With the decade winding to a close, Americans have grown increasingly reluctant to gas up their moving vans. Last year, the Census Bureau's national mover rate—which represents the percentage of Americans 1 year and older who moved within the past year—hit its lowest level since 1948, when the bureau began tracking the data. And who can blame us? In the face of a terrifying banking crisis, a historic housing crash, and a grueling recession, relocating to a new city isn't exactly on the to-do list. But despite the uncertain economy, the nation's diverse topography presents an enviable menu of great places to find work, retire, or just change your scene.
In selecting our Best Places to Live for 2009, U.S. News took a thrift-conscious approach: We looked for affordable communities that have strong economies and plenty of fun things to do. The cities we selected are as distinct as America itself—ranging from a quaint suburb to a live-music mecca. But whether you prefer hiking through the Rocky Mountains, pulling a fish out of the Atlantic Ocean, or grilling hot dogs at a college football tailgate, here are 10 places that will fill up your daybook without emptying your wallet.
Along the banks of the Rio Grande, with the Sandia Mountains in the background, is the beautiful city of Albuquerque, N.M. The sunny climate and endless landscape have long drawn writers, poets, and artists to this spot, which includes an unconventional mix of American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures. But it's not just freethinkers who drift to this Southwestern city of 511,000. Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories, and Intel Corp. have helped develop the area into a manufacturing and research hub. They provide a stable anchor for the local economy. Albuquerque's clear skies, calm winds, and abundant sunshine present plenty of opportunities to explore its natural splendor. Each October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta fills the sky with more than 700 colorful hot-air balloons. Fourteen area golf courses are open year-round and allow duffers to tee off against spectacular backdrops of volcanoes and mountain peaks. Meanwhile, Albuquerque's foothills and network of trails make the area a wonderful destination for biking. Still, "it's kind of undiscovered at the same time," says Will McConnell of the Albuquerque Bicycle Center.
For Southern charm with collegiate vigor, consider Auburn, Ala. This diamond on the eastern Alabama plains has a population of just under 50,000 and is home to Auburn University. On football Saturdays, when die-hard fans arrive in droves to cheer their beloved Tigers, Auburn swells to the state's fifth-most-populous city. And as Auburn's largest employer, the university also plays a starring role in the local economy. With mild winters and hot summers, the city offers no shortage of outdoor recreation opportunities. Find a nice hiking trail in the 696-acre Chewacla State Park before cooling off with an afternoon swim. Take a stroll through the Donald E. Davis Arboretum, located on the Auburn University campus.
Golfers can head to nearby Grand National golf course and wend their way through the state along the beautiful Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. "Once you have been there, you just want to come back," says John Cannon, president of SunBelt Golf Corp., which manages the trail.
If you're a free spirit, music junkie, or barbecue lover—or if you simply have what it takes to "keep Austin weird"—Texas's state capital is for you. Considered ground zero for live music, this city of 716,000 residents is home to legions of musicians and nearly 200 performance venues. In addition, Austin hosts the always popular South by Southwest festival. Since its inception in 1987, the event has mushroomed from a local gathering to a 1,800-band, 80-stage extravaganza of music, filmmaking, and interactive activities featuring performers from all over the world. Austin is also a high-tech hub, with companies like Dell and IBM, which employ thousands of residents.