Where to spend a few years to a lifetime
June 1, 2016 9:36 AM   Subscribe

We are a family of four with two primary-school age children. We would like to spend a few years (or more) living somewhere abroad (we are currently on a small island in BC, Canada). We can live anywhere in the Schengen area and Canada. My job will travel with me, so employment is not an issue. A list of desirable attributes is below the fold. Aside from the weather and desire for mountains, medium-sized cities in the Netherlands, Flanders, and Denmark meet most of these desires. Is there a Ghent in the Alps? Eindhoven in Quebec? Aarhus in the Andes?

Absolute requirements:
  • Everyday bicycling culture. It should be normal for women, children, and the elderly to ride bikes for everyday errands supported by safe bicycle infrastructure (separated bike lanes, well designed intersections, car free areas).
  • Good public education system. Our kids will be going to public school, so we would like somewhere that is well ranked globally, and values creativity and play (not only rote learning). Not interested in private or international schools.
  • In the Schengen area or Canada. Other countries that make it fairly easy to get some kind of permanent residence or indefinite leave to remain (like Argentina?) also possible.
  • Not super expensive. We would like to live modestly but comfortably on US$75,000/EUR 65,000 per year (before tax) for a family of four.
  • Culture that is open to foreigners. E.g., we do not want our children to be harassed incessantly in public school just because they are a bit different and do not speak the local language fluently.
  • High speed Internet available. Need this for my work.
Important features:
  • Four distinct seasons. Ideally, we would like moderately snowy winters that are not too dreary, and summers that are not too humid.
  • Speaks non-English language. A Germanic language would be ideal (easiest for us to learn). Also nice if English is commonly spoken as a second language.
  • Good public transit. Can generally get where you need to by public transit without too much inconvenience.
  • Medium-sized city. 100,000500,000 people in the metro area seems about right.
  • Has good yarn shop.
  • Relatively flat terrain in town. Should be able to run errands and go to school by bicycle without major inclines. Rolling hills or mountains outside town are fine.
  • Natural/rural surroundings. It should be easy to reach quiet natural and rural areas by bicycle.
Desirable but less important:
  • Not too far from large centre. It would be nice to visit a major museum or other such cultural institutions within a 1.5 hour train ride.
  • Car share available
  • Near an institute of higher education. But not totally dominated by that institution (i.e. not just a college town).
  • A water body. A river or canal running through town, or being on a lake or the ocean.
  • Mountains not too far away. We would like to be able to rent a car and take a day trips into the mountains.
  • Diverse economy. Not just dominated by one economic activity, but with a mix of industry, services, creative class, etc.
  • Moderate politics. Getting harder to find in Europe these days, but as long as there is a reasonable percentage of the population with moderate or centre-left views that is fine.
posted by borsboom to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Luzern is a little smaller than you'd like, but otherwise it fits well. Bern would be a bigger option that's still quite nice, and seems to check most of your boxes. The biggest obstacle to both is the cost of living. Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe. But this is a case of getting what you pay for, in my opinion.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:48 AM on June 1, 2016

Munich also fits the bill here.
I also thought of Milan - bit of a push to say it's the norm to cycle (most on scooters) but there's a lot of keen cyclists there for sure. It's not a Germanic language of course but Italian is regularly name-checked as the easiest language to learn, for anyone.
posted by stevedawg at 10:32 AM on June 1, 2016

I think Amsterdam ticks a lot of boxes on your list.
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 11:34 AM on June 1, 2016

I've heard Freiburg is lovely.
posted by bluebird at 11:38 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Utrecht for sure.
posted by zadcat at 11:42 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sorry to threadsit: I'd like to put a bit of extra emphasis on the four distinct seasons than I did in the original post. That drops the rank of cities in the Netherlands a bit, unfortunately (those and cities in Scandinavia would be the obvious choices if they didn't have such dreary weather).
posted by borsboom at 12:20 PM on June 1, 2016

No firsthand experience of these, but off the top of my head, Salzburg, Strasbourg, and Nuremburg might work for you as well.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:47 PM on June 1, 2016

Munich is extremely expensive for housing... and it doesn't have the infrastructure for the amount of people that live in it.... And it's not exactly fun to be a non German speaker. Sure, people speak English- but often not...
posted by catspajammies at 12:54 PM on June 1, 2016

I'm a resident of Switzerland and, like kevinbelt above, I would say Switzerland. Zürich has two universities that are large but not the soul of the city (University of Zürch and ETH). It's the right size, has excellent public transport and a fairly good cycling culture, and definitely has the four seasons (at the moment it's almost all four in one day). The CBD is flat, so running errands in the city is very easy on two wheels. We live on a slope and it's still a comfortable bike ride.

Definitely restrictive in cost of living, but if you live frugally you can still enjoy life in a foreign country. Schooling is free, which is a plus. There are plenty of great outdoor spaces you can also enjoy for free in all seasons.

We have two kids and arrived when they were 10 and 7, and they are now fluent in German and understand but choose not to speak Swiss German (which is quite different to High German). They struggled a bit in the first 6 months but once they had enough language to be understood, they settled quickly into social circles.

I think overall it ticks 99% of your boxes (the cost being the only iffy one). If you want to know more, feel free to memail.
posted by tracicle at 1:41 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would check out Freiburg. Anything in Germany except Berlin isn't perfect if you only speak English.
posted by fmnr at 1:43 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Hague. Okay, okay, we do lose on the four seasons, but we win on yarn shop.
posted by sldownard at 2:03 PM on June 1, 2016

Yes, it's hard not to see the Netherlands as the perfect place for your family (as you say above) -- Dutch is the easiest language for English-speakers to learn (apparently -- though it won't be as helpful in later life as German).

What about a city further south that gets slightly better weather -- like Maastricht?
posted by EtTuHealy at 2:50 PM on June 1, 2016

Freiburg, town of bicycles.
posted by Namlit at 3:02 PM on June 1, 2016

Graz, Austria fits as well, ticking all your boxes. Bicycles everywhere with many separated routes, great schools (not sure if "ranked globally"), in Schengen, cheap, open to foreigners (university city), high-speed internet and depending on location up to 100mb fiber.

We have all four seasons with Mediterranean-influenced weather, speak German (with English spoken by many, especially those under 40), excellent transit in the city (some dedicated bus lanes, most bus/tram routes come every 10 minutes during day and overlap with other routes) as well as to surrounding towns via bus and train, population around 300k, quite a few yarn shops, flat terrain surrounded with small mountains that contain numerous hiking trails (many accessible via public transit). We even have a tiny "mountain" in the city.

We are 2.5 hours from Vienna by train or bus, have ZipCar (plus a few local alternatives), six universities, a river running through the city center (with a walking/biking trail along its full length), plenty of larger mountains within public transit (e.g. Schöckl) and car's reach.

The economy is diverse and the political views are moderate within the city (rural areas surrounding the city are more right-wing).

You didn't ask about this, but taxes can be high depending on your income (50% above 60k EUR).

I recently moved here, so feel free to PM me for more details.
posted by flicken at 2:10 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Barcelona fits a good deal of your requirements. It's a bit larger than you want, but it feels much much smaller than it actually is.
Bicycling culture...absolutely
Education...I don't know about world class, but not horrible
Not expensive...compared to the rest of Spain, expensive. Compared to most of Europe, very cheap.
Open to foreigners...huge immigrant population here from rest of Europe, Latin America, North Africa, China and Pakistan.
Internet...up to 100mb fiber in some places
Seasons...no snow in town, but ten minutes outside there is tons. Summers are quite hot and humid, but sea breezes help.
Good public transit... I know one person who owns a car.
Medium-sized city... Feels smaller than it really is.
Has good yarn shop... Yep All You Knit is Love.
Relatively flat terrain in town... Yep.
Natural/rural surroundings... Some parks, lots of beach, subway or train or bus ride to mountains and big national parks.
Not too far from large centre... Check.
Car share available... No idea about this one.
Near an institute of higher education. But not totally dominated by that institution (i.e. not just a college town)...a couple of universities in town.
A water body...The sea!
Mountains not too far away. We would like to be able to rent a car and take a day trips into the mountains...super easy to do.
Diverse economy. Not just dominated by one economic activity, but with a mix of industry, services, creative class, etc...tourism, manufacturing, fashion, food.
Moderate politics. Getting harder to find in Europe these days, but as long as there is a reasonable percentage of the population with moderate or centre-left views that is fine...we have a new left wing mayor and it's a pretty liberal town in many respects. Gay marriage legal in Spain, fwiw.

Although now, looking at this, you might prefer Girona or Tarragona or Valencia. They're smaller places that also fit many of your requirements.
posted by conifer at 6:02 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I vehemently disagree with those who suggested Switzerland. I spent two years there that I will never get back. You certainly never get "what you pay for" and their hostility to outsiders is famous. 75,000 USD is considered entry-level and will get you nowhere in a country where a cappuccino can set you back $10.

I implore you: Please don't make the same mistake I did.

Have you considered the Baltic countries (Estonia, etc.)?
posted by lecorbeau at 9:56 AM on June 2, 2016

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