Living Abroad in Spain
Prime Living Locations
© Nikki Weinstein, from Living Abroad in Spain, 1st Edition.
Used by permission of Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
Maps © Avalon Publishing Group, Inc.
Talk to anyone living in Spain and they’ll likely tell you that they’ve found the country’s most idyllic spot—and the funny thing is they’re often right. Those who want a slower pace, backcountry living, and a lot of greenery will be thrilled to wind up on the craggy coast of Galicia. But for anyone who craves the manic pulse of long nights out that don’t end until sunrise, Madrid is undoubtedly the place to be. There’s one thing that’s certain: Spain offers a seemingly endless array of possibilities and each one is distinct. Although the following locations don’t cover every town in Spain, those most populated (by Spaniards and foreigners alike) are mentioned, as are some of the most desirable country destinations.
Spain’s capital appeals to both young and old, urbanites and suburbanites—the city is as varied as you’d expect any European capital to be. This is the seat of politics and the center of culture. Every neighborhood is bursting with tapas bars and restaurants offering a range of fare that includes hearty and traditional dishes, and modern creations inspired by old classics. There’s no doubt that Madrid has drawing power, but add to the list the notorious nightlife and it’s little wonder that people from even the remotest corners of Spain choose Madrid when they seek out big-city life. If you have young children, you’ll find life easy in any part of the city but you’ll also discover more space in the suburbs. Those who choose to live in one of the communities in the outskirts will find less noise, houses rather than apartments, plenty of schools, more grass, and less pavement. However, plenty of folks prefer to duke it out for space right in the urban center where all the action can be found. Now, just one thing to note: because Madrid is the country’s most popular city, it’s also the country’s most expensive one.
Barcelona and Catalonia
Barcelona is unequivocally Spain’s most international town, and it’s home to a flourishing community of expatriates. The late-night clubs attract a slew of European party-seekers, many of whom are recent arrivals to the city. Artists are moving to Barcelona in droves, and even lovers of the great outdoors enjoy life in an urban space with nearby beach-and-mountain access. Families also do well in Barcelona; the city offers a choice of international schools and parks abound. Much like San Francisco in the United States, Barcelona offers the best of both worlds—city living with nature still within reach. Yet Barcelona is pricey—Madrid is the only place in Spain that’s more expensive.
Head north from Barcelona and you’ll quickly find yourself in rural Catalonia. The majority of those who choose this spot are retirees, but nature enthusiasts of all ages will find a playground right outside their front doors. At first glance, the Costa Brava seems to be filled with built-up resorts, but a closer look at the area reveals a few rustic towns full of history, where Catalan is the reigning tongue. If you prefer a quieter life near the beach but you also want to be a short train-ride away from a sophisticated urban area, you would do well on the Costa Brava. This is an ideal place for people who want to kick back in luxury. Sitges—a decent-sized town south of Barcelona—is a popular spot among beach lovers, partiers, and commuters who want a little distance from the big city. The town mellows out during the off-season but in the summer months it’s in full swing and that’s precisely what so many Sitges residents adore about their home.
Valencia And The Balearic Islands
Valencia is the place to be if you want the comforts of a decent-sized city without the frenetic tempo of a huge metropolis. It’s the country’s third-largest city and though it’s not exactly beautiful, it compensates by throwing great parties (especially Las Fallas de San José, a spectacular street party that rages on for five days every March). It also offers heavenly stretches of beach, and paella that beats any other. Houses and apartments cost less than the going rate in both Barcelona and Madrid (prices are mid-range for Spain). Those who live here often boast that their lifestyle is not only more affordable than for residents of other cities, it’s also more peaceful. Just outside the city, you can find commuter towns with sprawling villas and a few solid international schools to boot. From Valencia, traveling south along the Costa Blanca you can dodge the concrete high-rises and instead find bucolic, coastal towns and small urban areas such as Alicante—a place that provides every amenity you’ll want including entertainment, restaurants, and Internet connections. However, Alicante offers fewer cultural outlets than Spain’s big cities. The population along this stretch of Spain is growing quickly and property prices reflect its popularity; but if you secure a villa along the Costa Blanca, you’ll find a beach lover’s paradise.
Some people forgo the mainland for life on the nearby Balearic Islands, and if you’re considering that move you should be up for a constant party. The islands are known for their nightlife but if you chose your home wisely, you can settle in a spot that stands apart from the masses of tourists and yet you’ll still be ideally situated should you want to enjoy the resort culture offered in this part of Spain.
Although many don’t know it, when most people picture Spain, they conjure up an image of Andalusia: green, rural, the birthplace of flamenco, and a region with deep ties to Moorish and Roma culture. Seville and Granada—the area’s two biggest cities—are entirely different from one another. Seville exudes a stately elegance and, not surprisingly, it’s a tad conservative. Granada is a bit rougher around the edges; it’s more casual, attracts younger people, and has a more intimate air to it. Throughout Andalusia, the weather is hot in the summers, temperate in the winters, and the pace of life is decadently slow. Yet in Seville, Granada, and the Costa del Sol, you can find a variety of movie theaters, health clinics, restaurants, and the like. Outside the resort towns on the coast, you’ll find a smaller selection of international schools than you would in Madrid and Barcelona.
The Costa del Sol is Spain’s most famous tourist-magnet and it still attracts hordes of foreigners, but most are just looking for a brief getaway to the beach. Still, plenty of people find this place alluring enough to stick around for good, and they have an easier time at adapting than those who live elsewhere in Spain. Some communities are almost entirely populated by northern Europeans, and you could end up in a town where speaking Spanish is optional. Is this a plus? A minus? You decide. You’ll find plenty of international schools and amenities that range from the useful (think grocery stores and a long list of doctors) to the out-and-out deluxe (think mud wraps, golf courses, and decadent massages).
The Cantabrian Coast
If you want to plunge deep into Spain’s backcountry, Galicia is the place to do it. The northwest corner of Spain jutting out over Portugal is a pocket of forests, rivers, mountains, jagged coastline, gray mists, and serenity—and it’s unjustly overshadowed by Spain’s more celebrated areas to the south. Yet plenty of those who live here enjoy Galicia just the way it is: a wild arcadia and a relative secret. Most foreigners who live in Galicia do not seek out urban life—they prefer country living. This is one of Spain’s poorest regions and as you might expect, services are harder to come by and perks such as DSL lines are more difficult to secure than they are elsewhere. Naturally, clinics and hospitals are around but your choices of doctors will be limited. Yet such drawbacks are acceptable to those who choose to make Galicia home because what’s lost in ease is gained in natural beauty. Despite the rainy weather, this is arguably Spain’s most gorgeous spot.
The small regions of Asturias and Cantabria pull in small numbers of foreigners seeking quiet lives near the beach and mountains. Oviedo and Santander—both modestly sized cities—are particular favorites among those seeking life in this area. In both places you’ll find schools, theaters, and some other cultural perks, but best of all, nature is still blissfully nearby.
Basque Country is the most famous locale among Spain’s northern lures, and most people drawn to the area head straight for the coastal city San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque). The region is broadly distinguished by its temperate climate, a thriving industrial sector, and the Bay of Biscay, which pulls in surfers from the whole of Europe thanks to its fierce waves. The regional language—one with no known connection to any other—also makes San Sebastián unique. Fewer expats live here than in the south. But those who do make their homes here adore the relative quiet, the proximity to nature, and the elegance and culture that’s available in San Sebastián. However, the cost of living is significantly higher than it is in the rest of the north.