Looking for Vibrant Culture Without the High Cost? Look at Kalamazoo, Mich.

by Elizabeth Aldrich | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on Jan. 16, 2020

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From a thriving theater scene to the country's best craft beer, Kalamazoo has it all.

From a thriving theater scene to the country's best craft beer, Kalamazoo has it all.

The cost of living in a major city in the U.S. isn't sustainable for most people. At the same time, no one wants to give up the thrill of living in a cultural mecca. Kalamazoo has the answer to this quandary: You can have both. 

This mid-sized city in southwestern Michigan is ranked No. 1 on The Ascent’s list of 10 best cities for high salaries and low cost of living in the country. At the same time, Kalamazoo is bursting with life. From its bustling arts and theater scene to its beloved restaurants and breweries, there's a good reason Kalamazooans speak so highly of their home. Here's why you'd love it too.

Free and low-cost art and theater events are plentiful

Whether you're a lover of fine art, musical performance, theater, or all three, you'll find no shortage of events and museums to attend in Kalamazoo, and a lot of them are free or low-cost. 

The city is home to two world-class art institutions: the Gwen Frostic School of Art at Western Michigan University and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Apart from hosting classes, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is also a museum with over 4,700 works of art in its permanent collection. The museum hosts an array of events and competitions, from free art talks and projects for kids to juried art shows and museum date nights.

Art abounds all throughout the city of Kalamazoo, though. There are so many public murals that people have begun doing self-organized "wall crawls" to pose in front of the city's favorite street art. On the first Friday of every month, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo hosts Art Hop, a walk with over 50 stops at the city's galleries, performance spaces, music venues, and craft markets.

Folks who prefer live performance won't be disappointed either. Kalamazoo's theater scene could rival a city twice its size, anchored by nearly a dozen major theaters and performing arts organizations. From the Miller Auditorium, which features major touring productions from Broadway, to community theater organizations like Farmer's Alley Theatre, All Ears Theatre, and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, there's something for all tastes and budgets. The Kindleberger Summer Festival and concert series also hosts outdoor community theater and free live music concerts during the months of June, July, and August.

Local cafes serve up the perfect comfort foods while craft breweries overflow with award-winning beer

Foodies, coffee-lovers, and beer connoisseurs of all stripes will rejoice upon tasting what Kalamazoo has to offer. 

Brunch fanatics should spend a lazy Sunday morning at Kalamazoo institutions Crow's Nest, a cozy, eclectic cafe where half the patrons are on a first-name basis with servers. Favorites include classics like steak and eggs, grilled cheese, and loaded apple cinnamon french toast as well as modern picks like the spicy black bean burger and vegan desserts. For those with a sweet tooth, Sweetwater's Donut Mill, another Kalamazoo institution, should do the trick. Sample a dozen of their self-proclaimed "best donuts ever," which include flavors like NY cheesecake, Oreo, and German chocolate.

If you need a drink to wash down your meal, Kalamazoo is home to dozens of local coffee shops and artisanal roasters as well as craft breweries and distilleries. Kalamazoo's own Bell's Beer, a family-owned, independent craft brewery, made a name for itself with its Bell's Two-Hearted, which was named the best beer in America by Zymurgy Magazine several years in a row. Kalamazoo Beer Week, with over 120 events held in one week in January, is a great way to dip your taste buds into the local craft beer scene.

To that note, the city is host to a long list of food and beverage related events -- some more common, like the annual chili cook-off and the biannual Restaurant Week, and some unique to the city, like the Mac & Cheese Fest, or Lunchtime Live, a summertime gathering of the city's best food trucks and local music in Bronson Park. 

Folks interested in homegrown goods will appreciate the farmer's market, which features more than 100 vendors every week. The city is abundant with delicious, fresh fruits and vegetables, with produce and farm stands lining its outskirts, featuring homemade apple pies in the fall and perfectly ripe local berries in the summer.

All of this comes at a fraction of the cost of a major city

If you can't believe that all of this comes at a reasonable cost, The Ascent recently released a study ranking the 10 best cities for high salaries and low cost of living, and guess what? Kalamazoo came out on top. Not only does it present the lowest cost of living of any city on the list, but in Kalamazoo, the mean annual salary of $47,060 is almost at the national average.

Moving to an area with a low cost of living is only worthwhile if you can both enjoy living there and make a decent wage. Luckily, Kalamazoo offers the highest average salaries relative to its cost of living. This means that while you're enjoying museum date nights and excellent theater productions or sampling local craft beer and fresh berries, you're also saving more money. For folks who have been pushed out of major cities due to rising costs but don't want to sacrifice their quality of life just to afford housing, this is huge.

And if you ever miss the flashing lights of the big city, Kalamazoo is a mere day trip from both Chicago and Detroit. Although, given Kalamazoo's jam-packed events calendar, you might find it hard to pull yourself away, even for a weekend!

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