Find out where you should start your new life in the alpine nation with our guide to the 10 best cities in Switzerland for expats.
Despite its compact size, Switzerland is a country full of surprising contrasts. From the palm tree-lined shores of the southern lakes to the quaint towns and cities of the Swiss plateau, there really is something for everyone. But when moving to Switzerland, knowing which city is right for you can be a challenge.
Whether you settle in cosmopolitan Geneva, laid-back Lugano or bustling Zurich will largely depend on you and how you want to live your Swiss life. With a high quality of life and great public transit links throughout the alpine nation, however, you might not think it matters. That said, finding the right home for you and your family can make all the difference to your new life abroad. So, to give you some inspiration, here is a rundown of the 10 best cities in Switzerland for expats.
Stretched along picturesque Lake Geneva, this multicultural gem has long been one of the most popular cities in Switzerland for expats. The French-speaking city is home to some of the world’s highest-profile organizations, including the United Nations (UN), the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and the World Health Organization (WHO). This makes Geneva popular with diplomats and officials alike, who account for a large number of the city’s expat population.
While Geneva has historically suffered from a reputation of being a little stuffy and soulless, nowadays Switzerland’s second-largest city enjoys a more laid-back vibe. The old town is beautifully preserved and there are few better places to enjoy an evening drink and stroll when the summer arrives. Geneva also offers excellent transit links and many of Europe’s best ski resorts are only a short drive away.
Many expats overlook Winterthur when looking at cities in Switzerland to call their new home, but don’t make that mistake. This cozy little German-speaking city is the country’s sixth-largest and has a surprisingly large expat population. This makes it a great place to get settled in your new Swiss home, and with Zurich just a twenty-minute train ride away, you won’t be far from the bustle of the big city, either.
For a city of its size, Winterthur definitely packs a punch when it comes to culture, too. You’ll find museums, art galleries, and plenty of events throughout the year. The city is also pretty small, making it easy to get around, with the city center being extremely walkable. Generally speaking, rental costs and house prices in Winterthur are noticeably cheaper than in Zurich, meaning that you’ll get a lot more bang for your franc. You can find more information about this in our guide on where to live in Zurich.
Expats moving to Switzerland might be surprised to find out that the country’s capital is not Geneva or Zurich, but the relatively cozy city of Bern. Nestled near the linguistic border between French and German Switzerland, the city is home to the Swiss parliament. It also has a UNESCO World Heritage-listed city center, which is home to some of the country’s best shopping and, of course, the famous bearpit; home to the city’s enduring symbol – bears.
For a capital city in the heart of Europe, however, Bern manages to retain that distinctly small-town feel. This is one of the biggest appealing factors for the many expats who call the city home, alongside the postcard-perfect streets and laid-back attitude. While Bern is well-connected with the rest of the country, when summer hits, the locals are more interested in floating along the turquoise waters of River Aare as it twists through the city.
There are few places in the world quite like Lugano. Located on the northern shores of the breathtaking Lake Lugano, the city is seen as the capital of Italian-speaking Switzerland. In fact, it is often said that Lugano is more culturally akin to Milan – just an hour’s drive away over the border – than other cities in Switzerland. From its stunning architecture to its vibrant café culture and even the balmy Mediterranean breeze, it’s a Swiss slice of la dolce vita.
The warmer climate and laid-back lifestyle attract many expats to this corner of Switzerland. However, due to its mountainous location, you can still expect a generous covering of snowfall come winter. This makes it ideal for expats who like to mix things up. If Lugano sounds a little too hectic for you, though, there are a few other places in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino you should look into. These include lakeside Locarno and the border town of Chiasso.
Although technically a town, snug little Zug is another popular city in Switzerland among expats. Located between Zurich and Lucerne, German-speaking Zug provides a welcome alternative for those looking for an altogether quieter Swiss life. And plenty of expats have decided to move to Zug, too, making it surprisingly multicultural for a town of around 30,000 people. That said, with easy access to larger cities and, of course, the Swiss countryside, it’s easy to see why.
Although house prices are increasing in the area, Zug remains cheaper than Zurich, which lies just a twenty-minute train ride away. Being a relatively small town, however, you won’t find the same entertainment options that you would in other cities on this list. That said, there is still a decent selection of shops and restaurants and, of course, a beautiful lake to enjoy. Zug is definitely a great option for families looking for a little more space and access to greenery.
Located near the French and German borders, Basel is seen by many as one of the best cities in Switzerland to live in. The country’s third-largest city is cozy and vibrant, with a large student population and thriving nightlife scene. It is also a cultural center with plenty to offer expats. That said, some internationals who move to Basel spread their lives over the borders to make things a little cheaper. For instance, you can live in Germany, work in Switzerland, and go grocery shopping in France. Essentially, whatever works best for you, there are options in the Basel area.
But whether you’re in Basel or just over the border, there is loads to enjoy in this part of the world. The city’s enchanting old town, for example, is home to numerous great bars, restaurants, and boutique shops. Expats living in Basel are also blessed with a lot of outdoor options nearby. Whether they want to explore the Black Forest in Germany, hike up the Jura Mountains, or simply laze along the Rhine River, there’s never a dull moment.
Even in a country crammed full of beautiful lakeside locations, few cities in Switzerland come close to Lucerne. Looking for enchanting medieval architecture? Lucerne has it. Snow-capped mountains looming up all around? Lucerne has these, too. Crystal clear waters that look clean enough to drink from? Yep, you guessed it, Lucerne has it all. Basically, if you’re looking for the ultimate Swiss experience, then this is where you will find it.
Unsurprisingly, this German-speaking city is popular with expats and tourists alike. It’s small enough to retain that cozy atmosphere, but the churn of visitors gives it an unmistakable big-city buzz. Its size also helps keep transport costs down, as most places are easily accessible. While property prices are typically cheaper than in Zurich or Geneva, you can expect to pay more for a view over the iconic Kappelbrug.
8. Sion and Valais
If none of these cities in Switzerland are quite mountainous for you, then why not settle on higher pastures? The French-speaking town of Sion is the capital of the beautiful Valais canton, which lies next to the Italian border. Surrounded by snowy peaks and overlooked by two hilltop castles, it has all the modern facilities you’ll need, too. The railway station connects you to Zurich, Bern, and elsewhere, but you’ll probably be too busy exploring high in the mountains.
Outside Sion, you’ll find a whole host of picturesque mountain towns and villages you’ll soon fall in love with. The most famous of these is the ski resort of Zermatt, which sits under the watchful gaze of the Matterhorn. However, while Zermatt attracts crowds all winter, there are quieter options nearby. These include Grimentz, Evolène, and Brig, which are perfect if you’re looking for that classic Swiss mountain lifestyle.
No list of the best cities in Switzerland for expats would be complete without mentioning Zurich. The country’s economic powerhouse and largest city is also home to the largest expat community in Switzerland. And it won’t take you long to realize why so many foreigners choose to call this German-speaking city home. After all, it boasts great bars and restaurants, excellent transit links to cities across Europe, and an inevitable picture-perfect Swiss lake. What more could you want?
If you’re worried about missing that all-important big-city buzz, then Zurich is probably your best bet. Indeed, few cities in Switzerland come close to matching it in terms of cultural and entertainment opportunities. That said, this all comes at a cost as Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in Europe. Therefore, you’ll need to look outside the center to squeeze a little more from your francs. Thankfully, though, the city has an excellent public transit network, which makes soaking up all that magic a little easier.
Think we can’t squeeze another lakeside city into this list? Think again. Located on the shores of Lake Geneva, French-speaking Lausanne is another popular option for expats. The country’s fourth-largest city enjoys a surprisingly cosmopolitan buzz, thanks to its large university and youthful population. It is also home to a number of international corporations, which helps to attract an ever-growing number of expats to the city.
Amazingly, Lausanne is the smallest city in the world to have its own metro system, which makes it easy to get around. If you’re looking for something a little quieter, though, then head east along the shore to the town of Montreux. Residents of this resort town enjoy a mild microclimate and plenty of cultural offerings. This includes the town’s famous jazz festival, which takes place every summer. And, of course, wherever you are, the beautiful Alps are just a short hike away.