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updated 8/2/2011 4:27:33 PM ET 2011-08-02T20:27:33

If money didn't matter, there'd be plenty of fabulous places to spend your retirement: a penthouse in Paris. An all-glass modern on the beach in Malibu. Perhaps a small winery in Napa Valley.

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But money does matter. Even as the financial markets limp out of their recessionary funk, many of us are redefining what our "dream" retirement might look like. Sure, Honolulu has beaches and well-priced pineapples, but few of us can afford its median home price of $550,000. Chicago has world-class dining and lake views galore, though its 9.75 percent sales tax can put those amenities out of reach. Then again, not many of us want to move to a one-stoplight town either, even if it is cheap.

We started our search for the perfect retirement destinations by examining financial data on more than 350 cities across the country. We looked at not only property- and sales-tax rates, median housing price, and cost of living but also the tax rate on pensions and Social Security. Then we added in such criteria as recreation, climate, and arts and culture.

The results are below: Ten great retirement destinations that are both affordable and livable, too.

1. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
With its gracious layout, the lovely Susquehanna River, and plentiful festivals and events, Harrisburg is a magnet for cyclists and pedestrians.

The city's 50,000 shade trees, 4.5-mile-long Riverfront Park and 20-mile greenbelt around the city showcase its modern skyline, lovely old cathedrals, elegant Capitol complex and well-maintained historic districts. The surrounding Pennsylvania Dutch country, with its covered bridges, restored mansions and rich Civil War history, is just as inviting.

Six four-year colleges in the area add musical events, drama — and energy.

  • Median housing price: $144,200
  • State tax: On pensions, partial; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 6%
  • Best deal in town: There's no admission for Wildwood Park, which includes a nature center that specializes in wetlands life.

2. Winchester, Virginia
Although just 75 miles away from Washington, D.C., this lovely little city lulls visitors into a pastoral time warp.

Spend hours wandering 250-year-old shady brick streets in its 45-block historic district — stopping in at the Old Court House — or checking out Gaunt's Drug Store, where Patsy Cline worked before heading for Nashville fame.

Winchester and Frederick County were the scene of six major battles during the Civil War, and the city itself changed flags some 70 times during the four-year conflict. But Winchester isn't just a haven for history buffs. The dozens of small towns that dot surrounding Frederick and Clarke counties offer bucolic bliss: Enjoy miles of rail fences, apple and peach orchards, and lovely stone houses from the 18th and 19th centuries.

When Daisy Goodwin, 71, first discovered the area in the 1980s, she says, "I didn't think I could ever live somewhere so rural, after having grown up in the suburbs and city. It was such a different world — slower-paced and rustic." But the area's beauty really sold her, and she built a house in nearby Gore in 2004. It's not all agrarian, though, and downtown Winchester offers plenty to do: Goodwin is fond of meandering through the town's galleries, or people watching at Jim Barnett Park.

  • Median housing price: $151,500
  • State tax: On pensions, partial; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 5%
  • Property tax rate: 5.53%
  • Best way to spend $10: Shenandoah Conservatory has exceptional music, theater, and dance programs (tickets range from $5 to $25).
  • What a steal! Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall in downtown Winchester is full of little antiques stores.
  • Can't put a price tag on: Proximity to Skyline Drive, a 105-mile scenic highway through awe-inspiring Shenandoah National Park.

3. Portland, Maine
Few people know Portland as well as Joe Loughlin, 58, who spent 28 years on its police force and still patrols the Old Port neighborhood with P.T., his boxer.

"On one hand you have this relaxed urban environment, with all kinds of cultural and art opportunities, but you're just a short drive from everything that makes Maine such a great, outdoorsy place," he says. "In five minutes you can be driving across the bridge to Mackworth Island. The ocean beaches and Casco Bay are right here. There are terrific lakes, too — I'm less than 20 miles from Sebago Lake, which is like a mini Lake Tahoe."

You won't find much in the way of cute here — Portland has proudly preserved its working waterfront. On Commercial Street you can watch fishermen, loaded down with their catch from the Gulf of Maine, pull into piers and unload some of the world's freshest seafood at discount prices. Lobsters are the famous favorite, but you'll find haddock, salmon, cod, mussels and peekytoe crab, too. For the area's many devoted foodies, Portland's working-class demeanor masks gourmet deals: The city's restaurant scene is both constantly changing and gaining national recognition. Not long ago Bon Appétit named Portland "the Foodiest Small Town in America."

Says Loughlin: "You get a lot here. Portland is diverse, it's fun, it's evolving — and it's easy to escape when you need to. It's a bargain."

  • Median housing price: $202,800
  • State tax: On pensions, yes; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 5%
  • Property tax rate: 14.35%
  • Best way to spend $10: Pack a picnic and hop the ferry to Peaks Island (the fare is just $7.70 round-trip)
  • Best night on the town: Shakespeare in Deering Oaks Park; free.
  • What a steal! A baker's dozen raw oysters at J's Oyster, overlooking the bay; $12.
  • Can't put a price tag on: Eating a lobster roll next to the oft-photographed Portland Head Light in nearby Cape Elizabeth.

4. Gainesville, Georgia
Downtown Gainesville has the sleepy charm of a prosperous southern town, including brick sidewalks and a constantly humming square that attracts shoppers from throughout northern Georgia.

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But lovely Lake Lanier, completed by the Army Corps of Engineers back in 1956, is the area's biggest draw, creating an enormous boating playground that attracts about 8 million visitors a year and provides plenty of chances to powerboat, water-ski, and Jet Ski — not to mention sail, row, kayak and canoe.

It was the lake that lured Carolyn Palmer, 62, and her husband, Gary, 66, to Gainesville; they discovered it when they were briefly transferred there in the 1980s. "When we started talking about retirement, we both knew we wanted to come back here," she says. They built their dream house right on the water. "We couldn't believe how far we could make our housing dollars go here in Gainesville — we used to have half this much property, half this much house, and triple the taxes — so this is like heaven."

As avid golfers, the Palmers appreciate the area's 15 courses. Their main joy, though, is taking their boat out on Lake Lanier and tying up to neighbors' boats: "It's such a nice way to socialize and enjoy the scenery," says Carolyn.

  • Median housing price: $141,800
  • State tax: On pensions, yes; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 7%
  • Property tax rate: 7.76%
  • Best way to spend $10: Grab a drink and small plates at Recess Southern Gastro Pub on the square, then check out events downtown, including free concerts.
  • Fun night on the town: The Gainesville Symphony Orchestra; tickets: $20 to $30.
  • What a steal! Two outlet centers within a 30-minute drive.
  • Can't put a price tag on: Fast access to the Blue Ridge Mountains and their panoramic hiking trails, lush with rivers, waterfalls, and richly diverse ecosystems. Gainesville is near the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests, which comprise 843 miles of trails.

5. Wenatchee, Washington
It's easy to confuse Wenatchee, Washington, with the Garden of Eden. The stunning Columbia River runs through this valley town, which is surrounded by the jagged, glaciated peaks of the Cascade Range.

And unlike in other parts of the Northwest, here you can actually see those views in "the Apple Capital of the World," named for the orchards that encircle the town and produce some of the world's tastiest specimens.

People are drawn to the region for its almost endless recreational options, which include truly top-notch skiing, hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. You'll also find a steady stream of cyclists, dog walkers, skaters and joggers along the Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail, a scenic 10-mile paved loop that crosses the Columbia and Wenatchee rivers.

All that and, yes, it's a bargain: "We moved here 29 years ago, in part because it was so much cheaper than Seattle," says Barb Trandum, 67. What made her and husband, Jerry, 67, stay, though, is the hearty appetite locals have for getting involved. "There's just so much here," says Jerry, who is a fan of nearby Rocky Reach Dam and Ohme Gardens, a 9-acre alpine garden.

  • Median housing price: $192,000
  • State tax: On pensions, no; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 8%
  • Property tax rate: 10.52%
  • Best way to spend $10: Have a milk shake downtown at Owl Soda Fountain & Gifts, founded in 1926, then check out "Art on the Avenues," a collection of more than 70 unique outdoor sculptures scattered throughout Wenatchee.
  • Best night on the town: Fall in love with baseball all over again with the AppleSox, part of the West Coast League, a wooden-bat summer collegiate league.

6. Tulsa, Oklahoma
Tulsans delight in how their city surprises outsiders — it's a small-city jewel, with an impressive art deco district downtown, first-rate art museums and plentiful green spaces.

Situated in the northeast corner of the state, with the Arkansas River flowing through it, the city has 26 miles of paved cycling and walking trails that wind among fountains, playgrounds and sculptures.

A few years ago Joel Hulett, 56, and his wife, Ada, 58, considered moving his Tulsa law practice to Los Angeles so he could work for the entertainment industry. Instead they decided to stay, and he started a film-production company: The couple will help kick off the Tulsa International Film Festival this September. Ada and Joel also enjoy traveling, so they like the city's proximity to Tulsa International Airport. But Tulsa's also just a welcoming place. Says Ada: "I've been here 33 years now, and it never fails to impress me how friendly and warm the city is."

  • Median housing price: $125,600
  • State tax: On pensions, yes; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 5.5%
  • Property tax rate: 8.77%
  • Best way to spend $10: Admission to the Philbrook Museum of Art, an Italian Renaissance villa built in the 1920s, is just $7.50.
  • Best night on the town: Although Tulsa offers plenty of big acts (Elton John and Paul McCartney have both played the BOK Center), it's got smaller quirky pleasures, too. Try a Mexican dinner with local and organic ingredients at Eloté.

7. Cheyenne, Wyoming
Cowboy culture and Wild West images are everywhere, and each summer visitors flock here for Frontier Days, still one of the world's largest outdoor rodeo after 115 years.

Yes, it's the boot-and-buckle veneer, which includes plenty of horses and trolleys downtown and its "Magic City of the Plains" railroad history, that draws the tourists. But Cheyenne also has a sophisticated side: Stop by the Capitol Grille, for example, and wash down your buffalo carpaccio with what locals say is one heckuva martini.

What makes Cheyenne most appealing to residents, though, is the real spirit of the West: low-rise buildings, wide-open spaces, tumbleweeds and "Neighborhood Night Out" parties, sponsored by the local police, that draw hundreds of residents.

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It's not always all stirrups and saddles, though: Each summer, Cheyenne hosts the AARP National Spelling Bee, when the local cowboys make room for the country's best spellers over the age of 50.

  • Median housing price: $141,400
  • State tax: On pensions, no; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 6%
  • Property tax rate: 8.77%
  • Best deal in town: Admission to the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, nine High Plains acres inside Lions Park, is free.

8. Columbus, Indiana
Never heard of Columbus? That's fine — residents love this little city's under-the-radar charm.

Less than an hour south of Indianapolis and east of Bloomington, Columbus has it all: design cognoscenti say the city's innovative architecture ranks right up there with Chicago's and San Francisco's.

The city boasts dozens of buildings and pieces of public art by such big names as I. M. Pei, the Saarinens and Henry Moore. Stroll 19 miles of paved People Trails, past wildflower gardens, modernist monuments and quaint neighborhoods. The area has more than its share of recreational shopping, too: Troll the Exit 76 Antique Mall, one of the largest in the region, or look for bargains at the nearby outlet malls.

And when it's time for a larger culture fix? Bloomington, with Indiana University, is an easy 35-mile drive to the west.

  • Median housing price: $124,200
  • State tax: On pensions, yes; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 7%
  • Best deal in town: Drink in the Hoosier bliss of an ice-cream soda ($2.99) at the counter of Zaharakos, which looks the same as when it opened in 1900 — and sounds it, too, thanks to a fully restored pipe organ.
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9. Ithaca, New York
Set in the heart of the Finger Lakes' booming wine and food culture, Ithaca provides plenty to do for intellectuals — thanks to Cornell University and Ithaca College — and nature lovers, who are drawn to the region's breathtaking scenery.

You'll see the bumper sticker "Ithaca Is Gorges" throughout the city, for good reason: Glaciers left behind crystal-blue lakes and waterfalls, and has hiking trails that allow you to see both.

Set at the foot of Cayuga Lake, Ithaca also has plenty of kayaks and yachts, which adds to the city's appeal and outdoorsy-urban hum.

  • Median housing price: $146,100
  • State tax: On pensions, partial; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 8%
  • Best deal in town: For $15 tops, lunch at the Moosewood Restaurant, a hippie haven that launched the vegetarian movement; then shop and watch street performers on Ithaca Commons.

10. Midland, Texas
Midland was founded as a railroad stop at the midpoint between Fort Worth and El Paso, but the discovery of oil in the 1920s propelled the town from a map speck to one of the state's most affluent communities.

For all its wealth and Big-City skyline, it is still uniquely West Texan: Barbecue and mariachi mingle with haute couture and endless cowboy boots.

For entertainment, check out the Museum of the Southwest and the Midland-Odessa Symphony & Chorale.

But for real action, think Friday Night Lights: In West Texas, high school football is more a religion than a sport.

  • Median housing price: $96,600
  • State tax: On pensions, no; on Social Security, no
  • Sales tax: 8.25%
  • Best deal in town: $10 buys a balcony seat at Summer Mummers in the Yucca Theatre, a melodrama/comedy show that began in the 1940s. Alcohol is served, and attendees are encouraged to throw popcorn at the actors.

For more helpful information and to check out more great cities for retirement, visit AARP The Magazine.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Video: 5 best places to retire

  1. Closed captioning of: 5 best places to retire

    tuesday-tuesday with a look into the future .

    >> in other words, retirement destinations.

    >> aarp looked at places around the country and came up with the best destinations affordable and livable.

    >> here with the lowdown nancy graham, editor of "aarp" magazine. you look too young to be the editor.

    >> i wish it were true. thinking about retirement myself.

    >> really?

    >> some day.

    >> tough economy. peopling looking for places that are affordable.

    >> top of the list affordable and livability, but you know, people want activity as well. these days not so much retirement as reimagining the second half of your life. it's not automatic retire to florida and have a vineyard.

    >> you feel young when you're doing what you love to do.

    >> absolutely. it's about having fun but also finding purpose.

    >> tell people where to go. one by one.

    >> winchester, virginia. okay, why that?

    >> i live near winchester. it's beautiful. it's horse country. there's vineyards there, near the blue ridge mountains and also 75 miles from washington, d.c. got the best of both worlds . really low property taxes . median housing price, $161,000. you'd only pay about $800 a year in property taxes . the best of all words.

    >> portland, maine, gets cold.

    >> beautiful, not all about weather anymore. it's retirement. an interesting culture. if you love food, go to portland.

    >> really?

    >> it is the name by bon appetit . the foodiest small town in america. lakes, a lot of good outdoor sports.

    >> and a good -- sea dogs .

    >> i didn't know that.

    >> yes.

    >> gainesville, not florida, but georgia.

    >> georgia, lake lanier . a huge lake built by the army corps of engineers back in 1956 . 8 million visitors because of the kayaking and river sports. i bet you didn't know gainesville is the poultry capital of the world ?

    >> no. i thought that was delaware in the delmarva peninsula .

    >> what more could you ask for?

    >> houses affordable.

    >> $41,000 median housing price. all have low cost of living --

    >> wenatchee.

    >> no social security . doesn't tax your social security income or pension. usually states tax one or the other. in wenatchee you get off the hook on both counts.

    >> wow.

    >> and tulsa, oklahoma, your final -- it's a beautiful city.

    >> prettiest city in the south. more sophisticated than people think. lots of art. low median housing price, $125,000. a lot of house for the money. arkansas river goes through town. a big 26-mile loop to cycle and walk on, becoming more popular. as boomers are getting older they love outdoor places to run and cycle safely and stay young.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you very, very much.

    >> thank you.

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