A “right” city can make you euphoric, and the “wrong” one can make you regret your moving abroad.
Most expats are not quite free in choosing their city of stay, because most of us come to work and depend on their working contract. But if you have some working experience, you have more options. And if you have them, think them carefully over.
I have been living in Germany for 8 years now and I have changed 5 cities before it started to feel like home. It took me 5 cities to understand, first, which qualities of a new place are most important for me, and, second, that Germany is far from being homogeneous. It is more like many countries inside one.
I arrived in Germany in 2012 to study at a university in Dresden, then moved to Berlin for an internship, then in Kassel for another one, and then I was back to Dresden. One more internship here: getting even a beginner job in Germany can really take a lot of time! My first job, a traineeship actually, happened in Munich. After some apartment sharing experience with an old lady, I decided to move together with my future husband, but we could only find a flat outside of Munich, in its suburbs. Later we had another flat, this time in Munich directly. Afterward, we saw it clearly — that’s enough. We want to go home. The home was in Dresden.
This comprehension did not come so easily. I will sketch my experiences first and then try to come up with some generalizable considerations.
Obviously enough, the size matters. In a big city, you really got lost. Many employers there are quite spoiled by the number of people moving in each year. No need to expect too much hospitality here, but a good choice of job positions can compensate for this.
On the contrary, in Kassel, a town in the northern Hesse with a bit more than 200.000 citizens, being an intern in a big company felt like being a family member. Some colleagues started their carriers here decades ago, changed between several departments or teams, and could realize their professional potential in the best way. People took their time to onboard me. Many lived balanced lives and just did their jobs. Nobody was in a carrier rush, nobody needed to do something crazy in their free time to look special.
Besides, this is a kind of perfect city for someone having a family. It does not offer much entertainment, except for a famous UNESCO park ensemble, a theater, and a cozy shopping quarter. But the rest of the city looks very plain. A family house with a garden would reward me for this boredom, but this I could not afford and I was single. One could have used social networks to get in touch with locals. Online communities à la “New in town” are very popular in Germany. The problem is, in a small town you always feel too much a stranger since most people were born and grew up here. Very few move in as adults. This is nothing new, maybe. I spent only 8 months there and had to move back to Dresden to finish my study.
Nonetheless, Kassel is an independent town and not a satellite of a big one. This makes a difference too. Kassel has a culture. Some year and a half later I had to move to Starnberg, an even smaller town close to Munich, the capital of Bavaria. Another year and 9 months this time, but I did not start to feel at home.
I only commuted to Munich during the week and to the mountains on the weekends. You would love the town as a destination for a one day trip, but living there permanently was close to disaster. Public transport did not really exist. No culture. Many very expensive villas with huge fences. It is situated on a big beautiful lake, where you enjoy watching swans while waiting for your commuter train to bring you to Munich.
If you live in such a satellite city, your life is happening in a big one, which can be tough. Since you are neither here, nor there. This can make social contacts more difficult.
In Munich, I spent altogether (without my commuter time) 2 years. It would make no sense to give them an assessment, like good or bad. It depends on the personality you are. I am pretty sure that extravert people can have fun there. During your day at work, you are confronted with lots of superficial, but neither unfriendly nor boring small talks that not necessarily grow into something serious. Cultural opportunities were so diverse that it took time to make a choice. But during some performances that I’d seen, I got the impression that the culture is being consumed, not embraced.
A really good thing about Munich is that you stop feeling yourself a foreigner. People from all over Germany and from the entire world move there. So, you do get lost, but in a good sense. Moreover, nature lovers, especially hiking fans and rock climbers, will have a lot to do in the Alps. The city itself is very green. Unfortunately, the routine working stress in Munich may overwhelm the joy of going into the mountains.
I do not have to say much about Berlin. It is neither green, nor it has mountains nearby. It took me only two weeks to make a decision not to pursue my carrier path here. Many people surely love Berlin. Do not hesitate to confess that you do not. Or maybe that you do like it since it provides space for creative professions, start-ups, and the famous Berlinale film festival.
Some preliminary conclusions
Before I describe a city I find perfect for me, I want to conclude a bit. To make your relocation decision easier, think of the type of city dweller you possibly are. Partygoers go to big cities. Workaholics and generally carrier oriented people should follow. Although, particularly in Germany, as an engineer or chemist you would have to settle in a small town hosting a huge industrial manufacturer. As an office worker, you will be better accepted in a metropolitan like Munich or Berlin. Family people should consider smaller towns too. But remember that your kids do not want to feel outsiders, so, a big city may do better again. A young couple that knows how to entertain themselves and loves nature and solitude would prefer a small or a middle-sized town.
But the size is not everything. Each city has its own spirit. For instance, in Kassel, I happened to listen to a great concert, dedicated to the French legend Edith Piaf. The city also hosts a famous international art exhibition Documenta. Dresden provides a home for Ostrale, another contemporary art biennale. Munich and Berlin become destinations for many artists too, but I personally could not enjoy it much, because it was either overcrowded, or it took a lot of time to get to a museum, or the exhibitions seemed too much a kitsch to me.
Tip 1: finding a flat and commuting
Important advice to those considering a move into any metropolitan area: weight it carefully, whether you commute from a satellite or rent an apartment in the city. An apartment in the city will be a worse one for the same money compared to the similar one in the suburbs. It can happen that you will spend the same or even more time in the subway than you would on a commuter train. In Germany, the so-called regional trains tend to be more comfortable and move faster than the subways. And if you live quite far away from your place of work, the costs are paid back by the tax office. It does not matter if you use your car or a train.
If you get a chance to go to a metropolitan, do not think about tourist attractions you’ve heard of. You won’t see them in your routine life. Find out, what kind of flat you can afford here and where you will possibly end up living. If you are forced to go by car a lot because of some lack of public transport, consider additional costs that you cannot subside from your taxes, like car insurance and maintenance. Last but not the least, the more you use your car the more of its value is lost because of the number of miles you’ve been driving.
Tip 2: check public transport, roads and city planning in general
As the next step, you should try to get an approximation of your daily travel time to your working place. For this reason, and since you want to understand your chances to live a social life, check a public transport map, or check the roads, if you prefer driving your own car.
I believe that Munich expects you to have your own motor vehicle. All city trains go through a single “spine” line, thus, resulting in longer waiting times for passengers. One emergency happens and really all of them stop for hours. On the contrary, although the car owners will enjoy lots of traffic jams during the morning rush, three ring roads will bring them anywhere in the city.
Regarding the city planning, Munich is quite centered. All streets are directed to its heart, which is Marienplatz. Berlin is rather divided into many independent districts. It has a huge city center that cannot be embraced as one entity. When it comes to public transport, Berlin is far ahead, having a bus or a tram reaching to every small corner and a huge city train ring, which saves you a lot of time. Getting from one place in Berlin can be much faster than in Munich, even if the last one is actually few times smaller!
Tip 3: for bike lovers
In Kassel, nobody used a bike in the town, because of its two hills. In Starnberg, the altitude also changed drastically within less than one or two miles, since the surface dropped in the direction of the big lake. In such cases, cycling can become something spared for weekends. Provided that you have the luck to be able to get quickly to a plain.
Eventually, I bought a 22-inch wheel folding bike that I could only take into the train outside of the rush hours, so in the morning I went by car with my husband, started with the bike from his office to mine, then in the evening I cycled a bit through the city to let the restrictions end and took the train at the west edge of Munich. Later I’ve got a normal city bike again, and it felt like flying after several months on the commuter bike.
In Berlin, you are really the king of the road! People there ride bikes like crazy, and car drivers adapt to them. Broad boulevards have a separated zone for cyclists, where two of them can stay next to each other, and there is still some place for a third one to pass by safely. And Berlin is pretty flat. One day I made a bike trip through the city, which was 60 km long, and I did not climb any single hill.
If you are a bike lover, and there is really no chance to cycle, you are going to miss your after-work rides. Nothing can be better than pushing your pedals wildly after a busy day spent in the office chair.
Tip 4: nature in and outside the city
In a nutshell, some cities are greener than others. Munich and Dresden both have huge recreation areas on the riversides. These areas include walking paths many miles long, even extended to the nearby cities, and surrounded by the broad meadows, where people can sit or play.
If you need to stay connected with nature, study Google Maps, and find out, how many green patches your new city of residence can offer. Study few patches on the satellite view. You may want to know if a park belongs to a castle because in this case, it could turn to be too popular for a relaxed walk. If you have a dog, you may want to read about the relevant regulations, like, whether your pet is allowed to be unleashed in the park.
There are very few “truly” metropolitan areas in Germany, where you would have to drive long hours to see some nature, but there are some. For instance, the so-called Ruhrpott in the West, that includes Cologne, Bonn, and some more. I always knew I would not feel good there.
Basically, Germany is rather thickly covered with forests, only the region around Berlin — Brandenburg — looks more like a prairie. There are no big mountains on the coast, opposite to what you would see, let’s say, in Norway. South Germany, particularly Bavaria, shares the Alps with its neighbor Austria, and an eastern region — Saxony — shares the Elbe Sandstone Mountains with the Bohemian part of the Czech Republic.
Thus, as a nature lover, you won’t miss much in Germany.
An introvert person appreciating work-life balance would find a perfect home in a city like Dresden. It is located next to the older mountains that are not so high like the Alps, but for this reason, offer more relaxed hiking. The city hosts a lot of cultural events, mostly of some alternative kind, like street festivals. You will find a colorful nightlife too and would not have to spend hours to get home after dancing in a disco club. You may encounter some alienation from the older people, who are not quite used to foreigners and barely speak English since they grew up in the communist DDR, but most of the young people are open-minded. A long walk among historical buildings with calm, but the outstanding architecture will help you to shake your hard day off your shoulders and arrive at home with a fresh mind.
Moving abroad, do not leave behind the good habits you had in your native country, like doing sport, going to the theater, or spending time in nature. Make sure that these activities are also available in your new city of stay.
In the end, I would like to reassure you that in your right city you will feel at home in the very first instant. I often heard that one just have to wait a couple of years to get accustomed to a new place. No. Don’t waste your time. Use it to look for what you really need, travel around, and explore new places.
Don’t bargain with yourself, you live only once!