America’s best midsize city simply dominated our categories in 2020. It’s hardly surprising, given that urban Honolulu is just a few planeloads shy of one million inhabitants (and so also just shy of qualifying as a “large city” in our rankings). It’s also a global vacation destination, visited by more than six million tourists last year—up 16.2% in five years, according to local numbers. Things were going in the right direction for the state at the beginning of 2020, with visitation and spending up 5% year-over-year as late as February. But with the pall of COVID-19 falling swiftly and mercilessly, local estimates are now warning of a 40% drop in tourism for this year, with 6,000 jobs lost as a result. But Honolulu will be back. It’s simply too coveted as both a destination and a hometown not to be. It ranked first in the nation in our layered Place category, with its verdant, knife-edge topography exploding into the blue sky from rolling hills every few miles, creating microclimates and hypnotic scenery. The city rules our Parks and Outdoors subcategory, led by its powdery beaches, some of the best and safest ocean swimming in the state (often with sea turtles and dolphins) and the option to head for the emerald Ko‘olau Range before or after work.
Nebraska’s largest city has always worked overtime to carve out its place on the banks of the Missouri River in pretty much the middle of the (contiguous) country. Billionaire Warren Buffett’s decision to stay in Omaha—where he lives in a modest home he bought for $31,500 more than 60 years ago—has always been a source of curiosity. But the Berkshire Hathaway CEO’s hometown loyalty doesn’t surprise Omaha locals, who know that their city is one of the best spots in the country to start a business, raise a family and let your hair down on a Saturday night. Thanks in no small part to Buffett, Omaha earns our #1 ranking for Prosperity, with the most Fortune 500s (eight) of any city with less than a million people (earning it another #1 ranking for that subcategory as well). But it’s not just stalwarts like Mutual of Omaha that keep this city bustling: a growing tech sector has earned Omaha the nickname “Silicon Prairie.” But Omahans work to live, too, as evidenced by the #1 Nightlife and #6 Restaurants rankings in the country.
A beguiling fusion of built environment and coastal transition landscapes—golden islands, channels and marshes—Charleston is one of North America’s most architecturally significant destinations. This easy yet kinetic seaside American treasure draws pilgrims from all over the world, propelled by global travel media and the promise of legendary Southern hospitality from an ideal, forgotten epoch. The city comes in at #2 for Place—just behind Honolulu—including a #2 ranking both for Neighborhoods and for Parks and Outdoors. A city rich in cultural, natural, and military heritage, Charleston nabs the top spot in our Museums category. Set to open next year, the International African American Museum will illuminate the influential, under-reported histories of Africans and their descendants in South Carolina, highlighting their diasporic connections throughout the nation and the world. The museum’s defining feature will be its location at the historic site of Gadsden’s Wharf. Nearly half of captive Africans forced to North America in the slavery era arrived through Charleston and today millions of Americans can trace their ancestors here.
Situated at the base of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs is a wonderland for those who love adventure, unsurprisingly ranking #5 in our Parks and Outdoors subcategory. But after you’ve burned off calories hiking the Garden of the Gods or biking Cheyenne Mountain State Park, there are plenty of opportunities to refuel. What used to be a chain-dominated restaurant-scape has pivoted dramatically with new arrivals and old networks. Today, the fare is increasingly raised and grown locally, and the long-standing brewing tradition adopted by start-ups is thriving. Even the springs in Colorado Springs are being marketed for their terroir. It all comes together—or will come back together, fully, once the effects of social distancing have passed—during mornings at Ivywild School, a local community marketplace for groceries or coffee to go, and during evenings at new spots that seem to open monthly. The city is also getting the word out about its rise, moving up to the third spot in our Promotion category for midsize cities in the country, including piquing plenty of interest with the second-most Instagram Hashtags (just behind Honolulu) and #3 ranking for Facebook Check-ins.
Diverse cultures, authentic art and dynamic traditions have helped shape a centuries-old story in Albuquerque. There’s the vintage neon glow of Route 66, the pink hues of the Sandia Mountains at sunset and the cottonwood bosque of the Rio Grande. ABQ ranks second in our Product category—indicative of deep infrastructure and local investment—and leads with a #2 ranking in the Museums subcategory. In a city rich in cultural heritage from Spain, Mexico and, of course, its Indigenous peoples, the architecture is as diverse as the languages heard on the sidewalks. The cuisine is also influenced and inspired by a colorful (and spicy) palate: green and red chiles are staples—even in desserts. Despite this daring gastronomy, people still won’t believe you when you tell them that Albuquerque ranks #2 for Restaurants for midsize cities. ’Burque, in local parlance, is also a cultural hot spot, stacked with more than 100 galleries, a symphony orchestra, theaters and even an opera scene that’s getting national attention.
Sure, there’s Southwest Florida’s first Westin property. But people are coming here to live. It’s not only the safest midsize city in the nation, it’s also one of the most beautiful, ranked #3 in our Parks and Outdoors subcategory. What Cape Coral lacks in the soft, sandy beaches of its neighboring islands it more than makes up for in riverfront vistas and outdoor pursuits galore. It’s also one of the most accessible, with Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW)—ranked #3 for Connectivity—a mere 30-minute drive after baggage claim. The city is attractive to students, too, who are drawn to the easy lifestyle and a dozen colleges and community colleges within 50 miles of the city center. Increasingly, graduates are putting down roots. According to Yahoo Finance, more than 50% of Millennials in the region own homes—the third highest rate in the nation. The booming Pine Island Road and Pine Island Village development will go a long way to sate residential demand in the area.
Madison’s enviable position as both capital of Wisconsin and the site of the state’s largest university certainly fuels its #12 ranking in Prosperity among midsize cities in the nation, including #10 for Household Income and the 12th-highest number of Fortune 500 companies. A hive of healthcare, IT and manufacturing powered by pipelines of talent out of the University of Wisconsin creates a symbiotic, sustainable relationship between academic infrastructure and economic performance. Indeed, Madison boasts the third-best educated citizens among the nation’s midsize cities. With a Millennial population approaching 30% (according to a recent Brookings study), Madison is set to welcome even more with its still-affordable housing and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country—at least pre-COVID-19. Distinct and emerging neighborhoods and venues are adding to the urban fabric. Take Cap East and its 2,500-capacity Sylvee music venue, along with new restaurants and breweries that will satisfy residents missing the dance cards of larger cities.
Safe (the “Safest City in America!” if you listen to loud and proud Mayor Dee Margo), progressive and increasingly basking in the fruits of its 2012 $500-million bond initiative that funded a Children’s Museum, new arena, cultural center and more—all downtown—the city is also cooking in the literal sense, ranking third for its culinary scene, incredibly trailing only Honolulu and Albuquerque. But the boom is tapping the city’s history, too. “The city mothballed its streetcar system in the 1970s,” said Destination El Paso CEO Bryan Crowe. “We brought back the perfectly preserved streetcars to service our newly expanded medical schools.” Today the streetcar travels a 4.8-mile route in two loops through El Paso’s uptown and downtown areas. Fortified by its roots as a cowboy town, El Paso is leveraging its regional pride by enticing scattered locals back home, while embracing its border-city advantage. A #2 ranking in our Foreign-Born Residents category points to the city’s population mostly of Latino origin (80%). It doesn’t get more Tex-Mex than here, where many residents speak a foreign language—in this case, overwhelmingly Spanish—at home.
Can a park bring a city into the 21st century? When Tulsa philanthropist George Kaiser decided to create the Gathering Place, he made no small plan, aiming for a space that would “bring together people throughout the Tulsa area to rediscover that we are all bound together by commonalities, especially the hopes and dreams we have for our families.” In short, Kaiser, one of the 100 wealthiest people in the world, wanted a park that would do nothing less than break down inequalities and attract and retain talent. So he invested $465 million into 66.5 acres. The result rocketed the former Oil Capital of the World into international headlines, and earned it every possible award, including a spot on Time magazine’s World’s Greatest Places list. Kaiser takes the long view. “A single new community commons cannot dramatically change the trajectory of a city by itself, of course. But so much else is also happening in Tulsa at the same time that we feel the Gathering Place can help serve as the catalyst for a more vibrant and dynamic city.”
Durham is one of America’s top college towns and at the heart of it is Duke, a private research university that has a global academic reach and counts among its game-changing alumni Melinda Gates and Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook. In a city that ranks second for Educational Attainment and #18 for Neighborhoods, it’s not surprising that the 55-acre Sarah P. Duke Gardens and lively neighborhoods like Rockwood and South Square are mere steps away from the campus—the better to create a happening restaurant (#25)and nightlife (#24) scene. And just as Duke University connects Durham to the world, Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a 20-minute drive from campus, puts this small North Carolina city on the flight paths of nine carriers. With 400-plus nonstop flights per day to more than 50 destinations (before the pandemic), and its Refresh campus improvement program in full effect, this facility earns Durham the top spot among midsize cities in our Connectivity subcategory.
Boise, with an almost 20% population spike in the past decade, is an American West boomtown where access to the outdoors, a strong economy thanks to its booming tech sector, and a lower cost of living than many other cities similar in size is drawing people in from all over the country. Despite ranking just outside our Top 10 for midsize cities, Boise finished #7 in both our deep Place and Prosperity categories, led by the third-most Fortune 500 companies. Known as the “Austin of the North,” Boise’s tech scene is becoming well known at a rapid pace. It’s anchored by the tech giant Micron Technology and blossoming in all sorts of interesting startups. Also adding to its allure are mountains, a desert, and a river all within striking distance. Floating the Boise River, hiking around the foothills, or fishing at the Swan Falls Dam all make it possible for Boise to perform so well in our Place category, which ranks outdoor activities and air quality, among other factors.
In 2014, Portland, Maine, decided to officially declare what pretty much everyone knew. “Yes. Life’s good here,” is a patented city brand that some might interpret as a little smug, if it weren’t for the fact that Portland keeps working to make life even better. The city ranks #9 for Place, our measure of the natural and built environment, but that’s hardly a contest: there are six unfairly picturesque lighthouses in the area, and the city’s weathered wharfs, cobblestone passageways and historic buildings thrive in the fresh salt air, so much so that the city’s waterfront Commercial Street was declared one of the 10 best streets in the country by the American Planning Association. The Old Port holds equal charms, particularly at night, when live music, waterfront pubs and Maine’s justly famous microbreweries unleash merriment. A #3 ranking for Neighborhoods is hardly surprising.
After suffering untold tragedy during the Tubbs wildfire in 2017, Santa Rosa is back stronger than ever, taking the top spot of all mid-sized cities in California. As the largest city in Northern California’s Wine Country, Santa Rosa enjoys excellent amenities both human and natural. It’s the kind of place that blends wine tasting and hiking with distinct museums, not more so than the Charles M. Schulz museum, dedicated to the author of the Peanuts comic strip. The city ranks #9 for Weather, #13 for Parks & Outdoors, and #14 for Shopping. Its high household income (#4) draws educated citizens (#12) contributing to a safe place to live and work, boasting the sixth-lowest crime rate in the nation for midsize cities. As Santa Rosa rebuilds the neighborhoods destroyed by fire, it is focusing on new development downtown near the SMART train station that connects the city to Marin County and ferries to San Francisco.
Set on the Des Moines River among the state’s famous rolling cornfields, Iowa’s state capital is a business mecca with an artsy side, bustling late into the evening with a blend of daring culture and heartland hospitality. Add in the low, low cost of living, and is it any wonder prairie-cool Des Moines, which earns our #2 ranking for Prosperity, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest? Des Moines earns an impressive #3 ranking for its number of Fortune 500 headquarters. Major outposts of Nationwide and Wells Fargo round out the thriving finance and insurance sector, which boasts a $3-billion annual payroll. And in the golden-domed State Capitol, lawmakers are working to ensure a friendly business climate with temptingly low corporate taxes. Business might be booming, but that doesn’t mean cost of living is: Des Moines remains affordable, with housing costs at about two-thirds the national average. With that, the burgeoning cultural scene, and friendly Midwest attitude, you get a combination that is attracting increasing numbers of young talent who appreciate the feeling that—in the words of one recent young arrival—all of Des Moines is one “large living room.”
While often overshadowed by its coastal peers, Fresno, the largest inland city in California at almost one million people, is much more than a farming town. The city is also a hub for manufacturing, education, and healthcare. Its central location, about halfway between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, propel its convention center to #9 among America’s midsize cities. Of course, farming is important too. Fresno County’s economic output from agriculture adds up to $8.3 billion annually, providing ample opportunity for its large foreign-born population (#5). The city’s revitalizing downtown is poised to transform even more within the next decade with the arrival of California’s high-speed rail system. For now, it’s the center of a vibrant farm-to-table restaurant scene (#5). Near-perfect weather (#3) and easy access to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks also make Fresno popular with the outdoors set, increasingly looking for solitary pursuits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Known as Park City because of its bounty of green space, Bridgeport is a deep-sea port that sits at the mouth of the Pequonnock River as it pours into Long Island Sound. It stands out for its top spot in our vital People category. Its residents are the most educated in the entire nation among midsize cities, with a #1 ranking for Educational Attainment. (More than 18% of its population has a Bachelor’s degree or higher.) It boasts a diverse demographic, standing at #4 for Foreign Born (nearly 30%) residents. Connecticut’s largest city is also a wealthy one, #1 for our Household Income subcategory (with a 2019 median income of $45,441) and #4 for Prosperity overall. And there’s plenty of innovation, too, led by Vineyard Wind, the top U.S. offshore wind supplier. The company is beginning construction on Bridgeport’s Park City Wind as early as 2021. The electricity-generating hub will power 600,000 homes, create close to $1.6 billion in economic benefits, and create as many as 12,000 jobs state-wide while saving residents up to $1.1 billion in energy costs.
Long known as Elm City, New Haven prides itself on its tree-lined streets and charming historic homes, with a #18 rank for Neighborhoods among America’s midsize cities. Cost of living is higher than elsewhere, as is crime, but most residents say they wouldn’t trade the bustle of students, workers, and tourists for the diversity and vibrancy it brings. The town also boasts Yale University, which has educated many of the country’s best and brightest; it’s also the cultural and economic center of this leafy city, whose residents take full advantage of all the resources on offer in a capital of power and prestige. Yale earns New Haven a #1 ranking for University, and about 35% of adult residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, earning New Haven a solid #15 rank for Educational Attainment. Yale (including its medical center) is also the city’s largest employer and largest taxpayer, making this effectively a company town. Yale’s world-class museums and picturesque gothic campus—it could easily stand in for Hogwarts—might be enough of a draw for visitors, but the rest of historic New Haven is also beguiling to visitors and new residents.
Oxnard, sandwiched between more famous Malibu and Santa Barbara, is an increasingly poorly kept secret. This California city has too much going for it to stay under the radar. Its gorgeous weather ranks #2 among U.S. midsize cities, and its direct access to beaches and the coast range mountains give it a #11 ranking for Parks & Outdoors. The city’s diversified economy, including agriculture, oil, shipping, and business and financial services, makes Oxnard a magnet for both high-income households (#2) and foreign-born residents (#6), giving the city a #4 rank overall in our vital People category. Port Hueneme, right next door, is the only major navigable port in California between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay. For the few people who don’t like boating or beaches, Oxnard boasts not one but two automotive museums (this is California, afterall), as well as the Heritage Square historic district, a unique collection of century-old Craftsman and Victorian homes.
This compact city nestled up against the Blue Ridge Mountains is doing a lot of things right and its #6 ranking in our Product category proves it has invested well in its institutions and attractions. From the Museum and Gallery at Bob Jones University, one of America’s finest collections of paintings from Italian masters like Giotto di Bondone, to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library that allows visitors into the home where the baseball legend lived and died, Greenville’s cultural credentials earn it a #9 ranking in our Museums subcategory. The Greenville Convention Center, with 280,000 square feet of exhibit space and 60,000 square feet of meeting space, is minutes from the Greenville Downtown Airport and historic downtown Greenville, earning the city a #2 ranking in the Convention Center subcategory. While Falls Park on the Reedy is a lovely natural oasis in the center of the city, the artfully cantilevered Liberty Bridge next door is an equally impressive destination—a pedestrian walkway above the falls (named in honor of the now disbanded Liberty Corporation, a media company originally based in Greenville.) The city is peppered with such gems, ranking an impressive #9 in our Attractions sub-category.
A walker’s paradise, downtown Knoxville is a treasure trove to explore and discover, from vibrant murals to local music venues, historic sites and museums. Instead of playing second fiddle to nearby Asheville and Chattanooga, Knoxville is finding its own groove and becoming an increasingly prominent destination for food lovers of all tastes—the state’s first James Beard Award–winning chef, Joseph Lenn, operates J.C. Holdway right downtown. What makes the food scene so spectacular is the collaboration of local chefs with other chefs, brewers, distillers and wine makers. Group efforts, like a longtable dinner along the middle of a downtown street in 2017, have resulted in a number of unique culinary experiences. Knoxville’s scintillating fusion of small-town charm and big-city amenities inspires locals and visitors alike to share their findings across social media platforms. In doing so, they’ve helped the city rank #7 in our Promotion category, which looks at the quantity of stories, references and recommendations shared online about a city.