The Best Places to Live in California

See how 12 metro areas in California compare to each other.

By Devon Thorsby, Editor, Real Estate |March 13, 2019, at 12:11 p.m.

The Best Places to Live in California

Slideshow

Which spot in the Golden State is best?

Date Palm, sometimes referred to as the Arabian Palm and adopted in 1950 as Saudi Arabia national emblem, representing the Kingdom's assets.

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Whether it’s because you consider the West Coast the best coast or simply because the right job is calling to you, you may be one of many people considering a move to California. But while your mind might first jump to Los Angeles or San Francisco as the epitome of life in the Golden State, there are many more major metro areas to consider. Out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. that make up the overall Best Places to Live rankings – calculated based on affordability, job market, access to quality health care and desirability, among other factors – 12 of them are in California. Read on for the Best Places to Live in California.

12. Stockton

12. Stockton

Waterfront Cityscape of All American City Award Recipient, Stockton, California, Reflected in River at Weber Point

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 124
Population: 714,860
Median Home Price: $321,658
Median Annual Salary: $46,020

In California’s Central Valley, Stockton is surrounded by farms and vineyards characteristic of the northern part of the state, but the metro area is also home to many manufacturing and distribution hubs for companies such as Safeway and Whirlpool Corp. Though Stockton was hit hard by the Great Recession and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2013, the metro area has made positive strides in recent years. However, unemployment in the area remains high at 7.2 percent.

11. Bakersfield

11. Bakersfield

Bakersfield sign in Bakersfield, California.

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 123
Population: 871,337
Median Home Price: $210,300
Median Annual Salary: $47,410

Another inland metro area to consider, Bakersfield ranks No. 123 on the overall Best Places to Live list. Bakersfield residents spend 30.52 percent of the median annual household income on living expenses, including mortgage payments, rent, property taxes and utilities. That share of income is right about where financial experts recommend consumers keep their housing costs, although Bakersfield’s cost of living is low compared to most other parts of the state.

10. Modesto

10. Modesto

This beautiful park in Modesto California is on the east side off of Yosemite Blvd. with picnic area and tables along with lawn, landscaping and beautiful water spray in the small lake  with colorful trees and reflections in the water.

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 118
Population: 795,562
Median Home Price: $236,252
Median Annual Salary: $45,230

Located about halfway between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, Modesto is another major California metro area with proximity to farms and a deep connection to agriculture. The job market in the metro area, however, has room for growth. The median annual salary in Modesto is about $4,000 less than the national average of $49,630, and the unemployment rate is 8.2 percent.

9. Fresno

9. Fresno

Fresno downtown skyline view with a clear blue sky in the background.

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 116
Population: 963,160
Median Home Price: $245,058
Median Annual Salary: $45,270

Ranking No. 116 on the overall Best Places to Live list, Fresno is located in the San Joaquin Valley – roughly a two-hour drive to the coast. Like many inland California metro areas, Fresno is best known for its connection to agriculture, with fruits like tomatoes and peaches among its most common crops. A largely agricultural focus also keeps many residents from having to travel far for work, as the average morning commute in Fresno is just 22.3 minutes, nearly four minutes less than the national average.

8. Salinas

8. Salinas

Strawberry fields in the Salinas Valley of central California juxtapose with urban residential housing in the adjacent foothills.

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 114
Population: 430,201
Median Home Price: $478,521
Median Annual Salary: $47,660

Located along the Pacific coast, Salinas is one of the smaller California metro areas on the list, with less than 500,000 residents calling the area home. While the city of Salinas does not sit directly on the coast, other parts of the metro area, including Monterey, are on the water, which helps them attract many visitors and residents for the ocean access. As a result of its prime location, Salinas is the 22nd-most desirable place out of the 125 metro areas on the list, based on the results of a Google Consumer survey that asked 2,000 U.S. residents where they would prefer to live.

7. Los Angeles

7. Los Angeles

Downtown Los Angeles at sunset.

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Best Places 2018 Rank: 101
Population: 18,463,122
Median Home Price: $526,442
Median Annual Salary: $53,379

The home of Hollywood, Los Angeles ranks No. 101 on the overall Best Places to Live list for 2018. The second-most populous metro area in the U.S. after only New York City, Los Angeles offers a healthy job market and desirable location, but the popularity comes at a price. Los Angeles residents spend 35.6 percent of the median household income on housing, which makes this metro area too pricey for many people.

6. Sacramento

6. Sacramento

Clouds over cityscape of Downtown Sacramento at sunset.

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Best Places 2018 Rank: 92
Population: 2,242,542
Median Home Price: $362,858
Median Annual Salary: $54,690

California's state capital receives its best scores for its job market – the median annual salary, at $54,690, is $5,000 above the national average, while the unemployment rate is 4.6 percent, just above the national average of 4.4 percent. Higher income in Sacramento helps reduce the impact of housing costs, though not by much. More than 31.4 percent of the median household income is required to cover typical housing costs for the area.

5. Santa Rosa

5. Santa Rosa

The Fountaingrove Round Barn, built in 1899, is a local landmark in northeast Santa Rosa, California.

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 77
Population: 497,776
Median Home Price: $499,513
Median Annual Salary: $52,670

If you’re looking to live in the middle of California wine country, look no further than Santa Rosa. Ranking No. 77 on the overall Best Places to Live list for 2018, Santa Rosa receives its strongest scores for low property crime and murder rates, college preparedness among high school students and an average morning commute of just over 25 minutes, a little under the national average of 26.1 minutes.

4. Santa Barbara

4. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, California is the best place to travel alone

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Best Places 2018 Rank: 68
Population: 439,395
Median Home Price: $464,392
Median Annual Salary: $53,090

The least-populated California metro area on the list, Santa Barbara has just over 439,000 residents – but it appears to keep them happy and healthy. In the annual Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which measures residents’ satisfaction with their hometown, overall health and economic success, Santa Barbara is 12th out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S.

3. San Diego

3. San Diego

San Diego is one of the best fall weekend getaways

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Best Places 2018 Rank: 30
Population: 3,253,356
Median Home Price: $521,067
Median Annual Salary: $55,480

The third-most desirable place out of the 125 places on the list, San Diego attracts many residents for its sunny weather, warm climate and proximity to the beach. But sandy shores aren't the only thing bringing people to San Diego – a median annual salary of $55,480 and an unemployment rate of 4 percent mean the job market is stronger than the average metro area in the U.S.

2. San Francisco

2. San Francisco

Classic view of historic traditional Cable Cars riding on famous California Street in beautiful early morning light at sunrise in summer, San Francisco, California, USA

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 20
Population: 4,577,530
Median Home Price: $790,233
Median Annual Salary: $69,110

San Francisco has plenty going for it to attract new residents, from its reputation as a fun city to live in to a strong job market. And while San Francisco’s real estate market is notoriously expensive – with a median home price of $790,233, according to data from real estate information company Zillow – the higher median income offsets those high costs. Residents spend 31.82 percent of the median annual household income on housing, which is relatively low compared to other California metro areas.

1. San Jose

1. San Jose

Drone photo of sunset over downtown San Jose in California

(Getty Images)

Best Places 2018 Rank: 17
Population: 1,943,107
Median Home Price: $932,108
Median Annual Salary: $78,990

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the capital of Silicon Valley ranks highly on the overall Best Places to Live list at No. 17. San Jose is home to nearly 2 million people, and with a median home price of $932,108, it has even higher home prices than San Francisco. But like its Bay Area neighbor, a high income offsets the mile-high prices. With a median annual salary of $78,990, San Jose residents aren’t hurting as much when it comes to buying a house.

Where in California do you want to live?

Where in California do you want to live?

Colorful San Francisco building tops with Bay on a Sunny day. Oblique view with copy space.

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The Best Places to Live in California include:

  • San Jose
  • San Francisco
  • San Diego
  • Santa Barbara
  • Santa Rosa
  • Sacramento
  • Los Angeles
  • Salinas
  • Fresno
  • Modesto
  • Bakersfield
  • Stockton

Read More

Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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