The Retire Abroad series inspired me to build a special tool for the FIRE community: The Earth Awaits. It’s a tool made to build you budgets for hundreds of cities worldwide, taking your family size, budget, housing needs, and a bunch of other things into account. I think it’s the best way to explore the places in the world you can retire– right now.
Today we’re going to focus on a single country, and explore five excellent spots to retire. In addition to being a fun fantasy exercise, writing an article like this forces me to develop an objective way of evaluating possible slow travel and retirement locations. Because of our family and friends there, we’ve always wanted to retire in France.
I’ve spent a lot of time in France, and it is high on the list of places to visit in retirement. Let’s dive in and look at the country itself, then a few of the many places to live the good life.
Retire in France: The Country Itself
Language: French is spoken universally. English is the second language of choice for almost all French students, and almost everyone speaks a little English. Bear in mind that while many people do speak English, you will be much more warmly received if you first make at least a token effort in French. You need not be fluent– often the show of respect is enough to elicit an understanding smile and an offer to speak English.
For retirees, you should put some effort into learning French. More than many places, the French defend the sanctity of their language, and integration is an important cultural requirement. France is less concerned with being a melting pot than the USA, and thus stresses the need to adjust to French cultural norms.
People: France is predominantly caucasian, with a sizable North African Muslim minority. 85% of the country is white and of European descent. 10% are Arab North Africans, 3.5% are black, and 1.5% are of Asian ethnicity.
France is struggling with a changing demographic. As the muslim population grows, notions of “sameness” are changing, and almost everyone has a strong opinion about whether the changes are for the better or for the worse. Still, dialogue about cultural shifts is largely peaceful, if spirited. The occasional hate crime or terroristic violence is shocking and abhorrent precisely because it is so out of the ordinary.
Education: In matters of education, France is quite different from the US. There is a strong emphasis on conformity, and on deference to the teacher. American parents who are looking for a free spirited education will have to think carefully before putting their children in French public schools. Outcomes for French children are very good and the quality of education is high, but the system does not encourage creativity as American schools do.
Climate: France is a large country by European standards, and thus the climate varies broadly. In the far north, the climate is cool most of the time, and is similar to New England or San Francisco with a fair amount of rain. The east is mountainous and alpine in many places, with moderate snowfall. In the south and the southwest, it is predictably mediterranean, with extremely mild winters and hot summers.
All of France is hot and sunny in the summer. In the winter, some snow falls in the northern half of the country, but in most places it does not accumulate. Most of France (with the exception of the south) has four distinct seasons, all mild.
Visa: France is a part of the Schengen Zone. This means that an American can stay up to 90 days in any 180 day period without a visa. This is unlikely to be adequate for retirement or long-term slow travel, so most retirees will end up applying for what is called a carte de séjour visiteur. This is a long-term visa valid for up to a year. A raft of documents will be requested, including a promise not to engage in work and proof of “adequate” income. The consulate is somewhat cagey on what “adequate income” consists of, but suffice to say it will require at least enough monthly income or assets to cover a basic standard of living for the entire duration of your visa.
While not covered by the French medical insurance system, you will need to provide proof of insurance for an incident of up to $40,000. Since the uninsured cost of medical care in France is also much lower than in the US, $40,000 represents a fairly catastrophic illness.
For EU citizens, reciprocity agreements allow for visa-free employment and residence.
Political Stability: France is a highly stable country. The most any tourist or retiree is likely to ever encounter would be a mild inconvenience if a union calls a protest or walkout. Organized labor is a deeply-rooted tradition in France, and the occasional delayed train, plane, taxi, or bus is just a part of the culture. Shrug it off, literally, make a sound like “Pfff,” and you have already taken a big step towards integration.
As mentioned above, the area of most unrest is the conditions in which cultural and ethnic minorities live. As second and third generation north Africans are born with limited opportunities, they are turning to a very French means of expressing their displeasure– protest.
Safety: France is safer on the whole than the USA. Rates of drug use, incarceration, and violent crime are far lower, with a murder rate 75% lower than the USA. Most crime is petty in nature, and even that is concentrated in touristic areas of major cities. Living in a smaller city, or in residential areas in a large one, you are unlikely to be the victim of any sort of crime.
Medical Care: France is often ranked among the best, if not the best, quality of medical care in the world. Health care is universal and socialized. All taxpayers pay into the system in proportion to their income. A visit with a specialist costs 25 Euros at the time of this posting, and 70% of that amount is reimbursed through the national health insurance scheme.
Retirees must self-fund their medical care for the first five years and be covered by insurance in their country of origin, after which they may apply and join the national insurance scheme.
Surrounding Countries: When it comes to neighbors, France is blessed with excellent ones. France has easy and economical access to all of Western Europe via train, and the rest of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle east via plane.
When we look at a given city or town, we’ll look at the following criteria:
|Cost of Living||A numeric representation of cost of living relative to New York City. New York City has a COL score of 100. If a city is 70% the price of New York, then it has a COL of 70. This data is crowdsourced at Numbeo. If insufficient data is available, an approximate value will be calculated by totaling the values and comparing against the totaled values for New York City, then rounding to the next whole digit.|
|Nearest Major Airport||The closest sizable international airport with direct access to the USA.|
|Distance to Nearest Major Airport||Distance to nearest major airport in kilometers, and ease of access via train or other public transport.|
|Nearest Major Medical Center||How close is access to excellent Cancer, Cardiovascular, and surgical care? We hope not to face a serious illness, but everyone does eventually and it's wise to know where to seek medical attention.|
|Quality of Schools||What educational opportunities are there for those raising young children? If desired, is there an English-language school in the area?|
|Climate||Average temperatures and extreme seasons, if any.|
|Local Activities||Attractions and events which may be of interest.|
|Perfect For||Who is this locale ideally suited for?|
Most importantly, please note that these places are not ranked, objectively or subjectively. They are simply a collection of places where a retirement with a high quality of life and moderate cost of living can be achieved, and are randomized for that purpose.
Nancy is located in the Northeastern region of Lorraine. That means it’s somewhat close to the German, Swiss, and Belgian borders. It is centered around the Place Stanislas, and was an important center of the Art Nouveau movement. As a medium sized city, there are many interesting things to do including museums, the regional opera, and a very small number of local vineyards. When it comes to cheese, however, Lorraine is much more prolific, including the famous Munster (but trust me, it’s like nothing you’ve experienced in the US!). Nancy is fairly affordable, with a 2 bedroom apartment costing approximately 170,000-200,000 Euros. Rentals are also widely available and inexpensive.
Cost of Living: 76.55 (76.55% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Paris Charles-de-Gaulle (CDG)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: 2h07m by high speed rail
Nearest Major Medical Center: Nancy has a University hospital, a maternity hospital, and a surgical center. All are highly rated.
Quality of Schools: On par with the rest of France. Nancy does not (as of this writing) have an international school.
Climate: Nancy is one of the cooler spots on this list, with average highs in the summer only in the 25C/77F range. This is because Nancy has a marine climate, and gets substantial rain as a result.
Local Activities: Nancy has a famous and delightful Christmas market beginning in late November and culminating a huge “Festival of St. Nicholas” just before Christmas. There is also a major choral music festival held there every two years. Kayaking on the river in the summer, and skiing in the nearby mountains (an easy day trip) are popular outdoor activities.
Perfect For: Those not set on a sunny climate, but who want easy access to other European countries at a discount.
When the impressionist painters congregated in the south of France, they did it in and around Aix-en-Provence. Aix is close to the ocean, close to beautiful mountains, and bursting with life and the famous Provençal light. There is something for literally everyone here. You can explore the hills and mountains nearby, sun yourself on the beach, go hiking, partake of the huge local cycling community, or just relax and enjoy a coffee on the Cours Mirabeau. The downside is that it comes at a bit of a price. Aix is the most expensive retirement location on this list, though still fairly affordable at 80% of a NYC cost of living. If you find a place in a smaller town in the area, you can live at a price on par with the other locations on this list. Alternately, you can live in the city itself, you’ll just have to accept the higher cost of living. Small apartments in the center start at around 300,000 Euros.
Cost of Living: Approximately 80.0 (80% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport (NCE)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: Nice airport is the closest direct access to the US, and it’s about a 1 hour, 45 minute drive away. It’s also accessible via bus and train, though that takes more time. For more affordable flights, it might be better to take the high speed train to Paris (3 hours) and fly from there.
Nearest Major Medical Center: The Centre Hospitalier du Pays d’Aix is the largest regional medical center, and is located in Aix-en-Provence. There are also local maternity and psychiatric hospitals.
Quality of Schools: Above average for France. There’s also a local bilingual school which teaches in English, the International Bilingual School of Provence. It is wildly expensive, topping out at 11,000 Euros for a non-boarding student, and 23,590 Euros for a full boarding student as of this writing. A frugal traveler will homeschool or enroll in local schools for a integrated experience.
Climate: Aix has a dry mediterranean climate, with over 300 days of sunshine a year and very hot temperatures in the summer. During the winter, the weather almost never falls below freezing, and snow is exceedingly rare. In the summer, highs are usually around 31C/87F and lows in the winter are usually 1C/32F.
Local Activities: Aix is famous for its weather, so all things outdoors are fantastic in Aix-en-Provence. Cycling is a passion for many here, as well as hiking the hills and mountains nearby. Wine is uniformly excellent, and there are hundreds of local vineyards to sample from. During the summer, Aix hosts a music festival that draws some of the finest classical musicians in the world.
Perfect For: Lovers of the sun, the beach, any outdoor activity done in the sun, impressionist art, and fantastic wine.
In the 14th Century, the Catholic church actually had two Popes, and one of them made his home here. It’s easy to see why. Avignon is actually pretty close to Aix-en-Provence (also on this list) and thus enjoys much of the same sun, outdoor activities, and excellent food and wine. Being ever so slightly further from the ocean, you lose easy access to the beach, but gain a much less expensive cost of living. Avignon is home to on of France’s most famous bridges, the Pont d’Avignon. Despite its landmark status, the bridge was actually incredibly poorly constructed, having collapsed on numerous occasions before the locals finally gave up on repairing it. And thus, a cherished local attraction was born. There’s also a huge papal palace to enjoy, and tons of water sports on the Rhône. And of course, you’re still in southern France, so it’s all sun, all the time. Small apartments in the center start as low as 150,000 Euros.
Cost of Living: Approximately 73.0 (73% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport (NCE)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: Avignon is a little further from Nice airport than Aix-en-Provence, about two and a half hours drive. High speed train to Paris takes about two hours and forty minutes.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Avignon has its own central hospital, as well as a highly rated surgical center. There is no maternity-specific hospital, though Aix-en-Provence, which does have a maternity hospital, is close by.
Quality of Schools: Above average for France. There is no bilingual school in Avignon, though enrolling children in the international school in Aix-en-Provence is plausible, especially if boarding is desired. As above, it is extremely expensive.
Climate: On the surface, Avignon shares much in common with Aix-en-Provence. It is mostly sunny, and winter temperatures are usually tolerable. Avignon is more prone to the Mistral wind, however, and there is a local saying that goes (rough translation) “Windy Avignon, pest-ridden when there is no wind, wind-pestered when there is.” Obviously, pests aren’t really the problem in the modern era, and toughing out a little wind is a small price to pay for such affordable non-stop beauty. Like Aix-en-Provence, in the summer highs are usually around 31C/87F and lows in the winter are usually 1C/32F.
Local Activities: Avignon has a famous annual performing arts festival where numerous works are staged. The beach is within reasonable driving distance, and the river is a pleasant place to go boating or swimming. Many other small villages in the area are known for their crafts, wine, cheese, or other local delicacies.
Perfect For: Someone who wants all the best parts of the south of France, but wants to avoid paying the premium of being closer to the ocean.
If you didn’t know France well, you might assume that the epicenter of French cuisine was in Paris– but you’d be mistaken. It’s actually in Lyon. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a series of very wealthy French families in Lyon fell on hard times, and all fired their cooks. This led to a glut of highly trained, highly experimental women chefs who opened restaurants around the city. They all also happened to be fine teachers, and passed on their traditions to their students, and in cookbooks. As a result, the “mothers” of French cuisine as we know it became famous. Much of what the rest of the world now considers “French food” is actually Lyonnais food, and it is still done best here.
Of course, there are many other wonderful things to do in Lyon– but it will always come back to the food. Small apartments start at around 175,000 Euros.
Cost of Living: 79.84 (79.84% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Geneva Airport (GVA)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: Geneva is the closest international airport with direct flights to the USA. It’s about a two hour train ride away. As with most of the other entries on this list, it bears checking prices from Paris and considering the longer train ride (also about two hours to Paris, but then a transfer to the airport thereafter).
Nearest Major Medical Center: As one of France’s larger cities, Lyon has many excellent general and specialty hospitals, including maternity, surgical, and psychiatric hospitals. There is little reason to go elsewhere for specialty care, and prices will be the same regardless.
Quality of Schools: Lyon has good quality public schools, and several international schools. The cost of the International School of Lyon is a fraction of the cost of the bilingual school in Provence, and is available through the secondary level for a maximum of 2500 Euros per year. The private international lycée (high school level) is the OMBROSA school.
Climate: Lyon sits on a border of many of the surrounding climate patterns. As such, it can’t be easily categorized. Generally speaking, the city is pleasantly warm without being hot during the summer– up to 28C/72F. In the winter, it approaches freezing but seldom drops below– an average low of 0C/32F. Because of its unique borderline weather, it does not receive much rain or snowfall. Lyon’s weather is distinctly moderate.
Local Activities: Lyon is a historical marvel full of roman ruins, baroque churches, and revolution-era architecture. It’s a medium-sized city with many museums, restaurants, churches, and sports venues. There are forests all around making it a perfect hiking venue, plenty of water for water sports, and the Swiss alps are a short train ride away.
Perfect For: A foodie and wine lover who doesn’t want to deal with extreme heat or extreme cold.
Renowned for its porcelain, Limoges is the place on our list with the lowest cost of living. Don’t let the low expenses fool you, though. Limoges is a beautiful and ancient city with many local activities. If you are looking for a slightly slower pace of life than any of the other places on this list, the small city of Limoges (around 140,000) may be for you. The city is jam-packed with gothic cathedrals, castles, churches, bridges, and a beautiful botanical garden. This is a place where you can adjust to the French way of life at your own pace, with easy access to Paris for cosmopolitan days and weekends away. Apartments in the center start around 150,000 Euros.
Cost of Living: Approximately 70.0 (70% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Paris Charles-de-Gaulle (CDG)
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: Approximately two hours via rail.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Limoges has one large University hospital with high ratings. Specialty clinics are available in Paris and nearby Bordeaux.
Quality of Schools: Limoges has average schools for France, and no international school. Bordeaux has an international school, but it’s a two hour drive away. Limoges may be a better option for home schooling families, those who want an immersive public school experience, or those without children.
Climate: Limoges has an oceanic climate, and thus experiences a fair amount of rain. During the winter, it averages about seven days of snow. Highs in the summer average 24C/75F and in the winter the average low is 1.5C/35F.
Local Activities: Enjoy the historic architecture, live a pastoral life in the countryside, explore the local ruins, and hike through the vast nearby forests.
Perfect For: A nature lover who is looking for a slow pace of life. Someone who enjoys peace and quiet.
If you’ve made it this far, then I can tell you that I hope to make the “Retire in…” series a monthly occurrence. Each of these posts takes a ton of research, so if you want to hear about a particular country, please let me know in the comments. Was this information useful to you? What information would you have liked to see here that was missing?