Expat Essentials

New for 2022: Dispatches’ list of the Top 5 cities and towns in Spain expats often overlook


An interesting survey from earlier this year shows where in Spain British expats love to settle, be it as a permanent retirement home or for extended holidays. Not surprisingly, their main criteria are sea, sun and sand, sunshine and places where they can find the most British bars and supermarkets. In short, where they can find the creature comforts they are used to from their home country. Brits also like to socialize with their countrymen.

This attitude however often prevents them from moving inland and causes them to miss out on parts of the country that – had they only know about them – would surprise them not only with their beauty but also by how easily accessible they are, what historical treasures they have to offer, how palatable the food is, even if, for a while, they have to renounce on fish and chips or a fried breakfast and, most importantly for pensioners, how affordable rents and properties are.

Especially compared to the prices in Madrid and Barcelona.

It might also surprise them that there are more ways to make an income are available than they might expect. It is not all agriculture in rural areas – other opportunities such as tech start ups are springing up and a more recent trend is the promotion and development in the film and video industry.

We have compiled a list of towns and locations that are pretty much sailing under the radar, some of which you might not even have heard of and others that are closer to well-known locations but much nicer and charming and far less crowded.

No. 5 Málaga

Málaga is definitely not a city that is under the radar in Spain, but a destination more expats should consider when thinking about relocating. Málaga is a big port city with lots to do and see – museums, castles, entertainment ,cinemas and theaters. In short, all the things you might be missing in the other, smaller towns higher on our list. Therefore, we’re including it on this list, just to be complete.

Of course, as far as jobs and employment are concerned, unemployment is high everywhere in Spain, but there are more possibilities here, especially in the service sector and in tourism. And highly skilled internationals are in demand. Glassdoor has several job listings for software engineers.

Cost of living in Málaga is another matter. Although significantly cheaper than nearby upscale Marbella, living in Málaga will still set you back plenty.

Here are the numbers via crowdsourcing data website Numbeo:

• Consumer Prices (including rent) in Málaga are about 16 percent less expensive than Marbella.

• Rent for a 3-bedroom apartment is 28 percent less in Málaga than in Marbella.

Another point in favor of Málaga is that there are plenty of international schools in the city, or in the area.

No. 4 Nerja

Our next proposition is for the lovers of Spain’s white villages and for those romantic at heart. Nerja is located on Andalusia’s Costa del Sol and is one of the most beautiful and most photographed cities in Spain. It is known for its narrow streets, its promenade hanging over a steep cliff known as the Balcony of Europe with its views all the way to Africa across the sea and its breathtaking nearby caves.

Life in Nerja can be quite touristy in the summer because of the crowds who come to visit the caves, but quite relaxed and lay back during the rest of the year.

About 30 percent of permanent residents here are expats, according to Idealista. For a good overview of what life in Nerja is like, check out this post.

Nerja is so under the radar that Numbeo doesn’t have data for it. Obviously, this is more a destination for the retired or the independently wealthy.

We should mention that Nerja is a very artistic place with many art and craft shops producing nice little artifacts to decorate your home, some jewelry and embroidery.

No. 3 Elche

Elche (pronounced EL-chay) is a very different proposition for our list. The city is a municipality in the province of Alicante but some nine miles inland from the Mediterranean. What makes Elche so special are the gardens, in particular the vast palm grove called El Palmeral de Elche, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Living in Elche is fresh, green and pleasant and none of the amenities of a medium sized city are missing. The area even has the Alicante/Elche airport.

You might have heard of the famous statue, the Dama of Elche, that was discovered during excavations and is an exquisite Phoenician head of a lady with enormous earrings. There is only a replica at the entrance to the town because the original is in the Madrid National Museum.

As far as the cost of living is concerned, here are some statistics from Numbeo for comparison with nearby Alicante, which is on the coast:

• Consumer prices( including rents) in Elche are about 6-percent lower than in Alicante, according to Numbeo.

• Renting a 3-bedroom apartment is actually about 22 percent more expensive in Elche than Alicante. But Elche is a much more attractive town than Alicante.

Business opportunities in Elche for entrepreneurial expats should not be too difficult either, because Elche is the center of shoe and handbag production in Spain. Import/export anyone?

No. 2 Zaragoza

Our No. 2 choice is Zaragoza, about 300 kilometers east of Madrid. Zaragoza is located in north-central Aragon in the heart of Spain on both banks of the River Ebro. It is a historical city with many impressive monuments such as the Basilica del Pilar, the wrought iron covered Market Hall, the Ebro Bridge and enjoyable boat trips up and down the river as far as the buildings of the EXPO 2008.

Zaragoza is known for its cultural life and fine cuisine as well as for the exquisite buildings in the style of Almudéjar architecture. Airport, bus and train connections are excellent. In terms of its economy, Zaragoza is an industrial city with emphasis on the automobile sector. French/Italian automaker Opel has a large factory here.

As far as the cost of living is concerned, see these statistics from Numbeo:

• Consumer prices (including rent in Zaragoza are about 24 percent lower than Madrid.

• A 3-bedroom apartment will cost you 36 percent less in rent than in Madid.

No. 1 Murcia

Our first choice if you are looking for a delightful place to live is a lively university city that still has the feel of a small town.

About 200 kilometers south of Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, Murcia and its favorable climate are in the middle of a rural landscape dominated by orchards, fruit and agriculture. The river Segura divides the city into two part, and both are full of culture and history, baroque and gothic masterpieces, art galleries and interspersed with countless cafes, bars and the tapas bars much beloved by the student population.

Look at Numbeo’s crowd-sourced comparison of the cost of living between Murcia and Valencia and you will notice that living in Murcia is a lot more economical:

• Consumer prices in Valencia (including rent) are about 17 percent higher than in Murcia.

• A 3-bedroom apartment rents for an eye-watering 73 percent more in Valencia!

As you can see here on the Numbeo website, prices in Valencia are substantially higher across the board. That alone is an incentive to move away from the direct coastline and a bit more inland to Murcia. Infrastructure is good, as there are motorways that lead you to the beaches for weekend escapes.
Murcia has good shopping centers (Corte Ingles), bus connections to the rest of Spain and a train station.

Inside tips:

• My favorite secret in Murcia is the elaborate casino. It is not a place for gambling but a social club where members arrange social events like art exhibitions and concerts in Moorish influenced surroundings. Access is free, you don’t have to be a member, just to pay for the concert tickets.

• Murcia provides good opportunities for employment because of the agro-food sector. The region accounts for 20 percent of Spain’s fruit and vegetable exports and in addition features the second largest fleet of trucks to transport everything.

• The growing tourist sector isn’t to be overlooked either.

We hope we have given you a good overview of some very beautiful and food for thought about affordable places to live in Spain you might not even have thought of as your next home.

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Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel and lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits among many other publications.

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