Five cities where you can live large, for a little

Inspiring alternatives to the world’s priciest cities, where comparable lifestyle, location and experiences can be found for a fraction of the cost.

The world’s most expensive cities for 2013 have been identified by the Economist Intelligence Unit and there is a good chance your dream destination for living abroad is among them.

Tokyo, Paris and Singapore are, predictably, among the top 10 cash-sapping destinations. In fact, Tokyo has ranked first for 14 out of the last 20 years. Other budget-busting centres are possibly more unexpected – at least if you are unfamiliar with local prices – with Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney both in the top five.

But in many cases, for each incredibly expensive destination there is a city that offers similar experiences, for less. In these five inspiring alternatives, comparable lifestyle, location and experiences can be found for a fraction of the cost.

In most cases, it’s best to relocate with an existing job. In Europe, for instance, the euro zone crisis has hit hard and unemployment rates are high, but quality of life can still be good.

Tokyo, Japan / Seoul, South Korea
Tokyo may be your heart’s desire, but just over the Sea of Japan lies the South Korean city of Seoul, a city equally fused with high-tech, neon-lit modernity. According to Numbeo, a user-generated cost-of-living statistics website, overall consumer prices (including rent) in Seoul can be approximately 35% cheaper than Tokyo. Essential costs such as rent and food are estimated to be around 40% less.

An increasingly dynamic city, Seoul is an exemplary hub of technology and engineering as South Korea achieves global greatness with brands such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai. It is also is home to all the skyscrapers and neon you could wish for, while offering historic contrast with ancient temples, palace complexes and teahouses. Architecturally, this Unesco City of Design is emerging from its post–Korean War rebuild with a bold look, as creations by architects Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind add to the skyline.

Like Tokyo, the city is easy to access through extensive and efficient public transport. If you love Tokyo’s Ueno Park, riverside Seoul will more than satisfy with its peppering of central green spaces. A variety of bright-lights entertainment runs all night; from karaoke, games arcades and K-Pop to stylish cocktail bars and pumping nightclubs, street-side food stalls and fine dining. Try youthful Hongdae as an alternative Shibuya. Shopping-wise, the city more than competes with its markets, chic boutiques and flashy department stores that line the streets of Myeong-dong.

Melbourne, Australia / Berlin, Germany
Culturally minded, food-obsessed Melbourne is officially the world’s most liveable city, and with that title comes a hefty price tag. Berlin, with its cool, artistic lifestyle and comparable riverside location provides ample similarities without blowing the budget. According to Numbeo, consumer prices, including rent, in Berlin can be around 45% lower than in Melbourne. While rapid gentrification in central neighbourhoods such as Prezlauer Berg and Kreuzberg has increased housing prices, rental costs can still be around 50% cheaper than Melbourne’s Fitzroy neighbourhood and other inner north suburbs.

Like Melbourne, liberally minded Berlin is cultural to its core, a haven for artists, musicians and writers, with a penchant for innovation and subversion. It is home to museums galore, and has a thriving 24-hour nightlife, ranging from basement clubs to cocktail bars to world-class symphonies and theatre. There is plenty to feast on too, and not just famed Wurst. Berlin fare runs the gamut from Michelin-starred fine dining to locavore organic eateries to fantastic, affordable ethnic food, particularly Turkish.

Cycling in Berlin is just as popular as in Melbourne, and with Berlin’s excellent bike lanes and open spaces, it is an enjoyable and cost-effective way to get around the compact city.

Singapore / Bangkok, Thailand
Urban giant Bangkok may be a lot grittier and more prone to gridlock than impeccably clean and efficient Singapore, but if excellent shopping, food, entertainment and a megacity vibe are what you are looking for in a hometown, it could be the perfect, affordable alternative. Numbeo suggests consumer prices including rent can be 55% cheaper in Bangkok compared to Singapore. You cannot beat that for value.

Singapore’s hawker food centres meet their rival in Bangkok’s street food, where spicy, salty, sweet and sour mingle in a head-whirring gastronomical experience with prices starting at around 50 baht. Cheap and cheerful street carts abound, but there is also plenty of upmarket, white-tableclothed haute cuisine, often in restaurants run by expats. Numbeo statistics show midrange meals in Bangkok can cost about half of what you would pay in Singapore and budget eats can be almost 75% less.  

Bangkok’s nightlife might be on the seedy side compared to Singapore, but the city has its share of glamorous cocktail and rooftop bars with stunning views across the brightly lit urban sprawl, such as Sirocco Sky Bar. Entertainment runs all night, and the Thai sense of fun imbues almost everything going on in the city, which makes for a great atmosphere.

While Bangkok might not have an Orchard Road, it’s shopping scene is diverse and teeming with options for all budgets. Shiny megamalls rub shoulders with outdoor markets, fashion knock-offs coexist with the real deal.

Paris, France / Buenos Aires, Argentina
Chic, fashionable, wine-loving Paris, with its grand architecture and wide boulevards is likely the city of your dreams. Sadly, it may have to stay that way, at least for now. But if you are prepared to temper Parisian style and sophistication with a Latin flavour, then Buenos Aires is right on the money. Numbeo calculates that consumer prices including rent in Buenos Aires can be 45% less than Paris, making the Argentine capital worthy of consideration, even though inflation in the city is high.

Known as the Paris of the South, Buenos Aires’ European heritage is apparent at street level, where Belle Époque architecture and grand boulevards resonate with Parisian influence. The buzz on the streets is undeniably Latin American, of course, which creates an intoxicating blend.

The city’s vibrant cafe culture means there are ample spots to relax in atmospheric surrounds. Coffee is big, and Argentinean wines are achieving world-wide recognition; malbec is set to rival French reds, with all the taste but none of the cost. Like the French, Portenos love food, and the gastronomic scene is varied, from local parrillas (grill houses) serving juicy steaks to sophisticated gourmet restaurants and an array of ethnic eateries with influences from Japanese to Indian to Brazilian. Dining out is roughly 40% cheaper.

As with Paris, style is everything in this hip, fashion-conscious city. From runway flair to boutique innovations, Buenos Aires embraces design wholeheartedly, showcasing the country’s top talent biannually at the glitzy Buenos Aires Fashion Week.

San Francisco, United States / Lisbon, Portugal
San Francisco may cost less than New York City or Los Angeles, but it will still likely leave a dent in your wallet. For a similar geographical and artistic flavour, Lisbon is an interesting alternative. According to Numbeo, consumer prices, including rent, in Lisbon are approximately 45% less than in San Francisco. Rental prices in particular can be markedly cheaper – around 65% less. 

Ancient Lisbon may be a far cry culturally from the US west coast, but this historic Portuguese city shares a number of topographic and visual qualities with San Francisco. Most obvious is the enormous orange Ponte 25 de Abril, a suspension bridge almost identical to the Golden Gate. Like San Francisco, Lisbon is a picturesque water-facing city built on seven hills, which give impressive views out across the city and water. Lisbon’s steep streets are serviced by yellow cable cars too, redolent of its US twin.

Delve beneath Lisbon’s surface and there lives a thriving, alternative arts scene – similar to San Francisco’s Mission District – focused in the hilltop neighbourhood Bairro Alto. Street art brings the terrain of this area to life, with walls and buildings colourfully rendered with murals and graffiti, in a striking emergence of the city’s artistic subculture, free for all to enjoy.