Quality of life and personal safety rank high for these metropolises, according to a survey by human resources consulting firm Mercer, which evaluated 221 cities worldwide.
Quality trumps quantity
The world's biggest and most important cities aren't often the best places in which to live. High levels of crime, traffic congestion and long commutes can worsen the quality of life. So which cities are the best to live in? We've put together a list of the world's 15 best cities, according to human resources consulting firm Mercer's 2011 quality-of-life survey. The annual report looks at living conditions in 221 cities worldwide and ranks them against New York as a base city in 10 categories such as socio-cultural environment, economy, politics, education and the health sector.
The 2011 survey also identified cities with the highest personal-safety rankings based on crime levels, law enforcement, international relations and stability.
Cities in some of the world's biggest economies -- including the U.S., Japan and Britain -- missed the cut. So which cities made the list? Click ahead to find out.
No. 15: Toronto
Toronto is one of only three Canadian and North American cities to make the list of the world's top 15 places with the best quality of life.
Canada's largest city is the fifth-most-populous city in North America.
The cosmopolitan hub, which consistently rates among the world's most livable cities, has been a popular destination for immigrants for the past several decades. Half of Toronto's racially diverse population was born outside Canada, compared with about 28% in global centers such as New York and London. About 30% of its residents speak a language other than Canada's national languages, English or French, at home.
The city is also Canada's economic center and home to the world's seventh-largest stock exchange by market capitalization. Its economy makes up almost a fifth of Canada's gross domestic product.
Another key factor behind Toronto's high ranking is the personal safety of its residents. Toronto is among five Canadian cities that dominate North America's personal-safety ranking. Tied with Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary, Toronto is considered the 17th-safest place in the world, more than 35 times safer than its closest U.S. counterparts -- Chicago, Honolulu, Houston and San Francisco -- according to the Mercer report.
No. 14: Ottawa, Ontario
Ottawa is the capital city of Canada and one of six capital cities to make the list. Home to Canada's federal agencies and foreign embassies, the city has the most highly educated workforce in the country.
Ottawa is also home to technology giants such as Nortel Networks, Cisco Systems, Alcatel-Lucent and Dell, with more than 90% of Canada's telecommunications research and development conducted there.
A high quality of life is associated with a high cost of living in most of the cities on our list, but Ottawa defies that trend, being crowned in 2011 as the least expensive Canadian city to live in. Living in Ottawa is ranked 55 places lower than Toronto -- Canada's costliest city -- in Mercer's cost of living survey based on such factors as housing, transportation, food and clothing. It is also considered one of the cleanest cities in the world, coming in third in 2010's eco-city ranking, which measured such factors as water drinkability, sewage systems, air pollution and waste removal.
No. 13: Wellington, New Zealand
Wellington is one of only three cities in the Asia-Pacific region to make the 2011 list.
The city is the world's southernmost capital and has the most educated population in the country, with more than one-third of its residents holding a bachelor's degree or higher.
Incomes in Wellington are above average for New Zealand. More than 40% of households have annual incomes of more than $66,000. The city also has a great climate, with 2,000 hours of sunshine every year, compared with an average of 1,500 hours in London and 1,850 hours in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Despite high living standards for New Zealand's cities, the country experienced a net outflow of residents in 2011 for the first time in a decade, with more people emigrating abroad than the amount of immigrants coming into the country. For the year to Oct. 31, the country saw a net loss of a 100 permanent residents, compared with a net gain of 12,610 for the same period in 2010.
No. 12: Amsterdam
Amsterdam is one of the most visited cities on our list, renowned for its red-light district and marijuana-serving coffee shops.
Coming to world prominence through trade during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, the city has maintained a high quality of living as the cultural and financial center of the Netherlands.
It's home to the world's oldest stock exchange, and its historic canals, buildings and infrastructure are big draws for tourists. The city promotes a variety of lifestyles, and about 54% of its households contain single residents. Households with two adults make up only 20% of the population, according to government statistics from 2009. The city also ranks among the top 20 in the world in terms of personal safety.
Once regarded as one of the more generous European countries in welcoming immigrants, the Netherlands' reputation has changed over the past decade. The anti-Islam, anti-immigration Freedom Party is a key ally for the ruling coalition in Parliament and has used its influence to push for tougher immigration policies. In September, the government announced plans to ban face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women, because lawmakers argued that it flouts the Dutch way of life.
No. 11: Sydney
Sydney is Australia's biggest city by population and the economic hub of the country. It accounts for about one-quarter of Australia's GDP.
The city is home to some of Australia's most iconic landmarks, including the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
Its metropolitan area is set in one of the world's most stunning harbors and is surrounded by national parks, bays, rivers and beaches. As a major business hub, Sydney is headquarters to almost 40% of the top 500 Australian companies, as well as the location of 20% of the country's finance sector and 44% of its broadcasting industry. The median average annual income for residents is more than $55,000, with nearly one-fifth of its workforce making more than $2,000 a week.
In comparison with the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, both Australia and New Zealand far outweigh their counterparts in living standards and personal safety because of their continuous investment in infrastructure and public services.
Many Asian cities rank at the bottom of the survey due to social instability, political turmoil and natural disasters such as typhoons and tsunamis, according to the study. Only three Asian cities -- Singapore at No. 25, Tokyo at 46 and Kobe, Japan, at 49 -- make the top 50 places in the quality-of-life survey.
No. 9 (tie): Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen has made Mercer's list of top 15 cities for the past five years. The city's staying power highlights Europe's dominance in the quality-of-life survey. Eight of the top 10 cities on this list are in Europe.
These cities continue to have high living standards because of their advanced infrastructure and high-class medical, recreational and leisure facilities.
Copenhagen was also the second-highest-ranked European city among the world's most eco-friendly places in 2010. Known as "the city of cyclists," it boasts 218 miles of bicycle tracks, and about 36% of its population commutes by bike every day.
With more than 15% of Denmark's population over the age of 65, health and well-being have become big issues in Danes' lives. Increased health awareness has translated into Denmark becoming one of the leading consumers and producers of organic food in Europe.
No. 9 (tie): Bern, Switzerland
Bern is the capital of Switzerland and one of three Swiss cities to make the top 10. The city has consistently held on to the No. 9 spot in the quality-of-life survey for the past four years.
Bern is located in the Swiss plateau, and the city's center, known as the old town of Bern, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Bern has been able to maintain its medieval charm over the centuries and has retained most of its historic features, including arcades, fountains, sandstone facades, towers and narrow streets. Often ranked among the most expensive cities in the world, Bern is the center of Swiss engineering and manufacturing, with medical, information technology, automotive and luxury retail products such as watches made there.
In 2011, Bern is ranked as the second-safest city in the world, after Luxembourg. Switzerland's neutrality and its reputation as a banking haven for the world's wealthy have made it an attractive place to relocate. However, growing immigration has become a cause of concern for the locals. The right-wing Swiss People's Party wants to limit the number of immigrants entering the country, and the movement saw a rise in popularity in 2011 after tapping into growing fears that immigration could hurt the Alpine country's high standard of life.
Foreigners make up 22% of the country's 7.9 million people and have been blamed for rising rents, crowded public transportation and higher electricity bills.
No. 8: Geneva
Geneva is Switzerland's second-most-populous city and home to about 20 international organizations, including the World Trade Organization and the Red Cross.
Its international role is highlighted by the fact that delegates from more than 160 countries represent their governments in the city's international conferences and organizations. More than 44% of the city's population is made up of foreigners.
The city is at the foot of the Swiss Alps, along the banks of Lake Geneva, and its natural environment makes it one of the greenest cities in Europe. About 20% of Geneva is dedicated to green areas, giving it the nickname "city of parks." Geneva has benefited from strict air pollution laws and other environmental regulations, given that it is the base of many global environmental groups.
Geneva is home to a large expatriate community, and its cost of living is the highest in Europe. It's considered the fifth-most-expensive city in the world, according to Mercer. The cosmopolitan hub is also home to the world's most expensive private schools and is said to have one of the world's best education systems.
No. 7: Frankfurt, Germany
Frankfurt is one of three German cities to rank among the top 10 in the world.
The city is the fifth-largest in Germany and is considered the largest financial center in continental Europe. It's home to such major institutions as the European Central Bank and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.
Frankfurt is also a major transport hub for central Europe, given its modern infrastructure, including an integrated high-speed-rail network and a busy international airport. About 114 million passenger journeys are made annually on the city's subway system, while 50 million passengers each year pass through the airport, the ninth-highest in volume globally.
Frankfurt is the 11th-safest city in the world based on crime levels and law-enforcement effectiveness. The city made headlines in September after its government banned local chapters of the Hells Angels and confiscated their assets, citing a history of drugs, weapons offenses and violence.
No. 5 (tie): Vancouver, British Columbia
Vancouver is the only Canadian and North American city to make the top 10 on the list.
The city is renowned for making numerous lists of the world's most livable cities over the past decade. It has ranked among the top five in the Mercer quality-of-life survey for the past five years.
Home to one of the mildest climates in Canada, Vancouver is also its greenest city, with the smallest carbon footprint of any major city in North America. The city is surrounded by water and snowy mountains, and its government constantly promotes green building, planning and technology, with the ambition of becoming the world's greenest city by 2020.
Despite being highly ranked as the 17th-safest city in the world, along with its Canadian counterparts Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Ottawa, Vancouver made headlines this past year for violent riots. Graphic images were shown around the world in June after hockey fans went on a rampage following a loss in the Stanley Cup finals.
No. 5: Düsseldorf, Germany
Düsseldorf has made the list of the top 10 places to live for the past five years.
The city by the river Rhine is the seventh-most-populated in Germany and boasts an advanced infrastructure.
Renowned for its fashion and trade fairs, the city has also become one of the top telecommunications centers in the country. It is home to such companies as Hewlett-Packard and Nokia Siemens. With more than 100 galleries, the city is also Germany's leading capital of modern and contemporary art.
German cities such as Düsseldorf have managed to maintain their quality of life despite the global financial crisis and the recent eurozone debt crisis, thanks to the country's resilient, export-driven economy.
No. 4: Munich
Munich is Germany's third-largest city and one of the country's key economic centers.
Home to some of Germany's most notable businesses, including engineering firm Siemens and insurer Allianz, the city generates about 30% of the state of Bavaria's GDP.
The city's purchasing power per capita was more than $33,700 in 2009, the highest among all German cities and 32% above the national average. Munich draws immigrants from all over the world to its industries, and more than 40% of its residents are foreigners.
Despite its a prosperous economy, Germany is facing a skilled-labor shortage as its population ages. Associations estimate that 80,000 engineering jobs need to be filled annually, along with 12,000 doctors and 66,000 IT specialists. Over the past few months, the country's government has turned to debt-ridden countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece to find job seekers.
No. 3: Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland has the best quality of life in the Asia-Pacific region. It has consistently ranked in the top five best places to live in the past five years.
New Zealand's largest city, Auckland is home to 1.35 million people, or more than 30% of the country's population.
About 63% of its residents are of European descent, while Moaris (who are native to New Zealand) and other Pacific Islanders make up 24%.
Auckland is uniquely set between two harbors, with 11 extinct volcanoes and numerous islands making it the city with the world's largest boat ownership per capita. Auckland is also ranked as the second-safest city in the Asian region, behind Singapore.
Political stability is another of New Zealand's attributes, in contrast with its Asian neighbors. In recent elections, the ruling center-right National Party was victorious. The party, led by John Key, promises to spark economic growth by cutting debt and curbing spending. Key has been one of the most popular political leaders in New Zealand's history, leading the country through earthquakes, a coal mine disaster and the global economic downturn.
No. 2: Zurich
Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland and previously held the title as the city with the best quality of life in the world.
Zurich is known as the economic engine of Switzerland, with one out of every nine jobs in the country based there.
Its low tax rates attract overseas companies to set up headquarters there, while the assets of the 82 banks based there constitute more than 85% of the total value of all assets held in the country. The city is also Switzerland's biggest tourist destination, famous for its lakeside location and a chain of hills that runs from north to south, and offers an extensive range of leisure activities.
Zurich is Europe's third-most-expensive city, according to Mercer's cost-of-living survey. Its finance sector generates nearly a third of its wealth and about a quarter of its jobs. The city's housing market has become a source of tension in recent years, with a shortage of apartments driving up living costs.
No. 1: Vienna
Vienna has won the title of the world's best city for quality of life since 2009. It is one of three capital cities around the world to make the top 10 list.
The city is Austria's largest by population, as well as the cultural, economic and political center of the nation.
Vienna's ability to transform old infrastructure into modern dwellings won the city a United Nations urban-planning award in 2010 for improving its residents' living conditions. Under a multimillion-dollar program, the city refurbished more than 5,000 buildings with nearly 250,000 apartments. Vienna is also the world's No. 1 destination for conferences, drawing 5 million tourists a year -- equivalent to three tourists for every city resident.
Despite recent turmoil in Europe, nations such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland have fared quite well in the quality-of-life rankings. However, Mercer's senior researcher Slagin Parakatil says these cities are not immune to decreases in living standards if the region's economic troubles continue.