Best Places to Live
Minnesotans often claim superior quality of life as compensation for six-month-long winters. But it also happens to be true: By any non-meteorological measure, the Twin Cities are hot. The metro boasts 30 Fortune 500 companies, a thriving arts scene, numerous colleges and universities, and abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation. Plus, lots of great places to live. Here we spotlight the communities acknowledged to be supremely livable, as well as some of our lesser-known gems.
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2009 MEDIAN SALES PRICE: $324,950*
METRO SHOPPING MECCA: France Avenue
WAYWARD NEIGHBORHOOD: Morningside
Edina, the first-ring suburb just to the south and west of Minneapolis, has so much to recommend that we can start anywhere: The gracious neighborhoods, outstanding schools, thriving retails areas, easy transportation access, sterling city services, and a booming corridor of health-care providers. It’s also one of the only areas in the metro in which median home values have actually increased (albeit by 1 percent) since 2004. When most others—even our best places to live—have decreased anywhere from 20 to 3 percent, that’s one more indicator that Edina is, indeed, the gold standard of Twin Cities neighborhoods.
It is a prosperous place, though some neighborhoods are relatively affordable; others—the posh Rolling Hills, for example—not so much. Morningside holds the distinction of being the only village (far as we know) to secede from its mother town (Edina), only to rejoin it 46 years later. Judging from the dumpsters sprouting along some Edina streets, residents love updating and remodeling their homes.
Young families covet the excellent schools: Edina has the top graduation rate in the state (97 percent of seniors go on to college) and ranked #111 on Newsweek’s top public-schools list. It has three elementary schools, one of which is French immersion. No wonder when Family Circle magazine put Edina on its 2009 list of “Best Towns for Families,” it gave the schools a 10 out of 10.
Bloomington has the Mall of America, but Edina not only invented the covered shopping mall—Southdale, the country’s first, opened in 1956—it refined the idea. Edina’s shopping mecca now continues down France Avenue, with the Galleria’s collection of 50-some mostly luxe shops, Yorktown Mall, and Centennial Lakes Plaza. Downtown Edina, the immaculately groomed 50th and France area, draws residents as well as urbanites to its movie theater, specialty retailers, and restaurants.
2009 MEDIAN SALES PRICE: $330,000*
GENERAL AURA: Almost seaside
THEMED B&B: Birdhouse Inn & Gardens
Drive down Water Street into the heart of Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka, and you can almost imagine you’re someplace like Nantucket, circa 1970 maybe. Boats bob at the municipal docks and buoys, large excursion boats load up riders, and the restored steamboat Minnehaha chugs across the lake to Wayzata. Just 30 minutes west of Minneapolis, Excelsior’s downtown remains picturesque without crossing that line from charming to precious. Water Street, the main drag, bustles with boutiques selling everything from perfume and jewelry to consignment clothing and antiques. In amongst lovely little shops are perfect places to stop for a bite or a drink. Or California rolls at Yumi’s Sushi Bar. Or an ice cream at Licks Unlimited.
The compact town (about one square mile) is home to about 2,400 residents. Comfortably aged cottages, tucked back in narrow streets that wind away from the lake, give the whole place the vacation ambiance of an era when vacation meant months at the shore. The homes, more than 60 percent of them built before 1940, tend to be cozy clapboards. More recent construction usually maintains the cottage vibe and includes townhouses and condos built near the lake. Kids attend Excelsior Elementary through fifth grade, and then go on to middle and high school in the highly ranked Minnetonka Public School system.
Founded in 1853, Excelsior is proud of its history, but has also embraced the new. The waterfront site of the old amusement park, torn down in 1973, now holds condominiums and two popular restaurants, Maynard’s and Bayside Grille. Just a short stroll from Water Street is the Commons, the park where a swimming beach, playground, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and picnic area draw hundreds of visitors every summer weekend.
2009 MEDIAN SALES PRICE: $239,000*
DOWNTOWN'S HEART: An indoor park
WITHIN A 10-MINUTE DRIVE: Wisconsin fireworks
Woodbury lays claim to being one of Minnesota’s fastest growing and most livable towns, with hundreds of miles of multi-use trails and 3,000 acres of parkland. Home to 58,000 residents, the city boasts 40 parks—including a unique indoor park in the heart of Woodbury. This “city center” park links the Washington County Library and the YMCA, and hosts community events for everyone from kids to seniors.
The municipal golf course, Eagle Valley, opened in 1998. Woodbury also operates the Bielenberg Sports Center, which houses two indoor ice arenas and a field house with a walking/running track. The outdoor complex includes softball/baseball fields, picnic facilities, play equipment, a sand volleyball court, and five miles of winding trails. Eight small lakes pepper this St. Paul ’burb, and most are on public parks and pathways.
Woodbury attracts young families drawn to its reasonably priced housing and planned communities. Dancing Waters and Stonemill Farms, for example, provide swimming pools, gardens, playgrounds, and putting greens for residents, as well as single-family and row homes. Just minutes from 3M—one of Minnesota’s largest employers—and the St. Croix River Valley, Woodbury’s proximity to Interstates 94, 494, and 694 gives it easy access to the east side of the metro. But residents don’t have to leave town to shop: Woodbury Lakes outdoor mall has more than 50 retailers, including an Aveda Day Spa and Trader Joe’s.
2009 MEDIAN SALES PRICE: $209,000*
RATIO OF RESIDENTS TO ANTIQUES DEALERS: 60:1
LUMBER BARONS' FORMER LAIRS: 3
Known as Minnesota’s birthplace, historic Stillwater makes the most of its vintage charms. Victorian homes hold pride of place on the steep hills overlooking the town’s five-block-long Main Street and the St. Croix River. The aged beauties include more than a half-dozen bed-and-breakfast inns and former lumber-baron manses, all restored to their gilded glory. Stillwater preserves its identity through the Stillwater Heirloom and Landmark Sites, which protects its historic neighborhoods. Outside downtown and north and south along the river, homes of more recent vintage come in a range of sizes and styles. The St. Croix is designated a Scenic Waterway, and both Minnesota and Wisconsin take pains to make sure the shores don’t get overly developed.
Stillwater is a river town at heart, and much of its summertime action takes place on the St. Croix or in Lowell Park on its banks. The park hosts music, food, and outdoor movies on Tuesday evenings; spring and fall art fairs; and the big summer festival, Lumberjack Days (yes, it includes log rolling).
The usual big-box retailers and chain restaurants hold sway on the outskirts of town, but Main Street’s antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants give Stillwater its character. Antiquers love Stillwater, but shoppers can also find rare books at St. Croix Antiquarian Booksellers, kitchen items galore at Chef’s Gallery, and fun clothes and accessories at Stella and Collaborations. Food and wine lovers don’t need to leave town to dine well—not with options such as The Kitchen (brasserie-inspired comfort food) and Marx Wine Bar and Grill (small and crowded, but worth the wait).
Despite the hoards that descend during summer and fall weekends, Stillwater maintains its small-town feel and historical character. It offers the convenience of living near the Twin Cities and great schools, another reason the area has grown almost 20 percent since 2000.
2009 MEDIAN SALES PRICE: $234,700*
FAST GROWTH: Population increades by 50 percent since 2000
MAJOR ATTRACTION: The lake
Prior Lake, once a sleepy small town south of the Minnesota River, has become a booming community of about 24,000. Just 18 miles south of Minneapolis, Prior Lake’s hilly serenity offers more than a typical flatland suburb. Much more: 50-plus parks on 900 acres of land, 100 miles of trails, sidewalks, and 14 lakes. At the center of town—and its chief attraction for residents and visitors alike—is Upper and Lower Prior Lake, the largest lake south of the metro.
Much of the housing stock is relatively new, with 35 percent of homes built since 2000. The largest employer in the county is Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which owns Mystic Lake Casino, Little Six Casino, restaurants, a fitness club, and hotel. With five golf courses within the city limits and a streetscape-improvement renovation completed in 2004, Prior Lake’s beauty extends beyond the natural. Locally owned Edelweiss Bakery sells yummy breads and pastries.
The Mall of America is just a 20-minute drive, as is the airport. Transportation to downtown Minneapolis is available by express-bus servicers Laker Lines and BlueXpress. (The commute on coach buses is about 40 minutes.) Kids attend Prior Lake/Savage schools. With a 97 percent graduation rate and a teacher-student ratio of 1:18 at Prior Lake Senior High School, this town gets top marks in education as well.