Exploring alternatives to San Francisco?
January 2, 2008 1:31 PM   Subscribe

I like living in San Francisco, but I'm considering a move in the next few years. Can the hive mind recommend smaller cities with a similar vibe for me to explore?

I'm compiling a short list of small (<350,000 population?) cities to visit over the next few years as I begin thinking about pulling up my roots. A good candidate would be a friendly transition for someone moving from San Francisco. This means it's not conservative, but alternately in need not be California Brand® Liberal. It also means relatively good restaurants, availability of local produce, something in the way of public transportation and the ability to go out and get a cup of coffee without it being Starbucks. It should also be a city that salubrious to one's well-being.

I'm thinking of keeping it domestic (U.S. obviously) but would entertain thoughts on Canada or possibly something in the land of far, far away - where they would need to speak English.
posted by quadog to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (44 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Asheville, NC or Madison, WI or Boulder, CO for small cities
Breckenridge, CO or Yellow Springs, OH or Arcata/Eureka, CA for towns
posted by carmicha at 1:39 PM on January 2, 2008

Look for college towns. I am partial to Charlottesville, Va. although there is no beach nearby.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:45 PM on January 2, 2008

Chapel Hill, NC
Charlottesville, VA is a grand place.
Monterey, CA
posted by HotPatatta at 1:47 PM on January 2, 2008

Well, Boston first comes to mind, although it's about 200,000 bigger than you're looking for, as are other possibilities, like Austin and Minneapolis which are also really awesome cities that sound like they might be right. Thing is, cities as small as you're looking tend to have poor public transportation. But, if smallness does matter most, Burlington, VT, Madison, WI or Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC (the area is huge, but the individual cities are actually rather small) might be better matches.
posted by General Malaise at 1:48 PM on January 2, 2008

I instantly thought of my hometown in Asheville, North Carolina. There are pretty good resturants (a lot of little mom and pop places) a great farmers market and several organic retailers nearby for produce as well as soil friendly for growing your own as a lot of the locals do. There are plenty of little coffee shops around (especially near downtown, like Old Europe, which is hungarian owned and has the best little pastries) and the town is small so if you don't want to ride their bus, you can bike it wouldn't be a problem. The water comes from a natural reservoir up near Mount Mitchell (highest point east of the mississippi) and the mountian air is refreshing. Most of the people who live there are very enviromental and earthy.

Please note that I have never been to San Francisco so this might not be where you want to be, but if you are thinking of it, at least pay a little visit. I live in Florida now but think of Asheville often... it's a fun little town.
posted by ForeverDcember at 1:50 PM on January 2, 2008

Don't forget to consider the weather. Walking around outside in Madison, WI is not very fun when its 5 degrees and snowing. That's a big difference from San Francisco.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:51 PM on January 2, 2008

I'll second Madison, WI. When I lived there (until 1996) the public transport was big buses, not my favorite, but the bike paths are great. I would park my car somewhere near my house and then forget where I parked it because I could ride my bike everywhere, even in winter (they plow the bike paths!). Lots of independent cafes and coffee shops, lively music scene, street festivals, & several lakes with boating & ice fishing. Huge farmers' market with buskers, several places to buy organic food, lots of ethnic restaurants. A lesbian mecca. Attractive campus, especially near the lake.

When I moved there in 1979 it was still radical. When I left 17 years later it had gone soft by my standards, but it would still be considered liberal compared to the mainstream.
posted by PatoPata at 1:58 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Charlottesville, Va.
posted by wildeepdotorg at 1:59 PM on January 2, 2008

I'll also second burnmp3s' warning about the Madison winter. It can be so cold and dry that your sinuses freeze when you inhale. That's one reason I left.
posted by PatoPata at 2:00 PM on January 2, 2008

Although Portland, OR fits most of your criteria (great food scene, progressive, good public transportation, small-city feel) it is too large. So you definitely shouldn't move here.

posted by dersins at 2:05 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Madison. I would recommend Minneapolis (I live here) for a bigger (though nowhere near Bay-Area) city.

I could go on and on and on and onabout why my city could beat up your (in the collective sense) city, but I'll just go on once or twice.

Transportation - Check. Not as good as SF, but definitely livable without a car as long as you live near a good line.
Liberal - Check. Wellstone. Heard of him? Well expect to, A LOT, if you come here. Though not everyone here is as liberal as having had him as a senator might suggest.
Restaurants - Check. If you're on any sort of budget, and hence can't afford to eat at the finest restaurants any given city has to offer anyhow, you will find Minneapolis to compare quite well with SF.
Lots of other awesomeness - check. There's a good farmers market. Lots of co-op grocery stores. Seasons. Who needs comfortable temperatures outside all the time anyway. More theater seats per capita than New York. A good arts scene. Plenty of parks. Lots of lakes (who needs the ocean?). Plus, lake superior is not too freezing in August or September. Lots of great camping nearby. The most extensive downtown skyway system in the country. NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, plus the famous World Pond Hockey Championships. Oh, and one of the best State Fairs. Oh, and A Prairie Home Companion.

On preview, all the nasty scary things about Madison in the winter apply here even more, of course. I've known People from all over California, and other warm states, who lived there their whole lives, and don't mind the winter here much. And I've known others that mind it a lot. You're not one of those wimpy ones that wouldn't like it, right? And I think of it this way: when it's round about 0 degrees F outside, everything is an adventure. If you trip and fall, twisting your ankle badly, and nobody is around to assist you, you literally could die. It's exciting, right?
posted by gauchodaspampas at 2:05 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Portland, Oregon curses its misfortune at being too attractive to Californians in search of what you're looking for. It's bigger than you want — 537,081 at last count, with about 2 million in the greater metro area — but population's a tricky yardstick. Are you looking for places < 350K sitting in the middle of nowhere? 'Cos honestly, Portland's a pretty "small town" type city, numbers notwithstanding. It might make you happy. Just stay out of dersins' way.
posted by mumkin at 2:08 PM on January 2, 2008

I know its over budget in terms of population, but you might want to consider Seattle, as well. It would be less of an adjustment moving to Seattle from SF, than to, say, Madison.
posted by milarepa at 2:14 PM on January 2, 2008

Bloomington, Indiana.
Providence, RI.
posted by lunit at 2:17 PM on January 2, 2008

Yep, Minneapolis is your place. Though I'll disagree with the critics and say that its crisp, snowy winters are a selling point! Bring your thick sweaters and woolen hats, mugs of hot chocolate await you!
posted by triggerfinger at 2:25 PM on January 2, 2008

Philly, Philly, Philly! A little larger than you're looking for, but it's the best city on the East Coast.
posted by footnote at 2:26 PM on January 2, 2008

Savannah, Georgia has an awesome laid back artsy vibe, although Savannah summers suck as bad as Madison winters.
posted by deadmessenger at 2:29 PM on January 2, 2008

I live in Madison and I think it might be your place. Lots of good restaurants (not close to San Francisco, of course, but no small city will be), huge farmer's market second in size only to SF's, vibrant cafe/rock show/indie movie scene. Not so strong in theater, if that's your bag. Pretty liberal, and not monoculturally so either -- you've got your hippies, you've got your radicals, you've got your liberal families with young kids and a mortgage, you've got your relatively pragmatic city government. The city population is probably more diverse than you think it is. Public transport isn't a great strength, but the point is that Madison is small enough that people bike and walk everywhere, which is very "salubrious to one's well-being" -- at least we bike and walk everywhere apart from the three months of the year when it's too damn cold.

Oh yeah. So. The winters.

Not as bad as you've been told.

I moved here from New Jersey three years ago in a state of terror about the winter. But it's actually not particularly different in kind from a New England winter. There are a few days a year -- today is one -- where it's really painfully skin-freezingly cold. (High today is 15F). Three weeks in a row of that and I'm sure I'd crack. But a day or two, which is all we get, just makes you feel tough and builds civic camaraderie. And we tend not to have the city-stopping blizzards that you get on the other side of the Great Lakes. If you're seriously considering Canada, you're going to have no problem with Madison.

Now if I'm really going to get you to move here I have to explain what's wrong with your other choices! I'll assume you're serious about wanting to move somewhere smaller, so Austin is out -- it's at about 650,000 these days, I think, and it shows -- lots of traffic and the cheap places to live are far out in the sprawl. I think the towns that are nothing but small college towns (Yellow Springs, Burlington) are going to be too much of a shock after SF. Boulder and Monterey are surely going to be really expensive (though if you can afford to live in SF maybe it's not a problem.) Asheville and Portland, I have to concede, might be equally good choices for you, especially if winter is a deal-breaker. And Providence could be a winner if it's appealing to you to be within an easy train ride of the big cities of the Northeast.
posted by escabeche at 2:31 PM on January 2, 2008

We've moved from SF to Santa Cruz (with stops on the way.) Although Santa Cruz is fairly small, it suits me to live here. Good library, bookshops and cafes plus all that beautiful coast nearby. Public transport is ok, and a lot of the town is home-to-work walkable. Maybe it's too near San Francisco for you, but you could come take a look. You might find Santa Cruz a bit smugly lefty, just depends what you do.

Monterey (per HotPattata) is also nice, and near enough for you to visit and check out.
posted by anadem at 2:40 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

OMG, I'm from Charlottesville. 3 shout outs! For a city of around 40k (and that's on a good day!) it's not doing so shabby here in the green.

I think it's a great town, but it's definitely a town. Be prepared for a lot of things to be shut down at night (except for your 24hour pharmacies and grocery stores, of course). It also unfortunately has the worst parts not being an urban center -- plenty of strip malls, lots of parking lots, and pretty deplorable public transportation if you're not living in the very center of town.

There's a nice music scene in Cville but basically no club scene worth speaking of (unless Rapture -- sorry "R2" -- has gotten better at all since I was last around). Basically the only real "nightclub" is Club 216 which is members only and not exactly for straights (not sure if that is relevant to your or not).

But it is a delightful place to live. If you move here, seriously don't bother getting an apartment anywhere but central downtown or in the UVA area within 1-2 blocks of Main St so you can take the trolley to the downtown mall where most of the action is. Lots of nice restaurants, two weekly alternazines with the best cultural happenings. UVa always has loads of things going on, and perhaps best of all UVa offers a library card to any and all residents of Cville/Albemarle, which means you have access to a library with over 5 million books and sundry, which is not at all shabby.

I'm happy to hear someone calling Philadelphia the nicest city on the East coast, because I am moving there soon. Expect a few philly askme's in a month or two.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:46 PM on January 2, 2008

Surprised nobody's mentioned Ann Arbor, MI. Unfortunately, Michigan has got what is probably the worst economic meltdown in the US right now, and Ann Arbor isn't exempt. I might still be there if it weren't for that factor.
posted by blucevalo at 2:54 PM on January 2, 2008

Minneapolis is a beautiful city -- great architecture and art -- but be sure to budget for DEET.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 3:00 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get used to Ukrops -- no Trader Joes in Charlotesville.

In fact most anywhere they'll have weather which tends to distress the California native. Be sure you spend some time in an extreme month there, before commiting to your new destination.
posted by Rash at 3:01 PM on January 2, 2008

San Luis Obispo, CA. Great university town, lots of smaller local stores, not a significant number of chains, good atmosphere. Location is a bit remote though, especially for flying out cheaply.
posted by wackybrit at 3:05 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Albuquerque is also a bit larger than you're looking for, but it's a cool, up-and-coming city where you can still afford a house, there are plenty of great restaurants, a fascinating economy, and a friendly, laid-back culture. I love to visit SF, but I'm always very happy to come home to ABQ.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:11 PM on January 2, 2008

Nthing Asheville...i would only add that the climate is a mild temperate...not too hot in the summer, but doesn't get bitter cold either.
posted by schyler523 at 3:47 PM on January 2, 2008

I grew up in Charlottesville. Its a great place and has been a place of growth for many years. Perhaps its because I grew up there, but today it feels extremely crowded. Parking is a major pain in the neck, followed by traffic on any of the major roads, and until the city government does something about it, expect it to get worse.

But the land is beautiful, most of the people are friendly (native bias towards the new folks who seem to like to honk a lot), and there's plenty of bookstores, restaurants, and the university. The weather, for the most part, is mild winters and not so harsh summers.
posted by Atreides at 4:36 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Ann Arbor, although it was far too "left" for my own tastes, and cursed with an unfortunate, cloying sense of it's own wonderfulness and specialness in the greater scheme of things. So, in many ways, just like San Francisco! (or Berkley)! If you find that too annoying to deal with, Ypsilanti (just to the east) is a lot less so, and used to be a lot more affordable, although considering the overall state of Michigan's economy right now, I imagine plenty of places are a lot more affordable than they used to be.

Oh, and the winters are mild, compared to Minneapolis, Calgary, and McMurdo Sound.
posted by motown missile at 5:12 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

What I love love love about San Francisco and its surrounds are the immigrants. That would be what I looked for if I were to move out of the bay area.

Many of the towns being mentioned feel shockingly, homogeneously white after having lived here awhile.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:16 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Portland is very homogeneously white. You'd hate it here.
posted by dersins at 5:50 PM on January 2, 2008

Many of the towns being mentioned feel shockingly, homogeneously white after having lived here awhile.

Minneapolis/St. Paul used to be lily white with Scandinavians, Germans, and Irish, but it isn't any longer. It now has a generous mix of immigrants from Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Russia, plus a long-time and growing population of Hispanics and a large number of blacks. They all call Minnesota their home, below-zero temperatures and everything.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:05 PM on January 2, 2008

Albuquerque isn't lily-white, either - lots of Native American culture as well as Mexican, though since this used to be part of Mexico, chances are the Spanish-surnamed folks in the area might have been there a LOT longer than the ancestors of most white Americans.

I favorited this thread because I'd eventually love to move out of the Bay Area, too, and am looking for the same qualities as the OP - but there has to be a decent economy. No masses of advanced-degreed folks bagging groceries. So Ann Arbor is right out, but I've heard that ABQ's economy has perked up in recent years - and you can still afford a house there.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:29 PM on January 2, 2008

Someone mentioned Providence, actually a good choice, still cheap, a regional culture after California where they speak regional accents might be fascinating. After Buddy Cianci, Providence is making a huge comeback and housing isn't as expensive as Boston. But you're an hour away from Boston, and three from NY, all accessible via Amtrak.

As someone mentioned *any* place outside of CA will be a shock, either winter or summer shock, but I can tell you Providence is not nearly as cold as Ann Arbor, Minneapolis, Burlington, VT, or Madison. Think a wee bit colder than New York.

I'd also check into Portland ME. yeah really. University of Southern Maine is there, a small but *real* music and arts scene, a waterfront district where there is an actual working waterfront, an hour and a half to Boston, blueberries, lobster, ferries to awesome Nova Scotia, interesting pronunciation of potatoes - and it hasn't been totally McGentrified or McHipstered yet.

That part of Maine at least is pretty liberal. Maine coast is beautiful.

Maine *is* the whitest state in the country, but then again, the only non whites I've seen have been in Portland (except for the Thai family of an incredible Thai restaurant near Bar Harbor)
posted by xetere at 7:05 PM on January 2, 2008

Eugene, Oregon might be a less-populated alternative to Portland. It's got a smaller population, and it's surrounded by beautiful forests. It's also a quick 90-minute (traffic permitting) trip to Portland if you'd like to experience the city life.

It's safe to predict that someone will jump in and say that Eugene is more liberal than San Francisco. However, when balanced with its siamese-twin sister city Springfield (they're separated by a freeway, and on opposite ends of the spectrum politically) it's a good blend. It meets all your requirements for local produce (their Saturday Market is an institution and offers fine local organic produce), coffee, and they even have a good selection of microbrews. If you really, really like beer, well Portland is 90 minutes away and is the microbrew capital of the galaxy. Eugene also has several of its own brewpubs. Good restaurants: check. Public transportation: check. It's also a big college town (University of Oregon) and will provide you with intellectual stimlation (Knight library is beautiful). You can also enjoy a variety of free public disc golf courses, which are extremely popular. Willamette Pass ski resort is also a 90-minute drive, and it's got a fantastic backside. Oh, and last but not least, Florence is 90 minutes away, so that covers the beach. Ski/snowboard and surf in the same day if you want.
posted by mullingitover at 7:24 PM on January 2, 2008

*Chapel hill, NC (but moreso Carrboro, which is basically right next to it but cheaper and more relaxed). A fairly diverse mix of people, college town, good live music scene, decent restaurants, very family-oriented if that's what you're into.

*Northampton, MA (or Amherst, MA). both small college towns (there are 5+colleges in the area), very liberal, not super diverse ethnically, but VERY gay friendly, cool main streets that have unique stores, art galleries, and great food. Both towns are pretty adament for maintaining their small town feel and keeping major chains out. Yet, there is still a mix of blue collar too...so its not earth nazi either.
posted by hazel at 7:48 PM on January 2, 2008

I'm quite surprised that no one has mentioned Richmond, VA yet. Richmond proper is very diverse and fairly liberal, with all kinds of adorable cafes and family-owned businesses. It's a lovely city, and the cost of living will seem UNFAIRLY low if you're coming from the Bay Area.
posted by arianell at 9:10 PM on January 2, 2008

I totally thought of Northampton MA (or Amherst), but shrugged it off as too small. If you're ok with it being so small, then it (they?) definitely is a great place. I can even recommend good bars there. Also, come to think of it, Portland, Maine is also a great little city (and so is Providence). Close to Boston, and yet have their own charm, character and things to do.
posted by General Malaise at 9:41 PM on January 2, 2008

I'm blown away that we got this far without giving Vancouver, BC a shout-out.

I grew up near SF and spent a lot of time there pre-college, and my brother lives there now, so I see it often (though not as much as I'd like). When I first got to Vancouver, a number of the things that I loved about it I soon realized were because they were so similar to SF - I was soon describing it to people as the "SF of the North" - no joke. Its situated near the water, has that naturally liberal slant that is germane to Canada, but is still comfortably close to the states. Its a very international, pacific-rim type town, and although I didn't use the public trans while there, it seemed pretty pervasive - saw it around town a lot.

Alternatively, in the far-far-away category, Cape Town, South Africa is not exactly small, but many of the communities along the water there feel that way. Similar to Vancouver, its definitely my "SF of Africa." Everyone speaks English.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:34 AM on January 3, 2008

I'm blown away that we got this far without giving Vancouver, BC a shout-out.

Vancouver's metro population is about six times larger than the OP would prefer. It can't really be described as a "smaller city".
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 6:56 AM on January 3, 2008

Check out Albuquerque. It has a lot of offer including awesome weather. http://www.cabq.gov/ or http://www.dukecityfix.com/
posted by greenchile at 6:56 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

... philly. really? philly has all the big city issues (murder / gun crime, petty crime, pollution, dirty, high taxes, hipsters, crappy schools) with a lot of the little city issues (insular population, closed minded masses, mummers, limited arts scene, closes early). they add up to a place that seems great for kids just out on their own, but really loses its appeal later on in life. its fun place, but a lot of the west coasters that i know in philly really have problems with the city...
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:26 AM on January 3, 2008

I would have said the same thing about Philly a year ago, before I moved there. I agree about the crime and taxes and schools. But these days you can find cleanish, attractive, interesting, diverse, and centrally located neighborhoods at prices even musicians and teachers can afford. Plus it has a real working class culture and character, which I guess is what your west coasters might perceive as "closed minded masses." And as far as aesthetics go, I'll go to my grave affirming that a certain blocks of Society Hill and Washington Sq. West are the most charming and beautiful urban residential settings in all the land. Best of all, you can't even hate on the hipsters too much there, not when they do nice things like open great cafes, salons, and pubs...
posted by footnote at 12:15 PM on January 3, 2008

Victoria, BC might work. The population is just about exactly the top end of what you're looking for (but growing), and I'd say it has all the other attributes you're looking for in spades. [I'm born and raised in the Victoria area].
posted by Emanuel at 10:12 PM on January 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses everyone! Check back in three years to see if I can mark one as best answer.
posted by quadog at 9:32 PM on January 6, 2008

« Older Need help printing to work printer from macbook   |   The elusive vegan brown butter - can it be done? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.