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My Favorite U.S. City: Davis, CA

It’s 10 p.m. on a Monday night in July. The temperature is a balmy 95 degrees, and I’m standing on the corner of F and 3rd streets, which are closed to traffic. Most of the resident student population has gone home for the summer, but a small crowd has gathered to cheer for the group of pro cyclists who are zipping around an eight-block loop in the Davis Twilight Criterium series. DJ music blares from speakers at a nearby restaurant. An Amtrak train whistles, announcing its presence at the station a few blocks away.

This is Davis, California—population 64,000—bike-crazed, green, and family-friendly to the extreme. With its red double-decker buses, 100 miles of bike paths, and thriving mom-and-pop stores, Davis could stand in for a European university town like Tübingen. The University of California at Davis draws students from all over the world, and its massive performing arts center hosts everyone from Yo Yo Ma to the Estonian National Symphony.

Flat and hot, the Central Valley landscape is uninspiring—unless you are moved by endless rows of tomato plants—but Davis is ideally situated between the San Francisco Bay Area and the northern Sierra Nevada. It is bordered by wetlands that support a fantastic bird population. And even its 100-degree days are a joy when you’ve lived in the San Francisco fog for more than a decade.

Since moving here six months ago, I’ve acquired a bike trailer for hauling kids around town, joined the local food co-op, and found myself buying Italian heirloom eggplants at the weekly farmers market.

To be sure, much of what I appreciate about Davis amounts to the difference between a big city and a small town: The swimmers at my new gym ask which side of the lane you want on rare occasions when the pool gets too crowded to have one all to yourself. Our neighbors invite one and all to frequent potluck barbecues, and the local public schools are all top-notch.

Other features are uniquely Davis: Cooperative housing and community gardens; kids riding unicycles; the burrowing owls that live along the nature trail near our house. Davis recently won a bid to host the new U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, further affirmation of its commitment to a greener way of life.

Of course, the local obsession with bicycles has a downside: You might get a citation for wearing two earbuds while pedaling (one is the rule) or for riding as much as a few feet on the sidewalk. But to be fair, the cops also ticket motorists for stopping inches beyond the white line.

Until I moved here, Davis was simply an exit off I-80 on the way to Lake Tahoe, albeit one with an In-n-Out Burger. Although two longtime favorites—Kirkwood for skiing and Santa Cruz for its beaches—still hold their charm, Davis has answered the call for a simpler lifestyle. It will take time to adjust to its quirks, but I think I’m going to like it here.

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