America's Best Affordable Places to Retire

Soon-to-be retirees are resetting their expectations for their golden years.


Slide Show: America's Best Places to Retire

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As visitors have discovered, a trip to Asheville's extravagant Biltmore Estate comes at an extravagant price: $55, and no senior discount. But if it's absorbing architecture you're after, the city is dotted with unique buildings, including the Art Deco city hall, the breathtaking Spanish Baroque Basilica of St. Lawrence, and the Jackson Building, a gargoyle-flanked, neo-Gothic masterpiece. Admission, of course, is gratis.

Real estate in this mountain enclave is pricier than in many cities of its size, but a drive down the winding Blue Ridge Parkway, a frozen custard at the Grove Arcade, or a lazy afternoon spent listening to drummers in Pritchard Park are reminders that everyday life in this laid-back town is easy on the wallet. The secret about Asheville may be out, with more and more retired people flocking to the city, but as retiree Fred Teach puts it, "Asheville's still a gem. It's magnificent."

Aurora, Colorado

Aurora may rub elbows with Denver, but it assuredly is not a suburb. Home to roughly 300,000, the city covers a whopping 154 square miles and includes nine colleges and universities, seven golf courses, and 10,000 acres of parks, trails, and open space within its city limits. Housing is reasonable, to boot: In 2008, the median home price was $138,000, roughly $40,000 less than in Denver.

Want to feel young? Visit the centrally located Aurora Center for Active Adults, and you'll be bowled over by an enthusiastic crowd and an array of activities, all of which are free or have a minimal cost. In the lobby of the building, retirees enjoy a friendly but competitive game of Wii bowling. An intense match of doubles Ping-Pong draws a crowd of spectators upstairs. The popular billiards room is occupied, the gym is bustling with exercisers, and classrooms are filled with students of ceramics and watercolor painting. The crowd (mostly made up of those 50 and over) is often on the move, attending Colorado Rockies baseball games or day-tripping to the mountains for a picnic.

Many retirees say Aurora's climate is a big draw: The sun shines some 300 days a year, the humidity's low, and Indian summers are an occasional treat. Despite its considerable expanse, "Aurora's like a 'big' small town," says Jo Creager, a retired teacher. That's a common attitude among retirees at the center, including Cristobel Nallathanby, a New Jersey transplant: "It's things like the farmers' market and neighborhood block meetings that make this a homey place to live."

Aurora's location is an extra. The polychromatic Rocky Mountains, which are within an hour's drive, make for a mesmerizing backdrop in some parts of the city. Having a car is nice but not necessary: A ride downtown on Denver's light rail costs just a buck, and a senior discount on the skyRide bus will deliver you to Denver International Airport for $4. Cyclists can take advantage of Aurora's many bike trails, which extend to the Cherry Creek Reservoir and even downtown Denver.

Brick bungalows and Victorian houses are predominant in residential neighborhoods, and kitschy signs, rehabbed storefronts, and galleries line one of the city's main thoroughfares. In the East End Arts District, the Fox Arts Center—a restored movie theater from the 1940s—has its own theater company and showcases musicals, plays, and other performances.

Sure, there are plenty of chain restaurants, but you also can find a cheap meal at the many family-owned ethnic eateries. It's hard to beat the $7 lunch special at La Cueva Restaurante: a plate of tamales smothered in green chili sauce.

Columbia, South Carolina

Columbia, S.C., has a knack for shortchanging itself. Locals often explain their city's appeal by listing its proximity to other destinations: less than two hours' drive to Charleston, 1½ hours to Charlotte, N.C., 2½ to Savannah, Ga. It can sound as if the thing they like best about Columbia is that it's so easy to leave. But maybe residents are just loath to give up their real secret: that you can live a lot on a little in this sunny and colorful capital city.