To determine which cities would be considered for this list, Resonance, a consultancy group in real estate, tourism, and economic development, looked at U.S. cities with populations between 500,000 and 1 million. Resonance separately ranked large U.S. cities with populations of more than 1 million and small U.S. cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000.
What makes a city a fantastic place to live and visit? Good weather helps, of course, and great food and culture play a huge part, too. But there’s much more to it than that.
A truly singular spot can be judged favorably by its diversity, its economic prospects, and government investment (and how it’s spent)—all factors that tourism and real estate consultancy group Resonance considers when compiling its annual reports. The organization has also monitored Facebook check-ins and Instagram mentions for five years to get a close look at the attractions and small businesses making these midsize cities appealing.
With much of what makes a place special shut down by COVID-19 this year, those attributes really stand out in our minds. And as we get back out there and explore more of the fathomless charms of the United States, many are considering eschewing the more crowded places for these top-rated spots.
1. Honolulu, Hawaii
Highlighted rankings: Place (1), Programming (1)
Why we love it: Six million people visited the capital of Oahu in 2019, and there are about as many reasons why. Its reliably perfect weather and dreamy mountain-framed cityscapes are the two most obvious, but there are plenty of other justifications for Honolulu’s spot at the top in 2020. The city’s already notable retail and culinary options have had a boost recently, with Waikiki’s International Market Place undergoing an expansion in 2016 and now including more Michelin-starred chefs than before. Breweries have proliferated too; many of them are clustered in a walkable region in the Kakaako neighborhood, where arts festivals abound and the open-air Salt complex offers even more alfresco dining. Hawaii has enacted strict quarantine rules, but many of Honolulu’s charms can be enjoyed at home.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Honolulu
2. Omaha, Nebraska
Highlighted rankings: Prosperity (1), Nightlife (1)
Why we love it: Resonance’s second best midsize city, Omaha, sits on the Missouri River at the eastern edge of Nebraska, facing Iowa, and it’s capitalizing on its riverfront location with huge investments. Some $300 million is being poured into redevelopment here, with a further $500 million helping to connect the popular arts and entertainment hub the Old Market District (the main reason for Omaha’s top spot in the nightlife category) with the Heartland of America Park, where fountains, sculptures, and gondola rides will delight guests starting in 2025. The city is also modernizing its airport (OMA) for 2024.
3. Charleston, South Carolina
Highlighted rankings: Museums (1), Shopping (2)
Why we love it: AFAR loves Charleston so much we spent several weeks in residence there in 2018. The Holy City is hard to beat for history, and it is a rewarding network of cobbled streets and architecture with many stories to tell. The city’s African American heritage is particularly worth exploring, and the forthcoming International African American Museum—which will stand on the disembarkation site for almost half of all enslaved Africans brought to the United States—is eagerly anticipated for late 2021. It will join other stalwart venues like the Gibbes Museum of Art, and the Charleston Museum—one of the oldest in the country. Present-day Charleston promises numerous top chefs working out of open kitchens, public festivals aplenty, and lots of watery fun on the harbor. Any of these nine iconic Charleston experiences would be a good starting point for your next visit.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Charleston
4. Colorado Springs, Colorado
Highlighted rankings: Attractions (1), Restaurants (4)
Why we love it: Colorado Springs rates highly for Instagram hashtags and Facebook check-ins on Resonance’s ranking, and it’s easy to see why: The city of some 740,000 citizens sits right by the outdoor playground that is Pike’s Peak, with acres of hiking trails, several lakes, and the kind of views that’ll have you pulling the car over every five minutes. In town, locals congregate at mixed use space Ivywild School, a former elementary that’s now home to Bristol Brewery, a bakery and bar, and other outlets. Once you’re fully caffeinated, both Garden of the Gods (for climbing or hiking) and the trails of Cheyenne Mountain State Park (both west of the city) are calling.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Colorado
5. Albuquerque, New Mexico
Highlighted rankings: Restaurants (2), Shopping (3)
Why we love it: Situated at the base of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico’s high desert, Albuquerque offers a confluence of cultures and traditions, all expressed brilliantly through its architecture, culture, and cuisine. A day here will take you from modern cityscapes to ancient haciendas, via Spanish churches and Native American pueblos, with evenings spent sampling red and green chile-spiced meals and perhaps an hour or two at one of the many theaters or music venues. A trip to the top of the Sandia Peak tramway helps put this idiosyncratic home to 900,000 diverse people—and the 11,000-square-mile open expanse surrounding it—in perspective.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to New Mexico
6. Cape Coral, Florida
Highlighted rankings: Safety (1), Parks & Outdoors (3)
Why we love it: The photogenic beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Island have attracted visitors since long before Instagram; after returning from their winter homes there 100 years ago, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were humblebragging about their trips. But Cape Coral, across the Caloosahatchee River, is equally worthy of your time. It’s a college-heavy city, with more than a dozen colleges and community colleges within 50 miles of the city center. And, as Resonance notes, what it lacks in soft sandy beaches it “more than makes up for in riverfront vistas and outdoor pursuits.” It’s easy to reach, too: Southwest Florida International Airport, a hub for dozens of flights during noncoronavirus times, is just a 30-minute drive away.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Florida
7. Madison, Wisconsin Highlighted rankings: Educational Attainment (3), Nightlife (4)
Why we love it: With a large millennial population (almost 30 percent), an influx of new restaurants and breweries, affordable housing, and low unemployment, Wisconsin’s state capital is an attractive place to live. But it rates highly for visitors, too, with several key Frank Lloyd Wright buildings (best explored virtually for now) and a number of museums, including the Chazen Museum of Art and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The Cap East district, meanwhile, is a former industrial area that’s been turned into a creative hub full of musicians and artists, rivaling the energy in the city’s westside around the State Capitol Square and the University of Wisconsin. Popular music venue the Sylvee, which is located downtown and has a capacity of 2,500, opened in 2018 with an impressive lineup including Death Cab For Cutie and Kamasi Washington, and it has become an essential stop for big touring bands. It’s had to cancel shows due to the pandemic but will hopefully roar back into life soon.
8. El Paso, Texas
Highlighted rankings: Crime Rate (2), Restaurants (3)
Why we love it: Situated by the Rio Grande at the far western part of Texas on the border with Mexico, El Paso is brimming with new reasons to visit. Chief among them? Its outstanding culinary scene (it ranks third in Resonance’s list, just behind Honolulu and Albuquerque) and a revitalized streetcar system, which preserves a network that was shut down in the 1970s and covers almost five miles through the city’s uptown and downtown areas. As Resonance points out, the city is also getting a new Mexican American Cultural Center, an arena, and a Children’s Museum downtown, thanks to a $500-million bond initiative.
9. Tulsa, Oklahoma
Highlighted rankings: Convention Center (1), Google Trends (2)
Why we love it: The star attraction of this city of almost a million people is the Gathering Place, a 66-acre green space funded by local philanthropist George Kaiser that aims to “bring together people throughout the Tulsa area to rediscover that we’re bound together by commonalities.” It’s a beautiful collection of gardens, playgrounds, restaurants, and venues, and its purpose is more vital than ever right now. Tulsa also has several other spots to hit, including the Woody Guthrie Center (“dedicated to spreading Woody’s message of diversity, equality and social justice”—the singer was born in nearby Okemah) and the Philbrook Museum and Gardens, which is planning an October exhibition of 1,000 years of Native women’s art, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, assuming COVID hasn’t forced a closure. With recent election campaign rallies and the hit HBO series Watchmen having been filmed here, Tulsa’s been in the spotlight lately. But it’s worth a visit any time.
10. Durham, North Carolina Highlighted rankings: Connectivity (1), University (2)
Why we love it: With just 575,000 inhabitants, Durham is a small but mighty pick, edging into Resonance’s top 10. It’s a big college town, centered around world-renowned Duke University, with several neighborhoods like Rockwood and South Square worth exploring. The sprawling 55-acre Sarah P. Duke Gardens is an essential alfresco stop. Even better? The North Carolina city is easy to reach: Raleigh-Durham International is only a 20-minute drive away, and prepandemic it was serving more than 50 destinations with 400-plus flights per day.
The rest of the top 20 midsize cities in the United States are:
11. Boise, Idaho
12. Portland, Maine
13. Santa Rosa, California
14. Des Moines, Iowa
15. Fresno, California
16. Bridgeport, Connecticut
17. New Haven, Connecticut
18. Oxnard, California
19. Greenville, South Carolina
20. Knoxville, Tennessee
To see the full list of the 100 best midsize cities in the United States, visit bestcities.org.
>> Next: The World’s 25 Best Cities of 2020
Tim Chester Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.