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AARP Bulletin

Best Places to Retire

10 Great Small Cities for Retirement

Looking for a place where there's lots to do, but you won't get lost in the crowd? Check out our top picks

En español | In thinking about your retirement plans, are you drawn to urban living but deterred by the chaos, crowds and high cost of big-city life?

Lakes and mountains are a summer treat for grandchildren in Burlington-Vermont- a young girl plays in a lake

Lakes and mountains are a summer treat for grandchildren in Burlington, Vermont. — Adam Jeffery/Getty Images

If so, you might find just what you're looking for in a small city — one that combines the energy and excitement of cosmopolitan life with the charm and neighborliness of a small town.

To help you find such a place, we scoured dozens of small cities throughout the United States and selected our 10 favorites.

In making our picks, we focused on cities with a unique sense of place and a manageable size: Each has a population under 100,000 — small enough to easily navigate but large enough to offer a wide array of culture, amenities and services. These are cities with fairly solid economic foundations and low crime rates. Many are home to colleges and universities, as well as museums, concert halls and theaters. 

Take a look at our list and see if you can find the city that feels just right for you.

Burlington, Vermont

What's not to love about a town that offers world-class urban planning, a thriving, artsy economy and easy access to myriad outdoor activities, including excellent skiing and sailing? Ah yes: the cold. OK, Burlington is in northern Vermont, which means winters come early, stay late and mean business. But to many folks, that's a fair trade off.

See also: Where to retire for a good life for less

Burlington, located about 180 miles northwest of Boston and 75 miles south of Montreal, scores high for livability among seniors. In 2008, AARP honored the Winooski Falls neighborhood with a livable community award for its blend of businesses, residences, public transportation and recreational spaces.

The city's centerpiece is Church Street Marketplace, a four-block, partially enclosed pedestrian mall that mixes Victorian and Art Deco buildings with modern structures to create a thriving city center. Casual and fine dining, coffee shops and bars, galleries and shops — it's all here. The site of the first Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, founded in the late 1970s, is now a parking lot but its reincarnation is nearby on Church Street. The marketplace, like much of Burlington, often buzzes with college-town energy from the 11,000 students at the University of Vermont. 

Retirees seeking culture can check out the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, a 1,453-seat Art Deco masterpiece built in 1930, which hosts the local symphony, a musical theater group, touring musicians and, in June, the Discover Jazz Festival. Classical and jazz musicians perform on the UVM campus, and professional and student actors take the stage at the university's Royall Tyler Theatre. And UVM's Robert Hull Fleming Museum has an extensive collection of fine art and ethnographic material, as well as space for traveling exhibits.

The city sits on the shores of Lake Champlain, a great place for sailing, kayaking, fishing and more. Miles of lakefront trails keep walkers, joggers and cyclists in shape, and numerous ski resorts, including Stowe, Sugarbush, Mad River Glen and Jay Peak, are within easy reach.  

Reasons for pause, besides the winters, include high taxes and expensive housing. But the median household income is also way above average, and housing foreclosures are almost unknown. If your retirement daydreams involve a healthy, culturally rich, lakeside town, Burlington may be for you.

The B-52s performed an anniversary concert at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia

The B-52s perform an anniversary concert at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia. — Chris McKay/WireImage/Getty Images

Athens, Georgia

Great architecture is the hallmark of great cities, and in Athens, 70 miles east of Atlanta, it's all about the antebellum-era buildings and Victorian era homes. The city's 16 historic districts complement a vivacious downtown, a 300-acre State Botanical Garden and a pace of life well suited to retirement.

See also: The 10 most affordable cities

The city is home to the University of Georgia and is legend for its music scene, which produced such big-name bands as R.E.M. and the B-52s. UGA's Performing and Visual Arts Complex is among the top fine arts facilities in the South. It includes the Hodgson School of Music; the Performing Arts Center, which has a 1,100-seat auditorium; the Lamar Dodd School of Art (studios, lecture halls, galleries, a media center and an eco-friendly "green roof"), and the Georgia Museum of Art with 9,000 square feet of exhibition space; and dance, theater and film programs. The arts calendar at the university is always packed. UGA's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute caters to adult students and offers a number of noncredit courses.

The tree-lined streets of downtown Athens are home to numerous venues, including the famous 40 Watt Club and Georgia Theatre, along with a full slate of restaurants, shops, services and more. Don't feel like paying for stuff? The city has a Really Really Free market, a giant free swap meet in a city park.

For active retirees, golf is big here, and the Athens Bicycling group welcomes riders of all ages and speeds. Also, the city is 60 miles south of Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Winters are mild and summers hot, with 49 inches of rain spread fairly evenly throughout the year.

For spectators, college sports are serious business here: The university's Bulldogs, with NCAA Division I teams in most sports, inspire epic tailgating and frenzied rivalries with Georgia Tech and Auburn University.

Sports and the outdoors draw active seniors to retire in Bellingham, Washington- a person rows on Lake Whatcom

Sports and the outdoors draw active seniors to retire in Bellingham, Washington. — Joel W. Rogers/Corbis

Bellingham, Washington

Any city with a six-month rainy season that still draws high marks from happy residents must have a lot going for it. In Bellingham, the list of attributes is long and plays to the wants of many older Americans: world-class sailing, hiking and scenery, a manageably sized city, a cool arts scene and easy access to Canada if things get hairy in the U.S.

See also: Where to live on $100 a day

First, the rain: Curtains of misty moisture can sock in for days during late fall and winter. But the average annual rainfall of 35 inches doesn't even come close to the top 10 rainiest cities in the U.S. Bellingham summers are sunny and temperate, with an average of fewer than six rainy days in July and August combined.

The metro area extends throughout Whatcom County (population 187,000), with Puget Sound to the west, the Canadian border to the north, and the Cascade Mountains to the east. Most of the area, including the 14 local golf courses, enjoys a clear view of Mount Baker (elevation 10,778), a popular ski resort.

Bellingham sits right on the sound, where killer whales compete for fish with commercial and sport boats. The town lies 80 miles north of Seattle and 55 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia — both accessible by Amtrak — in an ideal location for retirees who want urban conveniences without the hassles of city life. Bellingham can feel like a mini Seattle or Portland, Ore., with active, eco-conscious locals and a downtown farmers market.

Unemployment is below the national average, but so are wages because most jobs are in education, government, retail and other low- to moderate-paying sectors. But the cost of living is in the top 10 percent of U.S. metro areas, mostly because of high housing prices.

Locals are highly educated — fed by the 13,800 students at Western Washington University — and opportunities do exist for skilled workers. WWU welcomes adult students, and runs an Academy for Lifelong Learning geared toward retirees.

WWU's College of Fine and Performing Arts keeps the cultural calendar packed. And Bellingham has an active theater scene. The glitziest venue is the Mount Baker Theatre, a restored Moorish movie palace built in 1927 — and the city draws a lot of high-profile touring acts.  

Some caveats: Mount Baker is an active volcano, and when it finally blows a tsunami of mud might bury large sections of Whatcom County. Bellingham is also short of hospital beds, and the nearest big medical center is about 50 miles south of town in Everett.

But violent crime is low and life expectancy is high, in part because residents are unlikely to be obese. Nothing like a little extra peer pressure to stay healthy in retirement.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a quintessential New England town near mountains and the ocean for retirees

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a quintessential New England town near mountains and the ocean for retirees. — Ocean/Corbis

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The epicenter — but by no means the only center — of southeast New Hampshire is Portsmouth (population: 20,500), which was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as "one of the most culturally rich destinations in the country." Its streets are filled historic buildings, sidewalk cafes, galleries, boutiques and jazz clubs.

See also: 10 sunny places to retire to

One allure of Portsmouth is that it's nestled amid nearly 50 picturesque New England towns in the region, many of which have grown enough to offer residents a sampling of city conveniences within the slower pace of village life.

Portsmouth is in Rockingham County, which also includes Derry (population 23,000) and Salem (29,000); all three are within commuting distance of Boston. Upstream is Strafford County, which includes the mill towns of Dover (29,000), Rochester (32,000) and Durham (9,100), home to the main campus of the University of New Hampshire (enrollment 15,600). All these towns are steeped in history — some were founded 400 years ago — that will make any retiree feel young.

UNH's Museum of Art houses a permanent collection of more than 1,500 works and also supports exhibitions, concerts and poetry readings. University music programs support more than a dozen student bands, orchestras and vocal groups. Movies, plays and lectures are always on the bill at the Memorial Union Building. Nearby Exeter (9,900) is packed with Victorian architecture, bell towers, stone walls and a cute downtown.

Unemployment is low, thanks to a diverse economy based on health care, education, telecommunications and more. The median household income is in the top one-10th in the U.S., but the cost of living is almost as high, mostly because of steep home prices and property taxes.

But the overall tax burden is low, because the state has no sales tax or income tax. Want outdoor activity? You can go clamming and swim in the Atlantic Ocean, hike 1,342-foot Nottingham Mountain, and end the day with a dip in freshwater Merrymeeting Lake, all within Rockingham and Strafford counties.

The area has fine golf courses, 66 miles of coastline for sailing, and several marshes and rivers that are excellent for canoeing and kayaking. Portsmouth's Isles of Shoals are a delightful day trip. Mountain bikers enjoy the Rockingham Recreational Trail, which runs for 26 miles.

Indiana University sports dominate Bloomington, Indiana where retirees can attend games

Indiana University sports dominate Bloomington, Indiana, where retirees can attend games. — Walter Bibikow/Corbis

Bloomington, Indiana

This hip college town, about 50 miles southwest of Indianapolis, is cultured, outdoorsy and — thanks largely to the 38,600 students at Indiana University (IU) — progressive.  

See also: Best places to retire abroad

While rural Indiana is a stronghold of fundamentalist Christianity, Bloomington residents are likely to say that they're not religious in any way. The popular gay publication, The Advocate, named Bloomington the fourth gayest city in America. Bloomington votes overwhelmingly Democrat in what is otherwise a swing state. And while much of Indiana is rolling farms and subdivisions, Bloomington has a charming downtown lined with mature trees, adjacent IU's expansive campus.

If you're hoping to work in your retirement, the jobs created by the university, General Electric, Otis Elevator, Baxter and others prompted Forbes magazine in 2008 to name Bloomington the third-best small city in the U.S. for business and careers. IU is a major research university with a large continuing education division.

Culturally, Bloomington is stacked. IU's Jacobs School of Music has a daily recital or performance when it is in session, and many are free. The Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center at IU stages productions from Shakespeare to Rodgers and Hammerstein, while top musical acts and blockbuster musicals pack the bill at the magnificent IU Auditorium. The Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a renovated 616-seat vaudeville and movie house built in 1922, offers a steady lineup of music, dance, movies and theatrical productions. The I.M. Pei-designed Indiana University Art Museum contains over 30,000 works, including paintings by Monet, Picasso, Matisse, and Jackson Pollack. There's also an active folk and punk music scene.  

Cycling and walking — already popular here — got a boost in 2009 when Bloomington/Monroe County adopted Indiana's first Complete Streets policy, mandating that all projects receiving federal funds account for pedestrians and bicyclists. The university's annual Little 500 bicycle race has been a major annual event since 1951, and was the inspiration for the Academy Award-winning 1979 film Breaking Away.

Outdoors lovers can find hiking, mountain biking, fishing, canoeing, camping and more in Monroe Lake State Park and 202,000-acre Hoosier National Forest, both just southeast of town. The area also has numerous golf courses.  

Bloomington has one of the nation's lowest levels of atmospheric ozone, one reason Bloomingtonians are fairly healthy. The city has a low number of doctors for a town its size; locals often make the one-hour drive to Indianapolis for more complicated treatments. Violent and property crime are both rare.

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