The city spreads out below you: a panoramic view over the skyline, green areas, looming mountains, and surrounding countryside…perhaps even the ocean and sunset. Your expansive private terrace allows you to soak in the sun and enjoy meals, coffee, and glasses of wine in warm weather. You’re on the top floor, so the view is unobstructed.
In the U.S., penthouse living conjures up images of hedge fund managers and Hollywood actors. You pay a premium and then some for an ultra-exclusive escape, with doorman and private elevator included more often than not. But abroad, you can enjoy “life at the top” for much less. From your perch, the noise of the city fades away and you enjoy a peaceful existence. And you won’t feel out of place in your new digs—they will be comfortable.
Whether you’re in the market to buy or to rent, plenty of options abound around the world to suit every budget.
Medellín, Colombia: High-Class Living in a Chic, Modern City
For years now, Medellín has been on the radar of savvy expats attracted by the year-round, spring-like climate (from the mid-60s F to the mid-80s F, thanks to the elevation of 4,900 feet), low cost of living, and sophisticated nightlife and dining. This is a sprawling, big city that fills every nook and cranny of a narrow Andean valley. But it’s also a city of neighborhoods. You pick your spot and you’ll have all that you need for daily living close by.
El Poblado, a district south of the city center, is an expat favorite, thanks to all the shopping, dining, and entertainment options (check out the Zona Rosa for nightlife). It’s known as the city’s wealthiest neighborhood and is home to upper-class Colombians. But it’s still plenty affordable for expats.
Cuenca, Ecuador: Historic City With Modern Amenities Attached
The Andes highland city of Cuenca is a popular spot for expats in low-cost Ecuador. It’s a busy city of 500,000 marked by a temperate climate—it rarely gets above the 70s F and dips only into the 50s at night. The centuries-old colonial centro is full of meticulously preserved churches, cathedrals, homes, and municipal buildings, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage designation. But it has plenty of modern conveniences, too, like well-rated medical care, as well as new construction. Here your penthouse will overlook the terracotta barrel-tile roofs of the colonial quarter. And you’ll never be short of expat friends to mingle with.
A two-bedroom penthouse with views of the mountains, city, and rivers from its large picture windows is available for $125,000. A five-minute walk from the centro is a one-bedroom with a large terrace—fully furnished—for just $75,000.
Barcelona, Spain: Hip and Avant-Garde Outpost on the Mediterranean
Barcelona, Spain’s second city, is a Mediterranean port that has long been a center of cutting-edge art, music, culture, and gastronomy. Stroll along the famed La Rambla pedestrian shopping and dining district…tour the abstract architecture of Antoni Gaudí…and sample the gourmet foods of the Adrià brothers, Ferran and Albert, who have several top-rated restaurants in town…and you’ll see why. It has a mild climate and, since the city is on the sea, plenty of beaches to enjoy close by. For an affordable night out of delicious—but cheap—local foods, try hitting the tapas bars downtown.
Chiang Mai, Thailand: “The Rose of the North”
The highland city of Chiang Mai (population 1 million) lies in northern Thailand. Nicknamed the Rose of the North, it has numerous retirees and other expats who come here seeking a low cost of living and housing. History, great food, and culture mingle easily here. You can explore ancient wats (Buddhist temples), many local art galleries, and narrow back streets lit by cotton ball “fairy lights.” Be sure to hit the night markets to sample some of the famous street food, such as local specialty sai ua (spiced lemongrass sausages) and khao soi (a noodle soup with coconut curry broth).
Given restrictions on foreigners’ owning property in Thailand, it’s generally easier to rent than to buy. A one-bedroom condo in the city, fully furnished and with views of the mountains, is available for $429 a month. For around $908 a month you can get a 15th-floor condo with a rooftop swimming pool and amazing mountain views.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: A Sophisticated Seaside Resort
This seaside resort city on Mexico’s Pacific coast first caught the world’s attention when Richard Burton and Ava Gardner began their famed romance while he was there filming Night of the Iguana. These days it’s booming. Expats here enjoy an active social scene, with plenty of live music and other entertainment, and a varied restaurant scene.
The seaside malecón (esplanade) is perfect for an evening stroll when the bright tropical sun sets and weather cools. The city runs along the coast, so you have plenty of beach areas to choose from. The ideal home here is a condo on the water, with a view of the glittering Pacific and the skyline running down the coast. It’s a can’t-miss sunset, too.
A one-bedroom penthouse apartment in the pedestrian-friendly town center is $500 a month from April to October and $980 a month the rest of the year (high season). You can also buy a two-bedroom penthouse with views over the ocean over the city rooftops for $288,000.