World's most liveable cities 2021: Revitalised Adelaide overtakes Melbourne and Sydney

Adelaide has taken over from COVID-struck Melbourne as Australia's most liveable city, in the South Australian capital's highest rating since it was named fifth most liveable in 2015.

The rankings are measured by The Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Index and take into account the stability, healthcare, education, culture and environment and infrastructure of 140 of the world's biggest cities.

Australia had four cities in the top 10, with Perth and Brisbane securing sixth and tenth spots respectively. Melbourne lost its long hold on top spot to Auckland, finishing eighth, while Sydney fell just outside the top 10 at number 11. 

While Adelaide gained perfect scores in education and healthcare, on a recent trip to the South Australia's capital we noticed a few other changes that might interest visitors. For a start, its skyline is starting to get a serious bump. With two new hotels, four rooftop bars from which to capitalise on that great South Aussie sunshine and a huge new festival of light to rival Vivid, Mona Foma and White Night, Adelaide is set to become a hot travel destination.

It's the first proper weekend I've had to explore the city in nearly 20 years and much has changed. In a nod to Melbourne's laneways, visitors will have to seek out some of its hippest bars and restaurants in the backstreets of the east end.

Closed to traffic, you could spend an evening bar-hopping along Ebenezer Place, sampling wine and cheese at East End Cellars or checking out New Orleans-themed NOLA, which serves po'boys, sour beers from rotating taps and NOLA-inspired cocktails, as well as live jazz. Even Adelaide Hills' cellar doors have come to town, with Unico Zelo's Go opening on an upper floor of Rundle St; and Ferg's in Stepney (five minutes out of the city) providing an outlet for cutting-edge lo-fi wine producers Moorak, Edenflo and VHS.

But the most exciting change has come from the city's west end. While Hindley Street retains its reputation as one of the dingiest strips in the southern hemisphere, the bars and restaurants of Peel and Leigh streets nearby contain some of the best dining and drinking options in Adelaide.

The highlight of any visit to this precinct, and perhaps even the city itself, is Leigh Street Wine Room. I'm served a Gruner by minimal interventionalists BK Wines while eclectic music ranging from the Last Shadow Puppets to Icehouse pours from the speakers. Flavour-packed dishes come out fast; pickled peppers and anchovy crostini blanketed in finely chopped chives; kingfish sashimi with shaved kohlrabi; and a comforting, pillowy gnocchi. For dessert, there's a strawberry and yuzu sake to accompany a light mascarpone and meringue dessert. I can't believe it's taken me so long to get here.

Two doors down, the highly Instagrammable and pocket-sized Pink Moon Saloon is jammed tonight, so I cross over to Peel St, accessible via another bar. I'm looking for Maybe Mae, which is lost somewhere in between. A staff member from upstairs leans over the balcony to give me directions to its below-ground, speakeasy-style entrance. I like this place: the staff are friendly and make recommendations and there's hints of a Tiki bar, with art-deco design, round leather booths and panelled glass. Also novel is table service - even at the bar - in order not to disturb the very serious cocktail making behind it. I try the 'Peel St Corpse Reviver' which sounds terrifying but refreshingly cheap at $13, and an unlikely combination of gin and lager with lashings of ginger and honey which tastes like ginger beer on acid.


Nearby on Hindmarsh Square, and part of the new multi-level arts precinct Light on Light, new Aurora restaurant is one of the first to extend a sustainability model to its staff, with proper training and fair payment part of its philosophy. Formerly at the helm of d'Arenberg, South African born chef Brendan Wessels employs a custom-built braai to chargrill elements of his Korean and Japanese inspired menu. Cauliflower is blended into a smokey puree and served with crispy fried coral mushrooms; if they don't sound familiar, these are special indigenous mushrooms that grow on a five-week cycle and need to be ordered five weeks in advance. The desserts are sublime: pastry chef Huy Nguyễn turns simple recipes on their head, experimenting with unique smokey cacao from Vietnam and Mexican chilli; Vegemite in salted caramel or substituting camomile for vanilla in ice-cream.

But innovation hasn't always been the key to a successful restaurant in Adelaide. Max Mason's much-loved and experimental restaurant Henry Austin on Chesser St was devised to reduce food waste, while focusing on native ingredients. More rock'n'roll than fine-dining, the restaurant had a 'Gimp Room' for $500-a-head degustations in the old cellar and guests were able to open any bottle they fancied. Despite the Bollinger Grand Annee being removed from the cellar for these special occasions, it failed to survive a second Adelaide winter (Mason credits its demise to Netflix and Ubereats).

That's where new festival of light creators Illuminate step in. A concept started by ex-Adelaideans Rachael Azzopardi and Lee Cumberlidge, the pair have put three years into the project which aims to pull Adelaideans out of their winter hibernation as well as draw visitors from interstate to further invigorate Adelaide as a year-round international arts destination.

'While Adelaide is known for its amazing festivals in summer, we wanted to create a new time, and winter seemed the best as it is traditionally a quieter time – perfect for us to offer something new and unique for people to embrace the cold and see the city transformed," says Azzopardi.

And if you're visiting, the city now has a hotel scene to rival the eastern seaboards. With Australia's first hip Hotel Indigo celebrating the arts and Eos by Skycity adding swanky luxury and its glimmering gold facade alongside the new hotels at Adelaide Oval and boutique Mayfair, there's now a decent selection of hotels to choose from. The times have indeed changed.

Having travelled and lived all over the world to work with major festivals, Azzopardi and Cumberlidge have both returned to Adelaide to live full-time.

"It has always been a place where you can make things happen, and Illuminate Adelaide is a great example," says Cumberlidge. "I think Adelaide has recognised that there is a lot of value in being a small-medium sized city and ceased to measure itself in comparison to the bigger cities which was prevalent when I was starting my career. There seems to be a greater sense of city pride now.'

"It has become much more confident and a major city - it is future-facing and full of energy and possibility,' agrees Azzopardi. "Adelaide offers you an amazing lifestyle with incredible wineries, beaches, and the Adelaide Hills all within 45 mins of of he city - there is so much to love about it."

The 10 most liveable cities 2021

  1. Auckland, New Zealand
  2. Osaka, Japan
  3. Adelaide, Australia
  4. Wellington, New Zealand
  5. Tokyo, Japan
  6. Perth, Australia
  7. Zurich, Switzerland
  8. Geneva, Switzerland
  9. Melbourne, Australia
  10. Brisbane, Australia

The writer was a guest of the South Australia Tourism Commission.