Why has the Spanish city of Barcelona been nominated the European city with the best quality of life for workers by the Cushman & Wakefield Healey & Baker-edited European Cities Monitor for seven years running? The answer is a not as straightforward as it might seem.
It is a beautiful city – indeed in 1999, it was awarded a Royal Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects – but so are many cities in the world. And its dozens of festivals and holidays provide an excellent showcase for Catalan traditions and culture – but most cities know how to flaunt their heritage.
The secret to Barcelona’s success is this: it successfully blends a sun-drenched, easy-going Mediterranean culture and climate with the hustle and bustle of a dynamic economy that is credited with fuelling development throughout southern Europe. Thanks to its physical infrastructure and decades of investment in the business community, the city routinely ranks among the most productive areas in the region – which is one reason so many companies vie to locate here.
And at the end of the working week? Four kilometres of beaches beckon.
Budapest has emerged as one of central Europe’s powerhouses since the collapse of the Socialist bloc in 1991. At the same time, the city has become a prized expatriate assignment among people looking for something more exotic than western European capitals, yet not so distant culturally or by car (250km from Vienna) that it feels isolated.
As the former capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now the capital of Hungary, Budapest is a cultural seat with not one but two stunning opera houses, excellent museums and a tradition both for sport and rest. Hungarians have prided themselves on their horsemanship for centuries and equestrian lovers will find themselves at home. After a long day in the saddle – on a horse or behind a desk – mud baths and hot springs accommodating every budget are specialities not to be passed up.
Budapest has maintained a balance that many other leading cities in the region have not. A summer’s evening stroll, either along the ancient Buda castle walls or a fin de siècle alley cum pedestrian zone and restaurant area in Pest, will turn up plenty of tourists, but Budapest manages to fit them in without losing its identity and charm.
Bad economic times after Argentina’s 2001 currency crash heralded a large influx of foreigners – mostly from the US – who flocked to its chic capital for a life of Paris-style boulevard cafes and smoky tango halls at a bargain price. Although the cost of living has risen somewhat since the depths of the crisis, $300 a month can still buy a comfortable apartment in a fashionable neighbourhood, and people who want to invest can own a place for as little as $50,000.
Buenos Aires is the most European of Latin American cities in its architecture and culture but, although it may feel familiar at first, newcomers have to make some adjustments. Locals rarely dine before 10pm, and do not expect to be in bed before 3am on a night out. Porteños, as the citizens call themselves, manage by taking late afternoon naps. Cultural life abounds: many well-known international acts visit to perform in the magnificent Teatro Colòn and there are plenty of cinemas and galleries, glamourous nightspots, fashionable clothing and design stores and fine restaurants.
Entrepreneurs and artistic types alike have taken the opportunity to spend an extended working holiday in Buenos Aires, making its expat community more eclectic and lively than those of many other cities. The economic situation is improving, with four years of steady growth and stable government providing a firmer ground for investment – though unorthodox business practices still abound.
Blessed with breathtaking beauty and possessing a forceful vibrancy, it is little wonder that Cape Town is consistently mentioned among the world’s ‘coolest’ cities. It isn’t just the mountain on its doorstep, sun-baked beaches and verdant wine-lands – its people are attractive too. But it is the clash of first and third world that fuels a fusion of culture and fashion that gives the city its unique look and feel.
The South African city’s modern origins can be traced back to 1652, when Dutch settlers set up a way-station for ships of the Dutch East India Company, subjugating the locals and importing slaves from Madagascar and Indonesia. Today, Cape Town reflects this cosmopolitan mix in its architecture, arts and cuisine, a city where expats of any nationality can settle in easily.
Cape Town is a magnet to knowledge industries such as asset management and IT, but few dispute that the city has an easier pace of life than Johannesburg, South Africa’s relentless commercial capital in the north of the country. That is the way the locals like it. Knocking off work early for an evening surf is not uncommon; Friday afternoon rush hour begins at about 3pm. And why not, when leisure choices are so abundant?
However, although the city is safer than Johannesburg, there is growing concern over crime. Costs are also on the rise. Property prices have surged, especially for ocean-front real estate. And the city’s high-calibre restaurant scene is rapidly catching up with high-calibre prices.
Nevertheless, many of the city’s most sought-after lifestyle attractions, like spectacular mountain-tops and restless seas, cost nothing.
On any international assignment, the first six months are critical to ultimate success. In Chicago, the transition from feeling like a foreigner to feeling at home tends to happen quickly, thanks to the city’s patchwork quilt of distinct but close-knit neighbourhoods and its famously friendly inhabitants.
Chicago is more ‘American’ than New York and is, in its heart as well as geographically, a very mid-western city. But, make no mistake, it is also a global city.
As a central travel hub for North America, with direct flight options to most major cities around the world, Chicago is a convenient base for travel-prone executives.
The Windy City is as blustery as its nickname suggests, and can be bitterly cold in the winter and scorching hot and humid in the summer. The wry local joke about it having two seasons – winter and roadworks – holds true, too. In fact, it has four distinct seasons and changeable weather, unlike some of the southern or west-coast cities, and many people find that attractive. There’s something to be said for variety.
Dubai has always been the classic work hard, play hard expat posting. And even though a new government decree has created a full two-day weekend, most expats are expecting to spend the same number of hours at work.
From September 1, the official weekend will be Friday and Saturday instead of Friday and Thursday afternoon. However, bosses in Europe and the US are not amused if they fail to get an answer from their Dubai offices on Fridays, so expatriates are expected to stay on call six or seven days a week.
The big bosses must forgive their Dubai-based managers, however, if they can hear munching and splashing sounds on the telephone when they call, as they take advantage of the fabulous all-day buffets on offer at weekends in all the emirate’s hotels. Other fun leisure activities are kite surfing, ski-ing on real snow in the Mall of the Emirates, shopping for designer labels, wadi bashing (driving down dry riverbeds in the desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles) and clubbing: Dubai has more than 100 bars and nightclubs.
A tax-free salary is the great perk of living in Dubai, although now expatriates are complaining that these gains are being eaten up in rapidly rising rents and property prices. The ‘hardships’ in the Gulf used to be the heat and isolation; now they are traffic jams and exorbitant real estate. Welcome to the new reality.
Dublin is home to a rich literary tradition, world famous architecture and its renowned 1000 pubs. Companies locate to the ‘fair city’ for its high-tech infrastructure and educated workforce – or so they claim.
For newcomers to Ireland’s capital, the pub culture is heartily embraced as the best way to meet new people, make friends and even find business contacts. Neighbourhood life revolves around these distinctive watering holes, with every human transaction – from courtship to friendship to business deal – initiated, negotiated, consummated and sometimes terminated within their walls.
Life at work is an easy transition for many foreigners to make as well, particularly if they are American. Dublin has close emotional ties with the US, especially with the city of Boston on the east coast. It is often said that Dublin’s business culture is closer to Boston’s than Berlin’s. Nevertheless, Berliners who arrive in Dublin for assignment can head to the nearest pub serving the best German brew and quickly feel right at home.
An intoxicating medley of east and west, British and Chinese, Hong Kong is small in area but big on colour and contrast. Gleaming skyscrapers, neon lights and 14 million elbows vie for space in the heart of the city. Yet 10 minutes away from the corporate heartbeat lies stunning scenery criss-crossed by pathways through tropical greenery, overlooking breathtaking views.
Culturally, Hong Kong is similarly unique. British rule and capitalist fervour have left a legacy of colonial architecture and charming idiosyncrasies. But beneath the glitz, Hong Kong’s heart is pure Chinese. Blue chip multinationals defer to Fung Shui masters, and incense-rich temples welcome worshippers offering prayers and fruit to ensure good fortune.
While enjoying its heritage, Hong Kong looks firmly to the future. Visitors and residents enjoy luxurious shopping and dining, an array of local and international cultural and sporting events, and a future that looks set to rival its glittering past.
For all its big-city cache, London is more than anything a city of villages, with such a different vibe in Camden than in Chelsea that they may as well be in different parts of the country. Tribal loyalties run deep: try convincing a north Londoner that there is anything worth seeing south of the river, or a West Ender that the East End is fashionable. The ability to carve out a unique little world for oneself – thanks to London’s ability to be most things to most people – is one reason of many that the city is such a magnet for international expats.
Someone forgot to tell French president Jacques Chirac that cracks about the bad British food are outdated. London now offers what is arguably the world’s finest culinary experience, with a staggering array of choices providing something to suit every imaginable taste and with many of the world’s best chefs toiling in London kitchens. Oh yes, and there are also a few pubs.
The good life does not come cheap, however: house prices are astronomical even for local professionals’ purses, rental prices are not any better, and there will be little change from a £50 note after a dinner for two.
Bahrain prides itself on its status as the ‘most free’ economy in the Middle East – as judged by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal – and this liberal attitude rubs off on its lifestyle and cultural offering for residents and business travellers. Every weekend, an exodus of Serengeti-style proportions occurs across the King Fahad Causeway, with Saudi residents and expats making the most of Manama’s colourful nightlife before retreating back to the kingdom.
Bustling bars aside, the F1 Grand Prix – Bahrain is still the only host venue in the Middle East – broad selection of hotels (eight five-star) and Riffa Golf Club also keep western expats occupied. Yet, even with all the Western trappings, Bahrain still has a more Arabian atmosphere than Dubai.
The country’s focus remains financial, as illustrated by the Bahrain Financial Harbour, fast rising up along the Manama coastline, which will provide executives with a place to work and play in a Canary Wharf-style environment.
Like their United Arab Emirates counterparts, Bahraini businesses are moving to a Friday-Saturday weekend from September, in a move designed to enhance productivity and consolidate the country’s regional financial hub status.
As India’s capital for business and pleasure, Mumbai is an exciting place to be for both. The work ethic is more relaxed than in, say, Singapore or Hong Kong. A five-day week is the norm, although given the time difference – London is about five hours behind and New York eight – you could find yourself working late most evenings.
In the home to a diverse mix of India’s burgeoning businesses, such as Bollywood, television, media, music and information technology, partying hard is the best way to network, and even do business. The city’s lively nightlife offers many options, with a new club, bar or restaurant opening up every month. At weekends, a taste of the city’s latest passion for art can be found at one of its many galleries; there is cricket in the gymkhana; for those who like shopping, there are the leading Indian fashion labels, silks and jewellery at the malls; and the latest Bollywood movie can be seen at one of the art deco theatres in town.
On a dollar salary, you can live like a king, although the city’s spiralling rents and property prices can take away a large chunk. Service apartments are increasingly becoming a preferred option for short stays. Traffic is bad but the good news is that hiring a driver is cheap, and most expatriates enjoy that luxury.