Life Travel

Saturday 23 August 2014

Happy trails - city breaks to put a smile on your face

Pól Ó Conghaile rounds up 10 of the world's cheeriest places ... and the best things to do in each.

Published 13/10/2013 | 05:00

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Beautiful Bergen, Norway

Looking for a city break to put a smile on your face?

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Copenhagen, Denmark

There's something annoyingly amazing about the Danes. Just 5.5 million people live in a country half the size of Ireland, and yet they've managed to create some of the best welfare models, restaurants and TV shows on earth.

Little wonder Denmark has just topped the UN's World Happiness Report ("the word happiness is not used lightly," it states). Copenhagen is its flagship city.

Happy days: Sup a beer at Nyhavn, check the hip restaurants, bars and boutiques on emerging Jaegersborggade, and skip Noma for more affordable Nordic cuisine at Manfreds & Vin ( or Host ( The Meatpacking District is party central.

Sad face: Copenhagen, like its Scandinavian colleagues, is dispiritingly expensive.

Get there: has city breaks in Copenhagen from €232pp, based on November weekend departures, including flights and three-star accommodation.

Conceicao lagoon, Florianopolis, Brazil
Wellington Harbour at dusk
Melbourne Docklands

Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne retains the crown of "most liveable" city in The Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Livability Report for 2013. In plain English, that puts the Australian city top of the pile when it comes to stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education and infrastructure.

Happy days: As well as being a great place to live, Melbourne makes a super visit. Genuinely cosmopolitan shopping, a whizz foodie scene (check out the Italian eateries on Lygon Street), Ned Kelly's last haunt at Old Melbourne Gaol ("Such is life ... ") and top sporting events such as the Australian Open, Melbourne Grand Prix and 2015 Cricket World Cup seal the deal.

Sad face: In a word? Distance. Melbourne is more than 10,000 air miles from Dublin.

Getting there: Abbey Travel ( has sale prices on flights right now, with returns to Melbourne from €815pp with Malaysian Airlines, including a free visa.

Naha, Japan
Helsinki Cathedral at dusk

Florianopolis, Brazil

Where? Don't worry, you wouldn't be the first to ask. But readers of 'Conde Nast Traveller' recently voted Florianapolis the world's friendliest city.

Happy days: Brazil is in for a big couple of years, hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Although not as well-known as Rio or Sao Paolo, Florianapolis (the capital city of Santa Catarina in the south of the country) has 42 beaches, great surf, buzzy markets and laid-back locals who Conde Nast readers found super-generous with their time and advice.

Sad Face: For Irish travellers, flights alone start at more than €1,000.

Get there: Booking on, British Airways ( had return flights to Florianopolis from €1,228pp based on travel via London and Sao Paolo in November.

Vienna, Austria

Vienna occupies the No.1 spot on the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, ranking for several years now as global consulting companies' top city (Zurich and Auckland followed as second and third, but Dublin plummeted nine places to rank 35th).

Happy days: The Austrian capital is sorted. Transport runs like clockwork, the city is dotted with beautiful palaces and green spaces, there are Klimt masterpieces at the Belvedere Museum, and tourists can visit Sigmund Freud's apartment and gorge on sachertorte at his favourite Cafe Landtmann. And that's not even starting on the carnivals.

Sad face: Vienna may be a top place to live but its residents are obsessed with death. Don't believe us? A quick visit to the Funeral Museum may change your mind.

Getting there: Going to press, had flights and two-star accommodation from €173pp, based on a Friday departure from Dublin in November.

Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver has more Starbucks than soul, but it's rarely absent from lists of the world's happiest, most livable and beautiful cities. Most recently, it finished third behind Melbourne and Vienna on The Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Livability Report.

Happy days: "Why does everyone look so frickin' healthy?" You'll be asking yourself the question within seconds of arriving. The answers are all around – in the Canadian Rockies, the city beaches and rainforests on its doorstep, the safe streets, gleaming galleries and a young, multicultural population that shines through in Vancouver's food and culture.

Sad face: Vancouver is great to visit. To live, not so much. Many Irish people who decamp there find it expensive and – whisper it – boring. It's undeniably beautiful, but for some, Vancouver lacks the grit, heritage and lived-in authenticity of less livable cities.

Get there: Sunway ( has a six-night tour including four nights in Vancouver, one in Calgary, and a two-day train journey from €2,099pp, departing May 2014.

Kilkenny, Ireland

And why not? If any Irish city deserves to make this list, it's Kilkenny.

The Marble City was voted ninth-friendliest on Earth by readers of 'Conde Nast Traveller' and the latest mantelpiece additions are Michelin Stars for both the Campagne and Mount Juliet restaurants.

Happy days: Kilkenny's food festival (, Oct 25-27) witnesses genuinely creative programming (I love the sound of the medieval night feast in Rothe House) alongside the usual markets and demos. Its castle is always worth a nose, Shutterbug is an ace vintage clothes shop on Patrick Street and there are loads of pretty villages within a short drive.

Sad face: Kilkenny consistently ranks among Ireland's most expensive cities for hotel rooms. You can get around this, however, by travelling mid-week or on Sundays.

Get there: Kilkenny's Ormonde Hotel ( has two nights B&B with an early-bird dinner, castle tour and late check-out subject to availability from €109pps.

Bergen, Norway

Bergen featured on CNN Travel's World's Most Underrated Cities list thanks to its combo of small-town charm and big landscape hits. As Norwegians, its citizens are second-happiest in the world, according to the UN's World Happiness Survey 2013.

Happy days: Bergen is a brilliant little find. A city where the intimate size, easy-going folk and waterside location pack as big a punch as a break in any capital. Bryggen, its old harbourside quarter, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There's a cool cafe culture, you can visit the former home of composer Edvard Grieg and it's the perfect staging post for sightseeing trips to the fjords.

Sad face: Oslo is the most expensive city on Earth, according to consulting firm ECA International – and you can rest assured that Bergen is not far behind.

Get there: Project Travel ( has a Norway in a Nutshell tour, which bundles Oslo, Bergen and the fjords from €945pp (plus tax), including return flights from Dublin.

Naha, Japan

Naha is the capital of Japan's Okinawa Islands, famous for the sheer number of citizens living to astonishingly ripe old ages. Its population is said to include the largest proportion of centenarians in the country and even gave its name to a book – The Okinawa Way – that drew on their diet to boost health.

Happy days: Backpackers needn't fret. Naha is as well known for its raucous nightlife as its remarkable population of older citizens. Tourists, students and American GIs can all be found rocking International Boulevard on weekends, though there are plenty of traditional tourist activities to enjoy too – principally Shuri Castle and the city's many lively markets.

Sad face: Alas, it will take more than a visit to Naha to book your ticket to the 22nd Century. The Okinawan diet is a lifelong undertaking, not a quick fix.

Get there: KLM ( has flights to Okinawa, via Amsterdam and Kansai, from around €894 based on return trips in October and November.

Helsinki, Finland

Rather brilliantly, Helsinki can claim to be Earth's most honest city. How so? A recent 'Reader's Digest' experiment saw reporters "lose" wallets containing their contact details in 16 cities around the world. In Helsinki, 11 out of 12 were returned.

Happy days: "Finns are naturally honest," one local told 'Reader's Digest'. But the Finnish capital is more than a noble state of mind. It's a dynamic, waterside city offering art nouveau buildings, fab design, atmospheric cafes and summer cruises. Think of it as Copenhagen before Noma.

Sad face: It's pricey. Helsinki can be very quiet in the winter, too.

Get there: When going to press, had flights with two nights in the four-star Scandic Marski from €261pp, based on a November 8 departure from Dublin.

Wellington, New Zealand

It may be the Pacific's last bus-stop, but Wellington has more cafes per capita than New York, and lonely Planet dubs it the "coolest little capital" on Earth.

Happy days: Culture and a coastal setting adds to Wellington's charisma, but the jewel in the crown is its people – a friendly bunch who re-booted their city on the back of Lord of the Rings. Don't miss the Te Papa museum.

Sad face: Intimate, or just plain small? Its size sometimes spills into parochialism.

Get there: Travelmood ( had flights plus seven nights in a three-star hotel in Wellington from €1,433pp in November.

NB: All prices correct going to press, but subject to availability.

Irish Independent

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