We searched the West for towns, cities, and neighborhoods that are easy to love. All our winners boast a strong sense of community—the gift of making you feel like you belong
With its beaches and mountains backdrop, Santa Barbara is so lovely that it feels almost absolved of environmental ills. Ironic, given a 1969 oil spill here galvanized the national environmental movement, gave birth to Earth Day, and jump-started a citizens’ movement that now shows what a green-minded community can do.
In the midst of a historic drought, California required communities to reduce water usage by 12 percent. Santa Barbara residents responded by, on average, reducing their water use by 36 percent, making Santa Barbara one of the top five water conservers in the state. Water isn’t the only front on which Santa Barbara’s sustainability shines. Virtually no stone is left unturned. These efforts are local, but the aim is global.
Santa Barbara may be home to 90,000, but it is still very much a small town. Moneyed families know more about one another than they’d like; old hippies know one another back to times they can’t remember. Together, they link arms to preserve their town’s beauty.
Population: 89, 681. Median home price: $1,065,300.
The Santa Barbara Harbor isn't just an idyllic spot for a stroll along the water. Home to the Maritime Museum and one of Santa Barbara's landmark restaurants, Brophy Bros, it's also a jumping off point for a day on the city's signature beaches or Stearns Wharf.
El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park showcases the last of four colonial Spanish military outposts along the coast of Alta California. The structures were built by the local Chumash tribe working under the supervision of Spanish soldiers in 1782. 123 East Canon Perdido, between Anacapa and Santa Barbara streets; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=608.
Milpas Street’s Mexican dive La Super-Rica is famous for serving freshly made antojitos to people who don’t necessarily know what the word means (little portions, aka appetizers). Must-try: La Super-Rica Especial (marinated pork and cheese-stuffed pasilla chile). $; 622 N. Milpas St.
Established in 1786, Old Mission Santa Barbara offers a glimpse into the city's beginnings and remains one of its chief cultural and historic landmarks. The iconic structure and its gorgeous grounds are worth a tour. 2201 Laguna St.; docent-led tour $20; www.santabarbaramission.org.
Veins of ever-expanding bike lanes crisscross town, but no route is as popular as the Cabrillo Bike Path, a paved bike trail following the waterfront along Cabrillo Blvd. from Stearns Wharf to East Beach.
Served daily by Amtrak and Coast Starlight railway lines, the gorgeously restored Santa Barbara Train Station is a convenient point of access for the city's beaches and its historic and shopping areas. 209 State St.
Walter Bibikow / Getty Images
Arcata, CA. How green is this university town on California’s North Coast? Arcata owns the nation’s first community forest—2,500 acres certified by the Forest Stewardship Council—established to demonstrate sustainable forestry practices. Its waste-water is a community asset: An effluent treatment system creates a haven of marshes, grassy uplands, and mudflats that are home to a stunning variety of flora and fauna. And Humboldt State University has some of the top environmental science and engineering programs in the nation. Population: 17,700. Median home price: $298,000.
Billings, MT (pictured). It’s known as an oil and gas center, but Billings has a surprising green streak too. It’s established miles of bike paths, and its Trash Into Trees program has used recycling proceeds to plant more than 2,000 trees around town. More recently its new public library joined the ranks of notable LEED Platinum–certified Billings buildings. Population: 109,000. Median home price: $269,700.
Las Cruces, NM. Cities like Davis, California, or Boulder, Colorado, may be more famous as bike-friendly cities, but Las Cruces is gaining on them. It’s creating a network of bike lanes and routes that just earned it recognition from The League of American Bicyclists. Good biking and world-famous green chiles—not a bad combination. Population: 101,300. Median home price: $218,500.
Beacon Hill’s diverse cultural roots date back to the 1920s, when Japanese families began moving up the hill from Seattle’s International District. Later, families of all backgrounds followed, seeking single-family homes and, in many cases, jobs at nearby Boeing Field. Today, roughly half of Beacon Hill’s population is Asian, according to Census Bureau estimates, although this includes a wide range of backgrounds, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino. Add to this melting pot people from Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The neighborhood celebrates its heritage at events throughout the year, including the Beacon Hill Festival, a fund-raiser for its community center that showcases everything from unicycles to Brazilian capoeira.
Long and narrow, Beacon Hill is divided into three segments: North Beacon Hill, Mid Beacon Hill, and South Beacon Hill. On the northern edge of the neighborhood, many new apartment buildings, condos, and townhouses have cropped up in the past several years. Although some longtime residents tsk-tsk at these changes, others welcome the arrival of new restaurants and more housing options. Stroll down the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Beacon Avenue, and it’s a kaleidoscope of cultures, from Asian markets and taquerias to espresso bars and craft beer.
While Seattle home prices rise relentlessly, Beacon Hill is relatively affordable. Moreover, it's incredibly convenient: Opened in 2009, Beacon Hill Station has trains coming every 10 minutes; Pioneer Square is less than 10 minutes away. In 2016, the line will extend to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington.
Population: 34,332. Median home price: $415,000.
Nestled between restaurants and a fish monger, Victrola Coffee Roasters boasts a mean espresso and a superb location just down the street from the light rain station and library. 3215 Beacon Ave. S.
The more-than-a-century-old Jefferson Park—which has panoramic views of the Seattle skyline and Elliott Bay—has long been a cornerstone of the community, although much of it was taken up by reservoirs surrounded by chain-link fence. In a 2012 expansion and renovation, the city built lids over the reservoirs and put in sports fields, tennis courts, a skate park (pictured), and a play area complete with ziplines. Across the street is the Jefferson Park Golf Course, an 18-hole municipal golf course that welcomed players of all races and genders when it first opened in 1915. That all-comers ethos lives on today.
Fuel up with Beacon Hill's famous "best kept secret": fried catfish from the neighborhood's Shell Gas Station. 2424 Beacon Ave. S.
The neighborhood's Daejeon Park is a great spot for a picnic on the open lawn, but its walking paths and Koren-style pagoda (detail pictured here) make it a haven for quiet contemplation. 1144 Sturgus Ave. S.; www.seattle.gov/parks/park_detail.asp?ID=4400.
North End, Boise. Tucked between downtown Boise and the foothills, the North End is characterized by tiny houses (and some big ones too), tree-lined streets, and the Hyde Park commercial area. The neighborhood is both fiercely protective—of its historic homes, local businesses, and kid- and bike-friendly streets—and welcoming to newcomers, with an active neighborhood association. Time your visit for September’s annual Hyde Park Street Fair, whose proceeds benefit the North End community. Population: 25,000. Median home price: $359,000.
La Alma Lincoln Park, Denver. Arts and culture unite this eclectic, diverse neighborhood near downtown Denver. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it experienced more than its share of crime and blight beginning in the 1970s. Then, as Denver property values shot up, artists started to move in. In 2004, a group of galleries formed the Art District on Santa Fe, which is credited with helping the area solidify its identity. In 2014, the American Planning Association recognized the district as one of its top neighborhoods. Population: 6,000. Median home price: $300,000.
Sellwood-Moreland, Portland (pictured). Its fans claim that this riverside neighborhood offers all the good things we associate with Portland (local food, quirky independent shops, Craftsman-style homes) without the hipper-than-thou attitude of better-known districts. It also has good public schools, relatively affordable homes, a great community pool, loads of green space—and a deservedly popular Italian restaurant, Gino’s. Population: 12,144. Median home price: $550,000.
Thomas J. Story
The main approach to Bisbee, southeastern Arizona’s mining town turned arts colony, is through a tunnel in a mountain. Once you pop out on the other side, you’ve entered a funky Shangri-la, a free-spirited community marked by a tangle of narrow streets streaming down the canyon and 19th-century cottages clinging precariously to the hills, along with a historic Main Street bristling with galleries.
Prospectors discovered copper, then gold, in the surrounding Mule Mountains, and by the 1880s a boomtown developed. When the mines played out in the 1970s, counterculturalists, artists, musicians, poets, and writers moved in, drawn by the scenic canyon setting, cheap rents, and preserved-in-amber historic architecture.
That’s when Bisbee coalesced into a proudly weird (to use a favorite local adjective) and quirky community—an outpost of liberalism in an otherwise conservative state. Local theater, community radio, yoga classes, reiki therapy, and vegan eateries took root. At the same time, Bisbee also evolved into a popular tourist destination. Galleries, pubs, boutiques, inns, and restaurants popped up. A monthly art walk, as well as annual craft beer, blues, and Americana music festivals now fill the calendar.
Newcomers today are largely drawn by not only the boho vibe, but also by affordable housing. Bisbee’s sense of community is also a big magnet for those considering relocating here.
Population: 5,575. Median home price: $100,200.
Thomas J. Story
This sprawling view of the town provides a glimpse of its mining heritage. In the distance one can see the Lavender Pit mine, a large and very deep open-pit copper and turquoise mine dug and operated by the Phelps Dodge Corporation between 1950 through 1974.
Thomas J. Story
This delightfully restored retro Shell Station is on Erie Street in the Lowell district. At one time, Lowell was a sizable mining town located just to the southeast of Old Bisbee. The majority of the original townsite was consumed by the excavation of the Lavender Pit mine during the 1950s. However, what remains of Lowell today is an intact, historical mid-century street, often seen as backdrops for film and video shoots.
Thomas J. Story
Room 4 Bar, located off the lobby of the Silver King Hotel, is Arizona's smallest, with four stools and one tiny table. But its postage-stamp size goes big on ambience, bolstered by weekly live music and a Sunday afternoon "Drink and Draw" event on the patio, at which local artists draw the subject of the day. 43 Brewery Ave.
Thomas J. Story
On Erie Street, the Sprouse-Reitz adds to Bisbee's retro charm. It's one branch of a now-defunct chain of nickel-and-dime stores based out of Portland, OR, which at its peak had nearly 400 retail locations in the Western U.S.
Thomas J. Story
High Road is the highest street (hence the name) above downtown Bisbee with pretty views of the Mule Mountains and the ranges of Mexico. You can drive or walk the road, but it becomes a dead end. The sword-like yucca plant pictured here in bloom is typical of the region.
Thomas J. Story
An only-in-Bisbee overnight option: The Shady Dell, a collection of vintage aluminum travel trailers, 10 to 38 feet, with black-and-white TV and period memorabilia. Hot shower on-site. 1 Old Douglas Rd.; www.theshadydell.com.
Port Townsend, WA. If you like boats, arts, Victorian architecture, and incredible access to the outdoors, this Olympic Peninsula town is a little bit of heaven. Alongside the highly browsable indie shops and restaurants packed with local food, residents get to enjoy Fort Worden, an early 20th-century army base turned state park that boasts a plentiful event calendar thanks to local arts organization Centrum. Port Townsend’s Wooden Boat Festival, held each September, is the best in the world, and The Great Port Townsend Bay Kinetic Sculpture Race is not far behind. Plus the misty peaks and rain forests of Olympic National Park are only an hour away. Population: 9,255. Median home price: $364,000.
Lander, WY (pictured). This town in the shadow of the Wind River Range is a melting pot of cowboys, Northern Arapahoe and Eastern Shoshone tribes, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts—the famed National Outdoor Leadership School was founded here. Although not as ritzy as Jackson (and proud of that fact), Lander has its share of upscale dude ranches, and the area’s peaks are second to none. In fact, nearby Gannett Peak is, at 13,809 feet, the highest in the state. Another source of local pride is Lander’s surprisingly lively downtown. Population: 7,642. Median home price: $191,400.
Whitefish, MT. An influx of summer residents has given Whitefish its share of second homes—some of them large lakefront estates and 5,000-square-foot “cabins.” But the people who live here year-round know that Whitefish is one of the best places for all seasons. The skiing’s great at Whitefish Mountain Resort; nearby Glacier National Park awes anytime. Plus Whitefish’s low-key, friendly vibe and walkable downtown are downright charming. Population: 6,864. Median home price: $305,900.
Back in the 1990s, Ogden's 25th Street was seedy. Now, 25th Street draws crowds for the restaurants and cafes and yoga studios that occupy its historic buildings. And Ogden itself is on a roll. Thirty-five miles north of Salt Lake City, Ogden always differed from more genteel Utah cities, a railroad and stockyard town with rough edges. But it also had wealth—appealing residential neighborhoods whose homes ranged from bungalows to mansions. And it had a world-class setting at the base of the Wasatch Range.
It was the setting that started Ogden’s revival. In 2002, the local ski resort Snowbasin hosted the downhill ski competitions in the Salt Lake Olympics, and the Olympic torch was carried down Washington Boulevard. By then, it was agreed that, thanks to the decline of the railroads, both street and city had seen better days. The city used the Olympics as a springboard to rebrand itself. The city began hosting big outdoor sports events, including the Xterra USA Championship triathlon and the Ogden Marathon. This let athletes and outdoor recreation companies discover Ogden—not just its natural assets but also its low cost of living compared to Utah’s more famous resort towns.
At the same time, the city was sprucing up 25th Street. Old buildings were no longer torn down; instead, they were renovated to house restaurants. It’s also home to the kind of community events that thrive in Ogden, like September’s Harvest Moon Celebration. The revived Ogden boasts other new amenities. The Junction mixed-use development frames the newly renovated and imposing Mormon Temple. Nearby stands Lindquist Field, home to the Raptors, Ogden’s minor-league baseball team. The UTA Rail commuter train will get you to Salt Lake City International Airport in about an hour.
Population: 84,316. Median home price: $117,500.
25th Street's renovation made way for upsacle eateries like Zucca Trattoria, an Italian restaurant that ups its game with dishes like pan-seared Chilean sea bass served over forbidden rice with avocado purée, micro-greens, and mango-red pepper relish (pictured). $$$; 225 E. 2500 S.
At the top of Snowbasin Resort's Needles Gondola skiers and boarders are treated to stellar views of the surrounding Wasatch Range before dashing down the resort's 3,000 acres of snowy paradise. www.snowbasin.com
Built in 1924 in Spanish Colonial Revival style, the historic Union Station anchors 25th Street on the west. It currently houses four museums and two galleries: Utah State Railroad Museum, John M. Browning Firearms Museum, Browning-Kimball Classic Car Museum, Utah State Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Myra Powell Gallery, and Gallery at the Station. theunionstation.org
25th Street is also home to classy bars like Hearth on 25th, whose Old Fashioned Smoked Bourbon (pictured) is worth crossing town for. 195 Historic 25th St., Suite 6.
McMinnville, OR (pictured). It’s the gateway to the Willamette Valley wine country. But McMinnville, about 50 miles southwest of Portland, has even more going for it than prize-winning Pinot Noirs. (Linfield College here plays host to the renowned International Pinot Noir Celebration.) Along with charming architecture, downtown McMinnville has been drawing young chefs and entrepreneurs; its main drag, Third Street, just garnered a Great Street award from the American Planning Association. Population: 33,393. Median home price: $224,600.
Missoula, MT. It’s Montana’s biggest cultural center, yet it maintains a small-town feel. The University of Montana, one of the town’s best-known employers, cultivates youthful brio, but most activity revolves around the downtown stretch of the Clark Fork river. Brennan’s Wave attracts paddleboarders, kayakers, and the odd surfer, and every Wednesday in summer the city hosts bands, food vendors, and kids’ activities in riverside Caras Park. Of course, residents love this town best for what lies just beyond—nearby trails that include the 1.8-mile Mt. Sentinel M Trail, which climbs 2,000 vertical feet to views of the city. Population: 112,684. Median home price: $229,000.
Laramie, WY. Laramie’s roots go back to the railroad, and traces of the past are still woven into the fabric of this town, especially in the handsome downtown. While the city has plenty of cowboy charm, it’s also a destination for outdoors lovers. Medicine Bow National Forest is a playground for anglers, hikers, and cross-country skiers. It’s also Wyoming’s only true college town, with the cultural offerings the designation implies. Bonus: Although Laramie is Wyoming through and through, it’s only a two-hour drive to Denver International Airport. Population: 32,081. Median home price: $241,000.
Every spring, prospective students and their parents make the pilgrimage to Claremont, California, to tour the seven campuses of the renowned Claremont Colleges. They also discover a small city that blends worldly sophistication with small-town appeal.
About 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, and joined to it by Interstate 10 and Metrolink trains, Claremont is, geographically, a Los Angeles suburb. Spiritually, it’s distinct. In the neighborhoods along Indian Hill Boulevard, American elms shade streets lined by vintage cottages and Craftsman bungalows. A few minutes’ walk from the campuses, Claremont’s compact downtown (known to everyone as The Village) mixes contemporary restaurants and boutiques with local landmarks that grads from the 1980s remember from their days at Scripps or Pomona.
Claremont visitors always mean it as compliment when they conclude that this smart, leafy community (“the city of trees and PhDs”) reminds them of a college town back East. But Claremont is no Wellesley wannabe. It’s Californian through and through, a onetime citrus town with easy access to both the wilds of the San Gabriel Mountains and the culture of Los Angeles. Claremont strives to preserve its character, even as it evolves. For longtime and newer residents, it’s that small-town-meets-big-world connection that defines Claremont.
Population: 35,824. Median home price: $624,000.
Thie classic Queen Anne Victorian Sumner House was beautifully restored by Pomona College. The former home of one of the school founders, it now serves as a guest house for campus visitors. 105 N. College Ave.; www.pomona.edu.
Scripps College's Seal Court features mosaic murals around the pond created by various students since the 1940s. The spot is open to the public, and the entire campus is in fact a popular walking destination because of the beautiful landscaping and historic buildings. 1030 Columbia Ave.; www.scrippscollege.edu.
The Folk Music Center is a enduring Claremont institution. Part instrument museum and part performance space and store, it’s run by Ellen Harper, whose parents founded it in 1958. Three-time Grammy Award–winner Ben Harper, Ellen’s son and a Claremont native, bought the center from his grandparents to keep it in the family. “We get people from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and all over Europe. If they’re on the West Coast, they make it a point to come here.” The shop carries banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, percussion and wind instruments from all over the world both vintage and new. 220 Yale Ave.; folkmusiccenter.com.
James Turrell Skyspace at Pomona College Museum of Art has been a campus highlight since 2007. Known for his work in light, Turrell has built several Skyspaces around the world; this is the only one available for public viewing in Southern California. Free; 330 N. College Ave.; www.pomona.edu/museum/collections/james-turrell-skyspace.
Locals crowd the restaurants and the wine bar at The Claremont Packing House, a once-derelict citrus facility turned into a retail and dining destination in The Village. 532 W. First St.; claremontpackinghouse.com.
Stroll a wonderland of diverse California native plants at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. $8; 1500 N. College Ave.; www.rsabg.org.
The staggering beer selection at The Back Abbey (over 100, including 28 on tap) isn't the only reason to hit up this gastropub in The Village. The signature burger is to die for, served on a brioche bun and topped with aged gouda, mustard aioli, caramelized onion, Niman Ranch bacon, and micro greens. $$; 128 N. Oberlin Ave.; www.thebackabbey.com.
Campbell, CA. This San Jose suburb has long been overshadowed by its immediate neighbors, wealthy Los Gatos and Saratoga as well as Apple-HQ Cupertino. Now it’s coming into its own, with a newly vibrant downtown and the soon-to-be-revamped Pruneyard shopping center. Housing prices, while insane anywhere else, are almost reasonable for Silicon Valley. Population: 40,584. Median home price: $908,000.
Castle Rock, CO. Known for its good schools, this former quarry town about 20 miles from the Denver Tech Center has seen its population swell 65 percent since 2000, but Castle Rock has negotiated its growth better than many burbs have. New commercial areas have sprung up, but not at the expense of the original downtown, which is thriving. The rec department is in the process of expanding the city’s municipal trails system (with now more than 40 miles of paved trails) to link neighborhoods and tie in with regional and county trails. Population: 55,747. Median home price: $396,700.
Gilbert, AZ (pictured). Phoenix is known for its sprawling cookie-cutter suburbs that sprang up in the housing boom and promptly collapsed. Gilbert has seen its share of booms and busts, but it is also anchored by its Heritage District—a turn-of-the-19th-century neighborhood that is luring new restaurants and food trucks and is the focus of a city redevelopment project. Gilbert is also the home of Agritopia, a planned community designed to bring a rural, farming-based lifestyle to the suburbs. Population: 239,277. Median home price: $277,100.