Retirement in Spain: Costa Blanca Vs. Costa del Sol

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Retiring in Spain is a dream for many retirees, especially from countries with cold or rainy winters who are looking for sun, warmth and beach life all year round.

The two most popular regions are Spain’s Costa Blanca (White Coast) and Costa del Sol (Sun Coast). The Costa Blanca is a 120 mile stretch along the Mediterranean coast of southeastern Spain.

The Costa del Sol is approximately 150 km long and is located on the south coast of Spain in Andalusia. The Costa Blanca stretches from Denia in the north to Pilar de la Horadada in the south, with Alicante being the largest city. It borders Costa Calida and many other seaside resorts and historic cities such as Cartagena.

The Costa del Sol stretches for 150km along the south coast of the Mediterranean, ranging from Sotogrande in the west to Nerja in the east, with Malaga being the capital.

The sheer number of retirees who have made one coast or the other their home shows just how coveted these two destinations are. The census registered 37,000 foreigners on the Costa Blanca and 300,000 on the Costa del Sol. There are many similarities between the two, but also differences. I’ve lived in each for a number of years, most recently in Torrevieja near Alicante and before that in Marbella, and have had plenty of time to familiarize myself with the ambience, expat communities and lifestyle of each. Here’s what you need to know.

Calpe on the Costa Blanca (Nata.Art / Shutterstock.com)

location, size and population

The Costa Blanca is to the south-east, the Costa del Sol to the south, and the distance between Alicante and Malaga is more or less 360 miles in a straight line. The Costa Blanca is slightly larger than the Costa del Sol with a coastline of beaches, coves, the vast lagoon of the Mar Menor and mountains behind the beaches. The Costa del Sol is slightly shorter, with equally beautiful beaches, although they are slightly smaller because they are bordered by mountains, such as the Sierra Bermeja and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The steep mountainsides are the sites of a number of charming whitewashed towns known as Andalucia’s white villages, seaside resorts and ports such as exclusive Puerto Banus in Marbella or upscale Sotogrande near Cadiz.

The population of both coasts is a mix of expats and Spaniards, including locals who were born and raised there and those coming from other parts of Spain, some on holiday or as second home owners or as retirees to make the most of the northern Spain winter cold to escape, like Galicia and the Basque Country. The foreign population comes mainly from Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, but also from the USA, Russia and more recently from Morocco and other Arab countries.

Both coasts have vibrant and active expat communities, mostly from the UK.

Motorway along the Costa del Sol
Costa del Sol (Kazmulka / Shutterstock.com)

transportation options

Alicante on the Costa Blanca has an international airport, although Malaga on the Costa del Sol is larger and serves more airlines.

Public transport is good on both coasts, with some high speed trains from Malaga to Madrid and Barcelona and more train services from Alicante to cities like Santander to the north and Bilbao to the south. What is not covered by train or plane is served by coaches, with ALSA being the largest bus company.

If you wish to travel by car there are many motorways running north to south and along the coast. The most famous is the 110 km long Autopista del Sol, which runs from Málaga to Estepona on the Costa del Sol. It’s a toll road, like some others.

Local bus services are much better and more frequent on the Costa del Sol than on the Costa Blanca. To really get around there, it is better to buy or rent a car.

Blue tiled roof in Altea, Spain
Blue tiled roof in Altea, Spain (Photo: Inka Piegsa-Quischotte)

geography and architecture

The province of Alicante on the Costa Blanca has a very mountainous landscape in the north and west, while the south is rather flat and the river Segura flows through it. The region is divided into the upper marina with towns like Calp, Teulada and Xabia and the lower marina with Benidorm and Altea.

The architecture in cities like Alicante is beautiful with wide avenues and art deco buildings. Altea is famous for its blue tiled roofs, many art galleries and murals. Benidorm, on the other hand, is the typical seaside resort with high-rise buildings and apartment blocks, as is my current hometown of Torrevieja. All have beautiful boardwalks with flowers and palm trees.

The Costa del Sol is also mountainous, but the mountain ranges sometimes extend to the many beaches, protecting them from the wind, making for a very pleasant climate. Apart from the beaches there are coves, valleys, harbors and cliffs, not forgetting the spectacular Nerja Caves. Malaga is a city with many historic buildings and over 30 museums including the Picasso Museum. The most interesting architecture along the coast are the white villages, the most famous of which are Frigiliana (near Nerja) and Benalmadena.

Typical seaside resorts are Estepona, Torremolinos, Benalmadena Costa and Marbella.

La Mata beach in Torrevieja, Spain
La Mata Beach in Torrevieja, Spain (Photo: Inka Piegsa-Quischotte)

beaches

Both coasts have many beaches – that’s why they are such popular holiday and retirement destinations. Alicante has a particularly wide and wide beach called Playa de San Juan, which is located just below Santa Barbara Castle and Platja de Postquet.

On the Costa del Sol, Marbella’s beaches deserve a special mention, with their beach clubs and water sports activities, as well as lively nightlife.

Sunset in Torrevieja, Spain
Torrevieja (Unai Huizi Photography / Shutterstock.com)

mood

The atmosphere of a place has a lot to do with the average age of the population. Here is one of the biggest differences between the Costa Blanca and the Costa del Sol: while the median age of residents in Torrevieja, for example, is the retirement age, there is probably not much difference to the second retirement hotspot, Benidorm, the median age in Marbella is between 40 and 45 years old.

This means that the atmosphere on the Costa Blanca is much calmer. You’ll see more people sitting on benches on the beach in the sun and using some kind of walker to move around the city. They also dress more casually, sit longer in bars with a drink and certainly don’t go to discos. Marbella, the most famous resort on the Costa del Sol, on the other hand, is much more glamorous and romantic. The city is also known for its nightlife, with many clubs and bars in Puerto Banus and the so-called Golden Mile, where the most expensive villas are located.

Torrevieja has a theater and a concert hall, but very rarely do top-notch performers perform. Marbella is a whole different story. Take for example the annual charity event called Starlite or the Red Cross Ball, which are among the many charities active in Marbella. All attendees, of course, dress in their finest, which they buy from the many chic boutiques in Marbella and Puerto Banus, including Valentino and Gucci. The people of the Costa del Sol are younger and more international, which is reflected in their more upscale lifestyle.

For example, in Torrevieja there is a reasonably chic shopping center called La Zenia Boulevard, but no Dior or Chanel, and it’s outside the city center so you’ll have to get there either by bus or taxi or by car.

Not only food, culture and fashion make the difference, but also the fact that the different nationalities mix much more on the Costa del Sol. As the Costa Blanca’s foreign residents are predominantly British, they tend to socialize, as do Russians and Chinese, although expats of both nationalities are notable for their efforts to learn Spanish.

Pro tip: Spanish shops, with the exception of supermarkets and some pharmacies (also called pharmacies), observe siesta closing times (2pm to 5pm), and foreign shops, particularly those run by Asian immigrants, are closed on Sundays.

Puerto Banus Marina in Marbella
Puerto Banus Marina in Marbella (Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com)

cost of living

If money is an important factor when choosing a coast to retire to, then the Costa Blanca is definitely your coast of choice. A friend of mine rents a 2 bedroom apartment there with a communal pool and garden for 350 euros a month.

The Costa del Sol is an expensive place even if you avoid glamorous Marbella. Here is a selection of rental properties in Torremolinos ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 per month. As always, it depends on your lifestyle, requirements and overall budget, but overall the Costa Blanca is more affordable.

Pro tip: If you are seriously considering the Costa Blanca, check out this overview of other equally affordable places to live.

Health care for retirees is also an important factor, but there is no difference between the two coasts. It is advisable, like me, to take out private health insurance, which covers pretty much everything except dental treatment. The hospitals here are excellent. That’s how dentists are in Spain, but you have to pay out of pocket.

A word on COVID: each autonomous province in Spain has its own restrictions and regulations, Covid passport requirements etc. so make sure you are up to date before moving as these can change at any time.

In summary, I have to say that the pros and cons are evenly distributed between the Costa Del Sol and the Costa Blanca. Both have great year-round weather, interesting cities and fabulous beaches. Personally, I am planning to return to the Costa del Sol simply because life on the Costa Blanca is too quiet for me. But if that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ve come to the right place.

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