The Best Places to Retire in the South
You never know where you'll find your forever town. Consider Bonnie and Michael Hearn, who were living on Florida's northeast coast, where they'd moved 15 years ago for Michael's work. Both of them had busy careers, and when the couple retired early a few years ago, they realized that even though they lived just a few miles from the beach, they hardly went there. And it was hot—something that it turns out didn't suit them once they had more time on their hands. "We owned our house and had wonderful neighbors, but we felt like it was the right time to go," Michael says.
The Hearns had spent an earlier chapter of their life in Chattanooga, where Michael was from. "We wanted to go back to the mountains," Bonnie says. So they left a place that many think of as the ultimate retirement destination for one that truly suited them. They unpacked their lives in Chattanooga in 2019.
"We just turned 70 in November, but in our minds and bodies, we're still in our forties," Bonnie says. The two of them are thrilled to be in a climate where they can hike, walk, and be active outdoors every day. Avid boaters, they love exploring local lakes and rivers. Michael, a big swimmer, is a huge fan of Chattanooga's YMCA network, where he and Bonnie enjoy being around families from all kinds of backgrounds. The Hearns say their active retirement is what they'd dreamed of all along.
How about you? Got a special place of your own in mind? We pored over metrics that will support an enjoyable retirement—from 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
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: multiple lofty ridgelines on the horizon, a million acres of surrounding forest, crisp and clean air, bike-friendly terrain and infrastructure, and a climate that promises what all Southerners crave—a non-sweltering summer.
For food lovers, the riches are ample: over a thousand family farms, some 250 independent restaurants, 50-plus breweries, 14 James Beard Award nominees, 12 farmers' markets, 5 hard cideries, and even a rum distillery. While housing costs are 18% above the national median (according to Zillow), North Carolina has no estate tax or income tax on Social Security benefits.
In 2016, that vibrant scene and a new grandson lured Cosette and Curtis Williams, who bought a condo near Asheville in Weaverville and commuted from their home in Charlotte. In 2019, the couple moved to the mountains permanently, and they've since built a house there. Through their daughter, the Williamses found a church that "fit us so much better in terms of acceptance, community outreach, and support," Curtis says.
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. OLLI also hosts Leadership Asheville Seniors to introduce older residents to the area's most pressing needs and show them how they can get involved.
And most of all, there are those glorious mountains. 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. "You don't have to go very far for a really peaceful setting that makes your day," Curtis says. "Even if you don't want to do anything at all, the views are still wonderful. They're all over the place. You can just relax and watch."
Median home value, according to Zillow: $395,430*
More Mountain Towns To Consider
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: $303,438*
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 great 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: $242,999*
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: $222,480*
Beach Town: Virginia Beach, Virginia
"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). It also has fewer bugs and cooler summers, with an average July high in the mid-80s, making it perfect for surfing the cool Atlantic swell. The area's pleasant weather is ideal for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and enjoying practically any other water sport that you could imagine, because this city of 459,470 offers 28 miles of public shoreline on both the Chesapeake Bay and the open ocean. Layton says, "What I'm always amazed about is that in the middle of summer on any given day, I can drive to a place like the North End Beaches, find a parking spot, walk onto the sand, have a hundred yards of shoreline, and feel like nobody else is there—and that's just on a regular Tuesday." Add a boat, and now you're talking world-class fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, offshore, and off North Carolina's Outer Banks to the south.
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 a fertile terrain for next-act careers.
Median home value: $355,526*
More Beach Towns To Consider
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 a median home value 5% below the national number, 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: $309,793*
Folly Beach, South Carolina
It's nearly impossible when walking (or fat-tire biking) the 6 miles of broad, tawny beach in this quirky surf town to picture ultra-urbane, super-cultured Charleston just 11 miles away. But that's the magic of life on "The Edge of America," as this unpretentious island-and-mainland home of 2,078 water-loving souls has dubbed itself. Whether it's enjoying the sand and surf; boating and crabbing Lowcountry style along the Folly River; playing tennis on public courts; or joining neighbors in a variety of community activities, oversight boards, and civic projects (they're dedicated to the loggerhead turtles here), there's a friendly, 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: $1,147,188*
Here you'll find lots of doctors and parks, no state income tax, a median home value 16% 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 with every size and style of housing. Whether it's living the yoga/paddleboarding/fishing life in the city's beach communities (Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach, and Mayport); cozying into the creative maker's scene in Springfield, Murray Hill, and the Rail Yard District; or nestling into the historic architecture with stunning views of the St. Johns River in Riverside, Avondale, and Ortega, it's all upside in Jacksonville. The numbers don't lie.
Median home value: $273,730*
River Town: Chattanooga, Tennessee
It's a magnet. Strong and stunning, the Tennessee River is a source of power (literally); a quencher of thirst (also literally); a passageway for thousands of boats and barges; a watery wonderland for kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards; a racecourse for rowers; a flyway for birds; and a refuge for wildlife. 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, including Fran Morley.
A travel writer, Fran first visited Chattanooga a little more than 15 years ago. "You know how you can go to some new place and come home and say it was the coolest city ever, but then you go to the next one and forget it? Chattanooga stuck in my mind," she says. Fran told her husband, Tom, all about it, and the two made a few more trips there, always finding themselves drawn to the Walnut Street Bridge, a slender pedestrian-only span that crosses the Tennessee. After over two decades living in Fairhope, Alabama, the couple was looking for a change of scenery. Tom says, "I came to Fran and said, 'We love it every time. What if we moved there?' "
Both musicians, the Morleys quickly embraced the artistic, youthful vibe of the 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. "You don't feel pigeonholed into looking for retiree functions here," Tom says. "We easily mixed with people of various ages. And with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus right downtown, you see college students too. It's a nice mix."
The Morleys recently moved to a townhouse outside the city center. "We love the beauty everywhere, the manageable size of Chattanooga, the scenery of the river and the mountains, and the lifestyle here," Fran says. "It felt like the kind of place where we could start over and have fun."
Median home value: $244,234*
More River Towns To Consider
San Antonio, Texas
This vibrant city of 1.43 million (one of the fastest growing in America) enjoys the riches of its eponymous waterway, both as a center for recreation and a hub for arts, culture, culinary escapades, and diversity. 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 embarking on a major restoration project) and a stunningly reclaimed water-way 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 offering exciting new housing options, this is a retirement gold mine for people who love being part of the action. More to love? Known as Military City USA, San Antonio is a great place for armed forces retirees and home to around 187,000 veterans.
Median home value: $276,049*
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: $139,455*
Yes, this city of 40,184 snagged a top 10 spot in a 2021 survey of the state's best places to retire due to its friendly blend of a 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: $161,574*
College Town: Oxford, Mississippi
Call it that Ole Miss magic. The University of Mississippi is the beating heart of Oxford. Having a child enroll there hooked Carla and Bruce Johnson, who were living in Denver, Colorado, at the time. "We fell in love with Oxford when visiting our son," Carla says. "We retired here and appreciate the Southern culture, history, and small-town life."
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—as well as the revered Square Books sitting, as its name would indicate, on the postcard-quality town square. And with Ole Miss hosting not one but two literary conferences every summer in addition to a variety of other events (as well as offering limited courses tuition free for retirees), Oxford features an irresistible blend for anyone who's seeking cultural stimulation in a remarkably tranquil, not to mention Southern, setting.
"Oxford takes Americans back to their roots, to the hometown feel they experienced as children," says Rosie Vassallo, retirement director for the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation (that's how serious Oxford is about luring older residents). "This environment people remember was highlighted by little or no crime, friendly neighbors, a growing economy, beauty everywhere you looked, and parks and other public places that were truly inviting. Oxford has all of this." Vassallo hastens to point out that the town's appeal also extends to what might be a retiree's limited income. "The cost of living is just as attractive as the scenery," she says. Median housing value is 29% 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.
The Johnsons, who attended one of Vassallo's programs right after they moved to Oxford, say that beyond all this town's charms, it's the locals who've really made their experience here so rich. "People are warm and friendly," Carla says. "It's easy to make friends. We could not be happier in Oxford!"
Median home value: $232,381*
More College Towns To Consider
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: $419,808*
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: $260,968*
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 (this is the Mermaid Capital of Texas, and there are 7-foot-tall statues of the sea dwellers to admire here). 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: $362,362*
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 3/7/2022