Looking for a place to retire that isn’t already overrun by Americans trying to live off their savings and Social Security?
You’ve considered Costa Rica and Mexico , but the rush of retired Americans to these warm, resort-like areas has already pushed the cost of living well beyond your means. You’ve checked out Provence and the coast of southern Spain, but the Brits have already snatched up the most desirable properties and made what’s remaining even less affordable.
As a travel writer, I have visited most of the world’s major cities and regions. Although I’m not looking for a place to retire, I often ask myself what it would be like to live there.
In an recent MarketWatch article , I identified five qualities to look for in an ideal retirement location. In addition to the usual factors of climate, safety, cost of living, and access to quality and affordable medical care, I added five more: access to physical activity; cultural attractions; and transportation with international connections; English is widely spoken, and the place is attractive to, but not overwhelmed by, tourists.
This article uses these criteria to evaluate five cities and towns outside the U.S. to retire in that you might not have otherwise considered, thought of, or even heard of. I have visited all of these places so I can speak from personal experience. In addition I have picked locations on different continents to offer a wide variety of geography and culture.
Two caveats: One, most countries have residency restrictions. For example, you can live in Canada for only six months if you are not a citizen or designated permanent resident, so you have to plan on living elsewhere — e.g., someplace warmer, sunnier, and drier in the winter.
Two, Medicare will not cover medical expenses outside of the U.S., so you need to find private insurance that will, and plan on returning to the U.S. once or twice a year for checkups and non-urgent treatment. The good news is that medical costs in most of these countries are much lower than in the U.S. For example, I’ve had high-quality dental work done in Thailand for less than a third of what it would have cost in the U.S.
1. North America: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Whether it’s the political climate, the gorgeous scenery, the favorable exchange rate with the U.S. dollar, or the unfailing good-humored politeness of its citizens, Canada exerts a strong pull on Americans.
My favorite Canadian destination is Vancouver, but it is quite familiar to Americans and is not an inexpensive place to live. My second choice, as someone who craves the excitement of a major city, is Victoria, located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island and a relatively short drive and ferry ride from Vancouver.
In terms of the usual criteria, Victoria is an attractive option for retirees. Two of the top 12 hospitals in Canada are in Victoria (Nos. 7 and 12). The climate is as benign as you are likely to find in Canada — mild weather most of the year with warm dry summers and rainy but not bitterly cold, snowy winters. And, as is true in most of Canada, Victoria is extremely safe.
According to the website expatistan.com, the cost of living in Victoria is 11% lower than Vancouver, Canada, 22% lower than Los Angeles, about the same as Baltimore and 10% higher than Kansas City, Mo. Of course, English is widely spoken. Victoria has a major international airport and is a short flight or a longer (but scenic) ferry ride from the even larger airports in Vancouver and Seattle.
Victoria is beautiful, with many places to walk and bike, including miles of paths along the sea wall overlooking the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. It’s also the capital of British Columbia, with several universities in the city or nearby, including a major public university, the University of Victoria, so there is no shortage of cultural attractions to keep you psychologically and intellectually engaged.
And as anyone who has ever visited in the summer can attest, Victoria attracts more than its share of tourists, so there are plenty of restaurants, cafes, galleries, clubs, and concert venues in town. Overall, Victoria is a great place to live if you can find another place to live for six months of the year.
2. Asia: Chiang Mai, Thailand
When most people think of retiring in, or even traveling to Thailand, they think of the scenic beaches and dramatic islands in the south. But I also think of crowded beaches, loud discos, and even louder, inebriated college kids. So, I head north, to Chiang Mai for serenity, scenery, and rich cultural and historical attractions.
Chiang Mai scores high on all of the traditional retirement criteria. At an altitude of more than 1,000 feet, it’s a bit cooler than Bangkok and the south. Its also safe, the cost of living is low, extremely low compared to the U.S., and as my dental experiences demonstrated, the medical and dental care is excellent (for a description of my dental experiences, see my article, “Dental Tourism: Getting Drilled in Bangkok” ).
Chiang Mai is a walkable city, especially along the tree-lined streets in the historic old quarter, which contains historic Buddhist sites and temples. The countryside around Chiang Mai is bucolic and features good hiking, including hikes up Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, less than 50 miles away. You can also hike the Monks’ Trail on Doi Suthep, a mountain on the outskirts of the city, to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the historic temple overlooking the city at the top.
While the streets and hikes offer abundant opportunities to keep your body engaged, the temples, night market, and Chiang Mai University are a rich, cultural melange for your mind.
Chiang Mai has direct flights to much of Southeast Asia, and, via Bangkok, connections with the rest of the world. Since the city is a major tourist destination, many people speak English. In addition, there is a significant expat community of Americans and Brits.”
3. Europe: Split, Croatia
About 140 miles north of Dubrovnik on the Dalmation Coast, Croatia’s second-largest city shares many of the seaside charms of its more popular neighbor to the south, but fewer of the crushing crowds of tourists.
I spent several days in both places last year and strongly prefer Split. It feels more like a real city than a movie set, seems to attract fewer tourists (or at least is better able to handle the masses dumped ashore by giant cruise ships), and has a huge park, Marjan Forest Park, with great walking trails a relatively short distance from the city center. Split’s Old City, which includes the historic WHS Diocletian’s Palace, is also walkable. Several national parks in Croatia and Slovenia are within a few hours’ drive.
Split’s attractive waterfront offers views from almost everywhere, and features cafés, restaurants, and all kinds of watersports to keep you active. The city is quite safe, has a mild Mediterranean climate, and expats are required to pay into the state health system, which provides access to good, mostly free, health care. According to expatistan.com, the cost of living in Split is 22% less than Kansas City, 34% less than Baltimore, and 48% less than Los Angeles.
The University of Split, a public university, is mostly a scientific institution but also includes programs in humanities, social sciences, arts, and theology. In addition, the city offers many galleries, cathedrals, museums, and historical attractions. Split’s Museum of Fine Arts has one of the finest collections in the Adriatic. In addition, English is widely spoken, and most locals are able to converse in English. Split is a short flight from the Croatian capital of Zagreb, which has a major international airport.
Australia: Adelaide, South Australia
Adelaide is the capital city of the state of South Australia and the fifth-largest city in the country. I briefly passed through the city a few years ago but was taken by what little I saw. I did spend a couple of days in the Barossa Valley, one of Australia’s premier wine growing regions, just north of the city. My visit to the region was one of my favorite parts of one of my all-time favorite trips.
Adelaide’s climate is Mediterranean, with cool- to mild winters and moderate rainfall, and warm- to hot, generally dry summers. Crime rates are low and the cost of living compares favorably with Sydney (23% lower), Los Angeles (26% lower), and is marginally lower (7%) than Baltimore. But if you’re thinking of moving from Kansas City, living costs will be about 5% higher.
Medical care throughout Australia is excellent, and Adelaide is no exception. Adelaide has modern, well-equipped hospitals with excellent, highly trained staff. There are also several high-quality teaching hospitals in Adelaide, and many of the city’s hospitals are connected to a university.
Adelaide is a hub of arts and culture in the region, with many galleries, museums, design festivals, exhibitions, concerts, and shows. There are also several major universities in the city or nearby. And if you are inclined to think of food and drink as culture, there is the nearby Barossa Valley where I had one of the most memorable meals of my life.
Being less than two hours by air from Sydney, Adelaide attracts a fair number of tourists but far less than other destinations in Australia. In my short visit I saw many parks. When Colonel William Light, the founder of Adelaide, designed the city in 1837, he laid out wide boulevards and open parks and squares in each neighborhood. According to the City of Adelaide website, Light “[hugged] the city in over 930 hectares of glorious Park Lands which were not only the lungs of the city, but a place to escape for recreation or contemplation.”
South America: Puerto Varas, Chile
A few years ago I spent several days in Puerto Varas, in the heart of the Chilean Lake District about 600 miles south of Santiago, and was thoroughly charmed. The website topretirements.com describes Puerto Varas as a more tranquil and undeveloped Bariloche (in Argentina) “[w]ith similar lakeside views and stunning surrounding mountains.”
Crime is relatively low in Puerto Varas, as is the cost of living. I couldn’t find any specific comparisons of Puerto Varas with U.S. cities, but Puerto Montt, a larger city just 12 miles away, is almost 60% cheaper than Los Angeles.
Puerto Varas is a small town, so medical care is limited to a medical center and a small hospital with 24-hour care, but a larger regional hospital is available in Puerto Montt.
Climate could be a problem for those looking for sunny, warm beach weather day after day. You can find weather like that in the summer, though it can also be cloudy and windy. Summer days are long, with the sun setting around 9:30 p.m. Winters tend to be cold and snowy.
By far the main attraction of Puerto Varas is its easy access to a wide range of physical activity, all of it set in stunning beauty. Lakes, mountains (several of which are active volcanoes) fjords, rivers, and forests offer some of the best hiking, sailing, and kayaking in the world.
Many locals speak at least some English, though Puerto Varas is probably a better option for those who can speak at least some Spanish (or German). Cultural attractions are limited. Nearby Puerto Montt, with a population of close to 250,000, offers much more, including local campuses of several major universities. The airport in Puerto Montt also has frequent flights to Santiago.
Puerto Varas is not for everyone. But for hardy retirees with some fluency in Spanish who are looking for an active, adventurous, affordable lifestyle, you can’t do much better than this peaceful town on a gorgeous lake with spectacular views.