How much you have to spend will be the main driver on this question, because naturally, the more you have the more choice there is. I’m certainly not saying that you want to live where the property is the most expensive – hell no – quite probably the area with the highest property values is really the least interesting. I just know I could’ve chosen better if I’d had more money.
I’m assembling some considerations that I think you should give serious thought to. No matter what you think your needs and wants are today, you don’t want your life falling to pieces when problems come your way. I’m no pessimist, but with a little forward planning, if problems do arise they don’t ruin your life. Righto?
Also, this is just my opinion. There are many expats living perfectly happy lives (for all I know) in remote areas of Portugal and I say good for them. If you’re one of these people, please say something in the comments. I’m just saying if I was to do it all again I would pay more attention to the following factors. I’ve just been reading the forum at expatsportugal.com and there are very nice people out there in Fundão and Castelo Branco living sustainably with their chooks and cherry trees and I take my hat off to them. You are better men than I am, gunga din.
- The Weather
Don’t go underestimating the value of sunny days. Take a long hard look at the weather stats for your home country and that of four cities in Portugal: Faro, Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. Don’t just consider the extremes of temperature because they are the exception: look at average rainfall and average temperatures for each month, as well as the number of days with sunshine. Don’t live anywhere where the weather is worse than what you’re used to. If you don’t like the heat, then the northern half of the country could be for you. If you are passionate about summer however, I would strongly advise you to stick to the southern half.
- An hour from a city
Especially if you are from a city, you’ll find living too far from a major city a major pain. By city I mean Lisbon or Porto. More than one hour is too far. Portugal is, to be blunt, the least modern country of western Europe, which means country Portugal is not well equipped to deal with the 21st century. It took me a year to get a telephone connected. Our internet connection is slower than dial-up. You may be, like me, a refugee from the rat race, but trust me that from time to time you will need to get a computer fixed, to get something unportuguese to eat, or to browse a quality bookstore. You should get yourself a foreign culture fix sometimes – a little jazz, opera or an international act. Ikea? An embassy? A better choice of building materials and homewares? Access to more tradespeople and services. There are a million reasons why you need a city nearby.
If you’re thinking you can do without the modern life altogether, then being within an hour from Coimbra or Faro might be ok. Your minimum requirement is a Leroy Merlin (hardware, building materials, home wares), a FNAC (computers, tech accessories, music and books) and a big Continente (supermarket and homewares). Without these things at hand, life can get very inconvenient. Frankly I never should have lived too far from El Corte Ingles (more foodie supermarket/dept store). It took me 5 years and a few trips back home to realise just having more options was really important.
This goes with the city requirement. Even if you think you’re done with traveling (?!?), your visitors aren’t. Love them or loath them, visitors are inevitable if you’re living in Portugal. OK, alright, perhaps you don’t want to be stuck doing airport runs all the time… then at least consider somewhere with a direct train line to Lisbon or Porto airports because you’re going to need it.
- Hospitals and health care
I was a strapping young fit and healthy 35 yr old when I arrived here and I didn’t think twice about hospitals. Little did I know how crap the local health centre was, or what bizarre afflictions would befall me. You are human, you break. No matter where in the world you are, you always need a decent doctor, so do your research about the availability and quality of health care in your area. On second thoughts, live within an hour of Lisbon or Porto. According to expatsportugal.com Algarvian expats are happy with the health care down there. Perhaps the demands of foreigners, and the location, attracts better doctors. Osteopaths along with other specialists, by the way, are rare in the country.
- The Sea
Unless you specifically hate the beach, you should at least aim to be within an hour of the sea. As with the weather, being near the sea is a cost-free pleasure if not a basic human right. The sea also comes with seafood, and the beach is an opportunity for exercise, and you need all the encouragement you can get to exercise in Portugal. However, really charming villages by the sea are in short supply on planet Earth. A lot of Portugal’s Atlantic coastline tends to be quite industrial and sparsely populated, dry, flat and surprisingly foggy.
- Extra Charm
You would do well to choose a locale that charms you, extra-specially. Not only will it continue to charm you every day but somewhere with at least a bit of a name will help when you move on. This is where it gets hard: getting the location right and a spot of great charm and beauty is a tall ask, which is why most of us buy where we do even though it’s totally impractical: because it’s got the magic. Outside of properly famous or touristy spots like Óbidos or Sintra, there are plenty of villages that are just a little cut above. Look for castles, for instance, or rivers and dams. The presence of a university should mean more youthful creativity and decent bars and music. Look at their festivals (not just the annual São João), culinary specialties and tourist attractions. If you have fallen for a place that’s super charming but more than an hour from a city I really recommend renting there for three to six months to get a proper sense of the place. It’s a wise move anywhere you choose.
If you’ve already got friends in Portugal it pays to live near them if you can. Not next door necessarily but not so that the distance is an obstacle to your friendship. Also, they’ve already trialed the area and can advise you. I regret that my friends are so scattered about the country and more than an hour away and I don’t see them as much as I want to.
So, when you take these factors into consideration, where should you be looking?
The green patches on the map indicate an hour’s driving radius from Porto and Lisbon. Yellow indicates the other areas I mention below.
From north to south, wetter to drier:
Viana do Castelo, Braga, Guimarães & Porto. To the east past Amarante to Vila Real, around Espinho on the coast and then south to Aveiro.
Then from Aveiro to Coimbra to Leiria is a maybe (yellow) area. Coimbra is the third largest city and is a wonderful place, full of students and a small music and food scene. But it’s far from being an international city. I’m quite fond of Leiria too which is very pretty and has good shopping , but this is central Portugal and quite far from any airports. Still, around Coimbra and Leiria is preferable to further east in the Beiras, despite some spectacular mountain areas.
Around Nazaré and Alcobaça is also a maybe area, somewhere I’d really bend the rules for. Like Viana do Castelo, Nazaré is an especially nice place, a rare example of cute Portuguese village meets the sea. But it’s 1.5 hours from Lisbon. It does have Leiria and Caldas da Rainha within 30 minutes however, which are both fairly civilized: both have Bricomarché (a backup to Leroy Merlin) and Leiria has a Fnac. This whole area is dense with beauty and interest.
Things start getting very interesting at Caldas da Rainha, and this is where I would start a search. Caldas is a bit flat for my liking but it has the beach so close so I’d live with that. Draw a line across to Santarém, which is hillier and I’d look at everything within this triangle to the north of Lisbon, especially beachside. Go village stalking, although beware of getting too far from a freeway because this will add a lot of time to your run to Lisbon.
Anywhere from Lisbon to the west coast would probably bring a lot of happiness, but this is most likely the most expensive territory in the country (some places in the Algarve would cost the same). Évora and Sines and beyond the one hour boundary, but are certainly worth considering for beauty and interest (Évora) and seaside (Sines). Ditto the Alentejana coastline, which should in theory be all gorgeous but you have to be choosey with your villages and how far they are from the freeway.
Then there’s the Algarve, which is 2.5 hours to Lisbon, and although Faro has an airport and even an Apple store, it is not quite a substitute for a major city, but it might suffice. The Algarve has a different character to the rest of the country, with a lot of British expats and a lot more English spoken: To me it feels less foreign and unique and it’s therefore less desirable. Some parts of the Algarve are beautiful and some of it is a hideous hellhole, but at least the weather is better here than anywhere else. The most touristy part is from Albufeira east to Spain, with the far west being less populated. Portimão is a well equipped big town, an hour from Faro (with much the same resources) and Silves is a nice town within this area. A thorough search north of Faro up to Almodovar might produce quirky villages, Alcoutim is worth seeing for instance, but there’s not a lot else inland in that area. Mértola and Monchique would be worth checking out but they are both over an hour from Faro. The Algarve should be looked at in the summer, when you’ll get a proper idea of the size of the population at its most intense.
There are Fnacs in Faro and Albufeira and Leroy Merlin also in Albufeira. From many reports the health services here are better than in the rest of rural Portugal.
Regrettably, my considerations leave off many lovely charming places in the far north and east and south east of the country which are great to visit but, as a long term home, I think would become inconvenient to live in. I really love the Minho but it is cold and wet and very far from civilization, as is Trás os Montes. The mountainous areas of the Beiras, Serras dos Açor, Estrela and Lousã, host some of the most curious and picturesque villages in Portugal. To the east, Monsanto and Belmonte are charming and of another time, but seriously a very long way from the modern world. I still haven’t been to the marble towns of Vila Viçosa, Estremoz and Borba. These, and many other towns, are all great places for exploring and discovering once you’ve found a practical, well-connected, flexible and comfortable base camp to call home.