Fans of urban living appreciate what cities have to offer: the energy and excitement, the character-rich neighborhoods (one fabulous district rarely a great city makes) and personality-rich characters.
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Cities stay up late and get up early. There are always interesting places to walk and, almost always, at least some green space amid the concrete. And, of course, great cities come stocked with top restaurants, nightlife, cultural attractions and jobs.
City life is particularly appealing during the stage of life when you no longer have to consider such things as the quality of schools or the spaciousness of the backyard. It's no wonder that so many empty-nesters are leaving the suburbs and heading into town. If you're looking to do the same, check out our list of 10 great cities for retirement.
First up: Chicago »
In such a massive city with so many world-class offerings, you might think Chicagoans would be brusque and preoccupied. But (to risk a vast generalization) you would be wrong. Locals, on the whole, are disarmingly friendly and place a strong priority on having fun.
Cubs baseball games at Wrigley Field are packed, even on weekday afternoons, with pre- and postgame parties filling the indoor-outdoor taverns across the street. The lakefront park system — created to give all comers, regardless of wealth, access to Lake Michigan's beauty — is replete with joggers, walkers and cyclists, and tennis, softball, soccer and football games whenever the weather permits.
Blues and jazz bars, from the venerable Andy's Jazz Club to the low-key Rosa's Lounge, draw steady crowds throughout the week.
Chicago's Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters are world-famous, with superb symphony, ballet and dance offerings. The Art Institute of Chicago, which harbors weeks' worth of captivating exhibits, is free on Thursday nights and Fridays during the summer. The Field Museum of Natural History and Shedd Aquarium, both phenomenal, sit on the shores of Lake Michigan, near 12th Street Beach and Northerly Island Park.
The local variety and quality of restaurant options rivals New York, and the shops of Michigan Avenue will cause even the most frugal to unfold their wallets.
See also: The 10 most affordable cities.
Chicago's suburbs aren't too shabby, either. Naperville was ranked third in Money magazine's 2008 list of the best small U.S. cities because of the town's good jobs, affordable housing and great schools. Frank Lloyd Wright lived in Oak Park for 20 years, and the buildings he left behind make it an extraordinary place to take a walk. The village of Woodstock has lovingly preserved its Victorian homes, and its town square has a packed schedule of events.
Chicago is also home to more than 100 degree-granting institutions, led by premier schools such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in Evanston.
There are downsides, of course. The Chicago area has pretty nasty traffic congestion. To avoid the worst of it, you'll need to time your drives — or find housing in an amenity-rich neighborhood such as Lincoln Park.
Also, Chicago's weather can be downright inhumane in the heart of winter, and chilly fronts can push through into early May. But the city's positive energy, cosmopolitan pulse and lakeside beauty can soften the blow of any bad day.
Next: Boston »
Boston, like much of New England, is scrappy — a relatively small city with a world-beating attitude. It is home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world and some of the most successful sports franchises. But what really set Boston apart are its culture, parks and the quality of life in its suburbs.
See also: America's healthiest hometowns.
Greater Boston (population 4.5 million) includes the city of Boston (618,000) and more than 100 cities and towns. The smaller places range from 17th-century villages (Plymouth) to some of the oldest suburbs in America (Brookline and Braintree). Many area towns were built in the 18th century and most feature central squares surrounded by small businesses and residential neighborhoods.
In 2008 Boston was ranked the eighth most literate big city in the U.S., and a high share of area residents have a college degree.
Boston's parks are big and exceptionally good, with several designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The Arnold Arboretum at Harvard is one of the finest in the world. The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Boston Nature Center has opened on the grounds of the old Boston State Hospital. The metro area also offers nearly 120 miles of Atlantic coastline and lots of dedicated bike paths.
Locals bond over sports: the Red Sox and New England Patriots have become regular contenders; the Celtics are synonymous with Boston hoops tradition; and the Bruins have the second-most Stanley Cup victories by a U.S.-based team in NHL history.
Massachusetts is a great place to be retired from a government job or the military because most payments from public pensions are exempt from state taxes. And metro Boston is a major center of medical talent with a very high concentration of physicians, hospital beds per capita and teaching hospitals. Rates of smoking and obesity are low, so the metro area has low mortality from heart disease and low rates of hypertension.
Because traffic congestion is a serious problem in the city, many locals use the region's excellent train system or walk or bicycle to work. Boston's coastal location means it does get severe storms, including nor'easter blizzards and the occasional hurricane. That's when it's time to button up and seek refuge in a museum, university or sports bar.
Next: Los Angeles »
Admit it: When you hear "Los Angeles" you think movie stars, traffic jams, sunny and 70 degrees and the occasional major earthquake. And you're right on all counts! But there's more: As the epicenter of the second-largest metropolitan area in the country (population: 13 million, with 3.8 million in the city limits), L.A. has something for almost everyone, unless you love cold, snowy winters.
See also: Ten best states for retirement.
With more than 250 distinct neighborhoods, Los Angeles has near-endless options for shopping, dining and nightlife. Foodies cannot possibly grow bored here: Highlights include Thai Town in Hollywood, where "spicy" elevates to new heights, and the sophisticated restaurants on Beverly Boulevard and downtown, including Mo-Chica, where owner/chef Ricardo Zarate won a Best New Chef award from Food & Wine. There's even a chili dog joint — Pink's, in West Hollywood — where people wait hours in line to eat.
It also has ample golf courses and, surprisingly, isn't too far from several legitimate ski resorts.
Yes, the traffic here is horrific, and yes, the sprawl is threatening to consume both Nevada and the Pacific Ocean. But for a city of its size and diversity, L.A. has a surprising array of natural diversions, including miles of beaches (some kept mellow by state park designation), the 655,387-acre Angeles National Forest and, within a manageable drive, Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks.
L.A. has a world-class zoo, aquariums, must-see art museums like The Getty, several orchestras (the Philharmonic plays at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall), along with dance troupes, live theater and historic architecture (for example, in West Hollywood, where the time-lapse of vintage architecture — from Spanish Colonial to Art Deco — earned the 'hood recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation).
L.A. also has many pedestrian-friendly enclaves. Claremont and Santa Monica have been honored as bicycle-friendly communities, and the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition is rapidly organizing more neighborhoods. Regional subway and commuter rail lines link to an extensive network of buses, and voters approved tax levies that will send $40 billion to public transit over the next 30 years. Aggressive emissions controls have even improved L.A.'s notorious air pollution — one reason L.A. County residents enjoy good health, with a very low rate of death from cancer and low incidence rates for hypertension, obesity and smoking.
Downsides? Earthquakes, wildfires, windstorms and coastal erosion snag headlines but, on a more day-to-day practical level, people gripe about high unemployment, the housing bust and the threat of violent crime (driven mostly by gang activity).
Next: San Francisco »
If you like your cities with an irrepressibly natural hue put San Francisco atop your list of places to retire. Whether you are strolling the wharfs, huffing up one of the city's vertiginous hills, cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge or even driving down Interstate 280, San Fran's natural beauty shines.
See also: Best places to retire abroad.
San Francisco is in the top 10 metro areas for population density, with over 800,000 people packed into a central city the size of Disney World. The metro area —-1.7 million total — includes San Francisco and San Mateo counties, which occupy the tip of a peninsula bounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay and the Dumbarton Bridge to the south; and Marin County, north of the Golden Gate.
As for sunny, San Francisco boasts 146 completely clear days per year but has oodles of partly sunny days to complement average monthly high temperatures that float from the mid 60s in winter to the high 70s in summer.
San Francisco has been a major port for 160 years and has experienced steady ethnic and cultural mixing throughout its history. No wonder that the city boasts a remarkably diverse and tolerant population, with a strong gay and lesbian community and more than 100 distinct neighborhoods. These include world-famous tourist destinations (Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf) to residential neighborhoods that range from very rich (Pacific Heights) to gentrifying former slums (Bayview-Hunters Point) to cultural enclaves (North Beach for beatniks, Haight-Ashbury for hippies, the Castro for gays).
S.F. is well known for its eccentricities, but it is also a high-functioning city. Foreign Policy magazine ranked San Francisco as the world's 12th most-important city. San Francisco also ranked ninth on the 2011 list of most literate big cities in America. The job market is holding up better than it is in most cities, and foreclosures are much less of a problem than they are elsewhere in California.
Although traffic congestion and commute times are bad in San Francisco, driving is often optional. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) anchors one of the most efficient regional transit systems in the United States, and the system continues to grow. Both San Francisco and its huge woodsy park, the Presidio, have been honored as bicycle-friendly locales.
San Francisco is home to several major universities. The general studies option is San Francisco State University, which has an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for older learners. The University of California, San Francisco, is exclusively devoted to health and medical education, which contributes to a high number of physicians per capita. The region is also an extremely healthy place to live. The metro area has a high proportion of population aged 65 and older, and the age-adjusted health status of that population is among the best in the United States.
The metro area has the lowest average body-mass index (a measure of obesity) in the country and a low rate of diabetes. The rate of violent crime is fairly high in San Francisco, but it is heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods. Earthquakes are a concern but big ones are rare. And those hills can come in handy: As someone once said, when you get tired of walking around in this city, you can always lean against it.
Next: Denver »
In the late 20th century, many people settled in Denver primarily for what lay outside the city — specifically to the west, where the Rocky Mountains begin to rise up just outside the city limits. That's still a huge draw, of course: The Rockies around Denver harbor world class recreation opportunities. But increasingly Denver residents are also looking inward, where a thriving downtown supports a variety of cultural, culinary and entertainment gems.
At the core is the mile-long pedestrian mall on 16th Street, lined with shops, restaurants, historic buildings and modern offices. Locals flock here year round for people watching, free Wi-Fi throughout the mall area and the proximity to the Denver Performing Arts Complex, Coors Field and City Lights Pavilion.
In LoDo (Lower Downtown) the famed Tattered Cover bookstore is one reason Denver was ranked the country's 10th most-literate big city in 2011. Other popular neighborhoods include City Park, home to trendy restaurants along Colfax Avenue, the Denver Zoo and Denver Museum of Nature & Science, along with an 18-hole golf course. Looking upscale? The Washington Park neighborhood fans out around a 165-acre park, replete with running and cycling trails, and is lined with beautiful homes just south of downtown.
See also: The best places to live the simple life.
The area's surge has pushed the metro area up and down the foot of the Rockies, where 90 miles of megalopolis is contributing to Denver's epic levels of sprawl, traffic and air pollution. If you move here consider settling in one of the many neighborhoods close to downtown and served by Denver's excellent public transportation system, or those that are designed for a pedestrian lifestyle.
Regardless of neighborhood, you'll find ample places to exercise: The city of Denver has more than 200 parks and 14,000 acres of parks in the foothills of the Rockies, including the famous Red Rocks outdoor concert venue. The city also has 90 golf courses and is within a couple hours' drive of some of the best skiing in the U.S.
The concentration of physicians and specialists is well above average. The number of hospital beds per capita is low, but National Jewish Health has a top-ranked respiratory division, and the University of Colorado Hospital is huge. Denver also has one of the nation's lowest rates of obesity and extremely low rates of diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Few people smoke, and getting regular exercise is the rule. Denver has also been called the nation's best city for dogs and cats because of its high number of veterinarians per capita — and almost no fleas.
Next: Miami »
Drop your mental picture of pastel-clad retirees lining up for the blue-plate specials. Miami is an ethnic melting pot that marries a global trade capital with a major international tourism destination. The city has the greatest concentration of international banks in the U.S. and is the 21st richest city in the world (2011) in terms of net earnings.
With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Everglades to the west, Miami-Dade County (population 2.5 million) runs north-south, fronted by 83 miles of coastline.
See also: America's healthiest hometowns.
In 2008, Forbes ranked Miami as America's cleanest city for its year-round good air quality, big green spaces, clean drinking water, clean streets and citywide recycling programs. The metro area's recreation score is one of the highest in the country. The bars, clubs and restaurants range from dockside casual to guest-list exclusive.
The Miami zoo and aquarium hold their own but the real action is often found on the city's beaches. Standouts include the famously hip South Beach, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne and 85th Street Beach, which isn't shadowed by tall buildings. Biscayne National Park offers excellent diving, fishing and boating.
Miami flexes its arts and culture muscle in myriad ways, including in the galleries of Ocean Drive, which the American Planning Association named one of America's Great Streets. The Miami City Ballet is internationally acclaimed, and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts is an architectural gem that leads a long list of top-notch theaters.
Miami's ethnic and racial diversity mirror its status as the unofficial capital of Latin America. Cuban Americans are fully integrated into Miami's neighborhoods, but their spiritual center remains in Calle Ocho (Eighth Avenue), where a huge annual carnival takes place in March. Kendall has one of the largest Colombian-American populations in the United States. A high number of foreign-born Haitians and Africans add to the metro area's already large native-born black population.
Miami's metropolitan rail lines are extensive and popular; carpooling is also popular, because traffic congestion is horrendous. Mortality is low, especially from cancer, and there is a high concentration of physicians and specialists. Surveys of the metro area also report low rates of obesity and smoking, but a high rate of binge drinking.
Downsides include high crime rates and a frustratingly slow rebound from the economic slump.
Next: Atlanta »
You can still feel the Old South in Atlanta, but be prepared for a 21st-century veneer: The city boasts three distinct skylines — Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead — along with the world's busiest airport and dozens of neighborhoods to keep city lovers happily exploring for years.
Atlanta also anchors a vast metro area — 8,400 square miles, an area just slightly smaller than New Jersey — with nearly 5.3 million residents (2010 census), a 24 percent increase from 2000.
See also: 6 great hikes in the U.S.
This expansion has wrought monumental traffic congestion. Atlanta's traffic jams often flow in both directions for hours on end, Los Angeles-style.
But encouraging signs abound for a greener, more livable city. The nonprofit PATH Foundation is turning abandoned rail lines and other routes into a large regional trail network. Urban planners rave about Atlantic Station, a reclaimed industrial site in midtown with housing, offices and enough shopping and entertainment that residents will never need to get in a car.
In 2007, AARP gave its Livable Communities Award to CollegeTown at West End, a mixed-use development designed for older adults that is within walking distance of two colleges. Many of Atlanta's older neighborhoods are pedestrian-friendly and the region's light rail system, MARTA, is heavily used. Even the mega-mall at Perimeter Center opened an outdoor, pedestrian friendly shopping area.
Atlanta is the fourth most literate big city in the country with a wide range of schools, including Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, Emory University and the largest consortium of historically black colleges in the country, Atlanta University Center. The metro area's median household income is high, and housing costs are low for such a big city. Generous, well-built houses on attractive lots are the rule.
A long list of museums and exhibit halls includes the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and the massive Georgia Aquarium (more than 8 million gallons!). Performing arts venues include the Fox Theatre, a Moorish-style 1920s movie palace; a metropolitan ballet; and two symphony orchestras.
Atlanta's economy is feeling the recession. Housing foreclosures in the region are very high, and Atlanta was a center of the banking crisis, with an abnormally high percentage of bank failures. But the city and its residents are working hard to shore up the economy.
Next: New York »
New York is the city to which all others are compared. No other metro area in the U.S. has so many people (22 million in and around New York) doing so much in such diverse neighborhoods that are so saturated in lore and history.
Yes, New York is a capital of international trade and finance. But it also is the place where you can take a $2 subway ride to the Metropolitan Opera or Yankee Stadium, then head into Greenwich Village for the best Italian meal this side of the Atlantic, then catch a live comedy or jazz set at a world-renowned club and still have numerous options for where to go next.
For cultural diversity, New York is unparalleled in the U.S. According to the city's planning department, its five boroughs comprise close to 300 neighborhoods within 59 community districts. One study estimated that 138 languages are spoken in the borough of Queens alone.
New York is also affordable for middle-class folks — if you know where to look and are willing to sacrifice space to gain location. Yes, Manhattan neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, Upper West Side and West Village are prohibitively expensive, but affordable apartments can be found in neighborhoods such as Windsor Terrace and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Many sections of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have easy access to green space, great restaurants, bay views, friendly neighbors and the subway, which will whisk you almost anywhere in the city in less than an hour.
That famous subway, like much of the city, has grown much safer since 1990: The metropolitan area is in the lowest one-third of the U.S. for violent crime, with even lower rates of property crime.
The New York metro area also has one of the nation's highest concentrations of physicians and teaching hospitals. And New York is serious about going green: The League of American Bicyclists has honored the city's bike paths and the Department of Energy has recognized New York for promoting solar energy. The Big Apple also has 110 higher education institutions with more than half a million students, including several with lifelong learning centers for older students.
The biggest issue for people considering a move here: Can you handle the nearly endless buzz of one the world's most vibrant cities? If yes, there is no better place in the U.S. for the city life.
Next: Portland, Ore. »
Portland is the straight-A student of cities: well-prepared, does the right thing and wins lots of awards. It has great organic food in inviting cafes, wacky bohemians and loads of public art. If it weren't for the moist maritime climate everyone might live here.
The city is divided into quadrants, with the Willamette River separating the northeast and southeast sections from the northwest and southwest. The heart of downtown is on the west side, with fabulous, trendy restaurants, the famous Powell's City of Books, well-kept (and popular) urban parks and pedestrian- friendly shopping districts.
Actually, the entire city has similar attributes. The southeast, for example, has more of a middle-class/bohemian feel, with old, charming homes, packed coffee houses and offbeat clothing stores.
Portland wins regular honors for progressiveness. The League of American Bicyclists ranks Portland as the most bicycle friendly city in America. Downtown Portland has bicycle stoplights and bicycle traffic jams, even at night. The city has a high — and growing — ratio of parkland per resident, along with a robust public transit system.
One city policy permits residents, with neighborhood consent, to paint or re-construct intersections so they become public gathering spaces. In fact, the city is so progressive it inspired the self-parody television series Portlandia, offering residents the chance to squirm uncomfortably as they laugh, sort of, at their collective eccentricities.
For high culture, Portland fields two symphonies and many choral and chamber groups. There are large art and science museums, and a very active arts community. Portland often ranks in the top 10 most literate cities (in an annual study by Central Connecticut State University).
The recession hit Portland hard but the unemployment rate (8.6 percent in December 2011) is falling. Oregon offers residents age 62 or older a substantial tax credit on pension income: Many older residents pay no state income taxes.
The area has an unusually high number of public universities, including a large state university campus and community college in Portland, several private colleges (including Reed and Lewis & Clark), and lots of technical, religious and alternative medicine schools.
The concentration of physicians and specialists in Portland is above average, but the number of hospitals and beds per capita is low. Residents eat healthfully and exercise regularly and have low rates of obesity.
The teacher's pet does have some issues: This metro area has ballooned from 1.5 million people in 1990 to 2.2 million today, and more people seem to show up every time a recession hits California. But if this is stressing everyone out, you wouldn't know it by the hap-hap-happy vibe around town.
Next: Philadelphia »
Not long ago, Philadelphia warranted the derision captured by the quip, "Philadelphia — I spent a week there one night." But Philly has since carved out more than its gritty, blue-collar crown and is now a hip, manageable and fun city.
America's oldest metropolitan area is its fifth biggest, with a population of 4 million. Philadelphia (population 1.5 million) was settled by William Penn in 1682 where the Schuylkill River enters the Delaware River.
Philly's impressive cultural institutions include the Pennsylvania Ballet, the 42-acre Philadelphia Zoo (founded in 1859), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (more than 225,000 objects in a majestic Greek revival temple ) and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed. The Philadelphia Orchestra, which performs at the 2,500-seat Kimmel Center, is considered by many critics to be one of the best in the world.
Philadelphians are proud of their neighborhoods — from South Philly and Society Hill to Fishtown, Germantown and Manayunk — and proud of their local institutions. At the Reading Terminal Market in Center City locals have jostled since 1893 for fresh meats, vegetables, and fancy foods sold by Amish farmers and chocolatiers.
For the iconic Philadelphia cheesesteak, some locals swear by Rick's Steaks. Rick is the grandson of Pat Olivieri, who invented the sandwich with his brother around 1930. Others are loyal to Pat's King of Steaks, in South Philly, or Geno's across the street, or some other neighborhood joint.
Philadelphia's outdoor spaces include Fairmount Park, a 9,200-acre system of green space; the Schuylkill River Trail, which extends almost 25 miles from Center City; Scott Arboretum, on the campus of Swarthmore College; and Longwood Gardens, a former DuPont estate that sprawls over more than 1,000 acres in Kennett Square.
Philadelphia has a high concentration of doctors, specialists and teaching hospitals. Overall, Philadelphians are of average health but they have an unusually high death rate from cancer — possibly connected to the metro area's horrendous air pollution. Philadelphia is also challenging for allergy sufferers, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
The violent crime rate is very high, and property crime here is just above the national average. And progress marches on: The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is fueling Philadelphia Green, which turns trash-strewn vacant lots into green spaces. The group worked with locals on the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, transforming blight into the Las Parcelas garden and community kitchen.
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