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The 20 Best Cities for 20-Somethings

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When we released last year’s list of the top 20 cities for 20-somethings, some readers were pleased and some were less so. We were looking for ultra-cool spots where young adults could find jobs they love, unwind at happy hours, join sports leagues, and make new pals. This year we’ve updated that list, and many of the cities you suggested met our new criteria. In general, it’s hard to pinpoint what qualities 20-somethings go for in picking the perfect city. There are common factors such as cleanliness, park space, and efficient transit systems, but this year we expanded our scope: Does a city provide ethnic and cultural diversity? Can you walk in peace or are the streets packed with cars? We compiled this year’s list taking into account as many factors as we could to bring you the most accurate list of healthy cities for 20-somethings, with research from institutions such as the American College of Sports Medicine and Apartment Guide, among others. Read on for our 2013 picks, presented in reverse alphabetical order, and let us know: Did we include your favorite?

Photo: Nicholas Karim

1. Washington, D.C.

Average Temp (High, Low): 67, 49
Per capita Income: $43,993
Average Rent: $1,117
Population: 632,323
Median Age: 33.8

Our nation’s capital is the 10th greenest city in the U.S. and in the top 10 cities for overall well-being. D.C.-ers might be in such good shape because there are 800 miles of bikeways, plus there’s the Capital Bikeshare program, with bike pick-ups at over 150 stations in the area. It ranks second for happy hours, beating out even NYC. And with one of the top five transit systems, it’s easy to make it to all those said happy hours. There’s also roughly a bajillion college students with American, George Washington, and Georgetown Universities generating big numbers of 20-somethings. In fact, almost 30 percent of the city’s population is between the ages of 20 and 34, according to the U.S. census.

Photo: Bill Morrow

2. Tucson, AZ

Average Temp (High, Low): 82, 55
Per capita Income: $20,460
Average Rent: $669
Population: 524,295
Median Age: 33

Take a deeeeep breath. Tucson is one of the cleanest cities in the U.S., as measured by year-round particle pollution. That should come in handy when we’re panting heavily on a bike, hike, or simple jog. Surrounded by mountain ranges, this year-round sunny city is the place for outdoor activity aficionados, especially cyclists. A program called “Bicycle Boulevards” helps turn city streets into safe pathways for bikers. And unlike some of the other cities on this list (cough New York cough), Tucson’s not a place where we’ll end up blowing our whole paycheck: The city’s been rated one of the most affordable places to rent an apartment. Spend some of that extra dough at the restaurants, bars, and boutiques in the historic Fourth Avenue district.

SeattlePhoto: jarnott

3. Seattle, WA

Average Temp (High, Low): 59, 46
Per capita Income: $41,695
Average Rent: $923
Population: 634,535
Median Age: 36.1

This city made the list because its people are allegedly sleepless (and lack of sleep equals fun, right?). Seattle ranked fourth for number of happy hour-hosting establishments, and is well known for its coffee — it does have the first Starbucks location. For the bookworms out there, Seattle is one of the most literate cities in the U.S. with a huge number of bookstores and libraries per capita. For live music and performances, this city is fifth in the U.S. And as residents of the first city to put cops on bikes, Seattle’s locals bike to work more often than in any other city in the states. They also take advantage of all the parks and green space Seattle offers, which is probably why they’re some of the fittest people in the country.

Photo: Sudheer G

4. San Francisco, CA

Average Temp (High, Low): 64, 51
Per capita Income: $46,777
Average Rent: $1,287
Population: 825,863
Median Age: 38.5

Heeeeey, sexy ladies! San Francisco has been rated the number one U.S. city to find a rich, single man. As for those who aren’t currently looking for love, sunny San Francisco is also home to a range of cultural events and institutions. There’s the historic Fillmore Auditorium, the annual “Litquake” literary festival, and Urban Solutions’ 2 Blocks of Art, an art walk through different neighborhoods around the area. Perhaps most importantly, San Francisco residents are some of the healthiest people in the country, with lower rates of smoking, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. They’re also more likely to break a sweat on the way to work, on foot, and on bikes.

San DiegoPhoto: slack12

5. San Diego, CA

Average Temp (High, Low): 71, 57
Per capita Income: $30,955
Average Rent: $1324 
Population: 3,177,063
Median Age: 33.6

If you’re wondering where in the world Carmen is, we can’t promise you she’s in San Diego. However, we can inform you that this diverse city houses three of the top zoos and is ranked the third best city for quality (and quantity) of happy hours. San Diego has some solid nightlife establishments, especially in the Gaslamp Quarter — 16.5 blocks of happy hours galore, plus tons of clubs and live music venues. To pass the daytime hours, San Diego features 70 miles of beaches (mind you, it’s the seventh largest city in the U.S.), and it’s got some killer street art. Hungry after all that sightseeing? Snag a slice of the best pizza in the U.S., but don’t think about throwing that paper plate on the street: Nearly two thirds of the city’s residents are recycling-conscious.

Salt LakePhoto: Garrett

6. Salt Lake City, UT

Average Temp (High, Low): 64, 40
Per capita Income: $26,700
Average Rent: $652
Population: 189,314
Median Age: 30.9

This city ranks as the best place for new grads to venture after leaving the dorm rooms. In fact, 17 percent of Salt Lake’s population is in their 20s. And don’t fret too much about finding a new job here, since the city’s unemployment rate is substantially lower than the national average (5 percent compared to 8.1 percent). As for ladies, Salt Lake is the second best city for women in terms of overall health. That’s possibly because the city boasts a higher-than-average number of physically active people (men and women), who hit up ball diamonds and golf courses, and follow Fido to the dog park. It’s also impressive that the city government is spearheading efforts to make local streets safer for bikers, and recently expanded its bike-share program.

RaleighPhoto: James Willamor

7. Raleigh, NC

Average Temp (High, Low): 71, 48
Per capita Income: $30,377
Average Rent: $772
Population: 423,179
Median Age: 31.9

Put a smile on! Raleigh’s been ranked the happiest city in the U.S., especially for women. But that’s not because everyone’s on vacation all the time. In fact, Raleigh’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average. And those considering applying to grad school can choose from among three prestigious institutions that make up the “Research Triangle” (North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina, and Duke University). When it really is playtime, there’s plenty of green space to roam: This city is 17.1 percent parkland.

PortlandPhoto: Christopher

8. Portland, OR

Average Temp (High, Low): 62, 45
Per capita Income: $30,631
Average Rent: $883
Population: 603,106
Median Age: 35.8

While 14 states have their very own Portland cities, we’re talking about Portland, Oregon, here. This Portland boasts 16.1 percent parkland, and it’s also in the top 10 greenest cities. And may we mention that it’s also been ranked number one for happy hours — that’s no small feat considering it’s half the size of NYC, yet offers twice the amount of happy hour offerings per square mile. Between its huge indie music and arts presence, and high amount of alternative sports fans (mushball, anyone?), Portland’s got a little something for everyone. But this city’s residents aren’t just into fun sports teams to stay fit; Portland ranked fourth for cities with the most gyms, with 38.6 of them per million people in the area.

Photo: Al_hikesAZ

9. Phoenix, AZ

Average Temp (High, Low): 86, 59
Per capita Income: $24,365
Average Rent: $824
Population: 1,488,750
Median Age: 32.2

As the 10th most playful city, Phoenix is big on recreation with heaps of hiking trails and museums, sporting events (with franchises in all four major professional sports leagues), and playful hobbies (with more than 200 golf courses, and 200+ parks, trails, and gardens). Of all 50 metropolitan areas in the survey on playfulness, Phoenix residents ranked as the most satisfied with their lives. With all that playtime, it may come as a surprise this city is also the 10th most fiscally fit.

Photo: musical photo man

10. Philadelphia, PA

Average Temp (High, Low): 64, 46
Per capita Income: $21,671
Average Rent: $723
Population: 1,547,607
Median Age: 33.5

This city, deeply rooted in jazz and once the United States capital, is also home to the first public zoo in the U.S., the Philadelphia Zoo (Benny Franklin founded it). It’s also home to a range of startups and bigger companies, so it’s a great place for 20-somethings to launch their careers.  Of the top 40 cities in the states, Philly ranks fifth for most walkable neighborhoods. But if you’re flying in, the city’s also got the best airport for making a connection. To quell an appetite, pop by Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, with over one hundred different vendors. Oh, and for a cheat day, we hear Philly’s got some pretty bomb cheesesteaks.

New YorkPhoto: Andreas Munter

11. New York, NY

Average Temp (High, Low): 63, 47
Per capita Income: $31,417
Average Rent: $1146
Population: 8,836,697
Median Age: 35.5

This incredibly diverse city is home to a growing number of 20-somethings as well as a year-round influx of tourists. And for good reason: After a visit with Lady Liberty, there are more places to go in the city than the day allows for — The Museum of Modern Art, Times Square, and for a reprieve, Central Park (just to name a few). But good news: The Big Apple is also the most walkable city in the U.S. (especially in scenic neighborhoods like Little Italy, SoHo, and the Flatiron District) and home to a recently-launched bike-sharing program, CitiBike. And while there’s quite the variety of food at countless restaurants in the city, New York is also home to a massive caravan of food trucks to keep those appetites satisfied while we’re walking the streets. With 61.8 percent recycling-conscious residents and 19.5 percent parkland, NYC also ranks as one of the greenest cities in the country. It’s worth noting, too, that NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg has been on a (controversial) health kick since he took office, most recently trying to ban oversized cups of soda, proposing legislation to make stairs more accessible in city buildings, and urging restaurants to start composting their waste.

MinneapolisPhoto: Faruk Ates

12. Minneapolis, MN           

Average Temp (High, Low): 54, 36
Per capita Income: $30,693
Average Rent: $822
Population: 392,880
Median Age: 31.4

This city is pretty much perfect for anyone who likes to stay active. The fittest city in the U.S., it’s home to the highest number of gyms per person, but there are opportunities for exercise even beyond the elliptical. Lace up those sneakers and hiking boots: Minneapolis has been rated the best city for parks (the place is 15 percent parkland) as well as for urban forests. Plus some say it’s the number one city for biking. New to the place and want to make some friends? Just hit up one of the many ball diamonds, dog parks, or tennis courts. No need for beer goggles, either: Minneapolis ranks among the top 10 most attractive cities.

Los AngelesPhoto: Lei Han

13. Los Angeles, CA

Average Temp (High, Low): 74, 56
Per capita Income: $27,954
Average Rent: $1238
Population: 9,962,789
Median Age: 34.1

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: L.A. has some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., probably a result of the high population density and traffic levels. But this city still ranks among the greenest in the country, and more than two thirds of its residents are recycling-conscious. It’s also among the best cities for biking. As part of an annual event called CicLAvia, a bunch of streets are open and safe for biking, walking, skating, etc. And don’t think this city is all about Miley Cyrus and pop culture. L.A. caters to a wide range of musical tastes — check out the L.A. Philharmonic, the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, and some of the many local rock bands that perform around town. (It’s also a great place for those looking to bust into the music biz.)

Las VegasPhoto: Moyan Brenn

14. Las Vegas

Average Temp (High, Low): 80, 54
Per capita Income: $26,755
Average Rent: $892
Population: 596,424
Median Age: 35.9

Even those 20-somethings who aren’t into blowing their paycheck in glitzy casinos may find this city the perfect place to call home. Las Vegas actually offers plenty of room to roam, with a higher percentage of parkland per person than most other U.S. cities. Outdoor enthusiasts can get their fresh air fix hiking in Red Rock Canyon or skiing on Mount Charleston. Perhaps surprisingly, Vegas is also a great place to get cultured: 2012 marked the opening of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a casino-free space for music, dance, and theater that features the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 

Photo: -shu-

15. Honolulu, HI

Average Temp (High, Low): 84,70
Per capita Income: $30,016
Average Rent: $1244
Population: 976,372
Median Age: 39.7

We know it’s not in the continental U.S., and Hawaii requires a little extra travel, but this city’s stats certainly make up for it. Honolulu’s the greenest city in the U.S., with lots of homes sporting solar panels. The city also ranked as one of the top 10 cities for well-being, and ranked highest for emotional health. It was even rated the top “blues-proof” town. Honolulu also houses Waikiki Aquarium, though we’re sure the beaches are worth a trip, too. 

Photo: VISIT DENVER

16. Denver, CO

Average Temp (High, Low): 64, 37
Per capita Income: $32,051
Average Rent: $771
Population: 634,265
Median Age: 33.7

All right, we’re throwing this stat at ya first and foremost: Denver ranks number one in the nation for beer production per capita. Some area bars offer happy hours every day with longer peak hours than most cities (whew!). There’s even an area called the Beer Triangle. The triangle of happiness (located between the Colorado Rockies, Boulder, and Fort Collins) attained the nickname the “Napa Valley of Beer.” Coors Brewery, the largest single brewery in the world, as well as over six-dozen other brewpubs and microbreweries reside in the triangle. The city also has the Denver Zoological Gardens, which is the most popular attraction in Colorado. But don’t worry about growing a beer belly: Denver is also ranked one of the fittest cities in the U.S., with more people biking, walking, and generally staying physically active than in other parts of the country. Perhaps as a result, city residents also maintain lower rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Photo: The City of Chicago's Official Tourism Site

17. Chicago, IL

Average Temp (High, Low): 59, 40
Per capita Income: $27,940
Average Rent: $855
Population: 2,714,856
Median Age: 32.9

Hello, gentlemen. This one’s for you. Chicago, affectionately called “Chi-town” by the locals, was rated the seventh manliest city in America (mainly because so many males have “manly” jobs such as police offers and fire fighters). But for men, women, and children, Chicago is home to three of the top zoos and aquariums, and 36 annual parades. The first Ferris wheel made its debut in Chicago, and now a 15-story replica sits on Navy Pier, considered the city’s lakefront playground. The Pier has a big beer garden, headlined by its signature Landshark Lager. Skip driving in Chi-town, because the city was ranked sixth for public transit.

Photo: Freefoto.com

18. Boston, MA

Average Temp (High, Low): 59, 44
Per capita Income: $33,158
Average Rent: $1,257
Population: 636,479
Median Age: 30.8

Ranked third for its efficient public transit system, this city is also the fifth greenest in the U.S., with 65 percent of its residents participating in recycling programs. For a history lesson and to catch a game, there’s Fenway Park (don’t forget to pahk ya cahh in Hahvad yahd). Known for their “chowdah,” Boston hosts an annual Chowderfest, with all the New-England-style clam chowder (that’s with cream — not tomatoes, Manhattanites) you could ever dream of. Beantown’s more than 100 colleges contribute greatly to the city’s high proportion of 20- to 34-year-olds (actually, the highest proportion among the country’s 25 most populous cities). But for those of you worried about the bars and restaurants crawling with underage college students, fear not — Boston is vigilant about preventing underage drinking. Boston salaries are also about 34 percent higher than the nation’s average (can’t complain about that). Plus it boasts one of the best healthcare systems in the country: 95 percent of its residents are covered.

AustinPhoto: StuSeeger

19. Austin, TX

Average Temp (High, Low): 79, 58
Per capita Income: $31,170
Average Rent: $791
Population: 842,592
Median Age: 31

They say everything’s bigger in Texas, but this cowboy-boot-wearin’ city is one of the fittest in the U.S., and home to a ton of gyms (38.5 gyms and fitness centers per million people in the area). And to tap out on vitamin D, Austin is the place — it gets an average of 300 days of sunshine each year. Austin is also home to some of the healthiest eaters according to the Healthiest Habitats list (based on factors like eating habits, BMI, and exercise habits), with residents eating an average of 33.6 servings of fruits and vegetables per week. Austin’s also the best large metropolitan area in terms of getting a job — no wonder it’s also in the top 10 cities for the best happy hours. And with more than 100 live music venues, it’s known as the live music capital of the world. Thousands of visitors flock to Austin each year for big music and film festivals including South by Southwest and Austin City Limits.

Photo: Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau

20. Albuquerque, NM

Average Temp (High, Low): 70, 43
Per capita Income: $26,436
Average Rent; $660
Population: 555,417
Median Age: 35.1

Okay, we get that the desert isn’t usually where most 20-somethings would think to look for their ideal locale, but Albuquerque is the place to go for a fresh air fix, with 28 percent parkland. Plus it was included in the list of top 10 U.S. destinations for value vacations, especially noted for its affordable pricing. It’s also one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the country. And thankfully, though the city is also considered the ballooning capital of the world, that does not mean balloon animals peruse the streets, but instead the city’s skyline can often be found peppered with hot air balloons (especially during the International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest hot air balloon festival). Albuquerque also has one of the top zoos in the country, the Albuquerque Biological Park (tickets are just $5 to $12 for a solid day’s worth of fun).

2012 Cities That Almost Made the Cut

Boulder, CO

Though Boulder didn’t make this year’s list, we still commend all the walkers and bikers in the mountainous city. Unfortunately, Boulder doesn’t rank too high for other factors, such as availability of parkland and cultural events, such as a thriving music scene.

Burlington, VT

True, Burlington is a big draw for those crunchy, organic-food lovers out there. But it failed to rank on this year’s list because it’s missing some key features, such as a solid public transit system, a significant amount of green space, and physically active residents.

Cleveland, OH

This spot made the American College of Sports Medicine’s list of fittest cities in the U.S. and last year it impressed us with its wide range of job opportunities. We didn’t include Cleveland on this year’s list because it doesn’t rank as highly for other factors, such as affordability.

Dallas, TX

Dallas is a great place to find a job, and then not spend your entire salary on an apartment. We skipped it for this year’s list because we looked at other characteristics, such as physically fit residents and environmental sustainability.

Madison, WI

We were psyched to feature Madison on last year’s list because it’s a great place for young adults and one of the greenest cities in the country. Still, it didn’t rank for other factors such as walkability and physical fitness.

Sacramento, CA

This city almost made this year’s list, due to its high number of physically active residents and ethnic diversity. But it’s missing factors such as an impressive public transit system and it didn’t rank as highly for green space.

San Jose, CA

Another California locale that didn’t rank this year, San Jose’s a great place for young adults to stay fit and active. Unfortunately, we were also looking for places with lots of parkland, an awesome music scene, and more diversity.

How we ranked: It wasn’t easy to highlight the top 20 cities for today’s 20-somethings, and our ranking process was pretty rigorous. As a team we came up with some super-important qualities that would factor into our own decisions to move. Next we scoured the web for stats, polls, and surveys on U.S. metropolitan areas. We wanted to know how different cities fared in terms of health and wellness (number of gyms, walkability of streets), sustainability (air quality, recycling programs), finances (affordability of housing), and plain old fun (live music scene). Finally we put all the cities that had been mentioned into a giant spreadsheet and assigned points for each category (math time!) until we found the 20 that ranked highest. No city was perfect, but the ones we chose to feature all stood out in at least one category. It’s important to remember: The U.S. is an awesome place with a ton of awesome cities, but we could only pick 20!

Got something to say? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @ShanaDLebowitz.

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