The French city named best in the world for quality of life

Ringed by three national parks, Grenoble boasts incredible views and hiking routes
Ringed by three national parks, Grenoble boasts incredible views and hiking routes - iStockphoto

Grenoble is a destination that exceeds expectations. It has a terrible reputation. When I moved to France, it was the first place I stayed. As I deliberated about whether to live there or in Lyon, an hour away, people’s reactions said it all.

“Why would you live in Grenoble?” they asked. “The pollution is terrible, there’s gangs, it’s France’s mafia stronghold.”

However, the naysayers might be surprised to learn that Grenoble has in fact been named the best city in the world for quality of life by the Oxford Economics’ Global Cities Index. It scored full marks: 100/100, beating the other 999 cities on the list to the top spot.

The “quality of life” category took into account life expectancy, income per person, income equality, housing expenditure, recreation and cultural sites, and… internet speed.

I’m not surprised that Grenoble has come out on top. If anything, the antiquated reputation and the supposed high levels of pollution (greatly lessened since the election of a green mayor) have served to keep the world’s most liveable city under wraps from the masses.

Affordable and affable alternative

Money can’t buy happiness, but affordable renting definitely helps. In Grenoble, the average rental cost per metre squared is €13 (£11), which works out at approximately €640 (£540) a month for the average, unfurnished apartment in the city. Compare that with Paris (€1,599/£1,345), or even neighbouring Lyon, my home, (€843/£710) and you get a lot more bang for your buck.

Grenoble's enviable green spaces are popular with cyclists
Grenoble's enviable green spaces are popular with cyclists - Alamy

The green spaces in and around the city was no doubt a big factor in the “recreation” category that helped the city to clinch the top spot. Grenoble is ringed by three French regional parks: Vercors, Chartreuse and Belledonne. The first two boast ski resorts and the closest slopes to Grenoble city centre are just a 20-minute drive away. Mid-week lift passes are ridiculously cheap compared to the rest of the Alps (from as little as €15/£13). It’s not unheard of for locals in Grenoble to book a day off work when a bluebird day is forecast and hit the slopes, with no crowds, for a pittance – for many, it’s part of the answer to a better quality of life.

In summer, these same parks lend themselves to incredible hiking and cycling routes. The Cirque de Saint-Même waterfalls in Chartreuse Regional Park is a personal favourite and a route I’ve returned to many times. There’s an easy 30 minute trail from the car park for families, or you can undertake a more challenging hike from Saint-Pierre-d’Entremont, which takes four hours.

The Cirque de Saint-Même waterfalls in Chartreuse Regional Park
The Cirque de Saint-Même waterfalls in Chartreuse Regional Park - Alamy

The views in the city itself are spectacular too, the best being from the Bastille Fortress, accessed via a one-hour uphill walk from town, or a cable car (included in the convenient G-Pass city card). At street level, the Musée de Grenoble has an excellent 20th century art collection, including numerous works by Matisse, Picasso and Warhol. After dark, Grenoble is at its most lively. The student population is 65,000, accounting for 40 per cent of the city.

Sustaining its appeal

Coming from someone who eschewed Grenoble in favour of Lyon, perhaps this all sounds a little hollow. Marion Grand, a programme manager at Grenoble IAE (one of the city’s universities), studied in the city and, after a short-lived stint in Paris, returned to make her home here. She believes that much of Grenoble’s liveability comes from it being the first French city to elect a green mayor, in 2014.

“Many more cycle lanes were constructed and the tram system developed,” says Grand. “My commute to campus is all by bike, on green, beautifully kept bike lanes. It’s lovely! When I go out in town it’s the same, there are bike lanes all the way.”

Grenoble's cable car offers spectacular views of the city
Grenoble's cable car offers spectacular views of the city - iStockphoto

For Grand, it’s a combination of the nature on her doorstep and the lack of pretentiousness that make Grenoble a great place to live.

“You can go out in head-to-toe Quechua [Decathlon’s own brand] and no-one bats an eyelid,” she said. “Even though I’m not particularly sporty, it’s hard to argue with the variety on offer – skiing, climbing, hiking or just gorgeous lake views.”

For afterwork drinks, dressed in Lycra and clip shoes, a snowsuit or even a policeman’s uniform, Grand knows the best place.

The 1900 on Place Notre Dame is an institution. The owner, Fabio, has been there at least 30 years,” she said. “You get such a mix of clientèle. I recently saw a professional hockey player, an actor and a policeman all drinking their signature cocktail together, Le P’tit Vélo.” Another local secret to the perfect life.

Place Notre Dame in Grenoble
Place Notre Dame in Grenoble - Alamy

Our insider guide to Grenoble

Top restaurant

On a fine day, there’s no place better than Canopy (a short distance south of the city centre), whose rooftop has a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding mountains. A three-course lunch menu costs just €22 (£19). In town, the pocket-sized bistrot Et Si uses fresh, seasonal produce and there are always great vegetarian dishes.

Top activity

In Grenoble, it has to be an active activity. Canoe Grenoble runs guided evening kayaking trips on the River Isère in the heart of the city, taking in the buildings that are lit up as dusk falls and the brooding silhouette of the surrounding mountains.

Where to stay

For adrenaline junkies, nothing beats spending a night in a tent suspended from a cliff face: the brand new camping experience proposed by the École de Porte. The views pale in comparison with this, but if you’d prefer not to spend the night dangling over the void, my favourite Grenoble hotel is Art Deco 1924. It’s just minutes from the train station and doubles start from €87 (£73) a night, with breakfast.

How to get there

Seasonal flights (December to April) serve Grenoble Isère Airport from Bristol, Gatwick and Luton. Year-round, direct train services run from Paris Gare de Lyon, taking three hours. Fares from London St Pancras to Grenoble, via Paris, booked through the Trainline, start from £61, one way.