The Best Small Cities in the United States in 2020
Resonance’s annual ranking considers factors such as a city’s diversity, variety of cultural attractions, outdoor activities, and nightlife to give a comprehensive view of what it’s like to visit and live in these places.
To determine which cities would be considered for this list, Resonance looked at U.S. cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000. Resonance separately ranked large U.S. cities with populations of more than 1 million and midsize U.S. cities with populations between 500,000 and 1 million.
As coronavirus lockdowns gradually lift and we begin to venture beyond where we remained during quarantine, it’s an ideal moment to consider taking your first—cautious—adventure to a nearby destination you might’ve previously overlooked. The need for social distancing has made it abundantly clear that cities—big and small—will look quite different in a post-coronavirus world. However, it’s also illuminated the fact that what makes cities desirable are the shared spaces they offer, such as restaurants, entertainment venues, museums, and galleries. With their exciting cultural scenes and distinct local businesses, but slightly smaller populations (hence, more room), small U.S. cities are beckoning. But which are most worthwhile?
Resonance, a consultancy group in real estate, tourism, and economic development, recently released its annual report of the best small cities in the United States based on a combination of statistical performance and qualitative evaluations by locals and visitors collected over the past five years. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Resonance evaluated small cities across the country based on six core categories: Place, People, Programming, Product, Prosperity, and Promotion. With all of these factors considered, here are Resonance’s 2020 rankings for the top 10 small cities in the United States.
1. Reno, Nevada
Highlighted rankings: Restaurants (1), Instagram Hashtags (2)
Why we love it: Reno is best-known as a casino hot spot, but it’s not just gamblers who are placing their bets on the “Biggest Little City in the World.” Situated at the feet of the Sierra Nevadas, less than an hour from Lake Tahoe, this small city of 471,265 (metro population) offers a year-round outdoor lifestyle for active adventurers who crave close access to snowy slopes during winter and wildflower-strewn hiking trails during spring and summer. The Truckee River, which cuts through Reno, provides a natural playground for water sports enthusiasts in the area, and Yosemite National Park is within three hours by car from the city, making it a legitimate weekend road trip option.
Of course, Reno’s neon-lit nightlife is not to be ignored. The city is known for its casinos, clubs, and large cultural events such as Burning Man, the nine-day, 70,000-person festival held 120 miles north of the city in the Black Rock Desert (postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak). Every fall, Reno also hosts the annual Great Reno Balloon Race, which marks the world’s largest free hot air balloon event. According to Resonance’s 2020 survey, Reno’s restaurants ranked number one in the country among small cities, too; most of them have recently popped up in fast-rising Reno neighborhoods, such as the walkable Midtown district.
2. Naples, Florida
Highlighted rankings: Parks and Outdoors (1), Restaurants (2)
Why we love it: Naples sits on a stretch of southwest Florida’s Paradise Coast engulfed by white sand beaches, preserves, state parks, and refuges. The small city (metro population 378,488), which scored the top spot in the Parks and Outdoors category, offers dozens of public spaces and beaches for sunbathers and stand-up paddleboarders. Just 40 minutes out of town is Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park, an undeveloped barrier island home to bird life and the rare gopher tortoise, and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, with an observation tower that overlooks undulating sand dunes and the Cocohatchee River. Another nearby site that warrants a visit is Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a 35,000-acre mangrove habitat 40 minutes southeast of downtown Naples.
If you prefer to stay local, however, the downtown area surrounding the Naples Pier offers plenty to do. Along the city’s walkable palm-lined promenades, such as Fifth Avenue South, you’ll find top-notch shopping and seafood dining. (In fact, Naples’s restaurants ranked second among America’s small cities this year.)
3. Santa Fe, New Mexico
Highlighted rankings: Instagram Hashtags (1), Shopping (1)
Why we love it: Nicknamed “The City Different” for its defining Spanish pueblo revival style, Santa Fe has a rich history that dates back to its founding in 1610. Tucked into the base of the southern Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the more than 400-year-old city is the oldest state capital in the country, and the highest state capital as well. What’s more: According to Resonance’s 2020 study, New Mexico’s capital is also the most Instagrammed small city in the country.
It’s not hard to see why: With the dramatic Sangre de Cristo Mountains as a backdrop, this charming high desert destination displays its Spanish, Native American, and Mexican influences, with traditional pueblo architecture, cultural museums, renowned Southwestern dining, and more than 250 artisan galleries (which landed Sante Fe in the number one Shopping subcategory). The small U.S. city, which counts 150,056 metro area residents, also offers proximity to cholla-filled deserts nearby, as well as mountainous landscapes where outdoor adventurers can go hiking, biking, fishing, and river rafting during summer and skiing or snowboarding during winter.
4. Savannah, Georgia
Highlighted rankings: Neighborhoods (1), Google Trend (1)
Why we love it: Savannah’s charm is prominently displayed through its cobblestoned streets, framed by centuries-old homes draped with Spanish moss. But in recent years, the small coastal city in Georgia has garnered more attention for its culinary scene than for its historic sights, with fresh local seafood and Southern home cooking on the menu at a number of the chef-driven restaurants popping up in the Historic Landmark District, Starland neighborhood, and nearby Tybee Island. (Among the more notable spots is downtown Savannah’s acclaimed Southern-style restaurant the Grey, helmed by James Beard Award–winning chef Mashama Bailey and housed in a former bus station.)
In addition to local culinary innovators, the small city is also known for its artistic residents, fueled by the presence of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). The boutiques along Broughton Street stand out for their eclectic collection of housewares, antiques, and jewelry. Plus, with more than 150 festivals annually, including the Savannah Music Festival in spring and the Savannah Food and Wine Festival during fall, this city (metro population 389,494) knows how to celebrate its local music, art, and cuisine in style.
5. Asheville, North Carolina
Highlighted rankings: Nightlife (1), Shopping (2)
Why we love it: In addition to being a hub for active travelers, thanks to its position in the Blue Ridge Mountains and proximity to the Appalachian Trail, Asheville is known for its thriving live music and arts scene, as well as its prominent beer culture. Almost 50 beer companies, including New Belgium, Wicked Weed, and Sierra Nevada, have breweries in the North Carolina city. This city (metro population 459,585) has a Downtown Art District filled with galleries, museums, and souvenir shops where you can pick up locally crafted items, such as pottery, or buy a zip-up fleece to blend in with the outdoorsy locals.
Throughout the year, Asheville celebrates its bohemian spirit with cultural events and festivals (such as Asheville Art in the Park, the Big Crafty, and the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival) that rank first in the country for small cities, according to Resonance’s 2020 findings. The city’s nightlife is also top-rated. On any given night, you’ll find local musicians strumming tunes for giddy crowds at bars, inspired by the region’s bluegrass roots.
6. Anchorage, Alaska
Highlighted rankings: Connectivity (2), Sights & Landmarks (4)
Why we love it: Alaska’s vibrant port city isn’t just a stopover for cruise ships—it’s also a prime base for outdoor adventure, from skiing and hiking to salmon fishing and kayaking down plentiful rivers. But in addition to being a great destination for nature lovers, Anchorage (metro population 399,148) is also a burgeoning spot for art buffs and beer enthusiasts. (Think: Free weekly festivals held throughout summer, featuring local bands and brewers.)
Before embarking on the ultimate Alaska road trip to Denali National Park (about five hours by car from Anchorage), swing by the Alaska Museum of Science to get the lowdown on glacier science, or learn about the long history of the Native cultures around the state with a stop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center or the Anchorage Museum. Then, sample kalua pig, salt-cured lomi salmon, and other Hawaiian, Samoan, and Tongan dishes at any number of eateries in the city. We’re partial to Hula Hands in the Mountain View neighborhood.
7. Boulder, Colorado
Highlighted rankings: Educational Attainment (1), Household Income (5)
Why we love it: Situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains along the banks of a rushing creek, Boulder (metro population 326,078) has more than 300 miles of hiking and biking trails that cover approximately 45,000 acres of open space. In this small Colorado city, located just 30 minutes from Denver by car, year-round residents enjoy mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, and stand-up paddleboarding adventures during the warmer months. World-class ski resorts, such as Vail, Aspen, and Breckenridge, are all within a few hour’s drive, making Boulder a prime location for winter sports lovers as well.
While the city features plentiful outdoor offerings, Boulder also has an impressive food and drink scene. The university destination is home to some of the country’s finest microbreweries and gourmet restaurants, most of which are situated near the brick-paved Pearl Street Mall downtown, such as Arcana, where the menu features venison tartare and wood-grilled rib eye.
8. Trenton, New Jersey
Highlighted rankings: People (1), Prosperity (1)
Why we love it: This 250-year-old city on the Delaware River ranked first in the People category for Resonance’s 2020 small U.S. cities report, coming in seventh for foreign-born residents. The diverse metropolis with a metro population of 369,811 also ranked in the top 10 for household income and top-rated restaurants in a small U.S. city. Trenton’s proximity to Princeton University (only 10 miles away)—not to mention its easy commute to Philadelphia and New York City—solidified the New Jersey destination’s spot on this list.
9. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Highlighted rankings: Facebook Check-ins (1), Culture (1)
Why we love it: Situated on South Carolina’s Atlantic coast, just two hours north of Charleston, Myrtle Beach is home to 480,891 metro area residents. The small coastal city is known as a top golf destination (with more than 100 courses) and a popular vacation resort area. While the city is packed with hotels, boutique shops, seafood restaurants (such as crab shacks), and a well-touristed boardwalk, its 60 miles of white sand beaches provide ample space for beachgoers.
For a quick day trip, visit the 9,127-acre Brookgreen Gardens just 30 minutes from the city, where a site-specific exhibition from British artist Bruce Munro currently decorates the South Carolina landscape with thousands of illuminated bulbs. Or walk the uncrowded trails and beaches at Huntington Beach State Park, home to sea turtles, alligators, and a large variety of native birds, 40 minutes from Myrtle Beach by car.
10. Ann Arbor, Michigan
Highlighted rankings: Educational Attainment (2), University (3)
Why we love it: This University of Michigan (UM) hometown is a Midwestern hub for academic and creative types. Located about 45 minutes by car from Detroit, Ann Arbor is brimming with entertainment offerings that include university bars and family-style eateries, such as the Korean restaurant Miss Kim.
But the small city, nicknamed “Tree Town” thanks to its abundance of greenery, also offers proximity to multiple nature areas along the Huron River. Ann Arbor (metro population 370,963) is also home to impressive cultural museums, such as the 94,000-square-foot University of Michigan Museum of Art, where the collection includes furniture by Michigan design legend Florence Knoll.
The rest of the top 20 small cities in the United States are:
11. Santa Cruz, California
12. Napa, California
13. Atlantic City, New Jersey
14. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
15. Lansing, Michigan
16. Lincoln, Nebraska
17. Kahului, Hawaii
18. Charlottesville, Virginia
19. Fort Wayne, Indiana
20. Santa Maria, California
To see the full list of the 100 best small cities in the United States, visit bestcities.org.
>> Next: The World’s 25 Best Cities of 2020