Best Cities for Expats 2021: No. 4 Leuven is the small but sophisticated city you should know

KU Leuven’s engineering school

You likely never heard of it, but Leuven is a no-brainer for our latest best cities list. This is an innovation center in Belgium similar to (and close to) Eindhoven, but still charming, having – unlike Eindhoven and Rotterdam – escaped total destruction during World War II. A university town about 25 kilometers east of Brussels, Leuven is headquarters for global brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev. Catholic University of Leuven is one of the best universities in Europe.

Leuven has a smart, young international population. Independent R&D center imec cranks out innovations in nanotechnology and other cutting edge research. For a such a small city (population 100,000), it has one of the most diverse and advanced economies in Europe.

And if we had a euro for every expat who’s talked up Leuven to us, we wouldn’t have to work anymore.

So, we went to see for ourselves recently, and it’s cliché, but this is a small city with the big-city feel of nearby Brussels, but younger and more exciting. Leuven might be too small for some expats coming to Europe from New York, Singapore or Shanghai, but most are going to groove on the accessibility and college-town feel. Because Leuven has a cool factor …

The truth is, until 2021, some much larger cities with more career opportunities dominated our Top 5 Cities in Europe for Expats lists. That is, until they priced themselves out of contention.

So, now we’re looking at Tier 2 cities that are close to the action. Because expat life should be an adventure, not a burden.

For 2021, cities are ranked by six metrics, each worth 100 points:

• overall cost of living benchmarked against London, the most expensive city in Europe outside of billionaires-only outliers such as Geneva and Monaco.

• availability of housing, affordability of rents and a reasonable quality of life

• density of talent and serious career opportunities with a prominent university driving innovation and creating tomorrow’s talent as in the Silicon Valley model

• the percentage of people who speak English, the language of business

• availability of international schools

• corruption: the fewer the problems, the higher the score

So, how does Leuven score? A solid 475 points out of 600 possible for the No. 4 spot on our list.

(Editor’s note: Liina Edun did the majority of research for this post. Terry Boyd also contributed information.)

Overall cost of living compared to London – 75 points

While the overall cost of living is more affordable than in London, Leuven’s salary range is about 41-percent less than in London, averaging 2,146 euros net per month, according to crowdsourcing data platform Numbeo. Groceries are a bit lower in Leuven, consumer prices are 13 percent less and eating out is 10-percent lower compared to London.

That being said, rental prices are less than half the amount you would pay in London. A one-bedroom apartment in the city center can go for 753.78 euros per month, and outside the city you can expect an average of 704.29 euros per month.

Other big savings include beer (shocker, right?) which is 41-percent cheaper in Leuven. Utilities are about 30-percent less expensive than in London. And pre-school/kindergarten is a whopping 70-percent less expensive, 470 euros per month compared to 1,645 euros in London.

Housing and quality of life – 80 points

Leuven is a spontaneous city with plenty of social/party opportunities yet is also a calm small town. There are a lot of amenities such as cafés, restaurants and museums, and Tomorrowland is maybe a 45-minute drive in Boom. There are a green spaces for leisurely walks, such as Park Abbey, the city botanical garden and Kessel-lo Park. The city is easily accessible by walking and biking and is very safe. Thanks to the number of international students, there’s an outstanding cultural mix, and you hear English on the streets as much as Flemish and German. Restaurant-wise, there’s everything from cheapie Chinese to Michelin-starred restaurants.

A lot of the accommodation options in Leuven cater to students, where individual rooms are rented out rather than the whole apartment. However, you can find plenty of apartment rentals throughout the year, in the city and outside of the city.

The website Immo is the go-to resource for finding accommodation in Leuven.

Talent and serious career opportunities – 90 points

Due to the highly ranked university Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (ranked No. 45 globally on Times Higher Education’s list) there are a lot of young, talented people in Leuven. In terms of career opportunities, there is a wide variety of companies specializing in information and communication technologies, additive manufacturing, biotech, nanotechnology, legal and medical sectors.

While AB InBev is a huge company, it’s Imec research that drives the tech sector economy and has a lot of jobs for highly skilled internationals, which you can see here.

Prevalence of English – 90 points

You can get by easily with English (or French) in Leuven, although Flemish/Dutch is the most common language spoken there. For administrative and bureaucratic purposes, you will definitely need a knowledge of Flemish/Dutch or have a native Flemish speaker to help you.

International schools – 50 points

There is one international school in Leuven, the International School of Leuven. ISL offers a combined British and international curriculum, from preschool to 18. Dutch, French and English are all taught at ISL. Of course, there are at least 11 in Brussels, but that’s a bit of a commute by train.

Corruption – 90 points

Belgium ranked No. 15 on the Transparency International corruption index in 2020 with a score of 76. Generally speaking, Belgium is well equipped to fight corruption, but the public has low trust in the justice and civil service system and a high perception of corruption within the country.

It also has issues, because even though they’re all “Belgian” (which is a geopolitical mashup), the French-speaking Roman Catholic Walloons in southern Belgium and the mostly Protestant Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north hate each other. Think Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, but they literally can’t talk with one another.

So, Leuven scores 475 points to secure the No. 4 position.

Downside – it’s a university town, and housing can be difficult to find.

Upside – close to Brussels and travel destinations such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. Paris is a couple of hours away by car as are Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

You can jump to Dispatches’ “Best Cities” archive here for current and past posts.

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