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Dispatches’ debut 2020 list of Europe’s five best under-the-radar cities for expats (updated)

Düsseldorf (All photos by Terry Boyd for Dispatches)

(Editor’s note: We updated our list of Europe’s best under-the-radar cities with Valencia. You can see Inka Piegsa-Quishchotte’s post on Valencia here.)

Everyone wants to live in Paris. Well, everyone except all the expats who simply must live in Berlin. And, of course, there are those expats who only will settle for Amsterdam. All wonderful cities. All less and less affordable. Which is why they don’t make Dispatches’ annual lists of the best cities for expats.

There are cults of cities, and we get that. But there is a point where expats might ask themselves, “Is there another place I might want to consider which has a higher quality of life, lower cost of living and comparable career opportunities?”

With a no-deal Brexit a near certainty and Trump announcing he won’t cede power even if he’s defeated in November, we think it’s time for another list of cities that are promising – but overlooked – destinations for expats.

Yes, cost of living, ease of immigration and other practical considerations always shape our Dispatches lists of best cities and countries for expats. And this post assumes Europe will be first with an effective COVID-19 vaccine. But this time, we’re not going to indulge in our tendency to over-report and over-quantify.

These cities have been curated by our expat networks, and just because they’re under-loved doesn’t mean they have to be small, as you’ll see. But you know, if we see one more “best cities for expats” list with Copenhagen, we’ll puke. Our goal is to tell you about emerging tech and innovation centers before everyone knows about them. And we’d love to hear your suggestions for this list at: [email protected]

Let’s first look at the cities that didn’t make the cut because our expats nixed them. They include Porto, which we thought would be an alternative to over-popular Lisbon. Nope, says our Liina Edun, who lived there for seven months. Liina told us Porto is a beautiful city but much smaller than Lisbon and no less expensive.

We originally had Athens, but our contributors in Greece also told us Greece is a tough place to live right now. Finally, as much as we love Switzerland, we thought Basel might be a candidate. Alas, too expensive.

METHODOLOGY

We asked expat contributors and readers to reveal their secret cities, then compared them to the largest expat centers. So, Düsseldorf gets compared to Berlin and Leuven gets priced against Brussels. Easy peasy.

We did not include cities such as Rotterdam and Eindhoven, which already are on our overall best cities for expats lists.

So here’s our list with no particular ranking and in alphabetical order:

Düsseldorf

You’re sick of us telling you what a great town Düsseldorf is, but there is literally nothing not to like. An upscale shopping experience along the Königsallee, the Rodeo Drive of Europe, which is always bumper-to-bumper with Lamborghinis and top-end Porsche 911s. Riverside cafés and restaurants. A world-class collection of architecture, including three Gehry buildings. And lots of multinational companies as residents there and in the other Ruhr-Rhine complex cities including Cologne and Dortmund.

This is a wealthy, yet affordable, city … sleek, sophisticated and fun. We’ll never apologize for loving Düsseldorf.

Upside: Düsseldorf is a bit less expensive than Berlin, especially housing, and it has far more multinationals doing business there. It doesn’t have the financial clout of a Munich or Frankfurt, but it’s also not nearly as expensive.

Downside: You pretty much have to speak German fluently to work and deal with the daily challenges of finding schools for your kids and negotiating the bureaucracy.

Cost of housing compared to Berlin: Numbeo shows a three-bedroom in the center of Düsseldorf renting for about 1,500 euros per month compared to a similar apartment in Berlin renting for more than 1,720 euros per month.

Companies with operations in Düsseldorf: Most of the big global accounting and consulting firms have operations in Düsseldorf including Deloitte and Boston Consulting.

Fast casual retailer C&A has one of its two HQ operations here, and most of the big Japanese electronics companies are here including Sony. There are also several emerging digital companies hiring including Ubisoft Blue Byte, which needs a game security programmer.

Grenoble

This industrial French city will never be mistaken for Paris and nearby Lyon. But like our Dispatches headquarters of Eindhoven, it’s a great place to make money. For more than a decade, Grenoble has been – wait for it – “the Silicon Valley of France.”

Genoble, along with Lille, pump out almost as many successful tech startups as Paris, which has Station F. Grenoble startups include Aledia which has raised about 70 million euros. Aledia creates next-gen digital displays using LEDs on 3D architecture using gallium-nitride-on-silicon nanowires, according to its website.

All this comes out of Grenoble Alps University, which is the second piece in The Valley model of tech, university and capital. The city also has advanced manufacturing and energy companies. See more on investing in Grenoble here.

We pinged our expat network in France and the consensus is, “Everywhere in France other than Paris, Nice and the Côte d’Azur, is inexpensive, so go for it.”

Pluses: Grenoble might not be much to look at, but it’s on the edge of the Alps, with enough winter sports to have hosted the 1968 Winter Olympics.

Negatives: Crime is probably more of an issue here than in other cities on this list.

Cost of living: Rents are less than half of Paris. A three-bedroom in the center of the city will run you about 1,100 euros per month compared to 2,600 euros in Paris, according to Numbeo.

Helsinki

By coincidence, we’ve talked with multiple people in the past year who either went to university in Helsinki, or attended startup events there such as Slush. The consensus is, beautiful city and not as cold as you would think, considering this is the second most northerly capital city in the world behind Reykjavik.

The weather is comparable to the Netherlands, said Julia Laruenson, an Eindhoven-based student at Fontys University who spent five months in Finland. The city and the country have a lot to recommend them including unis “that are getting better and better,” Julia told us.

Studying is affordable for EU citizens and in your off-time, there’s lot to explore, including Finland’s 50,000 lakes and No. 2 city Tampere north of Helsinki, with its amusement parks and, yes, more lakes.

Full disclosure: Helsinki is the most expensive city on this list and the only capital city and coastal seaport. So, we have to compare it to Stockholm.

Upside: A prosperous city in a high-functioning society that’s progressive, with the best educational system in the world.

Downside: How do we put this? Finns are not the warmest people in the world, and they detest small talk. See one Kimi Räikkönen, the easily annoyed Formula 1 driver famous for telling his Ferrari team engineer during a race to “leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.”

Cost of housing compared to Stockholm: A three-bedroom apartment in the center of the city rents for 2,000 euros per month, about the same as a comparable place in Stockholm, according to Numbeo. Overall, consumer prices are about 5-percent lower than Stockholm, and Helsinki is on most lists of cities with high salaries, along with Zurich and Geneva.

Major employers: Nokia is probably Finland’s best-known company, and though it lost smartphone marketshare to Apple and Samsung, it’s still a giant company with more than 60,000 employees. You can see their open jobs here.

Like other cities on this list, there are a lot of tech companies based in Helsinki including Supercell, the mobile game development company now owned by the Chinese giant Tencent. You can see their Helsinki job openings here.

Leuven

This is courtesy of our friend Shane Ó Seasnáin, an Eindhoven-based data scientist and teacher at Fontys University who spent time in Leuven.

Shane and other expats in our network recommend Leuven as a beautiful small city you might never have heard of but should check out. It has a world-class university in KU Leuven, one of the most highly rated in Europe. It’s the HQ for global brewer AB InBev, and it’s a beautiful town. To top things off, the European Commission just named Leuven its Capital of Innovation for 2020.

The upside: While it’s not as cutesy as Bruges, this is a lovely town with a remarkable Old City. It also has a surprising number of multinational employers. As we mentioned above, InBev is here as is Imec, one of the largest R&D hubs in Europe. Imec employs about 4,000 researchers from more than 90 countries on its huge campus.

You can see all the Imec jobs here, which are mostly geared toward advanced semiconductor research and nanotechnology. But there are literally hundreds of listings.

The downside: Dutch/Flemish is definitely the dominant language here, though English is the biz language at the multinationals.

Cost of housing compared to Brussels: A three-bedroom in the center of the city rents for about 1,180 euros, the lowest on our list, compared to about 1,470 euros in Brussels. Otherwise, Leuven is only slightly less expensive than Brussels.

THE PARKS AROUND THE CITY WALL STAY BUSY ALL SUMMER

Maastricht

You’re sick of us telling you what a great city this is, but Maastricht has it all:

– a lovely setting on the Maas River

– a major university

– a lovely Old Town that dates back to the Roman Empire, complete with green spaces, parks and picturesque squares.

– culture galore, including those big André Rieu concerts (rescheduled for July 2021.)

Downside: There is no huge concentration of employers here, though the Brightlands Chemelot petrochemical complex is just a few miles away. So, if you’re an engineer, especially a chemical engineer, there are lots of jobs here.

Cost of housing compared to Amsterdam: We know from personal experience that it’s tough to find a place in this university town, but when you do, it will be about 60 percent cheaper than Amsterdam!

Numbeo projects that a three-bedroom in the center city will run you about 1,800 euros compared to more than 2,800 in Amsterdam.

Major employers: That’s the knock on Maastricht … there are only a handful of big employers here, including DSM and the university itself. That said, DSM – headquartered in nearby Heerlen – is a giant global company into everything from healthcare and nutrition to renewable energy.

You can see their job openings here.

Bonus city:

Valencia

For a city to make our list, we have to know about it. Which is an issue for Valencia. When we say “Valencia,” with think of oranges and a chi-chi Los Angeles suburb.

It wasn’t until Inka Piegsa-Quishchotte pitched us a post on her candidate for Spain’s best under-the-radar city that we understood how this city is unjustifiably in the shadows of Barcelona, Madrid and Bilbao.

Valencia is a city with it all – 300 days of sun, an industrial base with the largest Ford factory outside the United States, a sophisticated arts and sciences complex that was a location for George Clooney’s “Tomorrowland” and a brilliant tech/startup ecosystem.

Now when we think of Valencia, we think about a city where you can basically live a year-round vacation.

Honorable mention:

Leipzig

Located just a quick train ride away, Leipzig is Berlin’s baby cousin. It’s also Germany’s fastest growing city, regarded as one of the most livable cities in Germany … affordable, easy to get around, and full of interesting young people.

BMW just announced plans to invest 100 million euros to expand its Leipzig plant into battery manufacturing facility here to supply electric vehicle production.

The plant already is BMW’s e-mobility facility where the BMW i3, the BBMW Group’s first all-electric vehicle, has been built since 2013.

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