Being an Expat in Portugal: The Ultimate Guide
Digital nomads by nature are nomadic. This means that they usually keep moving around and hardly ever settle in one place. However, it’s comforting to have a base sometimes. Somewhere you can call home. I spent most of my early twenties roaming the world with a backpack, never really staying anywhere more than a few months. I have to admit living such a lifestyle could be fun and mind-expanding. The problem is when you travel so much and are constantly on the move it’s hard to make friends, maintain relationships, or hang up the old pickaxe for a couple of weeks if you need a break.
Last year I decided I should have a base, somewhere I can have friends, a regular pub where “everybody knows my name” and where I can feel comfortable in my own skin. The world is my oyster, I sat down and made a list of all the things I need from my headquarters.
In this article, I’d like to present to you the reasons why I chose Portugal, tips on Portuguese etiquette and culture, expat groups and clubs there, and some pros and cons of Portugal.
What Lead Me to Portugal
If I try to count down all the places I fell in love with while traveling, I’ll need to write a whole Wikipedia. There are so many amazing places in the world, each with their own unique vibe and privileges. However, one place that always stood out to me was Lisbon Portugal.
Incredible Affordability for a Western European Country
I first visited Lisbon in 2017. I had a layover for 11 hours. I thought it would give me some time to look around and explore a bit. Of course, I was immediately charmed by the architecture, adorable cafes, and warm smiles wherever I went. What really stood out to me though was how affordable it all was.
I went to a cafe, ordered a main dish, some red wine, and then had dessert. When my bill came out to €10 I called the manager thinking they had made a mistake, they hadn’t. It was actually correct, €10 euros for wine, meal, and dessert. I don’t think I’ve ever spent this little on a meal anywhere in Europe really.
When I decided to move there two years ago I realized that pretty much everything was cheap. The most I’ve paid in an amazing restaurant for a two-person meal was €40. You can get a decent bottle of wine from the stores for €2-3 and most beers are under a euro.
Even transportation is super cheap, a monthly pass for all public transportation in Lisbon cost me €35. That’s for unlimited rides. The other thing that really stood out to me is how cheap fruit and vegetables are, you can get a kilogram of fresh strawberries for €3-4 max.
Even things like entertainment in Lisbon are quite cheap. First thing I found was that public museums are free for everyone on the first Sunday of every month. I also frequent the cinema often, and a ticket only costs €7-8 depending on the theater. My gym membership, which I really should use more often, costs me €35.
The only thing that’s fairly expensive in Lisbon is rent. Central Lisbon has gained so much popularity with expats recently that rents kinda sky-rocketed. You really can’t find a one-bedroom apartment in Lisbon’s city center for anything less than €850 a month. The great news is, just slightly outside of central Lisbon, you can find fantastic accommodations at a very cheap price. My friends rent a three-bedroom apartment for €1100 a month and it takes them about 15 minutes with public transportation to get to the city center.
The Weather is Unbelievably Fantastic
I’ve been living in Portugal for about two years now, and I really don’t remember ever needing to wear anything more than a light jacket. Unless you go to Braga in January, you’ll most probably be looking at clear skies and timid temperatures all year round. In Lisbon, it rarely dips below 15c(59)f. The Algarve region specifically attracts a massive amount of tourists and retirees specifically for that reason given all the beautiful beaches it has.
There’s just something spectacular about a late-October picnic or an early-March swim in the sea that makes life in Portugal just that much better.
Friendly Locals and Widely Spoken English
I’ve always heard that the Portuguese are very welcoming, but I didn’t realize just to what degree. When I had my layover in Lisbon, I ordered at the cafe in English. A group of three students at the table next to me heard me order in English and immediately started a conversation with me, asking me where I am, how long I’ve been in Lisbon, and gave me tips on what to see in my 11 hours.
Not only were they friendly, but their English was perfect. At first, I thought it was a fluke, these are university students after all. Then later when I moved to Lisbon I found out that most are English speaking. Whether at the local store, the cinema, or even personal trainers at the gym they always spoke English, took interest in my life, and were more than happy at a chance to practice their English and teach me some Portuguese.
What’s incredible is, this is not just confined to Lisbon. In Porto, The Algarve, The Silver Coast, Lagos all the way to Braga, wherever I went people were willing, and even eager, to speak English and help me.
The Cuisine is Mindblowing
I don’t even know where to begin when talking about the cuisine in Portugal. I’ll start in Lisbon and slowly make my way to the Silver Coast. Truly some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life were in Lisbon. Other than the excellent Portuguese cuisine, which I’ll get to in a bit, the variety of restaurants you can find in Lisbon you would almost think you’re in New York.
In Principe Real, I’ve had some of the best international cuisines in my life. These include Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Peruvian, Chinese, Argentinian, Napalese, and more. I’m really surprised that Lisbon isn’t a very popular city to eat in, because there’s literally everything. Actually, I’ve had better tacos in Lisbon than I’ve had in Mexico.
The variety of bars, cocktail bars, vegan cafes, and pastry shops is just endless. I think you’ll need a lifetime and a half to try all the restaurants in Lisbon.
Another excellent region for trying out Portuguese food is the Silver Coast. I’m going to list some must-try dishes on the Silver Coast which specializes in seafood.
Must-Try Portuguese Dishes
- Bacalhau: Cod with a combination of onion, chips, parsley, olives, and eggs
- Caldeirada de Enguias: Fried eel stew seasoned with Saffron and peppers
- Arroz de Tamboril: Monkfish stew cooked in Garlic, tomato with rice.
- Polvo a Lagareor: A whole octopus boiled then roasted, dressed in garlic and olive oil
Portugal Is Perfectly Situated for Avid Travelers
Portugal’s geographical location makes it an excellent connection hub to Europe, Africa, and America. I remember getting a round trip to the U.S from Lisbon for just $400.
Lisbon’s international airport is very easily accessible with the train and Lisbon itself is very accessible from anywhere in Portugal. You can take the bus from Porto to Lisbon for as little as €20 for example and it only takes two and a half hours.
A return flight from Lisbon to South Africa cost me about $250.
What Can Portugal Offer to Expats
Now that I’ve listed the reasons why I personally chose to set up shop in Portugal, I would like to explore in this section what benefits can Portugal offer to expats.
Portugal is an Up-Coming Tech Hub
There’s no denying that the tech industry is the future. Over the past decade, Portugal has become a globally competitive tech-hub. The Portuguese government invested a lot of money on high-speed internet and technological infrastructure.
Lisbon started holding the web summit in 2016. Since then, every year the city is filled with young tech-savvy individuals, entrepreneurs, and investors who are looking to network, learn, and join start-ups. Many large brand names such as Amazon and Google have permanent headquarters in Lisbon. They are always looking for new and innovative individuals to join their workforce. Additionally, the Portuguese government welcomes and even encourages start-ups through their Golden Visa program.
Even if you’re a student looking to study in the science and technology sector, Braga has some of the best tech programs in the world.
Slow and Breezy Lifestyle
Life in the 21st century moves at light speed. The global competitive market and beat-the-competition work culture have put a lot of pressure on professionals everywhere. Luckily Portugal still keeps its relaxed culture and slow pace of life.
When it comes to Work-Life balance, Portugal really shines as they put a lot of emphasis on the importance of family life. Most of my Portuguese friends work about 8 hours a day, but they say that given the high quality of life their country offers them they’re more than happy with their jobs.
Portugal also has an unusually high number of freelancers. According to InterNations, about 11% of the workforce in Portugal consists of freelancers. The global average is just about 5%.
Magnificent Surfing Opportunities
It would be a sin to mention what Portugal can offer without mentioning surfing. Some places like Nazare and Peniche on the Silver Coast are world-renowned for their surfing opportunities.
A few beautiful beaches to check out if you’re a lover of surfing are:
- Praia de Nazare
- Madao Peniche
- Praia Tocha
Excellent Healthcare and Education
Portugal is a competitively well-developed country in both healthcare and education. There’s no shortage of top-notch international schools in which you can enroll your children.
The public healthcare system is only available to permanent residents and citizens. Though private health insurance is very affordable, costing about €400 annually for a decent package.
I personally recommend that you look into private health insurance if you’re moving to Portugal. While public healthcare is excellent, there could be long waiting times and there is always the possibility that the healthcare professional might not speak perfect English. In the two years I’ve lived here though, I’ve always had excellent service in private health institutions. The waiting times are much shorter and all the doctors I’ve worked with spoke English perfectly.
Easy to Make Friends with Expats
Some places I visited had a major problem, I couldn’t really find friends. I’ve never had this problem in Portugal though. Wherever you go here, be it Porto, Lisbon, The Silver Coast, or The Algarve region there’s an astounding number of expats. Granted, a lot of them are British retirees. Though I did have a lovely week of golfing in the Algarve with a lovely couple from Sussex, I’ve also made countless friends in Porto, Lisbon, and even Nazare when I went there to surf.
Let me take this opportunities to list some expat social groups before I take you through some of the cultural etiquettes in Portugal.
How To Make Friends in Portugal
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s very easy to make friends in Portugal whether it is with locals or expats. More often than not, you can find expats enjoying an after-work drink at one of the few Irish Pubs, which is like an unspoken meeting point for expats.
There are a few Irish Pubs in Lisbon that are frequented by foreigners such as Crafty Corner, Hennesy’s Irish Pub and Restaurant and O’Gillies.
In Porto, a nice hangout for expats is Ryan’s Irish pub in Bolhao.
I was able to make many expat friends in coworking spaces in Portugal. Cowork Central in Lisbon is an excellent place to start. It’s perfectly located and has fantastic gathering spaces. My personal favorite thing about this coworking space is that they offer free coffee.
Liberdade 229 is another excellent workspace in the heart of the city. It offers plenty of space and the design allows for plenty of natural lights. I’ve actually got a work offer chatting with a founder in the kitchen.
Impact Hub is basically made up of only expats. Many freelancers, digital nomads, and tech-savvy young individuals go there every day to work, socialize, and exchange ideas.
There are a few social groups that are expat-oriented in Lisbon. For example, you can check out Americans In Portugal. They have a lot of meets regularly, often with guest speakers. You can also join some cultural trips, charitable activities or luncheons.
The Royal British Club is another fantastic organization to meet expats. They arrange social events throughout the year such as pub quizzes, barbecues, summer dinner,s and charity raising balls.
You can always check out InterNations as they often have events and work hard on connecting expats with each other.
Cultural and Social Etiquette In Portugal
Interestingly, the culture in Portugal was largely affected by the Catholic church and you can still see some effects lingering in society. Especially in rural areas, Portuguese people tend to be a bit conservative.
Blending in with the Portuguese culture is fairly easy as long as you know and follow a few simple rules:
Family is the foundation of social structure in Portugal. In short, family comes first. It’s very common for various generations of a Portugueses family to gather for holidays, events, and even just Sunday dinners.
Individuals rely on their families for support and guidance and will often put their family first, even before business. If a Portugueses invites you to meet their family you should be honored.
Greetings in Portugal
I’ve actually noticed a fair discrepancy in how greetings change between people depending on the situation, how well they know each other, and even their gender.
In formal situations, a handshake with proper eye contact is an appropriate greeting. This includes anyone you’re meeting for the first time, whether men, women or older children. You should shake hands again when leaving, again with the appropriate eye contact.
In informal situations, men and women greet their respective genders and others differently. Men usually treat each other with an embrace and a pat on the back. Women greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, starting with the right.
Between men and women it differs, I’ve personally seen handshakes, hugs with a pat, and two cheek kisses depending on how comfortable you are with the person.
I come from a very expressive culture. When we talk we often wave our hands around and gesture a lot. This is not the case in Portugal. They actually don’t use a lot of gestures when talking at all.
Being extra demonstrative and using a lot of hand gestures and body language gives a bad impression. Also try not to point with your finger, as that is offensive.
How To Communicate
People in Portugal don’t beat around the bush. They tend to be direct and bold. Usually, they will tell you the truth, though politely. It’s amazing to me to watch how they communicate in public and in private informally.
When in public or in a formal situation, they tend to speak slowly and clearly. In Private, however, they tend to speak quickly and rather loudly. Though don’t be alarmed. Showing emotions in speech is common in Portuguese culture and doesn’t reflect anger or displeasure.
During conversations, you might want to be at an arm’s length. Sometimes the Portuguese touch a bit during conversations in informal and friendly situations. However, such displays count as very inappropriate in business or formal situations.
It’s very common to see people hugging or couples kissing in public. Public displays of affections are acceptable to a certain limit.
If invited to dinner at a Portuguese house, bring flowers, chocolates, or candy. Your first instinct might be to bring wine, though you shouldn’t do that unless you know the host’s preferences. Wine is a very nuanced thing in Portugal and you should act accordingly.
I once made the mistake of bringing a bouquet of flowers to a dinner party without counting them. There were 13 flowers there which apparently is a bad omen, so count your flowers. Additionally, don’t forget to return the invitation to the host as it is considered polite to do so.
When you receive a gift from a Portuguese open it right away, as it is customary to open your gifts in front of the gift-giver.
When invited to a dinner, try to arrive ten to 15 minutes after the agreed-upon time. Arriving right on time is odd and too late is insulting. Never discuss business in social situations and try to remain standing until shown to a seat.
Once everyone sits down to dinner, it’s customary to wait for the host/hostess to say “Bom Apetite” before beginning to eat.
The Pros and Cons of Portugal
As a reader, I love the “pros and cons” portion of any article. Even before making any decision, I always sit down and make a comprehensive pros and cons list as it always helps me feel better about my decision. In this section, I’ll do my best to dive into all the Pros and Cons living in Portugal.
- Friendly and welcoming locals
- English is widely spoken
- Many affordable places to live
- Fantastic weather and geography with excellent areas to explore
- Incredible cuisine and fantastic restaurants
- The bureaucratic system is difficult to navigate through
- Some areas are very expensive, especially when it comes to rent
- Public healthcare is only available to permanent residents
- Might be difficult to find a job if you don’t speak Portuguese
Portugal is one of those places that has something for everyone. Whether you enjoy the quick and vibrant city life, or the quiet of a sandy beach, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. You might have some problems with bureaucracy and adjusting to some customs. However, all in all, Portugal is a very pleasant country with a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere.