When I first started studying yoga, I was amazed at how much about my health I discovered that no doctor had told me. There were healing traditions from different parts of the world that were effective in treating chronic illnesses. But my doctors either didn’t know about them or didn’t believe in them. When I first set off to travel around the world, one of my goals was to study healing practices from other cultures. Six years later, I’m still building that knowledge. Yet, one thing that stuck with me was how much changing location could change my health. The cuisine, the climate, the culture, and the pace of life all impacted my wellness.
I spent 22 years living in Canada before moving abroad, and I wasn’t aware of how much a change in scenery could affect my health. I found that there were strong traditions from other cultures that helped me when western medicine couldn’t. Immersing yourself in another culture can help you better understand your health.
If you’re thinking of heading on a short holiday to Europe, an extended stay of a few months, or a big move, here are the places I’ve found had the most positive effect on my health.
The Healthiest Countries in Europe:
I may be biased because Greece is my favourite country to visit. But, one thing I learned after living in Greece is that finding things that bring you joy (like floating in the sea while staring up at ruins) is essential to good health. Greece is often touted as the birthplace of modern medicine (though ancient cultures were practising medicine long before the Greeks). It's also the birthplace of Hippocrates who is famous for telling physicians to “do no harm” in the Hippocratic Oath.
Why Greece is one of the healthiest countries in Europe
You can’t go far in Greece without running into a farmer trying to sell you fresh oranges, olives, cheese, or other fruits and vegetables. You won’t find hipster cafes selling “organic, local” food, because it’s hard to find food that isn’t local when travelling in Greece. While newer additions to the modern Greek diet include breaded and deep-fried foods, sticking to more traditional Greek dishes includes eating a lot of salads, grilled vegetables, fish, olives, and meat. This is also known as the Mediterranean diet which can help reduce risk factors and symptoms for a number of chronic diseases.
The warm climate and salty sea air are good for easing joint pain, and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea is both safe (few rough currents or predators) and available to do most of the year. Swimming is a great full body exercise that is easy on the joints and supportive of the body. It’s sunny year-round in most of the country, and those coming from North America or Western Europe will enjoy a slower pace of life. The locals enjoy spending their afternoons in cafes sipping coffee, playing backgammon, and chatting with friends.
Italy was ranked the world’s healthiest country in 2017. An entire country of coastline, mountains, and ancient ruins, it’s easy to get an energy boost just from sitting in a cafe on a cobbled street or beachfront and watching life go by.
Why Italy is one of the healthiest countries in Europe
Like Greece, the Italian diet is filled with fresh vegetables, fish, meats, and a healthy dollop of olive oil or fresh cheese. The Italians take joy in cooking and in eating. Food isn’t something you get to-go on your way to work, or shovel in your face in front of the TV. Food is something that is enjoyed. They source fresh ingredients, eat slowly, and enjoy social time with friends over a meal.
While in the bigger cities life can be fast-paced, head to the coastal towns or islands for a slower pace of life. The Italians prioritise friends and family and have one of the best healthcare systems in the world.
The weather is warm year-round, and access to nature is available from almost anywhere in the country.
It’s easy to stay active and relaxed on a visit to Spain. Enjoy an extended lunch with a glass of red wine, sit for hours in a chiringuito (beach cafe), or join a salsa dancing class. Or, for a more relaxing holiday, join one of the many yoga or meditation retreats that run year-round all over the country.
Why Spain is one of the healthiest countries in Europe
Take an afternoon nap and then head out for tapas where you’ll find small bites of a variety of grilled fishes, meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Spain is one of the sunniest countries in Europe, and the climate is hot in the summer and mild in the winter. You’re never far from a beach, a mountain, or a health retreat offering yoga and meditation. In bigger cities like Barcelona and Madrid, you’ll find a lot of health-conscious restaurants, cafes, and yoga studios. If you’re staying for the long term, the Spanish healthcare system is fantastic (both public and private options).
The Spanish pace of life, even in busy, tourist-infested, Barcelona is slow. They appreciate sitting on a patio and enjoying a meal for several hours at a time and have a strong appreciation for art and music.
In just a few hours you can pull a jumper over your swimsuit at the Mediterranean sea and arrive in the heart of the alps.
Why France is one of the healthiest countries in Europe
Famous for cheese and croissants, there’s more to French cuisine than cheese and wine. While the French enjoy a richer diet than most other places in the Mediterranean, they indulge lightly, keeping portions for rich foods small. France has strict laws about where and how food can be sourced, and you’ll be able to taste the difference when dining out in a fancy restaurant or casual cafe in France.
Like the other Mediterranean countries on this list, the pace of life in France is slow, and people often take long breaks from work and school to enjoy lunch with family in friends. Add in grand palaces and art history, and you’ll enjoy a fun and healthy holiday in France.
Land of the best tomatoes, and indeed the best breakfasts, I’ve ever eaten your stomach will enjoy a visit to Turkey. Add in the Turkish spas, and you've got a rejuvenating and culturally intriguing holiday.
Why Turkey is one of the healthiest countries in Europe
Placed between Asia and Europe on the Mediterranean Sea, plenty of fruits and vegetables thrive in this climate. Even small corner restaurants offer delicious and bountiful salads for lunch for dinner. In coastal regions, the seafood is caught fresh and grilled, and in-land meat is often locally sourced and produced.
The nature in Turkey is stunning. You can swim in crystal blue waters, go hiking in gorges or get lost among the bright colours in one of the many markets. While there are more health concerns in Turkey than the other places on this list (tap water is often unsafe to drink, air quality is not as good as other places in Europe), a holiday in Turkey is worth the small annoyances*. You won’t go far in any Turkish town without passing by a Hammam offering spa treatments, Turkish baths, and steam rooms. These ancient forms of water therapy can help decrease stress and anxiety, and relieve pain.
Most of the Swiss’ traditional dishes include cheese, meat, and potatoes so one wouldn’t expect the Swiss to be some of the healthiest, happiest people on the planet. Yet there is a lot we can learn from the health habits of the Swiss. To tempt you further, it doesn’t hurt that you’re never far from a thick hot chocolate with a mountainous view.
Why Switzerland is one of the healthiest places in Europe
You won’t find “light” or “fat-free” foods in Switzerland. They focus on sourcing real food ingredients, which means, yes, milk, butter, cheese, potatoes, bread, and meat. However, they choose high-quality ingredients and add flavour to their dishes, so you stay full for longer. They also know that a fondue night is a treat, not a daily event. Like the French, dining is a social experience based on enjoying food together. People in France in Switzerland spend almost twice as long eating as their North American counterparts, but eat less food. Fast food and snacking are rare, and the Swiss walk everywhere.
Whether it’s a tough multi-day trek through the mountain, or a stroll to a weekly vintage market, walking and staying active is an integral part of the Swiss lifestyle. In winter you’ll find people heading to the slopes every weekend, skis intact, and in the summer everyone and their grandma heads to the hills for a trek. Mindfulness is widespread in Switzerland, so even if you don’t have the energy for skiing or trekking, you can enjoy the fresh mountain air and scenery on one of the many mindfulness retreats in the country.
Despite the cold climate and bleak winters, the Scandinavian countries are some of the healthiest and happiest on earth. I couldn’t pass over Denmark on this list as they are the birthplace of the ever-growing Hygge movement – the word for the feeling of cozy contentment with life.
Why Denmark is one of the healthiest countries in Europe
I love the concept of Hygge – an appreciation for the simple things in life – because it has many similarities to mindfulness. In Denmark, you can stroll around Copenhagen and stop to enjoy a coffee. Watching the cyclists whizz by, without feeling the need to do anything other than enjoy the moment. Since it’s so cold in Denmark, Hygge usually refers to cozy things like warm blankets and wool socks. Suddenly the cold winter seems a bit more bearable. Add to this that Copenhagen is one of the worlds most cycle-friendly cities (I’m a bit obsessed with cycle cities), and enjoying the Sauna life is a favourite winter past time in all Scandinavian countries. While many people find their health improves in warmer, Mediterranean climates, the Danish have found a way not only to survive but to thrive in the cold.
Yes, it’s cold and grey and windy. Yes, I once spent nearly $15 on a hot dog. But Iceland is a country I can’t wait to return to. This volcanic country is filled with hot springs, traditional healthy foods, and mystic energy that always leaves me feeling like I want to stay a little bit longer.
Why Iceland is one of the healthiest countries in Europe
Like all the Scandinavian countries, the healthcare in Iceland is highly rated, and the lifestyles of the Icelanders lends itself to healthy, happy, people. Every night of the week the local pools (all outdoors, despite the cold climate) are teaming with people catching up with friends and family after a long day of work. The pools are naturally heated to varying degrees so you can soak in a hot tub or swim laps while breathing in the fresh air and bathing under the stars. The Nordic diet is full of healthy fats like fish and oils, and there’s always a heap of vegetables on any dinner plate.
The Icelandic are known for their creative talents. Almost anyone you meet is in a band or finishing up a novel. Welcoming good health isn’t just about the physical, but the emotional and spiritual as well. Finding creative outlets that bring you joy and allow you to explore freely, can contribute to your overall health and happiness.
When planning a trip to Europe, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to history, food, and nature. I hope this list helps you find a destination where you can learn something about your health, and take a little extra Hygge home with you!
ps. Check out these tips on travelling with a chronic illness for your next adventure!
*Excluding times of political unrest