What makes a town a good place to live? Which features are essential? Cultural institutions, proximity to natural beauty, recreation opportunities-to a rich, fulfilled existence? Do you need a sports team to be happy, or a symphony orchestra? A ballpark or a ballet? Bustling neighborhoods or bucolic parks?
Of course, cost of living enters the equation -- especially for those, like retirees, living on a fixed income. Mindful of the distinction "between living cheaply and living well," AARP The Magazine has compiled its annual list of the best places to live for Americans over 50, choosing cities that offer affordable amenities in addition to low-cost essentials.
The editors posited an income of $100 a day, or $36,500 a year, and assumed a tax rate of 25%. That left $27,375, or $2,281 per month. Next, they sought out cities with a median housing cost of $192,000, which translates to a mortgage payment of approximately $719 a month. So after paying for housing, their theoretical retirees would have $1,562 a month left over for everything else -- food, leisure, entertainment, cultural enrichment, the works.
An initial list of 200 cities was culled down to 10 by a focus on "things that make life worth living: the arts and culture, colleges, restaurants, community." Click through the gallery below to see which places made the cut.
Vibe: Lush green beauty meets smart urban planning
Sunny days per year: 176
Median home price: $145,000
As cities go, Spokane is a consistent award winner, both for its stunning Riverfront Park and its historic downtown. But the surrounding residential areas provide an easygoing livability that is part of the town's character, including wide, tree-shaded streets full of lovely old single-family homes. And because it's a big place -- the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis -- there are plenty of urban offerings. Over the decades, it has morphed from a logging and mining backwater to a cultural pearl.
PHOTO: Sciascia, Flickr.com
Vibe: Old West urban flair
Sunny days per year: 263
Median home price: $135,000
Forget the Alamo -- just remember that while a lot of Texas cities have boomed in the past few decades, San Antonio has somehow managed to grow while still embracing its image as a sleepy tourist town.
Per capita, San Antonio has five times as many libraries and museums as Austin; seven times as many as Houston. The city's new bike-share program lets you pedal all over town for $10 a day -- a nice way to head down to El Mercado in Old Market Square, reputedly the biggest Mexican marketplace outside Mexico. And of course there's the famous San Antonio River Walk and its endless selection of restaurants with patio dining.
PHOTO: ganju7, Flickr.com
Vibe: A bustling small city amid the magic of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Sunny days per year: 217
Median home price: $151,500
Certainly Roanoke's pleasant climate, its 22 miles of walkable/bikeable greenways and the spectacular backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains helped land the city on the list this year. So did its incredibly rich history of both Roanoke and the surrounding valley. (Notable Civil War battles include Hunter's Raid of 1864.)
But its 100-foot-high illuminated star, erected 40 years ago, isn't the only aspect of the city that is burning brightly: Building its reputation as the "City of Festivals," the town now boasts Roanoke Festival In the Park, Downtown Roanoke's Railway Festival, Henry Street Festival, Vinton's Dogwood Festival, The Virginia Championship Chili Cook-off and the Strawberry Festival, making it one of the liveliest towns in the region.
Vibe: The city's 88 distinct neighborhoods create a European atmosphere
Sunny days per year: 194
Median home price: $106,500
With affordable arts (Pittsburgh is home to one of the nation's great symphony orchestras), terrific food (the aroma of ethnic eateries permeates the Strip District) and not one but three beautiful, bridge-spanned rivers to boat on, the Steel City has a lock on great reasons to live there.
The best place to soak in Pittsburgh's easygoing spirit is bucolic Frick Park. In the summer, take a free lawn bowling lesson at the bowling green. In winter, sled down the popular hill near Beechwood Boulevard. Pittsburgh's resurgent Pirates play in PNC Park (bleacher seats from $13). With its majestic waterfront skyline view, it's ranked the No. 1 baseball field in the country by ESPN. Good luck snagging tickets to a Steelers football game; locals would sooner part with their spleen than give up a nosebleed seat at Heinz Field. Less obvious than the city's sports maniacs -- but just as enthusiastic -- are Pittsburgh's art, theater and music crowds.
Vibe: Midwestern cozy with a high-tech spark
Sunny days per year: 193
Median home price: $123,500
Big companies and generous benefactors have been pouring money into Omaha for the past several years, and all that spending has made Nebraska's largest city a fun -- if flat -- place to live. Mutual of Omaha financed the new Midtown Crossing, which along with other developments is turning former industrial areas into housing gems.
You'll find the residents of those new digs heading down to the Old Market area, where establishments such as Mr. Toad's offer live jazz with no cover charge. Seniors pay just $12.50 at the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. (Don't miss walking the rope bridge in the rain forest exhibit.) The baked goods at WheatFields rock, and so does its senior menu, where a Grandmere Scramble or a Dusseldorf Casserole goes for $8.50
Vibe: Small college city combines Appalachian roots with a strong local economy
Sunny days per year: 185
Median home price: $168,900
While Morgantown may be the epicenter of Appalachia and proud of its hillbilly roots, the city -- and the entire region -- is far richer. Since the 1880s, coal mines attracted immigrants from around the world, who have influenced the local culture and driven the railroad, glass and mining industries. And, as the home of the first New Deal homestead community, its history is rich.
While its low unemployment rate and strong local economy are certainly its most touted strength, the city's big surprise is its excellent health care. Of our top 10, it ranks No. 2 in doctors-per-capita, beaten only by Gainesville, Fla.
PHOTO: Brian Pennington, Flickr.com
Las Cruces, N.M.
Vibe: A sunny cocktail of Old Mexico, the Wild West and high-desert casual living
Sunny days per year: 287
Median home price: $148,000
A small town with big-city amenities, Las Cruces already had a lot going for it, like plenty of brilliant sunshine tempered by high-desert breezes. Mountains surround it on three sides, and there's plenty of exciting Wild West history to uncover. (It's where a judge sentenced Billy the Kid to "hang until you are dead, dead, dead," to which he is said to have replied, "Go to hell, hell, hell.")
When you factor in the Southwest's massive real-estate meltdown and the state's low property taxes, this sunny little city becomes a bargain hunter's paradise.
Grand Junction, Colo.
Vibe: Contemporary arts meet Western charm
Sunny days per year: 214
Median home price: $159,800
Grand Junction's affordability was hard-won: When the collapsing energy market dropkicked the town back in 1982, citizens took a hard look at their boom-and-bust history. In a concerted effort to diversify, they beefed up tourism -- from opening new country music venues to, starting in 2011, launching the state's only Lavender Festival.
The city was a pioneer in establishing downtown sculpture exhibits -- a local favorite is a shiny bison called "Chrome on the Range II." Combined with the classic Victorian architecture, the contemporary pieces make this town feel old and new at the same time.
Vibe: Funky hippie meets world traveler
Sunny days per year: 205
Median home price: $125,000
Local football hero Tim Tebow stayed in shape running up and down the stairs at University of Florida's Griffin Stadium -- and so can you, for free. It's just one way this health-conscious city enhances the lives of those lucky enough to live here.
The university gives Gainesville its hip reputation -- the campus recently hosted a Japanese drumming concert -- but Gainesville is also an old-fashioned Southern charmer. Take the time to wander the cobblestone streets, admiring the wrought iron fences in front of Victorian gems and marveling at drivers who wave rather than lean on the horn.
Eau Claire, Wis.
Vibe: Family-friendly values with a progressive twist
Sunny days per year: 200
Median home price: $121,100
Fans say spunky little Eau Claire is something of a Midwestern throwback -- safe, friendly and a solid family-oriented community. Recent redevelopment has seen the rise of downtown loft apartments and Phoenix Park, as well as popular (and free!) concerts throughout the summer. A branch of the University of Wisconsin provides plenty of cultural and entertainment programming. (Those 60 and older can audit courses for no cost.) And locals say volunteerism is a significant part of the town's character.
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