•   Median home value: $222,900

•   Median monthly rent: $972

•   Mean travel time to work: 17 minutes

•   Cost of living: 5% lower than the national average

•   Crime rate: 1 in 488 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime, 1 in 65 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime

Home to Iowa University, Ames is a bustling college town in the center state, north of Des Moines. This energetic city is frequently listed as one of the best places to live in the country and one of the best college towns in the U.S.

Schools here win national recognition, and the cost of living is reasonable. If you’re looking for racial and ethnic diversity, Ames comes up short, with 80% of the population white. The city also skews young, with many college kids. While the city might not suit all retirees, families will find many parks, with opportunities for biking, golf, and an indoor ice arena.

Ames has an old town historic district and a downtown full of shopping, dining, art galleries, and live music. The Iowa summers can be warm, humid, and often rainy, while the winter brings cold temperatures and often snow. But if you enjoy the heartland, Ames is a charming place to consider.

4. Fredericksburg, Texas

•   Population: 11,257

•   Median household income: $54,771

•   Median home value: $317,600

•   Median monthly rent: $1,064

•   Mean travel time to work: 17 minutes

•   Cost of living: close to the national average

•   Crime rate: 1 in 738 chance of being a victim of a violent crime; 1 in 92 chance of being a victim of a property crime

Fredericksburg is located in the middle of the state, in Texas Hill Country. It’s often voted one of the best places to retire, with retirees making up about 31% of the population. Older adults are drawn to the warm weather, low property taxes, and affordable housing, and low crime.

Fredericksburg was founded by German immigrants back in 1846, and the city retains a strong German connection. About 21% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, 6% Native American, and 5.4% encompassing Black, Asian, and mixed race.

Tourism makes up a good part of the local economy, along with the medical and agricultural industries. A staggering 400 festivals take place each a year, including a three-day Oktoberfest. Visitors will find a raucous live music scene, numerous breweries and distilleries, and more than 50 wineries. In fact, Fredericksburg is the most popular wine-tasting destination in the state of Texas.

The Fredericksburg public school system is highly rated, and the many kid-friendly activities make it a great place to raise a family. Things to do include hiking trails and parks, and a Main Street featuring art galleries, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and toy stores. Younger adults and couples can take advantage of the many dance venues and bars.

5. Bloomington, Indiana

•   Population: 79,107

•   Median household income: $41,995

•   Median Home value: $231,500

•   Median monthly rent: $988

•   Mean travel time to work: 17 minutes

•   Cost of living: close to the national average

•   Crime rate: 1 in 167 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime, 1 in 43 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime

Bloomington is the home of Indiana University and their legendary Hoosiers basketball and football teams. Often called B-Town, Bloomington (pop. 80,000) is frequently cited as one of the best places to live in Indiana and in the U.S for its lively, bohemian vibe.

B-Town offers a walkable downtown area where you’ll find restaurants, bars, shops, museums, art galleries, and venues for live music and comedy. Bloomington also features many parks, forests, lakes, and other spots to commune with nature.

Much of life in Bloomington revolves around the university and its large student body, so retirees may not find it ideal. The city is often voted a great place to raise a family and gets high marks for its public schools. The cost of living is low, and the city is considered relatively safe.

Indiana winters can be very cold and snowy, and summers are warm, wet, and humid. It’s cloudy a good part of the year too. Bloomington is flush with youthful energy and rife with perks, making it a great Midwestern city to hang your hat.

6. Cedar City, Utah

•   Population: 38,692

•   Median household income: $55,022

•   Median Home value: $245,700

•   Median monthly rent: $861

•   Mean travel time to work: 14 minutes

•   Cost of living: 1.5% higher than the national average

•   Crime rate: 1 in 716 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime, 1 in 86 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime

Cedar City is located in the southwestern part of Utah, situated 5,800 feet above sea level. To the east you’ll find 10,000 foot mountains, and to the west, a large desert. If you’re an outdoors enthusiast, look no further than Cedar City for fishing, rock climbing, skiing, kayaking, and star gazing. Often called the gateway to Utah’s parks, Cedar City offers easy access to the spectacular Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.

Besides the amazing natural landscapes of red hills and alpine mountains, Cedar City plays host to a number of arts festivals, earning it the nickname of Festival City USA. Some of these events include the popular annual Utah Shakespeare Festival, the Neil Simon Festival, the Groovefest American Music Festival, and the International Red Rock Film Festival.

Cedar City provides a dense suburban atmosphere that primarily attracts young professionals and families, due to its lower cost of living and above average public schools. The city is home to the small Southern Utah University, and the city’s economy benefits from the school, along with tourism, agriculture, some mining, and industrial complexes.

7. Ithaca, New York

•   Population: 32,870

•   Median household income: $40,973

•   Median Home value: $282,000

•   Median monthly rent: $1,248

•   Mean travel time to work: 18 minutes

•   Cost of living: 2.7 % higher than national average

•   Crime rate: Chances of becoming a victim of a violent crime is 1 in 327; 1 in 25 of being the victim of a property crime

Ithaca is often identified with its two colleges, Ithaca College and Cornell University. The busy college city is situated on Cayuga Lake, the second largest of the Finger Lakes. The region is also known for its gorges and numerous picturesque waterfalls.

Cornell is Ithaca’s largest employer, attracting educators and students from all over. While diverse, more than half the population is in the 18-24 age group. Retirees may prefer the summer months in Ithaca, when the universities are on break and the weather is mild. Winters in Ithaca can be extremely cold and snowy.

There’s no shortage of things to do in Ithaca for children, teens, and adults. Kid-friendly attractions include many area state parks, the “Sciencenter,” Ithaca Children’s Garden, and the Museum of the Earth. Everyone can enjoy strolling on Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian walkway offering a vast array of restaurants, shops, and events. Autumn brings the Downtown Ithaca Apple Harvest Festival, followed by the Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-Off in winter.

Downtown Ithaca offers an immersive street-art experience, with murals, sculptures, and a distinctly hippie vibe similar to Woodstock. Entertainment covers the gamut, with theater, film, and music. The State Theatre of Ithaca is a 1,600 seat venue featuring year-round concerts, comedy shows, readings, dance performances, and more.

Ithaca is considered safe, offering a lower cost of living, highly rated public schools, an inclusive sensibility, and lots of outdoor recreational options against beautiful scenery.

8. Bozeman, Montana

•   Population: 56,123

•   Median household income: $67,354

•   Median home value: $466,400

•   Median monthly rent: $1,229

•   Mean travel time to work: 15 minutes

•   Cost of living: 2% higher than the national average

•   Crime rate: 1 in 303 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime; 1 in 76 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime

Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern Montana city of Bozeman has become an increasingly desirable place to live. In fact, The Wall Street Journal dubbed Bozeman as “Boz Angeles” and reports real estate is booming with out-of-town professionals flocking to the city. Montana State University and Gallatin College are both located here.

One big draw for families is Bozeman’s excellent education system, especially when it comes to pre-K choices, which have grown significantly over the last decade. Kid-friendly activities include the Museum of the Rockies, the JumpTime trampoline park, and Gallatin Regional Park, or “Dinosaur Park,”where kids can swim, climb boulders and sled in the winter.

Bozeman is an outdoor lover’s paradise. You can enjoy skiing, fly fishing, rafting, biking, hiking, and indulging in Bozeman’s natural, rejuvenating, hot springs. You can make a day trip to Yellowstone National Park, 80 miles south of Bozeman.

Like many other small cities, Bozeman has a downtown and a Main Street, where you’ll find casual and fine dining spots, art galleries, and retail shops. Bozeman offers a range of arts and entertainment, such as a multiplex movie theater, the Montana Ballet Company, Bozeman Symphony, and the Ellen Theater, a performing arts venue.

The cost of living in Bozeman is a bit higher than the national average, especially housing. Summers are warm and the winters cold, with substantial snowfall, which may not make it ideal for retirees. Bozeman also doesn’t offer much in the way of racial and ethnic diversity, with whites making up 91% of the population.

Overall, for people looking for a safe family-friendly city with lots of vitality and a beautiful natural setting, Bozeman delivers.

9. Santa Fe, NM

•   Population: 89,008

•   Median household income: $33,297

•   Median home value: $312,300

•   Median monthly rent: $1,199

•   Mean travel time to work: 20 minutes

•   Cost of living: 3.6% higher than national average

•   Crime rate: 1 in 286 chance of being a victim of a violent crime, 1 in 29 chance of being a victim of property crime

The capital city of New Mexico, Santa Fe is a popular place to visit, attracting about 2 million tourists a year. It’s also frequently touted as one of the best cities to live, especially for those approaching retirement. In fact, 24% of the city’s population is 65 and older.

Sante Fe promotes a laid-back lifestyle. Because of its slower pace, the city skews suburban and doesn’t feature a lot of nightlife. It does provide a diverse, culturally rich scene with a strong artistic and intellectual community. Visitors include authors, scholars, and global thought leaders giving lectures on a variety of topics. Entertainment offerings include productions by the Santa Fe Opera, Sante Fe Symphony, the local Santa Fe Playhouse theater company, and live music at multiple venues.

People looking to move to Sante Fe to bring up children can count on an above average public school system. Some people find Santa Fe a relatively expensive place to live, especially when it comes to housing. But the city has a relatively low crime rate and dry climate. Summers are warm to hot, with temps typically staying under 90 degrees, while winters are cold and snowy.

One thing to keep in mind, Santa Fe sits at 7,000 feet above sea level, so it can take a couple of days to adjust. For a small city, Sante Fe is rich with culture, history, the arts, and great Southwestern cuisine. If you crave peace and quiet set against mountain scenery, Sante Fe might be the perfect place for you.

10. Bellingham, Washington

•   Population: 93,896

•   Median household income: $59,163

•   Median home value: $440,300

•   Median monthly rent: $1,222

•   Mean travel time to work: 18 minutes

•   Cost of living: 11% higher than national average

•   Crime: 1 in 234 chance of being a victim of a violent crime; 1 in 19 chance of being a victim of a property crime

Looking for a home in the Pacific Northwest that’s not Seattle or Portland? Consider Bellingham. This coastal city in northwestern Washington serves up an expansive view of the Puget Sound. The area is known for its clean air, eco-friendly attitudes, and chill ambiance. Bellingham is positioned halfway between Vancouver, Canada, and Seattle, with easy access to the San Juan Islands and the Mount Baker and North Cascade mountain ranges.

Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy hiking, biking trails, fishing, boating, kayaking, and whale watching. Numerous beaches offer visitors a variety of landscapes, from hidden white sands to rocky shorelines and wetlands.

Families with children can rest assured the Bellingham public school system is highly rated. There are lots of kid-centric things to do, including Boulevard Park, where kids can frolic in a pirate-themed playground, and the Family Interactive Gallery at the Whatcom Museum.

Bellingham’s active Downtown area offers shopping, dining, art, and entertainment. You’ll find public art exhibitions, a classic bowling alley, theaters, performing arts venues, museums, and the Pickford Film Center, where you can catch independent and classic movies.

Bellingham has a strong and growing retiree population, along with college students from Western Washington University, and many young professionals. At nearly 82% white, Bellingham isn’t particularly diverse.

The area enjoys comfortable summers with temperatures rarely exceeding 82 degrees. However, winters bring overcast skies, cold, and rain. It’s a relatively safe city though it can be more expensive than others of its size. But if you want a small, seaside city with plenty of amenities, Bellingham lives up to its hype.

11. Portland, Maine

•   Population: 68,424

•   Median household income: $66,109

•   Median Home value: $341,700

•   Median monthly rent: $1,278

•   Mean travel time to work: 20 minutes

•   Cost of living: 19.8% higher than the national average

•   Crime: 1 in 449 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime; 1 in 57 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime

It’s understandable why Portland is frequently recommended as one of the best small cities in the U.S. Located on the Casco Bay shoreline, this small New England city is known for its connection to the sea, with its many lighthouses, rocky beaches, and sublime seafood.

People of all ages enjoy visiting and living in Maine’s largest city. Portland is home to the University of Southern Maine, and many former students make the city their home. Portland is considered one of the healthiest places for older adults, due to access to the outdoors and many recreational activities. Portland’s public school system is highly rated. The area is also more racially diverse than many other small cities, and crime is low.

There’s an abundance of room to stretch out in Portland, with more than 7,000 acres of public parks and open space. Fishing, sailing, and kayaking are popular ways to enjoy the area’s natural resources.

The quaint historic district of Old Port and the downtown area offer shopping, art galleries, restaurants, entertainment, and excellent people-watching. You can find plenty of cultural sites downtown too, including theater, movies, and live music. Many Portland locales cater to children, such as the beachfront amusement park Palace Playland and the Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine.

You’ll enjoy comfortable summers in Portland, but expect very cold, windy, and snowy winters. Portland can be the ideal spot if you love the Northeast, spending time outdoors, and living in a coastal town.

12. Burlington, Vermont

•   Population: 44,595

•   Median household income: $59,331

•   Median Home value: $338,100

•   Median monthly rent: $1,381

•   Mean travel time to work: 19 minutes

•   Cost of living: 28% higher than the national average

•   Crime: 1 in 291 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime, 1 in 27 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime,

Burlington is known for its warm and welcoming inhabitants, growing racial diversity (one in four people moving here is a person of color), and excellence in public school education. It’s also home to two institutes of higher education, the University of Vermont and Champlain College.

Ski resorts are a major draw, especially Stowe Mountain Resort and Cochran’s Ski Area. Burlington gets six feet of snow each year, making it a true winter wonderland. The summers are warm, and the change of seasons is visually dramatic.

Burlington has a flourishing arts and culture scene, with the city playing host to the annual Vermont International Film Festival, theatrical and musical productions at the Flynn Theater, and comedy shows at the Vermont Comedy Club.

Kids here are encouraged to stay active, with many opportunities for biking, hiking, sailing, and winter sports. Younger kids flock to Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, where they can shop for a handcrafted lovee.

The cost of living in Burlington can be challenging, and affordable housing hard to come by. But Vermont is one of the safest states to live in the U.S., making it a good option for well-off retirees who aren’t afraid of the snow.

The Takeaway

With thousands of small cities in the USA to choose from, naming even the top 100 would be quite a challenge. Our list of the 12 best small cities in the U.S. is based on safety, quality of education, arts and culture offerings, overall cost of living, and climate, among other factors. Whether you’re looking for a great place to raise kids or retire, we hope that one of our suggested small cities will pique your interest.

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FAQ

What is the best small city to live in the United States?

No two small cities are alike, and the best small city for you depends on what you’re looking for. Generally, you want to find a safe, affordable city offering a vibrant cultural scene and opportunities for indoor and outdoor activities. We like Tupelo, MS; Cedar City, UT; and Greenville, SC, among others. But the best small city boils down to personal choice.

Where are some of the best small towns to live in?

Some of the best small towns — with populations under 5,000 — include Sedona, AZ; Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA; Mystic, CT; Gatlinburg, TN; and Telluride, CO.

What is the friendliest little town?

According to TravelAwait’s 2023 survey, Concordia, Kansas, is the friendliest small town in the U.S.


Photo credit: iStock/kate_sept2004

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