Best big cities to live in America

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October 30, 2020
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Best big cities to live in America

Chicago has deep dish pizza, and New York has the foldable slice, but does that make either the best American big city to live in? We’re not so sure. In fact, as this slideshow will detail, it takes much more than a delectable pie to set a city apart from burgeoning places in Ohio, the picturesque views of Hawaii’s beaches, and a setting with its own “Garden of Gods.” Cost of living, activities, parks, nightlife, dining, and schools all are important factors—just as much as or even more than the meals at Pizzeria Uno and Grimaldi’s (and Cincinnatians might argue that Skyline Chili tops them both).

To find the best big U.S. cities to live in, Stacker consulted Niche's 2020 list of best places to live. While there is no strict definition of "big city," for the purposes of this analysis, any city with more than 200,000 in population was considered a big city. Each slide includes the population, median home value, median rent, and median household income.

There’a a wide variety of cities on this list, from East Coast staples with massive science centers to Midwest cities rooted in the lore of Route 66. Perhaps surprisingly, certain cities in Nebraska and Wisconsin rank higher than some of the most well-known and populated cities in the U.S., but that’s what civic pride, tight infrastructure, and a diverse arts scene will do for a place’s reputation. We also discuss the perks of cities with bowling museums, annual festivals dedicated to American cowboys, and the charm of a budding Southern locale, much to the chagrin of a certain Hall of Fame basketball coach.

Click through to find out if your hometown made the list, and be sure to check out other Stacker stories like the “Best small towns for retirees in America.”

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#50. Columbus, Ohio

- Population: 867,628
- Median home value: $143,000 (45% own)
- Median rent: $928 (55% rent)
- Median household income: $51,612

Columbus is more than just a college town—the home of Ohio State University has a historical German Village, an arts district, and botanical gardens. Hockey fans can take in a Columbus Blue Jackets game, while soccer fans soak up one of the best atmospheres in Major League Soccer at Columbus Crew matches.

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#49. Mesa, Arizona

- Population: 491,194
- Median home value: $209,700 (60% own)
- Median rent: $988 (40% rent)
- Median household income: $54,700

Mesa is home to a variety of museums for residents of all ages, including the Mesa Arts Center, the i.d.e.a. Museum, and the Arizona Museum of Natural History. The city has a dedicated program to reduce homelessness and draws tourists with several golf courses within the city limits.

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#48. Cincinnati, Ohio

- Population: 300,357
- Median home value: $129,100 (38% own)
- Median rent: $709 (62% rent)
- Median household income: $38,542

Sitting on the Ohio River and near Indiana and Kentucky, Cincinnati is a hub of the Midwest. Large colleges like Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati employ thousands, as do Mitsubishi and Kroger. Locals go crazy over Skyline Chili, which is chili served with spaghetti and cheese.

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#47. Fort Wayne, Indiana

- Population: 264,052
- Median home value: $110,600 (62% own)
- Median rent: $735 (38% rent)
- Median household income: $48,023

Fort Wayne has many attractions for kids, such as a children’s zoo, a science center, and an animal sanctuary. Residents can spend hours learning about the city’s rich African American history and peruse public collections of African art at local museums. For adults looking for a tasty brew, the Northern Indiana Beer Trail offers several tasty options.

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#46. Jacksonville, Florida

- Population: 878,907
- Median home value: $160,900 (56% own)
- Median rent: $1,029 (44% rent)
- Median household income: $52,576

Jacksonville draws many visitors to its beaches, but this Florida city also has the nation’s oldest skatepark. The downtown art walk is a monthly gathering spot, while the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is open daily and features African spoonbills and jaguars. The other Jaguars, the local NFL team, inhabit TIAA Bank Field.

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#45. Jersey City, New Jersey

- Population: 261,746
- Median home value: $362,100 (29% own)
- Median rent: $1,334 (71% rent)
- Median household income: $65,923

A stone’s throw away from New York City, Jersey City is appealing to natives of the Garden State and commuters into the Big Apple. Liberty Science Center is one of the biggest science museums in the country and provides fun and education for all ages. The city is also home to several colleges and universities.

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#44. Colorado Springs, Colorado

- Population: 457,502
- Median home value: $248,700 (59% own)
- Median rent: $1,072 (41% rent)
- Median household income: $61,324

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training center is based in Colorado Springs, while the Air Force Academy is just north of the city limits. The Garden of Gods offers nature and recreation options, while spas, casinos, and golf courses provide plenty of entertainment for adults.

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#43. Honolulu, Hawaii

- Population: 401,549
- Median home value: $713,300 (49% own)
- Median rent: $1,494 (51% rent)
- Median household income: $73,447

Aside from its famous beaches and beautiful weather, Honolulu is packed with history. Pearl Harbor is a short drive away, while the Bishop Museum and Honolulu Symphony are local favorites. Foodie culture is booming in Honolulu, with top-flight restaurants offering some of the best sashimi and poi.

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#42. Wichita, Kansas

- Population: 389,563
- Median home value: $128,600 (59% own)
- Median rent: $789 (41% rent)
- Median household income: $50,867

An invested city arts program and Riverfest that draws almost 500,000 visitors to Wichita can make it feel like you’re not in Kansas anymore. But the city has plenty of quiet Midwest charm, as found in the scenery along the Arkansas River. Wichita is also one of the country’s most walkable cities, and Wichita State University is a major hub of education in Kansas.

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#41. San Antonio, Texas

- Population: 1,486,521
- Median home value: $136,800 (54% own)
- Median rent: $958 (46% rent)
- Median household income: $50,980

San Antonio’s River Walk claims to be the top attraction in Texas, and its cuisine, kayaking, and ghost tours lend credence to the claim. San Antonio is also home to The Alamo (which doesn’t have a basement) and the NBA’s Spurs. There’s a Six Flags theme park nearby, and each year thousands flock to the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

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#40. Tulsa, Oklahoma

- Population: 402,223
- Median home value: $133,900 (51% own)
- Median rent: $810 (49% rent)
- Median household income: $46,113

Tulsa has long been known for its oil production, but it’s also chock-full of history thanks to its location along Route 66. In 1921, Tulsa was the site of one of the worst massacres in American history; now, local officials are searching for victims after the plight of Tulsa’s Greenwood District (better known as “Black Wall Street”) gained national recognition this past summer. Tulsa is also making an effort to promote its Native American roots.

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#39. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

- Population: 637,284
- Median home value: $153,700 (59% own)
- Median rent: $849 (41% rent)
- Median household income: $54,034

Sam Anderson’s book “Boom Town” captured the big-city feel of this Midwestern locale. The arrival of the NBA’s Thunder franchise has helped modernize the city center, while the aviation industry has long been an anchor for Oklahoma City.

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#38. Dallas, Texas

- Population: 1,318,806
- Median home value: $169,400 (41% own)
- Median rent: $987 (59% rent)
- Median household income: $50,100

Dallas is more than just the Cowboys. The city proudly plans numerous Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations each year, and Deep Ellum is a neighborhood becoming known for its hints of Austin-like quirkiness and Memphis blues. A massive light rail system and nearby international airport make this one of the busiest and easiest to travel to cities in Texas.

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#37. Arlington, Texas

- Population: 392,462
- Median home value: $157,600 (55% own)
- Median rent: $997 (45% rent)
- Median household income: $58,502

Arlington is home to the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, and a Six Flags theme park. Located just west of Dallas, Arlington enjoys the fruits of that city while exuding its own unique vibe. For example, Arlington hosts the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, as well as a variety of haunted houses.

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#36. Nashville, Tennessee

- Population: 660,062
- Median home value: $216,500 (54% own)
- Median rent: $1,033 (46% rent)
- Median household income: $55,873

Smashville” is the nickname given to this Tennessee city, home of the NHL’s Predators and NFL’s Titans. Aside from pro sports, Nashville has one of the country’s most popular music scenes—hence the other nickname, “Music City”—and is home to Vanderbilt University. There’s also a diverse food scene and great views from the Parthenon, which is a replica of the Greek monument.

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#35. Denver, Colorado

- Population: 693,417
- Median home value: $357,300 (50% own)
- Median rent: $1,217 (50% rent)
- Median household income: $63,793

A short drive away from the Rocky Mountains, Denver is a prime location for summer outdoor activities, skiing, and snowboarding. The legalization of marijuana has reshaped politics, health, and criminal justice in Denver. The Mile High City has long been a center of folk music and Mexican culture.

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#34. New York City, New York

- Population: 8,443,713
- Median home value: $570,500 (33% own)
- Median rent: $1,396 (67% rent)
- Median household income: $60,762

Broadway, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Wall Street—the list goes on and on when it comes to notable landmarks in the Big Apple. Outside of these tourist spots, Flushing is a prime spot for cheap eats, and the East Village still contains the diviest of dive bars. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, New York, a city notorious for high rents, is seeing a dip in the cost of living, as many residents are leaving the city and creating more vacancies than usual.

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#33. Winston-Salem, North Carolina

- Population: 242,125
- Median home value: $144,400 (54% own)
- Median rent: $782 (46% rent)
- Median household income: $44,311

Winston-Salem is known for its ties to the tobacco industry, but the city has plenty of historic houses, parks, and museums. An exciting craft beer scene is brewing in Winston-Salem, and Wake Forest and Winston Salem State are two notable colleges in the city. The Innovation Quarter attracts workers from around the world.

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#32. Houston, Texas

- Population: 2,295,982
- Median home value: $161,300 (43% own)
- Median rent: $990 (57% rent)
- Median household income: $51,140

For almost 60 years, NASA has been an integral part of Houston’s growth. The city now has museums, an aquarium, a zoo, and several theaters, along with professional sports teams in baseball, basketball, football, and soccer. Houston is home to numerous colleges and hospitals, making it a center of academia not only in Texas, but also in the U.S. as a whole.

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#31. Portland, Oregon

- Population: 639,387
- Median home value: $383,600 (53% own)
- Median rent: $1,187 (47% rent)
- Median household income: $65,740

As Portland grew in size, the city created several initiatives to make the city “green.” Locals can still escape the bustle of city life at locations like the Lan Su Chinese Garden and The Grotto. Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear all have headquarters close by, fitting for Portland’s outdoorsy reputation.

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#30. Orlando, Florida

- Population: 275,690
- Median home value: $217,800 (35% own)
- Median rent: $1,139 (65% rent)
- Median household income: $48,511

Known for its theme parks, Orlando is also home to the University of Central Florida, which has emerged as one of the largest colleges in the country. Orlando’s public schools are seeing gains as well, with record high school graduation rates. The city is also a prime spot for wildlife and birding.

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#29. Kansas City, Missouri

- Population: 481,417
- Median home value: $148,500 (53% own)
- Median rent: $899 (47% rent)
- Median household income: $52,405

The home of the reigning Super Bowl champions, Kansas City was a barbecue paradise before Patrick Mahomes arrived to play with the NFL’s Chiefs. Kansas City is also one of America’s great cities for jazz, dating back to the 1920s.

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#28. Boise, Idaho

- Population: 224,300
- Median home value: $230,800 (60% own)
- Median rent: $910 (40% rent)
- Median household income: $56,798

Hiking and river activities are a popular pastime in Boise. The city is becoming a rising place for meetings and conventions—the Go West Summit landed in Boise in 2019. You can also take in one of the most unique sports experiences in the world here: watching a football game on the blue turf at Boise State University.

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#27. Greensboro, North Carolina

- Population: 288,719
- Median home value: $152,900 (50% own)
- Median rent: $846 (50% rent)
- Median household income: $46,702

Don’t listen to Syracuse men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim—Greensboro has a lot to offer.

(Boeheim, a New York native, once lamented that the annual ACC tournament wasn’t held more often in his home state.) A science center, colonial history sites, and numerous fruit farms are among the highlights in Greensboro. The city is also home to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

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#26. Lubbock, Texas

- Population: 250,415
- Median home value: $131,500 (51% own)
- Median rent: $928 (49% rent)
- Median household income: $48,701

Texas Tech University is a major employer in Lubbock, and Lubbock High School is recognized as one of the top high schools in the state. Each year, the National Cowboy Symposium & Celebration pays homage to cowboy culture.

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#25. San Diego, California

- Population: 1,401,932
- Median home value: $569,100 (47% own)
- Median rent: $1,611 (53% rent)
- Median household income: $75,456

With its ideal weather and coastal location, San Diego is often regarded as one of the best areas to live in the country. The Southern California city is known for its naval ties and for being a great place for taco lovers. The La Jolla Playhouse produces some of theater’s top talents.

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#24. Durham, North Carolina

- Population: 264,310
- Median home value: $207,900 (49% own)
- Median rent: $1,005 (51% rent)
- Median household income: $55,851

Home to Duke University’s sprawling campus, Durham is plopped in the middle of North Carolina’s inventive research triangle. It has access to a major airport and highly ranked public high schools. Plus, the minor league baseball team is just as revered as its major league counterparts.

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#23. Boston, Massachusetts

- Population: 679,413
- Median home value: $487,300 (35% own)
- Median rent: $1,539 (65% rent)
- Median household income: $65,883

Boston public schools claim to be the “birthplace of public education” in America, which includes creating the first public school for the deaf in 1869. The city has a robust public transportation system and is the business and entertainment hub of New England. Still, even with all of this fast-paced action, Boston remains very much a college town.

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#22. St. Paul, Minnesota

- Population: 302,760
- Median home value: $196,500 (50% own)
- Median rent: $935 (50% rent)
- Median household income: $55,085

Whether it be walking along Summit Avenue, biking along the Mississippi River, or boating near Pike Island, St. Paul is an outdoorsman’s dream. Next to Minneapolis, St. Paul has its own big-city perks like the Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. In late 2020, the city began making more of an effort to spotlight Black-owned businesses.

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#21. Virginia Beach, Virginia

- Population: 450,135
- Median home value: $274,300 (64% own)
- Median rent: $1,339 (36% rent)
- Median household income: $74,186

With its location on the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach is a coastal haven for outdoor activities. Sandbridge offers secluded fishing and kayaking, and nearby Pungo is known for its countryside charm. Virginia Beach also has a moderate climate, with only about two inches of snow per year, and average highs in November above 60 degrees.

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#20. Atlanta, Georgia

- Population: 479,655
- Median home value: $261,400 (43% own)
- Median rent: $1,099 (57% rent)
- Median household income: $55,279

Atlanta has great cuisine and civil rights history, and it’s home to big employers like CNN and Coca-Cola. Atlanta proudly celebrates its music culture, while Atlanta United FC has some of the most raucous fans in Major League Soccer. Grady High School is a notable city high school, with its high participation in AP classes.

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#19. St. Petersburg, Florida

- Population: 259,041
- Median home value: $182,900 (59% own)
- Median rent: $1,067 (41% rent)
- Median household income: $53,816

Benefitting from the resources available from Clearwater and Tampa, St. Petersburg offers aquariums, water activities, and a luxurious new St. Pete Pier. The numerous craft breweries give St. Pete its “Gulp Coast” nickname, and the city has various attractions for the LGBTQ+ community.

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#18. Irving, Texas

- Population: 238,637
- Median home value: $165,000 (37% own)
- Median rent: $1,086 (63% rent)
- Median household income: $61,937

Irving lies in close proximity to Dallas and is the home of corporate giants like ExxonMobil. Many spots in Irving connect to Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and the Toyota Music Factory is a giant entertainment complex in the city. The Irving Arts Center hosts 10 resident arts organizations.

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#17. Lincoln, Nebraska

- Population: 280,849
- Median home value: $161,200 (57% own)
- Median rent: $822 (43% rent)
- Median household income: $55,224

The University of Nebraska is a major force in Lincoln, a city that for decades has been home to a large refugee community. The city hosts many major events in Nebraska such as the Cornhusker State Games, and it’s home to the National Museum of Roller Skating and the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia.

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#16. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

- Population: 303,587
- Median home value: $116,300 (48% own)
- Median rent: $922 (52% rent)
- Median household income: $45,831

Pittsburgh has always had a neighborly feel—”Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” was filmed there—and the city is pitching in to many communities during the coronavirus pandemic. Laptops are being provided to low-income neighborhoods to bridge the digital divide, while native Yinzers are making sure families don’t go hungry during this stressful time. When stadiums are allowed full capacities, PNC Park is one of the best places in the country to view a ballgame.

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#15. Omaha, Nebraska

- Population: 465,112
- Median home value: $151,100 (58% own)
- Median rent: $896 (42% rent)
- Median household income: $56,780

Nebraska’s largest city is anchored by the business of major companies like TD Ameritrade and Green Plains Inc. The Omaha Zoo and Aquarium is world-renowned for featuring the planet’s largest indoor desert. Each summer, Omaha brings in thousands of tourists and baseball fans by hosting the College World Series.

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#14. Lexington, Kentucky

- Population: 318,734
- Median home value: $180,700 (54% own)
- Median rent: $864 (46% rent)
- Median household income: $54,918

Louisville may host the Kentucky Derby, but Lexington is the Horse Capital of the World. Lexington is known for its thoroughbred breeding and is home to the Kentucky Horse Park. The University of Kentucky's fingerprints are also all over Lexington, with Rupp Arena the site of one of college basketball’s most intense fan atmospheres.

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#13. Washington, D.C.

- Population: 684,498
- Median home value: $568,400 (42% own)
- Median rent: $1,487 (58% rent)
- Median household income: $82,604

Aside from the historical sites, museums, and landmarks peppered throughout Washington, D.C., the city is also a major center of higher education. The Cherry Blossoms draw many tourists, but locals can enjoy nature inside the National Arboretum on a daily basis. According to Conde Nast Traveler, last year the city had a taxpayer surplus, and Washington, D.C. was praised for its hotels and upgraded wharf.

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#12. Tampa, Florida

- Population: 376,345
- Median home value: $217,400 (48% own)
- Median rent: $1,082 (52% rent)
- Median household income: $50,909

In October, Tampa became one of America’s booming sports cities when the NHL’s Lightning won the Stanley Cup and the Rays made the World Series. The city is also known for Busch Gardens and other theme parks, plus museums like Dinosaur World. Many retirees enjoy Tampa’s beaches, parks, and abundance of pickleball courts.

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#11. Charlotte, North Carolina

- Population: 841,611
- Median home value: $200,500 (53% own)
- Median rent: $1,086 (47% rent)
- Median household income: $60,886

Charlotte is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and is one of America’s racing capitals. Going for a dip in swimming holes is a popular recreational pastime in Charlotte, and pottery and arts and crafts lovers can find many options to flex their creativity. Cato Middle College High is recognized as one of the state’s best high schools.

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#10. Minneapolis, Minnesota

- Population: 416,021
- Median home value: $235,900 (47% own)
- Median rent: $985 (53% rent)
- Median household income: $58,993

Tourism organizations in Minneapolis are promoting the heritage of the city’s Black community, highlighting businesses and artists that are central to the area’s culture. The University of Minnesota’s influence can be seen throughout the city, while the nearby Mall of America and U.S. Bank Stadium are other popular institutions. Minneapolis has a fluid public transportation system and receives a boost from the headquarters of major businesses like Target.

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#9. Scottsdale, Arizona

- Population: 246,026
- Median home value: $455,900 (66% own)
- Median rent: $1,284 (34% rent)
- Median household income: $84,601

Scottsdale benefits from being near a metropolis like Phoenix, while also having its own perks. With average highs in the mid-60s in January, Scottsdale is a prime location for retirees (with lots of golf, tennis, and swimming available). However, the city also appeals to younger residents with events like the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show and the Barrett-Jackson Auto Show.

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#8. Austin, Texas

- Population: 935,755
- Median home value: $312,300 (45% own)
- Median rent: $1,225 (55% rent)
- Median household income: $67,462

The home of the University of Texas may have the motto, “Keep Austin Weird,” but the city’s eccentricity is not its only selling point. Locals and tourists wait for hours before dawn to eat at Franklin BBQ (President Barack Obama was able to skip the line), but the city has dozens of other great eats. Austin draws a diverse collection of creatives to live and work there and is home to the annual South By Southwest festival.

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#7. Madison, Wisconsin

- Population: 252,086
- Median home value: $234,100 (47% own)
- Median rent: $1,068 (53% rent)
- Median household income: $62,906

The University of Wisconsin is based in Madison, and Camp Randall Stadium is one of college sports’ loudest venues. Frank Lloyd Wright created several notable buildings throughout the city, and several large lakes provide numerous recreational opportunities. Madison has won awards for its parks, water quality, and amenities for veterans.

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#6. Seattle, Washington

- Population: 708,823
- Median home value: $605,200 (46% own)
- Median rent: $1,496 (54% rent)
- Median household income: $85,562

Along with having the Space Needle and Pike Place Fish Market, Seattle is consistently one of America’s greenest cities. Of course, the city has a great coffee scene (it's the home of Starbucks), plus high-ranking school districts. The WNBA’s Seattle Storm are one of professional sports’ winningest franchises.

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#5. San Francisco, California

- Population: 870,044
- Median home value: $1,009,500 (38% own)
- Median rent: $1,805 (62% rent)
- Median household income: $104,552

Trolley cars and fishing remain staples of San Francisco’s lifestyle, but the city continues to evolve. San Francisco’s proximity to ingenious tech companies makes it a prime location for innovators—Reddit and Airbnb are among several industry players headquartered in the Bay Area. The Golden State Warriors have revolutionized basketball with their freewheeling style of play, and the new Chase Center is a state-of-the-art arena.

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#4. Raleigh, North Carolina

- Population: 457,159
- Median home value: $236,700 (52% own)
- Median rent: $1,074 (48% rent)
- Median household income: $63,891

With a major airport, Raleigh connects the middle of North Carolina to the rest of the country. North Carolina State and the Research Triangle are major economic engines, and year-round festivals keep locals entertained with a variety of activities.

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#3. Irvine, California

- Population: 265,502
- Median home value: $797,100 (47% own)
- Median rent: $2,259 (53% rent)
- Median household income: $100,969

With a top research university in town, Irvine is a cutting-edge city. There are 16,500 acres of parks and over 100 global corporations based in Irvine, plus rare perks like whale watching. The city has been named “America’s Safest Big City” by the FBI.

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#2. Plano, Texas

- Population: 284,579
- Median home value: $291,300 (60% own)
- Median rent: $1,330 (40% rent)
- Median household income: $92,121

The fourth city on this list in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Plano sets itself apart with a bustling arts district, nature preserves, and even a Crayola museum. JCPenney, Keurig, Dr. Pepper, and Rent-A-Center have major headquarters in Plano, which is known for mild winters and pleasant summer nights.

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#1. Arlington, Virginia

- Population: 231,803
- Median home value: $669,400 (43% own)
- Median rent: $1,936 (57% rent)
- Median household income: $117,374

Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon are two pillars of Arlington’s culture, setting this Washington, D.C., neighbor apart from other areas in the Beltway. Annual Jazz and Blues festivals draw huge crowds, and Arlington has been rated a top city for LGBTQ+ rights. The Washington Metro system serves Arlington, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is a major employer in the city.

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