Living in Lisbon: 23 Things You Should Know Before Moving Here

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Written by: | Last updated on March 28, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 26 minutes
This article is available in: en_US

Over the past few years, Lisbon has become the place that everybody wants to move to. And, it’s no surprise either. With over 300 days of sunshine per year and a cost of living that’s lower than most other Western European capital cities, Lisbon has a lot to offer. 

Lisbon Castle Turret
Lisbon Castle Turret – © Portugalist

In this comprehensive article, we delve into the reality of living in Portugal, striking a balance between the pros and the cons. While numerous pieces might trivialise the drawbacks of Portuguese life to mere inconveniences like its hilly terrain, our goal is to present a more nuanced view. Furthermore, we address the often outdated or inaccurately low rental price information circulating in various guides, which misleadingly suggest that apartments can be secured for as little as €700 a month. Unfortunately, prices have increased and this is no longer accurate. 

Village Underground Lisbon
Village Underground Lisbon – © Portugalist

Our intention is to equip you with a thorough understanding of what to expect before making the move to Lisbon, covering both the undeniable charms and the realities of day-to-day life in this vibrant city. By the end of it, you’ll see just how great a place Lisbon is to live in—even if there are cons as well as pros. 

Lisbon is Amazing

Driving in Lisbon
© Portugalist

First off, it’s worth starting the article by saying Lisbon is amazing. 

  • Yes, living costs might be lower in Eastern Europe, but Lisbon offers mild winters that are hard to find elsewhere. There are few other European cities where you can sit out in December or January in the sunshine, sometimes even needing to strip down to a t-shirt.
  • It’s possible to get the train from Cais do Sodre to the nearest beach in around 20 minutes. If you surf, there are places nearby like Carcavelos or Costa da Caparica where you can do just that. If you want to go further, beach destinations like the Algarve or Alentejo Coast are accessible in just a few hours by train. And train travel to any of these destinations is extremely affordable: you can normally get to the Algarve for around €10-€20. 
  • While groceries might be more affordable in other places, like the UK, the quality of fresh produce, such as fruits, vegetables, and fish, is notably much better in Portugal.
  • Comparisons with major cities like London regarding living costs are common, yet Lisbon offers a distinctly more relaxed lifestyle. Socialising in Lisbon often means enjoying life’s simply pleasures, like eating petiscos (tapas) and enjoying a €3 glass of wine. 
  • Speaking of wine, a €3 glass of wine is normally delicious. You often don’t need to spend more than €5 to get a good bottle of wine.
  • Despite the increasing rental costs, you can live very centrally in Lisbon. This means you can walk to most destinations—a stark contrast to the commute experiences in larger cities like London or in the US, where you might face long train rides or traffic congestion.

Basically, Lisbon’s combination of quality of life, accessibility, and the charm of its social culture is a unique blend that is hard to replicate elsewhere.

Lisbon Isn’t Cheap

Once an underrated, affordable gem among Europe’s capitals, Lisbon has seen a dramatic shift in its living conditions. The city’s surge in popularity has led to a significant increase in property prices and rental costs, sparking a housing crisis.

For individuals working remotely with incomes independent of local economic conditions, Lisbon’s cost of living might still be manageable, though. This is especially true for those relocating from cities like New York, London, Dublin, or San Francisco, where higher salaries make Lisbon’s real estate prices seem reasonable. For such professionals, a €1,200 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment can appear to be an attractive bargain.

However, the situation is different for job seekers, as the average salary in Lisbon barely exceeds €1,000 a month. With apartment rents starting at around €1,100, many locals find themselves priced out of living independently. Consequently, a significant number of Portuguese adults continue to live with their families, and shared housing arrangements have become increasingly common as a means to mitigate high living costs. 

Lisbon Can Be Cheap

Coffee and a Croissant
© Portugalist – Coffee and a Croissant, taken at Pastelaria O Careca

This might sound contradictory given the last statement but while Lisbon’s rental market may not be the most budget-friendly, the city offers a surprisingly affordable lifestyle in many other ways. For those open to sharing living spaces, room rentals can be found for €500 or less, with prices dropping even further outside the city centre. Yes, you don’t have to live in the city centre: there are lots of great places nearby. 

When it comes to daily expenses, Lisbon can be affordable. An espresso (known as a bica) might cost as little as €0.50, though 70-80 cents is more common. Dine out at traditional Portuguese restaurant, and you can often get a hearty three-course lunch for around €12-15. Bargain hunters will also be pleased to find beers priced at €1 and caipirinhas for €4-5. This is changing, as the cost of living increases and more and more traditional venues are replaced with modern, international options, but there are still some affordable tascas (traditional restaurants) and bars, if you look hard enough. 

For those coming from North America, groceries are much more affordable. It’s possible to live off a budget of just a few hundred euros or less, even as a couple. 

Of course, The true charm of Lisbon lies in its abundant and mostly free or low-cost attractions. This isn’t a city where you have to spend a lot of money to have fun. A day out at the beach or a beer at a miradouro, for example, is a normal way to spend a Saturday in Lisbon. 

However, it’s worth noting that mingling only with the expat and digital nomad communities may lead to higher expenses. While a Portuguese galão (milky coffee might cost €1-2) a flat white coffee could cost €4. Similarly, craft beers are generally more expensive than the local Super Bock or Sagres and international restaurants are also more expensive than traditional Portuguese ones. 

Job Opportunities are Limited

Rather than being a destination for local employment opportunities, Lisbon is more often a place where individuals bring their work with them. That’s why there are so many digital nomads here. Generally, the same applies to the rest of Portugal too. 

This trend stems from the relatively low average salary in Portugal, which, despite being slightly higher in Lisbon, remains modest at just over €1,000 per month. The stark contrast between wages and living expenses, including €1,100 for a one-bedroom apartment or €500 for a room in a shared flat, highlights the economic challenges faced by residents.

For those who do not speak Portuguese, job prospects can be particularly limited. Many newcomers work in call centers like Teleperformance, where language skills in English, Spanish, French, and others are in demand. While these positions offer a gateway to getting a job in Portugal, they are often not well-paid or considered enjoyable work. Other common employment avenues include the tourism sector and establishments catering to tourists, such as bars and cafes. Again, these provide a way to work and live in Portugal, but it probably isn’t the type of work most people ideally want. 

Some startups and international companies offer somewhat better salaries. Despite this, the compensation in these roles typically remains lower than global standards, and while Lisbon’s startup ecosystem is expanding, it has yet to reach the prominence of tech hubs like Silicon Valley.

Lisbon is Beautiful

rooftops of Lisbon
rooftops of Lisbon – © Portugalist

Lisbon is truly beautiful. Even with some dog poop on sidewalks and graffiti on walls, which most see as street art, Lisbon’s beauty still shines through. Its cobblestone streets run through areas filled with colourful tiles (azulejos) on buildings, each tile telling stories from the past. The city’s old wooden trams are also incredibly charming. All in all, it’s postcard perfect. 

Finding a viewpoint (miradouro) in Lisbon lets you see amazing views, like the 25th of April Bridge during sunset. These peaceful moments remind us of what makes Lisbon special.

25th of April bridge
25th of April bridge – © Portugalist

Even with its problems like paperwork hassles and the cost of living going up, these don’t take away from the city’s beauty. Lisbon’s mix of natural sights, stunning buildings, and beautiful sunsets is hard to beat, making it a wonderful place to live.

Housing Quality Varies

Living in an old house in Portugal can be charming but also comes with challenges due to lower building standards. Older homes may not be as warm or quiet as you’d expect, which can be uncomfortable in winter and noisy at times. Noise and cold or dampness are the most common issues. 

The condition of these homes can vary a lot. Some get a lot of sunlight, which makes them warm in winter but maybe too hot in summer. Most old homes don’t have central heating. Some might have air conditioning or use gas or electric heaters, but these can be expensive to run and not as effective. Interestingly, homes built a long time ago might actually be better at keeping warm than those built more cheaply at the end of the last century. Newer homes usually have better insulation and heating, making them more comfortable.

It’s good to check if a home is near an airport flight path, as some areas get a lot of plane noise. Also, think about the neighbourhood’s nightlife, which can be loud, especially in places like Bairro Alto, Cais do Sodré, and Santos.

Finding a Place is Hard

Lisbon’s housing market is under a lot of pressure due to a high demand for places to live and finding a rental in Lisbon can be hard. Due to the popularity of Lisbon, landlords now have the power to ask for high rents because there are always people willing to pay. On top of this, it’s common for landlords to ask for a guarantor (fiador) or several months of rent in advance. In some cases, landlords may ask for six or even 12 months rent upfront. If you have pets, it’s even harder to find a place to live. 

Landlords often raise the rent, sometimes by a lot, especially if you don’t have a formal rental agreement. Even though the law limits how much rents can go up each year, this doesn’t help if you’re not on an official contract that’s registered with Finanças. 

Dealing with landlords can also be tricky. While many take good care of their properties and are fair, some don’t fix problems quickly or try to make tenants pay for things that aren’t their fault. Portugal’s laws do protect renters, but it can be hard to get help with housing issues.

Often, hiring a lawyer to send a “friendly” reminder to your landlord about their duties can solve problems. This does cost money, and is frustrating to have to do it, but it usually makes landlords take action and fix any issues.

The Weather is Great

Living in Lisbon offers the benefit of enjoying a climate that many dream of, featuring mild winters, warm summers, and plenty of sunshine all year round. The city gets more than 300 days of sunlight annually, providing residents with a generous amount of vitamin D, which is essential for health and happiness.

 While Nicosia in Cyprus claims the title for the sunniest capital with an average of 3362 hours of sunshine per year, and Valletta in Malta follows closely, Lisbon is a larger city. It’s not as big as Paris or Berlin, but it is one of the larger cities that enjoys mild winters. 

However, the city’s appealing climate comes with a caveat when considering housing. Many of Lisbon’s older buildings struggle with temperature regulation, becoming quite cold in the winter and overly warm in the summer due to a lack of modern heating and cooling systems.

For property owners, renovation is an option to improve living conditions. Renters, on the other hand, might need to rely on portable heaters in the winter and fans during the summer months to stay comfortable.

There are lots of Schooling Options

For families moving to Lisbon with kids, the city offers a wide choice of schools, including public, private, and international options. No matter what you’re looking for, you’re likely to find a school that fits your family’s needs in Lisbon.

  • Public Schools: Lisbon has some of the best public schools in Portugal, where kids can get a great education for free. Well-known schools like Escola Secundária do Restelo and Escola Básica e Secundária D. Filipa de Lencastre have excellent ratings for their strong academic and extracurricular programs. A full list of the top-ranked schools, public and private, can be found on Publico or Observador
  • Private Schools: The city is also home to top private schools, such as Academia de Música de Santa Cecília and Colégio Manuel Bernardes. These schools often have special programs focused on the arts or rigorous academics, offering a customized learning experience.
  • International Schools: For families looking for an education that follows international standards, Lisbon’s international schools are a great fit. Schools like Greene’s College Oxford teach the British Curriculum, International Sharing School Taguspark offers the IB, and Prime School has options for American or British curriculums. There are also schools like Deutsche Schule Lissabon and Lycée Français Charles Lepierre Lisbonne for German and French-speaking students, respectively. These schools are especially appealing to expat families and those wanting a diverse educational environment for their children.

Choosing the right school is important, and Lisbon’s variety of options means you can find a place that not only meets your educational expectations but also supports your child’s growth in a dynamic and culturally rich city. 

Lisbon is Safe

Lisbon is known for being a safe city, one of the safest in the world, which makes it a great place to live or visit. But like any big city, it has some crime, such as pickpocketing, break-ins, and sometimes even violence. This shows that no place is completely free of safety issues.

While Lisbon is safe, it’s important to be sensible. The city is usually safer than many other big cities worldwide. By being careful and following common safety tips, especially in places where lots of tourists go, you can lower your chances of facing problems. The crime rate here is pretty low, which helps people feel safe walking around, even at night.

Thinking of Lisbon as a perfect, crime-free place isn’t accurate. It’s better to know that there is some crime, but it’s less common here than in many other places. 

Making Local Friends is Hard

Making friends in Lisbon, especially with local Portuguese people, can be tough. Many people who move here want to learn Portuguese and become part of the local Portuguese culture, but they soon find out it takes a lot of effort.

Portuguese people are friendly and welcoming, but they’re also quite reserved. They usually stick to friends they’ve known for a long time, from childhood or school. On the other hand, expats and digital nomads often end up hanging out together, creating a bit of a gap between the two groups.

If you want to make Portuguese friends, you need to be ready to put in the work. This means dealing understanding that people often prefer last-minute plans to advanced planning and understanding that social circles can be hard to break into.

There’s also a big difference in income. Many local Portuguese live with their families for a long time because salaries in Portugal are lower than in other Western European countries. Expats, including retirees and digital nomads, often come with a higher income, which can create a gap.

But, with patience and an open mind, making friends with locals is definitely doable. It’s all about respecting the culture, being willing to adapt, and understanding that good things take time. Rather than only attending expat-focused meetups, try to find places where Portuguese people meetup. 

Meeting Other Foreigners is Easy

Making friends in Lisbon, especially if you’re an expat, can be exciting because the city has many groups for all sorts of interests like hiking, books, English-language comedy, or even crypto. Joining these groups is an easy way to meet people when you’re new in town. You’ll find lots of meetups on meetup.com as well as in the various expat-focused Facebook groups. 

However, sticking only with internationals can make you miss out on local Portuguese culture. It’s great to find people who share your interests, but this can also keep you from fully experiencing Portugal.

Also, because many expats and digital nomads often come and go, your social circle might change a lot. This means you might have to keep looking for new friends, which can be hard if you want to have long-lasting friendships.

You don’t need a car

funicular tram in Lisbon
funicular tram in Lisbon – © Portugalist

In Lisbon, you don’t really need a car because the city has great public transport. It’s set up to help everyone get around easily, which is perfect for both people living in Lisbon and visitors. Using public transport here can make your daily trips easier and help keep the city cleaner.

Here’s a look at what Lisbon offers for getting around:

  • Metro: The Metro in Lisbon is known for being clean, fast, and reliable, perfect for getting to different parts of the city quickly. 
  • Trams: Lisbon’s trams are famous and add a charming touch to the city. There are also newer trams, which are practical, but less beautiful. 
  • Buses: The bus service fills in the gaps, reaching places the metro and trams don’t go. Buses are reasonably regular and go all over the city and beyond.
  • Trains: If you’re going a bit further, like to the beach in Cascais or to see the palaces in Sintra, trains are a great choice. They’re good for longer trips around Lisbon or for enjoying some of Portugal’s beautiful scenery.
  • Bike Sharing and E-scooters: Lisbon is also getting into bikes and scooters that you can share. They’re popping up all over the city, giving you a fun and green way to get around.
  • Ferries: Because Lisbon sits by the river, ferries are a thing here too. They let you cross the water to Almada, connect with other parts of the area, and offer lovely views.

All these options mean you can easily get by without a car, avoiding the hassle of parking and traffic, and you get to do your bit for the planet too.

Generally, Most People Are Welcoming

Recently, there’s talk that Lisbon is losing its charm, mainly because the cost of living is going up. This has led to protests asking the government to focus more on locals instead of bringing in digital nomads or investors with programs like the golden visa.

Even with these issues, Portuguese people generally don’t have a problem with foreigners. Many understand why people want to move to Portugal, as they or someone they know might have moved abroad for a better life too (Portugal has a huge rate of emigration to other countries). The main issue people have is with government policies, not the people coming to Portugal.

Newcomers might also find some officials, like those in tax or immigration offices, a bit unfriendly. And honestly, some of the people working in these jobs are. 

Generally speaking, people in Lisbon tend to be a bit less friendly than in other parts of the country too. This reservedness often stems from the city’s capital city lifestyle, marked by long workdays and commutes. A 2023 report found that 9.4% of Portuguese workers work 49 or more hours a week, well over the legal limit. Sure, it’s not the levels that people work to in countries like the US, but it’s a stark difference from the country’s relaxed stereotype. 

The recent surge in tourism and expatriates has also quickened the city’s pace, leading to local fatigue and tension as living costs have increased and the city has become overcrowded, particularly in summer. However, comparing Lisbon to other major cities like London or New York, people are still friendlier in comparison. 

Making an effort to learn Portuguese and getting involved in Portuguese life can really help. People appreciate it when you make an effort to be part of the community, and to show you’re not just here for the cheap beer and sunshine but to genuinely integrate into Portuguese life. 

Laid Back Isn’t for Everyone

Moving to Portugal introduces many to its relaxed culture, which can be both charming and challenging. This laid-back vibe is deeply ingrained in the country’s way of life, affecting everything from social gatherings to how business is conducted. If you love taking life easy, Portugal is a perfect match, offering a calm environment to relax and enjoy the slower pace.

However, this easy-going nature might test your patience if you value timeliness and efficiency, especially in work or when handling paperwork. It’s common for dinner invitations at 8 pm to turn into actual gatherings at 9 or 10 pm, with late arrivals seen as the norm rather than the exception. Appointments might not start on time, and sometimes, people might not show up at all without any prior notice.

While some embrace this aspect of Portuguese life as part of the country’s charm, others may find it a source of frustration, particularly when waiting on others. It’s a cultural trait that requires adjustment and understanding, particularly for those used to more punctual environments.

There’s a Great Food Scene

pastel de nata from Pastéis de Belém - © Portugalist
pastel de nata from Pastéis de Belém – © Portugalist

In Lisbon, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to food, with a wealth of Portuguese and international options available.

  • Portuguese Food: Portuguese food is known for its straightforward yet satisfying dishes, focusing on the quality and freshness of ingredients. It’s a culinary experience that’s less about spice and complexity and more about the pure, hearty flavours of each dish. Compared to the bold tastes of Mexican or Indian food, Portuguese cuisine may seem milder, somewhat reminiscent of traditional British or German fare. However, it’s important to remember that the focus is on simplicity and the quality of local ingredients rather than anything more complex. 
  • International Cuisine: Lisbon’s food scene is as global as it gets, offering everything from Italian to Japanese cuisines and beyond. The quality across these international restaurants is consistently high, though it’s worth mentioning that these meals can often be pricier than their Portuguese counterparts. 

Of course, don’t forget to try the pastel de nata, a classic Portuguese pastry that originated in Belém and has gained worldwide fame. While Pastéis de Belém is the most famous place to try these, there are lots of great bakeries that make excellent custard tarts all over the city. 

Lisbon is Multicultural

Lisbon might not be as big as cities like New York or London, but Lisbon has its own special mix of people from around the world. This includes many from places that were once part of the Portuguese empire, like Goa, Macau, and especially Brazil. The Brazilian community brings a friendly and vibrant energy to Lisbon, sharing their food, music, and dance, and making the city more colourful and fun.

Lisbon also attracts a lot of digital nomads and expats, mainly from Europe and North America. They’re drawn by the good weather, affordable living costs, and great quality of life. This has helped build Lisbon’s reputation as a welcoming place for people from all over, and has helped boost its growing reputations as a tech and startup hub. 

With so many different cultures living together, Lisbon is a place where you can hear many languages, try different foods, and learn about various traditions all in one city.

It’s Hilly

Exploring Lisbon, with its stunning views and historic areas, comes with the unique challenge of its seven hills. In fact, it often feels like there are a lot more than seven. 

This charming feature makes for beautiful scenery but also means a lot of uphill and downhill walking. Newcomers might find themselves out of breath, as everyday walks can feel like mini workouts.

At first, these hills might seem tough, making simple trips a bit of an adventure. Yet, this is all part of getting to know Lisbon. These climbs add to what makes the city special, rewarding you with incredible views you wouldn’t get in flatter places. These places are known as miradouros, which means golden view. 

As time goes on, you’ll get used to the hills, build up your stamina, and start to see the city from new angles. What was once a challenge becomes a cherished part of daily life, with the bonus of breathtaking vistas from the top. It’s also a fantastic way to keep warm in the winter: if you’re freezing in your apartment, just head outside and walk up and down one or two hills. You’ll soon warm up! 

Lisbon is Portugal’s Largest City

If you want city life in Portugal, the choice is Lisbon or Porto—and Porto is much smaller than Lisbon. Lisbon also has much better weather than Porto and a larger international community, which is why it’s usually the city of choice among expats moving to Portugal. 

There are other cities, like Braga, Aveiro, and Faro, and while these are beautiful, they’re not very big. This is especially true if you’re comparing them to North American or Asian cities. 

For that cosmopolitain lifestyle, Lisbon is the best choice and even then it doesn’t feel like London, Paris, Barcelona, or Madrid. It still feels quite small in many respects. However, this is the closest you’ll get in Portugal. 

Bureaucracy Is a Real Challenge

Portugal’s bureaucratic challenges affects the whole country, influencing dealings with both government services and private entities.

Dealing with Portuguese bureaucracy often means facing long lines, strict document requirements, and the need for multiple office visits. A task that seems simple at first can quickly become a lengthy process. These situations can drag on for days or weeks, requiring a lot of time and patience.

Dealing with AIMA (previously SEF) is particularly challenging, and securing appointments or reaching representatives over the phone is very difficult. Many people end up using redialing apps and calling hundreds of times, only to encounter unhelpful or indifferent responses, or even being hung up on.

To navigate this complex system, a specialised industry of legal and relocation services have sprung up, helping individuals tackle the bureaucratic maze. Though it comes at a cost, hiring professional help is seen as a worthwhile investment. 

The issue of bureaucracy also spills over into customer service within Portuguese companies. The old adage “the customer is always right” doesn’t always apply here and resolving problems demands persistence and patience from the customer’s side. 

Despite these difficulties, many find the country’s beautiful landscapes, rich culture, and warm climate, outweigh the administrative hurdles, making Portugal a rewarding place to live.

It’s a digital nomad hub

Lisbon digital nomad meetup

Lisbon is quickly becoming a top choice for digital nomads, competing with famous spots like Chiang Mai and Medellín. The city is perfect for remote workers and freelancers, thanks to its great coworking spaces, networking opportunities, and events. If you’re into things like cryptocurrency, SEO, or web development, Lisbon is a great place to grow and work with others.

Heden coworking space
Heden coworking space

Plus, Lisbon’s startup scene is on the rise, getting it a name as Europe’s own Silicon Valley. Even though it’s not quite as big as the real Silicon Valley, it is starting to grow. But keep in mind, Lisbon’s startup world is still growing. There are lots of cool companies and tech events, but it’s more about smaller startups than big tech giants right now. 

However, Portugal is keen to attract innovate entrepreneurs and digital nomads and has introduced visas for digital nomads, startups, and entrepreneurs

For anyone working online or starting a business, Lisbon mixes a rich culture with plenty of chances to work together and be creative. It’s a welcoming city for the digital age, making it a great place for digital nomads and entrepreneurs looking for a supportive and inspiring environment.

There are plenty of healthcare options

Lisbon is equipped with leading hospitals like the CUF Hospitals and Hospital da Luz Torres de Lisboa, known for their advanced technology and highly skilled professionals, many of whom speak English. In fact, many private hospitals (such as the CUF chain of hospitals) allow you to search for doctors based on the languages they speak. This is a big plus for expatriates and visitors, making healthcare interactions smoother.

Many people in Lisbon choose health insurance to help cover the costs of using the private hospitals, making top-notch healthcare more affordable. However, as a resident, you’ll also be able to use the public hospitals too. 

English is Widely Spoken

In Lisbon, and across Portugal’s other popular spots like the Algarve and Porto, English is widely spoken, making life easier for English-speaking expats and tourists. So, if you’re concerned about needing to learn Portuguese, don’t be: you’ll find that most Portuguese locals speak English to an almost near-fluent level. Many Portuguese speak Spanish too, and it’s common for older Portuguese people to speak some level of French as many worked in France or learned French in school. 

However, this can slow down the process of fully immersing in and mastering Portuguese, as the ease of communicating in English means many people get lazy and only ever speak English. Nonetheless, being able to speak English helps significantly with everyday tasks, from getting around to making new friends. Just be sure to work on your Portuguese in the meantime.