Living in: The world’s happiest places

The world’s top five happiest countries, all of which fall in northern Europe, have cities that delight residents with old town charm, cultural offerings and easy access to nature.

If, as Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, happy families are all alike, what about happy countries?

The World Happiness Report, released in September 2013 by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, measured the wellbeing of residents in more than 150 countries, based on six key factors: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity. The report found that happier people earn more in their lifetime, are more productive and are better citizens.

Interested in finding some happiness yourself? The following cities are in the world’s top five happiest countries, all of which are in northern Europe, including three in Scandinavia. Out of a possible high score of 10, the countries below received scores between 7.480 (Sweden) and 7.693 (Denmark). Canada missed the fifth spot by just a few thousandths of a point, coming in at 7.477.  

Aarhus, Denmark
Denmark’s second city is on the east coast of Jutland, the country’s mainland area, 150km west of Copenhagen. Blessed with a large natural harbour, Aarhus has the largest container terminal in the country and an industrial waterfront, but also a recreational marina near the city centre where people can water ski and sail. Thousands of students arrive every year to attend a number of universities and colleges, keeping the oldest large city in Scandinavia one of the youngest demographically, while Aarhus’ museums, music festivals and outdoor theatres make the city culturally vibrant. Many of the young and young at heart spend time in the Vadestedet, a pedestrian area in the city centre along the Aarhus River filled with shops, outdoor cafes and restaurants. The Latin Quarter is the city’s oldest district, with narrow streets and medieval houses, while the Isberget (The Iceberg), the city’s newest residential development, was built on the northern end of the harbour and designed so all the apartments have stunning sea views.

Finding an apartment is competitive, especially when students start their terms in August and December, and many landlords ask for a deposit of several months’ rent. Areas around the city centre are perennially popular for their proximity to stores, restaurants and nightlife. North of the centre, trendy Trøjborg attracts artists, students and other creative types. A property in the city centre costs 25,000 Danish krone per square metre, while a three-bedroom flat in the centre rents for between 8,000 and 10,000 DKK per month. Outside the centre, a property costs 22,000 DKK per square metre, and three-bedroom flat starts at around 6,500 DKK.

Oslo, Norway
The quietest of the Scandinavian capitals, Oslo is also arguably the closest to nature, sitting at the northern end of Oslofjord and backed by forests and mountains. But the city is also big on culture, from its numerous music festivals to the refurbished Ekeberg Park, a public sculpture park that opened in September 2013 containing works by Louise Bourgeois as well as Rodin and Renoir. Downtown is buzzing with new restaurants, bars, clubs and shops, while the stunning Oslo Opera House is the type of world-class architecture people travel to see. With the Norwegian economy being pumped along by its oil industry and the strong Norwegian krone, Oslo is consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in the world.

A popular district just west of the city centre is Frogner, which stretches from the harbourfront to the Royal Palace and Frogner Park, home to the Vigeland Sculpture Park and Museum, which attracts more than a million visitors every year to see its more than 200 outdoor sculptures. The housing stock includes small apartment buildings and townhouses, and the area has many restaurants, boutiques, galleries and green spaces. Two locales on Frogner’s seafront are particularly desirable, according to Lief Laugen, president and CEO of Krogsveen real estate. “Aker Brygge is an old wharf completely rebuilt with hundreds of apartments and restaurants, bars, cinemas and office buildings,” Laugen said. And Tjuvholmen is a new high-end development and cultural quarter that is home to number of apartment buildings from top Scandinavian architects, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art designed by Renzo Piano, a swimming beach, shops and offices.  

On the east side of town across the Akerselva river, hip Grünerløkka is also very desirable. A former working class area, it is home to many students, creative types and young families. The square metre price of a property in Frogner ranges from 40,000 to 120,000 Norwegian krone, while in Grünerløkka the price ranges from 35,000 to 80,000 NOK. Rent for three-bedroom apartment in the city centre is around 15,000 to 20,000 NOK a month. Typically, the busiest times are in December/January and July/August when students are starting school and university.

Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva sits on the southwestern end of long Lake Geneva, backed by the Alps and the Jura Mountains, close to the French border. While the Swiss city’s official language and air of sophistication is French, Geneva is a global financial centre and one of the United Nation’s main headquarters,  home to dozens of UN offices including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organization, as well as the International Red Cross and European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). As a result, nearly half the city’s residents are foreign nationals.

The Rhone River divides the city into the Rive Gauche, home to the Old Town, the University of Geneva and the Cathédrale St-Pierre, and the Rive Droite with its many parks, international organisations and NGOs. In the summer, beaches such as Baby Plage and Bains des Paquis on the banks of the lake provide residents with opportunities for swimming and sunning. In winter, many flock to ski resorts in the nearby Mont Blanc massif, such as Chamonix and Courmayeur.

The Old Town is one of the most expensive places to live, but suburbs along the lake, such as affluent, pricey Cologny, are also in high demand. South of the city centre, Carouge is an arty district with a large outdoor market, a thriving cultural scene and great restaurants. Many expats commute from nearby French towns where housing is less expensive, such as Saint-Julien south of the city and Ferney-Voltaire to the north. Many apartments and most houses are rented unfurnished which adds to the expense, and non-Swiss citizens will usually need a government permit to buy property.

“Property in Geneva is very sought after, but in short supply in prime locations,” said Peter Frigo, managing partner of Engel & Völkers Switzerland. “Prices have fallen slightly, but are still some of the highest in the world, comparable to St Moritz [in Switzerland] and the Hamptons [in New York].” In the city centre, two-bedroom apartments start around 2.5 million Swiss francs, and a three-bedroom apartment rents for between 3,000 and 4,500 CHF a month. A two-bedroom property in Colony averages around 3.5 million CHF, and the average rental price is 2,000 CHF a month.

Utrecht, Netherlands
Utrecht, just 40km south of Amsterdam, is a compact city filled with delightful cafes and restaurants, thousands of students who attend the venerable Utrecht University, and many artists and musicians. Along the Oudegracht, the central canal, cellar-level bars and pubs line the towpath, which is a charming place to watch the boats and birds go by. The Domtoren, or cathedral tower, is the tallest in the country, and from the top visitors can see the entire city below. Spring and summer bring the festival season, including the national Nederlands Film Festival in September, and every Saturday the Oudegracht blooms with the weekly flower market. “Utrecht has all the big city amenities with a small town atmosphere and is much more relaxed than Amsterdam or Rotterdam,” said Roald de Waard, a local estate agent. “It has an excellent public transport system and a young and well-educated populace.”

Utrecht’s centre, near the two main squares Janskerkhof and Neude, and close to the Domplein, the cathedral square, is popular for its walkability and access to nightlife and restaurants. “The best areas are in the eastern part of town, such as expensive Wilhelminapark which has mansions and brownstones from the 1900s,” said de Waard. Also popular is neighbouring Oudwijk where the housing stock is being modernised, as is lowrise Wittevrouwen in the northeast of the city, with its family houses built in the 1920s and ‘30s. West of Centraal Station, Lombok is ethnically diverse with a Turkish and Middle Eastern population, and attracts a liberal crowd and young families. Further west, outside the city, a modern district called Leidsche Rijn has been developed over the last decade with large business parks and more than 10,000 homes, and it currently houses nearly 30,000 residents.

The average two-bedroom apartment costs around 200,000 to 250,000 euros in and around the city centre. Average rental prices for a two-bedroom in a good neighbourhood are between 1,250 and 1,400 euros per month.

Malmo, Sweden
Malmo is Sweden’s third-largest city, but after more than a decade of being linked to Copenhagen via the Oresund Bridge, it is also considered part of a bigger trans-national metropolitan area. It has experienced growing pains: the multicultural city currently has the largest Muslim population in Scandinavia and anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise. The new mayor has pledged to fight them more seriously than her predecessor.  

Malmo is also Sweden’s first fair trade city, meaning workplaces serve fair trade tea and coffee and stores promote ethical consumption. While the Old Town and its squares are as charming as ever, new development, architecture, transport and sustainability projects have attracted tech companies, university students and immigrants from around the world. “It’s easy to get around, you can ride your bike all over town and you always are close to the sea and countryside,” said Daniel Saveman, an estate agent with Fastighetsbyrån. “It is also very close to Copenhagen and the rest of Europe.”

Residents of Gamla Väster on the west side of the Old Town between the central Stortorget square and green Slottsparken successfully fought demolition and urban renewal in the 1970s. Now the small houses and buildings are very valuable and popular. On the other side of the park, reasonably priced and quiet Slottsstaden is close to the Ribersborg beach. On the waterfront, the rejuvenated neighbourhood of Västra Hamnen is home to Santiago Calatrava’s landmark Turning Torso tower, the tallest in Sweden. Further west, Limhamm, next to the Oresund Bridge, is a good place to look for a house near the water. An average two-bedroom house in these desirable areas ranges from 1.4 to 1.8 million Swedish krona, while the average rent for a two-bedroom ranges from 5,000 to 8,000 SEK a month.