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10 Best American Vacation Towns to Live In Year-Round

By Brian Martucci

tourist town livingWhile many major population centers are blessed with beautiful surroundings, big cities also have many drawbacks, such as soul-crushing traffic and long commute times, pressure to conform to social expectations, and high living costs. For some, these tradeoffs are worth it. For others, the lure of a slower pace and quieter surroundings wins out. Every year, thousands of working-age people move from big cities to smaller cities, often in scenic areas, that are better known for drawing seasonal tourists and retirees.

Not every tourist-friendly town is a good candidate for a full-time relocation. Many lack economic diversity, with employment concentrated in low-paying service industries. Others, whether due to their popularity with well-heeled tourists or a lack of land suitable for development, are too expensive for the average family.

Tourist Hot Spots Where You Can Put Down Roots

Some tourist towns occupy an apparent sweet spot, boasting ample employment opportunities, reasonable living costs, and family-friendly amenities – not to mention recreational opportunities that aren’t easily accessible for most big-city residents. If you’re thinking seriously about relocating, here are 10 tourist-friendly towns – in no particular order – that should rank high on your relocation list.

1. Fort Collins, Colorado

  • City/Metro Area Population: 151,000/310,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -0.9%
  • Average Home Price: $241,000 (national average is $200,000)
  • Median Household Income: $49,500 (national average is $52,000)
  • Average Commute Time: 17 minutes (national average is 25 minutes)
  • Cost of Living Index: 95 (national average is 100)

Fort Collins is the northernmost population center along Colorado’s Front Range. Like other cities in the region, it offers breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains’ foothills and high peaks. Though it’s not technically in the mountains, it’s surrounded by natural areas, from Fossil Creek Reservoir Natural Area, a great bird-watching spot, to Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, a popular spot for day hikers.

If you’re looking for world-class wilderness, mountainous Roosevelt National Forest lies just on the other side of Horsetooth Mountain. And the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, home to some of the highest peaks in Colorado, is just an hour to the southwest. Homes are a bit pricier than average here, but a lower cost of living makes up for it.

Fort Collins is the home of Colorado State University, the state’s second-largest public university (after the University of Colorado-Boulder). The population is youthful, active, and well-educated, creating a sturdy foundation for a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy. High-paying service jobs abound, as do opportunities in information technology. Since the semi-arid climate is perfect for computer and semiconductor manufacturing, tech giants (including AMD, Intel, Agilent, and Hewlett-Packard) have a big presence. Healthcare is a mainstay as well, with homegrown Poudre Valley Health System employing more than 3,000 locals.

These buttoned-up industries are critical, but Fort Collins is also famous for its lighter side, including unique businesses created by thousands of locals in their late teens and twenties. The city is a hub of the state’s booming beer industry, drawing untold thousands of visitors and tourists. And the city’s most successful breweries, such as New Belgium Brewing Company, earn millions of dollars in annual revenues through national distribution. Even Anheuser-Busch has a major bottling plant in Fort Collins – who ever said business was boring?

fort collins

2. Flagstaff, Arizona

  • City/Metro Area Population: 69,000/137,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.6%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -0.7%
  • Average Home Price: $310,000
  • Median Household Income: $49,500
  • Average Commute Time: 17 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 103

Flagstaff is another college town with breathtaking mountain views. Unlike Fort Collins, this northern Arizona city sits in the heart of the state’s most rugged region, just 10 miles from the towering San Francisco Peaks. Arizona Snowbowl, the state’s preeminent ski area, sits on the far side of nearby Mount Humphreys. For hikers and camping enthusiasts, the dense pine forests that surround Flagstaff are a dream come true. And world-famous Arizona landmarks, such as the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park, Meteor Crater, and Grand Canyon National Park, lie within a couple hours’ drive.

Despite the heavy influence of the tourism industry (which is apparent in the mostly authentic, occasionally kitschy Old West-style downtown), Flagstaff’s economy is surprisingly diverse. Northern Arizona University is one of the Southwest’s top research institutions, and the city’s high elevation and clear skies have attracted a so-called astronomy cluster (including the nearby Lowell Observatory). Also, Flagstaff sits at the intersection of major thoroughfares connecting Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas, making it an important logistics hub. It has a surprisingly robust manufacturing sector, with Nestle-Purina (pet food) and W.L. Gore & Associates (Gore-Tex clothing) operating factories here.

Though owner-occupied housing is expensive in Flagstaff, rents are more reasonable due to the high student population. And the surprising economic diversity offers opportunities in just about every industry, including manufacturing and shipping jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. Plus, this tidy city boasts short commutes, a far milder climate than sun-baked Phoenix (from which many Flagstaff residents relocate), and enviable proximity to some of the United States’ most stunning landscapes.

flagstaff

3. Roanoke, Virginia

  • City/Metro Area Population: 97,000/312,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 5.6%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -1.0%
  • Average Home Price: $129,000
  • Median Household Income: $36,500
  • Average Commute Time: 21 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 82

Though it’s the biggest city in southwestern Virginia, Roanoke retains a small-town vibe. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s a popular base for tourists from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the country’s oldest and most scenic byways, dips into the valley before ascending back into the highlands, as does the Appalachian Trail.

To the north, Jefferson National Forest harbors some of Virginia’s highest peaks, as well as the towering Natural Bridge. Meanwhile, Roanoke proper is old enough to excite students of history, boasting well-preserved 19th century architecture and old neighborhoods that date to its days as a Southern rail hub.

Today, Roanoke retains its status as a shipping city. For instance, UPS, Orvis (a sporting goods manufacturer), and Norfolk Southern Railway have facilities in the area. And in recent years, low labor costs have strengthened the city’s manufacturing sector. GE, ITT (a military equipment manufacturer), and Yokohama have a presence in the area, collectively employing thousands. And thanks to the presence of Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, one of the Blue Ridge’s biggest medical hubs, the healthcare sector employs nearly 6% of the local workforce.

With short commute times, super-low housing costs, and low prices on just about everything, Roanoke’s cost of living is a bargain by any standard. But its location at the foot of a stunning mountain range, as well as its relative isolation from the hustle and bustle of the D.C. area – four hours by car – make its case as a great place for relocation.

roanoke

4. Concord, New Hampshire

  • City/Metro Area Population: 43,000/146,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.6%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -0/7%
  • Average Home Price: $228,000
  • Median Household Income: $52,000
  • Average Commute Time: 23 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 110

Concord’s not exactly the hub of New Hampshire’s tourist industry, but it’s the closest population center to the state’s two main tourist districts, the Lakes Area (roughly 45 minutes by car), and the White Mountains (roughly 90 minutes by car). Both destinations are paradise on earth for hikers and snow-sports enthusiasts. Several major ski areas are within an hour’s drive, with more options just beyond that range. Closer to town, Mount Kearsarge State Forest and Rollins State Park offer great views of the Connecticut and Merrimack River Valleys. And in the fall, residents experience the full measure of New Hampshire’s beauty with a simple glance out the window at a multicolored foliage display.

As New Hampshire’s state capital, Concord has a stable economy. The state is the area’s largest employer by far, with Concord Hospital coming in second, and Genesis Healthcare, a long-term care provider, not far behind. Though the University of New Hampshire isn’t within easy commuting distance, the institution’s law school is located within the city limits, and Concord is home to some of the state’s most elite law firms.

Seeking higher pay and greater opportunity, some ambitious residents make the daily drive to Boston’s northern suburbs, a trip that takes about an hour in perfect traffic conditions (though commute times during business driving hours often exceed three hours). But with so many opportunities close by, there’s no need to go to such lengths.

Concord is located in an expensive part of the country, so its cost of living is slightly above average. But reasonable housing prices and above-average wages make up for this. A rock-bottom unemployment rate helps, too: If you have marketable skills and aren’t afraid to pound the pavement, it’s hard to believe you couldn’t find a job. And New Hampshire is unique among neighboring states in that it lacks a state income tax. If you’re feeling trapped by Boston’s expensive rat race, relief might be right up the road.

concord

5. Traverse City, Michigan

  • City/Metro Area Population: 15,000/143,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 6.6%
  • Change from Year Earlier: Flat
  • Average Home Price: $178,000
  • Median Household Income: $42,000
  • Average Commute Time: 17 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 93

To outsiders, “Michigan” has been a dirty word since the near-collapse of the auto industry in the late 2000s, but Traverse City is a four-hour drive from the faded glory of Detroit. Located in the beautiful northwestern corner of the Lower Peninsula, it sits on Grand Traverse Bay, a vast inlet of Lake Michigan that’s surrounded by picturesque hills. With a mild micro-climate that encourages the growth of tart fruits, Traverse City is the Midwest’s top exporter of grapes, cherries, and wine (cold-hardy strains of Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Noir are particularly successful here). Most of the area’s 30-plus vineyards sit on the compact Leelanau Peninsula, just northwest of the city, and it’s possible to hit several of them in the course of a leisurely day.

If wine tasting isn’t your thing, head a bit farther west to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where you can stand atop a 450-foot mountain of sand and gaze past the rugged shoreline to the open waters of Lake Michigan. In early July, the National Cherry Festival draws thousands of visitors to downtown Traverse City for a week’s worth of cherry-related activities. And in the winter, nearby Boyne Highlands is a one-stop shop for winter sports enthusiasts – though its vertical drop is bound to disappoint those used to skiing in the Rockies and Sierras.

Boutique agriculture isn’t the only thing going on in Traverse City. A hefty population of retirees has the region’s healthcare sector booming, and lifestyle entrepreneurs have opened world-class breweries, wineries, restaurants, and cozy bed-and-breakfast inns. Air passenger traffic, a solid measure of economic activity, has increased year-over-year at Cherry Capital Airport.

Cheap housing, low living costs, and short commutes set Traverse City apart from pricier vacation destinations. Though unemployment is higher than some places, it’s far lower than in Michigan’s bigger cities.

traverse city

6. Logan, Utah

  • City/Metro Area Population: 48,000/125,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.6%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -0.9%
  • Average Home Price: $161,000
  • Median Household Income: $35,500
  • Average Commute Time: 15 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 85

About an hour and a half north of Salt Lake City, halfway between the Great Salt Lake’s Bear River Bay and beautiful Bear Lake, lies Logan, Utah. It’s bounded by the Bear River Mountains to the east and the farmlands of the Cache River Valley to the north and west. The climate here is surprisingly humid for the Intermountain West, making Logan a popular destination for eastern transplants. It’s also an important city for followers of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, with landmarks such as the Logan Tabernacle and Logan Utah Temple attracting pilgrims from the surrounding area.

The surrounding terrain is the main draw in Logan: The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest offers seemingly endless hiking opportunities, while the bottomlands near the Great Salt Lake draw migratory birds during the transitional seasons. Just over the mountains, the shores of Bear Lake are a paradise for boaters and fishermen. All this, without the hustle and bustle of the rapidly growing Salt Lake City.

Logan’s economic engines – aside from tourism – include healthcare and education. Utah State University – 17,000 students strong – sits in the city’s eastern foothills. Logan Regional Hospital is a key acute-care institution for adjacent, thinly-populated rural areas of Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. That said, novel industries exist here too, including ICON Health & Fitness (an exercise equipment manufacturer), Campbell Scientific (which manufactures laboratory instruments), and the Space Dynamic Laboratories, a Utah State University-owned corporation that makes high-tech equipment for spacecraft.

With a super-low unemployment rate, it’s not hard to find a decent-paying job here. And once you’ve got a job, the rock-bottom living costs – and those incredible mountain views – make it easy to stick around.

logan

7. Galveston, Texas

  • City/Metro Area Population: 48,000/290,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 5.2%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -1.5%
  • Average Home Price: $121,500
  • Median Household Income: $36,000
  • Average Commute Time: 22 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 82

Galveston doesn’t necessarily fit the tourist town mold: It’s part of a major port complex that handles a lot of the country’s petrochemical traffic (and a fair amount of its cruise passenger traffic too). But it’s also a popular getaway for folks from Texas and Louisiana, thanks largely to its historic charm, scenic barrier island location, and (somewhat) mild sea breezes that keep it cool during the summer.

The island has several high-profile museums, including the Lone Star Flight Museum and the Galveston Railroad Museum, as well as family-friendly attractions like Moody Gardens (a botanical garden inside a see-through pyramid) and the Schlitterbahn Waterpark. For history buffs, the Strand neighborhood is reminiscent of New Orleans‘ French Quarter, though smaller and far less raucous. And if you’re lucky enough to own a boat, the vast tidal waters of Trinity Bay are at your disposal.

Galveston is just an hour south of Houston, but the pace of life is immeasurably slower, and the open-water views can’t be matched. The economy is nearly as attractive, with below-average unemployment and rock-bottom costs for housing, food, and fuel. And the employment base is more diverse than the typical tourist town. The Port of Galveston, just north of town, employs hundreds of locals. The local finance industry is surprisingly robust, with American National Insurance Company – which does business through multiple subsidiaries – headquartered here. There are several hospitals as well, including a level 1 trauma center that handles constant inflow of injured roughnecks, port workers, and refinery employees.

There is one major drawback to living in Galveston: It’s unusually hurricane-prone, as evidenced by the near destruction in the legendary 1900 Galveston Hurricane. Do your research on insurance and housing needs before making a move.

galveston

8. Greenville, South Carolina

  • City/Metro Area Population: 61,000/851,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.8%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -1.6%
  • Average Home Price: $183,500
  • Median Household Income: $40,000
  • Average Commute Time: 19 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 91

Located in the beautiful foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains, Greenville is part of South Carolina’s second-largest metropolitan area. It’s also part of the greater Interstate 85 corridor, otherwise known as “the Upstate,” a fast-growing region book-ended by Atlanta and Charlotte.

Despite its population density, the city itself is surrounded by parkland and undeveloped forest, giving it an insular, small-town feel. To get a good view of the region, you can climb to the highlands of Paris Mountain State Park, just outside town, or venture a bit farther to the rugged wilds of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness.

Greenville is also renowned for its creativity, as the Fall for Greenville and Artisphere arts festivals court culture buffs in the fall and spring. And though South Carolina’s summers get a bad rap for their unrelenting heat and humidity, Greenville enjoys some of the mildest weather in the state.

Greenville’s economy performs better than that of downstate South Carolina. You can credit its low unemployment figure to a growing collection of high-tech manufacturers and automotive suppliers drawn to the area by affordable land, low state taxes, and lower labor costs. Upstate employers include BMW – the German automaker has its only U.S. manufacturing facility here – 3M, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, GE, Caterpillar, and Michelin. Even though workers don’t earn quite as much as they do in more expensive Northeastern and Midwestern manufacturing hubs, affordable housing, low living costs, and high quality of life make it worthwhile.

greenville

9. Duluth, Minnesota

  • City/Metro Area Population: 86,000/280,000
  • June 2014 Unemployment Rate: 5.1%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -0.6%
  • Average Home Price: $151,000
  • Median Household Income: $41,000
  • Average Commute Time: 19 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 91

As the world’s most isolated open-water port, Duluth sits at the western end of the Great Lakes. It got its start as a shipping hub for the ore from Minnesota’s Iron Range, and its flashy past shows in the Gilded Age mansions that hug the steep ridge above town. Duluth’s port still operates, loading ore onto ships for the journey to refineries on the lower Great Lakes, but that’s just a small part of its economy.

These days, Duluth is a gateway for visitors to the vast, sparsely-populated Superior National Forest, which stretches from Lake Superior’s northern shore into Ontario, where it continues as Quetico Provincial Park. Thousands of teeming inland lakes, hundreds of miles of trails, and thriving moose and wolf populations make it a magnet for outdoorsy types. The unique, million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a contiguous chain of countless lakes in which motorized vehicles of any kind are banned, straddles the U.S.-Canada border.

The Lake Superior shore is impressive, with Tettegouche State Park and Temperance River State Park harboring dramatic cliffs and gushing waterfalls that empty into the world’s largest freshwater body. It takes less than three hours to drive from Duluth to the Canadian border along the big lake, but most visitors need two or three days to absorb it all.

Despite its geographic isolation and the sparse population of the surrounding area, Duluth has a diverse economy. It’s a hub for aircraft manufacturers, including Cirrus Aircraft and Kestrel Aircraft, both of which make single-engine or turboprop planes. The city’s R&D economy is robust, as well, with the high-tech companies Ecolab and ASci Corporation maintaining a presence in the area. And tourist-friendly start-ups, from breweries and distilleries, to wilderness outfitters and tour companies, thrive in the area. Low land and commodity prices make it likely that businesses will continue to grow in the years to come.

duluth

10. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

  • City/Metro Area Population: 44,000/680,000
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.9%
  • Change from Year Earlier: -1.5%
  • Average Home Price: $202,000
  • Median Household Income: $38,500
  • Average Commute Time: 19 minutes
  • Cost of Living Index: 91

Located on a stunning lake in the transition zone between the dense, mountainous forests of the Bitterroot Mountains and the semi-arid grasslands of the Columbia Plateau, Coeur d’Alene is gaining a well-deserved reputation as a world-class tourist destination. In the uninhabited terrain to the northeast, the Coeur d’Alene National Forest harbors mist-shrouded peaks that challenge the most experienced climbers. A chain of substantial lakes stretches due north, culminating at isolated – but huge – Lake Pend Oreille. A quick drive to the east brings movie buffs to the nearly-forgotten town of Wallace, the backdrop for “Dante’s Peak” (a Pierce Brosnan vehicle from the late ’90s). Quaint silver mines dot the surrounding hills, and the city itself is famous for hosting one of the country’s largest Christmas light displays.

Believe it or not, the community is more than just a tourist destination. The massive, old-school Coeur d’Alene Resort is a fixture here, and favorable corporate tax laws have encouraged innovative businesses to set up shop as well. Kootenai Healthcare, a growing hospital system, is the largest local employer. The Pita Pit, a wildly successful food service franchise, is a homegrown success story. Hecla Mining, which focuses on silver deposits throughout North America (and employs dozens of engineers at six-figure salaries), has a growing presence in the region.

And despite its apparent isolation, the city benefits from its strategic location at the eastern end of a 40-mile economic corridor that terminates west of Spokane, Washington. Along it, the cities of Post Falls, Idaho, and Spokane Valley, Washington, support major employers including Sysco (a food distributor), Center Parters (a call center), and Buck Knives (a high-end manufacturer of hunting knives). No matter where you live in the Coeur d’Alene area, you can count on short commutes, affordable housing, and a tight labor market that rewards job-seekers.

coeur de alene

Final Word

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to pack up and move at a moment’s notice. Chances are, you have a lot keeping you where you’re at, such as jobs, families, and a mortgage. The uncertainty of taking a leap of faith and moving somewhere unfamiliar might weigh on you, but if you’re disillusioned with the daily grind and wonder whether a change might do you good, these beautiful, affordable, and economically-vibrant destinations should top your list.

What other affordable, tourist-oriented towns and cities make great year-round homes?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci is a freelance journalist and branding consultant who loves to provide practical personal finance advice for regular people. When he’s not writing about frugal living, long-term investing, or consumer-friendly financial products, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine.

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  • Mark Hallisy

    As a resident of Flagstaff, I completely agree…although the author obviously has a different definition of “reasonable rent” than most. Rent here is NOT cheap!

    • Brian Martucci

      Fair enough! I suppose it’s cheap compared to some big cities, but probably not some smaller towns. You live in a beautiful place, though. Haven’t been there in over a decade, but I have nothing but fond memories.

  • nativetator

    As a native of 6 generations in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
    I am blessed. As a Realtor here I get to share the benefits of living here with newcomers who appreciate our quality of life and the beautiful location.

    • Brian Martucci

      Speaking from experience, I can say that your hometown is something special.

  • Kevin

    Go Traverse City! TC really is a great stop in Northern Michigan. I live in nearby Petoskey (the next largest city in Northern Michigan) which is, ironically, in between Traverse City and the ski hills of Boyne mentioned above. This truly is a great place for retirees but can be difficult for college graduates (like myself) trying to find suitable employment. Winters can be quite harsh living by the water as well, so bring your snow tires :)

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