You want a city that’s well run, delivers on life’s essentials and is fun too? This is our ranking of the top 25 in the world.
Cities are the future. That’s not a schmaltzy slogan dreamed up by a branding agency, it’s a fact. By 2030 urban areas are projected to house 60 per cent of the global population. But while city halls need to prepare for that future – think grand infrastructure projects and investments in housing – they need to offer their residents a decent quality of life in the present. The best cities manage to find a healthy balance between planning for tomorrow and managing today.
That’s why we assess how cities are doing in this annual survey (2018 is our 12th consecutive year). Not only do cities change but what we require from them shifts too. Some needs stay the same: how safe a city is, the amount of green space it provides and the cultural institutions on offer. But as the world evolves, our cities and towns need to follow suit.
What’s your city doing to change? Is it reviving former industrial neighbourhoods for more housing stock and new cultural space? Expanding the airport or adding new routes to its train network? Is city hall ensuring long-time residents’ needs are met when it comes to transport and access to amenities while putting on a welcoming face to outside businesses, newcomers and tourists?
It’s a challenge but some cities are getting it right. Take, for instance, our winning city this year, which returned to the top spot: Munich. Safe and efficient with plenty of green space and good restaurants, the German city is thriving and more cosmopolitan than ever. Not only is Munich drawing an increasing number of students (it’s home to 18 universities) and entrepreneurs (its mobility, tech and IT sectors are booming), it’s been managing an influx of refugees and their integration.
Other cities have climbed the ranking too: Lisbon’s buouyed spirits continues to inspire while Paris, returning to the list after several years’ absence, is approaching urbanism and renewal in fresh ways. Then there are the cities that have fallen down the list. Some simply because other cities have outshone them; others have perhaps rested on their laurels, not doing enough to embrace change when needed.
As cities expand, maintaining a great quality of life will be a challenge for even the most forward thinking. Those that will prosper will be open and secure, ambitious and practical, with an eye on the future and a respect for the past.
How the survey works
For our 12th annual survey we assessed more than 60 metrics spanning everything from the serious (how many kilometres of cycle lanes are there? How much rubbish is recycled by the city?) to the fun – what will a good glass of wine cost you?
Every year we add more metrics. This time we took a closer look at what cities are doing to address rising housing prices and at the attitudes towards pets. We also made extra consideration for the cities that are boosting their connections to the outside world – and the ones that are lightening up.
Some metrics are subjective and put to rigorous debate. All the research has been done by monocle’s team of editors, correspondents and researchers using publicly available data and requests from city hall. All statistics are for 2017 unless otherwise stated.
In an age when most cities put the squeeze on residents’ pockets, it is gratifying to find one that gives you your money’s worth. Munich may boast some of Germany’s steepest property prices but the rewards of living here are just as high: this city uniquely combines excellent infrastructure with a booming economy, proximity to nature with appreciation for culture and a strong local identity with a welcoming cosmopolitanism. And, lest we forget, its airport is a joy to behold.
Let’s start with infrastructure. People sometimes call Munich “Italy’s northernmost city” but that’s only true if by Italy you mean South Tyrol. While other southern European cities’ public transport systems fester and decay, in Munich the system is so slick and universally embraced that on the U-Bahn you are just as likely to sit next to a dignified elderly woman in an ankle-length fur coat and a YSL bag as you are a student engrossed in their phone screen. Most of its 18 public swimming pools, 10 of which have a sauna, wouldn’t feel out of place at a top-notch private gym. The same goes for the showers at the airport.
Munich’s unemployment rate is only 3.5 per cent and, bucking the trend of many other cities, it’s even lower among young people. Traditionally strong in automobiles, machine-building and media, and home to seven DAX companies (more than any other city in Germany), Munich and its metropolitan area has also attracted a booming IT and biotechnology industry in recent years. This is fuelled by graduates from the 18 universities across Munich and the smart investors who are counting on the seriousness of local entrepreneurs and their disdain for fleeting “projects”.
The strong economy also attracts talent from all over the world. People often think of Berlin as Germany’s cosmopolitan city but with a foreign population of 28 per cent, Munich is actually more so.
It’s also increasingly safe. Leave your bike unlocked in the street overnight and it’ll most likely still be there in the morning, along with the handbag you’d forgotten you’d left in its basket. Property break-ins, once a particular scourge of the city, actually decreased by more than 20 per cent from 2016 to 2017 according to the police.
Of course, Munich is famous for its proximity to the Alps and all the skiing, hiking, cycling and sailing opportunities that come with such a location. But there’s nature bordering on wilderness right in the city – and we don’t just mean the by-now world-famous river surfers. This is a city of 1.5 million people that boasts mountain-biking trails, kayaking on the Isar and beaches on its river banks and, of course, a nudist area in its central park.
Oh, and did we mention the airport?
What’s changed this year
A new train route to Berlin, which makes the journey in just four hours, got off to a bumpy start but is now running more smoothly. Meanwhile, the first local train just got wi-fi.
What should change next year
More (subsidised) spaces for art and creative entrepreneurship would help this sector thrive in the city. Munich also needs to ensure more affordable homes are built as rising rents are a cause for concern.
Population: 1.5 million in the city; 2.9 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 4 per cent.
Public parks: 56.
Homes built in the past year: 8,300.
Culture: 46 museums, 82 cinemas and 111 libraries.
Design schools: 23.
New infrastructure projects: A second main rail line is being built through the city centre, which will allow for more frequent local trains.
International connections: 229 from Munich Airport.
For an unsettling vision of the future take a look at Next Tokyo 2045, a proposal for a futuristic city of half a million built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. Powered by clean energy, the new city’s most startling feature is a mile-high tower that would house 55,000 people. Although the project is admirable in its quest for solutions to the challenges of climate change and natural disaster, it is hard to imagine a plan more contrary to the true spirit of Tokyo. For all its concrete density, at heart Tokyo is a sprawling network of low-rise neighbourhoods with tight communities and long histories.
To the surprise of many Japanese outside the capital, Tokyo is far from being an anonymous megalopolis. Young children walk to school unaccompanied, residents keep the streets clean and most know who their neighbours are. The safety of Tokyo’s streets is often taken for granted but a quick look at the crime statistics of just about any other big city in the world (outside Japan) is a reminder of how precious and rare this sense of security is.
The benefits of that security include an exceptionally safe and punctual transport system, a thriving late-night drinking-and-dining scene and a general civility in even the smallest interaction. It’s not difficult to find an excellent meal at 22.00 or a quality bar where an expertly prepared cocktail awaits. Insomniacs can while away sleepless hours in Daikanyama Tsutaya, a bookshop – with a lounge bar – that opens until the wee hours and positively encourages leisurely browsing.
Tokyo is, as ever, in flux. The impact of the speedy increase in tourism is now being felt as cranes loom and ambitious projects transform chunks of the cityscape, propelled by the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The government is looking for 40 million visitors by 2020, a tenfold increase in just 20 years. Residential neighbourhoods previously ignored by tourists are now rife with wheelie suitcases and a revolving door of short-stay visitors. The community ecosystem that has made Tokyo such an exception to the urban norm is still in place but it needs to be safeguarded.
Even if the food, retail, transport and all-round efficiency weren’t first-rate, Tokyo would still deserve to be celebrated for showing that big cities don’t have to be harsh and impersonal. In a globally connected world Tokyo is a reminder that real life is lived in the streets, schools and shops that make up a neighbourhood. Here’s to the triumph of decency.
Tokyo tourism continues to boom, a trend that should continue until the 2020 Olympic Games. The city has poured resources into preparing for the event and it shows: improvements (and cranes) can be seen all over the city.
What should change?
The city could do a better job of preserving old buildings – there’s worrying talk of demolishing Harajuku’s distinctive 1906 station.
Population: 9.5 million.
Unemployment rate: 2.9 per cent.
Public parks: 6,094.
Homes built in the past year: 150,000.
Culture: 260 museums, 226 libraries and 575 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: A new Toranomon Station on the Tokyo Metro’s Hibiya line is due to open in 2020. The Toranomon area will be redeveloped with a new bus terminal that connects the bay area and the city centre.
International connections: 149 from Narita International and Haneda Airports.
Over and over for most of the past decade, Vienna has done well on quality-of-life lists such as this one. By now it’s practically expected, with locals shrugging their charmingly cynical shoulders at the mere mention of their city’s accomplishments. It’s also easy to understand considering the Austrian capital’s Baroque beauty, manageable size, affordable rent, easy-to-use transport, culture, excellent food and decades of social investment making life good for the many and not just a select few.
This year it’s more of the same but also oh so different. After about 25 years in office, veteran mayor Michael Häupl, a staunch social democrat, stepped down in May to finally retire. His successor, Michael Ludwig of the same party, has stepped into some big shoes and brought with him a revamped team. In the face of a new federal government that skews sharply right, Ludwig and his team recognise that it’s more important than ever to hold on to the liberal policies that have made Vienna the city it is today and preserve the liberties that the Viennese have built their city upon.
That means continuing to build and maintain social housing, as Vienna has since the 1920s and has pledged to do more of since the height of the refugee influx in 2015 – a guarantee that the turbo-gentrification that has made life difficult in so many other European cities is less likely to take hold here. Population growth in the capital has grown by about 43,000 in recent years; here city-planners have thought ahead rather than leaving things entirely to the private sector.
It also means continuing to invest about €4.5bn annually into outstanding municipal infrastructure, such as the long-awaited U5 subway line and climate-conscious measures such as electric buses and a fleet of trams, which will take to the rails later this year. Then there’s the commitment to offering new businesses incentives to build and expand (gross regional product rose by 84 per cent from 1995 to 2016), as well as attracting thinkers to excellent educational facilities. Under Häupl’s watch, the number of research facilities in the city rose from about 890 to 1,550.
Given the general rise in populism across Austria and the EU, Vienna is understandably nervous at the moment. But even in his first few days in office, Ludwig has already held ground on issues such as social aid for the needy, which he says should remain generous. What’s more, those delicious components that add up to the good life, treasured by Viennese and visitors alike – think intellectual conversations in old-school coffeehouses, a leisurely pace, a healthy economy, lush green parks, even the right to complain about everything and, cough, cough, still smoke in public – aren’t going anywhere.
Well, the city government for one thing: it has changed leadership after about 25 years and there is a real sense of anticipation in terms of which policies might end up shifting.
What should change?
Inarguably Vienna needs longer retail opening hours, particularly on Sundays when shopping is still, for no apparent reason, stubbornly difficult.
Population: 1.8 million in the city; 3.8 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 13.2 per cent.
Cost of a monthly travelcard: €51.
Public parks: More than 950 (including many micro-parks, which are on the rise).
Culture: More than 100 museums, 41 libraries and more than 140 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: Many are keenly anticipating the driverless underground line U5 though it’s not expected to launch until 2023.
International connections: 190 from Vienna International Airport.
Switzerland’s biggest city has made a jump on our lists for some basic but essential reasons: outstanding public transport, high purchasing power (second in the world), a well-connected and easy-to-use airport, excellent housing stock and a lovely lake.
Zürich is also seen as being safe, in no small part because there are police everywhere. The city could do more to make it easier for the entrepreneur and it has to work hard to ensure it continues to shake off its reputation for being staid and sleepy. It needs to move to a more round-the-clock metabolism rather than rolling down the blinds at 22.00.
That said, there’s plenty more that attracts and it’s for this reason that more multinationals are setting up bases and the city is enjoying a diverse start-up scene that’s not solely focused on tech. One of our favourite new businesses is Zuriga – an espresso-coffee-maker firm that designs and manufactures everything within the city limits.
The Europaallee is a welcome addition and there’s more development to come around the train station. What’s missing are the trees as the area feels a bit bald at times.
What should change?
City hall needs to become more flexible. If the city’s neighbourhoods are to remain vibrant they need fewer rules, not more. The barriers to entry are rather high for aspiring shopkeepers and bar owners.
Population: 415,000 in the city; 1.9 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 3.5 per cent.
Public parks: 70.
Cost of monthly travel card: €71.
Independent bookshops: 54.
International connections: 178 destinations from Zürich Airport.
Newspapers: 3 national papers based in the city; 9 dedicated to the city.
Electric car charging points: 71.
Infrastructure: Werkplatz Stadt Zurich is a scheme to create more “makers’ spaces” in the city to promote innovation.
It’s easy to get nostalgic about demolition that should have never been (New York’s Penn Station, Paris’s Les Halles, Brussels’ incredible Maison du Peuple). Despite their dates with the wrecking ball, lessons have been learnt: we know that when you flatten a market or train station you lose something more than architecture – identity, history and soul disappear too.
The best architects and planners now go to great lengths to preserve the past. In Brooklyn, a new park will soon open on the scrub of land next to Williamsburg’s old Domino Sugar Factory featuring dozens of industrial artefacts, including 11-metre-tall tanks used to store syrup during the refining process. The design by James Corner Field Operations seeks to reunite the area with its waterfront but keep the area’s heart, which has been hit by years of gentrification.
It’s not conservative to advocate the conservation of the past. Whether it’s Second World War bunkers repurposed as holiday houses or grand old hotels, it’s wise to integrate and preserve the past into new schemes.
The Danish capital pops back onto our list year after year. On top of that innate knack Danes have for creating a hygge home, the practicalities of living in Copenhagen are breezy. Residents enjoy first-rate state healthcare and education, 375km of cycle lanes and immaculate streets. And while the long winters can zap energy from the city, come summer people filter into the many parks and green spaces, and dine alfresco at world-beating restaurants.
The unicorn of the New Nordic food movement Noma reopened this year in a new location. And although this has not been a watershed year in terms of hard progress, city hall continues to invest heavily in urban planning, infrastructure and sustainably.
In November the city will host the Transforming for Sustainability conference to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – Denmark was the first to adopt the programme.
Market Copenhagen Street Food reopened in Refshaleøen, a move that is set to breathe new life into the former industrial island.
What should change?
Though the city already has some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world, banning motorised vehicles completely from bike lanes would improve it even more.
Population: 600,000 in the city; 1.3 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 5 per cent.
Homes built in the past year: 5,000.
Number of restaurants opened in the past year: 700.
Infrastructure projects: The 15.5km City Circle Line will serve 17 stations once it’s completed this year.
International connections: 159 destinations from Copenhagen Airport.
Germans place considerable trust in authorities but as you may have heard, Berlin isn’t really Germany. In this city, things often work best when the government takes a backseat. That light touch when it comes to regulation continues to make this one of the most palpably exciting cities in the world.
Berlin is where people come to try things out. Creative entrepreneurship is thriving. In terms of culture, be it high or low, Berliners are spoilt for choice; you will find a huge amount of cultural attractions including 350 art galleries. Similarly, with food: 1,250 new restaurants opened last year alone.
This remains one of the few places in the world where you can legally party for 36 hours without going outside. And on just one block in Mitte or Kreuzberg, you’ll likely hear several languages spoken. If only it had a working modern airport, it would be one of the best cities in the world.
A sharp increase in the number of shared transport options – including bike, scooter, car and e-bike schemes – have made getting around the city easier than ever.
What should change?
Tear down the half-finished Brandenburg airport and build a new and bigger one in a more suitable location.
Population: 3.67 million in the city; 6 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 9 per cent.
Public parks: 2,500.
Homes built in the past year: 11,000.
Culture: 175 museums, 97 cinemas and more than 350 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: An extension of the U5 underground line will be completed in 2019.
International connections: 175 destinations.
Three years of small-scale transformation has invigorated life in Spain’s capital. Artist-led initiatives embellish barrios, new hope has been breathed into long-abandoned buildings and streets are resurfaced and cleared of urban clutter.
Many big-ticket projects have been greenlit too: the redevelopment of Gran Vía will see 240 trees added to the central boulevard. A decades-long administrative impasse was skilfilly overcome to build a new northern suburb. The historic yet hollowed-out Edificio España building – long a weather vane of the economy – will reopen as a hotel and retail hub in 2019. From November a ban on non-residential traffic in the centre will reduce congestion.
This city loves moving around by night though. A flurry of city hall-sanctioned fiestas is a sign that the authorities are finally getting into the same groove as their constituents.
Re-municipalisation of services from the bike-share scheme to a new childcare scheme is relieving day-to-day cost pressures on Madrileños. Residents are embracing platforms that allow them to propose, vote for and fund grass-roots projects.
What should change?
The food and retail offering along the Madrid River should be reinvigorated. The park is spectacular but you can’t get a good lunch on your stroll.
Population: 3.3 million in the city; 6.5 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 10.8 per cent.
Independent bookshops: 580.
Homes built in the past year: 1,600.
Culture: 74 museums, 18 cinemas and 68 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: A massive remodelling of Plaza de España, an ugly, concrete-filled square next to Edificio España, is in the works.
International connections: 171 destinations.
Since the opening of the Elbphilharmonie in the thriving HafenCity development, Hamburg has gone from strength to strength. A rapid growth in tourism means the city exceeds even Berlin in overnight stays.
The recent ban on diesel vehicles and upcoming urban projects, including a new park on the site of a Second World War bunker and the redevelopment of the eastern Hammerbrook district, prove that this is a city that is still reinventing itself. This new drive has encouraged numerous start-ups to opt for the Alster when looking for a new place to do business. The country’s advertising industry, which has called Hamburg its home since the 1990s, still thrives here.
The lack of sunshine and prevalent moody weather doesn’t seem to stop Hamburgers from enjoying the city’s vast green spaces and sandy beaches with dockside crane views.
Hamburg became the first German city to experiment with a (albeit limited) diesel ban this year, demonstrating that it’s willing to adapt. The city has also invested in its port infrastructure.
What should change?
Considering the city’s buoyed cultural reputation, Hamburg would be better served with more connections to other European hubs, including Heathrow.
Population: 1.8 million in the city; 4.3 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 6.6 per cent.
Public parks: 111.
Cost of a monthly travel card: €106.
Homes built in the last year: 7,000.
Culture: 60 cinemas, 40 theatres and 100 music venues.
Newspapers: Four national papers are based in the city; 18 for the city as a whole.
International connections: 130 destinations.
Melbourne’s future is looking sunny thanks to an infusion of cash that ensures the city will be able to accommodate all the new residents rushing in to enjoy its famously laidback lifestyle. The state of Victoria just received nearly a third of the AU$24.5bn (€16bn) federal infrastructure budget for the year – its largest share of the pie in decades – to help alleviate congestion on Melbourne’s roads, trams and trains. That includes AU$5bn (€3.3bn) to build a long-delayed rail link between the city and Tullamarine airport.
While housing affordability has been a major cause for concern, the city has retained its enviable liveability thanks to its top-notch healthcare and education systems, ample green space and diverse cultural and culinary scenes. It also helps that Melbourne is decidedly unfussy. Dogs are welcome in cafés, bottles of wine can be cracked open in parks and bars don’t have closing times, contributing to a vibrant night-time economy.
The city is making strides to ensure the CBD remains liveable as it grows. A proposal to renovate the historic Queen Victoria Market has been blocked for now and authorities are looking into creating car-free blocks to ease congestion.
What should change?
The housing crunch remains a massive issue. Here’s hoping the injection of funds will be wisely used to tackle the growing problem effectively.
Population: 148,000 in the city; 4.85 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 10.9 per cent.
Cost of a monthly travel card: €97.
Homes built in the past year: 5,100.
Culture: 31 museums, 42 cinemas and more than 100 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: The West Gate Tunnel and Freeway project will see 18km of new traffic lanes and 14km of cycle paths by 2022.
International connections: 38 destinations.
In many ways Helsinki is a typical Nordic capital: a green city by the sea with great public transport and an extensive network of cycle lanes. No matter where you live, you’re just minutes away from a swim in the sea or enjoying a picnic in the park (in the summer at least).
Yet the frigid Nordic winters don’t spell the end of outdoor activities: when the snow falls, the city builds ski tracks in the parks. Then there are the myriad public saunas to keep you warm.
Already clean, safe and functional, there is room for a bit of fun in Helsinki too. Nightclubs can now stay open all night and you can even buy a bottle or two to take with you to the afterparty. The city is also giving Copenhagen a run for its money as the capital of Nordic cool with a growing number of young designers, a vibrant start-up scene and crowd-drawing festivals (Flow and Sideways).
What’s changed? With tourist numbers at an all-time high, world-class hotels and restaurants are opening, meaning the city is well-poised to continue drawing visitors.
What should change? Helsinki’s lake Töölönlahti in the middle of city is perfectly placed to attract swimmers but the water is filthy. Clean it up.
Population: 640,000 in the city; 1.1 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 9.6 per cent.
Public parks: 108.
Homes built in the past year: 4,400.
Culture: 59 museums, 15 cinemas and 92 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: The €275m Jokeri Light Rail is a 25km light-rail link set to be completed in 2020.
International connections: 145
Number of restaurants opened in the past year: 90.
Stockholm is growing faster than ever. All the people moving in are a testament to its luminosity – but they also pose a challenge. The city has pledged to build 40,000 apartments by 2020, and wherever you go, you seem to stumble across a construction site. Segregation remains a serious issue that no one seems to have a solution for although this being an election year, all major political parties claim otherwise.
Luckily Stockholm gets many other things right. Despite some headline cases linked to MeToo, Stockholm still stands out for its gender equality. To name but one example, the generous parental leave and universal childcare make it possible for men and women to combine careers and family successfully and strike a healthy work-life balance.
All in all, it’s a safe and scenic city to live in, particularly in the summer when a forest to hike in, a cycle path to ride on or a picnic with rosé is never far away.
Stockholm’s efforts to make cycling more convenient and safer have worked: even winter cycling has increased by 30 per cent in the past few years.
What should change?
As terror attacks in recent years have shown, integration and security are ongoing issues for the city.
Population: 950,000 in the city; 2.3 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 6 per cent.
Public parks: More than 230.
Homes built in the past year: 7,000 in Stockholm; 18,000 in greater Stockholm.
Culture: 100 museums, 20 cinemas and more than 50 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: The expansion to the Stockholm Metro is ongoing.
International connections: 158 destinations from Stockholm Arlanda Airport.
Home to sunshine and a laid-back attitude, Lisbon is more than just a holiday destination: many who visit end up wanting to stay for good. From Brexit-dodging freelancers to Brazilian restaurateurs, the city is teeming with new people and ideas. Lisbon, with its confident small-business economy and buzzing creative scene, has come a long way.
Mass tourism has dictated how the city is changing. Efforts are being made to ease the pressure on residents: affordable rental apartments have now been earmarked across the city and the revival of old tram routes will appeal to those who gave up on the famously crowded transport long ago.
On top of all this rapid development, Lisbon still appeals because of its enduring sense of fun – nightclubs stay open all night and a generally fuss-free approach to rules are some of the things that keep it feeling relaxed while remaining one of the safer cities in Europe.
Investment in public space has grown significantly and the squares and roads are prettier (and cleaner). Gentrification – usually a dirty word – is also improving the urban realm, while international businesses are putting down roots.
What should change?
The river is underused as a transportation source, even though infrastructure such as docks exist. Ferries could serve the city well.
Population: 550,000 in the city; 2.8 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 9.5 per cent.
Public parks: 132.
Culture: More than 50 museums.
Infrastructure projects: There is talk of a new Lisbon airport at Montijo, 42km from the city centre, but so far there have been no announcements.
International connections: 124 destinations from Lisbon Airport.
Newspapers: 9 national papers based in the city.
While the internet has let remote cities connect to the global economy there is still nothing better than an international airport or rail network to link you to markets outside your own.
Indeed, the myth that the internet would put an end to people travelling for business has been roundly debunked. In economies focused on services, face-to-face meetings are more important than ever while human interactions in a screen-based world are indispensable.
Europe is so often presented as the perfect connectivity case study; its geography, high-quality infrastructure and interwoven economies allow for rapid movement between city centres. Yet this doesn’t mean that you should despair if you do happen to be in a more remote city. Certainly you should invest more than other places in internet connectivity. But you should remember the power of transport. Your exemplar should be Helsinki, which has turned itself into a vital bridge between Asia and Europe – and in doing so put itself on the map.
Sydneysiders hold their work-life balance sacrosanct. The city is one of the best for surfing and its cliff-top paths and picture-perfect ocean baths offer plenty of entertainment for the outdoorsy. Mountains and a world-class wine region are just a couple of hours away.
It’s not just the views that residents love. Sydney’s many galleries and museums house some unparalleled collections. Meanwhile, good coffee is ubiquitous and a buzzing restaurant scene reflects the increasingly cosmopolitan face of a city in which about four of every 10 residents was born abroad.
But Sydney has been held back by rigid lockout laws so it’s become a city best enjoyed by day, rather than in the dark. Its population is growing at a record clip, which has turned housing into some of the world’s most expensive and jammed the roads. After years of ignoring mass transit politicians are struggling to keep up.
New hubs are emerging in the suburbs as pressures mount in the city centre. The Barangaroo urban renewal project is turning a concrete container terminal into a green waterfront financial playground.
What should change?
A range of stringent regulations have strangled the music and arts economy, meaning that Sydney lacks the vibrant, late-night culture enjoyed in many other cities.
Population: 208,000 in the city; 5 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 4.8 per cent.
Public parks: 400.
Homes built in the past year: 39,000.
Culture: 85 museums, 65 cinemas and 140 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: The Sydney Metro is being built, which will have the capacity to move 40,000 people around the city every hour. The first line will open next year.
International connections: 56.
Last year Hong Kong marked its 20th anniversary as a special administrative region of China and since then many of its birthday wishes have come true. Crime is at its lowest levels since 1975 and retail and tourism have been firing on all cylinders.
The city’s emergence as a regional cultural hub continues apace. Two landmark arts complexes have opened this year: one a vertical skyscraper called H Queen’s that’s home to galleries David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth; the other, Tai Kwun, is a sprawling former police station given a makeover by architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.
Meanwhile Hong Kongers are well served by plenty of outdoor swimming pools, sandy beaches and well-kept hiking trails. A new sports complex is due to open in 2022 when Hong Kong will host the Gay Games. Few regional rivals have both the infrastructure and the tolerance to host such an event.
The tetchy political scene in Hong Kong has calmed down during chief executive Carrie Lam’s first year in office.
What should change?
Traffic congestion is increasingly a problem in some areas. Creating car-free zones would improve public spaces for pedestrians and improve air quality.
Population: 7.4 million.
Unemployment rate: 3.1 per cent.
Public parks: 26 major parks and more than 500 small ones.
Homes built in the past year: 17,000.
Culture: 19 museums, 53 cinemas and 82 libraries.
Infrastructure projects: The Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link will be completed this year, halving travel time between HK and Guangzhou.
International connections: About 170 from Hong Kong International Airport.
Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and snow-capped mountains, Vancouver offers both scenery and recreational opportunities matched by few cities. While its mild climate and beaches are some of its most oft-cited attractions, the city has a vibrant urban cultural scene as well.
Housing affordability remains an issue but in recent months Vancouver has both curbed speculation and increased its available stock. The city’s food scene is renowned and a new facility for the Vancouver Art Gallery by Herzog & de Meuron is in the works.
Thoughtful leadership has prioritised cycling and residents are increasingly making use of public transport. There has been a recent investment into developing two major rapid-transit lines too.
With its climate and strong economy Vancouver is poised for growth and is working hard to ensure its natural bounties and quality of life remain accessible to all.
Investment in transport is clearly paying off. Although many residents still rely on cars to get around the sprawling city the use of public transport is rapidly increasing.
What should change? Though it’s been making efforts to stem the brain drain that’s long seen young people move east, Vancouver needs to do more to diversify its job opportunities for graduates.
Population: 630,000 in the city; 2.5 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 4.7 per cent.
Public parks: 240.
Homes built in the past year: 22,600.
Culture: 12 museums, 94 art galleries and 10 cinemas.
Infrastructure projects: Housing Vancouver is a 10-year-plan to build a much-needed 72,000 units in the city (with more than 40,000 being rentals).
International connections: 68 destinations from Vancouver Airport.
The charm of Amsterdam is how much it packs into so little space: few capitals are both traversable in under an hour (by bike, naturally) and home to such an array of cultural, historical and edible delights. The city has become more metropolitan in recent years, with Netflix and Nike establishing their European HQs here.
Yet the rhythm of life has remained the same: short commutes alongside Unesco heritage canals, an emphasis on gezelligheid or cosiness and people who prize creativity, honesty and fun. Amsterdammers are an open-minded bunch and the only thing you’re likely to be judged for is bad cycling etiquette.
To top it off the city boasts excellent connections to the rest of Europe, a brand-new North-South metro line and a freshly elected municipality focused on green initiatives and absorbing the impact of mass tourism.
Backlash to tourists has been brewing for a while and now Amsterdam has launched a campaign against so-called “anti-social” behaviour from outsiders – complete with fines.
What should change?
Bicycle overcrowding throughout the centre is still a problem; the city should focus on improving cycling lanes and traffic intersections to clear the congestion.
Population: 855,000 in the centre; 2.4 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 6.7 per cent.
Public parks: 40.
Homes built in the past year: 5,100.
Culture: 173 art galleries, 26 libraries and 20 cinemas.
Infrastructure projects: Work on a new eight-gate pier at Schiphol Airport has begun and is due to be completed by 2019.
International connections: 322 from Schiphol Airport.
It’s hard not to fall for Kyoto. It is Japan’s ancient capital and the keeper of its rich architectural and culinary heritage. The city’s leaders are vocal promoters of walking and public transport and work hard to protect Kyoto’s traditional beauty with strict rules on signs and outdoor advertisements.
What the city lacks in big public parks it makes up for with generous spending on the upkeep of footpaths and picnicking areas along the banks of the Kamo and Takano rivers. City hall is also working to further reduce the amount of food that is thrown out every year, rallying residents, restaurants and hotels to do their part.
Kyoto could do with investing in a speedy connection to cities abroad as it doesn’t have its own international airport: Kansai International is a 90-minute drive; Osaka International Airport is an hour. In spite of this, the city is attracting a record number of tourists, which is keeping the economy buoyant.
The city has stepped up its preservation efforts. Saving traditional wooden Kyo-machiya townhouses is now a top priority and Kyoto offers subsidies to encourage owners to make use of disused properties.
What should change? The city needs to invest in its public parks and recreational areas, many of which are more than 50 years old and in need of new equipement.
Population: 1.5 million.
Unemployment rate: 2.4 per cent.
Public parks: 915.
Number of restaurants opened in the past year: 460.
Homes built in the past year: 8,900.
Culture: About 200 museums and 140 art galleries.
International connections: 69 destinations from Kansai International Airport.
Number of restaurants opened in the past year: 460.
Düsseldorf may be Germany’s seventh largest city but it boasts the country’s third largest airport and not one but two international schools. Split by the Rhine River, its Old Town, replete with thriving bars and restaurants, can be found on one bank and its busy business district on the other.
Though housing prices are rising, the cost of living is cheap compared to the rest of the region. The past year has seen €80m invested in public transport, further improving connections between the urban core and the lush green spaces outside the city. With 700km of cycle lanes, staying active is simple. A revamp of the main square by the Hauptbahnhof, Düsseldorf’s train station, is being determined via competition later this year.
Whether it’s the sweeping vistas of the Rhineland, the vibrant art scene or the thriving telecommunications industry, Düsseldorf has plenty to offer.
The city is seeing massive investment going towards improving things such as public schools (€180m in 2018), housing (1,000 new units are planned for the centre) and transport (€80m).
What should change? For how well connected it is, surprisingly few are singing Düsseldorf’s praises as a smart spot for start-ups. The city should put more effort into making setting up shop easier.
Population: 640,000 in the city centre; 1.5 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 7.4 per cent.
Independent bookshops: 75.
Number of restaurants opened in the past year: 37.
Homes built in the past year: 2,600.
Culture: More than 100 galleries, 48 libraries and 9 cinemas.
International connections: 180 destinations from Düsseldorf Airport.
It seems like a hearty welcome to a city is hard to come by as many councils launch campaigns against tourists or turn their noses up at so-called “economic migrants” who help keep the city running. And far too few cities are making it appealing for international businesses to set up. Yet a welcoming face is crucial. From the importance of integration to facilitating new businesses, city hall should be leading the way.
That goes for centres that should be toning down anti-tourist attitudes too. Venice and Barcelona have suffered an unrelenting tourist boom but holiday-seekers can’t ruin a city if smart measures – taxes on day trips or limits on the number of cruise ships disgorging passengers – are put in place. Don’t help feed damning rhetoric against “outsiders”; the root of issues should be stemmed by policy not closed doors.
Cities need outsiders: tourism brings in revenue; young transplants run the service economy; and foreign businesses bring in ideas and create jobs. So put on a friendly face.
There’s no denying the toll the past year’s turmoil has taken on Barcelona: a terrorist attack in 2017; a secessionist drive going into overdrive; the increasingly brazen protests against tourism. The petulant panorama raises the question: to what extent does turbulence affect a city’s modus vivendi?
With enviable cultural clout, progressive urbanism, a finger-licking food scene, not to mention the beaches, mountains and well-primed public facilities, this city appears to have it all. But divisions linger. The existential struggle for independence has metastasised into a stubborn stand-off, affecting mayor Ada Colau’s minority city government. Many residents have opted to lock their lips and take refuge in their city’s eminently Mediterranean lifestyle. However this famously liberal city should be wary of straying down a path where open debate is stifled – even if only to preserve the peace.
After the fire and fury of 2017 that seemingly turned the city on its head, a much-welcomed calm has settled once again. Can Barcelona maintain it as it heads toward next year’s mayoral elections?
What should change?
A better, faster connection to the airport would be much appreciated, as would a more welcoming attitude towards newcomers. Hopefully the former will be possible.
Population: 1.6 million in the city; 3.2 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 12 per cent.
Public parks: 96.
Homes built in the past year: 1,000.
Culture: 56 museums, 48 art galleries and 61 libraries.
Infrastructure projects: The move to turn a chaotic traffic junction into a city park by sending all the cars underground is being recosted after going over budget.
International connections: 162 destinations from Barcelona-El Prat.
Paris has always been an urban anomaly in our rankings. It has elegant architecture, trim parks and a peerless cultural offering, yet over the years it struggled to find fresh ideas. Its slow bureaucracy and reputation as a timeless city seemed to be holding it back.
That’s beginning to change: Paris has become a little less prim and proper and is calling on its citizens to innovate. The participatory budget launched in 2014 commits 5 per cent of city hall’s expenditure to publically generated ideas from new kiosks to homeless shelters.
Mayor Anne Hidalgo has fared badly after the popular Velib bike-sharing programme went into meltdown earlier this year. Yet her bold policies of “re-vegetation”, hikes in parking tariffs and decisive diesel restrictions are making life much more pleasant. And French residents who were once tempted by the lights of London are returning with new ideas.
The 2024 Olympic Games have propelled the mayor’s infrastructure programme to create the Grand Paris Express and regenerate suburban areas such as Saint-Denis.
What should change?
Parisians enjoy long holidays and weeks on the beach – the city clears out in the summer. It should bring that spirit to the urban fabric with more swimming pools and parks.
Population: 2.2 million in the city; 11 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 9.6 per cent.
Public parks: 500.
Independent bookshops: 756.
Culture: 206 museums, 88 cinemas and 1,016 art galleries.
Infrastructure projects: The Grand Paris Express metro extension will better connect the airport to the city centre and improve mobility for those in the suburbs.
International connections: 241 destinations from Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Singapore’s heavy-handed government might be accused of having planned, built and governed the city too well. Its prim overseers have installed manicured blocks of flats along verdant streets and a futuristic business district that, while technically sleek, is, well, a little boring. With great infrastructure in place, Singapore’s now able to turn its focus towards improving the softer elements of what makes it a great place to live. This is an enviable strength when compared to other cities lacking the same transport networks or business environment.
There’s also been strong growth within its cultural scene, which hit a record number of free arts and cultural events in recent years. And as one of the safest cities in the world, Singaporeans feel secure roaming its streets and numerous parks. What’s next? Here’s hoping for a creative sector that inspires more innovation within the waning retail scene.
Fukuoka has what many Japanese cities can only hope for: sunny climate, bicycle-friendly streets, a lively port, nearby beaches and an exceptional dining scene. It’s not surprising that this mid-sized city of 1.5 million is the fastest-growing Japanese metropolis outside the capital.
Led by its enterprising mayor, Soichiro Takashima, Fukuoka is investing in its own hi-tech future with programmes that make it easy for start-ups and entrepreneurs to set up shop and test new ideas. The city is a frontrunner in reducing its carbon emissions, opening a new paper-recycling plant and doling out subsidies to homeowners who install solar panels.
Yet Fukuoka has struggled to prioritse the needs of its residents and businesses amid a record number of tourists arriving on cruise ships and flights from overseas.
Housing affordability is still Auckland’s main hurdle but a policy focused on building more homes is expected to ease a little of the burden. Also promising is a recently announced NZ$28bn (€16.8bn) transport plan, which will see a light-rail system built, an upgrade to public buses and new cycle lanes created over the next decade.
Meanwhile, Auckland’s residents are afforded the benefits that come with having myriad pretty landscapes on your doorstep: from the picturesque harbour, pristine beaches, volcanic landscape and thriving wine regions. The city centre also offers a thriving restaurant scene, multiple fine- arts institutions and plenty of business opportunities. One area that’s particularly ripe for opportunity is the hotel sector: as tourism in the country continues to boom, more smart options are desperately needed.
Though rising, Brisbane’s housing costs are still comparably cheaper than Sydney’s and Melbourne’s. It’s a steal considering you get the same pleasant Australian subtropical climate and proximity to nature in addition to safe and family friendly surroundings. What’s not a bargain is Brisbane’s high transport costs for a less-than-stellar public network.
A recent boost in funding is expected to help though. This includes an AU$100m (€65m) transformation of one of the Brisbane River’s most polluted waterways into a hub for water taxis, as well as even more space to soak up the breezy, outdoorsy lifestyle.
In Brisbane, like the rest of Australia, same-sex marriage is legal, something that only 26 other countries in the world allow. Pair all of the above with an open-minded society and many more will want to make it home. An expected rise in international arrivals is now supported by an AU$135m (€84m) expansion of its international airport and with the completion of a new runway in 2020 it will have more capacity than any other city airport in Australia.
Oslo might be 1,000 years old but the city can feel futuristic, with its many electric cars (and a growing fleet of electric buses), innovative new architecture and extended use of green space.
Large swathes of land along the fjord, previously covered in shipping containers, have been transformed into new neighbourhoods, complete with restaurants, offices and kindergartens. Three cultural monoliths – a bold five-storey library, a Munch museum and a national gallery – will again redefine the waterfront once completed in the coming two years.
Norway’s capital mirrors the country’s liberal values and high levels of trust. You’ll find but a few gated communities here and walking the streets at night feels safe. Bars stay open until 03.30, and if the drink prices put you off you are welcome to enjoy your own bottle of wine in a park.
And the left-wing city council’s plans for a car-free city centre are at last coming to fruition. Though it’s taken longer than in its Scandinavian neighbour, Copenhagen, a cycling culture is growing thanks to the investment in new bike lanes.