New Survey: This Is the No. 1 Place to Retire in the Southern U.S.
Whether you're retiring soon or simply planning ahead, new research highlights the best places to retire in the South
Retirement is booming. That’s according to the Pew Research Center’s labor force data, where more than 50% of U.S. adults over the age of 55 said they were out of the labor force due to retirement. The combination of a growing population of adults above the age of 65 (the U.S. Census Bureau data shows the 65-plus crowd grew 34.2% between 2010 and 2020, surpassing every other age group), the FIRE movement and resignation trends, such as quiet quitting and burnout, could be leading to people retiring younger.
So the question becomes: Where is the best place to retire? For those heading south, Southern Living and partner brand Investopedia joined forces to determine the region’s best towns for retirees. They looked at quality of life and reasonable cost within some of the most charming towns and vibrant cities across the South, and this is what they found.
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What were the criteria?
The destinations were selected from a collection of 41 cities and towns from Southern Living‘s 2023 South’s Best awards. From there, Investopedia factored in the cost of living, home values, access to hospitals, continuing education programs, green spaces, restaurants, airports and more within these towns and compared that with averages across the country.
So, what is the best place to retire in the South?
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There’s a lot to love about Chattanooga, which already has a reputation for being friendly and welcoming. But there are certain factors that make it ideal for retirees, especially those who appreciate a mountain view. “The moniker ‘the Scenic City’ says it all for me,” says Kadi Brown, a Chattanooga native and co-owner of Chattanooga-based The Group Real Estate Brokerage. “Whether it’s a bike ride along the 16-plus-mile downtown River Walk, taking in the abundance of history atop Lookout Mountain or enjoying a boat cruise along the Tennessee River or Chickamauga Lake, the slow-paced lifestyle is refreshing and inviting.”
Many of Brown’s retirement-age clients note that they love the central location of the town and its accessibility to other larger cities in the South. “The overall affordability when comparing other desirable retirement areas—especially lower taxes, no state income tax, a variety of housing options and immediate access to top-rated health care—makes it an easy option to consider,” Brown says.
Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located, has 9% more hospitals than the national average. Housing costs are also below the national average, with median rent under $1,000 and the median home value $189,500. If dining out and entertainment options are important to you, Chattanooga has 27% more restaurants than the average across the country, ample outdoor opportunities and fun adult learning at places like the Chattery, a women-founded and Black-led nonprofit organization that offers classes in everything from herbalism and photography to estate planning.
What other cities topped the list?
Investopedia and Southern Living included 11 additional cities. Instead of ranking them numerically, they were listed by qualities that might appeal to retirees. Here are the highlights.
Best for city lovers: Fort Worth, Texas
While leaving behind the expense and traffic of a big city makes good retirement sense, many former city-dwellers crave the culture and excitement of urban areas when they retire. For that reason, the friendliness and affordability of Fort Worth (and its many amenities) make it the perfect landing spot. Cultural institutions, such as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Kimbell Art Museum, home of Michelangelo’s first painting, “The Torment of Saint Anthony,” offer art lovers a can’t-miss museum-going experience.
If prioritizing outdoor time is important to you in your post-work era, know that 62% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of one of the city’s 297 parks. “Retirees have the benefit of space in Fort Worth, if acreage is what they’re seeking,” says Bailey Powell Aldrich, a seventh-generation Texan on both sides and the third generation of Powells to own and operate Fort Worth Key magazine.
“Several lakes also surround Fort Worth for recreational purposes, so the peace of water is never too far away,” says Aldrich. “There are also the Trinity Trails along the Trinity River throughout the city, and a lot of fun programming on the river itself, like waterfront concerts while you float in an inner tube or enjoy watching your family from the riverbank beach.”
If access to travel is important, the second-largest airport in the United States is Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Or maybe you’ll just want to stay put and invite visitors to come to you. “In Fort Worth, no one ever shovels sunshine!” says Tonya Warren, a registered nurse, writer and lifelong Texan.
Best access to nature: Eureka Springs, Arkansas
For folks looking to embrace a slower pace, Eureka Springs might hit the spot. Not only does it take 15 minutes to get from one side of town to the other, it doesn’t even have a stoplight. But just because it’s quaint doesn’t mean this Ozark Mountain town is not vibrant. And it’s certainly not short on amenities; Eureka Springs has more than 100 restaurants, many of which are mom-and-pop owned.
But the real draw to Eureka Springs is the easy access to nature. The city has more than 40 bike trails, 60 natural springs and is home to the 1,610-acre Lake Leatherwood City Park, with more than 25 miles of walking trails and an 85-acre, spring-fed lake.
Entertainment-wise, you can catch summer concerts from Opera in the Ozarks and year-round live music at The Auditorium, where major acts, such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Levon Helm, Ray Charles and Ani DiFranco have all performed. Known for its flourishing LGBTQ community, Eureka Springs has also long been a welcoming oasis for LGBTQ travelers and their allies, says Mark Jason Williams, author of the forthcoming travel guide Out in The World.
Best beach town: St. Augustine, Florida
St. Augustine might have been voted best beach town, but it’s more than that. The northeast Florida coastal town has 20 golf courses (for a population of about 15,000) and a unique history as the oldest continuously occupied city in the U.S. “The history and Spanish legacy of St. Augustine truly makes it feel as if you are living in different eras of history simultaneously,” says Jeff Ziegler, who bought his first home there 20 years ago.
Florida has long been a destination for retirees, but many retirement communities have a homogenous feel lacking character. This is not true in St. Augustine, where Ziegler says there’s something for everyone. “Each neighborhood offers a unique personality, so anyone can find the perfect fit. And we still have four seasons, so it’s an easy acclimation for Northerners.”
For those who like to be active outdoors, this community has an established pickleball league (pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country), as well as an active sailing and fishing scene. St. Augustine even has designated paddling trails for kayaking and paddleboarding. “Everyone feels at home here,” Ziegler says. “The history, the beautiful beaches, the boating are bettered by an amazing culinary scene and a town lush with artists and authors.”
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Best for arts and culture: Savannah, Georgia
Art lovers who crave proximity to beaches should look no further than Savannah, Georgia. Savannah was artfully designed in 1733 and has 22 historic and beloved grassy squares today. Some people say that walking around Savannah feels like being on a movie set or inside a work of art, which makes sense, since Savannah College of Art and Design fills almost 70 buildings around the city with creative students from around the world.
“Savannah is a great, small, historic city with so much to offer,” says Karen Williams Schaack, a Georgia native who has lived in Savannah since 1991. “It’s very easy to walk around downtown, [and there is] great food!”
For nightlife enthusiasts, Savannah is packed with rooftop bars that have stunning views of the historic architecture and Spanish moss–draped trees. The Savannah Philharmonic and an abundance of music events offer everything from swinging jazz to heavy metal. And for Georgia’s largest music festival (running 17 days, with more than 100 acts), don’t miss the Savannah Music Festival, started in 1989. And when you need a break from all the activity, head over to Tybee Island—about 20 minutes from Savannah—for sunrise, gentle surf and abundant birding opportunities.
What other towns were included?
- Best for healthy living: Beaufort, North Carolina
- Best for outdoor enthusiasts: Abingdon, Virginia
- Best for home buying: Ocean Springs, Mississippi
- Best mountain town: Blowing Rock, North Carolina
- Best for food lovers: Greenville, South Carolina
- Best for lifelong learning: Lexington, Kentucky
- Best for affordability: Huntsville, Alabama
About the experts
- Kadi Brown is a Chattanooga native and co-owner of a small real estate brokerage firm located in downtown Chattanooga called The Group Real Estate Brokerage.
- Bailey Powell Aldrich is the publisher of Fort Worth Key magazine. She is a seventh-generation Texan on both sides and the third generation of Powells to own and operate the magazine.
- Tonya Warren is a registered nurse, freelance writer and lifelong Texan.
- Mark Jason Williams is an award-winning playwright, essayist and travel writer. His upcoming book, Out in the World, is a travel guide that explores inclusive destinations around the world where LGBTQ+ travelers and their allies can have an uncensored and memorable experience.
- Jeff Ziegler is a St. Augustine, Florida, resident.
- Karen Williams Schaack is a Georgia native who has lived in Savannah since 1991.
- U.S. Census Bureau: “65 and older population grows rapidly as Baby Boomers age”
- Pew Research Center: “Amid the pandemic, a rising share of older U.S. adults are now retired”
- Investopedia: “Cost of Retirement in Southern Living’s ‘South’s Best Places'”
- Southern Living: “South’s Best Places to Retire”