It’s never easy to move to a new city. Though there are lots of great reasons to relocate — a new job, a relationship, studying, cheaper rent, a thirst for adventure — relocating to an unfamiliar place can be disorienting and isolating. You’ll have to navigate a new grocery store, learn a new street map, and scope out a new coffee shop or go-to bar. If you’re moving to a city in a different country, you might need to learn new apps, new food brands, and even a new language. And that doesn’t even cover making new friends, if you’re moving somewhere without a ready-made gang of pals waiting for you.
“When you’re moving, especially if you’re moving as a single person, it’s often a time of loneliness,” Dr. Marisa J. Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert, says. According to Franco, being lonely is kind of a vicious cycle — when you feel isolated, you’re actually more likely to put up your defences around other people, which is not a great headspace to be in when you need to make new friends.
“Loneliness affects how we view the world. It makes us feel like we’re more likely to be rejected, it makes us more judgmental of others. Lonely people report liking humanity less, and liking other people less,” Franco says. “Evolutionarily, if you were alone, you were separated from your tribe, you were in danger, so you were programmed to see danger everywhere.”
The good news is, there are lots of ways to make a new place feel like your own, and to meet new people before the evolutionary habits set in. Here’s what to do:
Do your research before you move (and after you arrive)
You can’t really get a vibe for a new place until you’ve started living there, but it’s still best to come prepared. Before you move, read up on/Google Map your new neighbourhood, research the public transit system (if there is one), dig into some municipal history, join local Facebook groups, and start following local Instagram accounts, newspapers, and blogs. You can also do this once you move, but it’s nice to get a head start.
“Here in Philly, the Bella Vista Neighbours Association is a great resource that shares upcoming events, new stores, etc. It’s been very helpful in getting to know the area,” writes Annemarie Dooling, a media strategist who moved from New York to Philadelphia ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I also signed up for the Society Hill neighbourhood letter. I signed up for a few of these to learn not just about my block, but the blocks around me.”
This goes double if you’re moving to a different country. Ruth Sangree, a law student who recently moved from New York to Seoul, South Korea, suggests using Facebook groups to research popular apps in the city you’re moving to if you’re heading overseas. Things like ride-share apps and chat programs can differ in different countries. “For Korea everything is centered around Kakao, so having that is a must,” she writes.
And, most importantly, learn at least a little bit of the language — this is certainly true if you’re moving to a new country, where it will be essential to know key phrases to help you get around, but even if you’re staying in the United States, it’s a good idea to brush up on some local jargon so you don’t sound like a total yokel.
Go for long walks and bike rides
Once you get to your new city, it takes a bit of time to learn the landscape, and one of the best ways to explore is on foot, if not two wheels. Take long, aimless walks — through your neighbourhood, through the neighbouring neighbourhood, through the neighbourhood next to that, and all through the city, if you’ve got comfy shoes and feel so inclined.
“It’ll make your surroundings feel familiar and help you get a sense of the neighbourhood vibe,” Mira Fox, a journalist who moved from Boston to New York City in November 2019, writes in an email. “And it will help you assess the potential candidates for a neighbourhood bar or cafe, or even grocery stores within reasonable transit distance.”
Find your local go-tos and make yourself a regular
A city doesn’t feel right without a handful of go-to spots — a coffee shop, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a fancy market, a post-work bar, a takeout joint, a playground if you’ve got kids, a restaurant where you take out-of-town visitors. Finding those places can take a bit of work, and maybe some bravery.
Kaianne Sie-Mah, a design consultant, weathered a tough move from Toronto to D.C. in 2019. But once she found anchors like great takeout spots and a hair salon, she started to feel like she was getting her footing. Sie-Mah found her spots through a mix of trial and error (“We ate at a lot of bad restaurants,” she says) and sourcing tips from total strangers. “I went to a Blue Mercury [cosmetics store] and was stopping people who had nice hair and would ask them where they got their hair done,’” she says. The method worked “That was the moment I started to feel like things were coming into place,” she says.
Doolin recommends making repeat visits to local spots in your neighbourhood. “I’ve made a spreadsheet of coffee shops in walking distance and have been trying to go to all of them at least twice, to meet people and get to know the local economy,” Dooling writes. You might get lucky and make friends with some regulars — and once you confirm your neighbourhood favourites, make yourself a regular, too. Having a familiar go-to will make you feel more at home.
Moving is not for the shy. If you want to make friends and make a new place feel like home, you’re probably going to have to be a bit aggressive. Multiple people interviewed for this piece said the best way to meet people in a new city is to reach out to as many people who live there as possible, whether you know or only vaguely know them — or even if you don’t really know them at all but feel comfortable contacting them anyway. Email old classmates, ask new coworkers to get drinks, ask your home friends to hook you up with their cousin who lives out there. Sure, some people will be too busy or uninterested in hanging out, but if you cast a wide enough net, you’ll catch a few fish looking for new friends.
“Reach out to all your loose connections in the city (that girl you used to work with but haven’t talked to in years! your Twitter mutual! truly there’s no shame) and make an effort to connect,” writes Mijal Tenenbaum, a media specialist who’s bounced from Buenos Aires to Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. “If you get along with them, make it clear you’re looking for more friends so they know to invite you to outings with their groups. This isn’t the time to play it cool!”
If you’re feeling particularly brave, Sie-Mah recommends DMing influencers or local writers who live in your new town for some tips. “I found local reporters around the same age as me on Twitter, and influencers and writers on Instagram, and would slide into their DMs,” she said. “Not creepily, but if I saw them post about something cool, I’d be like, ‘Hey, I just moved to D.C., where is this?’” she says. “I’ve made friends that way. I think I’m a little aggressive about it but sometimes it works.”
Join a sports team
…Or a birdwatching club, or a pilates class, or place of worship, or kids’ playgroup, or volunteer group, or some other group of people that meets regularly. “Choose something repeated over time, like a class,” Franco says. “The more familiar people become to us, the more we like them.”
Rick Paulas, a writer in New York who’s moved to four different cities as an adult, says the first thing he does when he gets to a new place is join a softball team. “I’m familiar with the sport enough that I know the rules and can hold my own,” he says, noting that he’s found teams before by scouting message boards. “Usually those kinds of teams are very the-more-the-merrier, and there’s always a random mix of people that you wouldn’t get introduced to otherwise.”
Once you’ve established yourself in the group, Franco recommends asking one other member to hang out one-on-one. “Once you start generating exclusivity, and making memories other people in the group don’t share, that’s when you start creating friendships,” she says. Not that you need to be cliquey about it, of course.
Go on Tinder dates (if you’re single)
Online dating can be an absolute hell pit, but if you’ve just moved to a new city and are looking to meet people, apps like Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble can actually be a boon, since they’re specifically designed to introduce you to a lot of locals.
“I try to seek out people I would be friends with — even if we’re not romantically compatible, at least I get to hang out with someone who shares the same interests,” writes Suzy Exposito, a journalist who moved from New York to Los Angeles in January 2021. Plus, she notes, not only will you meet people, but you’ll get to go to a lot of new bars and other places you might not have otherwise discovered. “Dating has been a fun way of getting to know the coolest spots in the city,” she adds.
Seek out other people who are in periods of transition
One of the reasons it’s hard for adults to make new friends is that people are just busy — they’re already wrapped up in their friends, families, jobs, and routines, so it’s hard to get them on the calendar when you’re new in town. If someone you reach out to blows you off, “it’s not necessarily that they don’t like you, but you’re at incompatible times,” Franco says. “People are busy.”
Instead, she says “It’s a really good idea if you move to a new city, to find other transitioners. Find other people who have moved to a new city, or started a new job or gone through a breakup or divorce. Maybe there’s a meetup group for New Yorkers in LA, or maybe you reach out to someone at work who is on-boarded at the same time as you.”
Karen K. Ho, a journalist who recently moved from Toronto to New York, spent much of the Covid-19 pandemic bubbling with a fellow Canadian journalist who was introduced to her through a mutual friend. “[W]e made an informal pact to see each other every Friday for two hours of drinks in my apartment,” she writes. With the border between Canada and the United States closed, the two of them leaned on each other. They celebrated holidays and birthdays together, and Ho even helped her friend book her vaccine appointment.
“We would eventually expand to two other Canadians, another journalist and communications pro, and make weekend plans to do safe activities like time-restricted museums, walks in [a local cemetery], and eating Korean food outdoors.” Though Ho had lived in New York on-and-off before, that kind of friendship helped make the city feel like a true home.
Give it time, and let yourself be homesick
The fact is, moving is hard, and feeling at home in a new city can take a long time. Give yourself permission to ease into your new spot, and acknowledge any feelings of loneliness or homesickness as they come. Tenenbaum suggests seeking out totems of comfort when those moments hit. “For me, it’s always been foods that taste like home and I used to eat as a kid. If I’m feeling lonely, I make my grandma’s chicken broth and suddenly my home starts smelling like her,” she writes. “It’s super helpful to realise which things matter to you from home and figure out ways to bring them into your new city.”