(Editor’s note: Our 2021 list of best cities in Europe for expats will include separate posts with more detail than previous lists. Beginning with this intro, the series will roll out through 3 August. Cities on the list as well as honorable mentions are benchmarked against London. Terry Boyd and Liina Edun contributed to this post.)
It’s been a helluva two years. First Brexit, then the pandemic. And those two years have changed everything.
Suddenly, the cities that were merely expensive are now wildly expensive as housing costs have spiraled out of control. Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin have imposed rent controls, but they haven’t been terribly effective. So, cities that were housing-challenged are out of reach for all but the wealthiest expats. Moreover, in the course of building Dispatches over the past five years. we’ve noticed several cities that have a lot to offer but have never made our lists because they’re too expensive (Copenhagen and Dublin) to recommend even compared to our benchmark of London, or they’re in countries with stricter long-term visa rules (Italy), or they don’t have the career opportunities for Dispatches’ audience of highly skilled internationals of, say, an Eindhoven, Berlin or an Amsterdam.
And while we love Naples and Marseilles, for example, only two kinds of people are living in those cities … those who’ve had their cars stolen and houses robbed and those who will have their car stolen or their houses robbed.
Some cities don’t make our list because our audience is English-speaking expats, and cities such as Bremen, for example, don’t have many opportunities that don’t require fluent German.
So, it’s tough right now to find Goldilocks cities that are still affordable with available housing, as western and northern European economies boom. There is simply no city in Europe that combines the job-creation engine of Eindhoven with the affordable housing of Vienna.
We have friends and colleagues currently trying to buy homes and literally can’t find anything, even in the 1 million euro range. Dutch government statistics show that more than half the houses in the Netherlands sell for a premium over the asking price. That’s because the Netherlands is about 1 million homes short. As a matter of fact, a number of cities have priced themselves off our main list including Antwerp, Eindhoven and Rotterdam.
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, 600 would be a perfect score, which no city has ever achieved.
In the past few years, there have been two Dutch cities on the list – Eindhoven and Rotterdam – and that is no accident. The Netherlands wins in every category from prevalence of English to high-functioning society. But the Netherlands has issues when it comes to housing. The average house price just topped 500,000 euros.
Other European cities have never made the list because of the cost of living and housing shortages including premium expat destinations such as Amsterdam, Berlin and Stockholm. Plenty of jobs for English-speaking top corporate nomads, but out of reach for the rest of us poor schmucks who make less than 200,000 euros per year.
This year, we decided we’d include runners-up that are great cities but don’t quite make the Top 5.
ATHENS – With an affordable cost of living, fabulous food and gorgeous islands all around, we soooo wanted to put Athens on our list. Especially now when so many Brits are arriving post-Brexit. Athens is more affordable than London, particularly regarding rent and local purchasing power. But our expats and contributors there talked us out of it.
Still, it’s worth a look.
Because its economy and prices have been depressed for years, developers are starting to take advantage. Bloomberg and other outlets are writing about the redevelopment of Athens’ old Hellinikon Airport into a $1 billion luxury complex on the sea, one of Europe’s first Green communities built from scratch.
From the Bloomberg post:
Stretching across an area three times the size of Monaco, the redevelopment of the decommissioned Hellinikon airport could add as much as 2.2% to the country’s economy and 80,000 jobs by 2025.
That’s 2025. In 2021, Athens is still affordable, if rough around the edges.
Cost of living
Restaurant prices are about 37 percent lower in Athens compared to London, and grocery prices are about 3 percent lower, according to crowdsourcing data website Numbeo. Athens is a popular tourist destination, and this has driven up the cost of living, earning it the title of “Greece’s most expensive city.” However, living a bit outside of the city center is a good option for a more affordable lifestyle.
Quality of life and housing
It can be tough to find a decent accommodation with value for money in Athens, especially in the summer months during the high tourist season. The best time to look for a place to rent is during the off-peak season, where landlords are keen to rent out their places and prices can be negotiated.
Renting in Athens is about 78-percent lower than in London, our benchmark city. A one-bedroom apartment rents for 400.85 euros on average in the city center of Athens. This is about half of the monthly net salary, which is about 830 euros.
People living in Athens enjoy the historical sites and culture, delicious and healthy Greek cuisine, a good public transport system and nightlife and entertainment in a safe city. However, they also complain about the crowds, traffic, too few green spaces, noise and air pollution.
Talent and serious career opportunities
Finding a job in Athens can be a bit complicated if you don’t speak Greek, and after the economic crisis, there was a high unemployment rate and not many job opportunities. However, there are companies such as Teleperformance that are often hiring expats for their language skills. Jobs such as English teachers and in the tourism industry are also popular.
The best university in Greece is the National Technical University of Athens, which propels Greece’s nascent tech sector. This has led to a rise in the startup scene in Athens as this seems to be the best career option since
large Greek companies don’t necessarily offer career progression opportunities.
Prevalence of English
English is widely spoken in Athens, given that it’s a huge tourist destination. Greek students learn English early on at school, and about half the Greek population speaks English. If you’re able to work as a digital nomad or get a job at an English-speaking company, you can probably live in Athens without ever really learning Greek.
There are 19 international schools in Athens, most of which teach in English or in English and Greek. There is one French, one German and one Italian school as well.
In 2020, Greece ranked 59 out of 180 on the Transparency Corruption Index, with a score of 50 out of 100. Corruption can be a problem in Greece, with tax evasion and political corruption being the main issues.
– Liina Edun
Here’s the 2021 list of Top 5 Cities in Europe for expats:
You can go directly to No. 5 Valencia here.
You can go directly to No. 4 Leuven here.
You can go directly to No. 3 Lisbon here.
Here are the runners-up:
AACHEN – With its engineering school, RWTH Aachen, this is a tech center producing more and more deep-tech startups. Electric carmaker Next E.Go Mobile is based there, and this is one of the most progressive EU-centric cities in Europe. This charming city of 300,000-plus isn’t on this year’s list, but we predict it will be in the future … you heard it here first.
ANTWERP – Antwerp is one of our favorite towns, but it’s all about the port. Which isn’t a bad thing, but there are few tech companies here to boost the startup scene compared to Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Berlin or Stockholm.
Housing is also increasingly expensive. In 2020, the median price for a home in Antwerp rose to 280,000 euros ($342,000) from 264,250 euros ($322,500), according to StatBel, the Belgian government’s statistics bureau. Now private equity and wealthy real estate investors are pushing up apartment prices. Some large-scale new apartment projects, like the mixed-use Antwerp Nieuw Zuid complex on the Scheldt river, will bring some relief in the form of thousands of apartment units over the coming decade.
The New York times has an interesting post on luxury home buying in Antwerp.
BRUSSELS – A great town full of career opportunities, an emerging startup scene, but housing is so tight the government just launched a rent commission to address an estimated 30,000 units with inflated rental rates.
DÜSSELDORF – We wish … our favorite town. For the right expat with skills, a prime corporate assignment is possible. But for DIYs, it’s tough to find a job if your German skills are below B2.
EINDHOVEN -This tech center, home to some of the most crucial deep-tech companies on the planet, including ASML, is still creating tech jobs far faster than it can fill them. But it misses the 2021 list because there’s a housing shortage. Yes, there are new buildings coming online, but not fast enough to keep housing costs from skyrocketing now in 2021. All our Dutch friends are paying a premium above the asking price for houses. This goes for Rotterdam and other cities we’ve included in the past.
GENOBLE – We have Grenoble on our 2020 list of “under-the-radar cities.” Good university. Lots of tech. Low cost of living on the edge of the Alps. Like Aachen above, we predict Grenoble will move to the main list sooner than later.
LEIPZIG – Another city on our 2020 list of “under-the-radar cities, Leipzig is Berlin’s baby cousin. It’s also Germany’s fastest growing city because it’s also one of the most affordable. BMW announced plans last year 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 BMW Group’s first all-electric vehicle, has been built since 2013. If you’re an engineer, this could be the place.
MILAN – Italy’s most innovative city is increasingly a startup hub and its tech sector is booming. But jobs for our English-speaking expats are tough to find.
So now, it’s on to our No. 5 city.
You can see all our best-cities lists here in the Dispatches archives.