The 5 Best Big Cities

Small towns not your thing? These 5 urban gems offer an abundance of amenities at livable prices.

For some people there’s nothing more all-American than a small town. But there are plenty of folks—from millennials searching for that first job to boomers eager for big-city convenience—who want something different. That’s why this year, in addition to our list of top towns, MONEY crunched the numbers on urban centers with more than 300,000 residents—63 in all. As with our Best Places list, our city rankings put a premium on a robust job market, affordable housing, and ­factors such as accessibility to health care, culture, and open space. We also gave extra points to places with low crime and strong public schools and selected the top city in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West. Now that the hard work is done, all you have to do is pick a place and start packing.

  • Best in the Northeast: Pittsburgh

    Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University The leafy campus of Carnegie Mellon University

    Rust-belt city transforming itself with homegrown, high-tech talent

    Population 305,000
    Median Home Price $115,000
    Average Property Tax $2,000
    Unemployment Rate 5.6%

    It reads like a plotline from HBO’s hit show Silicon Valley: Billion-dollar tech startup Uber, itching to build the first driverless car, swoops into a university robotics department and hires 40 staffers en masse. It really happened this spring. Except the drama didn’t take place in California. It was in Pittsburgh.

    Every Rustbelt city dreams of reinventing itself for the 21st century, but Pittsburgh has ­suc­ceeded. In large part that’s thanks to two tech-rich schools: the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon—it was Carnegie’s robotics lab that provided Uber with all that brainpower. In a sense, Uber was following a tech trail blazed by Google, which opened a center in a refurbished Nabisco factory in 2006, as well as Apple and Intel, which also have research hubs in the city.

    “Between academia, innovative companies, and lots of startup activity, [the tech world] loves it here,” says Kamal Nigam, head of Google’s Pittsburgh office. Work in computer-related fields has grown at twice the rate of the national average in recent years. The city’s overall unemployment rate is slightly above the national average, but it’s well below the rate in industrial cities such as Cleveland (8%), Buffalo (6.9%), and even cross-state rival Philadelphia (7.5%).

  • Pittsburgh: High-tech magnet

    Jeff Greenberg/First LightTidy row houses on Kentucky Avenue, in the heart of the Shadyside neighborhood

    Pittsburgh is different from many tech hubs in one key way, however: You can still afford a house there. Home prices are just 2.7 times the median income. In another regional tech hub, ­Austin, they are 3.9 times; in Portland, Ore., they’re 4.8. Pittsburgh’s Shady­side neighborhood boasts tree-lined streets and Gilded Age mansions, like the one built by Henry Clay Frick’s lawyer. Just down the road are spacious apartments and three-bedroom houses that can be had for less than $350,000. You’ll also find affordable gems in Bloomfield, a more urban area with Italian and German roots.

    Pittsburgh’s tech resurgence is also helping revive its street life. Bakery Square, the de­velopment that houses Google as well as several University of Pittsburgh offices, has helped transform the old industrial site into a high-end walk- and bike-friendly shopping district, complete with a Trader Joe’s and a Whole Foods. There’s also Thrival, a weeklong festival that combines live music and TED-like talks on innovation and entrepreneurship. “The energy in Pittsburgh is magnetic,” says Dan Law, the festival’s executive producer. “Our city is back.”

  • Best in the Southeast: Tampa

    courtesy of tampa museum of artThe Tampa Museum of Art

    Sunbelt beach city with international aspirations

    Population 352,000
    Median Home Price $121,200
    Average Property Tax $1,800
    Unemployment Rate 5.6%

    Do the people of Tampa even bother to brag about their beaches anymore? Earlier this year the Tampa Bay Lightning nearly beat Chicago for the Stanley Cup—yes, that’s ice hockey. In 2014 the city hosted the 15th International Indian Film Academy Awards—the Bollywood ­Oscars—thanks in part to its 15,000-strong Indian community. The Tampa Museum of Art brought its acclaimed contemporary collection to a stunning new building in 2010. And up for 2017: college football’s national championship. Says Neal Anderson, a small-business owner who moved from Chicago in March: “It really feels like a city whose time has arrived.”

  • Tampa: Beyond the Beach

    Luis Santana/Tampa Colorful Ybor City

    Five years ago, few would have predicted that. Like most places in Florida, Tampa was hit hard by the real estate crisis. The median home price fell from $210,000 in 2006 to $91,000 in 2011, according to Zillow. But to new arrivals, that can look like an advantage. While prices have risen in the past three years, they’re still more than a third below 2006 peaks. A 1920s three-bedroom bungalow in the Seminole Heights section or a newer four-bedroom home in the planned community of Tampa Palms can be had for less than $300,000.

    Tampa’s potential isn’t tied just to affordable real estate. A recent airport expansion helped bring flights from Seattle and Zurich and in turn helped lure a Bristol-Myers Squibb marketing and IT center with 600 jobs. An Amazon distribution plant, opened last year, brought 1,000 more. Moody’s estimates job growth in Tampa at nearly 15% in the next five years. “Tampa still isn’t on the radar of people in the Northeast and the Midwest,” says Jeffrey Vinik, a former hedge fund manager (and owner of the hockey team), who is also investing in redevelopment projects and a new medical center. He moved his family here from Boston three years ago. “I think it’s going boom,” Vinik says.

  • Best in the West: Denver

    Efrain Padro/AlamyRenovated Union Station, built in 1894, is home to trendy restaurants and a top hotel

    The Mile High City becomes a mecca for millennials

    Population 661,000
    Median Home Price $288,800
    Average Property Tax $1,600
    Unemployment Rate 4.1%

    Denver is one of the country’s fastest-growing destinations for millennials, and it’s not just because of what you might call the chemically induced Rocky Mountain high factor. “You have real, legitimate urban living, then 45 minutes away you have back-packing, biking, or you can be scaling a 14,000-foot mountain,” says Ken Schroeppel, a professor of urban planning at the University of Colorado Denver.

    The other big millennial draw—and one that’s good for all ages—is the price of real estate. Younger adults are often priced out of owning their own homes in hip urban centers such as Boston (median home price: $462,000) and San Francisco ($1 million). The typical home in Denver goes for $288,800. ­Prices are on the rise, up 10.3% in the past year, which is faster than any of the other 20 cities measured by the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index. Yet you can still get a two-bedroom apartment in Capitol Hill, in the shadow of Colorado’s gold-domed capitol, for under $300,000, and it’s only 10 minutes from downtown.

  • Denver: Youthful Vibe

    Blaine Harrington III/Corbis“Yoga on the Rocks,” an annual Denver ritual for thousands in Red Rocks Park

    You don’t even need a car to make the commute. Denver’s bike-share program, one of the country’s oldest, expanded from 53 to 87 stations two years ago. With more than 110 miles of bike lanes, as well as extensive trails along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, Denver is crisscrossed by about 10,000 pedaling commuters ­every day, according to Bike­Denver, an advo­cacy group.

    All that riding (not to mention the hiking and skiing) has helped make Denver one of the healthiest cities in America. A recent study by Gallup ranked Denver first among large U.S. cities for the number of residents who exercise regularly—more than 57%. It also tied with San Diego for the lowest obesity rate, at 19.3%. Health care is a big source of jobs as well. Employment in Denver’s health care industry grew 4.9% last year, compared with 1.6% nationally. One key factor: the new University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, eight miles from downtown. Along with its two hospitals, the center is expected to employ 25,000 over the next decade.

  • Best in the Midwest: Omaha

    CHRIS MACHIAN/The New York TimesBoiler Market Resaurant, named not for the drink but because it was once a factory boiler room

    A new farm-to-table scene takes root on the Great Plains

    Population 443,000
    Median Home Price $116,300
    Average Property Tax $2,700
    Unemployment Rate 2.9%

    Solid economy, check. Affordable homes, check. Average commute of 18 minutes, check. There are plenty of solid reasons to love life in this unpretentious Midwestern city. By the way, did you hear about the burgeoning food scene?

    Not long ago, Omaha’s most talked-about culinary adventure was Warren Buffett’s regular $4 root beer floats at Piccolo Pete’s. Nowadays there’s plenty for cosmopolitan tastes too. Drawing on its rich cattle tradition, Omaha is a natural fit for the farm-to-table movement. The Grey Plume has been recognized five times by the James Beard Foundation since it opened in 2010. The Boiler Room, located in Omaha’s historic Old Market shopping district, carries food from 18 local farms. And Block 16, which bills itself as serving “farm-to-table street food,” boasts Omaha prices, like the prime-rib sandwich for $8.95 or the French fries topped with duck confit for $6.50. “We have some of the best produce in the country,” says Clayton Chapman, chef and owner of the Grey Plume. “There are two nearby farms where I can get Wagyu beef.”

  • Omaha: Foodie Outpost

    Dan BrouilletteThe trendy Old Market district

    Folks who think that Omaha is merely a Berkshire Hathaway company town might be surprised by the diverse economic menu too. Buffett’s homegrown business is one of five Fortune 500 companies in Omaha, along with ConAgra, Union Pacific, Peter Kiewit Sons’, and Mutual of Omaha. The Fab Five, as they’re sometimes known, helped the city’s job market weather the 2008–09 recession better than any of the 100 largest American cities, according to the Brookings Institution. Homes have remained affordable; they are only about 4% above where they were in 2006, according to Zillow. (For a small-town alternative, check out nearby Papillion from our Best Places list on page 65.) Unemployment in the ­Omaha area is just 2.9%, compared with 5.3% nationwide. And you just can’t beat the commute. “I can get from downtown Omaha to a farm in 20 minutes,” says Chapman. “That’s something few chefs in New York can say.”

  • Best in the Southwest: Mesa

    Dave G. Houser/AlamyMesa’s upscale Las Sendas neighborhood nestled in desert splendor at the base of the Superstition Mountains

    Great schools (and great golf) create the newest Arizona star

    Population 461,000
    Median Home Price $172,500
    Average Property Tax $1,200
    Unemployment Rate 4.5%

    There are bigger cities in Arizona (Phoenix and Tucson) and bigger golf meccas too (Scottsdale). Mesa can hold its own in both categories, and it beats them all in one key way—it’s a great, affordable city for raising a family.

    One prime reason: education. Of the 51 schools that earned the Arizona Educational Foundation’s A+ designation this year, nine were in Mesa. “That’s more than any other district in the state,” says Bobbie O’Boyle, the foundation’s executive director. When it comes to college, Arizona State is just next door in Tempe, while ASU’s Polytechnic campus, which focuses on engineering and aviation, was built on a former Air Force base in town.

  • Mesa: Great golf—and schools

    Courtesy of Longbow Golf ClubTeeing off at the Longbow Golf Club

    Housing is another family draw. Word is spreading about Mesa—home prices are up 5.1% in the past year, compared with 3.9% for Arizona as a whole, according to Zillow. But the city remains affordable: The median home price of $172,500 is less than half of ritzy Scottsdale’s, and property taxes are among the lowest in the state. Even tony neighborhoods like the mountainside Las Sendas, 20 minutes from downtown Phoenix on the new Highway 202, are in reach for middle-class families. While palatial Las Sendas homes overlooking the city can hit $2 mil­lion, 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom homes go for $325,000. A new, five-bedroom spread with a pool fetches the same price in the Eastmark development.

    And don’t forget the golf. Mesa is home to more than two dozen courses. Some of them are famous, such as Longbow Golf Club. But many are suited to a regular day on the links. At Sunland Village Golf Club, which was voted Arizona’s best golf value by website Golf Advisor last year, playing 18 holes costs $20—­including the cart. At those prices the entire family can play.

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