24 Best Places to Live and Work

Looking for the perfect place to launch a career? Start a family? Just relax? We’ve found the ideal city, town, or neighborhood for you

Miranda Crowell, Peter Fish, Aislyn Greene, Matthew Jaffe, Sarah Max, and Andrea Minarcek
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Try on some dreams

To compile our list of the West’s best places to live and work (6 winners and 18 runners-up), Sunset editors hit the road (and the phone) to talk to the real authorities who know these places best: the people who live there. Once we found our semifinalists, we asked Sunset readers to vote on their favorites—and got more than 19,000 responses. One of these places is just right for you.

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San Francisco, CA

Winner: Best Place to Launch a Career Young hopefuls have swarmed to San Francisco for the Gold Rush, for the Summer of Love, and now for the new Tech Boom. The tech industry shifted from Silicon Valley up to S.F. proper, as giants like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Uber have set-up shop in the city. Although the tech boom has downsides—housing costs are at an all-time high, and competition for landing a lease is fierce (you'll have to look to one of the West's most affordable towns if you're looking for a bargain)—the boom introduces more opportunities. It’s estimated that every high-tech job creates another 4.3 jobs throughout the community—in health care, education, and hospitality.
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San Francisco stats

Population: 870,887

Average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $3,402

20- to 24-year-olds as precent of the population: 9%

Bars per 1,000 people: 0.46

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Las Vegas, NV

Runner-up: Best place to launch a career

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has invested $350 million in the Downtown Project, with $100 million slated for small-business and tech development. And Vegas is no budget-buster: A nice 1-bedroom can be had for $800 a month.

Population: 632,912

Average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $800

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Santa Monica, CA

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Seattle, WA

Runner-up and reader pick: Best place to launch a career

Microsoft, Amazon, and start-ups make this a tech hub, but health care is big too. Minus: 150 days of rain annually. Pluses: access to the outdoors and culture. And a 1-bedroom apartment is $1,300 less per month than in San Francisco.

Population: 704,352

Average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $2,066

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Honolulu, HI

Winner and reader pick: Best place to postpone a career

The national economy may be (slowly) rebounding. But for millennials, the stats are still discouraging. Under 50 percent of recent college graduates exited the campus grounds with a job offer. Faced with such prospects, many 20-somethings are choosing to put off climbing the corporate ladder. Honolulu is a great place to postpone that career. The Hawaiian capital’s physical attractions are no secret: a lush mountain backdrop, blissfully sunny weather, and some of the prettiest beaches and best surf breaks in the country. But Honolulu is also a pretty practical escape hatch. There are ample jobs in tourism, retail, and service-related industries, and unemployment here (2.3 percent) is lower than the national average (4.3 percent). While it’s true that Island living can be pricey (groceries are more expensive than on the Mainland, for example), there are deals to be found on housing.

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Honolulu stats

Population: 390,000

Average monthly rent of a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,803

Rank in study of 100 happiest cities: 1st

20- to 24-year-olds as precent of the population: 7.7%

Average year-round temperatures: Highs of 84° and lows of 70°

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Carbondale, CO

Runner-up: Best place to postpone a career

Aspen for the rest of us: world-class skiing, mountain biking, and fly-fishing, and a vastly lower cost of living than in the resort town 30 miles away. Some Carbondale residents bike to jobs in Aspen. Others work in Carbondale’s growing green-energy economy.

Population: 6,777

Average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,500

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Kings Beach, CA

Runner-up: Best place to postpone a career

Lake Tahoe’s North Shore ski resorts are just minutes away; for summer fun, Kings Beach has a wide stretch of sand and (for Tahoe) warm water. Downtown is tiny, but you can get good burgers at the Char-Pit. And rents will leave you cash for a season lift ticket.

Population: 3,796

Average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,000

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Walla Walla, WA

Runner-up: Best place to postpone a career

This college town is isolated (four hours from Seattle), but it has a buzzing culinary scene. You can sip world-class Cabernets and learn to make them at College Cellars, a teaching winery.

Population: 32,132

Average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $833

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Issaquah, WA

Winner: Best 'burb

Yes, there are the cul-de-sacs, the Costco (in fact, the company is headquartered here), and other hallmarks of suburban life, but Issaquah defies ticky-tacky stereotypes thanks to 1,700 acres of parkland, walkable neighborhoods, historic buildings, and increasingly urban amenities (read: indie coffee shops, wine bars, and a Tony Award–winning theater). Ask locals to describe the place and they’ll tell you it feels like a small town—or a vibrant city neighborhood. Even more impressive, the former coal mining town 22 miles southeast of Seattle managed to hold onto its distinctive character while growing exponentially. Instead of the typical suburban sprawl, the town decided to go urban, green-lighting the construction of compact, sustainably built communities on the east side of town. Issaquah’s not a perfect town. Not everyone sees development as a good thing. Some neighborhoods remain car-dependent. And commuters bemoan the lack of a light rail to Seattle. But it is a good model for how a suburb can grow without losing its sense of place.

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Issaquah, WA stats

Population: 37,322

Median home price: $706,498

Walkability score: 26 out of 100

Great schools score: 9 out of 10

Commute time to Seattle by car: 30 minutes

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Alameda, CA

Runner-up: Best 'burb

Its abiding charms include tidy Victorians and a main drag, Park Street, that has blossomed with restaurants like Burma Superstar. And on Saturday, food trucks roll into town. There’s no BART, but ferries take commuters to S.F. and Oakland. Drawback: Homes aren’t inexpensive, although a condo will set you back less.

Population: 78,906

Median home price: $845,000

Great schools score: 8 out of 10

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Louisville, CO

Runner-up: Best 'burb

This Denver suburb regularly scores high on best places lists because of its schools, historic downtown, and 1,800 acres of open space. What’s new is an influx of restaurants that, say Louisville fans, rival the best in nearby Boulder. Cons? You mostly need a car to get around.

Population: 20,801

Median home price: $619,000

Great schools score: 9 out of 10

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South Pasadena, CA

Runner-up and reader pick: Best 'burb

Oak-shaded bungalows, good schools, and a pretty little downtown: South Pasadena feels like a village set in greater L.A. It’s famous for successfully battling a freeway that would have cut it in half. Now commuters hop on the Gold Line metro, and Caltrans is set to sell houses along the former freeway right-of-way.

Population: 25,913

Median home price: $1,320,000

Great schools score: 9 out of 10

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Sugar House, Salt Lake City, UT

Winner: Best city 'hood

One of Salt Lake’s oldest neighborhoods, Sugar House draws its name from a 19th-century sugar beet factory (which never produced any sugar). Today it encompasses quiet residential streets; a thriving business district; Westminster College, a private liberal arts school; and five parks, including the 110-acre Sugar House Park, where Olympic cross-country skiers train in the winter and, come summer, valley farmers sell local raspberries and honey at the farmers’ market. And all of SLC’s fabled outdoor attractions—bike trails, craggy canyons, and seven ski resorts—are within reach. It’s qualities like these that lure residents who might otherwise have chosen suburbs. Adding to its appeal: a 2-mile streetcar line that connects Sugar House with Salt Lake’s extensive light-rail system. Local investors have poured $405 million into the neighborhood in the form of condos, commercial space, and restaurants.

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Sugar House stats

Population: 31,192

Median home price: $386,450

Walkability score: 55 out of 100

Great schools score: 7 out of 10

Commute time to downtown SLC (on the steetcar line): 15 minutes

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Richmond, Portland, OR

Runner-up and reader pick: Best city 'hood

It's home to the sizzling culinary corridor Division Street. But walk a few blocks from the buzz and you’ll find a leafy neighborhood with two community gardens, movies in the park, and plenty of bike lanes.

Population: 18,034

Median home price: $564,750

Great schools score: 6 out of 10

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Highland, Denver, CO

Runner-up: Best city 'hood

Hipsters and retirees mingle in this diverse neighborhood transformed by nearby Coors Field and a pedestrian bridge that links to downtown. Watch for improving schools and a commuter-rail station.

Population: 14,720

Median home price: $557,000

Great schools score: 3 out of 10

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The North End, Boise, ID

Runner-up: Best city 'hood

Boise’s original “suburb,” it’s a kid-friendly refuge close to downtown where families slurp milkshakes in Hyde Park (the bustling business district) or bike in the nearby foothills.

Population: 9,256

Median home price: $293,600

Great schools score: 6 out of 10

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Bozeman, MT

Winner: Best place to reboot your life

Set between the Gallatin and Bridger Ranges, Bozeman offers easy access to thousands of acres of Gallatin National Forest, hundreds of miles of blue-ribbon trout streams (the nearby Yellowstone and Madison Rivers are ranked among the best in the world), and three downhill ski areas, including nonprofit Bridger Bowl, just 18 miles north of town. Between 2000 and 2012, Bozeman’s population grew more than 40 percent, and a good deal of that growth came from urban refugees seeking a smaller-city pace and daily access to the outdoors. For some, the move is part of a grand plan to finally work on that big idea. For others, new ventures are born out of ​necessity; in the absence of major metro jobs, many newcomers create their own. Winters are long and cold—think average lows of 15° in February—but locals bundle up and embrace them. They flock to such events as the Wild West WinterFest (“Flakes Welcome!”), a February tradition that includes ​everything from a quilt show to a dog keg pull, in which Fido hauls a sled loaded with one or more kegs of beer.

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Bozeman, MT stats

Population: 45,250

Median home price: $400,000

Great schools score: 9 out of 10

Number of ski resorts within one hour: 4

Flight time to nearest big city (Salt Lake City): 1 hour, 20 minutes

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Bellingham, WA

Runner-up: Best place to reboot your life

This waterfront city is home ​to Western Washington University. A legion of techies have relocated here; start-ups range from farm-to-table restaurants to app developers. The city’s annual gathering of Linux developers is one of the world’s largest. Bonus: There is no state income tax.

Population: 87,574

Median home price: $419,000

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Bend, OR

Runner-up and reader pick: Best place to reboot your life

It's known for outdoor fun, but new businesses range from food carts to medical device manufacturers. And Bend has drawn Silicon Valley transplants, who bring expertise and seed money. Transportation has improved with flights to six international airports.

Population: 91,122

Median home price: $459,900

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Chico, CA

Runner-up: Best place to reboot your life

Beauty and brains: Chico has a charming downtown and the 3,670-acre Bidwell Park. It’s also fertile ground for budding businesses, thanks to support from groups like Innovate North State, plus the tech-savvy students at California State University, Chico.

Population: 91,567

Median home price: $329,000

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Flagstaff, AZ

Winner: Best place to be finally free

In Flagstaff, it’s the mountains you notice first. The San Francisco Peaks loom over the Arizona city, topping out ​at 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak, the state’s highest point. In winter, the peaks are covered with snow; in summer, their aspen stands glow green, and in fall, the trees marble the slopes with gold and orange. For people looking to relocate for their postcareer life, Flagstaff is a great choice. The city’s setting—at the base of those mountains, with the Grand Canyon 90 minutes away—makes it as good as any in the West for outdoor recreation. But Flagstaff has a diverse economy: tourism, education (it’s home to Northern Arizona University), and government offices. The robust economy brings amenities like shopping and restaurants. And that means if you decide you really aren’t finished with working life, you have options for full- or part-time work.

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Flagstaff, AZ stats

Population: 71,459

Median home price: $414,450

Number of National Parks/Monuments within 90 minutes: 7

Average annual snowfall: 108"

Flight time to nearest big city (Phoenix): 50 minutes

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Cambria, CA

Runner-up and reader pick: Best place to be finally free

If living in a California coastal village with world-class wineries nearby and a college town (San Luis Obispo) 40 minutes away sounds appealing, look no further. Cambria ​is small, but the steady flow of Highway 1 travelers bound for nearby Hearst Castle nurtures a sophisticated dining scene.

Population: 6,032

Median home price: $775,000

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Corvallis, OR

Runner-up: Best place to be finally free

Portland is 90 minutes north, the coast an hour west, and wine country is all around. But you may find it hard to leave town. The historic downtown is handsome, and Oregon State University brings both sports and culture. ​Corvallis even has a program that helps people relocating here: yescorvallis.org.

Population: 57,110

Median home price: $388,000

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Durango, CO

Runner-up: Best place to be finally free

Along with winter skiing and mountain biking, there’s kayaking on the Animas River, which runs near the city’s downtown, a National Historic District. The city’s setting—backed up against the San Juan Mountains—is spectacular, but Durango is a bit isolated: The nearest major city is Albuquerque, three hours away.

Population: 18,503

Median home price: $479,000