The Best Places for a Dreamy Retirement in the South

From college towns to beach burgs, river cities to mountain enclaves, we’ve combed the entire region to find 16 prime locations for your happily ever after.

Chattanooga, TN
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

You never know where you'll find your forever town. Consider Bonnie and Michael Hearn, who were living in Florida when they retired early a few years ago. They realized that even though they lived just a few miles from the beach, they hardly went there. So they left a place that many think of as the ultimate retirement destination for one that truly suited them. They returned to Chattanooga, where they had previously lived and where Michael was from, and to a climate where they can be active outdoors every day. Their active retirement is what they'd dreamed of all along.

How about you? Do you have a special place in mind? We pored over metrics that will support an enjoyable retirement—from a low cost of living and a favorable tax policy to low crime rates and thriving culture. We spoke to both Realtors and retirees, checked national rankings, and used our inside intel to whittle down a long list to 16 superb Southern cities and towns for your next home. The future awaits, and it's bright with possibilities.

Mountain Town: Asheville, North Carolina

Downtown Asheville, NC View
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What's not to love about what might be the country's most famed mountain destination? (Sorry, Telluride, but this Blue Ridge star has you beat.) Count the ways: lofty ridgelines, acres of surrounding forest, bike friendly, and a milder summer that all Southerners crave.

For food lovers, the riches are ample: over a thousand family farms, more than 250 independent restaurants, 30-plus breweries and cideries, 14 James Beard Award nominees, 12 farmers' markets, and even a rum distillery. While housing costs are more than 20 percent above the national median (according to Zillow), North Carolina has no estate tax or income tax on Social Security benefits.

This medium-size city of 94,589 is all about outreach. The University of North Carolina Asheville is home to an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), offering cultural programming called "Creative Retirement" that's aimed at older residents.

With Pisgah National Forest, the French Broad River, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park nearby, it's a vast kingdom for a lifetime's worth of exploration.

Median home value, according to Zillow: $421,664*

More Mountain Towns To Consider

Ellijay Georgia
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Ellijay, Georgia
If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then this town of 1,862 tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains is healthy from the get-go. With a bushel of heritage orchards, it's the Apple Capital of Georgia. It's also a playground for hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, hunting, and fishing. A great public golf course offers 18 challenging holes with stunning mountain views. An average July high temperature of about 85 degrees makes Ellijay a cool place to be. Located within two hours of Atlanta; Gainesville, Georgia; and Chattanooga, this charmer also has a homestead exemption from school taxes for residents over age 65.
Median home value: $358,422*

Morgantown, West Virginia

Morgantown, West Virginia
Home to the splendid West Virginia Botanic Garden at Tibbs Run Preserve, this little city (population 30,347) is ideal for lovers of the outdoors as well as those who prefer their own tidy backyard. With its verdant Appalachian landscape and "The Mon"—the Monongahela River—providing canyons, hills, and mountains to explore (check out the 48 miles of Mon River and Deckers Creek Rail-Trails), the home of West Virginia University draws arts, culture, and Big 12 football to its historic downtown.
Median home value: $258,602*

Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Robbie Caponetto

Eureka Springs, Arkansas
This charming Victorian town of 2,166 in the heart of the Ozarks sits amid and above about 60 bubbling natural springs. With colorful architecture and winding streets carved in the rocky hillsides, it's no wonder that Eureka Springs continues to be a home for working artists. That creative vibe fuels boutiques, museums, art galleries, and restaurants in this picturesque and historic downtown. For two-wheeled travelers, the Oz Trails system offers a range of mountain biking. Two rivers, three lakes, and abundant parks mean lots of recreation for people of all stripes.
Median home value: $268,509*

Beach Town: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Virginia Beach, VA
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"This is really the first place you hit coming down from cities like D.C., New York, and Boston that's warm enough to be a year-round beach town," says Realtor Will Layton. That makes Virginia Beach a viable seaside alternative to Florida, one that's closer to northern metro areas (and grandkids). The area's pleasant weather is ideal for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and swimming because this city of 459,470 offers 28 miles of public shoreline on both the Chesapeake Bay and the open ocean.

With a very low crime rate, no state tax on Social Security income, and no Virginia estate tax, full-time life in this popular resort town feels like a really sweet deal. Plus, Virginia Beach's healthy and varied employment base and its pro-entrepreneurial climate create fertile terrain for next-act careers.

Median home value: $370,922*

More Beach Towns To Consider

Clearwater, FL
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Clearwater, Florida
When you dream of your next life chapter, do you picture a sugar-sand beach and turquoise sea? Head to Florida's West Coast, where the shimmering Gulf of Mexico on one side and Tampa Bay on the other provide built-in playgrounds for swimming, paddling, and boating. Plenty of nearby active adult communities make terrific base camps for the sunny life. With great air quality and access to all the pleasures of Tampa and St. Petersburg, this medium-size city of 117,292 is ranked as one of CBS News' best places to retire in the country. And did we mention that it's also the spring training location of the Philadelphia Phillies? Home run!
Median home value: $350,233*

Folly Beach, SC
Courtesy Explore Charleston

Folly Beach, South Carolina
It's nearly impossible when walking (or fat-tire biking) the 6 miles of broad beach in this quirky surf town to picture super-cultured Charleston just 11 miles away. But that's the magic of life on "The Edge of America," as this unpretentious home of 2,078 water-loving souls has dubbed itself. Whether it's enjoying the surf, boating and crabbing Lowcountry style, playing tennis, or joining oversight boards and civic projects (they're dedicated to the loggerhead turtles here), there's a relaxed rhythm that city escapees tend to crave. And with the world-class health care at Medical University of South Carolina about 20 minutes away, it's a safe haven indeed.
Median home value: $1,275,386*

Jacksonville, FL
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Jacksonville, Florida
Here you'll find lots of doctors and parks, no state income tax, a median home value below the national number, and less hurricane risk than most coastal Florida cities. All of that adds up to one big splendid home (population 949,611) for folks wanting access to stunning beaches (22 miles of white sand on the Atlantic), affordability, and plenty of neighborhoods. Whether it's yoga, paddleboarding, fishing in the city's beach communities, cozying into the creative maker's scene, or nestling into the historic architecture with stunning views of the St. Johns River, it's all upside in Jacksonville. The numbers don't lie.
Median home value: $395,278*

River Town: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga, TN
Robbie Caponetto

The Tennessee River is a source of power, a passageway for thousands of boats and barges, a refuge for wildlife, and a watery wonderland for kayaks, canoes, rowers, and paddleboards. It's also the ever-changing landscape for hundreds of daily walkers, runners, cyclists, and observers of it all. This river has convinced many a visitor to make Chattanooga home.

With an artistic, youthful vibe in its restored historic downtown, the location of this medium-size city (population 181,099) between Nashville and Atlanta makes it a touring stop for national acts. There's a mix of people of various ages, from retirees to college students, and the manageable size of Chattanooga, the scenery of the river and the mountains, and the lifestyle add to its allure.

Median home value: $275,256*

More River Towns To Consider

San Antonio
Gabriel Perez/Getty Images

San Antonio, Texas
This vibrant city of 1.43 million (one of the fastest growing in America) is anchored by the 15-mile River Walk that connects a host of hotels, shops, restaurants, and theaters. Life in San Antonio also includes access to five 18th-century missions (including the famed Alamo, which is being restored) and a stunningly reclaimed waterway for kayaking and topflight birding. (Golfers will go crazy for the area's more than 30 courses.) Super bikeable with a reasonable cost of living and a wide array of neighborhoods, this is a retirement gold mine. More to love? Known as Military City USA, San Antonio is a great place for armed forces retirees and home to around 97,318 veterans.
Median home value: $262,402*

Columbus, Georgia Riverfront
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Columbus, Georgia
When two derelict textile-mill dams were removed in 2012 and 2013, a renewed and wild Chattahoochee River emerged to make this city of 206,922 a potent blend of urban life and outdoor adventure. Locals can now walk, run, and bike 34 interconnected miles of the Dragonfly Trails along the river and slow down to gape at another gift: RushSouth Whitewater Park, the longest urban whitewater course in the world, with class III, IV, and V rapids. Just about 90 minutes from Atlanta, with a low cost of living and excellent health care, this is a true under-the-radar gem just 50 minutes from Auburn University and its college-town cultural offerings.
Median home value: $149,518*

Wilson Dam and Lake. Florence, Alabama. Muscle Shoals.
Robbie Caponetto

Florence, Alabama
Yes, this city of 40,184 was one of the state's 2021 top 10 best places to retire due to its favorable tax rate, access to medical care, recreation opportunities, and social options. But let's face it: It's all about those shoals, which means the presence of the Singing River (aka the Tennessee) and one of the South's greatest musical legacies (blues pioneer W.C. Handy was born here, and the Muscle Shoals sound was created across the water at FAME Recording Studios). This place offers stimulating small-city life along with excellent dining and shopping, charming architecture (plus the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the state), and lots of live music.
Median home value: $177,149*

College Town: Oxford, Mississippi

Oxford, MS
Robbie Caponetto

Call it that Ole Miss magic. The University of Mississippi is the beating heart of Oxford. It's easy to love this place (population 25,416) with its reputation as a center for Southern arts and literature—from its patron saint, William Faulkner, to famed novelist John Grisham. And Ole Miss hosts two literary conferences every summer in addition to a variety of other events (as well as offering limited courses tuition free for retirees) in a remarkably tranquil, not to mention Southern, setting.

With friendly neighbors, a growing economy, little or no crime, and parks and public spaces, the town's appeal also extends to what might be a retiree's limited income. Median housing value is below the national number, and residents aged 65 and over can declare the first $75,000 of true value on their house exempt from local property taxes. Plus, all certified retirement income is exempt from Mississippi state tax. All things considered, Oxford is a veritable sea of economic tranquility.

Median home value: $277,348*

More College Towns To Consider

A view of "the Mall" in downtown Charlottesville
Charlottesville's pedestrian Downtown Mall, which is loaded with shopping and dining options. Peter Frank Edwards

Charlottesville, Virginia
Thomas Jefferson knew a good college town when he saw one. The 203-year-old University of Virginia (UVA) draws a rich mix of people and ideas from around the world, and its hum seems to permeate the hilly streetscapes in this city of 46,553. (And don't forget the sports—UVA's men's basketball team won their first national title in 2019.) Along with metropolitan cultural riches (not to mention 40 wineries in the vicinity), Charlottesville is home to top medical facilities, including the University of Virginia Health System. From downtown, it's less than an hour to Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Median home value: $448,709*

Lexington, Kentucky
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Lexington, Kentucky
Basketball or ballet? Bridles or bourbon? "All of the above" is the appropriate answer in the sophisticated, buzzy home of the University of Kentucky (UK) and the self-proclaimed "Horse Capital of the World." But what may be the true A+ element in this urban area of 322,570 is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UK, which provides terrific educational and enrichment courses, forums, shared-interest groups, trips, events, and more for adults who are 50 years and over (the annual fee is only $50). Extra credit? UK also offers a Donovan Scholarship, which covers tuition and mandatory course fees for adults ages 65 and older. Cheers to that!
Median home value: $275,616*

San Marcos River Paddleboarders
An REI Outdoor School paddleboard class explore the waters of San Marcos. Courtesy The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

San Marcos, Texas
You didn't hear it from us, but word is that Austinites down the road are jealous of the lower cost of living paired with the fun-loving college vibe in the home of Texas State University. Of course, this means football but also a hip arts scene with a youthful energy. The spring-fed San Marcos River courses through town at a lovely 72 degrees year-round, making it perfect for paddling and tubing, and the 67,553 lucky locals enjoy more than 850 acres of natural areas at their feet, including ADA-accessible trails. No wonder Forbes named San Marcos the best place to retire in all of Texas.
Median home value: $346,950*

Six Questions To Ask Yourself Before Calling a Realtor

1. Does the retirement town's cost of living fit your budget now and in the future? Can you afford housing?

2. Is the health care available nearby sufficient for your long-term goals, or will you have to drive a considerable distance to see specialists?

3. Do you know anyone in the new town? If not, do you make friends easily? Is there access to highways, lodging, and airports so your friends and family can visit?

4. Will you be comfortable with the climate year-round? Does the snow or the heat bother you?

5. Does the destination offer an enjoyable lifestyle—arts, dining, festivals, golf, swimming, shopping, safe trails for biking and walking, continuing education, etc.?

6. Do you have a plan B if you move and then can't make the new hometown work for you?

*Zillow data pulled 6/10/2022

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