If you’re planning to head abroad when you collect your pension and unsure where to set up home, we’d recommend you come to Spain – naturally. But you don’t need to listen to us; International Living magazine’s 2019 ‘Best Places to Retire’ Index has compiled data based upon the experiences of expats on all five continents with everything from the weather and food through to living costs, healthcare and level of bureaucracy, and has come to the conclusion that Spain is the second-best country in Europe to move to when you give up work, after Portugal.
And if you can’t decide between the two, you could always move to the provinces of Zamora or Salamanca (Castilla y León), the region of Extremadura or, if you prefer to be near a coast, the province of Huelva (Andalucía) or Pontevedra (Galicia), where you’ll be in Spain but right on the Portuguese border, so you can hop between countries.
That said, Spain is the top choice if you want to avoid Atlantic winds since more than half its coast is on the Mediterranean, which escapes the worst of the weather during travelling cold fronts due to its being enclosed.
International Living is a US-based magazine, so the winning countries in this year’s Index tend to be non-European as the distance from home is a factor: Panamá comes out top, followed by Costa Rica, México and Ecuador, which may well be too far from the family for northern Europeans seeking a sunny retirement hotspot.
Malaysia, Colombia, Portugal, Perú and Thailand also come before Spain, but if it’s Europe you’re looking to move to, the Iberian peninsula countries are the best choices on the International Living list.
What’s so great about Spain, according to the USA?
Some of the reasons Spain comes second in Europe come as no surprise to most of our readers – such as the fact it is one of the continent’s top beach destinations for holidaymakers – and points out that in many coastal parts, especially on the tourist trail, communities of English-speaking expatriates can be found, meaning those who have not yet started learning Spanish will still be able to make friends before they are confident enough with the language to mix with locals. Outside of the mainstream holiday areas, the Index report warns that newcomers will need to learn Spanish before they make the move in order to cope.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the established expat destinations are not the ones International Living most focuses on – its authors rave about the northern part of the country, where the landscape is very different, winters are colder, although efficient heating systems in homes are more commonly found, and summers are milder, although still very warm.
“Navarra, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and the Basque Country offer forests, mountains, friendly people and food to die for,” the report says.
Cheap to eat – home or away
Eating in Spain, especially eating out, is ‘easy and cheap’, says International Living – another aspect about the country which those who know it well will not find particularly newsworthy. Even outside of large towns, cities or tourist zones, restaurants abound, as do bars and cafés which serve food; in fact, it often seems that every third premise on the high street, including in small villages, are bars or small eateries. Spain officially has more bars per inhabitant than any other European Union country. And in some cases, it can actually be cheaper to dine out in them than to cook at home – but ‘cheap’ does not mean ‘poor quality’; far from it. A very decent three-course meal with wine can often come in at as little as €12 or €15, or you can push the boat out and opt for a Michelin-starred restaurant, where a complete meal starts at just €28 and you can choose from plenty others for between €35 and €40.
The ‘Best Place to Retire’ Index describes lunch as the ‘main meal of the day’ and ‘a bargain’, with a menu del día, or lunchtime meal of two or three courses plus a drink, normally a glass of wine, beer, a soft drink or a bottle of water, coming in at ‘between US$11 and US$20’ (about €9.70 to €17.66).
Supermarket and market produce, too, also attract plenty of praise from International Living – some of Spain’s home-grown fruit and vegetables ‘are almost gourmet products in the USA’ and their prices are a ‘bargain’, the report claims. UK nationals will at least be able to bear witness to the former, given the excellent quality and freshness of salad and fruit on the shelves in Britain which have been imported from Spain, to the point where a lettuce shortage in the United Kingdom due to a harsh winter in Spain made headline news in the British press.
Cost of living and transport
International Living calculates that, as Spain has ‘one of the lowest costs of living in Europe’, it is possible for a couple to ‘manage comfortably’ on US$2,500 (about €2,200) a month in many parts of the country.
In practice, it is possible to live ‘comfortably’ on much less – a retired couple would be less likely to use their car as much as a working couple, and would probably not have a mortgage, meaning a single pensioner could live reasonably well on about €1,000 a month or a couple on €1,500.
Transport gets the thumbs-up, too: “Travelling by train in Spain is fast and efficient in large and medium-sized towns and cities,” International Living states.
Public transport outside of major metropolitan areas can be very sparse in Spain, so retirees – let alone workers – should factor in the cost of running a car if they plan to make the move, although this will not be quite so necessary for those who plan to spend most or all of their time in the urban hubs of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or a similar-sized city.
But Spanish trains are nearly always very clean and comfortable – it is rare for commuters to find themselves without a seat, except on the metro – and are highly efficient and punctual; it is not normal for trains in Spain to arrive or leave late, or not at all, and the high-speed AVE link has a self-imposed policy of refunding 50% of passengers’ fares if they arrive more than 20 minutes late at their destinations. Also, rail travel is very cheap in Spain, especially for routes which fall within Cercanías or outer-suburban metro lines, which can stretch to a radius of around 80 kilometres and cost under €5 one-way.
Climate: Sun, sea and sand or ski slopes and snow
The weather in Spain is also a hit with the International Living writers – but not just because of the hot summers. A ‘surprising variety of climates’ often catches new expatriates unawares, since the sweltering sun tends to last about three to five months at most, and winter weather can stretch from two to five months depending upon which part of the country you live in. This said, Spain as a whole average 300 days of sunshine a year, meaning even when it is cold, it is likely to be bright and cloudless. Generally, winters in the Mediterranean and south coast provinces and on the islands are milder than in northern Europe, and springs and early autumns are balmy, bright and pleasant.
Concerning the climate and its ‘surprising variety’, International Living draws attention to one of Spain’s best-kept out-of-summer-season secrets: its long list of excellent ski resorts, which are typically much cheaper than the more widely-known ones in Europe and, in some cases, are a short enough drive from the coast that it is perfectly possible to live near a beach and hit the pistes for the day, returning home by nightfall. International Living points out that it is possible to go skiing ‘not just in the Pyrénées in the north, but also in the mountains in the south’, referring to the Sierra Nevada in Granada, although it does not mention the mountains of Madrid or in Teruel, southern Aragón, which are around an hour and a half by car from Valencia city.
Healthcare, low crime rate, tolerance of difference…
Healthcare in Spain is, naturally, one of the biggest attractions for US citizens, given that residents in the United States can only receive medical treatment if they hold insurance and this covers the condition that requires attention. Whilst at present, anyone who lives part-time in Spain is considered a ‘tourist’ for healthcare purposes – European Union citizens can obtain any treatment classed as ‘emergency’ or which cannot wait until they return home, provided they hold an EHIC European health card – anyone who is a permanent resident is entitled to free healthcare on the State. Normally, non-EU citizens at least will be required to show proof of medical insurance to obtain residence, but a new law passed in July means public healthcare is now universal and free of charge for anyone whose main residence is in Spain.
And International Living recalls that Spain has ‘one of the best medical care systems in the world’, which is statistically true: it ranks second from top in Europe.
Being a foreigner, or having different values or beliefs – such as religion, or being vegetarian or vegan – is no barrier to acceptance in Spanish society, ‘one of the most tolerant for those seeking an alternative lifestyle’, according to the report.
Lots of ‘nightlife culture’ is mentioned – and even if you’re not keen on going clubbing until the early hours, you can still be an ‘owl’ rather than a ‘lark’, with restaurants often still setting the table with a smile at 23.30 and live bands, discos and open-air dining long after dark during summer fiestas – and getting home safely is less of an issue in Spain than in many other countries in Europe, or worldwide.
With one of the world’s lowest violent crime rates, statistically, and voted among the world’s best countries to live for women, the female author of the International Living report says that ‘as a lone woman’ in Spain, she has ‘always felt safe’.
Of course, you don’t have to take International Living’s word for it, either, nor ours – the census figures speak for themselves. Around 300,000 British nationals live in Spain, of whom just under half are retired, and that’s not counting the tens or even hundreds of thousands of other northern Europeans who either live and work in the country or have chosen it to spend their post-work years, as well as the growing number of US nationals who are gradually discovering Spanish shores – and mountains, lakes, forests, and ski slopes, too.
But if you’re not quite ready to commit to emigrating, retirees can compromise by buying a holiday home in Spain instead.
Tempted? Check out our homes for sale in Almeria and Murcia regions in Spain.