The lighter side of real estate

These Are America’s 10 Most Exciting Mid-Sized Cities

Not too big, not too small, these places are just the right size. When it comes to excitement, they’re absolutely huge.

Randy Nelson

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119 articles, 53 comments

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We’ve been doing some exciting things here on the Movoto Real Estate Blog. More specifically, we’ve been doing some things involving excitement, or, even more specifically, places across this great country of ours that are especially exciting. Big cities, small cities, suburban cities… they’ve all been run through our patented excitement-judging algorithms and seen where they rank. There’s just one more (important) piece of this big America-shaped puzzle that needs popping into place: Mid-sized cities.

If you live in a place that’s somewhere in-between a major metro and a rustic retreat, you’ve probably been wondering how your city stacks up in terms of excitement level. Today, we’re here to hopefully provide that answer. To residents of Providence, RI, we can excitedly say that your city stands atop the mid-sized places pack like some sort of God of Fun summoning lightning down from on high. Like some ancient deities, it’s part of a pantheon that includes the rest of the 10 most exciting mid-sized cities in America:

  1. Providence, RI
  2. Charleston, SC
  3. Fort Collins, CO
  4. Eugene, OR
  5. Syracuse, NY
  6. New Haven, CT
  7. Fort Lauderdale, FL
  8. Grand Rapids, MI (tie)
  9. Pasadena, CA (tie)
  10. Salt Lake City, UT

We know what you’re thinking: The capital of Rhode Island is the most exciting mid-sized city in the U.S.? We were surprised to learn this, too, but if you’ll keep reading we’ll explain how we reached this shocking conclusion, as well as why the other nine cities made it into the upper echelon of excitement. First, however, let’s break down how we put our finger of the pulse of America and found which mid-sized cities will have your heart racing.

How We Found Big Excitement In Mid-Sized Cities

Whenever we do one of our Big Deal Lists, we like to explain how exactly we figure out something as seemingly unmeasurable as a city’s nerdiness, friendliness, or, in this case, how exciting it is. The simple answer: numbers.

It all starts with figuring out which criteria we can use to determine what we’re looking to measure. In the case of excitement, we’ve already come up with a trusty list of six factors:

  • Nightlife per capita (bars, clubs, comedy, etc.)
  • Live music venues per capita
  • Active life options per capita (parks, outdoor activities, etc.)
  • Fast Food restaurants per capita (the fewer the better)
  • Percentage of restaurants that are fast food (the lower the better)
  • Percentage of young residents ages 20 to 34 (the higher the better)

With those in mind, we build a list of cities to look at. In this instance, we used 117 cities ranging in population size from 120,000 to 210,000 residents according to the U.S. Census. These cities were given scores from one to 117 across all six criteria based on data including business listings and Census demographics, with one being the best possible score. We then averaged these individual rankings into one Big Deal Score for each city, the lower the better again, and the place with the lowest overall score—in this case, Providence—was our winner.

If you don’t see your city in our top 10, there’s still a chance that it made our top 50 most exciting mid-sized cities ranking, which can be found in chart form at the bottom of this post.

Now that you’ve gotten a look behind the curtain, it’s time to put on your best club cloths and walk down the red carpet to the debut of our 10 most exciting cities below, aka the part where we explain exactly why they’re such a big deal. Are you ready to do this?

1. Providence, RI

Providence, RI

Source: Flickr user Jef Nickerson

You’re totally forgiven for snickering; we wouldn’t have guessed that a city in Rhode Island would have made our top 10 for this ranking, let alone take home the whole glowing neon enchilada. That’s one of the reasons why these Big Deal Lists are so cool: you never know what stereotype you’re going to turn on its head.

Despite being one of the oldest cities in the U.S. (hailing from 1636), Providence has one of the youngest populations of any city we looked at. Nearly 37 percent of the people who call this city of more than 178,000 home are in our active young age group of 18 to 34 years old, which earned it a seventh-place rank for that criterion. Better still, it ranked fifth overall for live music venues with one for every 523 residents and fifth for non-fast food dining, with places like Los Andes and The Duck And Bunny to thank.

Where Providence really ramped up the excitement level, however, was in its nightlife. It ranked third in this category, with one spot—including the likes of Justine’s, The Eddy, and The Avery—for every 523 folks who call the city home.

2. Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC

Source: Flickr user Charleston’s TheDigitel

The residents of Charleston are known for being exceedingly cordial, but we wouldn’t blame them for getting a little rowdy upon hearing that their city has been recognized for its undercurrent of sheer excitement. It’s a current that flows like the cocktails in the city’s tremendous nightlife scene, where there’s one hotspot for every 494 people. That fact, along with places like The Gin Joint and Squeeze Bar, earned Charleston second-place for nightlife.

This city also posted some exciting numbers for young residents, live music, and activity options. The former sits at ninth place with 35 percent of the population age 18 to 34, while the latter ranked 12th and includes harbor tours, mesmerizing swamp gardens, and the South Carolina Aquarium. Charleston also has a happening non-chain dining scene that features the likes of FIG with its life-changing ricotta gnocchi and the grits at Slightly North of Broad.

3. Fort Collins, CO

For Collins, CO

Source: City Data

As if the views of the majestic Rocky Mountains weren’t exciting enough in this, the fourth-largest city in Colorado, you can add a large contingent of youthful residents—helped in part by the presence of Colorado State University—and a solid active life score to the list. That first figure sits at 38 percent of the populace, which put Fort Collins at sixth place overall for active young residents.

When it comes to activities, Fort Collins is definitely not trying to keep nature out. There are enough things to do in the surrounding area—from abundant bike trails to the mini-golf at Fort Fun—that the city earned a rank of 14th for this category. While rankings of 20th for non-chain dining and 29th for nightlife are a bit lower than our top two cities, there’s still plenty to get excited about, from breakfast at Snooze to late nights at Social.

4. Eugene, OR

Eugene, OR

Source: City of Eugene

Emerald City, as it’s known, probably has plenty of people in other parts of Oregon pretty green with envy right about now—and with good reason. In addition to such spectacles as the annual Eugene Celebration, this metro sports a wealth of unique dining options, a surprising amount of nightlife, and a youthful populace (33 percent aged 18 to 24, ranked 17th) thanks in part to the University of Oregon.

As for that dining, Eugene placed 11th overall for non-fast food options, with places like Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen and Toshi’s Ramen to its credit. Nightlife takes the form of New Max’s Tavern and the Jackalope Lounge, among others that contributed to a 17th place ranking in the criterion (one bar or club for every 832 people). Of course, active life options are a big part of a city closely associated with Nike (it was started by a UO alum) and that actively brags about its outdoors appeal, and Eugene placed 21st in this respect.

5. Syracuse, NY

Syracuse, NY

Source: Flickr user shutterjet

In the heart of New York state, Syracuse has some exciting stats to its credit that are sure to get  your blood pumping. This city of just over 144,000 managed a 10th-place finish for non-fast food dining, and placed 14th for both its youthful population and live music venues.

That first stat is thanks to the fact that only 4.8 percent of the eating spots in Syracuse are fast food chains, and the rest are places like Darwin and Alto Cinco. Spots like these are frequented by a youthful group of residents that make up 34 percent of the city’s total population. When they’re not attending (or teaching at) Syracuse University, they’re living it up at spots like Chuck’s Cafe and The Blue Tusk, both of which helped contribute to the city’s 16th-place finish in nightlife.

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6. New Haven, CT

New Haven, CT

Source: Flickr user llimllib

New Haven may have been founded by Puritans, but its current residents—of which 36 percent fall within our active, young age range—are used to living it up with some of the highest rankings in original dining on our list.

Specifically, New Haven placed third overall for the percentage of its restaurants that aren’t fast food chains and sixth in terms of the actual per capita number of doring fast food places. In fact, there’s only one for every 10,057 residents. This means that restaurants such as Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and Louis’ Lunch are more the norm. When it comes to evenings, New Haven also impressed. Ranking 23rd for in this category, it has plenty of exciting nighttime hangouts to offer, including The Owl Shop and Firehouse 12.

7. Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Source: City of Fort Lauderdale

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Fort Lauderdale ranked first for nightlife out of all the cities we looked at. Unlike Providence taking first overall, this was something we actually, sort of, expected knowing that the Florida party hotspot was on our list. What we didn’t know is just how much nightlife this city has: one bar or club—such as YOLO, Tap 42, and countless others—for every 460 people. That’s… impressive.

Of course, this spot so associated with fun in the sun was a shoe-in for a  high ranking in active life options, where it ultimately placed second overall. It has one potential activity for every 418 people, from Fort Lauderdale beach to snorkeling to paintball ranges. Then, for when you’re ready to refuel, its bevy of non-fast food dining options is there, including spots like Gilbert’s 17th Street Grill and Market 17, earning it sixth-place finish for this criterion. young folks aren’t as abundant, however, and at only 23 percent of the populace they were only good enough for 96th place overall in the active young residents category.

8. Grand Rapids, MI (tie)

Grand Rapids, MI

Source: Flickr user Canon Screwdriver (gary syrba)

Unlike Fort Lauderdale, Grand Rapids is a name we honestly didn’t expect to see up here in the top 10, but the data doesn’t lie. The second-largest city in Michigan, it did best in nightlife (14th overall) and non-fast food dining (18th).

For that first category, the city has places like The HopCat and founders Brewing to thank; there’s one such place for every 771 residents. As for that dining rank, Grand Rapids has spots like Yesterdog or Stella’s Lounge to save you from mass-produced fare. Grand Rapids even did great for active life options and music venues, both of which it ranked 25th in.

8. Pasadena, CA (tie)

Pasadena, CA

Source: Flickr user Doug Kline

Southern California is no stranger to our exciting cities rankings, what with Santa Monica, CA placing in the top 10 when we looked at the country’s most exciting suburbs. Pasadena, though, is a city not as many people have heard of, unless they’re into college sports (it’s home to the Rose Bowl) or floral themed parades (it hosts the Tournament of Roses Parade every January 1). Still, from its city limits right into Old Town, it offers plenty to get excited about on a year-round basis.

Pasadena’s best rankings were in active life (third) and live music venues (fourth). In terms of the latter, it has one place like Levitt Pavilion and The Terrace for every 9,896 residents. As for activities, residents have access to everything from hiking in Eaton Canyon to betting on the horse at Santa Anita Park.

10. Salt Lake City, UT

Salt Lake City, UT

Source: Flickr user 류동협

Most will remember that Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, and as such we weren’t really shocked when we found that the city ranked first overall for active life options. In addition to its myriad parks, a zoo, and more traditional outdoor activities, the city has those that are especially befitting of a former Winter Olympics venue, such as the Gallivan Center ice rink.

SLC also did especially well when it came to music venues (which the Gallivan Center also factors into) and nightlife. It placed third overall for places to enjoy live music, with one for every 9,466 residents, and fourth for nightlife, with places including Brewvies Cinema Pub and Bar-X to its credit.

Mid-Sized Doesn’t Mean Mediocre Excitement

As you can see, there are definitely still some surprises to be had out there as Movoto continues to find new and interesting ways to rank the cities we live in. Who would have thought that a place in the smallest state could be so massively cool?

Of course, there’s another end of this spectrum, occupied by mid-sized cities that are, well, let’s just say a little less happening. At the top of that list is Mesquite, TX, followed by Grand Prairie, TX, Palmdale, CA, Surprise, AZ, and Ontario, CA. In this case, you make us snooze, you lose.

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posted on: March 19, 2014
94,645 views, 6 comments


  1. Bo

    Mmmm interesting about Providence……I don’t see it…I have been working in that downtown stink hole for 20 plus years…but then again I suppose when your running down the street with the assailant chasing you with a knife, gun or metal bar….it could be an exciting City….

    • Fred Richenderfer in response to Bo


      Open your eyes. I think they have been closed for the last 20 years. As a Realtor, I have clients come to Providence from all parts of the US. They are, without exception, impressed with the beauty and spirit of down city. Have you ever tried to experience the city in the past 2 decades? And there is a lot more than just Waterfire. Try third Thursday Galary tours, a Duck Boat tour, a Segway tour, a Gondola ride, skate at the ice rink, watch an outdoor movie on Westminster St., or listen to a live band in Waterplace Park, the best collection of restaurants in New England… I think the only “stink hole” is some picture in your mind from decades ago. Time to be fair and explore. You’re missing out on a great experience.

  2. maura boland

    Apparently, you have missed 28th street, and MIchigan Ave, and 44th street they are littered with Fast Food joints in GR. Also, you have neglected the more highbrow cultural aspects like Meijer Gardens, and the Museum, and the old school architecture. At least you got in Yesterdog.

    I grew up there and when I go home and here ‘HEART’ still playing on the radio…”Land where time stands Still”

  3. Janelle

    I thought this list was FANTASTIC! Thanks for explaining how you got your data and did your research, and for including the full list at the bottom. Well done. I’m trying to find a new city to move to and this makes it easier to get ideas and narrow my search. Obviously everyone would customize their own list to suit them better but overall, this is great!

  4. Gerry

    I view this as more of a list of cities to stay the hell away from. Nice work.

  5. wes

    please do


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