The Best Small Cities in America—What You Need to Know

A ranking of the top ten small cities reveals ideal, safe communities to raise a family with great schools, thriving businesses and overall good vibes.

Many Americans are reconsidering where they’d prefer to live, particularly after the COVID-19 outbreak and the rise of working from home. In fact, Americans are now more likely to prefer the suburbs over both urban and rural communities. According to Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Americans say they’d rather live in the suburbs.

The term “suburbs” can cover a wide range of communities, including charming small towns, quirky cities and hidden gems. Smaller towns are getting more and more popular. The reality is that remote work, for many, has removed the need to live within commuting distance to a major city. Removing the commute has been a game-changer for people who love small-town life. For many people, smaller cities seem an ideal, safe place to raise a family, with good schools, thriving businesses and overall good vibes.

Are small cities more affordable than larger cities?

“One of the best perks of living in a city with a relatively small population is affordability,” says WalletHub. They note, for instance, that a two-two-child family in Hanford, California would be $6,516 per month, compared with more than double, at $13,251 per month, for the same family in San Francisco.

What makes a great small city?

WalletHub recently ranked the best small cities in America. A group of experts compared 1,319 cities, all with populations between 25,000 and 100,000. They looked at 43 indicators over five key dimensions: affordability; economic health; education & health; quality of life; safety. They examined criteria such as housing cost, income and population growth, average commute time, graduation rates, crime rate, obesity rates and even the number of restaurants, coffee shops, theaters, museums and fitness centers per capita. In each case, they considered only the “city proper,” excluding a city’s surrounding metro area.

So what small city is the best to live in?

The results might be surprising. According to WalletHub’s methodology, Lancaster, Pennsylvania is America’s top small city. With a population of over 57,000, a little over and hour from Philadelphia in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, Lancaster rated especially high in the areas of quality of life and safety.

Three cities from Indiana made the top 10, including Carmel (#2, pop. 100,000), Zionsville (#7, pop. 31,000), Westfield (#10, pop. 50,000), all within a few minutes of each other in the Indianapolis suburbs.

Meanwhile Massachusetts also had three cities in the top 10, including Lexington (#4, pop. 33,000), Melrose (#6, 29,000) and Needham (#8, 31,000), all in the Boston suburbs.

You might also be interested to learn about the cleanest and dirtiest cities in America.

The best small cities in America

  1. Lancaster, PA
  2. Carmel, IN
  3. Fair Lawn, NJ
  4. Lexington, MA
  5. Brentwood, TN
  6. Melrose, MA
  7. Zionsville, IN
  8. Needham, MA
  9. Portland, ME
  10. Westfield, IN


  • Pew Research Center: “Americans Are Less Likely Than Before COVID-19 To Want To Live in Cities, More Likely To Prefer Suburbs”
  • WalletHub: “2022’s Best Small Cities in America”
Nantucket sunrise townscapeJ. Greg Hinson, MD, Images

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Jason Wilson
Jason Wilson is a Senior Writer at Reader’s Digest. He has covered travel, culture, food, and drinks for more than two decades, and is the author of three books on wine and spirits, including Godforsaken Grapes and Boozehound. He’s written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, and many other publications. He’s had a pizza, a breakfast sandwich, and a dessert named after him in three different countries.