The expat life: a tale of two Swiss cities

CLEAN, efficient, low taxes and great skiing – Switzerland is quite frankly fantastic. Far from being somewhere you are exiled, it’s the sort of place that you should be begging to be sent. And it could happen to you sooner than you think: punitive taxes in the UK have already forced Brevan Howard amongst other financial institutions to relocate. The beauty of living in Switzerland, but also the challenge, is that it is governed very differently from the UK. This means each of its 26 cantons has a different rate of tax and style of government -- they even have different official languages. To offer a helping hand by comparing the two big financial centres: Zurich and Geneva. With house prices comparable to Mayfair in London in both cities, the choice is entirely down to the very different locations.

ZURICH is Europe’s wealthiest city and home to the largest number of financial and banking institutions in the world. It’s Switzerland’s biggest city and major transport hub so you can get out fast if you don’t like it. Why you would want that I’m not sure since the Mercer survey has ranked it the city with the second highest standard of living in the world this year. The streets are lined with the coffee shops, bars and restaurants you expect of continental Europe. Yet the city has some unique features such as the Uto Kulm restaurant, for instance, which towers 813 meters above sea level, looking down on Lake Zurich. It serves a different Swiss “candlelight dinner” menu every day. You can hike to the restaurant or take a train ride to the summit. The view and food there is probably one of the nicest eating experiences I have had to date.

The view on this hill comes at a premium. Buying a property there is one of the most desirable (and expensive) places to live in the city.

The actual buying process in Switzerland should be easy if you have the right residency permits. But Andrew Hawkins, head of international property at Chesterton Humberts warns: “Swiss banks are very conservative when it comes to loans. You’re unlikely to ever get more than a 70 per cent loan for a property. You’ll need a substantial deposit.”

Many opt for Zurich over Geneva since it offers a more Swiss-feel. The percentage of expats are almost 15 per cent lower than in Geneva. But German-language enthusiasts be warned: the residents of Zurich speak Swiss German, a dialect quite different to the “high” German Brits learn at school.

FOR a ski fanatic, Geneva will always win against Zurich. Some of Europe’s most desirable resorts: The Three Valleys’ Courchevel, Val Thorens and Meribel resorts for instance are only two and half hours away by car. The Swiss attitude towards driving is far more accommodating than in the UK, so taking a weekend trip to the Alps can be a weekend activity.

The less snowy seasons are also more desirable than Zurich’s since it is sunnier and drier, offering comfortable enough weather in the summer for water sports on Lake Geneva.

The city is shamelessly international: half its population are expats. Although the region’s French language is often a draw for the undecided. Those with children will be delighted to know that some of the international schools here offer bi- or even tri-lingual education. But some find Geneva itself too much of an expat mecca. Tim Nicholson, a recent expat from London, says: “I didn’t want to just be an expat. I’d lived in London for 29 years, I was bored of it and I didn’t want to just move to another place like London with better weather.” He chose to live in Lausanne -- 40-minutes away from Geneva by train. Lausanne enjoys the benefits of Geneva’s weather and proximity to quality ski resorts while being situated in a far quieter spot. Lausanne’s hilly landscape has a quiet and provincial feel. For those interested in country life outside of Geneva, Chesterton and Humberts are currently offering a country estate for sale in the nearby town of Nyon for SFr33m.

LANGUAGE: German is the most commonly spoken
TEMPERATURE: min 3.71°C and max 13.1°C
RAINFALL: 1,031 mm
LINTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS: Zurich International School
EXPATS: 30.7 per cent of the population
SUNSHINE: 1,475 per year

LANGUAGE: French the most commonly spoken
TEMPERATURE: min 5.5°C and max 14.4°C average per year
RAINFALL: 954 mm per year
INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS: International School of Geneva
EXPATS: 45.6 per cent of the population
SUNSHINE: 1,694 hours per year

KLOSTERS: The Windsors’ winter hangout. Not much nightlife, but famously pretty and expensive.
SAN MORITZ: One of the oldest winter resorts in the world.
ANDERMATT: A pretty old town that has rapidly expanded as an alternative to San Moritz.
LECH: Wonderfully Austrian but close to Zurich, Lech is known for its gloriously fast pistes and huge vistas of open, off-piste terrain.

VAL D’ISERE: Val d’Isere is one of the original high altitude buzz towns, offering some of the best skiing in Europe.
VAL THORENS: The buildings might not be that pretty, but at 2,300 metres you can be sure that the powder will be.
CHAMONIX: An original freeskier mecca resting under the shadow of Mont Blanc.
LES ARCS: Brush shoulders with Russian oligarchs, but mostly on the baby slopes.