For the past few weeks, we've been exploring one question...
If you're young, ambitious, and thinking of moving somewhere new in America, where should you go?
In our series' Introduction, we outlined what we were looking for and what kind of person we were trying to please. Then, we featured our five best cities in America for a fresh start, ordered no particular way:
- Denver, Colorado, the oasis of the mountain plains, a waypoint to the West.
- Louisville, Kentucky, Derby City, the meeting point of the Midwest and the South.
- Washington, D.C., scratch-made eastern capital of the modern western superpower.
- Austin, Texas, home of the once and future free spirit.
- Seattle, Washington, the gray haven of the Northwest and green jewel of the Pacific.
In each city's feature, we answered the same ten questions covering everything from weather to population characteristics, cost of living, work and education, food and drink, unique perks, and culture...
- What's its story?
- How many people are there, and how do they look overall?
- What's the place like? How's the weather?
- How much does it cost to live there?
- How educated are the people, and what do they do for work?
- What's there to eat and drink?
- How are the people?
- What's within driving distance?
- What do you get here that you don't get anywhere else?
- What's the final word?
Now, for the finale of this exploration, we've compared the cities' merits directly and assigned grades for each category. Take the grades with your own grain of salt—and remember that no city will score perfectly in every category.
The Five Cities Roundup
Let's compare founding stories.
For what it's worth, Louisville is the oldest of the five cities with a founding date of 1778. Washington, D.C. started construction in 1790, about a decade later. Austin followed almost 50 years later, with Seattle and Denver being newest at 1850 and 1861, respectively.
Washington, D.C. and Austin were both conceived as capital cities from the ground up. No less, both were capitals for independent nations: D.C. for the United States, Austin for the Republic of Texas. D.C. became important as soon as it was built; it took Austin about 150 years to become important.
All five cities were founded near bodies of water. D.C. has the Atlantic Ocean and Potomac River, Louisville the Ohio River, Austin the Colorado River, Denver the South Platte River, and Seattle the Pacific Ocean. This is, of course, a basic pattern of civilization—cities are founded near water—but that's not just for catching fish and washing clothes. Waterways allow trade, and trade—whatever its form in a given place—is a major factor in developing a city's size, wealth, and importance.
Denver, CO — 1861
Louisville, KY — 1778
Washington, D.C. — construction started in 1790, capital moved in 1800
Austin, TX — 1839
Seattle, WA — 1851
Which city has the best weather?
As long as you don't mind a little snow, Denver seems the overall best climate-wise. That snow isn't so excessive as people imagine—it's not in the mountains, just next to them. Aside from that snow, Denver has clear air, low humidity, relatively few allergens, very temperate seasons, and plenty to do outside. Seattle's radiant summers sound about as nice, but the perpetual gray (and ensuing winter chill) count against it. Not too badly—it never claimed to be a cheery place, and it's not super-cold—but surely the charm of rain wears thin after a while.
Louisville and D.C. both claim to have four seasons. Louisville gets all four seasons right—and, surprisingly, it's the only city for which we can say that—but it suffers a bit for allergens and summer humidity. D.C. misses the mark on four good seasons, often cutting fall and spring short, and filling the air with humidity and pollen throughout.
Then there's Austin, who never really claimed to have four seasons. If you like sun and summer—and don't mind that it stays that way for eight months—Austin will work for you. Otherwise, stay away. It's hot as hell.
Denver, CO — A-
Louisville, KY — B+
Washington, D.C. — C-
Austin, TX — C+
Seattle, WA — B-
Which city is best for twenty-somethings?
How about people in their 30s or 40s?
Austin is the youngest city on average, and it's got bustling groups of all ages under 45. It's also growing fast—and a lot of the incoming people are young. We promise to be good citizens, y'all. (Picture from Reddit.)
D.C. has a deadly combination of youth and intelligence, or at least, a level of professional drive that stalls (or foregoes) family for many people.
Louisville has a casual, low-cost social environment that, while a bit older and more family-oriented, still lives in peaceful harmony with the city's young and restless.
Seattle is probably better for people in their thirties than people in their twenties, given the more self-selective social environment and polished professional edge to the city.
We mention Denver last not because it's hostile to youth—quite the contrary—but because it seems friendliest to older people as well, with substantial numbers of people 45 and over settling down in the area (including Boulder 45 minutes away).
Denver, CO — B in your 20s, A- when you're a bit older
Louisville, KY — B- in your 20s, B+ when you're a bit older
Washington, D.C. — B+ in your 20s and beyond (if you're the focused sort)
Austin, TX — A in your 20s, B+ when you're a bit older
Seattle, WA — C in your 20s, B when you're a bit older
Which city stretches the dollar furthest?
By the numbers, Louisville is the most economical city. You can live there very cheaply, and with savings, it's relatively easy to buy a house and establish roots. Nothing is expensive in Louisville—unless you're trying to get Derby tickets on Millionaire's Row. Those are expensive.
After Louisville, Austin still does a good job of keeping expenses light—including food and drinks out—though rent is more expensive, and rising faster. Denver keeps it reasonable still, though its costs (esp. rent) start to creep higher. Seattle and D.C. can get as expensive as you want, basically.
(For the record, though, even our most expensive places were cheaper than Manhattan, San Francisco, and select other spots in major American cities. We've included each city's cost-of-living index in parentheses below.)
Denver, CO — B- (107)
Louisville, KY — A (92)
Washington, D.C. — D+ (152)
Austin, TX — B (107)
Seattle, WA — C- (154 in city-center)
San Francisco, CA (reference) — 189
Manhattan, NYC (reference) — 212
Which city has the smartest people?
Unsurprisingly, the nation's capital has the most educated citizens on average, and the level of intellectual acumen is sometimes palpable there. Seattle's strong tech environment and excellent public school system helps push the number of college graduates above half the population. Those are two of the best-educated cities in the country, and the level of professionalism, expense, and (in some cases) sophistication rise accordingly.
Austin surprised us with their solid number of college graduates, but they're at the intersection of a few good circumstances: they've got plenty of professional jobs, they've got a lot of native people who tend to stay, and they've got UT right next door.
Denver's older population helps raise their education level to respectable levels, but they don't have the massive education infrastructure or student-friendly cost of living. And without at all criticizing Louisville—one of us is a proud son—it's the kind of place where you can live respectably with or without a degree.
Washington, D.C. — 66%
Seattle, WA — 53%
Austin, TX — 40%
Denver, CO — 35%
Louisville, KY — 27%
Which city has the best food?
Agh. There's no great way to phrase this question because you can get a great bite to eat in any city we've featured. So, instead of saying anyone's food is totally better or worse, we're considering just how special each city's specialty food is.
Denver's too landlocked for most seafood. They've got good turf—and, as we mention below, an excellent craft beer scene—but their food scene isn't the most exciting or creative in the country.
Louisville is landlocked, but with access to some seafood. For a city as poorly known, in an area most consider flyover country, it has a surprising amount of culinary talent and plenty of good places to eat. But, again, it has few real culinary specialties or advantages.
Washington, D.C. is an old, important, and wealthy city, and it's on the coast. That's just a better setup for a food scene. Perhaps because of the population's relative youth, there's a creative, mobile, and tasty option available—but in D.C., everything is expensive, even the cheaper options like food trucks.
Austin's Texan centrality requires it to care about tacos and barbecue, and it's got numerous places that knock both out of the park. Food trucks are a way of life here; not only are there countless weird and delicious delicacies available everywhere, but the economy tends to convert the best of them into permanent local establishments. It's even got decent pizza. It's not the best for haute cuisine, but it's great for people who wanna eat out often.
Seattle has probably the best seafood on the list. It's also a notable plus that they've got access to fresh and local everything, given the farm-friendly climates in the area.
Denver, CO — C+
Louisville, KY — B-
Washington, D.C. — B+
Austin, TX — A-
Seattle, WA — B
Which city has the best drinks?
If we pitted the cities (as we know them) against one another in a drinking contest... well, we know for sure it'd be an impressive competition to behold.
Austinites get lots of practice—outdoors in the heat, in some cases—with good liquor and beer in easy reach and at low prices. Maybe they don't have the best drinks of anywhere, but they've got arguably the most comfortable place to drink casually.
D.C. has a great collection of watering holes—and plenty of thirsty customers of their own—though they lose a mark for producing less notable local product than other cities on our list.
Louisville is right in the middle of bourbon country—a bonus if you're a whiskey snob—and drinks are cheap there too. There just isn't as much of a scene as there is elsewhere, and the city isn't as easy to get around without your own car.
Denver has a great local brewery scene—potentially the best of the bunch—so they get major pluses there, losing only for—again—not having as active and unpretentious a scene for newcomers.
You can drink in Seattle, but the better thing to drink in Seattle might be coffee. Who needs a depressant like alcohol when it's been cloudy for six days straight? (In such a place, it might be better, if you're interested, to take advantage of the dispensaries.)
Denver, CO — B
Louisville, KY — B (for bourbon)
Washington, D.C. — B+
Austin, TX — A-
Seattle, WA — C (for coffee)
Which city is best-located within the United States?
What's usually a fringe benefit becomes a real feature in Louisville; there's arguably no better-located city in the country for getting other places easily. Good luck getting a direct flight there—unless you're coming from Atlanta—but if you're driving, Louisville is a day from the northeast, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and the central United States. You'll have plenty of travel options—and there's a decent chance you'll be within reach of home and family, too.
D.C. has atrocious traffic, but it's on the hot Eastern Seaboard, where it's just a short journey to New York, Philly, Boston, and tons of vacation spots on the east coast.
Austin is locked into the middle of Texas, but it's got those handful of interesting places—San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas—plus New Orleans about 8 hours away.
Denver and Seattle rely upon your liking the immediate area. There's plenty to do in the beautiful scenery around both cities, and there are a couple of places within reach (like Boulder for Denver, or Portland for Seattle), but that's about it. Sign up for a frequent flier program.
Denver, CO — D+
Louisville, KY — A
Washington, D.C. — B+
Austin, TX — C+
Seattle, WA — C-
Which city is best for me?
In the end, the best place for you is the place where you're most willing to take a chance. If you've been looking for a chance to start over, if you think you're better off trying somewhere else—or even if you just want to GO while you've got the chance—you're taking a chance by moving. Maybe you're going somewhere with friends nearby, maybe you'll know no one; maybe you'll move with roommates or family, or maybe you're going somewhere all alone.
By choosing to move somewhere, you are choosing a new beginning. Then, you're taking the chance that your risk will be rewarded in a new place. That's scary, especially when there's so much you don't know. But taking a chance might change your life—and that new beginning might mean so many better endings.
We wouldn't have featured any of these cities if we didn't earnestly believe they should be strong candidates for people like us. We won't say any is universally better or worse. What we'll say is the chance you take in each place:
Moving to Denver, Colorado—You take the chance of getting snowed in occasionally, perhaps when you least expect it, and maybe needing to switch cars for that reason. You take the chance of paying inflated rent the further towards the city (or Boulder) you get, or commuting to work, or both. If you've got wanderlust, you might be sated by the vast outdoors—but if you wanna get on the road and go somewhere, you might be disappointed.
Moving to Louisville, Kentucky—You take the chance of developing a couple allergies you didn't know you had, especially in the spring. You take the chance of having difficulty finding dense clusters of high-powered people, and maybe feeling like the city isn't as exciting as a result. You take the chance of losing touch with the latest fashion of things, or at least access to the hottest places, though at the exchange of low cost and relatively high comfort.
Moving to Washington, D.C.—You take the chance of feeling overwhelmed by the city's cold, hard edges, especially the people who are self-motivated and likely not to care until they know you. You take the chance of being swallowed up by high prices and inflation unless you're on a professional track that outpaces them. You take the chance of being stuck in traffic pretty much all the time, unless you've got a clever way to evade it.
Moving to Austin, TX—You take the chance of getting sick of heat in September and not actually losing it until December. You take the chance of finding yourself one of the many great apartments... and paying 20% more for it next year. You take the chance of getting angry at Texas drivers who alternate between slowness, wrong-lane-ness, ignoring the existence of turn signals, and adding their own three-second grace period to the end of yellow lights.
Moving to Seattle, WA—You take the chance of having something rain on your parade, literally speaking. You take the chance that the people will be a little too reclusive, sharp, or shy to make fast friends. You take the chance that you'll feel far away from the rest of the country, since mostly tucked in a corner away from everything else.
If it's the chance you're willing to take—and maybe the rest sounds like something that would make you happy—start packing your things.
To that effect: next week, we'll be featuring one bonus post to help you prepare that move. We've done a fair amount of moving ourselves—so we'll tell you a few things you didn't even think about before you moved!