Thriving nightlife? Check. Walkable city streets? Check. Arts scene? Check.
The results are in, and the small to midsize city that boasts the most happening—yet still reasonably affordable—downtown of 2016 is historic Alexandria, VA, according to a recent report. Go Alexandria!
Livability.com, a real estate research and education website, looked at more than 2,000 cities with populations under 350,000 and analyzed their vacancy rates, the new developments going up, and the influx of people moving in (along with the cultural and affordability criteria above) to see just how America’s Main Streets stacked up.
“It shows [you can live in] a great downtown without having to be in a huge metropolis,” says Matt Carmichael, editor of Livability.com. “It can be more affordable than some of our larger cities, while keeping a lot of the same amenities and quality of life.”
Let’s take a stroll through some hot cities, shall we?
1. Alexandria, VA
Alexandria was crowned the top downtown of 2016 due to its famously charming mix of shops, award-winning restaurants, picture-perfect street scenes, and low crime. The close proximity to Washington, DC, didn’t hurt either.
The town also has a historic pedigree to match all that Southern glamour. It was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War, and some of its more notable residents and habitués include George Washington, whose Mount Vernon estate was a just a few miles away, and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who moved to Alexandria as a boy.
“We’ve got this rich heritage,” says Claire Mouledoux, a spokeswoman for Visit Alexandria, a group created to promote the city. “But day to day, this is a place where people live, work, and play.”
The city is particularly fond of its four-legged, tail-wagging residents, says Mouledoux. Every spring through fall, downtown eatery Jackson 20 hosts a Doggy Happy Hour, where pups can chow down on treats while their owners socialize and dine on more sophisticated grub.
2. Santa Monica, CA
The amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier is a huge draw for tourists.
This beach city, known for the tourists who flock to the big and old-fashioned amusement park on its pier, also has a three-block pedestrian promenade packed with restaurants, shops, and street performers. Some of them aren’t even mimes! It’s also one of the most walkable—and bikable—cities on the list, according to Livability.com.
The city may be a fun place to visit, but less fun for the bank accounts of those seeking to move there. The median home price in the Los Angeles suburb is a staggering $2 million. Wow!
- Greenville, SC
Greenville’s revitalized downtown features artist studios and awesome park renovations.
The city’s thriving downtown scene, in the Baptist Bible Belt, has been a long time in the making. Over the past few decades it’s been transformed from a fading downtown to a bustling Main Street with a European vibe chock-full of cute boutiques, acclaimed restaurants, and even an excellent whiskey distillery. Take that, Kentucky!
“Seven days a week, morning to night, there are people walking and enjoying the shopping and restaurants,” says Diane Lange, a real estate agent at Re/Max Realty Professionals in Greenville, SC.
The area is also “exploding” with new condos, she says. Two-bedroom units can start in the high $300,000s and run well above $800,000, she says.
However, the median home price in this Southern city is a bit more affordable at $225,000. OK, now we’re talking!
- Bellevue, WA
Bellevue’s downtown is booming in both population and coolness.
With new high-rises, food trucks, and sidewalk bistros—on top of a plethora of shops and entertainment venues—the projected growth of the city, which sits right across Lake Washington from Seattle, is on a steady incline.
The median home price in Bellevue is a whopping $1.3 million, according to realtor.com. But that is mostly in the downtown area, says Sandi Tampa, a real estate broker at Windermere Bellevue Commons.
In fact, billionaire Bill Gates lives in the nearby town of Medina.
“Prices have gone up tremendously” over the past few years, she says. “It has everything to do with job growth. It’s a lot of tech jobs. Our economy is booming.” So are home prices, apparently.
- Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh fell from the top slot in last year’s rankings, but it still held on to a place on the list.
The old steel town tumbled from its No. 1 spot in last year’s rankings due to its higher residential vacancy rate, but the place is still going strong. The historic downtown’s dining, entertainment, and arts scene remains popular with nearby students and workers, according to Livability.com.
And the median home price in this Northeastern city is a very affordable $149,900. Sweet!
- Boise, ID
Boise’s cool factor has been on the up and up, just like the many high-rises being built in its downtown.
The Midwestern city of Boise may not be top of mind for having one of the country’s coolest downtowns. But the city boasts an art museum, performance venues, as well as an array of trendy spots for dinner and drinks.
“The city has been really focused on making downtown the place to be,” says Leigh Wilson, a real estate agent with Keller Williams affiliate Boise’s Best Real Estate. “Boise’s extremely clean … and there’s lots of fun restaurants.”
Skiing and golf junkies like that Boise is just about 15 minutes from the slopes and the courses, she says.
And the downtown is also seeing a lot of new condos going up—which can range anywhere from the $300,000s to upward of $1 million, Wilson says.
The median home price for the whole city of Boise is $248,972.
- Tempe, AZ
Tempe’s downtown skyline spotlights why this city made the top 10.
The new high-rises, tech firms, and restaurants that have been popping up in this Southwestern city helped Tempe snag a spot on the list. Other features, including Tempe Lake and its array of cultural and sporting venues (any Arizona State Sun Devils fans out there?) are just icing on the cake.
Median home price: $299,500.
- Plano, TX
Plano has really taken off in recent years.
This once-sleepy city has kicked it up a few notches with new offices and residents moving in attracted by shop and restaurant openings as well as seasonal events such as free outdoor shows. No, the median home price of $375,000 in this Texas city isn’t cheap, but you sure get plenty for your money. There’s even a light rail station, put in place more than a decade ago, that connects the place to Dallas.
- Colorado Springs, CO
In the shadow of Pike’s Peak, an urban mecca grows in Colorado Springs.
Over the past few years, the art- and park-filled Colorado Springs has been taking off. The city boasts farm-to-table restaurants, a mix of historic and contemporary buildings, and tons of natural beauty.
Bonus: Outdoors aficionados will enjoy the nearby rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and mountain biking opportunities.
The best part? The median home price in the city is still affordable at $284,900.
- Evanston, IL
Evanston, once known strictly as a college town, is widening its appeal, big time.
This college town (home of Northwestern University) has gone from dead after dark to, well, hip in the past decade or so.
Apartments and condos have cropped up in the downtown as have new breweries and notable restaurants in this suburb of Chicago.
And the median home price? A mere $309,900, according to realtor.com.