Although it's the fourth-largest metro area in the state, Jacksonville doesn't feel like a big city. "I grew up in a small South Carolina town where everybody waves. Here, it's the same thing," says Frank Cummings, a retiree from the Navy who was born in Jacksonville and returned in 1999. You'll find that small-town atmosphere in the San Marco neighborhood. There, palm-tree-lined streets and rows of small shops and restaurants resemble a miniature old Florida town—despite its location just a few miles from Jacksonville's skyline. One artifact of the city's past in San Marco is Theatre Jacksonville, a community theater group that has run continuously for 90 seasons, making it the longest-running in the state. Senior tickets for plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest are available for $20. But San Marco also has elements of a big city, including a multitude of affordable restaurants that range from Middle Eastern to Thai.
Jacksonville also offers the expected Floridian pastimes. "I can be from my house to standing with my feet in the sand in 20 minutes," says Jim Dowd, a retiree who is originally from Nashville and lives at Westminster Woods, a retirement community on Julington Creek (a tributary of the St. Johns River, which is popular for fishing and boating). The city's neighborhoods capture both its past and its future growth—Riverside, full of stately homes, is a historic district dating to the 1800s, while in the expanding southeastern part of the city you'll find new carriage homes in the Sweetwater active living community.
It's generally cheap to live in Jacksonville, compared with the rest of the state. The city's median home price is $150,500, versus $275,900 in Fort Lauderdale and $291,550 in Miami. Part of the reason housing is so affordable is that the city has never been a vacation spot like many cities farther south. But residents aren't missing the tourists. Says Dowd: "In the rest of Florida, you think vacations. In Jacksonville, it's more like being at home."
It's early afternoon, and Ed Smith's saxophone playing has an older Kansas City crowd up and moving. Smith's trio has drawn about 100 bystanders, and a couple of dozen are cutting a rug. It's fitting that live music is a regular feature at the Don Bosco Senior Center in Kansas City, the city that gave jazz legends Count Basie and Charlie Parker their starts and that is home to the American Jazz Museum.
To retirees like Elaine Catalano, 80, a lively music scene is part of what makes Kansas City a fun and affordable place to live. "It's easy to have a good time in this city," she says while taking a break from the music. "Like this dance—there are all kinds of free dances at senior and community centers. You just have to know where they're going on."
Smack in the country's middle, Kansas City offers a reasonable cost of living that's typical of the Midwest, with a median home price of about $118,000, nearly 20 percent below the national average. But K.C. is not a sleepy town. It offers a rich mix of sounds and flavors, from jazz clubs and symphonies to succulent barbecue and fresh sushi. It's also a place that can keep older folks busy without busting their banks: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art asks only a donation for entry, free concerts and theater are frequently held in area parks, and the Crossroads Arts District throws open the doors of its galleries once a month for free tours. Kansas City has made big-city investments in culture, including a $4 billion downtown revitalization project. Nearing completion is the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a striking and privately funded complex that will be home to the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera, and the Kansas City Ballet.
Retirees often say they like Kansas City because, for all its big-city benefits, the area allows easy and affordable living. Sally Chapple, 78, says that she planned to move elsewhere after her husband died 28 years ago. After all, they'd lived in Kansas City only a couple of years. She tried exotic locations in Italy, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, but she always returned. "It just felt like home to me," she says. It didn't hurt that the city offers a better bang for the buck—when health issues arose, Chapple found it easy to slip into Bishop Spencer Place, an upscale retirement community that's a short walk from Country Club Plaza, a well-known area of shops and restaurants.