Looking where to live in Switzerland as an expat? Here’s a guide to the best Swiss cities for expats, including a short description of each major city in Switzerland.
If you’re planning on living in Switzerland, there are many picturesque Swiss cities and landscapes to find the coveted Swiss lifestyle. Although which are the best cities in Switzerland is subjective to the lifestyle you’re looking for, and particularly your budget as some of Switzerland’s major cities rank as the world’s most expensive.
Besides the cultural-packed top places to visit in Switzerland, the country has much to offer expats from quiet Alpine living to bustling, cosmopolitan Swiss cities. Many expats find Zurich’s high quality of living makes it the best place to live in Switzerland – although it comes as a price – while multicultural Geneva and Switzerland’s capital city Bern are other Swiss cities often noted in lists of the best cities to live in Switzerland.
This guide describes the major Switzerland’s cities to help you choose the best city in Switzerland for your lifestyle.
Living in Bern
With a population of 142,656 in 2018 (half the size of Zurich), some expats are surprised to learn that Bern is the capital city of Switzerland. Located near the linguistic border between French and German Switzerland, the city combines the plateaus of the western region with the eastern mountains. All major Swiss political decisions are made in Berne, a surprisingly international city for its size. The medieval city centre is recognised by UNESCO as a Cultural World Heritage Site and still retains elements of its 12th-century origins. Despite its Old World charm, the city also possesses one of the longest shopping promenades in Europe, making it one of the best cities in Switzerland for expats seeking a mix of history with modern conveniences. Residents living in Bern enjoy frequent and reliable transport connections to other major Swiss cities through various motorways, an extensive rail network and an airport nearby.
Living in Zurich
Zurich is often considered the economic powerhouse of Switzerland. The city was recently ranked third in Mercer’s cost of living survey due to its high standards of education, health and transport. The cost of living remains high, especially in the city centre, despite the authorities’ efforts to expand the city by building new suburbs. This is made up for by the dynamic expat community living in Zurich, which has given great variety to the city’s entertainment and cultural scene, making it one of the best places to live in Switzerland for expats.
The city is arranged in 12 districts, which contain one to four neighbourhoods each. Main sights include the Kunsthaus, a classic modern art museum, Bahnhofstrasse (considered the Champs d’Elysees of Zurich), and Grossmunster, a church built in the 9th century.
Living in Geneva
Geneva’s multicultural vibe makes it one of the best cities to live in Switzerland for expats. It hosts the headquarters of numerous international organisations including the United Nations, the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation. Due to the high numbers of diplomats and high-ranking politicians working and living in Geneva, as well as the rich history and stunning scenery, the cost of living in Geneva is just under Zurich’s. In addition to the international organisations, which are open to the public, the main attractions include the large shopping district, the preserved old town and Lake Geneva with its famous fountain. Transport links to Geneva are very good, with a large international airport and connections to the Swiss and French rail and motorway systems. In the winter months, residents living in Geneva have an easy access to the Alps’ best ski resorts.
Living in Basel
The city of Basel, located in northwest Switzerland, offers its inhabitants a great geographical position to enjoy France and Germany. It is considered a European cultural centre despite its small size – making it a great home base for expats. Small, winding backstreets in the old town connect shopping districts, museums and heritage sites. Those living in Basel are treated to picturesque views over the River Rhine, which can be seen from numerous spots across the city. The river plays an important role in exporting and importing goods since Basel is Switzerland’s only outlet to the ocean. There is also heavy industry along the main international borders with France and Germany. Transport connections are exceptionally good in Basel due to its sea port, international airport and proximity to both Zurich and Bern.
Living in Lugano
Switzerland’s most southern town, Lugano, often regarded as the capital of Italian-speaking Switzerland, is a stark contrast to the other top Swiss cities. The extreme climate ranges from metres of snowfall in winter to high temperatures averaging 27 degrees Celsius in the summer, which attracts visitors from the German and French-speaking regions and also expats looking for where to live in Switzerland minus any unfavourable weather. Due to the Mediterranean summers, winemaking is a key source of income for the Ticinese (residents living in Lugano and the rest of Italian Switzerland). The Italian influence on the region is identifiable in its architecture, food, mannerisms, and even driving. Living in Lugano is convenient as it is located only an hour’s train ride from Milan.
Living in Lausanne
Popularly known as the student capital of the country, Lausanne is undoubtedly perfect for students and those young at heart choosing where to live in Switzerland. Located an hour away from Geneva by public transport, living in Lausanne is not only convenient but also generally cheaper than other major cities. This is university town has a great mix of both local Swiss culture and international flair evident through its large expat population, vibrant nightlife, stunning architecture and an abundance of events throughout the week. The cosmopolitan city provides bucolic views of the Alps and a pleasant and safe environment where those living in Lausanne can enjoy all Switzerland has to offer.
Life in Switzerland
It is no secret that Switzerland offers some of the best skiing resorts in the world. Expats living in Switzerland have the fortune of having close access to the hundreds of kilometres of well-kept pistes that thousands of tourists flock to each season. There are numerous skiing locations in each linguistic region whether you are living in Zurich, Bern or Lugano.
The winter season begins in November after the first snowfall and can run until mid-May depending on temperatures. Summer skiing is also a possibility in mountainous regions over 3,000 metres but is a more expensive option.
Reaching the slopes is easy, with airports located in and around the main resorts. Geneva, Berne, Zurich, Lugano, and Milan (Italy) airports are well-connected to the mountains via train and bus. Some resorts such as Zermatt, Murren and Wengen are completely car-free, so driving there is not an option.