Berlin is the best city in the world for culture, say expats

Hauptstadt rocking.
Hauptstadt rocking.
Image: EPA-EFE/Alexander Becher
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Berlin’s wealth of museums, galleries, and nightlife is what expats love most about the German capital. A new survey from HSBC found 70% of expats rated Berlin as having a great cultural scene, putting it at the top of the culture rankings out of 52 cities surveyed, ahead of Buenos Aires in second place and London in third.  

The HSBC defines expats as adults over 18 years old currently living away from their country of origin or home country, which is what most places and institutions would term as migrants. It includes people from any country in the world, and they do not have to be professionals. For the most recent survey, the bank canvassed 27,587 expats from 159 countries, to find out how they felt about their current cities, from the culture on offer, to career opportunities, salary levels, and whether living there had improved their physical wellbeing.

While Berlin might be rocking culturally for expats, living there hasn’t improved their physical wellbeing much. Only 38% of them said they were physically better than it would be in their home countries. That put Berlin at a not-very-healthy 22nd place, just a sliver over the 36% global average.

Berlin’s expats weren’t in the top ten for annual gross personal income either (total income from all sources, including wages, salaries, or rents and before tax deductions). The city came 43rd out of 52, with an average expat salary of $84,162, quite a bit under the global average of $99,903.

On the upside, the affordable cost of living may balance out the salary shortfall—84% of expats in Berlin said they have more disposable income, second only to Bangkok.

Berlin’s certainly a beguiling city with a vibrant, freewheeling charm, but years after former mayor Klaus Wowereit declared it “poor but sexy,” the capital of the largest economy in Europe is still struggling. According to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, it’s the only capital in Europe that is a drain on the country’s overall GDP. Looking at how GDP would be affected if a country had to cope without its capital city, it found that Britain would be 11% poorer on a per capita basis without London, and France would lose 15% of per capita income if it didn’t have Paris. However, the average German would be 0.2% wealthier if he didn’t have to support the relatively poor Berlin, which is saddled with around €59 billion in debt.

Years of underinvestment has left the city in a mess of half-completed building projects and endless roadworks that disrupt traffic for months, sometimes years on end. Basic bureaucratic necessities, like registering births and deaths, getting married, or even just registering a new car can take forever, as administrative offices are stretched to their limit and massively underfunded. Unemployment at 9% is second highest in the country, only Bremen has a higher unemployment rate.

For expats or others earning an average of €84,000 ($103,526), rent prices—especially compared to capitals like New York and London—may be quite reasonable, but locals have been steadily priced out of the central areas of the city.  A Bundesbank report last week said real estate prices in Berlin could be overvalued by up to 35%. Rent costs for new leases in Berlin were up more than 9%, it noted in its monthly report.

Then there’s the giant embarrassment that is the city’s international airport. Construction on Berlin-Brandenburg started in 2006, it was slated to open in 2011, and now won’t open until 2020 or later. A seemingly endless catalogue of engineering mistakes, corruption allegations, and mismanagement has pushed the original estimate for the airport from €2 billion to the latest estimate of more than €7 billion

Expats looking for stellar job opportunities would perhaps be better off heading to San Francisco, ranked number one—or Mumbai if it’s about earning big money. Mumbai topped the ranking for expat salaries, with an average personal salary of $217,165.