Of course, if you're like me, summoning the courage to pick up and transport your life to some other part of the world — utterly alone, no less — can be nothing short of intimidating. But some cities, like Lisbon, lend themselves to expats more than others. Factors such as the cost of living, the accessibility of Wi-Fi, the demand for jobs if you're an expat looking for local work (as opposed to a remote worker) and a supportive community make some corners of the globe more conducive to expat life than others.
Given my experience traveling, living and working around the world, here are the five best cities for expats (and the five worst!) that I've discovered firsthand.
What are the five best cities for expats?
I've lived in all of the following cities and can confidently recommend them for expats like me.
1. Lisbon, Portugal
Before I arrived in Lisbon, I was told that it's a "slippery" city. That's the only negative of which I've been warned, and it's only because this coastal capital is paved in slick, classical cobblestone that only adds to its charm. Sure, it's hilly, too (it's known as the City of Seven Hills, after all). But atop the hills are sweeping views of the northern banks of the River Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula that snakes its way between Portugal and Spain and feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.
The city tiled in intricate ceramics lures expats from around the world thanks to its more affordable cost of living, compared to other countries in Europe. It's also a simple city — one that boasts a far less harried lifestyle than its metropolitan neighbors, but that still boasts the same luxuries, comforts and overall accessibility. Packed with laptop-filled cafes and coworking spaces, many of which host weekly expat events, Lisbon is expat heaven... Nevermind that a one- or two-bedroom apartment starts at around €600 (about $682 USD) per month, according to Portugal List. From my experience, most bedrooms cost around $400-$1,000 depending on the neighborhood, so you can save a ton of money.
2. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is a charming city situated in the north of the country of Thailand, between the Myanmar and Laos borders. It’s been recognized as the digital nomad capital of the world by digital nomads themselves — many of whom have come and never left. I, too, am aching to return to Chiang Mai, which was one of my very first (and still one of my favorite) stops as a digital nomad.
Why? An echo of peace permeates the city, emanating from the many ornate Buddhist temples that ly within the old city walls. Food stalls saturate the air with smoke, selling chicken skewers and sausage and Pad Thai and seared pla pao, erupting with smells that could alone sate one’s appetite. And you could eat most of it for under a U.S. dollar. In fact, the general cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the city center will cost you just about 11,676.88 ฿ (about $381 USD), according to Numbeo.
3. Medellín, Colombia
Though Medellín is notorious for having been the murder capital of the world during the reign of Pablo Escobar, crime rates have dropped significantly in the years since his death. In fact, even Colombia's most "dangerous" barrios now welcome tourists on a daily basis. Thanks to its temperate weather and annual flower festival, Medellín, is now far more recognized as the "City of Eternal Spring." Expats come for the weather, and they stay for the fact that you can live, ultimately, like royalty. I did just the same when I came for a week-long visit and unexpectedly stayed for about two months.
The city sits in Colombia’s mountainous Antioquia province, located in the Aburrá Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains in South America. You could eat a full meal at a restaurant there for just $4 (or Rappi your meals to you!), navigate the city for just $21 per month and rent a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city center for just about 828,527.08 Colombian pesos a month (about $259), according to Numbeo.
4. Marrakech, Morocco
Life in Morocco is just easier. It's why I've lived there more than once, for several months at a time. I'd wake up in an urban Moroccan oasis, soothed by mint tea on the sun-drenched patio of your own opulent riad with a pool painted an azure blue, shaded by plentiful palm trees. I found myself constantly enveloped in the smell of street vendors cooking up couscous with caramelized onions and a whole variety of tagines — all of which I could eat for less than a few dollars. You can cook your own meals with $10 worth of groceries, if you choose to forgo Moroccan food (though, why would you?). Your riad costs you just about $3,244.44 Moroccan Dirham a month (about $339 USD), according to Numbeo, and you navigate the city with a monthly rail pass that you bought for just a few bucks. That leaves a large budget for weekend spa treatments at the hammams.
5. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
I love Amsterdam so much, it's one of the only cities I've been back to more than once. And it's the only city I've been back to more than twice thus far. In fact, I've been to Amsterdam seven total times because it's somewhat akin to a vortex. Once you go for the first time, it sucks you back in every time you're in the vicinity thereafter. Amsterdam is the Netherland's capital known for its elaborate canal system and narrow houses with gabled facades, which are legacies of the city's 17th-century Golden Age. Tourists come for everything from the Van Gogh Museum to the Heineken Experience. Expats come for a clean, totally livable city.
So what makes it so livable? For starters, the numerous bike paths! They wind through the streets, often along the boat-peppered canals, making transportation around the city super easy, especially if you don't have a license (or the comfort level) to drive internationally. And you can get a one-bedroom in the heart of the city for just about 1,549.60 € per month (about $1,762.34 USD), according to Numbeo. That may seem like a lot, but given how commutable the city is, getting an apartment a little bit outside for significantly less doesn't hurt. You're sure to find countless other expats looking to share accommodation with you, as well.
What are the five worst cities for expats?
I've traveled or lived in all of the following cities and would not recommend them for working travelers — even though I absolutely recommend that you visit them for tourism!
1. Playa Del Carmen
Playa Del Carmen is a crawling coastal resort town in Mexico. It sits along the Yucatán Peninsula's Riviera Maya strip of Caribbean shoreline, and it touts a serious party scene. While Playa Del Carmen is a beautiful destination to visit on vacation (when you can drink all the tequila and eat all the latenight tacos you want!), I don't recommend it for expats who actually need to get any work done...
Barcelona boasts almost everything you could ever want in a city (or, at least, everything I want out of a city!): a bustling, urban scene and a beautiful, blonde beach. But Barcelona is notoriously nicknamed the pickpocket capital of the world — I know because I spent no more than two days in the city before I was robbed, myself. For that reason alone, I don't recommend Barcelona for anyone traveling with expensive gear, such as laptops, work phones and more (i.e. expats).
India is my favorite country I've visited thus far. Mostly because every second of every day I spent in India was an adventure; the cultural customs, the food, the clothing — it was all so different for me. Crossing the cyclonic streets buzzing with beeping motorbikes and... cows... alone felt like some of the biggest feats in my life. It also holds a special place in my traveler heart as I'd survived my first overnight bus journeys in India, all without peeing myself from all of the unsolicited chai tea I was fed.
That said, I did get hit with "Dehli Belly," and I got hit hard. Dehli Belly is a common name for what's essentially traveler's diarrhea, plus a fever, nausea, vomiting and a whole slew of other ugly symptoms, which consumed me (and most travelers I knew) for three weeks. Add to that the fact that Delhi has the worst air pollution in the whole world, and that's precisely why I don't recommend it for long-term travelers (as much as I still want to encourage you to travel India!).
4. La Paz
La Paz rests on the Andes’ Altiplano plateau at more than 3,500 meters above sea level, stretching to El Alto city in the highlands with the snow-capped, 6,438 meter-high Mt. Illimani. It's the third-most populous city in Bolivia, as it's also the seat of government and the de facto national capital of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. This means that it attracts a ton of travelers — who also, might I add, get around rather easily since La Paz boasts the world’s longest and highest urban cable car network, the Mi Teleférico.
But if you're not used to the altitude (or not a fan of the cold), I don't recommend spending too much time in La Paz. I say this because I was hit with debilitating altitude sickness here. It is the world's highest city, after all.
Nepal holds a special place in my heart, right there beside India. And that's because it has been, by far, one of the most empowering destinations I've traveled to date. I'd never pushed myself so far outside of my comfort zone before — neither physically nor mentally — like I did in Nepal. Beginning in Pokhara, I began my first trek through the Himalayas and, in four days, I climbed 3,210 meters in the Annapurna region, sleeping in remote village teahouses along the way. Pokhara is the perfect launching point for adventures like mine. And besides the fact that it's beautiful in and of itself, it's also chock full of inspiring nomads with crazy stories coming and going from their own treks.
That said, I'd spent one too many evenings in Pokhara, running around the city from hotel to hotel and cafe to cafe, to chase any semblance of working Wi-Fi. My hosts in Pokhara informed me that Pokhara is known for having the "second worst Wi-Fi in the world." I can neither confirm that, nor tell you what's number one. But I believe them, no less.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.