One of the things I had to get used to when I moved is that many homes in Portugal don’t have heat. When I say that, I mean there’s no central heat. And yes, it’s Europe and some of the buildings were built before the advent of central heat, but really, not a whole lot of us are living in 14th century refurbished castles. (They are super-drafty and cold.) My building was built in the early 2000s.
I first arrived in Portugal on January 10, 2021, in the middle of a cold snap. The Algarve has “mild” weather, but I’m a Florida girl and it gets cold from December through March or so. Part of it is that we get rain at this time of year. The sun in Portugal is hot, hot, hot and days without sun just feel that much colder.
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It’s Colder Inside
I got into my first AirBnb and a window had blown open at some point, allowing cold air to invade. (I had been delayed a week. Good times…) Do you know that type of cold that takes over a vacant house? The type that just settles in to stay for a while? It was that kind of cold. On top of that, Portuguese buildings are designed to stay cool. I quickly discovered that it is often colder inside your apartment or house than it is outside. If you’re not getting direct sun, it’s DEFINITELY colder inside.
I put on at least four more layers of clothing and a blanket. I emailed the host to ask about HEAT. As in, what the what? Actually, I emailed him asking where the thermostat was. I know, so American, right?
The host responded immediately, saying there was a space heater in the hall closet. Great! It was about the size of a desk fan, but it threw off a lot of heat. Unfortunately, it didn’t throw it very far—it had a range of about one square foot. I set it on a chair in front of me and just let it blow directly on me. The space heater got turned off at night because I don’t want to die in a fire caused by my own stupidity. I piled every blanket I could find on the bed and the sheets eventually warmed with my body heat.
The next day, the sun was out, but it didn’t really hit inside the apartment until afternoon. It would take days for the apartment to shake that vacant chill.
The bathroom had a heater that was above the door and functioned somewhat like an elderly, asthmatic walrus. It wheezed and groaned, but didn’t put out a lot of heat. PLUS, it was up over the door. Heat rises. Duh. I tried it a few times before giving up on it. It was a waste of hope.
And that is the typical set up in many Portuguese apartments and houses—a few space heaters and maybe a heater in the bathroom.
Space Heaters are Your Friend
As someone who absolutely HATES to be cold (my entire adult life has been a quest for warm weather), I am surprised that I have done relatively well without central heat. I bought two space heaters my first year (Yay Amazon Spain!). One I have barely used—it’s the one with oil in it that heats up slowly but heats up the entire room, like a radiator. Mine’s from Cecotec, but the DeLonghi, available in the States, looks like its twin. They work really well, but I don’t need to heat the whole room. It stays in the guest bedroom where my guests have put it to good use.
The other one is a 2000 watt, ceramic “electric radiator” and starts cranking out heat almost immediately. It is my best friend in the winter. It has a control for temperature and for fan speed and I usually just move it closer or farther away. Both were in the neighborhood of $130 US. While yes, I could have spent that money on really good single malt scotch, I have NO REGRETS. (Also, it matches my sofa.)
There are many places in Portugal that have central heat (and air). Some of the newer places get real fancy-pants and have in-floor heating. But most of us have the more traditional style homes with concrete/stucco walls and tile floors. And no central heat. (Tile is very big here and really, I need to do a post on the tilework here, because it is an art form.)
Space Heaters Suck Electricity
Electricity is expensive in Portugal. I pay a flat fee to my landlord and I try not to run up the bill. (I know. I am a gem of a tenant. That’s because I spent several years as a landlord.) I turn on the space heater when I’m watching TV or reading at night in the living room. Because it throws a lot of heat and I have it right next to me (the joys of being single!), I tend to turn it off after ten or fifteen minutes and then turn it on as needed. I don’t need to heat the whole room, just me. I also don’t keep it on overnight; there’s no need. I bought several duvets from… yes, Amazon Spain (but of course, you can get them from Amazon US!), which keep me snuggly warm. I also now own several pairs of flannel pajamas. Most days I am in sweats and a t-shirt and I’ll throw on a fleece if I’m cold. Many of my friends have electric blankets and heated mattress pads, but I am fine with my duvet.
I hardly ever run the heater during the day, but if it’s cold and rainy, that thing is on. Again, it is not on for hours. Usually enough to take the chill out of the air. I also don’t leave it on at night. Growing up, you’d hear these horrible stories of houses catching on fire from a space heater. The technology has improved drastically over the decades, as technology does. Basic safety precautions need to be observed, of course. So do that. Consumer Reports did a study on the best and safest space heaters for 2024, which you can find here.
Look for a Southern Exposure
When I went hunting for my long-term accommodations, I specifically looked for an apartment that faced south and got a lot of light, which I found. The winters are fairly mild and short, but you want to get as much sun as you can to warm things up. The summers are sometimes incredibly warm (muito calor!) and that’s when you lower the shades and don’t allow the sun to turn your apartment with the tile floors into a pizza oven.
How mild are the winters? First of all, I’m in The Algarve, the southern part of Portugal. I’m also on the eastern side, close to Spain. That was on purpose. The western Algarve is windier and slightly colder. The spot I chose is the warmest on the Portuguese mainland. Temperatures can drop into the 40s at night and rise to the 50s, sometimes hitting 60F during the day. Occasionally, a rainy day will keep the temps in the 40s. This past week or so, we have had absolutely gorgeous (and unseasonable) warm weather. I have been able to open my sliders and let the breezes in. The nights drop into the low 50s; the days are solidly in the 60s.
In Florida, if the temps dropped to 60F, I’d have the heat on and be bundled up. If I didn’t have to go out, I didn’t. (I know. It’s wussy. I grew up in New England. I can handle cold weather—I just choose NOT to.) Because the air is drier here, I can go out for my walk in a t-shirt and leggings when it’s 54F. No joke. It’s a little chilly when I first start walking, but within five minutes I’m more than warm enough. That’s IF the sun is out. If the sun’s not out, I’ll grab a jacket or wait til the day warms up a bit.
Winters Come and Go
I grew up in New England. Forty something years of being out of the cold had erased my survival skills. I forgot that we were ALWAYS covered by crocheted afghans or blankets when we watched TV at night. I had grown so used to walking around in a t-shirt and shorts that putting on sweats was a snuggly, almost new experience for me. I now revel in my soft, warm clothes.
Portugal has a mild climate—it you haven’t spent the better part of your life in Hawaii, Florida, and other points tropical. I knew when I decided to move here that I’d be dealing with temperatures slightly colder than what I preferred. For that reason, I chose the warmest, mildest spot in the country. Last winter was unseasonably cold. This winter we have had a couple of weeks at a time of cold and rain but for the past two weeks, it has been absolutely gorgeous. The sun is out, the daily temperatures are in the mid to high sixties, and my sliding doors are wide open to the breeze. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter if homes in Portugal don’t have heat; we have the sun.