Our Living Well, On Location series explores cities and countries from around the world. How do other people pursue health and happiness? We're going coast to coast, country to country to find out.
Rudyard Kipling once said that the only drawback to San Francisco is how hard it is to leave.
Many San Franciscans would agree with Kipling: Bay Area natives and transplants alike tend to be fiercely loyal to their city, and most SFers would tell you that they could never imagine living anywhere else. With sweeping vistas on every hill, beautiful beaches, year-round free concerts and cultural activities -- not to mention some of the best food, music and art in the country -- it's easy to see why so many have been lured by the siren song of the San Francisco Bay.
Besides being one of the most visually stunning seven-by-seven square miles on earth, San Francisco has also topped rankings of the happiest, healthiest and fittest cities in America, and Bloomberg Businessweek called San Francisco the best city in America in 2012.
Here are 12 reasons that San Francisco is one of the happiest and healthiest places in the U.S. -- and lessons that it can teach the rest of America about living well.
Considered one of the most "veg-friendly" cities in the US by PETA, San Francisco is not only an oasis of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, according to VegSF, but also has myriad vegetarian and vegan-friendly menus, even at restaurants with meat dishes. You can even eat the fruit that grows on the trees in certain public parks in San Francisco. And with the vegan paradise that is Berkeley right across the bay, herbivores will never run out of dining options.
It has a vibrant spiritual life.
Meditation, yoga and Eastern philosophy are a part of the city's DNA, thanks to a long history of Eastern religious studies at its cultural centers. The Buddhist philosopher and writer Alan Watts, a transplant to San Francisco from England, introduced thousands to Eastern philosophy in the late 1950s and early 1960s (his TV series "Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life" aired in San Francisco and helped spread Zen ideology in the U.S.). But no matter your faith, an emphasis on spiritual belief systems has been found to reduce stress levels and increase well-being, making it a likely contributor to its San Franciscans' good health.
San Francisco is also home to the oldest Buddhist temple in the U.S., and it's the birthplace of Burning Man, an event that attracts many seeking spiritual release. Centers like Mount Madonna, Green Gulch Zen Center, Spirit Rock and the Esalen Institute also offer workshops and retreats within a short drive of the city.
The city by the bay was voted the number-one best city to live the organic foodie lifestyle by the online magazine Organic Authority. Farmer's markets, community farms, organic restaurants and food co-ops (Rainbow Grocery in the Mission has been sharing organic food with the community since 1975) are easy to find.
An organic diet can help to reduce the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones that we consume from conventional food sources. And while the link between these compounds and human health isn't definitive, most researchers agree that we don't know what the long-term health consequences of eating these could be.
It's home to some of the country's best public parks.
San Francisco's parks -- ranging from Golden Gate Park to the Presidio to Dolores Park -- were ranked the best in the country last year by nonprofit conservation group, The Trust for Public Land. Public art is also everywhere, including the famous Hearts dotted all over the city, commissioned in 2004 by the San Francisco General Hospital. Recently, Parkets -- parking space-sized mini-parks that have copped up across town, offering greenery and seating to passersby -- have become the latest addition to the SF park scene.
Maybe that's why San Franciscans can seem so zen and so fit: Walking through green spaces, even in the middle of cities, can put the brain into a state of meditation, according to a recent UK study. And research has shown that public parks contribute to physical activity rates among city residents.
And speaking of fitness, outdoor activities are everywhere.
Outdoor recreational activities and exercise options help make the San Francisco Bay Area the seventh-fittest metropolitan area in America. Between doing tai chi in Washington Square Park, surfing at Ocean Beach and practicing yoga in Golden Gate Park, there's an outdoor activity for every fitness personality. The city's beautiful public trails and temperate weather make it easy to fit in daily workouts without a gym membership. (Not to mention that San Franciscans also build quads of steel from walking up the city's many steep hills.)
It has the "culture cure."
Live music, art, theater and literary events are all over the Bay, all year round -- and attending these cultural events could have some big health benefits. Studies have found that attending cultural events could lower blood pressure and also promote mental health by warding off anxiety and depression.
"When it comes to nourishing the soul, [San Francisco's] vibrant arts, entertainment, and recreational offerings set it apart," wrote Sarah Mahoney and Susan Coenen as part of a Prevention study of the 25 healthiest, happiest cities in America. "While it may seem obvious that those options make people happier, they also make them healthier."
It's close to nature.
The stress-relieving and happiness-boosting benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. Aside from the many green spaces and beaches within San Francisco proper, SFers can easily reconnect with nature by driving only a short distance from the city. Marin Headlands, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais State Park offer miles of hiking and biking trails in some of the most beautiful natural landscapes on the West Coast.
Yoga is everywhere -- even in the airport.
Yoga studios are nearly as ubiquitous in San Francisco as coffee shops. The city's New Age roots gave rise to a number of yoga and meditation centers and many of them are still popular today. And that's great for city residents, who can enjoy the practice's strength and flexibility training as well as it's calming effect on stress. Now, it's easy to find nearly any type of yoga in the city, including naked yoga in Noe Valley. Terminal Two of the San Francisco International Airport also has a yoga room for travelers looking for a little on-the-go zen.
It's one of the best cities for biking.
As residents of the eighth-best city for bikers by Bicycling Magazine, Bay Area drivers are used to sharing the road with bikers: Since 2010, San Francisco has installed 20 new miles of bike lanes, 25 bike-parking areas, and traffic signals giving riders the right-of-way. The new Bay Bridge even included the installation of a $500 million hanging bike lane, the first of its kind.
And the research shows that biking and bike commuting can have a huge impact on health. One Danish study found that bikers had a lower risk of death from any cause than their more sedentary counterparts. And in a separate Australian study, researchers found that people who replaced their car commute with biking lowered their risk of stroke and heart attack, improved their cholesterol and their aerobic fitness within one year, NPR reported.
Locals enjoy the health benefits of moderate wine consumption.
Thanks to world class vineyards in nearby Napa and Sonoma, wine is a part of the Northern California culture. We've all heard that one glass of red wine a day can improve your health, and it's true: Numerous studies have linked moderate wine consumption with a lower risk of becoming overweight or obese. Red wine also contain heart-healthy antioxidants and Resveratrol, which may reduce bad cholesterol, according to the Mayo Clinic.
It's a dog-friendly city.
It's commonly said that there are more dogs than children in San Francisco, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle, it's actually true. As of 2007, census data showed that the city's dog population trumped that of children.
"Nobody beats San Francisco when it comes to doting on dogs," the Chronicle wrote. "It's a city with luxury dog hotels, rooftop dog cocktail parties, a pet cemetery and City Hall plans to turn dog droppings into alternative energy."
And that isn't just good news for pooches: Pet ownership has been linked to reduced levels of stress and relief from mild depression, and improved heart health
It's a place that celebrates community.
As HuffPost San Francisco Editorial Fellow Lydia O'Connor points out, the "event to be at" in San Francisco is frequently free, outdoors and well-attended. Free events ranging from concerts to yoga classes are easy to come by, as are group volunteering activities and community art projects like the 16th Avenue tiled steps in the Sunset.
These community events don't just benefit the city as a whole, they can have an effect on individual residents. Strong social ties and community bonds have been linked with lower stress levels and increased well-being and longevity.