A large number of expats want to live in Amsterdam. And a large number of expats end up actually living in Amsterdam. It makes sense, there are a ton of jobs there, everyone speaks English, and you can make friends with other expats.
But since the prices have been rising in the Dutch capital, it begs the questions, is there anywhere else to go?
Amsterdam may be a hot spot for expats, but there are other options. For me, the choice has always been between Amsterdam or Utrecht. Sometimes there are factors in play that one can’t control. Like, where is your job? Your job’s location may take you to one place or another.
With expats, their job is often in Amsterdam and so living in Amsterdam is a pretty clear choice. For me, I wanted to live there because I’m a city person. I’m from New York City— born and raised. Many European cities are small compared to where I’m from, but that doesn’t necessarily rule them out for me.
But in the end, after spending several months in Amsterdam, Sara and I decided that Utrecht was a better fit for us. I honestly wouldn’t even have Utrecht on my radar if it wasn’t for Sara, who’s Dutch and knows more Dutch things. So here, I want to describe the differences between the two cities for those of you out there who would find this information useful.
When I tell other expats that I know that I live in Utrecht, it surprises me that many of them haven’t even visited yet. “But Amsterdam is so beautiful!” they say. Well, yes, but surprise, surprise, there are other pretty places in the Netherlands too. The whole country is just one big collection of rustic windmills, cute houses and buildings, and canals.
Both cities are very, very pretty. And here are some pictures of Utrecht to convince you that I’m not crazy.
In fact, I often tell people that I find the center of Utrecht prettier than the center of Amsterdam! Shocking, isn’t it? And I’m not just saying that because I live in Utrecht. The apartment buildings and houses are just so small and cute, but at the same time, they are also very close together, giving it a really pretty look.
But of course. Amsterdam is very pretty as well. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a picture to remind you.
While both cities are gorgeous, there is a difference in feel between the two kinds of cities. To me, Amsterdam does feel like a proper city. It’s a good size for someone who’s used to sprawling American cities. Utrecht feels like a city but with too few neighborhoods to choose from.
You should not mistake this for Utrecht not having enough bars, restaurants, cafes, or things to do in general. The city of Utrecht really is growing from the inside out. The center of the city is just expanding, and there is literally cafe after cafe, bar after bar to choose from.
In Amsterdam, once you’re outside the main tiny center, the bars and restaurants tend to be more spread out. In Utrecht, you will find hundreds (I have not researched this) of places within a 2 mile radius. It is really insane how many places there are packed next to each other. These places to go out are jammed next to each other just like the little pretty houses and buildings.
The smaller size of Utrecht, I feel, also makes it so that there’s a larger sense of community. I would go to things in Amsterdam, but often, as it can be in larger cities, I felt a little disconnected from the “soul” of the city. I would meet other aspects, and through Sara, hang out with Dutch people who lived there, but it still felt like I was missing something.
In Utrecht, I was immediately able to join a small, local volunteer organization with people who have lived in Utrecht for decades. This is something that I genuinely wanted and was happy to find. I wanted to mix more with Dutch people, rather than mostly with expats, which was the case in Amsterdam. Although I will say that in Amsterdam, the one place where I do feel connected to the city’s core is when I visit anything cultural, like the museums.
Utrecht has museums too, but I just LOVE the art museums in Amsterdam. And there are several to choose from! So fun! I love me a good Mondriaan or Van Gogh. Although unfortunately, like most other good places in Amsterdam, the museums tend to be CROWDED with tourists. Utrecht doesn’t see as many tourists as Amsterdam does. BY FAR.
And I cannot tell you how fantastic that is. When I moved from the US to Amsterdam, I was excited to begin to feel at home in the city. I’d go for nice long walks, and of course, I’d want to spend some time in the historic center. BUT THAT JUST WOULDN’T BE FUCKING POSSIBLE. The tourists were everywhere! Making it difficult to walk. They overcrowd literally every nice part of the city. And to make it worse, there are now so many tourist shops in the city center that the local color is lost.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be tourists. But it’s worth acknowledging this problem that local Amsterdammers have faced long before I have, and for way longer. Before, when I’d visit Amsterdam as a tourist, I honestly didn’t even notice the other toursits. But magically, once I became a resident in the Netherlands, I had fully jumped on the “tourists come from hell” bandwagon. I guess that’s the New Yorker in me.
The one thing that I really like about Amsterdam, though, is that the city person in me always feels at ease with the vibe there. I can’t even put my finger on what it is exactly, but the one thing that I have noticed is that I really like the tall buildings around me. It’s not like the New York skyscrapers, which really block out the sky, but the four to five story tall buildings seem so idyllic to me.
That’s about the only thing I miss about being in a big city. So if you’re a city person, even though Utrecht is only a little less than a half the size of Amsterdam, it’s still got all the best parts of being in the city. And compared to Amsterdam, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.
But exactly how much cheaper?
I recently went through this process, and I can tell you that in 2019-2020, the difference is just enough to… well, make you want to move!
In September and October of 2019, I was looking for a one bedroom apartment to rent for at least a year. In Amsterdam, that proved almost impossible on my budget. It was tough to find a place within the price range of 1500 euros a month. It was possible, but not easy. Any half decent place was 1500+utilities. That adds up.
After looking at a few places in Amsterdam, Sara and I were convinced that we should look in Utrecht. We were not going to get a studio in Amsterdam for 1250 a month. Which wasn’t even in the center!
I started looking in Utrecht, and to my surprise, I was seeing one bedroom apartments for less than a 1000/month. It didn’t take much convincing after that that Utrecht was indeed much cheaper. In Amsterdam, the temporary apartment we had before moving was in West, a nice neighborhood, but not central. I now live literally in the middle of Utrecht in a pretty nice apartment for the price of an average studio in Amsterdam.