The words “exciting” and “suburb” are generally never uttered in the same breath. In fact, if you look at pop culture–particularly coming out of the 1980s–suburbs are set up to play the proverbial second fiddle to their bigger brethren. They’re shining beacons of the boring life, where the biggest thrills include mowing lawns on the weekend and picking the kids up from school on time.
Only that’s totally untrue.
After ranking the country’s most exciting cities–big and small–last year, we at the Movoto Real Estate Blog decided to start 2014 off by turning the preconceived notion that suburbs are boring on its ear. So, we applied the same Big Deal List formula responsible for rocketing places like Oakland, CA and Hoboken, NJ into the spotlight to the nation’s largest suburban cities. What did we find? Cambridge, MA is unquestionably America’s most happening ‘burb.
It wasn’t alone; we ended up ranking nearly 140 suburbs on numerous excitement factors, and 10 emerged as the absolute thrilling-est of the bunch. These are America’s Most Exciting Suburbs:
Bravo to the Boston, MA area–not only did the historic city appear on our ranking of the most exciting big cities last year at No. 2 overall, but now two of its suburbs, Cambridge and Quincy, top this list. They inched out Berkeley, a suburb of Oakland, our most exciting big city and one of three California ‘burbs in this top 10.
How did we figure all this out, and what exactly constitutes “exciting” in our book? If you’ll keep reading, we’ll explain all that and more. We promise it’ll be exciting.
How We Found America’s Most Exciting Suburbs
For most people, math’s not very exciting. Yet math is the means by which we ranked the most exciting suburbs. Lots and lots of numbers went into the process, but it all started with 139: the number suburbs we looked at. These are the largest suburbs of the 50 largest cities in the nation.
The next number of importance was six: the number of criteria we used to determine how exciting a suburb is. We applied the same criteria to this ranking as we did for our two previous Most Exciting Cities rankings:
- 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)
Each suburb was ranked from 1 to 139 across all these criterion, with one being the best possible score (like in golf). This was accomplished by looking at business listings for each city and U.S Census data—not, unfortunately, dining and dancing the night away in person. Once we’d done that, we averaged the individual criterion scores to produce an overall Big Deal Score, which was used to determine the final ranking (the lower the score the better in this case, too).
The cities which you’re about to read about below had the 10 lowest scores, but we went ahead and included stats on how the top 50 ranked across the board at the bottom of this post. That way, if your idea of “exciting” is spending a Friday night arguing over minutiae, you can do that. For everyone else, here’s the big picture on what made our top 10 shoot past the rest of the pack:
1. Cambridge, MA
When most people think of Cambridge, they either a) picture classrooms full of students at Harvard and M.I.T. with their noses buried in books or b) say “Hey, isn’t that in England?” From now on, when we think of this Boston suburb, we’re going to think “excitement.”
True, a big part of Cambridge’s success in this ranking has to do with the fact that it’s home to not one, but two top-tier universities. Its population of 18- to 34-year-olds is, as a direct result, a whopping 49 percent, easily clinching a 1st place win for the city in this criterion by nearly 6 percentage points. Cambridge was also in the top 10 overall for active life options (third), live music (sixth), and nightlife (sixth).
Cambridge has one nightlife option for every 1,002 residents, and when they’re spots like The Druid and The Comedy Studio, that figure gets even more exciting. The city also ranked in the top 10 (10th, in fact) for its low percentage of fast food restaurants compared to all dining options (a mere 4 percent). This means your tastebuds will be subjected to fewer McDonalds and exposed to more A-grade eateries like Hungry Mother and Craigie On Main.
2. Quincy, MA
Excitement clearly runs in the Boston area family. Located not half an hour from our No. 1 most exciting suburb, Quincy is nevertheless far enough away that it has its own unique scene. It’s one that, for instance, relies much less on a young population to get the fun times rolling, as its 13 to 34 crowd makes up a (much) smaller 27 percent of its populace.
Despite the drop in our most exciting age group, there’s still plenty to keep the days and nights hopping in Quincy. It placed fifth overall in terms of active options with spots like Olindy’s standing out, and a respectable 25th for live music and nightlife. So, whether you want to belt out some questionably-in-key karaoke at Fuji 1546 or down a few pints at The Fours, you won’t be wanting for evening activities. Plus, any town that has a restaurant called The Fat Cat among its huge 96 percent of non-chain dining spots gets a thumbs up from this feline-friendly blogging crew.
3. Berkeley, CA
This suburb of Oakland is right in Movoto’s back yard, so we’re more than a little familiar with what it has to offer in the way of excitement. Before you start saying “But wait, guys, isn’t it just a bunch of mellow hippie types,” though, we’ve got to stop you. This East Bay gem has plenty to offer excitement seekers of all hair lengths.
Of course, with UC Berkeley in town, the 18 to 34 group is going to be plenty large; it sits at 43 percent, to be exact. Plus, with it being part of the notoriously health conscious Bay Area, a sixth place finish for active life options isn’t unexpected (there are parks and yoga places everywhere). What you might not be expecting, though, is that this seemingly laid back suburb has a lot of nightlife.
From bars such as Jupiter and the Albatross, to world-renowned venues like the Greek Theatre, it’s a fantastic town to hang out with friends after dark or take in an A-list act.
4. Miami Beach, FL
From the Bay Area, we head to the extreme opposite end of the country for our No. 4 most exciting suburb. Miami Beach is America’s suburban nightlife creme de la creme, ranking first overall in both live music and nightlife with one spot for every 304 people. If you’ve ever turned on TV to a reality show, though, you probably know this, as they’re seemingly always living it up in some South Beach hotspot like LIV or Mango’s.
Miami Beach is, as expected, also a bastion for daytime excitement, placing sixth overall for active life options. It’s adjacent to the aforementioned South Beach, with its myriad boating, biking, and outdoor activity offerings. It’s also a great town to be a foodie, having placed fourth overall in terms of unique dining options–the best in our top 10–with only 2 percent of its restaurants being chains. If you’re ready to take a break from fast food, you can’t go wrong at places like Yardbird (where you may think you’ve died and gone to fried chicken heaven) and Cuban food paradise Puerto Sagua.
5. Santa Monica, CA
We’re trading a beach city in Southern Florida for one in Southern California at our No. 6 spot. Part of the mega-sprawl that is Los Angeles county, Santa Monica is pretty much the quintessential SoCal beach community, and its excitement can be felt by anyone who’s ever stepped foot on the Santa Monica Pier or the Third Street Promenade.
It placed second overall for active options, including the pier, its adjoining beach, and thrilling activities like the Trapeze School New York. For as much fun in the sun as it has to offer, Santa Monica continues to shine after the sun has set. The city came in third overall for nightlife and live music, bolstered by places including The Room and Harvelle’s.
6. Lakewood, OH
Lakewood has been making quite a name for itself in the past few months, appearing on multiple rankings we’ve produced–including our Most Exciting Small Cities list. So, its appearance here comes as little surprise… even if it also made our list of best spots to retire. The young crowd is still strong in this Cleveland, OH suburb, however, making up 30 percent of the population and earning the city a 12th place finish for this criterion.
While the retirees snooze away, the youngins will play at places like West End Tavern. Residents of all ages benefit from exciting non-chain dining options such as Melt and Buckeye Beer Engine that make up the impressive 97 percent of restaurants in Lakewood that aren’t your average, mass-produced fare. The only area this city could have done much better in was active life options, where it placed 90th overall.
7. Jacksonville Beach, FL
Our next suburb sits not on a lake, but on a much larger body of water: the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, we’re back in Florida, but this time it’s near Jacksonville rather than Miami. With the geography sorted out, it should come as little surprise to readers of this ranking that Jacksonville Beach was second only to Miami Beach in terms of nightlife and live music on a per capita basis. We’re talking places like Lynch’s, Engine 15, and the Shim Sham Room.
Also of zero surprise was this suburb’s fourth place finish for active life options, from beaches to waterparks to golf. Where Miami Beach absolutely trounced this fellow Floridian destination, however, was in non-chain dining options. Jacksonville Beach came in 50th for this criteria with 9 percent of its restaurants chains. Still, that doesn’t mean residents looking for some exciting eating options are out of luck, what with the likes of Eleven South and Salt Life Food Shack in town.
8. Tempe, AZ
The second-youngest city in our top 10, a full 44 percent of the residents in this Phoenix, AZ suburb are between the ages of 18 and 34. That’s not bad for a state that many people associate with retirement (Florida bucked that trend on this ranking, too). You might also find it hard to believe that Tempe is a nightlife hotspot for similar reasons, but it is, placing ninth overall for clubs, live music, and associated after dark attractions like the Mill Cue Club and Big Bang, a dueling piano bar.
One area where Tempe shook its stereotype for the sort-of-worse was activity options, as it placed 22nd overall for those. It’s also note quite the daring dining destination of the other nine suburbs that comprise our top 10–in fact, at 59th overall for non-chain restaurant percentage, it’s the worst. Don’t tell that to people who swear by vegetarian delight Green or the Four Peaks Brewing Company ale house, though.
9. Santa Clara, CA
If you’d asked anyone in the Movoto office to guess the top 10 most exciting suburbs in the country, Santa Clara would honestly not have been in the running. This ranking isn’t about preconceived notions, though; it’s about what the data says and exposing the truth. The truth is, then, that this San Jose, CA suburb is exciting.
A big part of that is due to the considerable percentage of 18 to 34 residents (31 percent) and the fact that Santa Clara placed 20th out of 139 for nightlife. The number of karaoke joints like Arirang Music Studio are simply mind-boggling, too. Oh, and this city is also home to the California’s Great America theme park which, while perhaps not one of the country’s top-tier parks, is definitely a lot more exciting than most cities’ carnivals.
10. Evanston, IL
As Ol’ Blue Eyes used to croon, Chicago is a wonderful town. Evanston’s placing in our top 10 has us wondering “Evanston, Evanston, what an exciting town” wasn’t Sinatra’s second choice for lyrics. While the Chairman of the Board wouldn’t have sung the praises of Evanston’s 49th place finish for live music, at least he’d have enjoyed a dish at Dave’s, one of the town’s many non-chain restaurants (it ranked 23rd for those).
Oh, and Evanston has a group of 18- to 34-year-olds who make up 32 percent of its total population. We wonder how many of those wouldn’t know a tune by the Sultan of Swoon if we played it for them?
Can You Feel The Excitement?
We think we accomplished what we set out to do: show that suburbs are definitely more than meet the eye. They’re not all full of 40-somethings obsessed with youth soccer and typesetting the minutes for their neighborhood watch meetings. They’ve got lots of things to do—day or night. Especially Cambridge, MA, where any egghead from M.I.T. can tell you that “suburb” is just a word; Excitement is a way of life.
Want to talk about our ranking, or share what makes your hometown exciting? Let’s hear it in the comments below.