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, 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.
Low housing costs are a big reason to breathe easy. Columbia's median home price is about $147,000, and average property taxes are just over a grand. "The housing is so much more affordable here, after being in Atlanta," says Jewell Hill, who moved back to Columbia with her husband from Georgia's capital when they retired 13 years ago. Columbia's seniors don't live in conclaves, so house hunters can choose Victorian-style homes on historic streets or ultramodern apartments near the city's new riverfront esplanade, in a neighborhood dotted with art galleries.
Fun is cheap, too, as visitors can choose between events at the contemporary green-glass Richland County library, exhibits at the Columbia Museum of Art, and strolls around the historic downtown, past the governor's mansion and university buildings dating to 1805.
The 27,500 University of South Carolina students lend the city a particular vibrancy. In the funky Five Points neighborhood, students and seniors together scout for bottles of sauvignon blanc and sea salt at the Gourmet Shop. "We find now that retirees want the same things that 20-somethings do," says Patrick Mason, 63, publisher of CarolinaLiving.com and an avid yogi and bicyclist who favors a landscaped trail along the riverfront. Columbia's official slogan is "Famously Hot," and that's right on in the middle of July. But residents get all four seasons to enjoy nearby Lake Murray's 78 square miles for boating, fishing, water-skiing, and swimming.
Columbia has the advantages that come with being a capital city and college town, as several hospital systems have facilities in the area. For preventive care, residents ages 50 and older can head to the Capital Senior Center for tai chi, yoga, and Pilates classes, and a good bit of socializing. Member Daisy De Laine Block, 82, started tai chi classes on the advice of her physical therapist. "I thought it was something Bruce Lee did," Block jokes. Now she's a true believer.
With abundant green spaces, friendly Midwestern neighbors, and enough low-cost activities to keep a full-time scheduler occupied, Columbus, Ohio, is one of the nation's most underrated retirement spots. Situated along the winding shores of the Scioto River, Columbus has made a name for itself as the state's capital, home of the Ohio State University Buckeyes, and the headquarters of major corporations like Nationwide Mutual Insurance and Bob Evans Farms. A rich history and a four-season climate make this college town a delightful place to keep your legs loose and your mind active.