The Best Places To Live A strong economy, good schools, cultural and recreational opportunities, and safety--on the streets, in the air and in the drinking water. Together they make these six cities our favorites.
By Jon Gertner with Roberta Kirwan

(MONEY Magazine) – It might make life easier if we all agreed about what's most important in a hometown--if we could somehow forge an ironclad rule about what makes a city, big or small, the best place to live. Of course we can't. We don't see cities as they are; we see them as we are. We know that a culture hound delighted by New York City might find a small town limiting, and that a sun devil at ease in Phoenix could find a Minnesota winter rough going. Great places to live? Sure. It just depends on what you want.

To make this year's picks, we sifted through demographic and U.S. Census data compiled by Fast Forward, a consulting firm in Portland, Ore., to see how the 300 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas stack up in 46 different areas. We focused on the things that matter most to MONEY's readers: economy, education, culture, recreation and safety--on the streets, in the air and in the drinking water. In the end, we awarded top honors to one large city and one small city, and picked four runners-up. We think the statistics, along with the testimony of residents in these pages, make our case, but if you want something different, visit our website at Plug in exactly what you want from a hometown, and you'll be sure to get the best.


SAN FRANCISCO BEST BIG CITY A booming economy and superb recreational opportunities, from sailing to dining

You might think that San Francisco captured top honors this year because of the tech explosion and its proximity to Silicon Valley. True enough, there's nice work here, and you can get it. The city's recent job growth placed it among the top one-third in the country; its low 2.3% unemployment rate put it among the best 50 metro areas in the U.S. And those figures are just for San Francisco proper. Include the neighboring cities of Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and the like, and you've pretty much found the center of the wired universe--a place that's home not only to Fortune 500 heavyweights such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Oracle, but to legions of dotcom start-ups as well.

Still, San Franciscans actually talk about things other than stock options and venture capital. And they actually do things other than build Web pages and retire early. What sets the city apart in this year's best places rankings isn't merely its gangbusters economy. It's the fact that its air-pollution ranking puts it in the cleanest 5% of metro areas. It's also the fact that it boasts first-rate museums, plenty of pro and college sports teams and more restaurants per resident than any other city in the U.S. Finally, it's the city's wide range of recreational opportunities--great places to swim, sail, hike and ski are easy to reach--that clinched it.

Those are the attributes that have helped lure thirtysomething couples like David Sze, who works at tech company Excite @Home, and Kathleen Donohue, a graduate student at UC-Berkeley, to the city. Says Sze: "In three hours, you're skiing in Tahoe. Two hours south, you're in Carmel. Two hours in the other direction, you're in the wine country."

Dick Pierce, a 41-year-old high-tech executive, feels a similar sense of possibility about the Bay Area. Though Pierce works in Silicon Valley, he prefers living with his wife and two kids in San Francisco. Part of the reason is the night life: the symphony, the theater, the dining out. But being outdoors ranks just as high. "On Sunday morning," he says, "I can bike across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County and back in less than two hours. It's the most scenic bike ride in the world."

A pretty picture--but not a perfect one. For one thing, San Francisco's prosperity can't erase the threat of a powerful earthquake. Another concern, especially for families, is that the city's public school system has one of the highest student/teacher ratios in the country. Most troubling of all, though, is the extraordinary cost of living here. Newcomers encounter a housing market untethered from the laws of reason or gravity. Even successful young tech executives like Sze, daunted by astronomical home prices, are currently renting. "The Silicon Valley economy is driving San Francisco prices through the roof," explains Joe Moore, managing principal of Ritchie-Hallanan Real Estate. "In nicer neighborhoods it's hard to find a four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house for under $600,000."

All of which shores up the argument that the finest rarely comes cheap. If you're visiting or living in San Francisco, MONEY's editors think you are already in the best place. And if you are intent on moving to the Bay Area and putting down roots? Unfortunately, you're going to have to pay the price.

ROCHESTER MINN. BEST SMALL CITY Good schools, high-tech job growth, easy commuting and the Mayo Clinic

To understand Rochester, Minn., it helps to understand someone like Ed Hruska. Hruska's always been convinced that he lives in the best of all possible places. He grew up in Rochester; he married his wife Sue in Rochester; and now, at age 42, he's watching as his two children, ages 14 and 16, attend school in Rochester. Nine years ago, he built a 2,200-square-foot home for a cost of $130,000. In Rochester, he says, "it's not unusual for the neighbors to get together and paint someone's house or to rent a power raker to blow leaves for the whole block." That's the kind of thing that gives the city the small-town flavor he likes--a place where life moves at a leisurely pace, without a lot of hassles. Every morning Hruska leaves his home at 7:45 for his job at the hospital downtown. He gets there by eight.

It could be any town, of course--it could even be Mayberry if there weren't a power raker involved. But if you look a little closer, everything in Rochester has a shine to it. Hruska's commuting time is the lowest of any metropolitan area in the country. His fellow citizens have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country. Perhaps most important, the hospital where Hruska works as a credit union administrator is the Mayo Clinic, far and away the city's largest employer. The clinic helps give Rochester residents access to outstanding medical facilities; it also provides them with more doctors per capita than any other metro area in the U.S.

And there are more things about Rochester that make MONEY's editors think it's simply the best small city in America. Its crime rate, for instance, ranks among the lowest 20% of all metro areas; its unemployment rate is the fifth lowest in the country. Housing prices are slightly above the median, yet residents can be assured that real estate is a good investment: Rochester's home appreciation rate, at 6.7%, is in the top quarter of all metro areas. Then there are the jobs--plenty of them. Expansion at the Mayo Clinic has always helped spur the local economy, but the city's recent rate of job growth--No. 3 in the country--is due also to high-tech companies such as IBM and Western Digital.

Even small entrepreneurs like Cris Fischer, who owns a retail shop selling skating gear and dancewear, and her husband, who owns an electrical contracting firm, are doing exceptionally well. "The economy is unbelievable," explains Fischer. "There are HELP WANTED signs all over the place. Both of our companies are understaffed."

One thing to remember about Rochester is that it has the sophistication of a larger metro area, but not the congestion or the complications. There are several art galleries, good restaurants and a repertory theater. For Minnesota Twins or Vikings fans or those craving a faster pace for the day, the Twin Cities are a little over an hour's drive north.

Still, there is an obvious downside: a bone-cracking cold winter. Cris Fischer admits that the winters are starting to feel longer and longer. So doesn't it compromise her affection for the town? "Climate is irrelevant to life," she asserts. And life, she says--counting off civic activities, one after the other--is something Rochester has plenty of.


NEW YORK CITY Noisy and pricey but unmatched in its vitality

Regardless of any honor this magazine bestows upon it, New York City will always have the distinction of being the most reviled and beloved city in the country. We can't change that. But to readers surprised to find the nation's most controversial metropolitan area listed as a best place to live, we acknowledge the negatives: the longest commute time in the country, sky-high home prices and some of the most troubled public schools. Despite precipitous drops in recent years, violent crime is still more common than in 288 of the 300 largest U.S. metro areas.

MONEY's editors--all of whom work or live in New York--tried mightily to put aside the idea of our city. We didn't intend to pick the home of the $9 sandwich, the $4 Coke, the $200,000 studio apartment. We worried over charges of bias. We reviewed the data on Boston, Pittsburgh and Providence--all of which boast resurgent economies and revitalized urban centers.

But the best big city in the East this year had to be New York. Why? Put simply, the fact that no other city could equal its economy, vitality and culture. New York's recent job growth puts it in the top quarter of all metro areas; its ranking for M.D.s per capita places it in the top 15. New York has more in the way of sports teams and good restaurants, plus the most extensive mass transit system. And in all our culture rankings--museums, theater, libraries, dance, opera and the like--New York is No. 1 or in the top 5%.

What finally convinced us was the halo effect: Nassau and Suffolk counties, on neighboring Long Island, along with suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut, score at or near the top for public-school spending and recreation. Millions have found family-friendly towns within an hour of the city dynamo.

In the end, we knew that New York earned a spot here. Not for everyone? We could plausibly argue the opposite.

AUSTIN Lots of jobs, a low cost of living and great music

This is the story of a good town that knew how to get better.

Austin has always been graced by its location--nestled in the Texas Hill Country, it has too much rolling terrain, too much in the way of grass and wildflowers, to be mistaken for the flat and dusty Texas of the imagination. Built around government (the state capitol dome lords over downtown) and education (the state university is the city's largest employer and cultural force), it's both artsy and smart. What it never was, however, was an economic juggernaut. Then in the late 1980s, as the state's economy stalled, Austin's most powerful boosters took a look at what places like San Jose were doing right, says Bill Renfro, who heads the city's chamber of commerce. If that city could be built on technology, the thinking went, why couldn't Austin?

Of course, the story has a happy ending. The city succeeded in wooing start-up shops and creating a remarkably hospitable business environment. A young UT student named Michael Dell built a computer company in town that now employs 19,800 and has seen its stock price increase by some 52,000% since its 1988 IPO. Today, Austin sometimes seems to have as many techies as San Jose has. In recent job growth, Austin ranks seventh in the nation--and in future job growth, third. Its unemployment rate falls in the lowest 10%. At the same time, it's affordable: The cost of living is in the lowest 30% of all metro areas.

But Austin wouldn't make MONEY's Best Places list if it were just a tech boomtown. In addition to the outdoors appeal of the Hill Country, the city--with a metro area of just over a million--boasts symphonies, art museums, film festivals, good restaurants and good football as well as some of the best live music in the country. For those looking for safe, clean water, it has that too. So in one sense you could say they're lucky in Austin. Then again, the city had a good thing going even before it saw its first microchip; it just took a while for everyone to catch on.


BOULDER Clean water and air, and topnotch education

Like so many other western towns, Boulder dates back to the mid-1800s, when it was founded as a supply stop for prospectors heading into the Flatirons. Nowadays, nobody passes through Boulder without staying for a while and, if they do go upland, they're hauling skis or climbing gear.

This isn't base camp anymore. A slew of high-tech companies have set up shop here, helping boost the city's recent job growth to the top 15% of all metro areas. Much like two of our other picks, Austin and Columbia, Mo., the city (with a metro area population of 258,234) is anchored by a first-rate state university that's also its largest employer.

Is it clean? It has the cleanest watershed in the U.S., and air pollution scores that put it among the 50 cleanest cities. Its violent crime rate puts it among the safest 15% of cities. And Boulder residents post the fourth highest high school graduation rate in the country.

"Everyone expects to have balance in their lives and to enjoy nature," says Neal Lurie, a 27-year-old personnel executive. "You can have an active, well-rounded lifestyle here. You can take off during lunch and bike up the side of the mountain, and after work you can go on a two-hour hike." If you're not so vigorous, Lurie adds, there are plenty of other things to do--on any given night, he and his wife have their pick of concerts and restaurants. Plus, the city claims more used bookstores per capita than any other city in the nation.

MONEY did find some downsides. The cost of living is above the national median, and housing prices are in the top third of all metro areas. It's a matter of supply and demand: Boulder has limited residential building in an effort to preserve its intimate character. So far it seems to have worked, but not without frustrating businesspeople and residents alike. For a city with so much going for it, you have to question how long it can slow down progress.

COLUMBIA MO. A safe, smart small town with a big university

Columbia lies smack in the center of Missouri--halfway between Kansas City in the west and St. Louis in the east. Look at a map of the U.S., and you can see that it's pretty much in the center of the country as well. Maybe that's why it has such good balance. Residents like to point out that Columbia's a small town with a big university, a place that's midwestern in its sensibilities but carries a southern flavor too. Looking for Columbia in a nutshell? "Well-rounded" might work. The city is safe, smart and bustling, with lots to do both indoors (theaters, galleries and music) and out (hiking, biking and plenty of parks).

"The economy is terrific, the air is clear, the water is clean, and it's easy to get around," says Leonard Riskin, a law professor at the University of Missouri. Riskin's wife Casey Damme adds that the town has a way-things-used-to-be appeal. "It was the one place we could re-create for our son an almost 1950s-ish setting," she says. "I could walk with him, holding his hand, to an old brick schoolhouse and literally everyone would wave and say hi on the way."

There aren't any statistics to measure that kind of comfort. But there are plenty of other impressive figures. First and foremost, the city--its metro area totals 125,676 residents--has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. The price of an average home puts Columbia in the most affordable 15% of all cities, and its cost of living places it in the best 20%. Education scores are high, thanks to a low student/faculty ratio in the public schools and to the resources of the University of Missouri and Stephens College, a small liberal arts institution founded here in 1833. Finally, there's the economy. Projections for future job growth rank Columbia in the top 10% of U.S. metro areas.

MONEY's editors believe all this adds up to a great place to live. In fact, we doubt whether Columbia can stay undiscovered for long. Something to think about, perhaps, if you're flying over the heartland, midway between the East and West coasts, wondering what you're missing in between.

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