Beautiful, sunny, dreamy Spain, a magnet for visitors from all over the world, is increasingly appealing for sunshine and new lifestyle seekers looking to relocate on a permanent basis.
The country has seen a significant increase in the number of foreigners coming to live in Spain since the beginning of the 21st century.
Expats of various nationalities account for 12.8% of the whole Spanish population. Spain is now one of the world’s most preferred destinations to immigrate to, being the 4th most popular country in Europe by immigration numbers.
Regions of Spain
If you are one of those would-be expats planning to start your new life in Spain, you may be wondering where exactly you should live to make the most of what this incredible country has to offer.
While it’s not hard to find dozens of fabulous places to live in Spain, it can be extremely difficult to pinpoint that one ideal location that you can call home.
The choice is practically unlimited with Spain being so diverse in terms of its geography and the lifestyle it offers.
For an urban minded city dweller, Spain might present a real problem when it comes to choosing the best city to live in. Depending on your tastes and ideals, there might be no clear leader. The competition among Spanish cities for the best city to live in award is tough.
On the plus side, each Spanish city has its own distinct character and rhythm, so when in doubt, you can always take a holiday and try out your favourites to see which city has the biggest appeal to you personally.
One thing that most Spanish cities have in common is that they are all very walkable cities with excellent public transportation and an abundance of activities and cultural offerings for young professionals, families and retirees.
Whether you choose to live in timeless and elegant Madrid, the vibrant and colourful city of Barcelona, ever-changing Valencia, or romantic Seville, – any of these incredible cities have the potential to become a perfect home for those who wish to plunge into a new Spanish urban lifestyle.
If you are looking for a bit smaller and cosier coastal location, you’ve really got your work cut out – the list of options is literally as endless as Spanish Costas themselves.
Here are the most popular places to live in Spain for expats:
Madrid is officially the third sunniest European capital city after Malta’s Valetta and Portugal’s Lisbon. For many sun-starved northern Europeans this fact alone puts Madrid high up on the list of most desirable cities to live in Spain.
However, it’s not just northerners that hold Spain’s capital in high esteem.
Madrid is loved internationally. Thousands of expats from all over the world flock to Madrid every year. This city has rapidly made its way out of the recession that hit Spain (and the rest of the world) and is offering some of the most attractive employment opportunities for expats looking to live and work in Spain.
The expat community in Madrid is huge and constantly renewing itself. Many expats come for a short contract, enjoy a taste of Madrid’s lifestyle and leave satisfied with their adventures and time spent in Spain.
Quite a few other expats fall in love with the city and find ways to stay on longer or make Madrid their forever place.
They say, the longer you stay in Madrid, the more difficult it becomes to leave. The charms of Madrid are subtle and take time to work their way into your heart.
Many expats become enchanted by Madrid with its infinite cultural riches and authenticity, extravagant carnivals, exciting night life and an abundance of fantastic places to eat out.
Madrid has three of Spain’s most famous art museums and two of them – the Reina Sofia and the Prado – offer free entry every night of the week. And yes, they both feature enormous collections of renowned masterpieces. If you like spending time in them, you can enjoy months of pleasure surrounded by beauty.
It’s the city where the party never really stops. Madrid comes alive after midnight when Gran Via becomes one huge traffic jam, enjoying its busiest hours through the night until morning when it reverts to calm.
If you are thinking of moving to Madrid with your family and children, don’t be too alarmed, – Madrid is not just about partying and night life. It’s a great city for families and also for those who love the idea of a vibrant city retirement.
There are some family friendly locations very close to the centre but far enough to be comparatively peaceful at night. Salamanca – a premium area near the centre of Madrid can be classed as exceptionally tranquil by any capital city standard. There are good schools and walking paths, and it’s in a close proximity to Retiro Park.
Chambery and Retiro neighbourhoods have the same feel as Salamanca – very upmarket, very close to the centre, yet relatively private and quiet.
Those are quintessentially urban neighbourhoods with an easy access to all the necessary services and amenities. Properties tend to have more limited space and storage, and no private gardens whatsoever, – a common feature of all highly urbanised areas.
For more residential feel and spacious living you need to move further away from the centre. Or, if money isn’t an issue, one option is to spend a small fortune renting or buying a villa in El Viso, – the only urban area of Madrid close to the centre that features houses and villas instead of usual apartments.
There are 44 international schools in Madrid, so families who move to Spain’s capital with their children won’t find it difficult to educate them. State schools are also of good quality, plus the choice of activities for families and children is endless.
By the way, Madrid’s system of public transport is incredibly good. It’s already among the best in the world and the authorities are continuously investing into further improvements.
So, moving away from the centre won’t feel like such a big sacrifice even for the most devoted urban dwellers. Most residential neighbourhoods away from the centre and outside the city are very well connected and easily accessible.
Madrid is not just the capital of Spain, it’s the geographic centre of the country. This fact is officially confirmed by a plaque in the Puerta del Sol plaza which is called the Kilometre Zero. Step on this plaque and you are in the exact centre of Spain.
The benefit of a central location is that it presents the opportunity for fantastic days out to explore the rest of Spain. Madrid’s satellite cities such as Toledo and Segovia are some of Spain’s most interesting and diverse. From Madrid you can also easily reach most other cities using the high-speed AVE train.
Of course, life in a big city has its drawbacks. Our guide ‘The Advantages and Disadvantages of Living in Madrid‘ will help you understand the pros and cons of this great city.
Barcelona is an eternal rival of Madrid; often when one speaks of either of them, it’s in the context of comparison.
If you can’t make up your mind whether you’re a Madrid or a Barcelona kind of person, you should visit and spend some time in both. With the high-speed AVE train between the two cities, the journey is relatively quick and easy.
Unlike Madrid’s slow charms, Barcelona’s unique magic arrives at speed – one week is often all that is required to find yourself totally in love with the city.
For this reason, it’s also very touristy. If you visit Barcelona once as a tourist, you won’t be able to resist coming back.
Barcelona’s main appeal for tourists is its unrivalled architecture. Most of Gaudi’s madcap modernist buildings are in Barcelona, the fascinating Sagrada Família and the truly outstanding Park Guell among them. Barcelona’s incredible architecture acts like a magnet, attracting millions of tourists from all over the world.
Do you want an urban lifestyle and a beach? Then you need a coast, and that’s one thing that Barcelona has and Madrid doesn’t. Barcelona has its own beaches plus there are enough great beaches nearby (such as in Sitges) to make Barcelona a great city to live in for coast and beach lovers.
Barcelona’s climate is also rather wonderful. The city is close to the Mediterranean which means slightly cooler summers than in Madrid, but milder winters.
Just like Madrid, Barcelona boasts some fantastic festivals. It has both the Primavera Sound and Sonar music festivals, as well as the neighbourhood celebrations of Gracia and Merce.
Finding work in Barcelona isn’t as easy as in Madrid and salaries tend to be a bit lower, plus being able to speak a reasonable level of Spanish is pretty much a requirement.
It’s worth remembering that Barcelona is also a capital city. It’s a capital of Catalonia, an autonomous region with its own official language Catalan.
Of course, Castilian (Spanish) is spoken widely in Barcelona due to the large number of non-Catalans (including expats) who live and work in city. Plus, all Catalans speak Spanish as well.
However, if you really want to hit it off with Catalans, try to pick up their language, or at least add a few well placed phrases when you can – it will be much appreciated.
Valencians never participate in the Madrid vs Barcelona debates. For them it’s pointless, for everyone knows that the best city to live in Spain is Valencia, obviously!
Those expats who are curious enough to go and investigate what it is like to live in Valencia tend to agree with them.
Valencia, the northern gateway to the coast, is an urban hub of the Costa Blanca. It’s large and loud, vibrant and dynamic, and boasts everything that a city can offer to its inhabitants – infrastructure, facilities, cultural events, entertainments and fabulous nightlife.
Valencia has been growing in popularity with expats and digital nomads, and for good reasons!
They say the quality of life there is simply great. Valencia offers plenty of sunshine, good community and a low cost of living. It is also slightly offbeat and not over-run by too many tourists.
In short, Valencia is hot, fun, on the coast, and most of all, you get a lot more value for money compared to Madrid or Barcelona.
People are extremely friendly and welcoming. The whole city lives outdoors with every resident no matter how young or old enjoying socializing every night of the week.
Days out can’t get better if you live in Valencia. The proximity to the most stunning mountains means you can go for long mountain hikes in summer and enjoy snowboarding or skiing in winter.
If you want to enjoy the beach, Valencia offers stunning Mediterranean beaches just South and North of the city. The closest Las Arenas beach is just a short journey from the city centre.
Living in Valencia is also much easier as it’s a relatively compact city. Most places are within walking distance and there is a great transport network. The city has a large underground rail network which is constantly being expanded.
Valencia’s a great city for families with children. It has world famous museums such as the City of Arts and Science, good schools, array of activities and one of the best universities in the country.
Valencia isn’t lacking in the festival department either. The region is a home to the San Fermín Bull festival, the famous Tomatina and the Las Fallas which comes with a whole week of firework displays and the enormous Fallas statues artworks.
All these plus good employment opportunities make Valencia attractive for many expats. Finding a job in Valencia should not be difficult if you have the skills required by the local labour market, especially in industry and tourism.
Seville is the unofficial capital of southern Spain, and the official capital of a beautiful Andalusia.
The city is as picturesque as it gets: the Moorish architecture, the riverfront, the horse-drawn carriages… Seville is bright, hot and vibrant.
It’s got a major airport, train station and other transportation options, as well as two bus depots that make it easy to travel from Seville to destinations all over Spain. While being the 4th major city in Spain, Seville retains its small-town feel.
Living in Seville means you’ll be close to the beaches and mountains. It will take you just one hour to get to both the beaches in Huelva and the mountains in the Sierra Norte or Cádiz. It’s also not far from the Portuguese border, so if you fancy spending some time exploring Portugal as well, Seville is perfectly located.
Seville has received the title of Spain’s most bike-friendly city, thanks to its flat terrain and over 100 kilometres of bike lanes. Cyclists and walkers alike will find the city just perfect.
There are plenty of flamenco shows, music festivals, and gastronomic markets throughout the year.
Seville is home to people from many cultures, with thriving expat communities. There are German, American and English schools, however, if you want to be near the English school it will mean living in Aljarafe village, outside of Seville.
Seville is also home to two universities which you may find convenient if your child is finishing school and planning further education in Spain.
Central Seville can be a bit on costly side, you might also find there are no properties with pools available for rent or purchase, however, what you will have on your doorstep is the vibrant buzz of city life.
You will be surrounded by bars and restaurants and being able to walk or bike absolutely everywhere, you possibly won’t even need a car.
Seville international residents say that it may take you some time to adjust to the local ways and culture.
However, gradually you will adopt lifestyle nuances that may be quite alien to your home country’s way of life: you may well find yourself happily napping in the afternoon, you will think nothing of drinking before dinner and you’ll spend more time treasuring present moments than worrying about future plans.
If you’re seeking an alternative style of urban life, go to Bilbao.
Bilbao has never been much at the centre of expats’ Spanish lifestyle attention, but the focus is shifting now from traditional expat destinations to places a bit less familiar and a bit more exotic. Bilbao is a perfect example of this shift.
Bilbao is located in the less popular northern coastline overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and therefore cannot boast endless days of sunshine and a balmy climate like the Mediterranean cities of Spain.
On the plus side – there are considerably fewer tourists and expats there than in the south of Spain.
Bilbao, de facto, is the capital of the Basque country. Just like with Barcelona coming to Bilbao means exploring a different face of Spain, a different culture, another layer of Spain’s great diversity.
Bilbao has seen its expat communities growing in numbers recently as more foreigners discover and appreciate more of what this beautiful country has to offer.
Bibao and the Basque country are a wealthy region. It won’t be a first choice for expats seeking a cheaper lifestyle – Bilbao is the fifth most expensive city to live in Spain.
However, the lifestyle it offers is superb, and once you sort out your accommodation and utility bills, day-to-day living expenses aren’t so outrageous.
It’s great for professionals, families and those who love the idea of a city lifestyle in retirement but shy away from more frantic hubs such as Barcelona or Madrid.
Bilbao is a vibrant riverside city with a pronounced industrial past and architecturally modern present. Old factories and shipyards are found side by side with cutting-edge architectural designs, one of the examples being the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum along a revitalised waterfront.
The old town is full of great bars and the food there is amazing. You will quickly get into a habit of walking along the 7 streets area of the city, hopping from bar to bar, sipping on Rioja or a beer and feasting on pinchos (small bites to eat) – a Bilbao style evening out.
The wine won’t disappoint you either. The local region of Navarra has set up a growing industry in Rosé wine, which in Bilbao is 1€ a glass.
Bilbao might not be the biggest city in Spain, but what it’s big on is some serious rock music. One way or other big rock bands touring Europe end up having a gig in Bilbao. Radiohead, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Coldplay have all performed there recently.
The city has the world’s biggest covered market with all kind of produce on offer. So, if you are a gourmet of great food, Bilbao will be your paradise.
There are all kinds of shops in Bilbao too, from typical high street shops mainly along Gran Via, to modern shopping centres and high-end stores around Plaza Moyúa, to tiny boutiques and arty shops in the old town.
The Bilbao area is home to some first-class surfing beaches, and they are not overcrowded with eager surfers from all over the world.
Around Bilbao there are a number of mediaeval towns with churches, basilicas, sanctuaries or convents from different periods. The towns with their narrow, cobbled streets, pretty squares and colourful cottages, are truly charming places to visit.
Malaga is a lively port city full of hotels and resorts, often known as the capital of the Costa del Sol. It is the second most populous city of Andalucia and has established itself as the coast’s commercial and cultural hub.
The Costa del Sol is one of Andalucia’s main treasures and attracts many tourists, professional expats and retirees keen to get their share of sunshine and an exciting Mediterranean lifestyle.
What attracts people from all over the world to come and live in Malaga is the magnificent coast that stretches east and west from the city.
It goes as far as the Costa Tropical of Granada province to the east, southwards towards Gibraltar to the west.
All the major resorts such as Fuengirola, Torremolinos and Benalmadena, and, of course, Marbella are located there.
This stretch of the Spanish coast has a very international feel, with visitors and residents from all over the world. It also makes Malaga a very busy city.
If you want to live there, be ready for tourists coming non-stop in big crowds.
The port where large cruise ships dock spits visitors literally in thousands at any one time. They are eager to explore the city, the food, and test the ability of local caterers to provide a constant flow of Tinto de Verano, – and they are never let down.
Malaga boasts good infrastructure, top-class cuisine and fabulous architecture, rooted in Moorish and Roman times.
If you are into apartment living – check out the old town centre. There are quite a few refurbished properties there – great apartments with high ceilings and lovely windows.
If you want to live in a quieter area, check La Malagueta, Limonar and Cerrado de Calderon. These are the areas where typical suburban houses and flats can be found. These are also the areas preferred by expat families with children.
La Malagueta is one of the firm favourites with many expats for its great schools, peaceful atmosphere, all the amenities on the doorstep and a beach nearby.
Malaga is a cheaper city than Madrid or Barcelona. It is not as vibrant either, but it is a brilliant coastal city with all the necessary facilities and great weather that can easily become a fantastic home both for retirees or working families.
Marbella is all about glamour and shine; it attracts the rich and the famous from all over the world.
It is a fantastic location with wonderful beaches and architecture, vibrant and bright. It has low crime levels and is beautifully maintained by the local authorities.
Gastronomically Marbella is a paradise where every place be it a small café or a Michelin starred restaurant, serves exceptionally good food.
Expats with families and kids find everything they need to educate, look after and keep their children entertained. Those who plan to stay for a long time rarely bother to send their children to international schools as the Spanish schools are generally very good, free and offer more opportunities for integration.
However, if your stay is going to be short or you would like your children to follow an international curriculum, or simply worry that your older children will be struggling with Spanish, there are excellent international schools in Marbella including Swans school, Aloha College, Calpe School and Mayfair Academy.
Retirees, on the other hand, love Marbella for the ease of integration and a truly healthy lifestyle it offers. There are scores of agencies and businesses specially catering for the needs of foreign retirees, hospitals and other healthcare facilities are really good. Once you get to know different locations better, you will find a choice of retirement property available for purchase very satisfying.
There are plenty of locations to choose from in Marbella, the main ones being San Pedro, Puerto Banus, Nueva Andalucia, Golden Mile, Town Centre and East Marbella.
Almost every district in Marbella enjoys scenic views of the mountains that frame the city on the north, every district has something special to offer, too.
The old town is delightfully lively, full of little quirky shops and galleries.
The Golden Mile offers the best nightlife and entertainment – it is full of prestigious nightclubs and luxury coastal estates. It also houses Puerto Banús marina – a spectacular display of extremely expensive yachts. The marina is lined with elegant boutiques and bars.
Puerto Banus, a relatively new development 10 km away from the central Marbella, was designed and built in 1970 as a luxury marina and shopping area. The shops and restaurants in Puerto Banus are exceptional, and so is the nightlife.
If you are looking for truly luxurious surroundings, and don’t mind a 20 km drive from Marbella, then look no further than la Zagaleta.
Located at the heart of a fabulous area of the Costa del Sol, only a few miles from Puerto Banús, is a stunning and truly exuberant development – La Zagaleta or “La Zagaleta Country Club”.
This one of the most exclusive residential areas in Europe, extremely well planned and connected to all the major infrastructure, located in a stunningly beautiful region of the Costa del Sol.
With the Ronda mountains to the North and only a short drive from Marbella, La Zagaleta is a perfect destination for those who want luxury country living, well-groomed parks, golf fields, spacious villas, – all of this within a short distance from vibrant urban facilities.
As you see, Marbella offers a wealth of options for different tastes and lifestyle preferences. It is truly cosmopolitan, with great shopping and places to go out and fantastic leisure opportunities and entertainment events on offer.
In the southernmost part of the Costa de Sol, in Cadez province near Gibraltar, you’ll discover one more exclusive location – the port and residential developments of Sotogrande, where Spain’s most expensive real estate is located.
Some of the richest and most powerful families of Spain have summer homes in Sotogrande as well as other rich and famous families from all over the world.
If you love polo, golf or yachting, – Sotogrande is the place for you. Some of the best golf courses in Spain are located there as well as Santa Maria Polo Club, and yacht owners can choose a villa with its own jetty.
The pearl of Sotogrande is its renowned Trocadero Sotogrande Restaurant and Beach Club where you can enjoy superb Mediterranean cuisine in the most delightful surroundings of your choice: from sea views to swimming pool areas, to gardens and hammocks, to intimate secluded spaces – anything you can imagine is there.
Sotogrande is one of the favourite locations for professional expats who have been offered a job in Gibraltar but want to live further up the coast in Spain.
They commute to Gibraltar either by car, or by bus. The most popular way is to park in La Linea and walk over the border as there are no queues.
Those who use buses are dropped off at the border as well, walk through and get the local Gibraltar bus if their place of work is too far to walk.
Some people even use folding bicycles.
Sotogrande is extremely well-connected —Gibraltar’s airport is just 20 minutes away and Málaga’s a one-hour drive. It’s also close to beautiful towns such as Ronda and the white villages of Andalucía, has well regarded international schools and a diverse international community.
Estepona isn’t so widely celebrated as a renowned Spanish coastal town and is quite often overshadowed by its big cousins Malaga, Marbella and Puerto Banus.
However, if you’re seeking a quieter and cosier lifestyle with easy access to all major amenities with several cities on your door step, you should definitely consider Estepona.
It’s a lovely town full of white-walled houses and buildings; a charming coastal place squeezed between the sea and the mountains.
It is quaint, yet lively and joyful. With its year-round beautiful weather, close proximity to airports, relaxed lifestyle and stunning cuisine, Estepona is fast becoming one of the most attractive places to buy a property on the Costa del Sol.
There are all the amenities and facilities to serve the expat community: shops, cafes, tapas bars, great beaches, a wonderful marina, eight golf courses and seven museums.
Estepona, just like Sotogrande, is becoming a location of choice for those expat professionals who have been assigned to work in Gibraltar, but don’t want to live there because of the high cost of living. So they choose Estepona instead as their family headquarters, and commute from Estepona to Gibraltar on a daily basis.
It takes about half an hour to drive from Estepona to the border. Most people then park and walk over. It’s much easier than getting over the border by car, – this can sometimes take hours in both directions.
There’s a car park near the border about 20-30 minutes’ walk away from the central Gibraltar or you can jump on a local bus.
For residents with families settling in and around Estepona, the area offers an excellent choice of international schools as well as local state schools and bilingual nurseries.
Estepona is also a paradise for nature lovers.
Estepona’s beaches, stretching for over 13 miles along the coast are truly fabulous, two of them are Blue Flag beaches.
Because of its position between the sea and the mountains, Estepona has a microclimate of its own with over 325 days of sunshine a year.
Alicante is the capital of the stunning Costa Blanca region.
The Costa Blanca, or the white coast, known for the colour of its sandy beaches, stretches from Alicante to Valencia. With 125 miles of soft pale sand along the coastline, it never leaves anyone indifferent to its charms. Such beauty doesn’t go unnoticed – the Costa Blanca is one of the most popular mass tourism destinations in Europe.
The coast is framed by a rugged mountainous landscape and sandy beaches, coloured with subtropical vegetation, and features a great number of sweet little villages in between its two main cities.
They say Alicante has the best of everything Spain has to offer: the weather, natural wonders, relaxed lifestyle, food, leisure activities, – all this comes at a much cheaper price than the major urban hubs such as Madrid or Barcelona offer. This combination of comfortable city living and a relaxed country feel is what makes Alicante so appealing to many expats.
With its green parks dotted all over and delightful promenades, Alicante is irresistibly charming. There are wonderful beaches and quiet coves to idle away your days, while at night the city offers an exciting nightlife with a great variety of places to go out and enjoy.
The best part of Alicante is no doubt the Esplanada – a palm-treed marble promenade connecting the town and the port. It’s a beautiful space which truly comes alive when the heat of the day subsides, and people gather in the evening to walk and socialise.
Like all Spaniards, Alicante residents know how to throw a proper party! The famed 5 days of Bonfires of Saint John make an unforgettable experience if you are visiting. For residents it’s a big event to look forward to each year.
Alicante is well-connected. The International Airport of Alicante (El Altet) is just a short drive away and it takes about 2 hours to get there from most major European capitals (London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan, Zurich). The train station offers high-speed connections to Madrid and other destinations.
The expat community has been steadily growing there, encouraging growth in the services and amenities supporting international residents.
There are international schools, English-speaking doctors, dentists and other services. Lots of facilities for families make the place popular for expats with children.
Anyone who wants to retire to a beautiful coastal city with mild winters and hot summers will definitely find Alicante to be a great location. If you are into yachting or sailing of any kind, love mountains and miles and miles of white beaches, – then Alicante will be one of the top contenders for your perfect retirement destination.
Like most Spanish cities, Alicante boasts great public transport. The difference is it’s a tram city. Living in the city area means you can get anywhere relatively quickly, cheap and with comfort (all trams are air conditioned). A short 15 min tram trip can also take you out of the city noise and hubbub to the amazing white sand beach of San Juan.
In short, there’s something for everyone in Alicante, and that’s the main reason why so many expats that make up the international community there feel completely at home.
Spain’s diversity, both cultural and geographical, is what make it such an attractive location for people from all over the world. It also makes it difficult to determine exactly where the best place to live in Spain is.
If you are being relocated to Spain by your employer, than you have an easier task on your hands. But even in this case you can spend ages pondering over the locations close to your job, choosing the right one as many people posted to Gibraltar often do.
If you are in a free fall, retiring or semi-retiring to Spain, or even relocating there with your portable business in the suitcase, that’s where choosing your location can feel like an impossible task.
Take your time, visit Spain often and get to know all those wonderful places you’ve been reading about. You can consider other people’s opinions and recommendations, and make sure you know your own needs and preferences.
The common advice is don’t be in a rush, don’t be tempted to buy a house in a place you’ve just fallen in love with. Instead rent a property for some time, learn about your new region, get to know the surrounding areas, the vibe, seasonal changes and whether it works for you before committing to buying a property there.
Most of all enjoy your new life in Spain.
You might find useful:
- Moving To And Living In Spain Guide – actionable how-to tips on settling down in Spain;
- 10 Tips to Make Retiring to Spain an Absolute Success – must-do’s and future proofing for your Spanish retirement;
- A Complete Guide To Buying A Property In Spain – how to avoid pitfalls and disappointment when house hunting and buying your dream home in Spain.