From the citrus groves of Valencia’s Turia Gardens to the house-sized cacti in the courtyards of Santa Bárbara castle in Alicante, Spain’s Costa Blanca is a playground for sun-loving Spaniards and expats alike, dotted with tiny hill towns, pulsing cities, upscale marinas, slick beach resorts, and hidden coastal nooks. It’s very much worth taking time to explore. Some lucky expats came for a quick look and are still there now years later.
With a little under 800,000 residents, Valencia could be ideal for the expat who has had enough of the constant demands of keeping a large house and garden in shape. Move to the right apartment in the old town and you could be within walking distance of one of Europe’s most engaging and well-kept city parks, where you can stroll beneath the violet blossoms of jacaranda trees and lounge in the shadow of lemon groves. And you’ll never have to mow a single blade of grass.
The park is just one of Valencia’s attractions, though. Right next to it, you can wander through an arched gateway in the medieval city walls, along age-worn flagstone alleys to an array of chic cafés. Amble past a handsome Gothic cathedral, or to a Belle Époque covered market bursting with fresh produce, or along wide boulevards lined with high-fashion stores.
Valencia’s warm evening air hums with possibility.
Mere descriptions of the sights do no justice to what’s really special about Valencia, which is the electric atmosphere of the place. The city’s warm evening air hums with possibility and fizzes with energy.
Universities, an international airport, high-speed railway, ferryport, big box stores, daily produce markets, theaters, parks, concert venues…they’re all here. In appearance, Valencia feels as if the best parts of other Spanish cities have been corralled into a few square miles of prime real estate. Visitors familiar with Madrid, Málaga, or Bilbao will find it strangely familiar but significantly more walkable.
Outside of the old town, Valencia has handsome districts within strolling distance of the main attractions. The Russafa zone has been on the verge of gentrification for at least a decade, but it’s still traditionally Valencian at heart. Leafy, lined with sidewalk cafés, this is the place for jazz bars and artists’ studios, along with varied cuisine options. You can choose between traditional Valencian restaurants serving what is arguably Spain’s finest paella or go more modern at a higher end place. Neither will cost more than $15 for a weekday lunch with wine.
Real estate in Valencia depends on where you look. The most affordable districts are to the east, more so the farther you go. Those lack character and convenience, though, and are mostly high-rise apartment districts traversed by busy highways and commuter traffic. Better options are the old town area, and the Rufassa district, where neo-classical townhouses along narrow streets have been converted to apartments right in the heart of the city.
One such is available within a short stroll to the Russafa produce market for $207,400. It’s a stylish loft apartment, recently renovated, with gas-fired central heating, tiled floors, exposed brickwork, and modern fittings. With two bedrooms, and balconies onto the quiet street below, this would be an ideal pied-a-terre for a couple and also has potential as an income-generator for short-term rentals. See: Fotocasa.es.
In the old town, property is a little pricier, but there are still bargains to be had. Just 100 yards from the Central Market, a 720-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of an ornate 19th-century townhouse also comes recently renovated with historical features, exposed wooden ceiling beams, cast-iron balconies, and a small terrace. It’s available for $189,379. (See: Fotocasa.es)
Healthcare in Valencia (and on the rest of the Costa Blanca) is excellent. If you’re in decent shape and between 55 and 65 years of age, expect to pay roughly $110 to $160 a month for private health insurance. As an example, U.S. expats Mickey and Tetyana Neely pay just $2,000 a year for their coverage, combined. The Hospital Universitario del Vinalopo, in Elche, is the JCI-accredited healthcare option on the Costa Blanca, but the range of outstanding private hospitals in Valencia goes into double digits, with a full complement of services and specialists available.
We’re not all city-lovers. For many, there’s a sweet spot between having the attractions of a city nearby, but the small-town pace of a pretty beach resort to call home. On the Costa Blanca, they head to Denia, some 60 miles down the coast from Valencia where the morning sun glistens off wavelets in the clear Mediterranean, and watercraft from stand-up paddle boards through to lumbering car ferries set their courses.
Just a couple of hundred yards from the town center is an extensive marina, on the southern end of which is a deepwater commercial harbor. From there, Baleària car ferries depart for Ibiza, Mallorca, and the pristine sands of Formentera island. Off-season round trips start at $65 per person, meaning that a sojourn on the Balearic Islands—among Spain’s most picturesque destinations—is within even the most strict budgets.
People here are so content. It’s a great way to be.
Denia, though, doesn’t lack its own prettiness. Spaniards flock to the town for their spring and summer vacations. You can’t get a more telling insider endorsement than that. South from the busy port, the beaches are backed by a seawall, and the coast road to Jávea begins its snaking path over Montgó mountain. The water here is clear, and silvery sprats dart through seagrass as you wade.
East from the beach, the old town starts, winding upwards via stone-paved streets lined with terrace restaurants and boutiques, blossoming trees, cut-stone municipal buildings, and floral town plazas. Eventually, the summit levels off and you’ve arrived at the imposing gates of the hilltop castle.
Expats Mickey and Tetyana Neely moved from Colorado to a beachfront house a short walk from Denia’s marina in 2018. Their three-bedroom, three-bathroom house is bright and airy, with heavenly sea views and a garden. It costs them $1,100 a month to rent.
As I joined the Neelys for dinner, Tetyana’s 82-year-old mother, who lives with them, greeted us as she left for an evening walk along the dunes. Tetyana laughed as she explained that her mother speaks not a word of Spanish, nor English, yet somehow manages to find bargains at Denia’s daily produce market.
Tetyana also mentions that, before the move, her mother was essentially housebound. Now, she’s out and about every day. Mickey and Tetyana also feel rejuvenated by their Denia lifestyle. “We walk on average six miles a day,” Tetyana says. “We decided not to buy a car, so as not to be tempted.” Mickey elaborates on the point: “I lost about 20 pounds in the first couple months after arriving. I wasn’t even trying. It was just from being away from snacks and candies in the office. We walk a lot. In the U.S., healthy food is expensive. Here, it’s cheap.”
South from Denia, a tight two-lane road climbs, switchback after switchback, through palms, wild lavender, pine forest, and rocky outcrops. Views of the sea alternate with a background of near-vertical limestone mountains, terraced here and there with olive trees and straggling grapevines. It’s only six miles to Jávea, but they’re all spectacular.
“People here are so content,” says Kaija Ozola, 52, who moved to Jávea almost four years ago. “It’s a great way to be: happy with what you have. People in the U.S. are too driven. Here in Spain, it’s a different way of life. And it can be your life. The food here is better, the quality of the air is better, the healthcare is better.”
We meet in a stylish café on one of Jávea town’s two main beaches. A waitress brings café con leche which, when the bill arrives, comes to a mere $3.70 for both of us. And this is no dive either; all that separates us from the beach is the tiled walkway that runs along the curve of the sandy bay. It’s lined with boutique clothing stores, seafood restaurants, beachwear outlets, and the ever-present Costa Blanca palm trees.
Compared to her U.S. origins, Kaija’s life in Jávea is much healthier. Like other expats on the Costa Blanca, she noticed an almost instant improvement in her wellbeing when she arrived. Since moving, she has stopped using asthma inhalers and no longer needs the bronchitis and pneumonia medications that she used in the U.S.
For Kaija, it’s all down to the move. “I researched this,” she says. “Jávea is in the top 10 healthiest climates in Europe. It has sea air, pine forests, green zones, and no industry to speak of. That makes it a fantastic place to be if you suffer any sort of respiratory problem.”
In Jávea, the principal buyers are vacation homeowners and retirees from the U.K., meaning that it’s easy to find an English-speaking real estate agent. For just shy of $131,000, you could buy a bright, two-bedroom apartment in the low-rise Las Marinas development, with balcony, parking space, and shared pool. (See: Royalcosta.com).
Closer to the center of town, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom 1,000-square-foot apartment right next to the shops, banks, restaurants, bars, and amenities is on the market for $149,000. (See: Inmueblesrodriguez.com)
It’s easy to find an English-speaking real estate agent.
As always, we suggest that you rent for a while before committing to a property purchase. Do so in style with a rental right by the town harbor in a three-story, four-bedroom, three-bathroom house in a landscaped development with shared pool, central heating, extensive terraces, and spacious living areas. You get all that for $1,691 a month. (See: Inmueblesrodriguez.com)
Although Jávea has the feel of a village, and an isolated one at that, it does have the population to support a couple of mid-sized Mercadona supermarkets, a branch of the Aldi supermarket chain, a weekly produce market every Thursday in the main square, and a host of bars and restaurants to choose from.
The treasure trove that is Desmond’s, on Avenida de la Fontana, is ostensibly a used furniture store, although on any given day it might stock an inflatable dinghy, fishing equipment, or chainsaws. It’s a good place to get started if you move into an unfurnished home.
There’s even a McDonald’s on the south side of town, although for something more elaborate, the upscale Siesta restaurant on Avenida del Mediterraneo is a treat for the senses. Dining al fresco on the beach, close enough to the water that you could almost reach down and grab your own lobster lunch, is the way of things here. Choose a plate of patatas bravas and a glass of sparkling wine for a quick meal in the sun. Twelve dollars will cover it.
If your vision of a Spanish retirement includes cobblestone alleys, balconies dripping scarlet geraniums, terracotta-tiled rooftops, and the evocative toll of ancient church bells, Altea’s old town is as pretty as you’ll find anywhere in Spain. Altea also comes with a long stretch of beach, and a promenade along which to join the locals in an evening paseo. The quality of light here is such that, for centuries, it has attracted artists. The Miguel Hernández art college formalizes that link. A bohemian, artistic feel pervades in Altea, which is best experienced on Thursday nights at the AlteArt bar’s language exchange evenings—a gathering place for expats.
In summer, Altea is a riot of fiestas, produce markets, concerts (the town has its own 160-piece orchestra), and exhibitions. Off season, it’s quiet.
Parts of Altea now feel a touch anonymous, as the white-painted balconies of purpose-built vacation apartments have spread out from the old town. It’s not unpleasant, but the newer sections lack Spanish character.
Apart from that, though, there is much to like about Altea. Particularly real estate prices, which are very reasonable for such an in-demand location. I saw a 750-square-foot apartment in the hills above the old town on the market for $179,300. That comes with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and views over Altea and the sea. (See: Multiservicealtea.com)
When a Spanish city is built along a sunny coastline, the beach becomes a park. It’s true of Málaga, San Sebastián, or Cadíz, and it’s especially the case in Alicante. Come here feeling blue, and leave with a smile on your face, refreshed by the sea views and the living, laughing, frolicking feel of the place.
On Alicante’s Postiguet beach, retired couples kick off their shoes and paddle in the water alongside office-workers on their lunch break. Groups of teenagers practice elaborate dance routines to smartphone soundtracks, and on any given perch or outcrop you’ll find an intense musician working through melodies on an acoustic guitar.
You’re never far from a sidewalk café or cozy bistro.
Alicante’s beating heart moves inland as evening falls. Behind the beach runs the Carrer de Jovellanos, a busy four-lane highway and part of the city’s main ring road. Crossing that feels like stepping into another world entirely, where the urban thrills of a busy Spanish city take over. Everything from the beach is uphill, reaching a pinnacle at the imposing 9th century Santa Bárbara fortress.
Between them both is a city that alternates between arrow-straight grand boulevards and warrens of narrow alleyways. Either way, you’re never far from a sidewalk café, cozy bistro, or public plaza.
The courtyard gardens of 18th-century merchants’ houses, complete with castiron railings, mature trees, five-tier fountains, and ornate outdoor furniture are open to strolling wanderers. The example at Plaza Portal de Elche is probably the best of them. But walking around Alicante, I found numerous other favorites.
Alicante’s covered market is, along with Valencia’s, as much a work of fine art as a place to buy produce. Exposed ceiling beams arch gracefully between mosaic-tiled walls and the sort of glasswork and detailing you’d expect from a cathedral.
In practical terms, the market is still the most economical option when it comes to grocery shopping. Search out the stalls selling the smallest range of products— that usually means that the vendor is selling a product that’s in season right now, and that they have a glut of supply. From August to October, a five-pound bag of vine-fresh, ripe tomatoes can cost as little as 70 cents. That’s a compelling reason to make your own gazpacho.
Elsewhere in the market, the fish displays (and prices) are enough to make any enthusiastic cook jump for joy. Just-caught hake, bream, and sea-bass are the most common trio. Fresh anchovies, which the server will clean for you as you wait, are one of Spain’s most delicious treats. You’ll also find shrimp, crab, squid, and tuna arranged on the ice, all for less than a third of what you’d expect to pay in the U.S.
Just like the other towns and cities on the Costa Blanca, Alicante’s layout gives you a few options when it comes to finding a place to live. The outskirts of town extend about four miles north, and six miles south to the international airport (which has excellent connections to the rest of Europe, due to the popularity of the region as a vacation destination).
The La Albufereta district to the north is the place to look for deals. It’s quiet, within walking distance of the sea, and connected to the center of the city (and many of the other towns on the Costa Blanca) by light railway. Alicante’s golf club, with an 18-hole course designed by retired Spanish pro Seve Ballesteros, is about a mile northwest. It’s known for having the remains of a 1st-century Roman villa on the 14th hole, as well as for its fast greens.
A 1,270-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with terrace and balcony is available to buy in La Albufereta for $244,250. That comes furnished, with community pool and gardens to enjoy. It’s a pleasant, bright apartment, with a larger living area than is usual in Spanish apartments, at 400 square feet. (See: Keycostablanca.com)