Top Five Urban Beach Towns in Europe—

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North Americans don’t often equate Europe with a retirement on the beach, but a new report from highlights five of Europe’s best urban beach towns, where Old World culture and beach living go hand in hand.

Cascais, Portugal

A new report from highlights five of Europe’s best urban beach towns, where Old World culture and beach living go hand in hand.

When North Americans muse about retiring to the beach, they rarely think first about doing it in Europe. But a new report from the editors at International Living points to the benefits of Europe’s urban beaches, where residents can enjoy warm, clear, blue-green seas lapping long, sandy beaches... markets packed full of fresh-caught fish, locally made cheeses, and a rainbow of delicious, at the same time, gain the conveniences, amenities, and cultural offerings of city living.

Of course, not all of Europe’s coastal communities are created equal. International Living’s report focuses on five of the best places for people looking to combine sun and sand with a European city lifestyle.

Biarritz, France

A seaside resort, Biarritz has one of France’s largest beaches and offers the best surfing on the French coast.

Located in Western France, spring can be rainy in Biarritz, but summers are more likely to be warm and dry, and sunny days are the norm throughout the fall. On average, Biarritz gets around 170 days of sunshine annually.

Because of the good weather, surfers continue to chase the waves in the winter and the locals can be seen taking daily strolls along the sand.

International Living writer Gigi Griffis spent a winter month in this beach town.

“For me, this is the little-known secret of Europe: Its old-world charm, excellent healthcare, and world-renowned food can also come with temperate weather and a reasonable cost of living, if you know where to look,” Griffis reports.

Taormina, Sicily

Conquered at one time or another by ancient history’s greatest maritime powers, Sicily is the Mediterranean’s largest island. The football at the end of Italy’s boot, it’s almost as far south as you can travel in Europe…it’s actually closer to Tunisia than to Rome.

On the east coast of Sicily, the town of Taormina is the stuff that picture postcards are made of: steep streets climbing upward in steps, beautiful terraced gardens, and tiny piazzas filled with flowers, shrubs, and slumbering cats. Stairways and a funicular also plunge toward the coast and Taormina Mazzaro, with its small beach, clutch of restaurants, and Isola Bella, a bijou island nature reserve.

As well as dramatic surroundings, the upper town has dozens of quirky bars, designer shops, and restaurants.

“The pace in Sicily is what I would call rural Mediterranean. Here, domani (“tomorrow” in Italian) is a common answer for many questions,” says expat Benjamin North Spencer of the island he calls home.

Lisbon, Portugal

The capital of Portugal is studded with ancient Moorish quarters and bordered by lovely beaches. Its National Museum of Ancient Art houses one of Europe’s best collections. Outside Lisbon are palaces that rival the châteaux of the Loire in France. And at the heart of the city are winding streets that pass medieval churches and inviting cafés.

Nearby is a fishing village that has been turned into a sophisticated resort, Cascais. A fine sandy beach lines its beautiful bay. Cascais has had an elegant air since 1870, when the court first moved here for the summer. A royal palace was constructed in the former citadel and is still used by the head of state.

This popular seaside town is only about half an hour by commuter train or bus from central Lisbon. The neighborhoods near Cascais’s coast have an old-style village feel, with tile-roofed houses and cobbled streets. A busy tourist zone near the train station is lined with shops and colorful outdoor restaurants, but move beyond this area, and the old town is peaceful. Head inland just a few blocks, and you find a modern city with high rises, shopping malls, and modern apartment buildings.

Cascais has a sizable expat population, so between the British expats and the town’s lively tourism, it’s easy to get by in English. Short-term rentals abound here, making it possible to live a laidback beach life but also be within easy hailing distance of a metropolis.

“Cascais is one of the prettiest suburban beach towns I’ve seen,” says editor Glynna Prentice. “It has its own personality…but it’s only half an hour from Lisbon. That’s a compelling combination.”

San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastián, just an hour’s drive from Bilbao and 12 miles from the French border, has been a chic beach resort for more than 100 years. Today it is also the high temple of Basque cooking, one of the richest culinary traditions in Spain.

San Sebastián’s old town, the parte vieja, is a warren of narrow streets perfect for wandering—the more so as the area is filled with tapas bars offering scrumptious food and the local, slightly-fizzy white wine, txakolí.

Much of the rest of central San Sebastián is street after street of Belle Époque buildings, in creamy stone and apartments, high-end boutiques, the cathedral, the theater, and more.

San Sebastián’s beaches include its most famous, Playa de la Concha. The bay stretches from City Hall to the Pico del Loro (Parrot’s Beak). In the center of the bay is Isla Santa Clara, with a small beach, an unusual lighthouse, picnic tables, and a bar.

The city’s layout, with its sprawling pedestrian areas and its seaside promenades, makes it the perfect place to explore on foot. San Sebastián offers a range of activities for everyone.

“San Sebastian is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful urban beachfronts,” says Prentice. “For glamour, sophistication, and sheer beauty, the city is hard to beat.”

Split, Croatia

Croatia is one of Europe’s lesser-known gems—but one of its most beautiful. Located on the Adriatic Sea—the northernmost arm of the Mediterranean—it enjoys a humid subtropical climate with average highs of 63 F to 72 F from April to May. Because it has flown under the radar of most international tourists and expats, it also remains one of Europe’s most affordable destinations.

The city of Split, the country’s second-largest city, is packed full of restaurants, bars, stores, inside and outside its grand city walls.

“The area in and around Split is very affordable and full of charm,” International Living writer Gigi Giffis says. “Split itself is a large and bustling city with a truly ancient old town (with its UNESCO World Heritage Site palace), some really nice neighborhoods, waterfront views, and great prices. I lived there for a month one winter and only spent about $1,300—all while eating out, going to the movies (which are often shown in English), and generally living well.”

The best things in Split don’t cost a lot of money, Giffis says. “I visited a grand old abandoned fortress in the hills, but it didn't even have an entrance fee and, thus, didn't cost a dime. Dinners at nice restaurants were affordable as well.”

The city has plenty of festivals, including the February carnival, the summer festival (an international festival of opera, concerts, drama, dance, and street theater, held regularly since 1954), and the pop music festival in June.

The International Living report contains more information on five of Europe’s best urban beaches. Find the latest International Living report at: Five of Europe's Best Urban Beach Towns.

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