Why do Americans love Spain?

April 16, 2024

An interesting question I saw online recently…

Why do Americans seem to love Spain so much?

The person who was asking had been to Spain a few times, and didn’t see what the big deal was. She said she was always happy when she got back to the US after travels abroad.

I sort of envy that worldview. If I’d been happy at home, my whole life would have been much simpler – presumably. I could have married some girl from high school, bought a house on a cul-de-sac, and just coasted.

If I close my eyes, I can vaguely imagine my life without Spain: speaking my own language every day, spending Saturdays at Target, not a single hour of my life wasted in lines at immigration offices…

It sounds pretty relaxing.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

To paraphrase Tupac, that master of American letters: “I didn’t choose the expat life, the expat life chose me.”

And here I am.

Barceloneta Beach.

So why do Americans fall in love with Spain?

That’s the question we’re tackling today…

Why do Americans (and people from many other countries, to be fair) pick up and move to Spain, when they’re doing okay back at home?

(La Vanguardia recently published a piece in which they defined “expat” as someone who comes to Spain in search of an experience, rather than out of necessity. While I think, personally, that that’s a bullshit distinction, I’m gonna roll with it in the context of this article.)

And actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with the topic.

Several years ago, I wrote an open letter called 32 Reasons Why I Love Spain.

It was a huge hit on social media.

This was 2015, I think.

Spain hadn’t been getting a ton of good press in those days, after several years of economic crisis. A lot of younger Spaniards had even left the country. Despite their love for Spain, they were living in the UK or Germany or somewhere else, escaping a youth unemployment rate of over 50%.

Spain has some problems, but it’s a great country

My article struck a chord with many people who still loved Spain despite all its problems. And everything I said in it was true – at least, true to my experience at the time.

Behind the scenes, I only wrote the article because I was taking a course in blogging and it suggested that there were two kinds of list posts: short ones (with 10 items or less) and long ones, which were as long as you could make ’em.

That article was an experiment in long list posts. And (typical of where my life was at in 2015) it described in glowing terms the beautiful women, delicious food and cheap wine which were then my principal interests.

Years ago in La Latina.

Oh, youth.

To be so young as to think that most of life’s problems could be solved by a hot chick, a good steak and a bottle of Rioja! Those were, indeed, the days.

Now, of course, I’m past 40 and my priorities have changed. I’m married – my online dating escapades are, thankfully, a thing of the past – and I’ve stopped drinking. At this point, a good Saturday night involves popping open a can of tonic water after dinner and being in bed by 10.

(Okay, okay. Let’s be real. Being in bed by 9 is just as good… maybe better.)

I’m still into steak, of course. Protein rules. But otherwise, I barely recognize that younger me, with his unbridled enthusiasm for supposedly “fun” things I’m now avoiding.

And, long after that article (and despite being here for almost 20 years now) I still love Spain.

But of course, my feelings about it have changed with time. (Do you have the same feelings as you did when you were 20? I suspect not…)

So let’s look at some of the reasons why Americans love Spain, as well as my personal take on Spanish life, after dedicating a lot of time to it.

Car-free life in urban Spain

My main reasons for loving Spanish life, these days, are the car-free lifestyle and the low cost of living.

I’ve always hated car culture. When I was a kid, my parents had the brilliant idea of moving us to the middle of the desert outside Phoenix, 10 miles from literally everything.

They then spent the next decade refusing to take me anywhere, because gas was too expensive.

Did I mention I’m old? So old, in fact, that I remember when gas cost about a buck a gallon. Later, when I was able to drive myself, gas at $1.39 a gallon seemed scandalously expensive. So I suspect that my dad was bitching about 89 cents, but still… they could’t afford to drive me places. It was out of the question.

Maybe I’m being slightly unfair here. Maybe my parents were at a point in their spiritual development where all they wanted to do was contemplate the expanse of gravel outside the door – and driving me to the record store would have interrupted their search for transcendence.

But I was a horny 13-year-old with big dreams, and I wanted to go somewhere.

I hadn’t signed up for this lifestyle. I was bored as shit out in the desert.

Walkable Spanish cities for the win!

Well, car culture turns out to be one thing I haven’t changed my mind on, despite the passing of a few decades. I appreciate Barcelona’s walkability every damn day. And some days, I also appreciate its top-tier public transport infrastructure. Both these things are hard to come by in the US.

These days, entire months go by in which I don’t get in a car. I take taxis if I have to, but honestly, I almost never have to: my gym is two metro stops away, and everything else is easily walkable.

Some of this, of course, depends on your job. I’m a self-employed online guy, so I work here at home. No commute.

On the other hand, my wife Morena works in an office “downtown”. And she’s able to walk there and back.

A 20-minute walk to work is an underrated luxury, and you won’t be seeing expensive ad campaigns about it. But living close to where you work pays daily dividends.

A long commute is depressing, and having to do it day in and day out is a price you pay for living far from everything. If you factor in the actual financial cost, and the time, you’re probably better off living somewhere central rather than “paying less” to live in a faraway suburb.

Having said that, if you live in a small town in Spain, there might be a more active car culture. And of course, you can choose to live 20 kilometers outside the city and then complain about the fight for parking every day. But for the most part, Spanish cities are walkable and have good transport options for longer trips.

What about the cost of living?

I mentioned the cost of living in Spain earlier.

Really, cost of living depends a lot on your personal lifestyle expectations. If you want to live in a giant house with a swimming pool and send your kids to expensive private schools, I bet you can end up paying US-like prices for your Spanish lifestyle.

Fancy houses in Diagonal Mar, Barcelona.

But keep in mind that the average salary in Spain is around 24,000€ a year, and the most common salary is somewhere from 16,500 to 18,500€.

Tons of people write to ask me: Can I live in Spain on just $5000 a month?

Uh… yeah! You definitely can. About 95% of the population is living on much less.

I guess if you’re making six figures a year, you’re still just middle class in a lot of the bigger US cities these days. What can I say? Spain is different.

So… walkable cities where you can live in relative luxury on a few thousand euros (or dollars) a month – that’s what keeps me in Spain, after nearly 20 years.

But what are some of the other things that Americans love about Spain?

Spain is pretty safe to live and travel

A lot of people mentioned safety as a reason they love living in Spain.

There seem to be two facets to Spain’s feeling of safety: general low crime and gun control.

Guns, of course, are a big political issue in the US.

I’m from Arizona, like I mentioned, and I’m comfortable with guns. I’ve used guns, I’ve been around guns, and yet, I’ve never been anywhere near a gunfight. And I don’t spend any time at all worrying about mass shootings.

According to the the statistics, in fact, as an American, you’re 4.5 times more likely to die falling out of bed than you are to be killed in some sort of “active shooter” scenario.

Should we re-write the Constitution to ban box springs?

Probably not.

But don’t worry. I feel your pain. Also, I understand that cherry-picked statistics aren’t very convincing when it comes to this sort of hot-button issue. So yeah: Spain doesn’t have a lot of guns. Sometimes people get shot, or stabbed. And I suppose there’s a non-zero chance of being killed by terrorists.

But for the most part, you’re more likely to be a victim of pickpocketing than anything else – and that, mostly, is in urban areas and around the main tourist attractions.

Most criminals, in other words, aren’t violent. I’ve known some people throughout the years who got beaten up while walking around late at night and drunk, but it’s not particularly common. Home break-ins are definitely a concern, but in that case the robbers will usually wait until you’re not around.

And I’ll admit that there’s a feeling of safety that comes from knowing that the shady characters hanging out on your streetcorner at all hours probably don’t have guns.

The Spanish healthcare system

This is one I have virtually no first-hand experience with.

Spain’s healthcare system is considered to be pretty good. And it’s cheap.

It’s not exactly “free” per se, because you pay a lot of social security and taxes to make it happen. (Try being autónomo for a few months and then come back to me on the “healthcare is free” thing.)

In any case, if you’re on some sort of medication, it tends to be a lot cheaper here than in the US. I think the government negotiates prices with the pharma companies.

cannabis store in barcelona
Cannabis shop in Born, Barcelona.

Like I said, though, I have almost no experience with healthcare here in Spain. My few interactions with doctors have been pretty disappointing, but they were for minor things. People with major problems sometimes tell horror stories, but mostly (and of course, this is a generalization) your average person seems to be happy with the quality of care received.

If you’re moving here on certain types of visas, you may have to get private insurance, which will also be very cheap compared to what you’re used to back in the US. And if you have an urgent problem you can always go to the emergency room and they’ll treat you no matter what (illegal, uninsured, whatever).

They may hand you a bill later on if you’re not in the system, but “urgencias” is always an option.

Spain’s laid-back lifestyle

This one sort of varies, I guess.

Maybe I’m not the best person to talk about a laid-back lifestyle… I’m not really a “laid-back” person.

But a lot of people experience life in Spain as “laid back”, and who am I to disagree? I would just like to mention, though, that a lot of the locals are working service industry jobs, 12 hours a day, and getting by on 1100€ a month. Your relaxing afternoon having cañas in the sun is their daily grind – and it’s probably not very relaxing.

Spanish companies are famous for not understanding work-life balance – they may promote people solely based on who spends longer at the office, and expect a lot of late nights. It’s called the “cultura del presentismo“.

On the other hand, a lot of Americans living here swear that the life is pretty laid-back. And maybe they’re right. There’s not a lot of pressure to get rich, or to buy expensive things every time you have a day off.

And European people in general have a higher tolerance for sitting around in the sun all day, rather than trying to “get things done” on weekends.

Moving on…

Is Spanish politics less annoying than US politics?

Another thing a lot of people mention is politics: specifically, the lack of political outrage and government gridlock. There’s something to this: most Spanish people I know aren’t super political, and won’t make every conversation with family and friends into a discussion about politics.

On the other hand, Spanish politics is a shitshow. You just may not know about it as an expat.

When I was first here, I’d always stick to the international news in the papers, because that was easier to grasp. Spanish news tended to be about random people I’d never heard of, with lots of acronyms and name-dropping of various institutions.

It was confusing.

And the learning curve was pretty steep: it took me years to understand enough about Spanish politics to form any sort of opinion about what was going on. Now I know that a lot of times the government is mired in endless corruption scandals, or they’re arguing pointlessly about the Catalan situation, or about some partisan nonsense or other.

Coalition politics can get pretty wild, and the parties are constantly uniting, splitting, and forming and re-forming in new constellations and configurations. I still know very little, and I’m fine with that.

Not my circus, not my monkeys.

There’s also the fact that a lot of the issues Americans are used to shouting about are simply not particularly “hot” here in Spain. Nobody’s arguing loudly (as far as I can tell) about abortion, guns are mostly under control, healthcare is accessible to all.

The biggest issues seem to be housing, the economy and immigration – and the constant demands of the Catalans for independence or amnesty or whatever.

Identity politics in Spain

Dare I mention race?

Spain has people of different “races” living here. They’re mostly more recent immigrants, and they’re working hard and trying to get by like everyone else.

But “race” in the US sense isn’t a political issue.

For example: I remember an article from a couple of years ago that talked about how Antonio Banderas, from Málaga, is sometimes considered to be a “person of color” when it’s time to give out awards for actors in the US.

Why? Well, because he speaks Spanish, which means he’s “hispanic”, which means he gets lumped in with people from Mexico and Puerto Rico… simply because nobody thought about old Spain, here in Europe, when making up these categories. Spanish people are “people of color”… y punto. Silly Americans!

Here in Spain, they don’t play these stupid games. I’ve spent a ton of time dealing with Spanish bureaucracy, and nobody’s ever asked me to mark my “race” on a form. I even do those municipal surveys about “citizen satisfaction” or whatever – and nobody asks. Ever.

Intersectional graffiti in Catalonia.

I guess some people are trying to make US-style identity politics into a big deal here too – I occasionally see graffiti suggesting that “intersectional feminism” is somehow a good idea – but for the most part, it’s a non-issue.

Just to be sure about the race thing, I asked my wife Morena – who as her pseudonym suggests, is “not white” – how often race comes up in her life in Spain, and she said, and I quote, “NEVER”.

We do have some regional identities you could get agitated about if you wanted: Basques, the aforementioned Catalans, Gallegos, etc… and they all have different languages, which are sometimes a source of controversy.

But if you’re an expat, you’ll probably not get seriously involved in someone’s independence movement – here in Catalonia, the independence people are doing their best to ignore the fact that 20% of the population was born in some other country, and that we don’t give two shits about these silly regionalisms.

Have I mentioned Spanish food?

Jesus. Leave it to me to make an article about loving Spain into something so controversial.

Let’s end on a lighter note, shall we? Have you heard about Spanish ham?

Mmm… delicious ham!

Seriously, though. There’s a lot to love about Spanish cuisine – I wrote a whole article called Spanish Cuisine: a love story if you want to know more. Basically, we’ve got great locally-grown ingredients, some of the world’s best meat and fish, and a few stand-out dishes like jamón ibérico that you won’t find elsewhere.

A lot of people want to eat paella when they visit, but paella is just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s a ton of great food, and great local wine (if you’re into that). And despite the recent olive oil crisis, and inflation in general, it’s probably a bit cheaper than what you’re used to in the US as well.

paella in barcelona
Paella at Nou Ramonet, in Barceloneta.

As usual, here’s a series of disclaimers to wrap this up

I’ve been writing online for a long time. And one thing I figured out pretty early is that no matter what I write, someone’s going to be offended.

In the best case, they gently point out that I’m making some big generalizations – which, of course, I admit. Not everywhere in Spain is walkable, and not everyone hates car culture like I do. Maybe you’re an American who loves driving places, and you’d feel stifled by life in a fifth floor flat.

Maybe you’re a vegan and you can’t stand Spanish cuisine.

Maybe you’re livid that some guy from Arizona is talking about guns, or “hot chicks”, or “people of color” without the all the requisite apologies.

And that’s okay. I can handle it.

One of the most controversial things I’ve done, actually, is a video about why in English we use the word “American” to refer to… um… Americans.

“BUT AMERICA IS A CONTINENT AND NOT A COUNTRY!!!” is the usual response.

To which I say, “Actually, we consider it to be two continents: North America, and South America.”

By this point you can tell they’re hyperventilating over their keyboards.

“AMERICA IS ONE CONTINENT YOU BIGOT!!!!!”

All this to say: some of the things you take to be universally true may just be stories your culture tells itself. Products of your upbringing and the people you hang out with. You say po TAY toh, I say po TAH toh. Just relax.

Like I’ve said, I love living here. People from a lot of other countries love living here, too. And even more people spend their hard-earned money coming here on vacation.

Spain is a beautiful country with a lot going for it, and that, at least, is not controversial.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If you liked this article, please consider sending a donation… I do this for free, and pay a ton of taxes for all that free healthcare as well, so every bit helps. Thanks!

P.P.S. I’ve got plenty more here on the blog. For example, an article on Spanish work culture, one on dating Spanish girls, and one on sex in Spain. It’s hot! So be careful…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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