What makes a city liveable? Cultural sites and star-studded restaurants are important, but anyone who’s lamented the limitations of Rome, New York or Shanghai knows it also depends on less flashy factors – affordable housing, efficient public transit, safety, ample green space and clean air.
The latest Mercer Quality of Living survey, which evaluates cities on all these measures and more, suggests smaller urban areas are outpacing many of the most iconic destinations. For the 10th year running, Vienna has ranked number one, a boon for its locals, expats and short-term visitors alike. (The Economist produces a similar annual survey and Vienna also came in tops, edging out Melbourne.) Here’s how to experience the good life in Vienna and some of the other most liveable cities around the world.
1. Vienna, Austria
With its imperial palaces and gilded coffee houses, the Viennese lifestyle may seem more aspirational than attainable. Yet abundant arts offerings, a one-to-one ratio of urban area to green space and an ethos of gemütlichkeit – convivial hospitality – have helped it secure the most liveable city title. Expect a characteristically warm welcome at Hotel Altstadt, a townhouse where afternoon tea comes with homemade sachertorte. Tian Bistro, a five-minute walk away, inspires a loyal following with its wholesome breakfasts. Take your time getting to know the surrounding Neubau district, full of street art and indie shops. Neubau No. 2, a self-described ‘awesome contemporary design shop’, is indeed a fun place to browse for housewares, accessories and fashion staples. Gallerie Hubert Winter is a worthy counterpoint to the tourist-filled institutions in the adjacent Museumsquartier. Just down the Breite Strasse, refuel with schitnzel at Glacis Beisl, a traditional Viennese courtyard restaurant.
2. Zurich, Switzerland
Zurich is a scenic financial hub with medieval architecture and an Alpine backdrop for weekend escapes. It’s also a sustainability pioneer for its green transportation system, investments in renewable energy and plentiful parks. What’s more, Zurich is the unlikely birthplace of Dadaism, an art movement that challenged societal norms. That creative legacy is channelled by Zurich-West, a former industrial district that’s best explored, as the locals do, on two wheels. Your first stop should be Löwenbräu-Kunst, an 1890 brewery housing avant-garde galleries and artist collectives. Im Viadukt hews to a similar concept of reinvention: a food hall, restaurants and fashion boutiques straddle both sides of the restored 19th-century viaduct. While away the rest of the day at Frau Gerolds Garten, a series of shipping containers converted into bars and food stalls, with a grassy area for daydreaming about your own Zurich-style remake.
3 (tie). Vancouver, Canada
A Hollywood stand-in for all kinds of cities, versatile Vancouver looks almost too good to be true. Indeed, you may find yourself checking real estate listings after exploring South Granville, whose design shops, galleries, and restaurants like Fiore are within a quick commute to downtown. Fashion by Isabel Marant, Vanessa Bruno and Nili Lotan fill the racks at Misch, on the main drag of Granville Street, while Bacci’s eclectic housewares and accessories make stylish souvenirs. Retail therapy complete, get your art fix on Gallery Row; favourites like Kurbatoff Gallery and Ian Tan Gallery are participants in the South Granville Artwalk, an open-air festival that hosts exhibitions and artist talks each June. By this point you probably need a drink. Call it a night with a Canadian sazerac (made with whiskey and Pernod) and live jazz at New Orleans–inspired Ouisi.
3 (tie). Munich, Germany
The Bavarian capital is a model of German efficiency and also gets quality of life points for its biergarten culture – communal tables are standard – and historical folk fairs. Base yourself in Glockenbachviertel, a hip residential neighbourhood along the Isar River. The oversized lofts at The Flushing Meadows were designed in collaboration with artists, and you can mingle with local creative types over cocktails on the outdoor terrace. If your time in Munich hasn’t yet made you as uninhibited as the residents (there are six urban naked zones), head to Ralf’s Fine Garments for hard-to-find menswear brands and Viu Eyewear for stylish frames. A bratwurst barbecue along the Isar is the dining option of choice during warmer months, when it’s also lovely to soak up the atmosphere among the riotous flowers of nearby Gärtnerplatz.
3 (tie). Auckland, New Zealand
New Zealand’s largest city is remarkably diverse – almost 40 percent of its residents were born outside the country – with a vibrant food scene to match. After hitting Dominion Road for Chinese dishes and Sandringham for Indian cuisine, head to the residential North Shore village of Devonport, a 10-minute ferry ride across the Waitemata Harbour. Drop your bags at Andelin Guesthouse, a 19th-century clapboard inn, then head to Corelli’s Café for veggie-heavy grain bowls. (Order your meal to go if you prefer to beat the early birds on Cheltenham Beach.) Keep the healthy vibe going with a hike up Mount Victoria, a volcano overlooking the Hauraki Gulf. Reward your efforts at Vic Road Kitchen, where the daily-changing menu features locally sourced squid-ink spaghetti and big-eye tuna crudo with watermelon and chili. When the weather’s fine, residents flock to Windsor Reserve for movies in the park.
6. Düsseldorf, Germany
Düsseldorf feels rather like a village (dorf) with its bicycle-friendly parks along the Rhine – so you may be surprised by the dynamism of the fashion and art scenes, as well as the heavy dose of stylishness among locals. To fit in, pick up designer duds on Flingerstrasse and Shadowstrasse, and begin your aesthetic education in the Stadtmitte neighbourhood, where you might purchase a conversation piece from Galerie Zimmermann & Heitmann or Setareh Gallery. Take a breather back at your Airbnb rental near Victoriaplatz and then make your way past sunbathing locals on the Rhine River Promenade toward the Altstadt. Traditional altbier awaits at Uerige, an 1862 brewery; but you’ll find less biting drinks at relative newcomer Brauerei Kürzer. For another take on what’s local in Düsseldorf, head to Waraku in Little Tokyo for onigiri and bento, enjoyed alongside the third-largest Japanese community in Europe.
7. Frankfurt, Germany
Germany’s financial capital is predictably liveable but also increasingly cool. Much of the credit goes to the Bahnhofsviertel, a rapidly evolving red-light district that is welcoming the city’s creative classes. Join them on the low-cost, reliable public transportation system to reach Munchenstrasse, the main thoroughfare, where you can feast on everything from pastrami at Maxie Eisen to Eritrean-style stews at Im Herzen Afrikas. Nearby, Club Michel hosts underground dinner parties with visiting chefs. You’ll also find works by local art-school talent at Galerie Rundgaenger and a place to rest your head at the design-centric 25Hours hotel. It offers free bike rentals for visiting cultural sites like the Alte Oper concert hall, or a Mini Cooper if you want to explore Baden-Baden and the Black Forest.
8. Copenhagen, Denmark
Michelin-starred hotspots, green infrastructure and good healthcare – there’s plenty to envy about life in the Danish capital, which boasts some of the happiest residents on earth. Set yourself up for a happy stay at Hotel Ottilia in the Vesterbro district, just off the city centre. You can people-watch from the cushions of your room’s round window and breathe easy knowing the hotel is self-cleaning: an engineered disinfectant is triggered by sunlight. It’s five minutes by bike to morning yoga at Absalon community house and another five to Hart Bageri. Opened by former Tartine head baker Richard Hart, it supplies the bread to René Redzepi’s Noma. For something more substantial, the seafood at Kødbyens Fiskebar, in the Meatpacking District, is second only to the lively patio scene outside the restaurant’s entrance on sunny days. Don’t want the night to end? Take a spin on the rides at illuminated Tivoli Gardens or catch a late show at mid-century music venue Vega.