the world's most beautiful beach cities
Phi-Phi island, Krabi Province, Thailand | Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock
Phi-Phi island, Krabi Province, Thailand | Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock

The World's Most Beautiful Beach Cities Where You Can Live for Dirt Cheap

Get on island time… all of the time.

There’s a word for the healing effects of the ocean: “thalassotherapy.” You don’t even have to get in the water—just looking at the waves is enough to soothe even the most restless of minds. And on top of that, the sand is great for exfoliation. This free therapy is something you could have every day, and for very little cost, often with the added benefit of learning about new cultures. Sound like a fantasy? It doesn’t have to be.

More than a few Americans dream about picking up their lives and moving to some seaside villa in a country where your rent is less than a car payment. We talked to expats and looked at ballpark cost-of-living estimates from sites like Numbeo and Nomad List to find beautiful beaches where your dollar goes far, and your quality of life goes farther.

Algarve, Portugal
Algarve, Portugal | Sopotnicki/shutterstock

Algarve, Portugal

Monthly cost of living: $1,500
It's hard to believe a region with a hundred miles of coastline, cobblestone streets, and more sun than pretty much anywhere else in Europe has a cost of living this low. Most of the region is English-speaking, and home to 100,000 transplants from all over the world. And the city is cheap. Dirt cheap. A three-bedroom apartment will run you about $950, but if you don't need much space, $650 gets you a one-bedroom smack in the center of the city. Beers are two bucks. Dinner out is under $10. You get the idea. And if you get homesick, head to Lisbon and you're about a six-hour flight from the East Coast.

Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena, Colombia | Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Cartagena, Colombia

Monthly cost of living: $1,800
Living in Cartagena is sort of like going on a tropical Caribbean vacation every day. That goes for partiers, history buffs, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. The snorkeling and scuba diving here are world class at about $30 a trip. The city's historic center is a museum of Spanish Colonial architecture, and a roomy walking path takes you through it all and down to the main harbor. The nightlife is as intense as you'd expect in Colombia, and an all-timer night out  will run you about $100 if you do it right. Party a little TOO hard and fear not; healthcare in Cartagena is surprisingly good, with large hospitals and comprehensive health insurance for under $50 a month.

Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam | iamtripper/shutterstock

Hoi An, Vietnam

Monthly cost of living: $550 to $1,100
Bigger Vietnamese cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh get most of the expat love, but neither boasts much of a beach. Hoi An, on the other hand, is not only bordered on one side by spectacular green mountains, it's also a skip and a jump from spectacular stretches of sand you'll have largely to yourself. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can get a house or apartment for as little as $300 a month, $500 for a nice one with everything included. To fully experience the area your best bet is to rent a motorbike (about $60 a month). In a place this beautiful, you'd be ill-advised not to.

Taghazout, Morocco
Taghazout, Morocco | swuerfel/shutterstock

Taghazout, Morocco

Monthly cost of living: $1,155
Thanks to its hyper-fast internet connection and proximity to Western Europe, Morocco become a hot destination for entrepreneurs cutting personal costs to support their tech ventures. Rent plus a chic co-working space will run about $500/month combined, meaning you won't be stuck looking for a buyout from your beachfront villa all the time. Taghazout has also become one of the great North Atlantic surf towns, where you'll see people carrying boards through Middle Eastern bazaars like they're baskets of fruit.

Split, Croatia
Tupungato/shutterstock

Split, Croatia

Monthly cost of living: $1,400
Though the European coastlines can be comparatively expensive, there are still bargains to be had in Split. This little town on the Adriatic Sea has beaches that people from all over the world travel days to lie on, yet beers are still under three bucks in most bars and rent in the city center can be had for less than $550. The city is also seasonal, so if you're down to become a full-time resident, you'll have the city to yourself from October to late April. It's a perfect balance of roaring international resort city in the summer and sleepy beach town in the winter, with a lush Mediterranean climate, friendly folks, and great history to boot. If you get tired of one lifestyle, another is only a couple of months away.

Canggu, Bali
Canggu, Bali | Ataka/shutterstock

Canggu, Bali

Monthly cost of living: $500 to $900
Five hundred dollars a month seems downright unrealistic to live in one of the best surf towns in the South Pacific, especially one that's drawn flocks of entitled Americans looking to work remotely. Artists, designers, yoga instructors, startup gurus, and other foreigners call Canggu home, lending the city a youthful, albeit rustic, wellness vibe. Cafes, restaurants, and juice stands line the streets, and parties and events pepper the week. The place feels a bit like those little surf towns you find on the less populated islands of Hawaii, but at a fraction of the cost. Sure, things like milk, wine, and other imports cost a little more here. But with average rent around $200, you can splurge.

Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain
Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain | nito/shutterstock

Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain

Monthly cost of living: $1,400
If you've ever visited Las Palmas, you might be surprised to see it on a list of affordable places to live. But like so many cities, visiting and living are two different animals. Rent for a place off the ocean runs only about $600 for one bedroom, $1,000ish for three. The weather is some of the best in the world, with pretty much perpetual sun soaking the beaches along the coast. The city itself has a busy, urban feel, with quick escapes to beaches and the inland countryside and plenty of friendly, tolerant people to party with. For a city experience with easy access to nature, this is the best seaside option in Europe.

Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic
Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic | Don Mammoser/shutterstock

Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic

Monthly cost of living: $1,400
Though the DR has some of the grandest, most affordable oceanfront homes in the Caribbean, the real draw in Las Terrenas is the solid expat community. Thirty years ago Europeans knew it best as a popular vacation spot—but they got hooked and stayed. Once you've established residency, it's relatively simple to work, own a business, import a car (tax-free), and get citizenship. You'll find yourself in good company with a diverse mix of people, and if you ever get homesick you're a two-hour flight from Miami.

Diani Beach, Kenya
Diani Beach, Kenya | Sir Francis Canker Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Diani Beach, Kenya

Monthly cost of living: $500 to $1000
Kenya may be known for its safari wildlife, but its east coast white-sand beaches are the stuff of dreams. Just dip a toe in to find out for yourself that the Indian ocean is as blissfully soothing as they say it is. The strip that makes up Diani Beach, just an hour or so’s drive from Mombasa (double it if you hit traffic... which you will), has it all: still waters thanks to coral reefs, beachside shacks with local Swahili dishes, skydiving, deep-sea fishing, and a subdued nightlife. Rent starts as low as $200, up to $2000 if you wanna be extra with five bedrooms, a gated compound, and a pool. And you can still get that wildlife fix: Wake up early to camels strolling on the sand, swim with whale sharks on a water safari, or drive to Mwalungaje Elephant Sanctuary just a little over an hour away. —Vanita Salisbury

Roatán
Roatán, Honduras | Guayo Fuentes/Shutterstock

Roatán, Honduras

Monthly cost of living: $900
Relaxed Roatán is the largest of Honduras’ three Bay Islands: 40 miles long and five miles at its widest, it’s surrounded by the Mesoamerican Barrier reef, the largest in the Caribbean Sea, which is the second largest worldwide after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The place is an aquamarine dream: idyllic beaches teem with inviting accommodations, tempting beach bars, and magical snorkeling or dive spots. The interior is craggy mountains covered in jungle. Everything smells fertile. And if you're looking for a good balance to your lifestyle, you can do it on the cheap: A pint costs $1.50 and fitness clubs are $45/month, if that's your thing.

San Pancho, Mexico
San Pancho, Mexico | Jo Ann Snover/Shutterstock

San Pancho, Mexico

Monthly cost of living: $1,100
San Pancho has the feel of a California surf town, with towering cliffs, impressive waves, and a downtown lined with restaurants serving up all things organic. The only difference: Dinner for two in said restaurants will only run you about $30 to $50 as opposed to triple digits in California. The city itself isn't big, but it sits smack in the center of Riviera Nayarit so you can hop through towns like Sayulita, San Blas, and the upscale Punta Mita with a short drive. And if you get a hankering for the big city, Puerto Vallarta is less than an hour away. For a quiet, coastal expat life in Mexico, this little gem on the Pacific is tough to beat.

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand | pisaphotography/shutterstock

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Monthly cost of living: $1,100 to $2,400
Koh Phi Phi island is one of those places where couples sit back on their last night of just-wedded bliss and say, "Why don't we just MOVE here?" Sure, they're joking, but why the heck not? If dropping your life back home isn't an issue, this little slice of paradise (The Beach was shot here) has beautiful apartments in new buildings overlooking the sea for about $1,000 a month. And that's on the high end. The nightlife can get raucous, with cheap drinks and loosely interpreted liability laws. For a quiet beach home, this might not be the move. But it's perfect for the young and free who enjoy interacting with travelers from all over the world, and doing it cheaply.

Granada, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua | Marc Venema/shutterstock

Granada, Nicaragua

Monthly cost of living: $1,200
Because Granada is one of the most painstakingly preserved Spanish Colonial towns in North America, it tends to draw a lot of history-inclined tourists. Those tourists bring with them a wealth of fancy restaurants, cool bars, and a sizable expat community that makes living here a little easier than in, say, Managua. The only thing that can cost a little extra is electricity, with an average bill just under $100 a month, if you're partial to air conditioning. 

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janiero, Brazil | IrenaV/Shutterstock

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Monthly cost of living: $1,600
Despite being home to 14 million, Rio still embodies the beach life in a very real way. The gorgeous metropolis is encircled by soaring granite mountain pinnacles and enjoys 46 miles of oceanfront, but most visitors see only the famous four-mile crescent strip. Copacabana, Rio’s most famous beach, fits into the typical beach resort zone calculus: every block away from the beach equals a 10% discount on everything as well as a 10% increase in unpredictability. Rio is not shy about its unbridled sexuality, PhD pickpockets, veteran beach bums, thumping nightclubs, and plentiful open-air corner snack shops/bars. Which is to say, this is a very popular city for people who waved goodbye to the American career hustle.

Saint George's, Grenada
Saint George's, Grenada | carma sumrall/Shutterstock

Saint George's, Grenada

Monthly cost of living: $2,000 
The so-called "Canada of the Caribbean," only spans 21 by 12 miles, but there are months of discovering to be done along its shoreline and lush mountain interior of steep, curvy roads roaming past waterfalls. Nightlife? Live calypso bands and upbeat soca music. A buzzing traffic circle near Grand Anse Beach—the island’s finest—frames an improvised outdoor marketplace baptized as "Wall Street" because it’s bookended by banks. At night, vehicles blast music, starting parties where locals mingle, dance, buy open-air-grilled meat, and swill beverages peddled from ice chests in pickup beds. Follow the smell of barbecue or the call of steel drums and you’re all set. If you can’t smell or hear something delicious, jump on an incredibly cheap minibus till it happens.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer with Thrillist who lives in a coastal town no one can afford. Follow his journeys on Instagram @meltrez1.