Where you should live in Portugal is one of the most common questions that I see in my expat Facebook groups. It’s such a nonspecific and subjective question. It would be like me asking you what I should order at a restaurant. You don’t know my preferences, what foods I might be allergic to, or what I am in the mood for. (One of my superpowers is my ability to eat breakfast foods at any time of the day or night.)
So when people ask the incredibly non-contextual question of where they should live in Portugal, many of us just keep scrolling. Others are more kind and ask some qualifying questions. Where you live depends on a number of different factors. Here are the biggies:
1. English Speaking Area
Most Portuguese under the age of 45 speak some English. Most will apologize and say they don’t speak it very well. My goal is to “not speak Portuguese” as well as they don’t speak English. If only I could become that fluent!
If you’re in the Algarve, most coastal cities, and particularly in major cities such as Porto and Lisbon, you will be able to get by with only speaking English. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn Portuguese—you’ll be able to make more friends and communicate better in important situations (think emergency rooms, government offices, hanging at a cool, out of the way restaurant).
I purposely chose The Algarve for many reasons; one of the main ones was that there are a lot of English speaking people here. Even with my ten lessons from Pimsleur and two levels of Michel Thomas, I can’t begin to hold a conversation. I am lucky to make my needs known in broken Portuguese and I am very good at thanking people. This fall I start structured Portuguese classes at the local high school. I recommend you learn, too.
If your Portuguese skills are minimal, I do not recommend living in a remote area. Some people specifically search for expat enclaves. If you are looking for the country club life with other Americans or Brits, you can find it easily. There are plenty of gated communities (with and without golf courses) to choose from. A simple Google search will bring them up for you. These communities tend to be more expensive and have more of the amenities that Americans are used to. If you want to move to Portugal but don’t want to change your lifestyle, these communities are for you. You will pay for the privilege but it will most likely still be less expensive than living an equivalent lifestyle in the States.
2. Social Life
All of my friends who are reading this are snorting right now. For me to comment on having a social life is to wade into unknown waters. I am not a social person. However, I know that most people are. Extroverts tend to make friends wherever they go, but some people like a bit more structure. Many of the towns and cities have expat and local Meetups and mixers. If you’re living in a community, whether it is an elite country club or a holiday caravan park, there will be activities. Places like Lisbon and Porto have more cultural activities, but really, the entire country is a wealth of cultural activities. There’s a festival somewhere just about every week. All of the larger towns have a market day or market days.
Just about every town has a centuries old church, fort, and/or castle. (Usually several.) There are plays and concerts and nightlife if you want it. Even in my little village, with a population that is lower than my high school, I could go listen to music most nights or find some sort of activity going on, whether it’s exercise classes or watching the game. I don’t. But I could.
3. Will You Have a Car?
Depending on where you choose to live, you may or may not need a car. Let’s get one thing out of the way: In almost all cases, shipping your car to Portugal is not worth the cost or hassle. On top of the shipping costs, cars have to be modified for EU regulations, there are import fees and large registration fees. Also, many of the streets are narrow here. Big SUVs won’t fit. Better to buy a car over here.
If you’re going to live outside a larger city or town, you will most likely need a car. I live just outside of Tavira and there have been more than a few times I have missed the convenience of jumping in the car and heading to the grocery store for things I need. I started out relying on Ubers and taxies, and later figured out the local bus system. The buses aren’t always reliable, but they are pretty good. The train system to get you around the country is very good. I can take the train to Lisbon almost as quickly as driving there. Getting to Seville, which is closer, involves taking the bus, but the number of daily bus runs drops dramatically once the summer season is over. As in the States, local bus and train service in the cities is more frequent and provides better accessibility than in smaller towns and outlying areas.
I do a lot more walking here, not always by choice. I spoke with a friend who was looking at an AirBnb between Tavira and Santa Luzia. It takes about five minutes to drive between the two areas. You can walk to either one. But it’s a longish walk, even longer if you are carting back purchases. She would need to call a taxi or Uber on almost a daily basis. That adds up. If you are more than a few miles outside of town, the Ubers and taxies don’t particularly like to drive to the outskirts because they won’t get a return fare going back. Your one-way fare doesn’t make sense when it comes to gas and time.
A car is definitely convenient to have. If you are not going to have a car, you need to make sure the area has good public transportation. If you plan on walking and you are not a mountaineer, look for a town that is fairly flat. My first stop in The Algarve was Albufeira. The town is beautiful, built on hills overlooking the Atlantic. Steep hills. My first apartment was up one of the steeper hills in town. Up. Up. Up. When I went looking for a permanent place to live, I intentionally sought out an area that was fairly flat.
A lot of people here have bicycles and scooters to get around. I hadn’t been on a bicycle in at least seven years so I rented one for a few days. While I can still ride one, my lung capacity failed me as I tried to bike up a smallish hill. Now, I could work on my lung capacity, but something tells me that ship has sailed. I took a scooter lesson a few weeks ago and have a second lesson coming up. For me, a scooter might be the right fit. I don’t go into town very often—a car would sit most days of the week. A scooter can get me to downtown Tavira in a matter of minutes and has the added bonus of being easy to park.
4. New Build or Traditional?
This is where we get into the amenities that you are looking for. Most homes in Portugal don’t have clothes dryers, dishwashers, heat or air conditioning. If you need any or all of these things, you can certainly find them. A friend bought an apartment in a newly built building that has everything: in-floor heating, central heating, air conditioning, washer/dryer combo, a dishwasher, refrigerator with ice maker, an elevator, a garage for her car, security system. You get what you pay for. Her apartment is definitely in the luxury range.
If you are looking for a lower cost of living, you can get that, too. It’s a matter of deciding what you don’t need as far as amenities go. While many new build places have more amenities, a newer building doesn’t guaranty all the frills. My apartment building is less than 20 years old. My kitchen has two electrical outlets. Neither is near the counter and electrical outlets in Europe take one plug, not two. One of the first things you will buy is an extension cord with multiple outlets. Then you will buy another. And another.
If you had told me a few years ago that I would be living without a clothes dryer, I would have looked at you cross-eyed. I have become adept at hanging my laundry on the drying rack. (It takes about five minutes.) If you have three kids and you’re constantly doing laundry, you might want a clothes dryer. It turns out I don’t need one. (Who knew?) As a single person, it takes me several days to fill a dishwasher enough to justify running it. I don’t need one. Again, if you have a family, you might want one. Refrigerators are smaller here as are ovens. The vast majority of living spaces do not have over-sized appliances. But yes, you can find full size, including fridges with ice makers.
Space heaters are pulled out in the winter months, as well as warm sweaters. The houses (and apartments) are built to stay cool. In the winter, it’s often warmer outside in the sun than it is inside. In the summer, it is generally cooler inside but you’re going to want at least a fan, particularly if you live in the south. I specifically looked for an apartment with a southern exposure because I knew it would help warm up the space in the winter. I use a space heater for a few hours on colder nights. During the few heat waves of the summer, I draw the curtains to limit the amount of sun/heat streaming in. Most days I get a nice cross-breeze and while air conditioning would be nice, except for a few days a year, I am comfortable.
New build or traditional, you may also want to consider what floor your apartment is on. The AirBnbs that I stayed in when I arrived were on the third floor which means you are climbing four flights of stairs. More than one flight of stairs gets old fast. When I searched for my permanent place, I made sure I was no higher than the first floor or that the building had an elevator. I can handle one flight of stairs. Lugging groceries up two or three flights is not how I want to spend my golden years.
There are also plenty of single family houses. From what I have seen, almost all of the single family homes within the towns or cities either share a wall or are side by side. The farther you get from town, the bigger the yards and the more space between the houses.
5. Furnished or Unfurnished?
It’s kind of weird to rent a furnished place. My last apartment in Florida came furnished and it took me a couple of months to not feel weird sitting on the furniture. My first five months here were spent in AirBnbs so I got used to living with other people’s stuff. When I started my apartment hunt, I focused on furnished apartments. I wasn’t sure if I would immediately find my long-term place and I didn’t want to furnish an apartment and then have to move everything in one year.
Some places are sparsely furnished; some fully. Most of the time you will have the bigger furniture that you need: sofa, dining table and chairs, beds and dressers (most of the closets here are built-in and awesome). Many of the kitchens come “equipped” with dishes, silverware, pots and pans. You will most likely end up with a mishmash of stuff from the landlord and former tenants. My place came with three French presses but no decent knives. You will add things as needed. I bought all my linens at the local mall. I order from Amazon Spain on a regular basis for things that I can’t find locally.
If you find an unfurnished place, people will point you towards IKEA. There are furniture stores, of course, but if you are looking for top quality, your choices will narrow and delivery times can be weeks or months out. Plan accordingly.
Take Your Time
I highly recommend that you rent for the first year and take the time to explore other areas. It’s easier to decide where you should live in Portugal once you’ve been here for a while and gotten the lay of the land. Some people buy only to discover that they don’t like the area or that they don’t like living in a foreign country. Renting gives you options. Once you’ve made the initial adjustment to living here and decided you like it, you can look into buying. That seems like common sense but people get very antsy about finding a semi-permanent residence in order to qualify for their D7 visa (or opt for a Golden Visa and have to invest in something).
Long term rentals can be difficult to find, especially during the summer tourist months when landlords can rent their places at outrageous rates. You will see many places listed as available from November to May. Keep looking. I say that I was lucky to find my place but that is because I only looked at three apartments. Two of the three fit my needs. If they hadn’t, there were others to choose from. You can start looking at rentals on sites like Idealista to get a feel for what rents are and what you get for your money.
Finding a place to live takes time no matter what country you’re in. Figuring out your non-negotiables ahead of time will help you narrow your search, saving you time and frustration.