The 10 best bang-for-your-buck cities in the US
by Amanda Machado
The cities on this list have built great culture without a ridiculous cost of living. They’ve created lively downtowns, hip art and music scenes, trendy restaurants and bars, and they’ve offered much of it for free. They show “affordable” doesn’t have to mean “low-quality” and “budget” doesn’t have to mean “boring”. We chose our ten cities based on the following criteria:
- Cost-of-living is comparatively low (ex: reasonable rent, cheap public transportation, cheap health care, etc.).
- Has qualities comparable to expensive cities (great nightlife, arts scene, beautiful nature, etc.) but for a way cheaper price.
- Offers plenty of fun things to do for free.
Photos: bottom right by Pinnacle Peak Tucson, all others by Visit Tucson
Tucson recently made some big changes in its downtown and it’s making young professionals stick around. Downtown now has arthouse theaters, spots for foodies, and outdoor festivals. And though Tucson is close to conservative areas in Arizona (like Mesa), Tucson’s population is refreshingly liberal. It’s also one of the cheapest cities in the country to get health insurance.
Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse serves mesquite-grilled “Cowboy Steak” and Lindy’s on 4th has great burgers. Go to Hotel Congress for an elegant night of drinks and dancing, or visit Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails for a classy date. Barrio Brewing has a perfect view of the surrounding mountains and a funny railroad special (beers go cheaper when the railroad gates come down over the road). Or try any of the other breweries in town: Gentle Ben’s, Borderlands Brewing, and Thunder Canyon Brewery. For a bit more dive-y, go to Che’s Lounge or Surly Wench.
Attend a concert at The Rialto (a theater built during the twenties) or catch an independent film at the Loft Cinema. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is free every third Thursday of the month during Spring and Fall, or visit the Tucson Contemporary Women’s Art Collective. The Mission San Xavier del Bac is also considered one of the best examples of mission architecture in the United States.
For the outdoorsy, expert mountain bikers love the Crystal Spring trail in Mt. Lemmon, and casual hikers enjoy the desert scenery in the mostly flat 10-mile Cactus Forest Trail in Saguaro National Park. There’s also beautiful hikes around Tucson Mountain Park or Sabino Canyon (the Seven Falls trail ends in natural pools where you can swim before hiking down).
Photos: right photo by Grateful Yoga, all others by Montpelier Alive
In the last few years, Montpelier has been named one of 100 best small arts towns in the US and one of the best small town downtowns in the US. And with the New England Culinary Institute here, the town has also become a small haven for foodies. For a town of under 8,000 people, you can still get all the liveliness and culture of Boston at a far better price.
Salt Cafe has seasonal menus using produce from the owner’s garden. Bagitos Cafe has great bagel breakfasts with live fiddler music each week. For drinks, The Alchemist in nearby Waterbury is small but makes a great IPA. There’s also Three Penny Taproom.
The Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks is family-run and offers free tours and tastings. The North Branch Nature Center, Camel’s Hump State Park, and Hubbard Park are great for hikes. During the winter, check out the graphic novels and board games at the Book Garden. In the summer, the State House lawn hosts Wednesday night band concerts and Grateful Yoga offers yoga classes on paddle-boards in a nearby lake.
Photos: all by Findlay Market
For years, Cincinnati has had one of the lowest costs of living in the country (the average rent for an apartment is around $750 a month, and utilities costs here can be around 17% less than the national average), but the city’s recent renaissance is what really makes it a great deal. The music scene is taking off, the craft beer scene is truly one of the best, and the downtown is totally walkable. There are two major sports teams, there are always festivals, and the city itself is way more beautiful than a Midwestern city has any business being.
The best pick is to get a beer, a cheap burrito, and a free bluegrass show at The Comet on Sundays. Cincinnati’s famous chili — try Skyline Chili or Blue Ash Chilli — is always a delicious cheap meal, and Graeter’s Ice Cream is world-class. For a great, cheap burger with an unparalleled view go to City View Tavern. For drinks, try MOTR, Rhinegeist, Arnold’s Bar and Grill, and Moerlein Lager House.
The Krohn Conservatory is beautiful and cheap (especially during the butterfly show), and it’s surrounded by the gorgeous Eden Park, with what are easily the best views in the city. The Cincinnati Zoo is affordable and world class. You can also spend time at the riverfront, walking in the beautiful parks or sitting on the riverside swings at the Banks, maybe crossing into Kentucky on foot over the Purple People Bridge. The beautiful Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine is a great place to hang out. In the summer, Fountain Square hosts free concerts six days a week.
Special thanks: Matt Hershberger
El Paso, Texas
Photos: top right by Visit El Paso, all others by DWNTWN El Paso
Even though this city is located just over the border from the infamously dangerous city of Ciudad Juarez, El Paso has been consistently named one of the safest cities in the entire country. The city has other surprises: it has the country’s largest urban park, it has a world-renowned rock-climbing spot only 30 miles away, and it’s allegedly the birthplace of margaritas. It also has a low cost of living, an established community of young Latino professionals, and a warm energy that makes the city young and exciting but still family-friendly.
Chico’s Tacos have the best rolled tacos (the only way El Pasoans eat them) in town (they’ve been featured on the Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”). LJ Cafe is the city’s oldest continuous family-run business (since 1927) and serves excellent Mexican food and beer. The Hoppy Monk has plenty of craft beer, along with a single-malt scotch collection and fine cigars. Cafe Central El Paso is great wine bar and date-night spot. Aceitunas Bar has live music and an outdoor garden.
The nine-mile Mission Trail is only 20 minutes from downtown and takes you through some of the oldest missions in the state. The El Paso Museum of Art is generally free, or visit the El Paso Municipal Rose Garden, one of the country’s top-rated rose gardens. The Ardovino’s Desert Crossing is a great market with beautiful surroundings. In the summer, the city offers multicultural concerts downtown through its Alfresco Fridays series. The concerts often turn into people dancing through the night.
For the outdoorsy, rock-climb at Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site or hike one of the 125 miles of trails inside Franklin Mountains State Park within the city limits. On Sundays, the city closes off the Scenic Drive on the southern ridge of the Franklin Mountains so that walkers/runners/bicyclists and other residents can enjoy the panoramic view of the city, free of traffic.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Photos: right photo by Founders Brewing, bottom left by Grand Rapids Symphony, top left by Experience Grand Rapids
In 2014, the Simple Dollar named Grand Rapids one of it’s top ten most affordable mid-sized cities (average rent for a one-bedroom apartment: $622). It’s got great beer, a great arts scene, and it’s close to Michigan’s best beaches and best wineries.
Try Little Africa for the best Ethiopian food in the city at affordable prices. Go to Tavern on the square for new American food, or Mad Cap Coffee in the mornings for a solid roast. For drinks, try Brewery Vivant, Founders Brewing, or Mitten Brewing Co. (they’ll pair your craft beer with their gourmet pizza).
Art Prize is a free international art competition that showcases some of the best art in the country. Downtown Market is the city’s cheap farmer’s market. In the summer, the Grand Rapids Symphony hosts Picnic Pops with free concerts at Meijer Garden Amptitheatre or on the ski hills at Cannonsburg Ski Lodge. You can also hike and visit the turtle ponds at Seidman Park, or attend the grassroots Eastown Art Fair. In the winter, ice-skating downtown at Rosa Parks circle is free and picturesque.
Special thanks: Cathy Brown
Silver City, New Mexico
Photos: top by Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House, middle right by Chris Dodson, all others by Visit Silver City
Compared to the more trendy New Mexican cities like Santa Fe and Taos, Silver City comes with a bit more grit. But that’s what gives this city character that the more polished parts of New Mexico often lack. The downtown area has a fantastic mix of 19th century architecture (both adobe and Victorian) and any of the saloon-style bars in town will make you feel like you’re straight out of the Old West. Median rent in 2013 was around $600 and the cost of living is far below the US average.
Visit The Curious Kumquat if you want to adventurously find out what “molecular gastronomy” means. It’s one of the state’s top culinary destinations, but to save some money, go for lunch and still get a taste of their interesting menu items, all using local ingredients. Check out Adobe Springs Cafe or Tre Rosat Cafe for great new American food. Also visit New Mexico’s oldest gelato shop: Alotta Gelato. Seven miles outside the city, the Buckhorn Saloon has been around since the early 1800’s and still serves great drinks. Or, try Little Toad Creek Brewery Distillery located inside the Gila Wilderness.
Around 25 miles away from town, City of Rocks State Park hosts star-gazing activities to take advantage of the area’s clear skies. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument are popular with tourists, but the entire Gila wilderness has great areas to explore.
Photos (from top left clockwise): FP Conservatory, Columbus Museum of Art, Due Amici Columbus
Mother Jones speculated that Columbus could be the next millennial spot. The cost of living here is far below the national average (a Kiplinger report argued that a gallon of milk would cost you almost 19% less in Columbus than in the rest of the country) and the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment hovers around $670. The Atlantic video “Gentrification Without the Negative In Columbus Ohio” also showed how the city has begun creating community spaces for artists
Head to Schmidt’s Sausage Haus for a classic German sausage or try the burgers at the Thurman Cafe. Jeni’s has often been named one of the best ice-cream parlors in the U.S. (samples are free!). Go to South Bend Tavern for drinks and live music.
The North Market farmer’s market has been around since 1876. The Columbus Museum of Art is free on Sundays. Every summer, the Ohio State Fair draws crowds of 800,000 for only $10 admission. The yearly ComFest is completely free and brings residents together to Goodale Park to hear live music, see art, sample food and attend seminars on community activism.
Photos: all by Visit Vancouver USA
This town has almost everything people look for in Portland, but at a way more reasonable cost. It has quality restaurants, year-round festivals, and beautiful surroundings for almost any outdoor hobby. And when you crave a big city scene, you can pay half the rent and still have Portland just 15 minutes away.
Get greek gyros at Touch of Athens or go to The Grocery Cocktail Social for local food and specialty spirits, all from Washington. Visit Ice Cream Renaissance for a late night dessert, or try the key-lime pie at Beaches restaurant.
The city hosts First Friday Art Walks and a Summer Concert Series in the park. The nearby vineyards offer wine-tasting and the Columbia River gives residents easy access to kayaking, paddle-boarding and scenic walks. Any of the trails along Officer’s Row at Fort Vancouver are also great for hiking.
Special thanks: Ingrid McQuivey
Jersey City, New Jersey
Photos: top left by Gane, bottom left by Bill Benzone, right by All About Downtown Jersey City Street Fair
Jersey City makes you realize it may be better to have a spectacular view of Manhattan than actually live in it. There’s plenty of reasons to argue that this city trumps New York: the sales tax is lower (only 3.5%), cabs are cheaper, and there’s less crime than Brooklyn. Just like New York, the area has its own share of historic buildings, and depending where you work, some areas may make it easier to get to midtown Manhattan than from other boroughs. The population under 35 is 10 percent higher than the national average and it’s small size (population is around 250,000) is also probably why Citylab said this city was not only cheap, but also brings a real sense of community.
Taqueria Downtown may be the only place in the east coast that serves legit Mexican tacos. Get crepes at Kraverie. Try Pho Binh for Vietnamese, or any restaurant in the Little India neighborhood for Indian food. Food trucks also serve a variety of ethnic food around the city. LITM is famous for its mac-n-cheese. For drinks, here you can find actual dives, not the pseudo-dives of Brooklyn that still charge too much for beer. Check out the Lamp Post for cheap beer and live music.
Groove on Grove has weekly outdoor concerts from local Jersey City bands. The Jersey City Craft Mafia puts on great craft fairs (they also show up at the annual All About Downtown Street Festival). The DIY Society is a great spot for creative professionals, artists, and makers to connect at monthly meet ups.
St. Louis, Missouri
Photos: top left by Explore St. Louis, all others by Fortune Teller Bar
BizJournal named St. Louis one of the best cities for Gen Y workers (young professionals enjoy an average commute of less than 20 minutes). The average apartment rent here is just $766 a month and the city also ranks second in bars per capita. And, it has a larger concentration of public libraries and museums per person than even New York City.
Fountain on Locust serves a variety of snacks, meals, and drinks (it was voted Best Nostalgic Treats in 2010 by Alive Magazine). Try Modesto Tapas for classic Spanish food, The Shaved Duck for great slow smoked meats, and Sweetie Pie’s for traditional soul food. Go to Fortune Teller Bar or Morgan Street Brewery for craft beer or visit the John D’Mcgurks beer garden. The Dark Room is a wine bar/photography gallery with live music five nights a week.
The city zoo, the city science center and the city sculpture park are all free. Fort Gondo, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation all contribute to the interesting art scene. And on weekends, go shopping at the St. Louis Swap Meet, the Soulard Market or the Tower Grove Farmers Market.