The French Quarter of New Orleans
Courtesy Justen Williams, 343 Media/
The French Quarter of New Orleans
The French Quarter of New Orleans (Photo: Courtesy Justen Williams, 343 Media/

The 15 Happiest Places to Live in the U.S.

People are searching for community, better quality of life, and more outdoor access. These towns check all of those boxes and then some.

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This year for our annual Best Towns package, we decided to go in search of the happiest towns in America. Why did we choose this focus? Because the world is still rethinking how to work and live post-pandemic, and many people are searching for that perfect place to move to where they just feel better. We’ve also long been inspired by the World Population Review’s annual Happiest Countries in the World list and decided that the U.S., and our readers, could benefit from some similar advice.

The project was an enormous undertaking, and we turned to Outside researchers Philip Kiefer and Delilah Friedler to sort through piles of facts and figures to land on these 15 towns. (See more on our exact methodology below.) Once we had the list of places, we asked our writers—who are based around the country and have lived in most of these locales—for their expert reporting and intel.

What constitutes a happy town? It comes down to things like ample outdoor access for all, affordability, a safe environment, diversity, and freedom for residents to be who they are. Let us know what you think of our choices. Associate managing editor Tasha Zemke and deputy editor and travel director Mary Turner

The Truckee River runs through downtown Reno.
The Truckee River runs through downtown Reno. (Courtesy

Reno, Nevada

Population: 273,448
Median Home Price: $550,000
Median Rental Price: $1,531
Percentage Parkland: 5
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 76
Walk Score: 40
Bike Score: 83
Municipal Equality Index Score: 100
Demographics: 60% white; 23% Latino; 7% Asian; 3% Black; 7% other

Once known for gambling and easy divorces, Reno is now a modern boomtown, with a whitewater park, multiple climbing gyms, a monthlong summer arts festival, a number of craft breweries, and urban art installations handed down from Burning Man, the late-summer gathering in the Black Rock Desert 140 miles north. The Biggest Little City in the World’s ample public land and mountain vibe make it a fun town for a populace hankering for just those qualities.

A former golf course became the Sierra Vista Mountain Bike Park, where a new trail suitable for adaptive cyclists opened this year. The Tahoe-Pyramid Trail is over 80 percent complete and will follow the Truckee River 114 miles between Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake. And the new Reno Public Market, once a run-down strip mall, was reimagined as a food court with 17 food vendors, Pilates classes, and live music.

“Reno has changed so much,” says resident Sara Holm, director of studies and diversity at the Lake Tahoe School. “You can run through a county park with sheep grazing, go backcountry skiing, or see a touring Broadway play.”

The city hosts an annual Pride celebration, and the relatively affordable cost of living (and no state income tax) is a major draw; companies with an outdoor bent have found a receptive community. A Patagonia outlet in the hip Midtown neighborhood and the company’s distribution center employ over 680 people, and a growing number of major companies like Amazon and Tesla have set up shop.

Come winter, the chutes of Mount Rose are about 30 minutes away. Also nearby is the nonprofit, city-owned Sky Tavern, a tiny lift-operated hill with a big objective: teaching kids to ski and snowboard. At Nevada Nordic, just off Mount Rose Highway, volunteers groom more than 20 miles of cross-country ski trails. Reno weather is mild, with an average 300 days of serotonin-boosting sunshine annually.

Room for Improvement: If it’s a bad wildfire season in the region, summer months can be smoky. The Washoe County Health District’s Air Quality Management Division works with community partners to offer clean-air solutions and education for residents to improve their quality of life. —Megan Michelson

Wilmington’s annual River Towns Ride
Wilmington’s annual River Towns Ride (Courtesy Gwcvb/Lindsay Rudney)

Wilmington, Delaware

Population: 71,569
Median Home Price: $255,000
Median Rental Price: $1,901
Percentage Parkland: 6.8
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 98
Walk Score: 74
Bike Score: 69
Municipal Equality Index Score: 88
Demographics: 57% Black; 29% white; 11% Latino; 1% Asian; 2% other

Wilmington, says resident and Outdoor Afro volunteer leader Tracey Duffy, is “a small, hidden wonder.” Situated within reach of Philadelphia (a 20-minute train ride), New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., this place prides itself on outsize access to the outdoors. Locals love its walkability, abundance of parks (nearly 70), revitalized downtown and riverfront, and proximity to mid-Atlantic beaches.

Residents have long valued greenspace. In the 1990s, Wilmingtonians fought development of a shopping mall and formed a coalition that worked for 25 years to build the Northern Delaware Greenway Trail; its 10.4 paved miles link numerous parks, playgrounds, historic estates, the Brandywine Zoo, museums, commercial zones, and schools. Other major recreation areas include 178-acre Brandywine Park, 134-year-old Rockford Park, and Alapocas Run—a 415-acre, pawpaw-tree-filled park with hiking and biking trails, plus 12 bolted climbing routes on Delaware’s only crag. From the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge along the Christina Riverfront, cyclists can hop the 5.5-mile Jack A. Markell Trail south to New Castle.

A happy town is one that promotes inclusivity, something that Wilmington native and LGBTQ+ community leader Dinea Elliott-Collins says happens here. “It’s an up-and-coming place for young LGBTQ+ professionals. Every quarter there are more gatherings for the queer community,” Elliott-Collins says. “When I travel to other parts of the country, I realize how safe and comfortable I feel in Wilmington.”

This is also a town that celebrates music. Its most famous event is probably the free Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, which honors its hometown trumpeter and brings world-class artists to Rodney Square. At H. Fletcher Brown Park, a recent renovation saw the permanent installation of percussion instruments.

Entrance at three of Wilmington’s State Parks is free, a benefit that naturalist Evan Williams says encourages residents to explore: “We work to remove barriers to access and offer programs to engage the community. When we host the semiweekly Nature on the Go event, kids are thrilled to learn about local wildlife.”

Room for Improvement: Two rivers run through town, and southern low-lying areas have been susceptible to flooding. To reduce this risk, the city and community developed a plan for the new Southbridge Wilmington Wetlands Park, which includes a stormwater-management facility and recreational areas. “It took 20 years to complete and $26 million to build, but it’s worth it to tame the Christina River coastal waters,” Mayor Mike Purzycki said in an email. —Mardi Fuller

Our Methodology

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Overall Well-Being: We started our search for happy towns with the 300 top-scoring counties in the U.S. with Sharecare’s Community Well-Being Index. The digital health company has used millions of surveys and public data to measure well-being. In the interest of geographic diversity, we compared the highest-scoring counties in the midwest, northeast, south, Pacific Coast, and west.

Public Land and Affordability: Next we ranked counties by percentage of public land, using Headwater Economics’ Protected Areas Database of the United States. We then selected representative towns for each of those counties, often using Trailforks and Gaia GPS (which are both owned by Outside Inc., the same company that owns Outside) to view maps of nearby trails and recreation areas. We ruled out towns with populations greater than 500,000 or less than 5,000. We also looked at median home and rental prices, the Trust for Public Land’s ParkServe database, and how walkable and bike-friendly a town is.

Climate Change and Inclusivity: Then we researched how climate change is affecting towns, using an interactive 2020 New York Times article and a University of Notre Dame assessment. Additionally, we looked at the level of inclusivity demonstrated to people of color and LGBTQ+ residents, based on the Municipal Equality Index score from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and a qualitative analysis of residents’ posts on online forums. Based on those results, we arrived at our final 15 happiest towns.

The Stats: Population and demographic figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Median home and rental prices come from Redfin data as of July 2023. Data on percentage of parkland and proximity to parks was provided by the Trust for Public Land. We pulled a town’s walk and bike score from a Redfin tool; 100 is the highest. The same goes for the HRC score.

Methodology video created by Kate Bengston

The Southern Decadence event in New Orleans
The Southern Decadence event in New Orleans (Courtesy Paul Broussard/

New Orleans, Louisiana

Population: 369,749
Median Home Price: $360,000
Median Rental Price: $1,878
Percentage Parkland: 23
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 80
Walk Score: 58
Bike Score: 92
Municipal Equality Index Score: 100
Demographics: 58% Black; 31% white; 6% Latino; 5% other

New Orleans may be called the Big Easy, but I resonate more with something I read on a chalkboard while wandering the city’s Lower Garden District: “People don’t live here because it’s easy…. They live here because they can’t live anywhere else in just the same way.”

Indeed, only a special magic could bind people to a place so vulnerable to rising seas. Residents’ joie de vivre is reflected in outdoor celebrations like Mardi Gras—the famous winter festival that reflects the city’s Creole heritage—and second-line parades, an African American funerary tradition that’s a cross between a block party and a jazz marching band.

New Orleans is a majority-Black city, and its culture and cuisine, including gumbo, display strong Indigenous influences as well. It’s also a historic haven for LGBTQ+ people, with one of the country’s largest concentrations of gay bars, not to mention one of its oldest—the French Quarter’s Café Lafitte in Exile. I’m from California, but spending years living in colorful New Orleans made me the queer person I am today.

Like many who grew up here, Heather West wasn’t aware of the city’s outdoor treasures. Only as an adult did she get to know the parks and swamps for kayaking and canoeing, like the nearby Bayou Manchac. Now she’s executive director of LOOP NOLA, a nonprofit making it affordable and accessible for local youth to spend time in nature. The organization’s motto: “Everyone belongs outdoors.”

New Orleans is a wonderland of magnolia trees, cypresses, and bayous. Parks like Audubon add to the bounty of public land and are home to centuries-old live oaks strewn with Spanish moss, plus waterside cycling and walking paths. The 1,300-acre City Park has lagoons to canoe and kayak.

Seventeen miles south in the Barataria Preserve, miles of boardwalks traverse lush forests and marshlands teeming with alligators, turtles, and wildflowers. At Fontaine-bleau State Park, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, you can hike, bike, camp, and paddle. West’s favorite place to pitch a tent is Bogue Chitto, about an hour north. It has “more of a backcountry feel,” she says, along with a river for tubing.

New Orleanians participate in a wealth of artistic, political, and recreational groups, including urban farms like the Lower Ninth Ward’s Guerrilla Garden and mutual-aid collectives like Southern Solidarity, which supports the needs of unhoused residents. You’d be hard-pressed to find another city with such tightly woven communities—a key indicator of happiness. Aside from its underrated green spaces, “what makes New Orleans a happy place to live is the culture,” says West. “If you live here and you’re bored, that’s your own fault, because there’s so much to do.”

Room for Improvement: Almost half of New Orleans sits below sea level. While the city has federal support and comprehensive plans to invest in clean energy and climate-adaptation projects, some question whether the area can handle rising seas and hurricanes. —Delilah Friedler

Smale Park in Cincinnati
Smale Park in Cincinnati (Catherine Viox)

Cincinnati, Ohio

Population: 309,513
Median Home Price: $272,750
Median Rental Price: $1,116
Percentage Parkland: 17
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 88
Walk Score: 49
Bike Score: 65
Municipal Equality Index Score: 100
Demographics: 49% white; 40% Black; 4% Latino; 2% Asian; 5% other

Geography has a lot to do with Cincinnati’s amicable vibe. “We’re cool because we’re part of the North, part of the South, on the edge of Appalachia, and very Midwest,” says Brandon Behymer, services manager of the Roads, Rivers, and Trails outdoor shop.

Historically, the Queen City’s strategic position along the Ohio River made it an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Today that route and others are used by hikers and cyclists traveling the 2,008-mile Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, in addition to the 4,800-mile North Country National Scenic Trail. Paddlers can kayak for miles on the Little Miami River, which at times parallels the 78-mile, paved and shady Little Miami Scenic Trail.

Cincinnati has a temperate climate, with an especially beautiful spring and fall conducive to enjoying its 8,057 acres of greenspace and 365 parks and recreation areas. By the end of the century, however, the average annual temperature is predicted to rise seven degrees globally, which could make summers here uncomfortable.

To combat climate change, the Green Cincinnati Plan, updated earlier this year, is committed to reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and reaching 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2050. Forty miles east of downtown is the New Market Solar Array, which began generating power for the city in 2022 and is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 158,000 tons annually. It’s one of the largest city-established solar-array projects in the nation.

There’s also a vibrant LGBTQ+ community, numerous gay bars and events, a lively arts scene, a strong job market, and a reasonable cost of living. Other perks include the Findlay Market, a food pavilion in the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where more than 50 merchants sell local meat, fish, poultry, and produce.

One other secret to Cincinnatians’ happiness? Beer. Its first breweries were established by German immigrants in the 1800s, and more than 80 are still going strong. Check out Esoteric Brewery, the first beer joint in the city owned by African and Asian Americans; it serves lagers, ales, and IPAs, with a side of Korean fried chicken.

Kari Meckey, who has lived in the Cincinnati metro area twice, returning with her family to the same neighborhood, has this to say about her city: “The people are lovely, and the winters are short.”

Room for Improvement: If climate change continues unabated, the intensity of heat, storms, and tornadoes in this region is expected to increase. But city officials cite abundant fresh water, a healthy tree canopy, and strong sustainability initiatives in place as the way forward. —Stephanie Pearson

Mountain views in Charlottesville
Mountain views in Charlottesville (Halbergman/IStock/Getty)

Charlottesville, Virginia

Population: 45,373
Median Home Price: $456,000
Median Rental Price: $1,487
Percentage Parkland: 10
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 84
Walk Score: 58
Bike Score: 79
Municipal Equality Index Score: 79
Demographics: 65% white; 18% Black; 7% Asian; 6% Latino; 4% other

Residents of this small city in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills can attest to the way their hometown demonstrates the pursuit of happiness. Charlottesville consistently lands atop annual best-cities lists and even earned a shout-out from Blue Zones author Dan Buettner, who named C-Ville (as locals call it) the third-happiest town in the country.

Work-life balance has made all the difference. There are ample jobs here, thanks to the University of Virginia and a vibrant startup culture, and the city has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, just 2.7 percent. The university helps attract highly educated professionals—roughly 30 percent of Charlottesville’s populace has a graduate degree. Entrepreneurs have access to incubators and investment opportunities, such as microloans from the Community Investment Collaborative, which has helped launch businesses as varied as hair salons and camps for kids.

“You can come here with an idea and connect with resources that support that idea,” says Seth Herman, who along with his wife, Erin James, founded the High Tor Gear Exchange with help from the Collaborative. “There’s a lot of innovation here. The community wants to see you succeed.”

But it’s not all about work. The 20-mile multi-use Rivanna Trail encircles the city, occasionally skirting its namesake river, and is beloved by hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. The Rivanna River Company guides kayaking trips on that same waterway and hosts the Rivanna Roots Concert Series on its banks, featuring a lineup of local musicians several times each month. Shenandoah National Park and its miles of hiking and camping are about an hour away, and many breweries and wineries are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside.

A tapestry of farms help supply a high density of restaurants. Most visitors hit the pedestrian mall, but for a taste of some of the best local cuisine, head straight for the trendy neighborhood of Belmont. Try the fried green tomatoes at Mockingbird, then wander over to Southern Crescent for cocktails in the backyard tiki bar.

“It’s easy to live here,” says Herman, who moved from Portland, Oregon, to Charlottesville. “This kind of quality of life is eye-opening when you come from another city. You don’t
want to leave.”

Room for Improvement: Reasonably priced housing is hard to find. City officials are rewriting the housing code with inclusionary zoning and have earmarked $10 million a year for affordable-housing initiatives. —Graham Averill

Windsurfing on the Columbia River
Windsurfing on the Columbia River (Courtesy Visit Hood River)
The lower Hood River Valley
The lower Hood River Valley (Courtesy Visit Hood River)

Hood River, Oregon

Population: 8,352
Median Home Price: $656,750
Median Rental Price: $2,175
Percentage Parkland: 4
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 94
Walk Score: 79
Bike Score: Not listed
Municipal Equality Index Score: Not listed
Demographics: 65% white; 26% Latino; 2% Black; 1% Asian; 6% other

Outdoor life in Hood River follows the wind. When it’s up, windsurfers, kiteboarders, and foilers are out on the Columbia River en masse. When it’s down, they’re mountain-biking the Post Canyon trails, a vast network in a 30,000-acre tree-farm forest minutes from downtown. The Hood River Trail Stewards recently finished an overhaul of Post Canyon’s popular Family Man Trail, making it more beginner-friendly. “People ask what we do when it rains here, and the answer is: the same thing as when it’s sunny—get outside,” says Taylor Hood, who co-owns Axis Vehicles, a local camper-van company.

Located on the Columbia River Gorge about 30 miles north of Mount Hood, Hood River is a small town with a distinct personality, blending the cultural influence of Portland, an hour west, with the rural vibe of farmers and mountaineers. Drive nearly any road and you’ll end up at a you-pick fruit farm. Hood River Waterfront Park is a summertime hangout, as are the nearby Pfriem Family Brewing and Ferment Brewing Company.

The local food scene is strong, too; notable mentions include River Daze Café, which grows its own produce and uses other local suppliers, and KickStand Coffee and Kitchen, founded by a couple of pro mountain bikers who donate a portion of their proceeds to area charities.

Access to the outdoors keeps residents happy. Hood River encourages participation regardless of age or skill. The Gorge Junior Sailing Organization hosts community sailing nights on Mondays, Pure Stoke is popular for its used-gear section, and the county library lends out a collection of items ranging from backyard games to ice cream makers. The Hood River City Council passed a resolution in 2020 for racial and social equity, vowing to identify and eliminate barriers in city programs and services. There’s also a growing LGBTQ+ community.

Room for Improvement: Housing is pricey. In 2016, a rental program was implemented to “limit negative impacts on local housing opportunities,” says the city planning director. In July, Hood River Affordable Housing Development was awarded $15.1 million for a complex that will serve residents with limited income. —M.M.

Minneapolis’s Breaking Bread Café
Minneapolis’s Breaking Bread Café (Rebecca Rabb/Courtesy Meet Minneapolis)
Minneapolis’s riverfront
Minneapolis’s riverfront (Lane Pelovsky/Courtesy Meet Minneapolis)

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Population: 425,096
Median Home Price: $340,000
Median Rental Price: $1,332
Percentage Parkland: 15
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 98
Walk Score: 71
Bike Score: 97
Municipal Equality Index Score: 100
Demographics: 60% white; 18% Black; 10% Latino; 6% Asian; 1% Native; 5% other

If COVID taught Minneapolis residents anything, it’s that the city’s ample green-space goes a long way toward healing and happiness. This year, Minneapolis vaulted to the number one spot in People for Bikes’ annual large-city ratings and moved up to number three in the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore rankings. The city has 180 parks, many of which are connected by some 100 miles of off-street bikeways and trails that run along the Mississippi River and around a chain of five lakes. Additionally, the 20-year Neighborhood Park Plan has promised to commit $11 million annually through 2036 for maintenance, rehabilitation, and capital investments, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“People are fundamentally happy here, because there’s an ethos of connecting to the outdoors,” says Anthony Taylor, the equitable development lead for the nonprofit Cultural Wellness Center. The organization founded events like Melanin in Motion as a way to include more people of color in fat biking, nordic skiing, and other outdoor activities. Another event, Slow Roll MSP, offers loaner bikes and leads rides through diverse neighborhoods before ending with a meal cooked by a neighborhood chef using locally grown food. “This is the work of access,” says Taylor. “It’s how we are creating a sense of safety for people not normally in these outdoor spaces.”

Minneapolis has a long history of welcoming immigrants and those part of the LGBTQ+ community. Minnesota legalized gay marriage in 2013, and this year a law was passed to shield transgender health care, preventing state courts and officials from complying with child-removal requests, extraditions, arrests, and subpoenas related to gender-affirming health care.

On other fronts, there are excellent hospitals, esteemed performing arts, and fantastic food. The city’s farmers’ market was founded in 1876 and has since grown to become the largest farmer-managed market in the state, with 170 stalls. Many of the vendors are Hmong. And in 2021, Owamni, a restaurant created by Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman that serves modern Indigenous food using only Native ingredients, opened in the Water Works Pavilion in Mill Ruins Park along the Mississippi River. A year later it won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant.

Room for Improvement: The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 revealed serious problems with law enforcement. In June, the Justice Department published a report about the Minneapolis’s police department, stating that it remains plagued by unlawful conduct, discrimination, and mismanagement. According to a city police spokesperson, the department has undergone a number of reforms over the past few years. In addition, a new police chief was hired last year to change the culture and narrative around policing and public safety. —S.P.

Hiking in Glenwood Springs
Hiking in Glenwood Springs (Courtesy Visit Glenwood Springs )

Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Population: 10,264
Median Home Price: $726,720
Median Rental Price: $1,860
Percentage Parkland: 2
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 76
Walk Score: 68
Bike Score: 69
Municipal Equality Index Score: Not listed
Demographics: 64% white; 29% Latino; 2% Asian; 5% other

Many people plan vacations around hot springs. The residents of Glenwood Springs are lucky enough to have a plethora of therapeutic waters—including the world’s largest mineral hot-springs pool—in their own backyard. Given the city’s easy access to hiking, biking, and kayaking, locals can take advantage of that perk, soothing achy muscles after outdoor adventures with a soak.

Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains and set at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers, the area’s natural wonders were starting to become a little too popular and were at risk of being loved to death. But the city has been proactive, working with the Forest Service to create a permit-reservation system for the incredibly popular Hanging Lake, ten miles east. Glenwood Springs is also the second city in Colorado to be 100 percent powered by renewable energy, and it offers residents rebates on energy-saving measures like e-bikes.

And if you live here, you might want a bike. The International Mountain Bicycling Association designated Roaring Fork Valley a gold-level ride center, boasting more than 300 miles of singletrack, and Glenwood Springs is connected to Aspen by the 42-mile Rio Grande rails-to-trails path.

Sixteen-mile-long Glenwood Canyon is also a major recreation spot for locals and visitors alike, with kayak-ing, rafting, paddling, and fishing, and a seasonal path open for hiking and biking. In 2008, Solomon Liston, who guided in the canyon with Whitewater Rafting for 20 years, started cohosting the Big Gay Raft Trip, a weekend of river running, hot springs, and dining at the town’s best restaurants. Today it takes place twice each summer and attracts more than 320 people. “I came out at age 16 and had a wonderful experience growing up here,” says Liston, who finds Glenwood incredibly welcoming. “A gay man who recently moved here asked me who’s safe to talk to. I didn’t think twice when I responded, ‘Everyone.’ ”

Room for Improvement: Escalating housing costs and a declining worker base throughout the region are concerning. According to Liston, some restaurant owners have bought housing to keep employees on. A city official said they are moving forward with projects and policy initiatives aimed at bolstering affordable housing. —Jen Murphy

Harrisburg sits along the Susquehanna River.
Harrisburg sits along the Susquehanna River. (Christopher Boswell/Adobe Stock)

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Population: 50,183
Median Home Price: $176,000
Median Rental Price: $1,425
Percentage Parkland: 8
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 95
Walk Score: 68
Bike Score: 57
Municipal Equality Index Score: 71
Demographics: 50% Black; 25% Latino; 24% white: 1% other

If proximity to Hersheypark isn’t enough to make this a sweet spot, Harrisburg woos residents with a robust arts scene, cultural events, 25 parks, and enviable status as one of the Northeast’s more affordable midsize towns. It was also recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the best place to live in the state and the second-best place to retire in the nation.

This small capital city sits on the east bank of the Susquehanna River. The historic People’s Bridge (one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world) crosses the water to 63-acre City Island, whose facilities host minor-league baseball games, recreational volleyball, and a paddlewheel riverboat that offers lessons in local ecology. In the greater area, you can kayak on the river and on two creeks perfect for beginners and families; mountain-bike more than 65 miles of maintained trails; run or bike the 20-mile Capital Area Greenbelt; and hike to Hawk Rock or Peter’s Mountain on the Appalachian Trail.

Harrisburg boasts a number of national superlatives: Broad Street Market, founded in 1860, is the oldest continuously operated market house in the U.S. The Pennsylvania Farm Show, dating back to 1917, is the country’s largest indoor agricultural exposition under one roof. And the annual Great American Outdoors Show draws thousands of hunting and fishing enthusiasts.

Strong, supportive groups bolster inclusivity in Harrisburg. Young Professionals of Color hosts an annual weeklong Juneteenth celebration, and the LGBT Center runs a number of engaging social and educational programs. The housing situation is not as dire as it is elsewhere in the U.S., and in June a 48-unit development broke ground downtown that will offer ten affordable units to residents, a project of former NFL player LeSean McCoy, who used to live in the city.

Room for Improvement: In a landmark case, in February, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the state’s education funding is unconstitutional and disproportionately affecting low-income areas. State lawmakers are debating how to address this with short- and long-term plans. —M.F.

Plano’s Boardwalk at Granite Park
Plano’s Boardwalk at Granite Park (The Boardwalk/Visit Plano)
Adventure in Oak Point Park, Plano
Adventure in Oak Point Park, Plano (Go Ape/Visit Plano)

Plano, Texas

Population: 289,547
Median Home Price: $540,000
Median Rental Price: $1,687
Percentage Parkland: 3
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 67
Walk Score: 41
Bike Score: 73
Municipal Equality Index Score: 64
Demographics: 50% white; 22% Asian; 16% Latino; 9% Black; 3% other

Plano is widely considered the ideal Dallas suburb for those seeking a safe, comfortable home, with plenty of options for work and play. That was the draw for Tanner Fleming’s family. They moved to Plano eight years ago and have watched it evolve as divisions of companies like Toyota North America set up headquarters in the area. As operations director for Union Bear Brewing Co., Fleming says his goal is “to make sure everyone
is welcome.”

Plano hosts the North Texas Pride Come As You Are Festival annually and has an ethnically diverse population, including a large Chinese community. It’s also considered a place that cares and has a strong public-school system.

Plano prides itself on its parks. The Trust for Public Land’s annual ParkScore ranked it first in Texas and 16th in the nation. There are 85 parks, numerous public swimming pools, and commercial water parks to help residents beat the summer heat. Two nature preserves at either end of town comprise 1,000-plus acres—more than Central Park in Manhattan—while the city has dozens of sports fields, used for everything from soccer to cricket. Fleming’s son loves the downtown skate park, while Ron Smith, the city’s director of parks and recreation, says that many locals favor jogging through hardwood trees on the five miles of soft-surface trails at 800-acre Oak Point Park and Nature Preserve, where you can also paddle on the small pond.

“You’d never know you’re just outside Dallas,” Smith says. Plano is a half-hour drive from Lake Lewisville, popular with anglers and water-skiers.

At Union Bear, cyclists, golfers, and runners gather on a huge patio for house-brewed beer. Its location, the Boardwalk at Granite Park, features eight restaurants, live music, a farmers’ market, and space for fitness classes like Pilates and boxing.

With a new composting program for residents, environmental education in schools, and a master plan set on preserving parklands, Plano strives to remain a leader in forward-thinking suburban living. “We really enjoy the area,” says Fleming. “I couldn’t imagine moving somewhere else.”

Room for Improvement: At the state level, Texas politicians have introduced numerous bills targeting LGBTQ+ people this year, including a ban on gender care for transgender minors that was signed into law. The state is also known for restrictive abortion laws and permitless open carry of handguns. Plano prohibits employment discrimination against queer and trans people, and city official Steve Stoler points out that “Plano is a diverse, welcoming, and safe community. We are consistently ranked one of the safest cities in America,” adding that city leaders are committed to maintaining a high quality of life. —D.F.

Kayaking Explorer Lake in Chugach National Forest
Kayaking Explorer Lake in Chugach National Forest (Jodyo.Photos/Visit Anchorage)
Bear viewing in Anchorage
Bear viewing in Anchorage (Courtesy Teri Hendricks/Visit Anchorage)

Anchorage, Alaska

Population: 287,145
Median Home Price: $400,000
Median Rental Price: $1,559
Percentage Parkland: 80
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 76
Walk Score: 31
Bike Score: 80
Municipal Equality Index Score: 81
Demographics: 56% white; 10% Asian; 10% Latino; 10% Native; 5% Black; 9% other

When Galen Hecht moved from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Anchorage, locals teased that he hadn’t really moved to Alaska; he’d moved to a city adjacent to the “real” Alaska. But he quickly realized that Anchorage is largely made up of outdoor space. Three-quarters of residents live within minutes of one of its 200-plus parks, and those green spaces are linked by a 500-plus-mile trail network. According to the Anchorage Park Foundation, 95 percent of residents say the trail system—which includes 120 miles of multi-use paths, 105 miles of maintained cross-country ski trails, 87 miles of hiking trails, and 36 miles dedicated to dog mushing—helps make this a great place.

Some parks, like 4,000-acre Far North Bicentennial, offer a true wilderness experience—black bear and moose sightings are the norm—while others were developed for community connection. Chanshtnu Muldoon Park, for instance, has a playground and a skating rink that serves as a farmers’ market in summer; a bike pump track and community garden are in the works. It’s also the second of 32 planned locations in the Indigenous Place Names Project, an initiative to raise awareness of Dena’ina language and culture through art.

Anchorage is an excellent place to learn about the state’s various Indigenous cultures—check out the Alaska Native Heritage Center as well as Crystal Worl’s 120-foot-mural on a downtown wall that celebrates local Native history. It also champions inclusivity, consistently ranked as one of the most gay-friendly small cities.

Hecht, a trail runner and nordic skier, relishes having the Alaskan backcountry at his doorstep. “If you dream of skiing spine lines above the ocean, pack-rafting remote rivers, running ridges under the midnight sun, or watching the northern lights from your back porch, Anchorage is where it happens,” he says.

Room for Improvement: The rate of homelessness is high relative to elsewhere in the state, and many struggling unhoused residents live in encampments. Officials have addressed the housing shortage by converting older hotels into long-term leased apartments, according to a public information officer. The city’s Homeless to Stably Housed initiative was nationally recognized this year. —J.M.

The University of Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin (Vincent/Adobe Stock)

Madison, Wisconsin

Population: 272,903
Median Home Price: $395,000
Median Rental Price: $1,212
Percentage Parkland: 14
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 95
Walk Score: 50
Bike Score: 99
Municipal Equality Index Score: 100
Demographics: 72% white; 9% Asian; 8% Latino; 7% Black; 4% other

Happiness, it’s often said, comes from within. But multiple external factors drive residents’ joy in this midwestern university town. Madison sits between two lakes and has more than 280 parks,18 of which are conservation parks to restore native landscapes and species. It also offers the nation’s largest producers-only farmers’ market, which surrounds the grounds of the state capitol every Saturday between April and November. Best of all, it’s easy to navigate without a car, thanks to more than 200 miles of (mostly flat) cycling and hiking trails, and a bus rapid-transit system that will soon run throughout the city.

Green spaces are increasingly accessible, with features like the new pump track at 11-acre Aldo Leopold Park and “Shred to School” singletrack near the paved Cannonball Path located in the same low-income area. In terms of health care, UW Health University Hospital was ranked second for children’s specialties and fourth for adult specialties by U.S. News and World Report.

A compassionate place, Madison was named WalletHub’s Most Caring City. It’s a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community, with five of the city’s 20-member Common Council identifying as such.

“There’s a nice integration between the city and university,” says University of Wisconsin graduate and resident Ellie Hoffman. “Students, alumni, and visitors can all sit at Memorial Union on the shore of Lake Mendota, drink a beer, and listen to live music.” Other options include taking in a free show by the Mad City water-ski team on Lake Monona during the summer, or joining one of multiple group bike outings, like Machinery Row’s Wacky Wednesday ride. “We keep it weird and fun to attract as many people as possible,” says ride leader and the shop’s service technician Reece Linder.

Hungry? Roll on over to “Willy Street” (Williamson), the ten-block stretch of stores, bars, and restaurants on the isthmus between Lakes Monona and Mendota. With more than three dozen restaurants in the neighborhood, the area is your oyster, whether you’re there to check out the live bands and beers on tap at the Wisco, the Mediterranean comfort food at A Pig in a Fur Coat, or spicy Ethiopian at Buraka.

Room for Improvement: Madison is anticipating a massive influx of new residents; according to the city’s website, the population is expected to grow by more than 100,000 before 2050. The city is already faced with an affordable-housing crisis, and conservative estimates project a need for at least 10,000 new homes every five years to keep up. The city is addressing this with new zoning laws and by dedicating $10 million a year to build affordable housing. —S.P.

Greenspace in Frederick
Greenspace in Frederick (Matthew Delorme/Getty)

Frederick, Maryland

Population: 82,175
Median Home Price: $435,000
Median Rental Price: $2,829
Percentage Parkland: 7.8
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 86
Walk Score: 47
Bike Score: 80
Municipal Equality Index Score: 100
Demographics: 55% white; 18% Latino; 17% Black; 5% Asian; 5% other

Frederick is located in western Maryland, just an hour from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and it has obvious charm. Downtown’s Queen Anne–style buildings and pitched roofs pop against the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. The city center is easily navigated on foot, there are covered bridges in the peripheral rolling farmland, and there’s an annual high-wheel bike race through town—it’s hard not to be happy when ridiculously tall antique bicycles have taken to the streets.

Outdoor adventure is also readily available. Catoctin Mountain Park, Cunningham Falls State Park, and Gambrill State Park form a trio of nearby public lands convenient for hiking and backpacking. But cycling is king in Frederick, with an abundance of popular road and mountain routes. To meet active locals, show up at Gravel and Grind, an espresso bar and bike shop, at 9:30 A.M. on Saturdays between April and November for Mellow Velo, a casual 20-mile road ride that incorporates a snack break and ends with beer.

Public education is strong, too, and Frederick scored 100 on the HRC Municipality Equality Index. Over the past decade the annual Pride festival has grown in attendance from approximately 300 to 30,000 people.

The Frederick Center, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, is represented on multiple city government committees. “People here are willing to have uncomfortable conversations and find solutions,” says Kris Fair, executive director of the center. “A lot of communities recoil from these issues, but not Frederick. The level at which community members come together to solve problems is awesome.”

Room for Improvement: The county population has grown 20 percent in the past decade, and traffic is getting worse, particularly along the I-270 corridor that connects Frederick with Washington, D.C. The city and the Maryland Department of Transportation are working on solutions. —G.A.

Kayaking near Saint Petersburg
Kayaking near Saint Petersburg (Courtesy Visit Saint Pete/Clearwater )
The mural Sewing Seeds in Saint Petersburg
The mural Sewing Seeds in Saint Petersburg (Courtesy Visit Saint Pete/Clearwater )

Saint Petersburg, Florida

Population: 261,256
Median Home Price: $430,000
Median Rental Price: $2,220
Percentage Parkland: 14
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 77
Walk Score: 43
Bike Score: 90
Municipal Equality Index Score: 100
Demographics: 64% white; 21% Black; 8% Latino; 7% other

Set on the southern end of the Pinellas Peninsula, Saint Petersburg is a paradise for those who love beaches, sports, arts, and getting outdoors year-round. The Sunshine City boasts 244 miles of shoreline. Downtown’s urban waterfront is regularly filled with paddleboarders, Rollerbladers, and volleyball players. Just south of the city, the world’s longest fishing pier runs over four miles along the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

The Tampa–Saint Petersburg–Clearwater metro area hosts several professional sports teams; fans can make a quick drive to see football, baseball, and hockey. But Saint Petersburg is also a quiet place known for its murals, museums, and seven distinct arts districts, plus attractions like the African American Heritage Trail, a self-guided walk through South Saint Pete (as locals call it) that explores Black history and influence on the city.

My brother used to live in downtown Saint Pete, which is 15 minutes by car from the Gulf and the bayside Vinoy Park. The seemingly endless coastline was his favorite part, and he could always find space to lay his beach towel—even on the Fourth of July.

The metro area is also home to one of the country’s highest concentrations of LGBTQ+ people and is considered an oasis of liberalism in an increasingly red state. In May, civil rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and NAACP, issued warnings for those thinking of traveling or moving to Florida, given the state’s new laws targeting Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ communities. While Saint Petersburg may be a happy place for many, others are leaving.

Rasheeda Johnson, a trans woman of color who was crowned this year’s Miss Saint Pete Pride, says she still feels safe in the city. But the new laws have made it “ten times harder” to get “the necessities we need as trans people,” such as gender-affirming health care. Johnson appreciates the community support, and attendance soared at this year’s Pride celebration.

Room for Improvement: Of utmost importance are the state laws affecting LGBTQ+ people and communities of color. Saint Petersburg’s local government has long presented the city as a safe and welcoming destination, and the mayor has publicly spoken out against Florida’s new laws. Robust nondiscrimination policies and support services for queer and trans youth have earned the city a perfect score on the HRC’s Municipal Equality Index for nine consecutive years, and Saint Petersburg recently hired a chief equity officer to address structural racism. On another front, sea-level rise makes the region susceptible to storm surges and flooding during hurricanes. Among other climate resilience projects to protect the city, officials are conducting a seawall assessment with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. —D.F.

A summer concert at Point Ruston in Tacoma
A summer concert at Point Ruston in Tacoma (Travel Tacoma–Mount Rainier Tourism And Sports)

Tacoma, Washington

Population: 221,776
Median Home Price: $472,500
Median Rental Price: $2,143
Percentage Parkland: 7
Percentage of Residents Who Live Within a Ten-Minute Walk of a Park: 77
Walk Score: 54
Bike Score: 61
Municipal Equality Index Score: 88
Demographics: 57% white; 12% Latino; 11% Black; 9% Asian; 3% Native; 8% other

Once known as Grit City, the erstwhile industrial port town of Tacoma is located 34 miles south of Seattle, comprises 46 miles of shoreline, and is dotted with museums, 120 parks, endless beaches, and multi-use pathways. The formerly toxic Commencement Bay has largely been cleaned up by the EPA and is frequented by orcas and paddlers, and the Thea Foss Waterway and Ruston Way Waterfront downtown have helped make the city a picturesque hub.

Improvements are ongoing. Dune Peninsula, once a toxic waste site, underwent a significant transformation and opened as an 11-acre park in 2019. Owen Beach in 760-acre Point Defiance Park reopened last year after 16 months of renovation, including better parking and picnic spots; its 500-acre old-growth forest is especially enchanting. The mountains aren’t far: the glaciated summit of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier hovers over the skyline, and skiing at Crystal Mountain is 90 minutes away (with free bus service during peak times from nearby Enumclaw).

This art-forward city is known for its glasswork. The Museum of Glass, inspired by local artist Dale Chihuly, offers free admission every third Thursday in the evening. Tacoma is fiercely independent, with an active Pride celebration put on by the Rainbow Center, and it has one of the more diverse populations in Washington State, as well as hardy residents who aren’t afraid to sign up for a 70-mile human-powered boat race.

Two local breakfast spots go far beyond mere fuel. At TibbittsFernHill, a café with just five tables in the Fern Hill neighborhood, chef Shawn Tibbitts gathers farm-fresh ingredients, cooks over a pair of propane camp stoves, and often serves free meals around the holidays to those in need. And at Campfire Coffee, owners Quincy and Whitni Henry roast beans over a wood fire, operate a gear library, and raise funds to support organizations that get underrepresented groups and kids outdoors. Their go-to site? Dash Point State Park. “I could go paddleboarding today and climb Mount Rainier tomorrow,” says Quincy. “That’s the quality of life that makes Tacoma special.”

Room for Improvement: Protected bike lanes exist, but not in every neighborhood. Similarly, “a free light-rail system runs through the core of Tacoma, but the route barely services neighborhoods that could utilize it most,” says Quincy. The city is planning an active transportation network as well as projects that will better connect trails, transit, and more neighborhoods. —M.M.

From September/October 2023 Lead Photo: Courtesy Justen Williams, 343 Media/