Lifestyle & Culture

Dispatches’ debut list of the 5 best places in Europe to run away

In our brief existence, we’ve posted several times about Europe’s best cities for expats because we’re all about the global mobility of talent.

OR YOU COULD JUST STAY LATE AT THE OFFICE ….

Combined, those posts got hundreds of thousands of pageviews from 170 countries. So we know through the magic of data analytics many of our readers are country shopping.

Those first posts were focused on career opportunities and cost of living, with the premise being “Which city in Europe has it all … great jobs, affordable rent and quality of life?” We used personal experiences including scouring Europe for the perfect city to start Dispatches, crowd-sourcing and data to make our picks.

Then we started thinking: There are a lot of people in United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East who’ve made their money and now are dreaming of a beautiful and tranquil place to chill till their next venture or adventure. And what about the bohemians who are following their muses – writing, painting, composing or whatever – and don’t want to work at EY or Google?

Think Hemingway in Spain, Fitzgerald in Paris. Johnny Depp in Plan-de-la-Tour, France. Tina Turner in Küsnacht, Switzerland. Lawrence Durrell in Bellapais, Cyprus.

As The Eagles put it all those years ago, “Hopeless romantics, here we go again.”

Here’s the premise: “Where could you go that has a high quality of life and a low cost of living so your pile of money – large or small – goes farther?”

Hint: It’s not the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Times has a great post about what 75,000 euros will buy in Ireland (the least amount of parts you can call a house), and what it will buy in Corfu (a stone house with sea views), Limousin, France (a charming 5-bedroom house with property) and Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria (a chalet in a ski resort.)

And be forewarned: A lot of places that used to be cheap, aren’t. Take Berlin, which for years billed itself as the “poor but sexy” alternative to Paris, Amsterdam and London … a place where a feller could have a pretty good time on 50 euros a day.

This is from The Los Angeles Times just last week:

Though still modest compared with other cities in Europe, rents in Berlin have risen 75% in the last five years. A recent survey by the property consultant group Knight Frank showed that property prices in Berlin rose 21% in 2017, the steepest rate in its survey of 150 cities around the world and far above the average increase of 4.5%.

Other places are off-limits because of politics, with the Far Right ascending. Still more don’t make our list because the weather just flat-out sucks. See, “Norway, Bergen.”

In fact, there are fewer places every day:

  • Monaco is too expensive even for lowly single-digit billionaires.
  • Geneva is a great place to run away to if your first name is Lewis and your last name is Hamilton.
  • Our favorite place in all the world, the Karaburun peninsula west of Izmir, Turkey, is now out of bounds because the Turkish government has a thing for arresting tourists to use as hostages. Thank you, Tayyip Erdogan, for dashing our dreams.
  • Budapest is off the list after unrepentant Nazis took over. Same with Prague.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina are lovely, and you could find a great place to live in Sarajevo, which is a fabulous town. But corruption is an issue.

So, where does that leave? We crowd-sourced this, querying our contributors and expats. We got some amazing places … and yeah, this could easily have been a Greek-centric list.

A note about methodology: 

With our larger cities, we used Teleport, a data-driven reference created by MOVE Guide entrepreneur Brynne Herbert. Teleport gives people on the move the down-low on 248 cities around the world. Where Teleport doesn’t have data, we used Expatistan, a crowd-sourcing site.

1 – Lisbon, Portugal

This one is a no-brainer, but we fought it because it seemed like a bit of cliché. Portugal as a whole is increasingly a popular place for those looking for both a tax haven and a second passport.

And think about it: The best quality of life with the lowest prices in Europe … is that really a cliché? Lisbon has everything … culture, food, scale, fairly affordable housing, sun and sea.

It’s a large city (2.8 million population) in a beautiful country. It gets 2,800 hours of sunlight per year out of 4,400 total hours of daylight. So it’s sunny about 70 percent of the time. The Atlantic also helps keep the climate temperate.

But what makes Lisbon a winner is that it’s fabulous, yet still attainable in a world where Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm aren’t just expensive, they are increasingly out of reach of even the rich.

Because it’s sort of the New Berlin, Lisbon is generating incredible buzz. Lilly Cichanowicz just posted about the Lisbon culinary scene, which is among the best in Europe. If you independently wealthy types get bored and want to go back to the daily grind, the startup/tech scene here is exploding.

This has long been an expat destination, so we’re not breaking any new ground here. But we did hear from our expats that this is one of the places they could live … and one of the last affordable cities in Europe that has it all.

The deets:

You can still rent a 1-bedroom apartment in the city center for about 500-700 euros, according to the sources we saw.

A large apartment will run you about 1,300 euros per month, according to Teleport.

You could (theoretically) eat out for every meal for what you spend at McDonalds, about 7 or 8 euros.

Internet and cable cost about 20 euros per month. Your monthly utility and water bill will be about 50 euros

Average July temperature: 30-ish (around 90 degrees Fahrenheit), but with a sea breeze.

Average January temperature.15 degrees (59 degrees F.)

Negatives: Traffic, traffic and more traffic. But, the public transportation is good.

No. 2  – Crete, Greece

This is hands-down the favorite with our Greek expats we polled here in the Netherlands. It takes the No. 2 ranking by having, well, everything. Sea, sun and city amenities because of Heraklion, which is a fairly large city. But it was Chania on the west side of Crete that everyone ranked as the best place to run away.

Or as one Greek friend calls Chania, “the Garden of Eden.” A place with fabulous food, lots of cheap booze, pretty people, sun and sea.

Sold.

Crete is the largest Greek island, and it offers a huge variety of experiences. So we feel this would appeal to just about everyone. Which could be a problem.

Enjoy it while it lasts. As with every place we’ve ever loved from Colorado to Croatia, the tourist hordes are right behind us. Last year, Heraklion was designated as Europe’s fastest growing tourism destination for 2017 by Euromonitor.

So, what’s it cost to live here? Not much, if you’re used to UK or mainland prices, especially in the Nordics. Rents, food and booze – the essentials – are all less expensive here.

If you are silly rich, this is also a good play. Apokoronas is the Richie Rich side of Chania, where you fortunate few can find 2 million euro-plus homes. But in Chania, it was hard to find much over 400,000.

Most of the real estate websites are geared toward British expats, with villas going for about 200,000 euros. Our Greek friends tell us if you get a Greek agent or attorney running interference, you can do much better.

Here’s a good site for weather.

Negatives: The Greek economy is always teetering on the edge of disaster. So maybe better to rent than buy? Also, Crete can get really, really hot in the summer, and very cool – if not downright cold – in the winter, with snow in the mountains. As our Lynne Evans pointed out recently, summer vacay in the Greek Isles is NOT the same as living there in the winter. It can get really, really quiet. Finally, get a local to do your heavy lifting. If local real estate agents know the client is foreign, that villa or apartment just went up 40 percent.

The details:

There’s not a lot of data on Crete as a whole. We benchmarked the cost of living against our HQ of Eindhoven, and it’s 29 percent cheaper to live in Heraklion, according to Expatistan, a crowdsourcing site where expats can compare various cities. But Expatistan adds the data is just not there, with only 33 responses.

Average July temp: about 30 degrees (85 Fahrenheit)

Average January temp: about 13 degrees (55 degrees F.)

Days of sun: At least 250. It rains in the winter, but from June to September, the sky is blue.

Does it snow? It can in the mountains.

Dream house – Check out this villa on the Sotheby’s real estate website listed at 900,000 euros. (This is Greece … we’re pretty sure there’s some room for bargaining.)

Dream hovel – Here’s a much more humble, but lovely, 2-bedroom house. No sea, no infinity pool, just a great mountain view. BUT it’s 149,000 pounds. Which won’t buy you a parking space in London.

 

3 – Languedoc, France

Imagine a village full of artists on the edge of an arid gorge, or small French towns where you can play pétanque and drink pastis with the locals all day. Or a place where you can drive around and buy one of the best French wines – Minervois – for a few euros per bottle at the cave. Or a university city full of great architecture, very close to the sea.

The Languedoc-Roussillon region is the South of France without the 1,000 euro bottles of Cristal and yachts in Caen. It has lively, large-ish cities such as the college town of Montpellier as well as artists communities in villages such as Minerve. There are towns with real southern French character and Roman ruins such as Bezier and Nîmes.

It also has TGV connections to the rest of France, as well as to Switzerland, so you won’t get bored. We’ve lived here and vacationed here, and it’s incredible how affordable this region remains.

There are no restrictions on foreign buyers in France. Notaries handle all home sales, and using two (one for the seller, one for the buyer) is becoming more common in transactions involving foreign buyers from countries where legal transparency is important. (Read the U.S. and the U.K.)

Finally, France is chock-a-block with Brits, so there are large expat communities.

The deets:

Average July temp: about 30 degrees (85 Fahrenheit), but it can push past 36 degrees in July.

Average January temp: about 11 degrees (52 degrees F.) but can dip to 0.

Days of sun: 2,618 hours per year (219 days)

Dream house: You can buy a luxury home with property (at right) near Quarante, which is a lovely town, for less than 400,000 euros. The house has a pool and an acre of land.

Dream hovel: You can get fixer-uppers in small villages for less than 50,000 euros, and many parts of the province have seen prices drop as young French people leave rural areas for opportunities in the cities.

Negatives: Some of the places that used to be authentic are now tourist traps, such as the walled city of Carcassonne and the fishing village of Sète. Also, much of the coast is way over-built, such as La Grande-Motte. Avoid those, and you can find the real French experience at every turn.

4 – Georgia, the country

Expat Tamara Pharadashvili, a native of Georgia, sums up her home country’s attributes nicely: Nice food, great weather, nice landscapes and cheap prices.

The last of Europe’s authentic travel experiences is an unspoiled place with welcoming people. Natural beauty, culture, great wines and savory food make Georgia increasingly popular with travelers and adventurers. But this is the very edge of Europe … a relatively poor country compared to the rest of the continent, a bit isolated, rustic and not to everyone’s taste.

We went back and forth on this one between Georgia and Croatia. The people who’ve been to both say Croatia’s coast is unbeatable, while all of Georgia is exotic, though it’s the only cold-weather destination on our list.

It came down to this: Food.

Even the expats we know who live there agree that food in Croatia is at best derivative of Turkish and Greek food, and at worst unremarkable compared to the rest of the Aegean. Georgia is being lauded as the next great foodie destination.

Croatia is also a familiar experience for most expats. Dubrovnik looks like Italy, and Croatia as a whole is very European. Georgia is something else again, say our expats … a place where you could go to be inspired to write novels with exotic settings and characters or cook up a new business in an emerging economy between East and West. And Tbilisi, like Lisbon, is getting more and more pub as a great place to live.

Negatives: It’s tough for foreigners to buy property here. As of last year, non-Georgians can only buy homes, not agricultural land. Russian is more common than English, though younger people tend to favor English. Also, Georgia is not as politically stable as the rest of Europe.

The deets:

One cool fact: A liter of gas will run you about 75 cents!

Average July temp: About 30 degrees (85 Fahrenheit), but Georgia is a nation of various topography and climatic extremes between the Caucasus Mountains and snow and the beaches with subtropical palmettos along the Black Sea.

Sun: Tbilisi has about 250 hours of sun in July, dropping to 100 hours in the winter.

Dream house: Monthly rent for a 1,000-square-foot furnished apartment in an upscale part of Tiblisi will run you the equivalent of 500 euros, according to Expatistan. Utilities will be another 50 euros.

Dream hovel: The real estate websites are so bad – and mostly in Georgian – that we gave up. While a few brave expats write about buying houses for a few thousand euros, the consensus is, “Don’t do it.”

5 – Sardinia

Come on, we had to put Italy on the list or our colleague Nancy Wellendorf Church would kill us.

But in our experience – and that of our expat survey group – most of Italy is either too expensive (Lake Como) or too chaotic (Naples) to be a place to run away to.

Then we started hearing about Sardinia. It’s mostly known for the exclusive Costa Smeralda on the northeast tip. And there’s probably no more beautiful stretch of coast. But for this post, you likely won’t be running away to Costa Smeralda because the starting price of a villa on the sea is about 1 million euros.

As we’ve said before, Sardinia is a big island, with 2,000 kilometers of coast. Our friends who’ve visited say the southern end of the island around the main city of Cagliari is far less expensive. The beach city of Chia is to the west.

You have to read this great blog, My Sardinian Life, by travel writer and Canadian expat Jennifer Avventura. Avventura writes that you can find rentals on Sardinia for 800 euros to 1500-plus euros by the sea, and 400 euros to 800-plus away from the water.

Avventura also has a recent post about Ollolai, where they’re selling abandoned homes for 1 euro.

This could be the place!

The negatives: This is an island, and island fever is a reality. It’s also Italy, though Sardinia is autonomous. And Sardinia overall is going to be the most expensive place to live on this list.

The deets:

Days of sun: 2,500 hours of sunlight per year (of a possible 4,400). Sardinia is sunny more than half of the daylight hours.

Dream house: Holy cow, you can spend some serious money on elaborate homes here, especially in the Porto Cuervo area of Costa Smeralda. We tried to find a representative luxury home, but all the websites just said, “Price upon request.”

Finally, we found this little shack, Casa Douda, right, for $1.8 million. Seriously, compared to the really nice estates, this is pretty low-rent.

Dream hovel: For less than 10 percent of the cost of Casa Douda, we saw this place outside Cagliari on several websites.

Honorable mention

We pinged our network of expat contributors all over Europe and the world asking, “Where would you run away to?” and here’s what we got back

• Beth Hoke, a digital nomad who might be in Belgrade, we’re never sure.

Croatia and Madeira (Portugal)

• Abrecht Stahmer, who’s based in Singapore and Japan, but is in Kentucky for the Derby

Bali, Indonesia — beach, rainforest, friendly locals
Vientiane, Laos — gorgeous architecture, completely off the beaten path, a time capsule of long ago

• Marjorie Boyd, Dispatches’ co-founder Terry Boyd’s sister, who was in Sri Lanka, but now she’s dropped off the radar
Corfu, Greece in June. Great Britain in summer.

• Lilly Cichanowicz, Berlin-based writer:

Do they have to be Europe? If not, I would definitely say Buenos Aires! …or Montevideo.

In Europe, Biarritz as well as Toulouse and San Sebastian. Vilnius or Estonia in the summer.

• Tamara Pharadashvili, an Eindhoven-based expat from Georgia

We recently visited Portuguese islands, Azores and I think they would definitely go on my list. I also liked the city of Porto in Portugal. Also Spain, especially the southern part of it, Sevilla, Cordoba also Madrid.

A bit cold but nice place for me would be Tallinn in Estonia and Brno in Czech Republic.

All these places are quite cheap in terms of accommodation and food.

• Yama Saraj in Eindhoven

Sevilla, Cordoba

To Top

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest news and updates from Dispatches Europe. Get lifestyle & culture, startup & tech, jobs and travel news dispatched to your inbox each week. Keep up with what's going on in Europe. Everything Expat.

You have Successfully Subscribed!