How to Choose the Best City to Live Abroad
Identify Your Essential Needs, Options, and Preferences
By Volker Poelzl
Updated 8/22/2019 by Transitions Abroad
|If you have a chance to live in Amsterdam, you might want to give it a go.
What makes a city an attractive destination
for foreigners is in part its financial strength, but in
the eyes of most expats we have encountered and who have
written about their experience it takes more than a booming
economy to make a metropolis a great place to live. The combination of work opportunities, a vibrant business
climate, a great quality of life, and the subjective "feel" makes a desirable destination. We offer our own suggested list of the top cities after describing the qualities you will want to consider.
For many expats, what is perceived
as "quality of life" is important and encompasses
everything that makes living in a city enjoyable—from
the often-important cost of living, food, housing, transportation,
arts and culture, leisure time activities, educational opportunities,
climate, geographical location, health care, and safety,
etc. What makes a city great depends not only on your interests
and way of living but also on your age, family status,
as well as professional and educational goals. What makes a city great can change over time, just as some move from city to city and place to place in their homeland. In sum, we have observed over the years that for
many people choices about where to live are a matter of the perception of subjective quality over "objective" measurable quantity.
|Day or night, you are always aware that you
are walking through history in Rome, one of the many charms of a sensual and
Find Yourself a Great City to Live
There are no absolute objective criteria
or measurements to determine if a city is great. While it
can be useful to follow human development indexes of prosperity
and infrastructure development such as referenced below,
finding your own great city to live in is a subjective
choice involving your personal taste in combination with your unique
situation and options. I found Rio de Janeiro to be noisy,
chaotic, and congested, but I enjoyed the city's vibrant
cultural life. Auckland, New Zealand, on the other hand,
lacked the excitement of Rio de Janeiro, but the safe and
quiet city is often mentioned in commercial media as one
of the top ten most livable cities in the world. New York
City and San Francisco are truly great American cities culturally but
for the vast majority, living quarters
extremely cramped for the cost, educational options
for children are often expensive or hard to find, yet many still flock and remain
there for multicultural, aesthetic, and career reasons—for
some there are no comparable
alternatives in the U.S..
|In Barcelona, the genius architect
Gaudi left his unique mark everywhere, but there are
so many other beautiful ancient cathedrals, medieval
streets, and works of art to explore in a great city.
When preparing your own list of favorite
cities, it's a good idea to write down qualities that are
important to you.
For example, how important is culture
to you, and what aspects?
- Local traditional cuisine or 3-star dining?
- Opera, pop, jazz, rap, or punk rock?
- A city full of parks and greenery?
- Lively street life?
- Booming nightlife? A city that never
- Great food markets?
- Interesting architecture?
- Energetic and forward-thinking, relaxed, or a more romantic feel?
- Clean and orderly or messier and chaotic?
of foreigners by locals, pro, con, or indifferent?
- Place to start
or move your familyy?
Or perhaps you seek a unique admixture
of all of the above?
Such qualities will have a huge daily
impact on your life abroad, so they should be at least a
core consideration in your selection process.
|Bridges are just one aspect of Prague's charm.
Selection Criteria for a Great City to Live In
Here are suggested key criteria
to create a checklist when searching to live in
a great city:
- Cost of Living
- Education and Child-Friendliness
- Infrastructure, Transportation
- Leisure and Culture: Movies,
concerts, theater, art, museums, restaurants,
- Ambiance, atmosphere, beauty,
and historic flair
- Nature and the outdoors
- Shopping, lifestyle
- Health Care
- Geographic Location
Cost of Living
Most likely, the single most important
factor that will impact the quality of your life abroad
is the cost of living in the city you choose.
Unlike international employees who receive cost of living
and moving allowances from their companies while working
abroad, expats who move overseas on their own have to deal
with these issues in unknown surroundings and on their own.
Unless you are independently wealthy or have a large retirement
fund, your income or available funds will have a large direct
impact on the livability of a city. If the cost of rent,
transportation, utilities, and food all exceed your budget,
then even the most attractive city will not be livable
For example, Auckland, New Zealand,
was affordable, because the cost of living was low at the
time and I had a job that paid my bills. On the other hand,
as a student in Rio de Janeiro, I did not earn any money.
Brazil's currency was stronger versus the dollar at the
time, and eating out and other leisure activities were quite
expensive. In New York City—where having money inherently
opens up doors to an entirely different experience than
living there without—you may still enjoy many aspects
of the multicultural life, but the day-to-day grind will
more likely eventually drain you even relative to all the
|Lisbon seduces with its hillside
neighborhoods and narrow alleys.
Surveys and Websites
on the Quality and Cost of Living of Cities Abroad
The first two surveys listed
below are often used as guidelines by global companies
for their employees and transferees and do not
necessarily reflect the needs and preferences of
individuals. The latter two websites are interesting
to the wider public for different reasons relating
to the quality of life and the cost of living.
- The UK-based lifestyle
magazine Monocle publishes
an annual “The
Global Quality of Life Survey" that lists their picks for the top 25 locations with exceptional
quality of life. The criteria are more lifestyle-oriented
and consider safety, climate, transportation,
medical care, leisure, environment, urban design,
etc., often independent of cost. The top five cities were
Tokyo, Vienna, Berlin, Melbourne, and Sydney. New York, San Francisco, and Rome did not even place.
- Numbeo.com is
an interesting website since the data is gathered
into the world’s largest database of user contributed
data about cities and countries. Numbeo provides
real-time information on the cost of living,
housing, health care, traffic, crime, and pollution
which users can compare, look up, and update
|Buenos Aires is not generally
ranked among the "most livable cities" in
many surveys, but it has undeniable allure.
How to Get Started
To begin the process of researching
cities where you might wish to relocate, ask yourself to
think about the countries you know or those that entice
you. It's important to establish a goal and purpose. What
will you be doing there? Study, work, or primarily enjoying
life? Are you going on a sabbatical, working on a personal
project, performing research, immersing yourself in a foreign
culture, or retiring?
Find websites, blogs, news feeds, and
expat communities discussing these cities and keep up on
current events so you get an idea about what to expect,
and perhaps you can network some connections before you
go. If your city of choice has disruptive transportation
or garbage worker strikes every month, you might instead
look for another city nearby. Read as many books, articles,
and online reviews about your destination to learn as much
as possible about your favorite city before making the final
choice to move. Perhaps most importantly, you should also strongly
consider taking at least one fact-finding trip just
to make sure that your chosen city is what you expect, and
that you really imagine feeling at home there for the long
Editor's Choice of the Best Cities to Live Abroad
Our choice of the best cities
abroad with over 500,000 inhabitants is not
based primarily on economics, jobs, or infrastructure,
but largely on our experience of the quality of life.
What is common
among all the cities is a unique flair that invites discovery and inspiration,
and adds joy to everyday life. What better way
to start your day than to buy a warm crisp baguette, fresh croissants, and a pain au chocolat at a Parisian
bakery every morning, or have a doppio cappuccino at bar in Rome, nightlife in Barcelona or Madrid, a relaxing stroll or ride along the canals of Amsterdam, or [fill in the blank]? Here are our
favorite large cities outside the U.S. (that
we have visited long-term or lived in ourselves),
presented in alphabetical order:
- Amsterdam — the
canals, bicycles, coffee houses, and pace make for
very relaxed living, though cost of living is not low.
- Auckland — combines
the beauty of the Polynesian islands with a Western
standard of living.
- Barcelona — popular as ever with foreigners; great coffee houses and
architecture; many international
students. Madrid is
underrated by many, with the great Prado museum, endless
"tapas" bars and restaurants, and a bustling nightlife that
makes New York City seem tame.
- Berlin — an excellent option due to its
famous multicultural and artistic character. Munich is a
melting pot of talent and culture from all over
Germany, blended with Bavarian “Gemütlichkeit”
and lots of lager beer.
- Buenos Aires — the "Paris of South America," great nightlife, street
life, bookshops, coffee houses, and currently not overly costly.
- Lisbon — a
picturesque port city with a rich history and
narrow winding alleys where you can lose yourself;
off the beaten path at the Western
edge of Europe.
- Paris — a
great walking city with sidewalk cafés as far
as the eye can see, booksellers along the Seine
river, world-class museums, cheese shops and
bakeries — does it get any better? Yes, it is expensive.
- Prague — incredible
beer, friendly people, not overly expensive, and an old city center
worthy of fairy tales.
- Rome — a
city where you walk through history, can hear
music resonating in Roman ruins or beautiful
cathedrals and churches, experience many unique
neighborhoods such as Trastevere, enjoy great
outdoor nightlife during the summer, with that Italian spontaneity and sensuality.
- Vancouver — the
best of the West in Canada in a dramatic setting of mountains,
islands, and the Pacific Ocean. Montreal is
a favorite in the East, especially for young people
who enjoy multicultural living, good food, and
a vibrant music scene & nightlife. Toronto is not beautiful, but a true ethnic melting pot with lots of energy and life.
Of course, there are many
extraordinary cities worldwide, and we could
not include them all in our list, nor have we lived in them all. Please feel
free to discuss your favorite cities
in the comments section below.
Poelzl is a Living Abroad
Contributing Editor for Transitions Abroad.
He has traveled in over 40 countries worldwide
and has lived in 10 of them for study, research,