This Montana college town ranks No. 1 as the most fun city for young people—what it's like to live there

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Tucked away in western Montana is America's most fun city for young adults. At least, that's according to an analysis from SmartAsset, the personal finance website, which crunched U.S. Census and MIT data to find the top metro areas for the class of 2023.

The metro area around Missoula, Montana, ranked No. 1 for "fun," according to SmartAsset, based on its high percentage (18%) of the population between 20 to 29 years old, and the number of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues per capita.

"Entertainment is surprisingly rampant in Missoula," says Jaclyn DeJohn, managing editor of economic analysis at SmartAsset. The metro area, home to University of Montana's flagship campus, ranks second in the country in terms of entertainment venues per capita, and the share of restaurants and bars aren't too far behind, she says.

"Missoula seems to be catered to the fun aspect of living in an area — there's just a lot of venues and things to do and young people out there," DeJohn says.

A small community with big-city amenities

With a population of around 75,000, Missoula's small community with big-city amenities attracted Summer Tong, 27, and her husband, Brandon Sturgell, 30, to move there in March 2023.

Until then, the couple lived an hour outside Tulsa, Okla., where Sturgell landed a two-year contract with a practice after dental school. The town's low cost of living was all they could really afford, but over the years, they outgrew what it had to offer.

Tong grew up in Portland, Ore., while Sturgell was raised in Denver, and both missed the mountains and outdoors. One trip to Missoula out of curiosity was all it took for the couple to decide to move themselves and their four kids, ages 1, 4, 6 and 7. "We visited and fell in love," Tong says.

On any given day, the family enjoys Missoula's ski resorts, concert venues, restaurants, hiking trails and more. They go to concerts almost weekly to see acts like The Lumineers, Bon Iver and Jimmy Eat World while other major acts like Elton John and The Rolling Stones have also come through. "There are so many big names, it doesn't make sense for how big the area is," Tong says.

Concertgoers have plenty of venues to choose from. They can enjoy music surrounded by mountains at the Kettlehouse Amphitheater, head indoors to the historic Wilma Theatre downtown, or catch smaller acts at any number of breweries and bars around town.

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Missoula ranks No. 58 out of 188 metro areas that are well-suited for recent grads and young adults, according to SmartAsset, with lower marks for its job market, measured by median earnings and the unemployment rate for college grads, as well as affordability, measured by MIT's living wage calculator that considers essential costs for one adult with no children.

A college grad in Missoula earns a median income of $51,720 per year, and the cost of living for one adult without children is roughly $33,995 per year, according to SmartAsset's research.

Tong says her family's cost of living in Missoula is higher than it was outside Tulsa, but Sturgell's earning power increased after he took over a local practice from a retiring dentist. The family was able to sell their $400,000 Tulsa-area house and moved into a $900,000 farmhouse in Missoula with 3 acres of land and an orchard. From there, Tong stays busy running the household and is a textile artist with plans to scale a business when her kids are older.

Tong says one big misconception of living in Missoula is that college students are everywhere, but she hasn't found that to be the case. "So far, it's been everything we hoped, just with the amount of fun we've had in the past 6 months," Tong says.

"Things can always change, but as of now, this feels like a good spot for us," she adds. After 10 years of feeling transient between college, dental school and those first post-grad years, she says, "we finally feel this different feeling where we're going to live here for a really long time."

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