A casino town goes all in on art, culture and innovation. Is it any wonder that young talent is pouring in? By day, this sun-drenched town at the feet of the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas earns its #16 rank for Weather. By night, its neon-lit casinos help Reno to the top spot for Nightlife among our small cities. But it’s not just gamblers taking a chance on the “Biggest Little City in the World.” Increasingly, it’s tech companies and highly educated young workers, who come for the jobs and stay for the enviable location (Lake Tahoe is less than an hour away) and accompanying year-round outdoor lifestyle. Reno residents know location is key—and they take full advantage of the natural assets that help earn their city a #2 ranking for Instagram Hashtags among small U.S. cities. The looming Mt. Rose provides a snowy backdrop, the Truckee River is perfect for a float through town, the slopes are less than an hour’s drive and the rocky cathedrals of Yosemite National Park are a legitimate long-weekend road trip option. But it’s also Reno’s built assets that are separating it from the pack. Its convention center ranks #3, just behind Atlantic City and Redding, California, while its Attractions—from the National Bowling Stadium to the Urban Air Adventure Park trampoline emporium (to say nothing of the Basecamp at the Whitney Peak Hotel and the world’s tallest artificial rock-climbing wall at 164 feet)—are Top 3 in the country.
Money can’t buy happiness, but in prosperous Naples, it can buy a luxe lifestyle amid America’s epic oceanfront bounty. Indeed, the prosperous seaside community is Top 25 in both Household Income and Fortune 500 companies‚ even though the city is really all about sense of place. This city’s #1 ranking in our deep Place category is powered by its top spot in our important Parks and Outdoors subcategory—Naples is located on stretch called the Paradise Coast that’s tucked along southwest Florida’s turquoise Gulf waters and sprinkled with dozens of public spaces and powder-white beaches. Citizens here (Neapolitans!) have always prioritized conservation, smart planning and environmental stewardship, all of which becomes obvious as you stroll the sandy streets. There are dozens of city beaches that will light up your Instagram—the beach volleyball specimens of Lowdermilk Park, or the to-go deliciousness of Vanderbilt Beach and its Beach Box Cafe ice cream and picnic fodder. Right next door is Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, with its observation tower from which you can shoot the landscape: undulating sand dunes, the Cocohatchee River and mangroves as far as the eye can see. From here, you’ll start making plans to rent a kayak or stand-up paddle board—or call the local real estate agent.
Santa Fe is the urban embodiment of the sentiment that good things come in small packages. Despite being a state capital, Santa Fe has the smallest population in our Small Cities Top 10, at just a few families over 150,000. Despite its size, the fourth largest city in New Mexico (known appropriately as “The City Different”) has distinction to spare, starting with a rich history dating back to its founding in 1610. As the second-oldest city in the United States, it’s also the oldest state capital in the country—and, tucked into the base of the southern Rocky Mountains at 7,000 feet above sea level, the highest as well. This natural bounty has won Santa Fe a #5 ranking in our deep Place category, powered by its Top 3 finish in the Neighborhoods subcategory. It also boasts the fifth-best Programming for U.S. small cities, including #1 in our Shopping subcategory and #4 in Culture (with its 250-plus art galleries). Given all this geographic and cultural beauty, it’s not surprising that Santa Fe is also the most Instagrammed small city in the country.
Savannah is not relying solely on its beloved Spanish moss and cobblestone streets to attract visitors. With more than 150 festivals annually, this Southern gem knows how to celebrate—from the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade (one of the largest in America) to the two-week Savannah Music Festival in the spring and the Savannah Craft Brew Fest to end the summer on Labor Day weekend. Music, art, culture and food are just a few of the excuses for city-wide parties—and the reason behind the city’s rise to second place for Programming. Increasingly, Savannah is garnering more attention for its food than for its historic sights. The ingredients for the rising culinary scene? Fresh local seafood, Southern home cooking and chef-driven restaurants cropping up throughout the Historic Landmark District, Starland and Tybee Island. As a city so reliant on gatherings and public celebrations, Savannah has been devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak. When visitors and locals do get back on the cobblestone, they’ll have the new JW Savannah Plant Riverside District waiting for them. The former power plant has been transformed into Savannah’s most luxurious hotel and new entertainment destination.
Asheville celebrates its bohemian spirit and artsy roots year-round, with cultural events, festivals and good times that rank first in the country for small cities. Dig down into our Programming category and this mountain gem boasts some stellar nightlife (#1) and shopping (#2). Unsurprisingly, the after-hours scene is a launching pad for musicians, offering what artists of all ages crave in a city: affordability, local beer and good eats. Live music born of the region’s bluegrass roots harmonizes with new talent and innovative sounds to the tune of almost $400 million in the region’s tourism economy, according to the Economic Development Coalition. Of course, with the COVID-19 outbreak, the economic shortfall for this year will be staggering. Asheville continues its ascent in the Museum category with a #2 finish, behind only Santa Fe. Case in point: the recent reopening of the Asheville Art Museum, which features education facilities, an art library, a lecture and performance space, a new Art PLAYce for families and children and the addition of a rooftop sculpture terrace and café.
Alaska’s vibrant port city, which earned a Top 10 ranking for Place, isn’t just a stopover for an increasing number of cruise ships—especially in a COVID-19 world. Anchorage is also a destination for nature-lovers, art buffs, beer enthusiasts and folk who like their urban experience with a dash of the rustic, capped off on a clear day by views of North America’s tallest peaks. All of it is easily accessible via Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, which serves over 5 million passengers annually and is the second most connected among the nation’s small cities. The city’s #4 spot for Parks and Outdoors is obvious when you first set foot here: Anchorage is a prime base for outdoor adventure, from skiing to salmon fishing to kayaking down plentiful rivers—from mild to wild. And while the sun sets early in winter, nature offers excellent compensation with regular displays of the Northern Lights. Locals love to talk about that time a moose walked down the street or a grizzly showed up in the backyard. But in addition to wild visitors, the city’s neighborhoods are home to a surprisingly cosmopolitan population, serviced by Top 10-ranked museums, shopping and restaurants among small cities in the country.
Back in 1967, Boulder became the first city in the country to tax itself specifically to preserve open space. Set at the base of the Rocky Mountains, at the edge of a verdant valley and along the banks of a rushing creek, Boulder today is the kind of city that respects its unrivaled natural setting while offering the energy of an urban playground. That sensibility has attracted the most educated residents in the country among the nation’s small cities. The city boasts more than 300 miles of hiking and biking trails, 45,000 acres of open space and a climate that facilitates getting out there. Residents are some of the fittest people in the country who think nothing of heading out on a five-hour hike. But while the city draws plenty of attention to its outdoor playground, there are more than enough creature comforts, too. Considered the Napa Valley for craft brewing, Boulder is home to some of the country’s finest microbreweries and gourmet restaurants, and year-round concerts and theater productions. Most of the action takes place along the brick-paved Pearl Street Mall, where glasses clinked and conversations flowed. After COVID-19, they will again. After all, with some of the highest household incomes in the country, this town is thirsting to get back on its feet again.
Few small cities anywhere are as connected—and subsequently endowed—as New Jersey’s state capital. The 250-year-old urban center on the Delaware River ranks first in our People category, seventh among America’s small cities for Foreign-born Residents and #13 for Educational Attainment. The diversity of the city—composed of an American tapestry spanning all ancestry, creeds and religions—has always welcomed immigration. So has the city’s performance in our Prosperity category: it tops our small city index for presence of Fortune 500 headquarters, and ranks in the Top 10 for Household Income. Centrality has always been Trenton’s ace card—it even briefly served as the capital city of a young nation in 1784. Its proximity to the economic engine of the Philadelphia metropolitan area and the academic innovation of Princeton—only 10 miles away—makes for a kinetic place that prioritizes the things that matter, including the #8-ranked restaurants among the country’s small cities.
Myrtle Beach has been a playground long before European settlement, since the Waccamaw and Winyah people lived and subsisted on the area’s bounteous 60 miles of shore. When the Intracoastal Waterway was established in 1936 and the town was incorporated two years later, an all-American getaway was born. Last year, 19 million visitors climbed aboard 50 direct flights from around the country to frolic in calm waters, see the Ripley’s odditorium and then go for a medieval dinner. After that, there’s the 1.2-mile-long Oceanfront Boardwalk and Promenade, perfect for walking off the feast. With so much to see and do, it’s no wonder that the city tops our Attractions subcategory for small cities. The climate for business is even better. Myrtle Beach is one of the fastest-growing small cities in the country; already home to 25 international companies, it’s in the Top 10 for foreign direct investment. The business community lauds the location as central, and the Conway–Horry County Airport (the city ranks #18 for Connectivity) is working to further position the city as an East Coast hub.
Residents lean decidedly to the left in this friendly college town, where the yogi on the next mat might just be the CEO of a tech start-up, a prize-winning pickle entrepreneur or a tenured engineering professor. In a city that takes the #4 spot in our People category, you never know who you’ll meet—but you know the experience will be interesting. A quarter of Ann Arbor citizens work at the University of Michigan, an intellectual powerhouse that helps earn this smart small city our #2 ranking for Educational Attainment by residents. They’re drawn to higher education, and Ann Arbor places #3 in our University ranking. With smart graduates who tend to stick around, UM can also take credit for Ann Arbor’s burgeoning tech sector, including companies like Duo Security (acquired by Cisco for $2.35 billion) and the headquarters of global supply chain management software company LLamasoft. Even though the calendar revolves around the university, Ann Arbor truly shines when the students go home for the summer—that’s when locals and visitors take over the place known appropriately as “Tree Town.”
Santa Cruz might be the quintessential coastal California city, with its Beach Boardwalk, artisanal food and drink producers, and laid-back surfer culture. With sports—including wetsuit and mountain bike companies—and marine research as two of the city’s major industries, it’s no wonder Santa Cruz ranks #10 for Parks and Outdoors. The city’s burgeoning tech sector is bolstered by easy proximity to Silicon Valley, and the presence of UC Santa Cruz has earned a tie place for #16 in our University ranking. This strong business climate, meanwhile, powers the city’s #3 Household Income and #11 People rankings. Downtown is already teeming with Banana Slugs—UC Santa Cruz students, that is—and it’s set to grow even further thanks to new zoning rules encouraging more apartments.
As the gateway to the world-famous Napa Valley wine region, Napa is perhaps the most glamorous small city in America. Situated just a short drive from some of the world’s finest wineries and restaurants, including the legendary French Laundry, it’s no surprise this city ranks #2 for Household Income among America’s small cities. For those not willing to drive out to the wineries, Napa boasts many bars and hotels right downtown, giving it a #7 ranking in Nightlife and a #10 ranking in TripAdvisor Reviews. Every fall, the city hosts BottleRock Napa Valley, which has grown into a major stop on the music festival circuit—albeit with an extra emphasis on beverages. Much of the city’s economy comes by way of its vibrant hospitality sector, and from the production and distribution of wine, both of which supply ample opportunity for the city’s large foreign-born population (#8).
Washed by the ocean swell on New Jersey’s shore, world-famous Atlantic City has been a magnet for shoppers, diners, gamblers and people-watchers for centuries. True to its roots, the city’s main industry—at least outside a pandemic—is tourism, and service jobs continue to draw immigrants from around the world, netting a #19 ranking for Foreign-Born Residents. And it’s not just beachgoers and gamblers who take advantage of the deep hospitality: Atlantic City earns a #1 Convention Center ranking for the $126 million, 100,000-square-foot Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center. The Boardwalk—namesake of the top property in Monopoly—stretches five miles along the beach and is lined with casinos, hotels, retail and eateries. But watch out for selfie sticks—Atlantic City tourism is now bolstered by social media, with the city earning a #5 ranking for Instagram Hashtags and #7 for TripAdvisor Reviews.
There’s a lot to love about this boot-shaped sea island in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and the thousands of lucky residents who call it home get to play in the sea, sun and sand year-round. The city also boasts unbelievable bike trails and cultural opportunities like the Coastal Discovery Museum, which educates visitors and locals alike on the island’s ecological history and significance. There’s no shortage of ways to have fun in Hilton Head—just for a start, you’re surrounded by beaches to explore and wildlife to see. And beyond the beaches, there’s also iconic lighthouses, fishing, and golfing to keep you busy, whether you’re just visiting or staying for the long haul. Hilton Head is a natural playground for those who love to get in the great outdoors, ranking #3 overall in our Place category and #2 for Parks and Outdoors. And it’s not hard to believe that the city ranks #5 on our list for TripAdvisor Reviews and #4 for Shopping.
After taking over the title of state capital from Detroit in 1847, Lansing became an industrial hotspot, with auto manufacturing driving its growth. General Motors remains a major employer, but Lansing’s economy has diversified due to a surge in insurance, insurtech, medtech and IT businesses. Little wonder it ranked #3 overall in our Prosperity category, being tied for first among small cities for Fortune 500 Companies. Hundreds of new jobs are on the horizon, with 15 projects worth $311 million in private investment approved last year alone. With downtown’s revitalization in the works, the city in the center of the Great Lakes State is growing up. Yet it retains its small-town appeal, ranking #5 for Neighborhoods. Charming character homes surround the Capitol Building, and trails line the banks of the Red Cedar and Grand rivers. Leafy East Lansing is home to Michigan State University, which bolstered the city’s Product profile and tied it for #16 in our University ranking. MSU’s 5,300-acre campus features three medical schools (two human medicine, one veterinary)—the most in the country—and was the first to offer a graduate degree in nuclear physics.
Home to the University of Nebraska’s flagship campus, Lincoln is much more than a college town—it’s a regional hub where settling down to raise a family doesn’t mean settling for less than a cosmopolitan urban experience, albeit a subdued, considered one. While Lincoln may be growing, it’s still a place where strangers greet one another on the sidewalk and the whole community gets together to back Cornhuskers football (or at least they will as soon as we get a vaccine). With a #18 ranking for Educational Attainment, Lincoln has a diversified, knowledge-based economy centered on the university and its research dollars. Families appreciate Lincoln’s affordable cost of living and well-regarded public schools, but the city is also investing millions in public transit and a revitalized downtown, which is attracting younger talent, too. And since joining the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities initiative in 2016, forward-thinking Lincoln is also working on open-data and performance management programs to make the city work better for everyone.
The next time you arrive at the third-best-connected airport among America’s small cities, don’t just jump in your rental car and head out of town. Kahului’s bounty is a surprise, so stay a while. With a Top 5 finish in our Parks and Outdoors category, the city’s unique climate nourishes green spaces ranging from wildlife and avian refuges (Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary) to white-sand state beaches plied by pro (and soon-to-be-pro) surfers. The city may not be a tourist attraction on an island full of them, but its residents—boasting a household income that ranks #6 among America’s small cities—have plenty to do, from local restaurants that act as a delicious, daring test kitchen for the rest of the state to upscale shopping like Whole Foods and luxury car dealerships. The convenience is facilitated by the Kahului Airport (OGG to you and your vacation-planning experience), which ranks #3 in connectivity among America’s small cities and is planning to resume its expansion plans once the pandemic subsides.
Locals sometimes complain that Charlottesville is far from it all, but while the nearest big city (in this case, Washington, D.C.) might be a good distance away, this bustling college town has everything residents need day-to-day, from a dynamic restaurant scene to thriving local cultural institutions. It’s even possible to live car-free here, and many residents get around on two wheels. Thomas Jefferson’s hometown has plenty to recommend it, from a solid local economy grounded in one of the country’s top universities to abundant natural beauty and deep historical significance. He might have written the Declaration of Independence and served as the nation’s third president, but Thomas Jefferson was just as proud of founding the University of Virginia, which tied Charlottesville for #4 in University ranking and earned and its citizens a #7 ranking for Educational Attainment. And while the University of Virginia may be the foundation of the local economy, there are also abundant jobs in health care and tourism.
Like it did in a lot of Rust Belt cities, the manufacturing economy in Fort Wayne took a big hit in the 1980s. But the city has emerged from this local downturn with a 21st-century economy based on transportation and distribution, health-care services, and leisure and hospitality. Yet it hasn’t completely turned its back on the manufacturing sector: the city is a defense industry hub, with companies like BAE Systems and Harris Corporation employing thousands. As part of its civic rejuvenation, Fort Wayne invested heavily in urban renewal, with projects like the Allen County Public Library, Grand Wayne Convention Center and Fort Wayne Museum of Art—which, along with the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and landmarks like the 1930s Art Deco Lincoln Bank Tower (once the city’s tallest), boosts the city to a #6 rank for Attractions.
From the freeway, Santa Maria’s subdivisions and strip malls nestled amid golden hills might lead you to mistake it for any other California city. But step inside Rancho Nipomo BBQ or Jocko’s and you’ll encounter something altogether unique: Santa Maria–style barbecue. The most famous approach barbecue on the West Coast originated here back when California was part of Mexico, and still features the same simple, oak-fired grilling methods. Plenty of hungry pilots and farmers—who make up the city’s two largest industries—have surely enjoyed this regional cuisine. Vandenberg Air Force Base is Santa Maria’s largest employer, with many other locals, especially the diverse population that drives the city’s ranking of #10 in Foreign Born Residents) supporting the area’s strawberry, grape and lettuce farms. Santa Maria is a fairly prosperous city, ranking #11 for Household Income, and its proximity to UC Santa Barbara powers a tie for #5 in our University ranking. This being central California, the weather’s nice too, ranking #10.