Great and small - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle
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Tired of the bustle of the big city? With the pace of life ever increasing in our always-on global capitals, we wouldn’t be surprised if you’re enticed by the idea of moving somewhere smaller – a relaxed, easy­going environment where things can unfold more gently. Unfortunately, such a move often has its downsides, from limited business opportunities and small social circles to poorly connected airports (if there even is one). 

But what if there were pockets of urban life with populations of fewer than 350,000 inhabitants that weren’t afflicted by such problems? It’s these places that we’re highlighting in the fifth annual monocle’s Small Cities Index. Safety, proximity to nature, an economy that supports new businesses and strong creative and hospitality sectors were among the key criteria when it came to identifying our top-25 picks for 2024. The resulting selection also includes a “best for” guide, offering some inspiration for those who need a little nudge before considering a move. 

Over the following pages, we sip a vermut on the seafront of an overlooked gem in northern Spain, enjoy the catch of the day in a Japanese island city and luxuriate in the lush gardens of a former imperial outpost in Brazil. You could too.


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1
Naha, Japan

Best for island life
Increasing numbers of creatives and entrepreneurs have been returning or moving to the city of Naha in recent years. Among its draws are its fusion of cultures, a warm climate and all the perks of living on a rocky outcrop.

As soon as you step out of Naha Airport, you sense that this is Japan – but not as you know it. The air is more humid, the plants more tropical. The taxi driver is likely to be sporting a floral shirt. And then there’s the vibrant, blue sea. With a population of about 320,000, Naha is the capital of Okinawa prefecture, a string of islands at the southern end of the country that almost reaches Taiwan.

Okinawa’s history is evident today in its distinctive culture that fuses Japanese elements with those of the historic Ryukyu Kingdom, which was independent until the late 19th century, as well as a sprinkling of Americana. After the Second World War the US held onto Okinawa until 1972. American brand names linger – such as Jimmy’s, which has been baking cakes here since 1956 – as does a taste for Spam. Visit a market, however, and you’ll see the fresh food that has helped to make Okinawans the longest-lived in Japan: goya gourds, winter melons, sea grapes and a selection of fish unfamiliar to cooler waters.

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The pace of life in Naha is slower than on the mainland. Some start their day with a dip in the sea at Naminoue beach. With its leafy streets, concrete modernism and small restaurants, the city is a pleasure to walk – unusual in car-centric Okinawa. Tatsuya Irei, who was born here, recently moved back from Tokyo to open Wayobu Yoshi restaurant in Tsuboya, Naha’s pottery district. “I wanted to raise my family in my hometown,” he says. “Children are too constricted in big cities.” He buys fish and fresh food from markets outside Naha in Itoman and Yonabaru; on days off, his family hits the beach. “Okinawa is compact. I can hop in the car and be in Nago in the far north in an hour.”

Nami Makishi, another returnee, co-founded interiors studio Luft in Tokyo but came back to Okinawa with fellow designer Chikako Okeda. “We love the diverse mix of native Okinawans, people who have moved here from other prefectures and tourists,” she says. Multiple flights connect the city to Tokyo from morning to night and Taipei is only 90 minutes away. Tourists throng Kokusai Street and Makishi market but residents go about their business with good cheer. “The flow of time is just different here,” says Makishi.

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2
Santander, Spain

Best for architectural inspiration
Santander enjoys a wealth of contemporary architectural treasures. The Centro Botín arts centre was designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Renzo Piano and a Banco Santander-backed art gallery by David Chipperfield is in the works.

In Santander, a city of 172,000 on Spain’s northern coast, nobody is in a rush. If you’re late for a meeting, call ahead and surrender to the pace of the locals ambling along the harbour promenade. Defined by its low- and mid-rise apartment blocks stacked up a sloping peninsular, the Cantabrian capital has narrow streets on which you’ll find an assortment of cafés and restaurants. It’s the sort of enclave where the terraces are packed with customers sipping vermut at 14.00 on a Tuesday. Historically known for its fishing and shipbuilding industries, the port city has increasingly benefited from tourism and the fact that Banco Santander has its institutional headquarters here. Young start-ups and restaurateurs are tapping into the low cost of living, the city’s cultural scene and the connectivity afforded by its international airport.

“I live here because of the quality of life,” says Berta Betanzos, a retired Olympic sailor who now co-owns Tanndem, a gym near the bay. When monocle asks why Betanzos, who grew up in Santander, decided to stay, she says that the city’s sheltered location and mild climate lends itself to endless recreational opportunities. There are more than a dozen beaches within walking distance of the city centre and the distant peaks of the Cantabrian mountains surround the bay. Architect Jacobo Gomis took advantage of this outlook in 2012 when he opened Centro de Surf, a geometric concrete building on the popular Somo beach near Santander, which has become a hub for those in need of lockers, surfing lessons or a beer. “I grew up surfing here,” he says. “Now I take my children.”

Entrepreneurs such as Carlos Zamora Gorbeña, who runs La Caseta de Bombas restaurant with his sister, Lucía, have also tapped into the outdoor lifestyle. “People are connected to nature here,” he says. “Everything is a short walk away.” One of the restaurant’s patrons, Katherine Browne, is looking out across the bay with an aperitif. “People are friendly and there’s a good work-life balance,” says Browne, who moved to Santander from Ireland 20 years ago and owns a jewellery business. “I’m happy here. I feel safe.”

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3
Petrópolis, Brazil

Best for those seeking a subtropical enclave
Many Brazilian cities are celebrated for their beachfronts, meaning that those further inland are often overlooked. Petrópolis offers the best of both worlds: it’s an easy morning excursion to Rio de Janeiro’s best beaches, so residents can return to their city’s cool climes for a breezy afternoon.

Less than a two-hour drive north of Rio de Janeiro in the mountainous Serrana region, Petrópolis was built in the 19th century as a summer resort for the Brazilian imperial family. The factors that drew Pedro II here remain its biggest attractions: a cool climate, tranquillity and proximity to the country’s second biggest city. A popular weekend getaway from the chaos of its formidable neighbour, this city of 300,000 offers closeness to nature, lively culinary and cultural scenes, and a good choice of universities. The walkable city centre mixes neoclassical architecture with an eclecticism that reveals the influence of German settlers. It’s also just a short distance from the Serra dos Orgãos national park and Rio’s international airport.

Tourism and hospitality are important to Petrópolis’s service-oriented economy but the city  is also known as a centre of organic produce and beer, with many breweries. The SerraTec technology hub attracts cutting-edge talent and there’s a lab that hosts Latin America’s fastest supercomputer. Petrópolis’s creative scene is thriving too. Rio-born furniture designer Gustavo Bittencourt moved here 10 years ago for the space and skilled labour that the city offers; his workshop is now located in a hangar in an industrial neighbourhood surrounded by a verdant forest. “There are innumerable good things about Petrópolis: safety, the climate, the people, the cuisine,” he says.

Some accuse the Imperial City, as it is still known, of being stuck in the past. It is certainly hard to escape the weight of history, whether you’re sipping a coffee in the gardens of the former imperial home or people-watching under pink-flowered sapucaia trees on Freedom Square (where the enslaved used to buy their independence). But entrepreneurial Petrópolitanos returning from bigger cities or from abroad are keen to keep their city relevant. Among them is Dani Abaut, who runs a ballet studio for professional dancers and is an enthusiastic advocate for her hometown. “My main reason for coming back to Petrópolis was that I wanted to contribute to making it a better place,” she says. Luckily, these improvements are starting to show.

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4

Newcastle, Australia

This city’s 320,000 residents have the best of the Australian east coast: sandy beaches, affordable house prices, a flourishing culture and culinary scene, and close proximity to the Hunter Valley wine region. The historical port remains busy but, beyond its industrial roots, central Newcastle has been undergoing a rejuvenation. A new light-rail system was completed in 2019, connecting outer suburbs with the waterfront, and the old red-brick train station has been transformed into a covered market hosting pop-ups and events. At its heart is Darby Street, a stretch of cafés, restaurants and boutique shops. Here, young families, established residents and students with flat whites bask on sunny terraces between beach breaks. 

Best for small-scale big-city living
Though it’s only a couple of hours from Sydney, laidback Newcastle has an established sense of self, with a strong cultural and business scene.


5
Eindhoven, Netherlands

The size of this industrial city, with a population of about 250,000, belies its technical capabilities, which are among the strongest on the continent. It’s known as the Dutch Silicon Valley due to the city’s University of Technology as well as Eindhoven-founded electronics giant Philips, which have contributed to its reputation as an EU technology hub. But it’s not all semiconductors and lightbulbs; Eindhoven also has a strong design focus thanks to the Dutch Design Academy, established in 1947, which is one of the world’s leading design schools. The annual Dutch Design Week also takes place here, while rail links to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp are fast and frequent. 

Best for design and technology
In a country with one of the world’s most open economies, Eindhoven is an ideal spot for innovation and development in fields from agriculture to architecture.


6

Basel, Switzerland

Switzerland’s oldest university town has always had a youthful energy. The city of 190,000 is the country’s cultural capital, with more than 40 museums and galleries – most notably the Kunstmuseum, containing the world’s oldest public art collection. It’s also the home of Art Basel, the world’s leading contemporary art fair, established to give smaller galleries global prominence. More recently, life sciences have become a major industry in a city considered to be a pharmaceutical hub and a beacon of technology, attracting more than half of Switzerland’s employees in the field. This well-connected town on the Rhine has been sweeping up students, entrepreneurs and creatives in its fast-paced current for centuries. 

Best for continental connections
In a city bordering three countries, residents can earn Swiss salaries with German expenses and French cultural life. What’s not to love?


7

Victoria, Canada

Established as a trading post, Victoria (population: 92,000) is buzzing with young businesses, including award-winning furniture firm Part & Whole, established in 2018, and Shuck Taylor’s (stop by for the best oysters in town), which is shaking up the culinary scene. For its remote location, Victoria is surprisingly well-connected, with an international airport and frequent ferry trips to Vancouver (90 minutes) and Seattle (three hours). The city has a thriving media scene, with more than 10 radio stations, and magazines such as The Narwhal and Hakai. But key to Victoria’s appeal are the mountains, lakes and coastline surrounding it. You will hear of residents going skiing one day and swimming the next. 

Best for going on- and off-grid
Like neighbouring Seattle and Vancouver, Victoria is a comfortable place to set up shop on the Pacific coast. But here you can be closer to nature without losing connectivity.


8

Keelung City, Taiwan

There’s plenty to do – and eat – in Taiwan’s port city of Keelung, despite its small size. A 50-minute train ride from central Taipei, the coastal hub of about 350,000 benefits from close proximity to the country’s capital, as well as Taiwan’s strong business relationships with surrounding countries. Several easy day hikes start from Keelung, providing a great warm-up for a late feast – the city claims Taiwan’s best night market for seafood, with specialities such as swordfish, deep-fried crab and Taiwanese-style tempura. Keelung also has strong cultural significance – fortifications date from the 17th to the 20th century – while the mountain resort town of Jiufen is a short distance away. 

Best for hiking and biking
Keelung’s surrounding landscape offers an abundance of walking and cycling trails along its rugged coast and through the surrounding mountains.


9

Dunedin, New Zealand

Dunedin has a gothic vibe, to which the architecture (Edwardian) and fashion (with a penchant for black) contribute. But the city of 130,000 is also a beach lover’s paradise where residents are almost blasé about sharing their shores with seals and penguins. Despite this, music and fashion are what the city has become known for. Aspiring designers flock to Otago Polytechnic’s fashion school, while the established descend on its fashion week, with many creatives basing themselves here as a result. Dunedin’s prices are competitive, with affordable homes that enjoy sea views. The city is walkable but hilly. Residents defend their steep gradients as “good exercise”. 

Best for setting up a remote outpost
Well connected to the rest of New Zealand but hidden from much of the world, Dunedin’s fashion and music scenes can be adventurous without fear of outside judgement.


10

Toulon, France

Between the Med and the mountains, Toulon offers a change of pace with a dash of French flair. Until recently, the city’s reputation was that of a naval base overrun by drunken sailors but today the friendly port city boasts markets brimming with fresh produce, fashionable restaurants and fascinating culture. Annual events, including Design Parade Toulon – organised by the Villa Noailles in nearby Hyères – attract crowds of creatives from Paris and nearby Marseille. The city’s accessibility is also set to increase: more high-speed trains running between Paris and Toulon are being introduced in 2024. 

Best for life by the Med
A mild climate facilitates morning dips in the sea, while cyclists and hikers can head into the surrounding mountains. The city’s economy is varied: fishing, winemaking and manufacturing of naval and aeronautical equipment all take place here.


11

Patras, Greece

The port city of Patras might be one of Greece’s most densely built but it has found ways to inject stretches of open space into its bustling urban core, connecting residents to their seafront. New civic additions to this city of 220,000 include the pedestrianisation of main roads, the new North Park (opening along a stretch of seafront) and the renovation of industrial spaces. An abundance of good food and wine retailers makes it hard to leave the city but day trips are a thing of ease, with the historic towns of Nafpaktos, Mesolongi and ancient Olympia all nearby. Greece’s unsung Kalavrita ski centre is a short drive away too and ferries connect residents to the Ionian islands and Italy. 

Best for budding winemakers
Patras has a long history of wine production. Nearby 19th-century castle-cum-winery Achaia Clauss is famous for sweet mavrodaphne.


12

Salzburg, Austria

At the foot of the Alps, on the border with Germany, Salzburg isn’t lacking in charm thanks to its strong cultural pedigree and ready access to hiking and skiing. With a population of 150,000, it’s Austria’s fourth-largest city, yet remains cosy and walkable. Medical technology is big business here, with more than 60 companies combining for a €1bn annual turnover. The city is divided by the Salzach river, which flows gently through the centre – a pretty backdrop to Salzburg’s 50 galleries, numerous theatres, elegant historical buildings (such as the Mirabell Palace and Gardens) and smart cafés. And if the small city starts to feel too cosseting, Munich and Vienna are both only a short train ride away. 

Best for an outsized cultural scene
Mozart’s birthplace hosts the annual Salzburg Festival, which dates back to 1920 and is still one of the world’s key events for opera, music and drama.


13

Helsingør, Denmark

This Danish city of 63,000, famous for being home to Hamlet’s castle, offers more than a seaside setting for a Shakespearean drama. A 45-minute train ride from central Copenhagen, Helsingør has the charm of an 800-year-old medieval town while being an attractive and dynamic place to live. Residents can access a wealth of cultural destinations, from Bjarke Ingels’ maritime museum to Jørn Utzon-designed landmarks and kilometres of pristine sandy beaches. There are also efficient transport links, with regular train services to Copenhagen Airport, and neighbouring Sweden is only a short ferry ride away. Setting up shop here is a breeze too, thanks to Denmark’s business-friendly environment. 

Best for cabin life
Urbanites like to spend weekends on the picturesque coast here, tucked away in wooden cabins. Helsingør’s outskirts are perfect for such dwellings.


14

Girona, Spain

Girona’s natural landscapes and proximity to Barcelona have long attracted cyclists looking to ride along the Costa Brava. But in recent years this city of 100,000 has attracted creatives and entrepreneurial types too, with many staying for the long-haul. From independent bookshops to cafés and ceramics studios, Girona has a wealth of fresh businesses, many of which are run by newcomers. It’s an offering strengthened by a bustling food scene, which includes the likes of recently opened Restaurante Normal and the Cafè Royal. The appeal, aside from a quieter pace of life, also lies in the host of international connections from the city’s airport, meaning that Europe’s main metropolises are never far away. 

Best for art enthusiasts
Girona’s seven major museums offer an ever-evolving mix of art, from antiquity to the contemporary.


15

Coimbra, Portugal

Evenings in Coimbra, a city of 150,000, are often long and languid. And while the city’s sunny climate can occasionally be tempered by rainfall, that won’t stop residents gathering outside year-round to enjoy the beauty of its cobblestone streets and Moorish architecture over an alfresco drink. Coimbra is home to Portugal’s oldest university, the country’s second-largest library and the famed Machado de Castro National Museum. There’s a range of industries established here too, from pottery and textiles to paper production. Easy transport links to Lisbon and Porto have made Coimbra an increasingly popular location for start-ups in emerging industries such as energy and healthtech. 

Best for aspiring writers
Dubbed “the city of students”, Coimbra feels like Porto’s bookish younger cousin. Its many museums and bookshops make up a vibrant patchwork of cultural organisations.


16

Lugano, Switzerland

Nature lovers will find their calm in this city of more than 60,000, the largest in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino region. From snowy Alpine peaks to clear tranquil waters, Lugano’s surrounding scenery is all natural beauty, while the city’s proximity to the Italian border lends it a Swiss-Mediterranean flavour. Exhibition and event space Lugano Arte e Cultura houses the prestigious Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, while fashion enthusiasts can enjoy the Bally Foundation’s newly minted headquarters. Lugano’s biggest pull, however, is its namesake lake, which winds along the Swiss-Italian border, attracting a well-heeled clientele to its glamorous boutiques and hotels – only natural, given that Italy’s fashion capital, Milan, is a mere hour away.

Best for swimming and snow
Due to Swiss efficiency, Italian energy and proximity to lakes and mountains, Lugano offers year-round outdoor fun.


17

Brescia, Italy

Located in Italy’s productive northwest, this city might have made a name for itself in metallurgy but it shows much more than just manufacturing chops these days. With a population just shy of 200,000, Brescia is less than an hour away from Milan and well connected to Verona and Bologna, as well as the Alps and Dolomites. Though other Italian cities get more press for their looks, Brescia has a stunning (and historic) centre that includes the eighth-century San Salvatore-Santa Giulia Monastery. It also has a rich creative scene, highlighted by being named an Italian capital of culture in 2023, along with nearby Bergamo. And did we mention that it’s near Lake Garda and the Franciacorta wine country? 

Best for fine food
In an area that served as European Region of Gastronomy in 2017, Brescia is the main source of Italian caviar and franciacorta wine.


18

Augsburg, Germany

This Bavarian jewel can trace its roots back to Roman times. Its modern industries range from fuselage assembly to car production and logistics, meaning that gdp in Augsburg is comfortably above the national average. As well as having a decent university and property prices below the rest of the region, the city of 300,000 is a beautiful place to wander thanks to the almost constant presence of water, from canals to fountains, all thanks to an ingenious, Unesco-recognised system that dates back to the 14th century. Augsburg’s location in the south of Germany grants it decent summers and proper winters, with easy connections, should they be needed, to nearby Austria, and Italy beyond. 

Best for proximity to the big smoke
Augsburg is only half an hour from the Bavarian capital, Munich. Despite its closeness, Augsburg hasn’t become swallowed by its big brother. Rich in history, the city has its own identity.


19

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Home to EU institutions and a thriving banking industry, Luxembourg City is a European capital in the guise of a liveable small town. For its 133,000 inhabitants, that’s a pretty good deal. Their home offers all the business opportunities, transport links and entertainment of big cities without excessive concrete or crowds. More than 20 per cent of the city’s surface is made up of forests. Biking and walking are encouraged; Luxembourg is investing in cycle lanes and has made all public transport free to ease congestion. Add to this the fact that it’s safe, has a multilingual population and is packed with museums and the reasons for setting up a home here are many.

Best for a European business hub
To diversify its economy, the local government launched Luxembourg City Incubator, which provides generous grants for start-ups.


2025

Honourable mentions:

Six more small cities offering plenty of good reasons to put down roots.

20.
Santa Cruz, USA: This coastal city of 60,000 has a pleasant climate, vibrant beach culture, charming Victorian architecture and a dynamic downtown. San Francisco is only an hour’s drive to the north, while nearby Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley are teeming with wineries. 

21.
Pula, Croatia: The tripartite identity of Istria, which sits across Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, is keenly felt in its capital, Pula (population: 60,000). It has a robust winemaking tradition, and a recent EU investment into a major business centre means the city’s entrepreneurial spirit is ripe. 

22.
Charleston, USA: The South Carolina city has long drawn tourists to its food scene and historic pastel buildings on the waterfront. But now the city of 150,000 is enticing people to stay for good, lured by a temperate climate, breezy lifestyle and young, energetic community. 

23.
Essaouira, Morocco: Perched on the Atlantic, this charming Moroccan enclave of 70,000 has always attracted a bohemian crowd. Relaxed and friendly, Essaouira’s heart is its ancient medina and the town is studded with art galleries and intriguing souks. 

24.
Krosno, Poland: This city of 50,000’s strong cultural heritage has earned it the nickname “little Kraków”. Famous for its historic glassworks, a dozen smaller plants and workshops make it ideal for anyone looking to establish their own artisanal brand. 

25.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: From its colourful colonial-era façades to the eclectic characters who live and work here, this city of 175,000 vibrates with beauty, art and intrigue. It is now attracting an international crowd looking for a place to set up creative ventures at affordable prices. 

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