Annual Household Income: $29,800
Median Home Price: $160,000
Climate: Good thing summer (sticky, sticky, sticky) just lasts three months.
Thomas Jefferson's shadow still falls across its share of real estate in Charlottesville--at the University of Virginia campus that TJ doodled into existence, at his beloved Monticello--but no one ever confuses this place with Colonial Williamsburg. Few towns can rival Charlottesville's charmed pairing of smart populace (the nation's highest number of newspaper readers per capita) with magnolia- and mountain-studded setting. Piedmont horse country abuts the Blue Ridge Mountains, and D.C. is a doable 110 miles to the northeast. UVA provides a constant influx of yups-in-training, of course, and there's a subtle whiff of money earned well beyond the city limits: Sissy Spacek, Howie Long, Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange (officially moved to Minnesota, but still spotted around town), and John Grisham are longtime residents. "The reason they all come here is no one cares that they're famous," burbles one recent arrival. And also, no doubt, because Charlottesville is so pleasantly civilized. What's not to like about a town where Atlantic Coast Conference hoops, tubing on the James River, and the spring Virginia Festival of the Book are all equally revered?
THE HOME FRONT: In town, the prime quadrants are Woolen Mills, a mix of funky old farmhouses and colonials on the banks of the Rivanna River, in the shadow of Monticello (accessible for $140,000 or so), and the pricier Victorians-with-wraparound-verandas of Park and Locust Streets, within strolling distance of downtown and UVA. Moving a bit farther afield gets you more countrified ambience and more for your mortgage: two-acre family-friendly spreads about seven miles west in Ivy, lingering hippies in Crozet, rolling farms and boxwood-lined drives in Batesville.
THE BACKYARD: Sport tends more toward the gentlemanly low-key than the extremely adrenalizing. There's cycling, both on-road (the 35-mile North Garden loop runs from town over gradual hills) and off- (George Washington National Forest, 35 miles to the west, has a network of popular trails), plentiful foot trails in Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest (including the granddaddy Appalachian), floating on the James, stream fishing, and passable skiing 45 minutes away at Wintergreen Resort. Those who want bigger gulps of wilderness--backcountry hiking, frothing whitewater--head two hours west to West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest.
NINE TO FIVE: Professors, doctors, and support staffers feed at the university trough, while attorneys jostle with flocks of UVA law-school grads for jobs at local law firms. Other major paycheck providers include GE Fanuc and SNL Securities. A visible minority of home-office types (writers, consultants, traders, and the like) modem in to New York, Washington, and elsewhere and make the FedEx commandos at the Package Depot the most tapped-in guys in town.
ON THE TOWN: Once you've settled in to Charlottesville, you're unlikely to do any of the following without seeing familiar faces: line up for the morning jolt at Mermaid Express; catch a live band at Miller's downtown; pick up a baguette at Foods of All Nations; pose with grande latte and journal at the Mudhouse; snarf a divinely messy cheeseburger at Riverside Lunch; duck in for wine and chatter at a McGuffey Art Center opening; or take the family to a Fridays After Five concert on the pedestrian mall.
THE PRICE OF PARADISE: Sweltering summers and increasing sprawl and traffic, especially on Highway 29, just widened (though not enough) to six lanes through town. The cloying marriage of ultrarich and Old South may prompt escapist weekends to Hackensack.
DON'T BE SEEN WITHOUT: At least two of three: a green Barbour coat, a Herb Brown Volvo station wagon, and an insulated coffee mug from Greenberry's.
BEST OF THE REST BURLINGTON, VT: Boulder, but colder. MADISON, WI: Afghan cuisine in the land of milk and honey. ATHENS, GA: Tired of hunting Stipe? You can always decamp to the Chattooga.