Ames is a gracious town—with broad lawns, leafy neighborhoods, pretty parks and ponds—and its distinctly rural flavor is the key to its urban charm. With its thrice-weekly farmers' markets, paddling options on the Skunk River, and 55 miles of city-maintained trails for avid bikers, runners, and walkers, Ames is a place for people who like wide-open spaces. "You can drive less than five minutes outside of town and you are really in the country," says Russ Cross, 53, a bank executive in Des Moines, 30 miles away. The lively downtown area—including a long Main Street, fun restaurants (such as favorite Aunt Maude's, serving up local meats, cheeses, and produce), and a pub with its own brew—adds to the charm. "I love that when I step outside my office on Main Street, it's such a clean little town," says Russ's wife, Beth, 51, president of a local marketing company. "It's one of the most welcoming places I've ever seen." The couple, who like to run on Ames's trails with their golden retriever, say they are a long way from retiring, but when they do, they can't imagine moving anywhere else. "There's just so much that I want to do right here," Beth says.
- Vibe: Wholesome Americana
- Population: 55,000
- Median housing price: $159,270
- Average commute: 17 minutes
- Average number of sunny days: 202 per year
- Most relaxing way to spend an afternoon: Paddling a canoe in Ada Hayden Heritage Park, where you may spot—besides hundreds of common birds—a short-eared owl or a summer tanager
- Simple fun for less than $10: Touring Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University, where $7 ($6 for seniors) buys access to award-winning rose gardens and more
- Who knew?: It recently ranked as the sixth-smartest city in the United States
All demographic information provided by Bert Sperling of BestPlaces.net. For black-and-white reprints of this article, call 866-888-3723.