Where to live as a retiree in Spain?
In early 2020 we travelled around Spain looking at different places that could be our potential future home. We had done a lot of reading, been through many posts with titles such as “Top places to live in Spain” but we were still uncertain and confused.
As we learned, it’s good to do research – but you really have to get on the ground and see different places for yourself.
Another thing that’s important is knowing what you want and what you don’t want ie. your criteria. There are many potential places to live in Spain and you really have to know what you’re looking for.
Our criteria when we started our search for a future home in Spain
We started our future home search in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit Spain. Here was our criteria at the time:
What we wanted
- We wanted to be in a mid-sized city. We’ve always been city people and city conveniences were important to us.
- Being close to nature is important.
- We wanted to be within a few hours of a major airport. We enjoy travelling and want to use Spain as a base to explore the rest of Europe.
- Cost of living is important to us – we’re no longer working. Note I specified “retiree” in the title up top. That eliminated cities like Madrid, Barcelona, and San Sebastian which are known to be expensive.
What we didn’t want
- We didn’t want an overly-touristy or high expat destination. We both speak Spanish and wanted to integrate into a Spanish way of life.
- We wanted Spanish to be the main language, we didn’t want to be dealing with Catalan or Basque.
- We didn’t want to be in a place that is dependent on tourism and that dies in the winter. We didn’t want to be in a seasonal beach town, we want to be in a ‘real city”.
Note: keep in mind that your criteria might change. Ours did. I’ll get into that further in this post.
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Potential “Future homes in Spain” – Theory vs Reality
Our first stop in Spain, Malaga is the gateway to Southern Spain and the popular Costa del Sol. Lots of beaches, lots of tourists in the summer, and lots of Expats.
In Theory (ie. thoughts/impressions based on reading):
Pros: Malaga has flights from all over Europe (as well as a few from North America and the Middle East) so it’s a great base if you like to travel. Temperatures are hot but moderated by breezes from the sea. The sun is always out. Malaga is a busy, exciting city and is relatively inexpensive compared to some of Spain’s other cities (like Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastian). It has beaches and history. As I say up top, it’s a popular place among expats and tourists and a gateway to Andalusia. All good things.
Cons: If you look at photos of Malaga, you see row upon row of unattractive apartment blocks (the same can be said for much of the Costa del Sol). Many say that Malaga is full of expats, mostly British expats, and that there isn’t a lot of local flavor. On top of all that, many apartments cater to tourism and it can be difficult finding long term apartments.
Expectations: We didn’t expect Malaga to be our future home but were open to having a look around the city.
Reality (ie. thoughts/impressions when we got there and looked around):
We spent 6 days in Malaga and I have to admit our reality matched our expectations: we didn’t expect to love the city and we didn’t.
What we liked: Malaga has a small but attractive old town with some interesting historical sights (Malaga Cathedral, the Alcazaba and Castillo de Gibralfaro). We arrived on February 1st to temperatures of 22C, with sunny skies. So the weather came as advertised. We didn’t find that the city was “full” of expats and found lots of friendly locals and good food.
What we didn’t like: Overall we found the city unattractive with its many apartment buildings both in the center and lining the coast. The historical center, while charming, is dwarfed by ugly port facilities that dominate the skyline. Beaches are unattractive (sorry, but compared to other beaches we’ve seen Malaga’s beaches are kind of depressing).
In short, Malaga wasn’t our vision of Spain. A couple of years ago we visited Seville and loved it. Malaga might have the coastline…but the city just doesn’t compare.
More: Living in Malaga (why it’s not the place for us)
Conclusion: Malaga was a definite “No” for us. A 2 out of 5 if I have to give it a rating.
Pros: beautiful Granada, famous for the Alhambra. It’s a smaller sized city in the foothills of the mountains of the Sierra Nevada: close to nature, laid back, and affordable for expats. 90 minutes from Malaga’s airport. Granada is touristy but tourists come here for culture, not for beaches and drinking.
Cons: Granada is inland (with no sea breezes) and gets very hot in the summer. In the winter it gets cold. 90 minutes to the airport (by bus) as I mentioned….
Expectations: We had high expectations that Granada could be our future home.
We spent a week in Granada and really liked the city…but left uncertain as to whether it could be our future home.
What we liked: There’s no doubt Granada is beautiful. The old town and the Arab quarter (the Albaicin) has lots of highlights. The Alhambra is spectacular as is its position looking over the city. The city is relaxed and a joy is walking around and stopping at a plaza for drinks and tapas. The architecture is beautiful (unlike Malaga, no ugly highrises here) and the people friendly. The city is close to nature and you see the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background.
What we didn’t like: Parts of Granada are very hilly and if you’re clumsy on your feet you have to be careful. We stayed in the Albaicin and Lissette had a hard time with all the steps. Granada is not that big and we found ourselves retracing our steps after a couple of days. Would we eventually get bored in Granada? Finally, while there’s nature all around Granada, it’s not right there. You still have to get there by transport.
Conclusion: A beautiful environment, a clean and attractive city, friendly people, and a relaxed lifestyle. These are the things that stood out for us with Granada. We fell in love with it as a place to visit but were unsure if it was a place we could live. We needed more time there to get to know the city. Still, unlike Malaga, Granada was a possibility. 3 ½ out of 5.
Most people have probably never heard of Jaen. But we have an Australian friend living close by and decided we’d stop over for a couple of nights. Jaen is a small, hilly city dominated by a huge Cathedral. The region is known for its olive oil and Jaen is known as the “World Capital of Olive Oil”.
Pros: A pretty, laid back city. Cost of living is low and the city is well connected: it is the ending point of 2 highspeed rail lines: one that goes north to Madrid (4 hours), one that goes southwest to Cadiz with stops in Cordoba (1 ½ hrs) and Seville (3 hours). It is also 1 hour from Granada by bus.
Cons: Maybe too remote for a first base in Spain?
Expectations: None to be honest. We were passing through this direction to visit our friend Norah. That’s the reason we were visiting Jaen.
What we liked: A much more attractive city than we expected. Lots of parks, a few busy main streets, some pretty squares. Hills and mountains in the surrounding landscape. The Cathedral is massive and marks the center of town. We had our best meal in Spain here (at Panaceite, near the Cathedral). The commercial center is flat but wander a bit further and you’ll have steep streets and stairs. The city has a provincial air, the kind of place where you see older men sitting in cafes reading the newspaper in the morning. Nice city.
What we didn’t like: Jaen could use more upkeep: you’ll see a lot of graffiti and dog poop on the streets. The city doesn’t get the kind of upkeep that more popular cities get. It’s a sleepy kind of place, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you are.
Conclusion: Jaen is a bit remote and I think we’d need a car to get around. There’s lots to see in the region (Jaen is close to being in the center of Andalusia). I could see it as a possibility in the future when we have a car. But for a 1st base in Spain I didn’t think Jaen is it. 2 out of 5 (for now).
Related: What’s it like living in Martos?
Pros: A mid-sized city on the coast, it is lively and international, affordable, and has a busy airport that has destinations all over Europe. 2 hours by train to Madrid. Very popular for both expats and tourists, mostly because of its attractive beaches.
Cons: We read that there are a lot of expats living in the Alicante region. I have nothing against expats but I think we want to integrate into Spanish life and having too many expats around makes it too easy not to integrate. Otherwise, we didn’t see much wrong with Alicante on paper.
Expectations: We had high hopes for Alicante, it just seemed to have the mix of everything that was important to us.
What we liked: Not much (except for some nice beaches). I know that sounds harsh.
What we didn’t like: Alicante is not an attractive city. Outside of a few large boulevards in the center lined with palm trees, most of the city’s neighbourhoods feature tight streets lined by ugly apartment blocks. The port area is unattractive, the “Old Town” the least impressive of the Spanish towns and cities we’ve visited to date (Seville, Cordoba, Malaga, Granada, Valencia…). There seem to be lots of immigrants in the city and in places it looks like a ghetto. We sometimes wondered “where do the Spanish live?”. PS. I think all those expats you hear about live outside the city itself, in the coastal communities to the north and south.
Conclusion: Is it mean to say we really didn’t like Alicante? It held no appeal for us. Alicante is the best example of why you have to visit a place no matter how good it sounds on paper…1 of 5.
We weren’t going to go to Valencia because it broke one of my criteria rules: they speak Valencian (a dialect of Catalan) in Valencia. But Glenn, a reader who I met in Mexico last year, convinced us to visit.
Pros: A beautiful city with a mix of old and modern, vibrant, great beaches, nature all around. Good food, great café culture. A huge city park (the Turia). Like Alicante, summers are hot (but not as hot as Granada or Seville). It has an airport with flights all over Europe. A bit more expensive for rent than Alicante but still much cheaper than Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastian. There’s a metro which is great for getting around.
Cons: Valencian. Having lived in Quebec for many years we didn’t want to live somewhere where the language we spoke (in this case Spanish) would be the 2nd language. Part of living in Spain is to integrate and to improve our Spanish, not to learn yet another language.
What we liked: Wow. We liked Valencia right away. BEAUTIFUL city, cultured, lively, lots of green spaces, bicycle friendly. Spanish was everywhere so it wasn’t the issue we made it out to be.
What we didn’t like: the only thing that struck me was that although there is a lot of nature in the city, the mountains and sea are far from the city. But that was minor at the time: Valencia is a truly beautiful and cosmopolitan city.
Conclusion: When we left Valencia for our next destination (León) we were pretty sure we had found our base. Valencia had checked most of our boxes. More importantly, we just felt in our gut that it was the place. 4/5.
Related: Valencia (and its highlights) in Photos
León was an unlikely candidate but one that had been recommended by a blogger friend. Little did we know that it would change everything…
Pros: A beautiful and historic city in the northwest of Spain, an easy 2 hour trip to Madrid on the high-speed train. It’s a cultural destination (part of the Camino de Santiago) as well as a foodie destination. So it attracts tourists. It’s a lively city with many bars and restaurants. Its climate is cooler than other parts of Spain and is quite cold in winter (which would make Lissette happy). Leon is also one of Spain’s cheapest cities.
Cons. No beaches or mountains anywhere close.
Coming from Valencia, we had intended to be in León a week. The day we arrived we heard murmurs of a possible lockdown. The next day the Spanish government announced a State of Alarm because of the Coronavirus.
We ended up being in León for 4 months. For the first 2 months we were under strict lockdown which meant no going out except for groceries. Not even for 1 hour of exercise as was the norm in other European countries.
By the time May came around, we were allowed an hour to be out. We finally got to see León.
What we liked: León is an attractive, very walkable, laid back city. People were friendly (we had been told that people in the north weren’t as friendly but we didn’t see that).
What we didn’t like: We just didn’t see ourselves living in León: too small, too far from any big city, nowhere close to a beach or mountains (mountains are actually not far away but they’re not visible from the city itself).
Conclusion: A nice place to visit but we would get bored living here. 2/5.
Related: Highlights of a self-guided walking tour of León
After being stuck in León for 4 months we left Spain to go back to Canada to apply for our non-lucrative residence visa. We were still not 100% sure what our Spanish base would be but Valencia was at the top of the list.
There is one other city that was also worth considering:
A few years ago we had spent 2 months in Seville. We had loved the city. But could it be our long term home in Spain?
What we liked: a gorgeous, historic city. One of the most beautiful that we’ve ever visited. Lots of festivities, a very happening city. Great food, friendly people, lots of parks.
What we didn’t like: Seville gets very hot in the summer, the city is actually one of the hottest in Spain. Lissette has a hard time with excessive heat. It doesn’t have a major airport and is not close to a major airport. Not close to mountains and sea either.
Conclusion: In many ways I compare Seville to Valencia. Both beautiful cities. The advantage of Valencia is better transport links. I think Seville is a great city to visit but I think (for us) it has a few too many negatives for long-term living. 3 ½ out of 5.
I mentioned at the top that our criteria changed. It happened during our time in Montreal and it was all because of Covid. Suddenly our first choice, Valencia, didn’t seem so appealing. All of the benefits and conveniences of city life no longer seemed important. We decided that when we got back to Spain we’d check out a coastal town recommended by an expat friend. That town is Nerja.
Pros: A town 45 minutes up the coast from Malaga. Lots of nature with sea and mountains. A few people I spoke with mentioned that despite a large expat population (25% I was told) that the town has local flavour.
Cons: The town has a lot of expats and gets a lot of tourists in normal times. It’s a seasonal seaside town which was something we really didn’t want originally…
What we like: Nerja is a very pretty town and we love the nature. It is peaceful, quiet, the people are nice. Maybe Covid has shattered our psyche – but it’s what we need right now. Lots of beautiful beaches, lots of hikes in the hills behind town. At the same time, it has some of the conveniences of an expat town: things like specialty stores and specialty restaurants (we have a lot of Indian restaurants here. It’s a stupid criteria but we love Indian food). More importantly, although small, Nerja is a functioning town and has everything we need. Yes, it’s a seaside town but it’s also more than that. We’re also 45 minutes from Malaga which means we have a major airport relatively close by.
What we don’t like: Nerja isn’t a cultural destination. There are no great churches or historical landmarks here. It’s the one thing missing. But it’s a great base and once things get back to normal we’ll be doing a lot of exploring in the region.
More here: Why we chose Nerja as our new home in Spain (and why it’s perfect for the times)
Will Nerja be our forever home? Probably not. But it’ll be a good base for at least a few years while we explore more of Spain.
Related: How to Get a Spanish Non-Lucrative Residence Visa (a step-by-step guide)
As I said off the top, where you want to live in Spain will depend on your preferences. Here’s a bit of additional reading if you’re doing your own research.
The 15 Most Liveable Cities in Spain
The Best Places to live in Spain for Expats
Spain’s ten cheapest cities and why (or why not) you should move there
Also: make sure to check out our “Ask an Expat” series where Expats tell us about the places they live. It might help you out in finding the spot for you.
Always appreciate feedback!
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Surprised you didn’t mention Marbella…
Got history, is cosmopolitan yet Spanish enough, great climate, very clean. 45 minutes to an international airport.p, and close to Malaga.
It is more expensive though.
If you are looking for the more authentic Spain, we just visited Córdoba and we were
pleasantly surprised at the great balance of history, culture, great climate and affordable prices.
Both Marbella and Cordoba are surrounded by great natural habitats.
Worth a mention is Almeria. The town itself is very authentically Spanish and affordable.
We were covering mostly mid-sized cities in this post. We cover Marbella in this post, honestly it’s not a place we would personally consider as we didn’t want to be in a coastal resort town.
Cordoba definitely is a beautiful place, we’ve been a few times. And despite being touristy it is as you say very authentic. Could we live there? I don’t know. And it, along with Seville, are the hottest places in Andalusia.
We couldn’t cover every place in this post. But we’re looking at moving soon so maybe it’s time to do a 2nd version of this post covering other destinations 🙂
I wouldn’t call Nerja a city, as it only has a tad over 21,000 population.
Marbella however is a midsized city with a population of 150,000 inhabitants.
Both are coastal resorts..
As I said in the post, our priorities changed after our search because of Covid. Most of the cities we had targeted were mid-sized cities.
I read your description of places with great interest. We will stay for vacation in Seville Feb-March 2023 and work for 2 weeks in Barcelona and Madrid before that. We would like to visit some other places on the way down and up (we live in Sweden) and I think about Valencia. Just for some days or maybe longer. We share your criteria for interesting environment quite a lot and wonder what you would recommend us to do in Valencia?
Zaragoza is an alternative, also in the middle between Barcelona and Madrid, have you been there?
I also wonder if you think Nerja would be worth visiting when we are in Seville, considering its winter.
We are also very interested in nature experiences, going for long walks with the dogs, and culture, good food, beautiful houses and cities, what can you recommend in South Spain and also in south Portugal?
Valencia is a beautiful city which should be visited. Some photos here. This website has more detail on what to do in Valencia. Zaragoza is also worth a visit and I cover it in detail here.
As for Nerja, it depends what your objectives are. There’s not much culturally and it might be cold for the beaches. But if you like hiking there are some great hikes in the mountains behind Nerja. I’ve covered some on the blog.
As for your last paragraph, there are so many options that I don’t know where to start. Really it depends on your interests. Maybe have a look at my post on planning a trip to Spain, I have a recommended itinerary there.
We really have to go to Valencia! such a beautiful citie! do you have tips for accommodation in the center? (feel free to email me if you don’t want such posts here)
Hi Jenny. I’d stay in the center, close to the cathedral, market etc. Fetén gets great reviews (apartment) or if looking for a budget hotel Plaza View is good.
While in Nerja why not pop down to Estepona for a few days? It’s called The Garden City of Spain for a reason, The Sierra Bermeja is right behind the city and the coastal Sentonil path almost completed. Very much Spanish town – yes with expats too.
Thank you. Yes, we know a few people that live there.
You should really check out Cartagena, beautiful port city, or even Murcia city both in the region of Murcia on the Costa Calida. The cities are truly Spanish with lots of history, but the nearby outlying golf communities 25 minutes away have a fair number of expats. Murcia is fairly affordable and weather is lovely, only August is quite hot but winters are mild. New Murcia international airport (RMU) is only about 1/2 hour drive away. They currently have reduced flights because of after effects of Covid but Alicante airport is only an hour further (and there are cheap (~6€) direct coach buses to it.)
Lots to do and see.
Hello Sheena. Thank you very much for the recommendations. I’m working on my driver’s license here (Canadian, so unfortunately not transferable). Once we have wheels we’ll be exploring this region of Spain. Thanks for the tips!
Have you considered Cadiz? It’s beautiful, very historic town, but reasonably small. Great beaches in town and further along the coast. People are very friendly and not all that many tourists. It is hot in summer but you are by the sea so there is always a breeze. It’s never really too hot. Flight connections from Jerez airport (45 mins by train) or Seville (1.5 hrs by train). You can fly from Jerez to Madrid or Barcelona and connect to anywhere in the world. We have a flat in the old town of Cadiz and absolutely love it!
Thank you very much Martina. We still haven’t been to Cadiz but plan to. We’ve had a few people mention the city and area to us and they seem to love it.
Question: one of the issues we have here in Nerja is the sometimes stifling humidity along the coast here on the Med. What’s that like in Cadiz? We like the idea of a breeze…
In Cadiz we don’t get much humidity. The influence of Atlantic on the climate is there all the time. There is always a bit of a breeze. It’s called the windy coast! But I am finding that pleasant especially in the height of summer.
Thanks Martina! Good to know.
Hi! We are interested in visiting Cadiz when we are in Sevilla in Feb-March 2023. Any tips what is interesting to do there that time of year are very welcome! Where is the best place to stay for a few days?
If you reconsider Valencia, you would be comforted to know that Valencianos aren’t nearly as doctrinaire as Catalans about speaking Catalan. I have been included in small social gatherings in which they’ll switch to Catalan completely excluding me from the conversation. This has happened among young 30-somethings to those of retirement age. If I were starting over I’d reconsider Valencia for sure.
One last note, I developed some health issues requiring back surgery so being in a city with top hospitals is important for this retiree. I have both private and public health care.
Thank you for that feedback Nanine.
Yes, healthcare a priority for many people. Good thing to add to the criteria list.
What about Benidorm? we plan to move there, we think to tenerife to, but to far away from EU
Didn’t look at Benidorm, it’s not a place that really interests us. Nice beaches, lots of foreigners, not much local flavour…that’s what I know about Benidorm. A video from our friends at Spain Revealed. Start at the 9:32 mark https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rQfDbnRb4Q&t=568s
This seems to be an idea to adapt Spanish lifestyle without wanting to adapt it.
Some 6 days in one place is not enough anyhow to say which one is the best.
I just got the feeling that Spain is not the right spot for you with those criteria.
BTW: whats wrong if some place have tourists? Normally it means most diverse selection of services! You would be very bored very soon in Spanish only town.
Everyone is lookin the “original and genuine spain”. Look around. This is it. Spain is moden European country with full of history. When living in here you do not want to turn those historic rocks, you just live here. In example I have been living 23 year in some 300 meters to the beach. Its some 20+ years when I was in the sand there…
Life is so the same in here than in any other place. You wake up, go to work, make food, watch tv, go to sleep…. Nothing too fancy there.
Everyone has different criteria, no matter what country. My idea of retirement is not spending everyday at the beach and hanging out in an expat bar. We like to travel, explore, experience some culture…and be able to get on a plane somewhere every once in a while to see something different.
We obviously don’t have the same expectations of life 🙂
Interesting article, and I happen to share many of your opinions on places rated. It’s unfortunate you’re omitting Catalunya, Pais Vasco and the entire North of Spain. This mistake of overestimating the language factor is all too common. Having lived for 10+ years in a region that speaks Catalán, it is at most a minor inconvenience, and even less if you’re retired. Thanks for the article and don’t forget this other half of Spain!
Thank you Brad. You’re right about the north of Spain. But really we were looking at a 1st home in Spain, getting our foot in the door so to speak. Having been here almost 2 years now I think our next home would be somewhere in the north because my wife really has an issues with 1) the heat, 2) the number of foreigners along the coast. Galicia would interest us. But for a starter home Nerja has been fine.
But yes, I think a 2nd post is in order somewhere down the line 🙂 We’ve been thinking of a trip to scope out the north.
As far as Catalonia, no way for me. I lived 25 years in Quebec and I got sick and tired of dealing with politics and language laws. I didn’t move to Spain for that. Might be fine for others but I personally had too much of that…
Loved reading your thoughtful and articulate piece. I recently moved from the California coast, and currently in Malaga Centro, and I’m not a fan when compared to other Spanish cities. My dog really is not a fan! I’m reading this while on a mini-break from the city, in Nerja! I was last here 22 years ago, and I loved it then, too. I am staying for two months in Estepona, but I’m leaning towards Valencia to spend a year. I love Valencia, and figure it’ll be easier to do things such as getting properly licensed so I can drive. Getting around with my small dog has had some ridiculous challenges. Also made me stow her with the luggage from Malaga to Valencia and she’s tiny! But I stray. I really just wanted to let you know your article was spot on and resonated with me and my experiences with those places. Oh and if you know a way to find places to rent long term in Nerja, other than idealista, please do tell!
Hi Marlene! Thank you for the comment, much appreciate. I’m wondering – would you be willing to be interview (in writing) for our Ask an Expat series? I haven’t been able to interview anyone yet on Malaga and would have some questions for you. Let me know.
I think we have the same taste in places. Valencia is great and was very high on the list. Nerja is nice, Estepona I hear only nice things about.
I’m sorry to hear about your dog, it must be a challenge without a car. The most dog friendly place we’ve encountered in Europe is the Czech Republic, you see them on public transport everywhere. They’ve somehow been incredibly socialized. In Spain that doesn’t seem to be the case unfortunately.
Renting long term in Nerja; we used an agent and her commission is 1 months rent. So not cheap. But we found a place within 10 days so it was worth it to us. If ever you want her info let me know.
Do check out Frigiliana which is a short, 1 euro bus ride away from the coast. It’s beautiful and historic. I found Nerja water ice cold in the middle of the summer. I also loved Seville, and there is a high-speed train connecting it to Malaga (beach). Agreed, the beach isn’t spectacular.
Thanks Dom, we were in Frigiliana just last week (bus now 1.20. Inflation!). It is a very pretty place 🙂
What about Girona and the north east of Spain .
Haven’t been to Girona Richard but I hear good things. We recently spent a week in Barcelona and would never live there. Other than that not a region I’ve explored recently.
Mich & Greg
Really interesting post with lots of food for thought for us. We are in the UK but hoping to move to Spain. Covid has slowed us down a lot, but we discovered your blog whilst researching in the hope that we can get going as soon as borders start opening. We are currently thinking the area around Estepona but starting to think it might be too expensive. It’s good to see your theory verses reality as we think that may happen to us. Looking forward to delving deeper into your blogs.
Thank you very much for the comment! Yes, I think the area south of Malaga known to be more expensive. But with all that’s happening (Brexit, the Spanish economy) I’d suggest you do as we did – get your feet on the ground and check it out for yourself. There are also some good Spanish expat FB pages (I’m including one here) where people will give you good advice and references.
Greg and Michelle
Thanks Frank. We are continuing to read up on things and hope that Covid will not prevent us for too much longer from exploring. Brexit is clearly a big complication for us but puts us on a par with you Canadian guys. M
I was wondering what Brexit means for most Brits as far Spain goes. So you’ll have to go through the same process as us Canadians/Americans? I was wondering what effect that will have on the 300K + Brits here now and what their future in Spain is.
Keep in touch, curious about where you’ll end up and your experience.