The Happiest City in the U.S. Is All About Art, Parks, and Global Cuisine

The Institute for Quality of Life recently unveiled its 2024 Happy City Index, and only one U.S. city ranked among the happiest in the world.

Sculpture of an oversize curved spoon with a cherry on the tip, with the Minneapolis skyline in the background

The art, culture, and cuisine are all above par in this Midwestern happy place.

Mike Madison/Meet Minneapolis

The London-based Institute for Quality of Life recently released its 2024 Happy City Index, a ranking of the world’s happiest places. It found that Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the happiest city in the United States and the only U.S. city to earn a coveted “Gold” ranking, alongside cities in Europe, Asia, New Zealand, and Canada.

As I’m an East Coast transplant who fell in love with Minnesota during a 16-month, 40-state, 229-city road trip across America, this came as no surprise. My adopted hometown since 2018 has access to nature that is next-level, with most Minneapolitans living within six minutes of a public park or green space; our citizenry is diverse and civically engaged; our art, culture, and restaurant scenes rival those of cities five times our size; gobs of top companies (General Mills, Target, Best Buy, etc.) are headquartered here; and our international airport—a hub for Delta and Sun Country Airlines—is one of the most efficient and well-connected in the country.

And while I have long known what makes Minneapolis so great, now there is empirical data to back it up. The Institute for Quality of Life, a project by Happy City Hub, studies issues related to the well-being of community members. That includes residents, workers, parents, children, students, seniors, and others. Analysis of community-impacted decision-making—such as the creation of social policies and implementation of public services—factors heavily into its research, as do the ways in which cities react to various crises and challenges.

Thirty-seven global cities earned “Gold” rankings in the 2024 Happy City Index. Minneapolis stood out in a sea of mostly European and Scandinavian winners, including Zurich, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vienna, and Stockholm—the highest marks were given to the city of Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark, situated on the country’s eastern coast. The “Silver” and “Bronze” rankings saw a much greater number of U.S. cities, including Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon, and fellow Midwesterners Rochester, Minnesota, and Madison, Wisconsin.

There is no one-size-fits-all key to happiness, of course—which the Institute for Quality of Life is quick to acknowledge. “The concept of a high quality of life is extremely subjective, conditioned by the history, tradition, religion, or geopolitical location of the country in which a person lives,” it noted in its methodology report. Cities were analyzed on the basis of five key categories of happiness—citizens, governance, environment, economy, and mobility—as well as 24 areas of activity, touching on everything from social inclusivity and access to cultural resources to smart public transportation and the planning and expansion of green spaces.

Want to experience this slice of happiness for yourself? Then do as Anthony Edwards said and “bring ya ass” to Minnesota. Here’s how to get the most out of a visit to America’s happiest city.

The best things to see, do, and eat in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Sail boats in the Lake Harriet marina in Minneapolis

Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes includes the beautiful Lake Harriet and its marina.

Lane Pelovsky/Meet Minneapolish

Get outside

One of the main reasons I fell so hard for Minneapolis after a decade in the concrete jungle of New York City was its top-flight park system with 180 parks that are home to 22 lakes, 12 gardens, and 55 miles of bike trails and walking paths. My favorite walks are the 13.3-mile Chain of Lakes, one of seven segments comprising Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, and the five-mile Winchell Trail flanking the Mississippi River gorge. I also like seeing what’s in bloom at the Lyndale Park Rose Garden and hearing who’s chirping at the neighboring Roberts Bird Sanctuary, eating fish tacos next to gushing Minnehaha Falls in Minnehaha Regional Park, and paddling around in a rented kayak from Mississippi River Paddle Share.

Get involved

Whatever your interests, there’s probably a group of Minneapolitans hankering to meet you. From cross-country skiing, scuba diving, and log rolling to sci-fi books, vintage clothing, and larger-than-life puppetry, this city makes it easy to find your tribe. Duck into A Bar of Their Own, the Twin Cities’ first bar dedicated entirely to women’s sports, or Marigold, Minnesota’s first nonalcoholic bottle shop, to befriend like-minded patrons. Drawing travelers and locals in equal measure are year-round events and festivals like Art-A-Whirl, the nation’s largest open-studio tour; Twin Cities Pride, one of the country’s most popular LGBTQ+ celebrations; and The Great Northern, a multidisciplinary winter program with a laser-sharp focus on climate change and social justice.

Get cultured

Making the museum rounds is one of my favorite pastimes. Check out the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, The Museum of Russian Art (which showcases loads of Ukrainian artists, too), Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, and the American Swedish Institute (with its to-die-for cardamom buns served at the FIKA Café). All My Relations Arts is a gallery space dedicated to contemporary Native artists; Norway House and the Danish American Center host events inspired by their respective diaspora communities; and the recently revamped Somali Museum of Minnesota houses more than 700 artifacts, including a full-scale reproduction of a nomadic hut.

Our theater scene is equally impressive, with the historic Orpheum Theatre drawing Tony Award–winning Broadway productions such as The Book of Mormon, and the renowned Guthrie Theater staging some of the region’s best original plays. Experimental plays reign at Mixed Blood Theater and Brave New Workshop, and nothing beats the kid-friendly offerings at Children’s Theatre Company if you have little ones in tow. For something more low-key and intimate, there’s always the 90-seat cabaret theater at Bryant Lake Bowl, a 1950s bowling alley made internet famous by a skillfully flown drone.

A bird's-eye view of several plates and dishes at Southeast Asian restaurant Hai Hai in Minneapolis

Head to Southeast Asian street food restaurant Hai Hai, whose chef, Vietnamese American Christina Nguyen, just won a 2024 James Beard Award.

Hai Hai/Meet Minneapolish

Get fed

Minneapolis may be known for its Jucy Lucy, a burger stuffed with molten cheese, but what’s really hot in this Twin City is its battery of badass women chefs, including Korean American Ann Kim (Kim’s, Young Joni), Lao American Ann Ahmed (Khāluna, Gai Noi), and Vietnamese American Christina Nguyen (Hola Arepa, Hai Hai), who just won the title of Best Chef Midwest at the 2024 James Beard Awards. Head to Diane’s Place, founded by ridiculously talented Hmong American pastry chef Diane Moua, for coconut pandan croissants and sweet pork danishes with salted egg yolk, and count your blessings if you’re in town when Heather Jansz, aka The Curry Diva, is hosting one of her delicious Sri Lankan pop-ups. Also making noise on a global scale is Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota Sioux chef, activist, and cookbook author working to decolonize Indigenous food. If you can’t grab coveted reservations to his fine-dining restaurant Owamni, belly up to the counter at the Indigenous Food Lab inside Midtown Global Market. His slow-cooked bison, served birria-style in an Indigenous grain bowl, is unforgettable.

Get a room

Minnesota welcomed its first five-star property, Four Seasons Hotel Minneapolis, two summers ago. Regional flourishes abound, from Minnesota-made Faribault Mill blankets to striking ceramic installations by local artist Juliane Shibata. Mara Restaurant & Bar, the hotel’s Mediterranean eatery from decorated chef Gavin Kaysen, is a popular date-night spot. Winter programming at the Four Seasons has included guided sauna experiences and a pop-up Nordic village with all the holiday trimmings. Another great option is the boutiquey, 124-room Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood, with its rooftop sauna and spa pool.

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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