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Thinking of relocating to Portugal? Here’s what you need to know

So, you are thinking of moving to Portugal? Big decision! Portugal is a wonderful place, but for most Americans it is also an enigma. We have a good idea of Italy, Spain, France and Holland - but not Portugal. Most don’t know much about its history, food, people, or culture. Quick - name a Portuguese sculpture, or how about a famous Portuguese meat dish? How about a river or beach?


So, to help you navigate the move here is our cheat sheet. This whole page is just a cheat sheet, after all — but we try to tackle the top questions. 


1. Will I be welcome? 

Portuguese are known to be welcoming to foreigners. They are far from xenophobic or nationalistic. They like visitors, and are always happy to help you and offer advice. Portuguese love giving advice. But, one thing is clear - Portuguese are very different from Americans. Don’t forget that for every 100 years of national history we have in the US, Portugal has 400. First, Portuguese don’t over share as many Americans like to do. They don’t bare their souls over a coffee, or share intimate feelings or challenges. Look up “stoic” and you will find Portugal. But, wait - Portuguese seem to have animated and emotional conversations, right? Look at it this way, people love to have animated and profound discussions – like a good debate, or a spited give-and-take about topics as profound as politics and sports. But they don’t show their cards or talk about personal issues, and it is more of hobby versus a personal reveal. So, try to speak the language, try to understand the past, and the culture. Take your time, but don’t think they are like Americans. They aren’t — they are Portuguese - and while they are the first to criticize Portugal, they will be the first to defend it if a foreigner is critical of it.


2. Do I need to learn Portuguese? 

Yes. Don’t make the mistake that some British expats have in years past. They did not make an effort, and some are not well regarded. Called “bifes” and “copinhos de leite,” Some British expats stick together in closeted Algarve communities. So instead of trying to Americanize Portugal, embrace it. Let’s be honest, unlike Spanish, you will never learn to speak Portuguese with an accent — it is just not possible. Just do your best, practice, don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Locals will appreciate your effort to speak their hard language. But do not learn Brazilian Portuguese instead of Continental Portuguese – that would be a mistake because these differ a lot. And, try to learn the slang, popular expressions, and informal way of talking. Just don’t embrace casual swearing…


3. How can I integrate?

You remember that School house Rock song about the Great American Melting Pot? Think about how you can become more Portuguese. Portugal is not as homogeneous as you think — families from South America, Africa and Asia have moved to Portugal and become Portuguese. Embrace what makes Portugal wonderful, and life will be good: Drink coffee like a Portuguese - don’t go to a cafe and ask for an American or Italian coffee. Portugal has great coffee, you’ll learn to love it. Get to know the wine, it is outstanding — travel and discover wine for each region — and have fun! Order soup, Portuguese love to start a meal with soup – It is cheap, healthy, and heartwarming. Swap ketchup for olive oil. Portuguese love olive oil, and put it on everything from veggies to cod. And instead of asking for hot sauce, try piri piri — this is the Portuguese hot sauce. Hey, and if you get homesick for American products keep in mind that if you had been in Portugal 30 years ago, getting foreign stuff was much harder. 


Now, American stuff from peanut butter to drip coffee makers are easy to find and there are international supermarkets in the bigger cities. Don’t think about what they don’t sell — like half-and-half and cheese wiz, think about what you’re not getting, like GMOs and highly-processed foods. Portuguese food safety laws are stonier than they are in the US, as is the water filtration in most cities, and the water treatment plants. And fresh bread costs a fraction of what you pay in the US, coffees is Dwight cheap, and all milk is pretty much organic. Most importantly, read up! Learn the geography, literature, history and popular culture. There are lot of good books in English, so have a go at it.  


4. What about driving? 

Read other blogs and you’ll be scared. There are all kinds of posts about how Portuguese who are mild mannered turn into formula one racers behind the wheel… But jokes aside this is half true. Portuguese like to drive fast. Here is what you need to know: stay out of the left lane unless you want to pass on highways. It is okay to drive slow and that is what the right lane is for. Slow down on roads in towns — that’s the law, and it can trigger a red light. Learn the road signs, road systems and get a good gps. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions, although this will probably be more reliable once you understand the language!


5. And the bureaucracy? 

Yes, unfortunately it is a thing and it is time consuming. Get a good lawyer to help, be respectful of deadlines, and keep detailed records.  Keep everything in writing, ask the right questions, and be patient. 


6. What not to do? 

Be mindful when talking about sports. People take their football teams seriously (that being said, don’t call it soccer). Read up on futebol — and don’t invite a Portuguese for dinner when a big game is on, they will likely watch it instead. And the national team is huge, so this is the only time you see Portuguese flags come out. Be aware and tolerant of the whole “Age of Discoveries” things. We have a few articles on it here — but be aware that the legacy of the Salazar years is not over, and many Portuguese still struggle with colonialism. It seems odd that such a tolerant society should have such an outdated view of the past, but it is a window into the impact of 40 years of dictatorship. Read up on history — and avoid a debate on sensitive topics. As noted earlier - Portuguese are the first to be their own critics, but also the first to defend their national honor. Just stay positive and open. Embrace Portugal for what it is, and you will find something special and very rewarding. 


7. How to meet people?

Well, take on a Portuguese lifestyle — every neighborhood has a few cafes where locals hang out. If you go to the same places enough times people will start to recognize you. Introduce yourself to neighbors, and look for local social events. Portugal is a very kid and family friendly country, and children are cherished, so look for locals with kids. Having pets is also a good way of bonding, as you will often see many people walking their dogs in the neighborhood or in parks.


8. Where should I live in Portugal?

This is a hard question to answer. Lots of options, and we will go though them for you. Everyone looks at Lisbon, and why not. It’s a great city, with good infrastructure — and a wonderful place to live — the light alone makes it worth it. But we suggest you break it down to city or rural. If you say city — it is Lisbon or some other city. And although Lisbon is expensive, and your money buys less - there is a good sized expat community. Porto is booming too, with a great selection of culture and restaurants. But what about a smaller city? Evora, Coimbra, Leiria, Aveiro or Faro are great options. Do you want to be in the Algarve? Alentejo? Get out there, read our blog to know more about Portuguese cities.


9. What about Portuguese food?

Reading expat blogs you get the impression that many relocated folks don’t understand Portuguese food. The issue seems to be that they just don’t get Portugal, or haven’t taken the time to learn the basics of Portuguese cuisine. No one seems to complain that most Italian restaurants serve Italian food. Don’t be the person who goes to Mexico and complains they can’t get a burger, because Portuguese cuisine is worth discovering and there are flavors for every taste. The food is incredibly diverse and regional and the typical recipes from the North are different than those from the South. Look for local dishes, learn what each city or region serves, and explore all the foods from nations of Portuguese expression that are found in Portugal.



10. Postcard to Lisbon

Lisbon is a booming city, full of modern eateries, fancy hotels and classy museums. But back in the day, it was different. Back in the 1980s, Portugal had not yet entered the EU and still was struggling in the chaos that followed the 1974 revolution.  And Lisbon was nothing like it is today. It was not better or worse — it was just different. First, there was political propaganda posters and graffiti everywhere. Posters we pasted on every surface, and no building was immune. The Rossio was still wonderful, full of cars and buses and neon signs topping all of the Pombaline buildings. But you could see how people struggled with a sluggish economy, political instability and inflation. Lisbon felt like a tarnished — a faded  glorious imperil capital that had seen better times. The buses were ancient, the car pollution noticeable. The tap water was orange. Cars parked in the massive square of Terreiro do Paço. Hardly anyone spoke English, and there were very few gift and souvenir shops. In fact, there were not a lot of tourists either. Many of the glorious buildings of the Baixa had become abandoned and fallen into disrepair. And yet there was a certain charm, traditional neighborhoods had not been converted into Air BnB hubs, laundry hung from windows, and street sellers filled the alley ways with their calls.  You could not find a non-Portuguese restaurant, and fast food was almost unheard of. The Castelo de Sao Jorge boasted a zoo, and the bus that ran up to it from the Rossio had to be 60 years old. Only locals rode on the #28 trolley. So, where do you find the old Lisbon today? The impact of tourism has not yet hit every city — and from Castelo Branco to Tomar, from Portalegre to Bragança - many places still maintain a sense of trading and untouched charm. 


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John and Susan Pazera

Great post. Thank you.

Deborah Russell

Wow. Can't wait to read more. Glad I found you. Thanks.

J Marlin Mills

Nicely done.

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