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By Mallika Mitra and Mayra Paris
Updated: February 9, 2021 4:20 PM ET | Originally published: November 23, 2020
From Left: Focal Flame Photography / Courtesy of Destination Madison; Courtesy of Explore Asheville; Visit Franklin.

Does your ideal retirement include hours at the beach, challenging hikes or tennis matches? Maybe you want to enroll in writing classes, volunteer or finally get to some art museums. Whatever you’re dreaming of, the first question to ask is: Where should I live?

While there’s no simple answer, we tried to make it a little easier for you to decide the best place to retire. Money combed through about 47,500 data points and considered factors like housing, climate, diversity and safety to create a list of destinations to suit every taste and budget. You can see more about our methodology below.

Of course, 2020 isn’t a normal time, and the pandemic means that some of the fun activities we’ve highlighted can’t happen right now, or are only happening with special safety modifications. Even traveling to scope out new places may be unsafe for the time being. But choosing the right spot is a decision you’re making for the long haul. So our list weighs factors that will make these cities stand out over time, plus natural attractions that can be enjoyed right now.

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1. Madison, Wisconsin

Focal Flame Photography / Courtesy of Destination Madison

Population: 256,000
Population 50-plus: 28.2%
Days of sunshine a year: 185
Median home price: $292,000

A college town in the Badger State might not spring to mind as an ideal place to retire. But with tons of recreational activities and natural beauty, Madison, Wis. — a metropolitan area sandwiched between two lakes — has taken the top spot on our list.

Its many charms come at an affordable price. The city’s median home price, $292,000, is one of the lowest of all our winners.

Usually, living near the University of Wisconsin has its perks. People aged 60 and older can also audit courses at the university for free, and during this fall semester, 800 did so virtually, according to the university. During a typical weekend, people can stroll in the university Arboretum and the Lakeshore Nature Preserve on campus.

Madison has a bustling restaurant scene and free events, like Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concerts on the lawn of the state Capitol. Also near the Capitol is the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which touts itself as the largest producer-only market in the country and has extended its outdoor season during the pandemic.

The city’s art institutions, like the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and many movie theaters can provide a safe haven during a cloudy day. And when family visits, you can easily entertain kids by visiting the Madison’s Children Museum and Henry Vilas Zoo, or renting a paddle board or kayak at one of the nearby lakes.

The state capital has 38 retirement communities, the most of all our winners.

Wisconsin’s sales tax is just around 5% — among the five lowest in the country — and the state provides a property tax deferral loan program for older residents with a household income below $20,000. COVID-19 has certainly taken its toll on Wisconsin, but its workforce has fared better than much of the country, with its unemployment rate at 5.7% in October compared to the country’s 6.9%.

2. Largo, Florida

City of Largo

Population: 83,000
Population 50-plus: 48.4%
Days of sunshine a year: 244
Median home price: $211,000

Once known as the “Citrus City” for its shipping of citrus to northern states, Largo, Florida is at the heart of Pinellas County, a peninsula surrounded by Tampa Bay and Gulf of Mexico. The city may not be a well-known retirement destination like Boca Raton to the southeast, but it offers plenty of beautiful beaches and sun for less.

Largo has the lowest median home price of our winners at $211,000. And Florida ties with Tennessee as being the most “tax-friendly” on our list, according to our data; neither has a state income tax. With 24 retirement communities in the area and nearly half the population aged 50 or older, it’s a welcoming place for retirees.

The city along the Gulf Coast scored highest among our winners for a pleasant atmosphere, thanks to its walkability and great weather. On a sunny day, residents can explore the Florida Botanical Gardens or 70-acre Largo Central Park with fountains, picnic pavilions and a playground. Those looking to entertain visiting friends and family can head to the Central Park Performing Arts Center to see music, dance and theater performances.

Of course, a main attraction for Largo is its proximity to beaches along the Gulf of Mexico — and there are many to choose from. Largo residents are close to beaches with public access, like Indian Rocks Beach, St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach, which was named TripAdvisor’s best beach in the U.S. for three of the last five years (the other two years it was Siesta Beach, which is under a 90-minute drive from Largo). Finally, you can’t talk about Florida without mentioning golf courses, and Largo is home to plenty, including the East Bay Golf Club and Pinecrest Golf Club.

3. Lower Merion, Pennsylvania

Lower Merion Township

Population: 62,000
Population 50-plus: 43.9%
Days of sunshine a year: 205
Median home price: $500,000

Settled in the 1600s by Welsh Quakers, Lower Merion, Pennsylvania borders Philadelphia. The township has a suburban feel and easy access to a vibrant city known for its food and art scenes.

If being close to health care options in retirement is a concern, this city could be a good spot for you. In addition to having both the Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Hospital, Lower Merion has a high number of primary care providers, mental health providers and doctors in the area for its population, according to our data. However, this access does come at a cost. While Lower Merion scores highest among our winners for the strength of its economy, it also has the highest median home price on our list at $500,000.

But if you’re looking for a variety of ways to stay mentally and physically active, Lower Merion — the home of the women’s college Bryn Mawr — could be worth it. From the 12-acre Barnes Arboretum (which housed the well-known art institution the Barnes Foundation before it moved to Philly in 2012) to hikes along the Main Line, like the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, this spot is great for walkers. The pedestrian and bicycle network connects parks and the Schuylkill River with neighborhoods, businesses, schools and more.

For those looking for some indoor entertainment, being so close to the City of Brotherly Love means Lower Merion has 234 museums and 367 theaters within a 15-mile radius. Meanwhile, those 55 years old or older can become members of the Center For Positive Aging in Lower Merion (PALM), which offers services including weekly grocery shopping and free medical screenings, as well as classes, workshops and entertainment, some of which has continued virtually through the pandemic.

4. Franklin, Tennessee

Visit Franklin

Population: 84,000
Population 50-plus: 36.5%
Days of sunshine a year: 208
Median home price: $495,000

Most cities can’t boast a history that spans from Benjamin Franklin to Neil Diamond and Taylor Swift — but Franklin, Tenn. can. Named after the founding father and home to Dark Horse Recording Studios, where many well-known musicians have recorded albums, the city has made the top 10 of Money’s Best Places to Live lists for three of the last four years. Its secret is out: Franklin was one of the fastest growing large cities between 2010 and 2019, according to the Census Bureau.

While Franklin’s median home price is $495,000 — high compared to some other cities on our list — it’s lower than those in neighboring city Brentwood. The city’s overall housing market ranked high among our winners, as relatively few households spend more than half their income on housing.

It may be just a half-hour drive to Nashville’s legendary music scene, but Franklin offers plenty of attractions in its own right. From walking tours of sites from the Civil War’s Battle of Franklin, to museums like the Lotz House and Williamson County Museum, you’re not likely to get bored of the city’s history. The historic district in Downtown Franklin also has 15 blocks of modern-day activities: restaurants, shopping, art galleries and more. And if you want to hear good live music, you don’t have to travel to Nashville. At Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant you can enjoy live performances over some BBQ, and the Pilgrimage Music Festival has brought a wide variety of artists — the Foo Fighters, Lionel Richie, Sheryl Crow and Justin Timberlake, to name a few — to Franklin’s Harlinsdale Farm.

Focal Flame Photography/courtesy of Destination Madison

5. Boise, Idaho

Brett Sayles / Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau

Population: 234,000
Population 50-plus: 34.1%
Days of sunshine a year: 210
Median home price: $335,000

Where is the largest concentration of Basques — the ethnic group with roots in the western foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains — in the U.S.? If you somehow guessed Boise, Idaho, you’d be correct. Idaho’s capital and most populous city even has the Basque Block downtown, with the Basque Museum and Cultural Center and The Basque Market, where you can find pintxos (Basque for “tapas,” small plates meant to be shared) and paella.

Boise State University makes Boise a university town, with over 26,000 students enrolled in 2019. That’s likely why it scored high for convenience in our rankings, with its proximity to grocery stores and food markets, pharmacies, banks, shopping centers and more.

Boise has the feel of a big city without the price tag that usually comes attached. Idahoans have low utility costs compared to the rest of the country and the lowest average monthly gas bill, according to a recent report from Move.org. And people 65 and older can ride the local bus system for as low as 75 cents.

Boise also has a thriving art scene. The city not only has street art and the Boise Art Museum, it’s also home to the Gene Harris Jazz Festival and Idaho Shakespeare Festival, as well as Ballet Idaho and the Boise Philharmonic. Yet amid all this culture, you don’t have to compromise access to nature: residents also enjoy the view of Idaho’s mountains. In just one day, you can easily go from fishing or canoeing on the Boise River in the morning, to biking along the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt in the afternoon to grabbing a bite downtown for dinner.

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6. Lakewood, Colorado

City of Lakewood

Population: 154,000
Population 50-plus: 38.6%
Days of sunshine a year: 245
Median home price: $392,000

Just eight miles west of Denver — a 15-minute ride on the light rail train — Lakewood isn’t bogged down by skyscrapers. Neighboring the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Lakewood has more than 7,200 acres of open space.

Houses in this city may cost more than some of our other winners, but median home prices fall short of the home sale prices in many other Colorado cities, like Centennial and Denver. And it makes up for that cost elsewhere, especially with inexpensive fun for the whole family. There are more than 850 amusements (think festivals, zoos, boat rentals and more) and 265 theaters within 15 miles.

Colorado is a go-to spot for anyone who loves the outdoors, and living in Lakewood means you have skiing, boating and hiking destinations — like Bear Creek Lake Park, which has 15 miles of trails — just a short drive away. But there is also plenty to keep you entertained indoors, from the Belmar shopping and dining spot with over 80 retailers and restaurants, to the Lakewood Cultural Center with art galleries and performing arts classes throughout the year.

For those over the age of 55, the Lloyd G. Clements Community Center offers day trips, drop-in activities like dance and art classes, sports, community meals and more. The Older Adult Wellness Fair (although cancelled this year due to COVID-19) usually brings the community together for fitness classes, strength tests and health assessments.

7. Asheville, North Carolina

Courtesy of Explore Asheville

Population: 94,000
Population 50-plus: 35.8%
Days of sunshine a year: 212
Median home price: $328,000

You’re probably not looking to retire in the largest privately-owned house in the country, but if you were, you’d head to Asheville, N.C. The Biltmore House, now a museum, has 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces.

Biltmore aside, the cost of living is relatively low in Asheville. You can get a hamburger at Tastee Diner for just $5, and the bus fare for those aged 65 and older is just 50 cents (or $110 for an annual pass).

At the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at University of North Carolina (UNC) Asheville, older adults can take classes from UNC faculty on everything from economics to photography (classes have moved online during the pandemic). You can also take advantage of the local Blue Ridge Mountains with Senior Treks, low-impact hikes run through the Asheville Parks and Recreation Outdoor Programs. The hiking opportunities don’t stop there — Asheville is less than an hour-long drive from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah National Forest.

And once you’re comfortable dining out again, you won’t run out of new restaurants to try. Asheville was on The Daily Meal’s 2019 list of top foodie towns in America, and its visitor’s bureau Explore Asheville refers to it as a “Foodtopia.” It seems to live up to the name. Asheville has the highest numbers of bars and restaurants per capita among our winners.

There are also 12 retirement communities in the area.

8. Bridgewater, New Jersey

Dawn Wilde, The Breeze

Population: 45,000
Population 50-plus: 43.7%
Days of sunshine a year: 205
Median home price: $390,000

Bridgewater Township in New Jersey has changed plenty since the stars-and-stripes flew above it for the very first time in 1777. From a small farming community as recently as the fifties, the township has evolved into one of the hottest suburbs of New York City because of its proximity to the Big Apple alongside affordable real estate and lower crime rates.

Located just 40 minutes from Newark and 90 minutes by train from Penn Station in Manhattan, Bridgewater has median home prices of $390,000. Compare that with half a million dollars for the New York–Newark–Jersey City metro area.

One of Bridgewater’s major draws is the Washington Valley Park, where visitors can enjoy 720 acres of pine and hemlock forests, as well as a 21-acre reservoir open to fishing. A network of trails allows for hiking and mountain biking, while the Hawk Watch Area is popular with birdwatchers, as it provides a spot to view the August to November migration of raptor birds (including hawks, ospreys, and bald eagles) down south.

Back in town, golf enthusiasts will enjoy hitting the links at the Green Knoll Golf Course, one of the many publicly maintained courses in Somerset County. Green Knoll offers challenges for golfers of all levels, while aspiring golfers can take courses at the Learning Center in the Neshanic Valley Golf Course in nearby Neshanic Station.

For a taste of MLB-level talent without the price tag, you can catch the Somerset Patriots, the New York Yankees’ Double-A affiliate team, at TD Bank Ballpark. Premium field box tickets go for as low as $15 (though games with crowds are currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

9. Roseville, California

City of Roseville, CA

Population: 143,000
Population 50-plus: 36.2%
Days of sunshine a year: 265
Median home price: $461,000

The city of Roseville is located 20 minutes north of Sacramento to the east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Like the rest of the Sacramento area, Roseville enjoys a Mediterranean climate. Living there doesn’t just mean great weather; it also means great wine.

There are 52 vineyards within 25 miles of Roseville, the most of any city on our list. From family businesses like Dora Dain Wines to world-class wineries like Wise Villa, it’s easy to make a weekend (or four) out of tasting the best varieties the region has to offer.

All these sunny days mean there’s plenty of fun to be had outdoors. There are plenty of golf courses in the city, including the Sierra View Country Club and the Woodcreek Golf Club. Roseville also has the All-American Speedway, a NASCAR-sanctioned racetrack that is a favorite with locals.

The Westfield Galleria, the second-largest mall in northern California, is located in the city, featuring flagship store Nordstrom and everything from Hugo Boss to the Disney Store. Other malls in downtown Roseville are Stanford Ranch and the Ridge at Creekside.

And once you’ve explored everything Roseville has to offer — and it might take a while — just remember that Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada ski resorts are just two hours away.

10. Santa Fe, New Mexico

TOURISM Santa Fe

Population: 84,000
Population 50-plus: 41.8%
Days of sunshine a year: 278
Median home price: $367,000

This vibrant state capital in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is famed for its cultural scene and natural beauty, making it ideal for retirees who want to live life to the fullest.

Santa Fe has the most clear-sky days of any city or town on our list, which is great news for outdoor enthusiasts. There are hundreds of trails in and around Santa Fe for beginners and experienced hikers alike, with the Santa Fe National Forest being a major destination. This forest spans over one million acres, including 300,000 acres of untouched wilderness, 1,000 miles of rivers, and almost 20 lakes open to fishing with a New Mexico license.

If you’re more drawn to cultural attractions, there’s a lot to love about Santa Fe. History buffs will enjoy walking the historic city center, with its old-fashioned adobe buildings, local eateries and shops, and landmarks like the Loretto Chapel, famous for its “miraculous” staircase, a spiraling wooden structure with two 360-degree turns and no visible means of support.

Santa Fe is also home to dozens of museums and art galleries. Some standouts are the Museum of International Folk Art, where the Girard Wing features a Mexican town in miniature, and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, dedicated to the artist who lived her last years in Santa Fe. Another local favorite is El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living 18th-century village with adobe houses and costumed re-enactors. Multiple events are held in the ranch year-round — don’t miss the Santa Fe Wine Festival in July or the Harvest Festival in the fall.

Methodology

To find Money’s Best Places to Retire, we looked only at places with a population of at least 25,000. We eliminated any location that had more than double the national crime risk, less than 85% of its state’s median household income or a lack of racial diversity. This gave us 1,890 places.

We then collected about 47,500 different data points to narrow the list, and filtered out locations with a median sales price above $550,000 in the first quarter of 2020. We considered data on each place’s housing market, economic health, cost of living, quality of life, mental and physical health factors, diversity and amenities, all provided by research partner Witlytic. You can view more information about the data we used here. To pick the retirement destinations noted here, we put the greatest weight on quality of life factors (like weather and percentage of residents age 50 or above), cost of living, health and safety amenities and the housing market.

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Among the statistics called out here: Population and percent of population age 50 or above data reflect Synergos Technologies Inc.’s interpretation of Census and IRS data. Median home sale price reflects the first quarter of 2020 median from Attom Data. Count of days of sunshine a year reflects clear day data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This story has been updated to include more information on Wisconsin’s property tax deferral loan program for low-income older residents and correct the methodology to reflect that Money’s data set included places with a population of at least 25,000, not 50,000.