The 18 Best Places to Live in America, Big and Small

by Barbara Hadden

happy multigenerational family PeopleImages.com – Yuri A / Shutterstock.com

You’ll find families and retirees alike in every size city – small, medium and large. Not every person immediately packs up and moves to a new location when they finally walk out of work for the last time. Many people want to stay surrounded by family, familiar places and the doctors and health care options they’ve known all their lives.

But there’s no question that certain places are more livable, particularly for those who are nearing or at retirement age. To help people evaluate their options, AARP’s Public Policy Institute recently released its updated AARP Livability Index.

This web-based resource scores every neighborhood and community in the U.S. based on services and amenities that most affect the lives of people as they age. Transportation, health and housing are just a few of the seven categories and 61 characteristics considered by the index.

The following are the top communities in each of the four size categories: large, medium and small cities and, this year for the first time, small towns.

Large cities

San Francisco

San Francisco Pius Lee / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 1 large city

Overall score: 65 out of 100

None of the top three large cities in the AARP Livability Index are cheap places to live, and San Francisco is a prime example. But AARP points out that cities with good transportation, or where residents can easily walk to services, have an increased overall livability despite their pricey housing. However you get around the City by the Bay, be sure to make time for a drive across the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s famous symbol.

New York City

New York City coastline IM_photo / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 2 large city (tie)

Overall score: 63 out of 100

As with San Francisco, no one will ever claim it’s cheap to live in New York City. But the AARP index points out that 52% of New Yorkers get by without a vehicle, thanks to having many established transportation options. And maybe you’ll take one of those options to a Broadway show — New York’s live theater scene is tough to match.

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. orhan-cam / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 2 large city (tie)

Overall score: 63 out of 100

You don’t have to be the president to call Washington, D.C., home. With so many museums, theaters and other ways to stay busy, the nation’s capital scored 93 out of 100 for engagement, which measures cultural options as well as civic involvement and voting rates. Speaking of cultural options, the world-famous Smithsonian Institution offers 17 museums and galleries across the metro.

Midsize cities

Alexandria, Virginia

Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 1 midsize city (tie)

Overall score: 67 out of 100

Historic Alexandria was one of three midsize cities tying for first place. Like its nearby big-city neighbor of Washington, D.C., Alexandria scored high for engagement, landing 96 out of 100 points in that category. You may just want to block off some time to wander Alexandria’s quaint streets and marvel at its acclaimed architecture.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Rowing on Charles River, Harvard Cambridge, Massachusetts Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 1 midsize city (tie)

Overall score: 67 out of 100

You may know Cambridge as home to Harvard University, but it appeals to more than just scholars and professors. Yet perhaps thanks to those college kids, Cambridge scored 85 out of 100 in the transportation category. And you don’t need to be accepted to Harvard to tour its vaunted campus – in-person tours are offered daily.

Arlington, Virginia

Arlington, Virginia Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 1 midsize city (tie)

Overall score: 67 out of 100

Arlington rounds out the three cities that tied for first place in the midsize city category. Arlington scored especially high in the health category, which looks at such factors as access to exercise opportunities, patient satisfaction and the prevalence of smoking and obesity. Of course, Arlington is also home to one of the nation’s most moving landmarks, the historic Arlington National Cemetery.

Small cities

St. Louis Park, Minnesota

St. Louis Park Minnesota Jacob Boomsma / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 1 small city (tie)

Overall score: 66 out of 100

St. Louis Park is a suburb of Minneapolis, tucked in right next to the city’s famous Chain of Lakes. St. Louis Park scored especially high in the health and engagement categories. One engaging attraction: the Pavek Museum, which celebrates the history of electronic communication.

Watertown, Massachusetts

Watertown Massachusetts Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 1 small city (tie)

Overall score: 66 out of 100

Watertown, a part of Greater Boston, tied with St. Louis Park for the top spot among small cities. As you might expect from a city near so many colleges, it scored high in transportation. Watertown also scored high in the neighborhood category, which looks at such factors as the crime rate, access to parks and diversity of destinations. One special destination: The Armenian Museum of America, which celebrates the history of the Armenian people.

Seven-way tie

Belmont Massachusetts Yingna Cai / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 3 small city

Overall score: 65 out of 100

Seven cities tied for the No. 3 spot among small cities. They are:

  • Belmont, Massachusetts
  • Arlington, Massachusetts
  • Somerville, Massachusetts
  • Bergenfield, New Jersey
  • Richfield, Minnesota
  • Roseville, Minnesota
  • North Bethesda, Maryland

Small towns

Aspen, Colorado

Aspen Colorado jdross75 / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 1 small town

Overall score: 72 out of 100

The mountain town of Aspen appeals to skiers and nature buffs, for sure, but it’s got more going for it than that. Aspen scored 97 out of 100 points in the engagement category, meaning there is plenty to keep residents busy. That includes the music and related fun of the Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Food Wine Classic, both of which come to town in the summer.

Los Alamos, New Mexico

Los Alamos New Mexico Kit Leong / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 2 small town (tie)

Overall score: 71 out of 100

You may have heard of Los Alamos because of its World War II history — it was home to the nuclear weapons research of the Manhattan Project. Now, it scores high on the livability index in part because of its high opportunity score, which refers to age diversity, jobs per worker, high-school graduation rate and more. Seek out the Los Alamos History Museum to learn about the city’s role in history, from homesteading through WWII and the Cold War.

Great Neck Plaza, New York

Great Neck Plaza New York SevenMaps / Shutterstock.com

Ranking: No. 2 small town (tie)

Overall score: 71 out of 100

The village of Great Neck Plaza sits in New York’s Nassau County, on the north shore of Long Island. It earned its highest score in the transportation category, coming in with 89 out of 100 points there. And if you live in this quaint community, join your neighbors for summer concerts at charming Firefighters’ Park.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.