Chapel Hill, North Carolina: One of the Best College Towns for Retirement
Among the first things my wife and I noticed after moving to Chapel Hill last year were all the attractive older people. I say this with humility as a guy on the far side of 50 who’s earnestly taking notes. Sure, plenty of these 60- and 70-year-olds were fit and well dressed, but what struck us most as we explored our new town’s coffee shops, restaurants, and farmers’ market was how happy—and engaged—they seemed. Now that we’ve settled into our community, I can understand the connection between a great Southern college town and the ability to age gracefully.
These days, many retirees are looking for what Chapel Hill and its more bohemian next-door neighbor, Carrboro, have to offer—walkability, great eating and drinking establishments, educational opportunities, art galleries, museums, and performing arts venues, plus easy-to-access outdoor recreation.
The sense of place is palpable. From the grand homes fronting East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill to Carrboro’s rehabilitated mill-worker cottages a few miles west, this place feels rooted in history. And it is: Chartered in 1789, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was America’s first public university to begin teaching classes.
Chapel Hill has long been referred to as the “Southern Part of Heaven,” which may account for the real estate prices. With a median home listing price of $465,000 (realtor.com), they are the highest among the towns and cities mentioned here. But you get what you pay for, including a stunning public library, proximity to a top-ranked university medical center, and a fare-free bus system with 31 routes that weave together Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and the university at the center of it all. The population of 64,051 makes it big enough but not too large.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a decade from now, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. My wife and I aren’t far behind that cohort. We ended up in Chapel Hill because she took a job at the university, not because we were thinking of it as a place to retire—a prospect we tend to dodge. But knowing we’ve landed in a good spot to grow older makes facing that reality much easier.