Expat Adventures

Solo Travel: The Best Cities for Digital Nomads

by Katie McKnoulty

All photos courtesy of Katie McKnoulty.

Turning up in a strange town, on your own, to set up life and business for a few months is a daunting concept. Digital nomads do it on a regular basis, and it's really scary until you've done it a few times and proven to yourself that it will always work out.

As someone who lives a mostly nomadic life, I've turned up terrified in quite a few places, not knowing anyone or anywhere to go. But I've always left with deep friendships, newfound knowledge, and a greater understanding of how the world and life work. There is one generally accepted rule that I swear by: Don't spend less than three months in any one place. This will help keep your sanity, client base, and bank balance intact.

With the whole world to choose from, how do you decide where to point your compass? It's a question people ask me all the time. Here are the places I've traveled to on my own, along with the pros and cons of working and living in each. I hope my experiences help spark ideas for your own future adventures as a digital nomad.

1. The Traveler Town: Ubud, Bali

Where life is low-key, lush, and inexpensive, you can live well and experience the power of nature at your doorstep.

Katie McKnoulty - The Travelling Light

Ubud is easily my favorite solo traveler town. It's a refuge for those in search of something. A lot of people come open and humble, post-breakup, or after quitting a nine-to-five. They're taking a break from life or starting a new one. It's a meeting spot for the spiritual set and perennial wanderers; I identify a little with both groups.

While in Ubud, strangers would strike up interesting conversations with me wherever I went. I overheard people saying things like, "I've just really gotten into my ecstatic dance since I've been here" and "If I can just get this accelerator funding for my app, I know things will really take off for me." Life here never feels regular or boring.

Katie McKnoulty - The Travelling Light

There are two central meeting spaces in Ubud. The Yoga Barn is where people go to worship wellness and meditate on the complex's sprawling green grounds and within the bamboo studios. Hubud is an all-bamboo co-working space that's famous for its friendly community of plugged-in nomads. It's easy to make friends in these two hubs and feel like you're part of something bigger.

Beware though: Life is so easy in Ubud that many people don't ever want to leave. Transitioning back to the real world can be tough.

Alternative cities: Colombo, Sri Lanka; Canggu, Bali; Chiang Mai, Thailand.

2. The Rural Town: Mercatello sul Metauro, Le Marche, Italy

Where life unrolls slowly and free of distractions, you get the clarity and quiet time you need to complete personal goals.

Katie McKnoulty - The Travelling Light

Many digital nomads find free accommodations and WiFi by securing housesitting jobs in small towns. This experience can be wonderful and very difficult at the same time. For the past few years, I've spent a month living alone in Mercatello sul Metauro. I treat the experience as a work-and-soul retreat.

The upside of visiting any small town is that you're staying somewhere authentic — you're not seeing a sideshow put on for tourists. It's real life, and you get to be a part of it. You are forced to learn at least a little of the language, and you have to make friends with locals. In Mercatello sul Metauro, I visit the market, pick up produce for the week, go to the coffee shop, and sit at the local bar.

Katie McKnoulty - The Travelling Light

As one of the few foreigners in town, you'll most likely be a bit of a novelty, so you may get invited to dinner at people's houses, to attend parties, and to experience other privileges reserved for a special few. It's probably the closest you'll ever get to feeling like a celebrity. Everyone seems to know who you are.

The downside is, as any celebrity can attest, that being so different can be quite alienating and isolating. Skype calls can only go so far to fill the void of having good friends or family nearby, especially when there aren't a lot of other distracting activities. But this is exactly what some digital nomads need to finally finish that novel they've been working on or buckle down to build their website. No distractions and no excuses.

Find a rural house-sitting job: House Carers, Trusted House Sitters, Mind My House.

3. The Freelancer and Artist City: Berlin, Germany

Where living an alternative life on the cheap makes you feel like a clever and creative part of the community.

Katie McKnoulty - The Travelling Light

Cities like Berlin (at least the parts I frequented) feel like they're ruled by freelancers, students, and artists. People are working on their start-up/fashion label/thesis/artwork/portfolio, and there's a lot of energy and transience.

Berlin isn't as expensive as other major global cities, and it doesn't feel like everyone around you is a banker or consultant with cash to burn. You aren't the only one who can't afford to buy a round of cocktails or a three-course dinner. There's a "we're all in this together" vibe, and local activities — like cool street food, markets, vegan cafes, outsider art, dingy karaoke bars, and cheap cinemas — reflect that feeling. The very affordable co-working scene also means you have an easy way to meet like-minded people. Betahaus in cool Kreuzberg is where I worked on a regular basis. The monthly membership fees are very affordable and there's a free breakfast every week where people present their businesses and make new friends. If you can't afford a membership, you can hang out at the cafe downstairs, which is free for drop-ins and always full of interesting people.

Alternative cities: Prague, Budapest, Lisbon.

4. The Big City: Paris, France

Where the temptations of big city life exist alongside pockets of students and freelancers, living simply and beautifully is very real.

Katie McKnoulty - The Travelling Light

When you read about markets for global nomads, the major cities of the world — Paris, New York, London — are not recommended. But I figure if you're spending some of your time in places where you pay very little rent and the living is cheap, you can find a balance and splurge on the occasional big city.

But towns like Paris can feel isolating and overwhelming. Many activities are reserved for professionals with disposable income or tourists on their once-a-year holiday. There are so many different types of people around that it can be hard to find a community.

Katie McKnoulty - The Travelling Light

Still, you're in Paris. You don't need to do much to soak in the city other than walk around and breathe in the history and sites. There are tons of free cultural events and exhibitions and the surreal feeling of being a part of one of the biggest cities in the world. The Go Go Paris Twitter account is great for cool, lesser-known goings-on in the city, while Time Out Paris covers big events.

The other upside of spending time in a big city is a large student population. University kids share several qualities with solo travelers: limited funds, a need for places to work, a desire for cheap outings, and big dreams for the future. The freelancer and artist populations tend to be inexplicably large in these cities, so you can find likeminded people if you seek them out.

Alternative cities: New York, London.


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Village Life in Le Marche, Italy

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