By Jan Willem Blankert
Continuing the expat advice series, FT Residential focuses on Brussels and Amsterdam. We invite readers to participate in a short survey and share their expat tales from around the world and the lessons they learned.
Jan Willem Blankert is a former EU diplomat. The native Dutchman retired in 2013 after 35 years of expat living, and now splits his time between homes in the Uccle neighbourhood of Brussels and Rivierenbuurt, Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is young, lively and tolerant, with entertainment of many kinds. English of decent quality is widely spoken. It is fairly green, has good public transport and is well-connected.
The city is dense and flat, which I like, as I can walk and cycle everywhere on errands or visiting friends.
Housing has become very expensive. A well-appointed apartment with at least two bedrooms costs €2,000-€2,500 a month to rent. For those looking to buy, small apartments have also shot up in price: city centre prices start at €5,000 per square metre, with trendier areas such as De Pijp from €6,000; super-hip areas such as Jordaan and Grachtengordel are even more expensive.
Parking is also costly, though modestly priced for residents, who are limited to one permit per address. However, it is an easy place to live if you don’t have a car — I have just sold mine — with car-sharing services such as Greenwheels. Official taxis are pricey, though not excessively so.
Amsterdam has a great choice of places to eat out. Bak is the best restaurant of all (vegetarian, perfect service, though not cheap), but for a more traditional meal I like Brasserie Keyzer, next to the city’s Concertgebouw concert hall. Avoid the tourist traps around Damrak though.
By comparison, Brussels is quieter, greener and has an older population. English is much less widely spoken, however, and understanding French or Dutch is an advantage. Housing costs are at least third lower than in Amsterdam and there is an ample choice of decent apartments to rent.
Fortunately for me, there are excellent train links with Amsterdam, as well as Paris and London. It should be noted, though, that the fast connections between my two cities — the Thalys high-speed trains — don’t come cheap (standard single fares range from €44 to €82). The slower train is more affordable but, at three hours, takes twice as long as the Thalys.
Amsterdam, I think, is an easier place to connect with people, who are more open than in Brussels. In the Belgian capital, on the other hand, it is much easier — and cheaper — to find a house with a garden.
Is there anything I wish I’d known before moving to these cities? Not in my case, as I had lived in both Brussels and Amsterdam before moving to Singapore, then to Jakarta for my final posting.
The biggest change I noticed on returning to Amsterdam, however, was that it had gone from being a city in decline in 1976 to a much cleaner, safer place. Your bicycle will be safe at night — provided you have locked it. And in Brussels, there is now greater — though not total — respect for pedestrian crossing signals.
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Photographs: Getty; Jochem van Grunsven; Dreamstime