Let’s face it, nowhere is perfect. No matter where you live in the world there are things you love, and there are things that you wish were different.
Portugal is like that. There are a lot of pros to life in Portugal: the weather is great, the cost of living is low, the beaches are beautiful, and Portugal is a really interesting place to explore.
People from all over the world are moving to Portugal – particularly places like Lisbon, the Algarve, and Porto – for all kinds of reasons. Some are moving here to study, others to retire, others to work, you name it.
So, it’s important to be honest about the downsides of living here because sooner or later you’ll come to discover them all as well. But, even though there are a few downsides to living in Portugal, most people who live in Portugal decide that the good outweighs the bad and this really is a place that’s worth staying in.
Although most people associate Portugal with beaches and sunshine, a lot of Northern Portugal can be very damp and wet in the winter. Portugal is a long and narrow country, after all, and the climate in the Algarve is very different to the climate in the North of the country.
Most people who move to Portugal usually live in Lisbon or South of Lisbon, though, which often has mild winters. This is especially true of the Algarve, which has some of the best winters in Europe.
But, even though it can be warm outside, that doesn’t mean that it’s warm inside.
Poor quality housing
Portuguese houses, particularly older Portuguese houses, can be extremely cold in the winter. Almost none have central heating of any kind or good quality insulation, and often it’s much warmer outside than it is inside. Unless your property gets the sun during winter, you may find yourself wearing a jacket indoors (no exaggeration).
This is because houses are designed with summer in mind, and aren’t designed to retain heat, and also because they’re often old and cheaply built. You can get central heating, and you can improve the insulation but, if you’re renting or you’ve just moved into a property, there’s a good chance it’ll be cold in winter (unless it catches the sun during the day).
Heating the property can also be expensive as electricity prices are high (see below), which is why a lot of rural properties have fireplaces or people pay for gas central heating.
Try to get anything done in Portugal, whether it’s starting a business or applying for planning permission, and you’ll run into a little thing called “bureaucracy.” There’s a lot of it in Portugal especially, although not exclusively, if the government is involved in some way.
The hardest part of bureaucracy isn’t the bureaucracy itself. Most people know that bureaucracy exists in Portugal, and aren’t surprised when they come up against it. The hardest part is that you never know how to navigate it. If it was simply a case of filling out paperwork and speaking to the right people, but you knew which paperwork to fill out and which people to speak to, it would be fine. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance you’ll be going into a lot of situations blind.
Thankfully, there are a lot of Facebook groups and forums where you can ask questions and hopefully speak to other people who’ve had a similar issue.
Integrating into any country is difficult. People have their own circles and, as an outsider, it can be very difficult to get into those circles – especially if you don’t speak Portuguese.
But even being able to speak Portuguese, even being a native Portuguese speaker, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to integrate easily. Even Portuguese people have trouble integrating when they move to other parts of Portugal. This doesn’t just apply to rural areas, but cities like Lisbon and Porto as well.
This isn’t because the Portuguese are unwelcoming. In fact, they’re incredibly welcoming of both tourists and expats and normally very friendly when you speak to them.
As to breaking into their circle, though, don’t expect that to be too easy.
Expensive utilities (and other things)
Although food and wine is cheap in Portugal, not everything else is. Some things are comparatively quite expensive.
Electricity and petrol are two good examples of this. Per kilowatt, Portugal is one of the most expensive countries in Europe. It’s also one of the most expensive countries for fuel, which leads to a lot of people who living near the Spanish border driving across to fill up.
Other things that are expensive include cars (both new and second-hand), furniture, electronics and appliances, toll roads, books, branded international foods and household products (e.g. cereals), and cosmetics and toiletries.
For some people having to learn Portuguese to live in Portugal is a fact of life. To others, it’s a big downside.
It isn’t so much that people don’t want to learn Portuguese (although some don’t), but rather that it’s a big stumbling block that prevents you from integrating into Portugal. It doesn’t take too long to learn enough Portuguese to get by in daily life, and even in more difficult bureaucratic situations, but it does take a long time to learn enough Portuguese to really integrate.
Portuguese is also seen as a difficult language. It’s not as difficult as Chinese or Arabic, but it’s one of the most difficult romance languages.
Limited cultural events in English
One of the downsides of living in another country, and not being fluent in the language, is that you miss out on a lot of cultural events like theatre, stand-up comedy, talks, book launches, and storytelling events.
If these events do exist – and some things like stand-up comedy can be hard to find even in Portuguese – they will more than likely be in Portuguese rather than English.
There are exceptions, particularly in Lisbon, but the vast majority of these events will be in Portuguese. On the plus side, it’s just another good reason to really practice your Portuguese.
Slow pace of life
The slow pace of life is one of the main reasons that people move to Portugal, but that slow pace of life can also be a downside. When you have something that needs doing, suddenly you find yourself wishing that slow pace of life wasn’t a thing in Portugal.
Even in simple tasks like going to the supermarket, you’ll find yourself queuing for a lot longer than you would in countries that don’t have a slow pace of life. It all depends which you value more: the slow pace of life (for when you do want it) or constant efficiency.
The Portuguese mentality can be frustrating for a lot of people, particularly for entrepreneurs and go-getters. If America has a “can do” attitude, Portugal often sits at the other side of the spectrum with a “can’t do” attitude.
There are a lot of reasons for this difference, particularly historical and cultural reasons, but regardless of them, some people will still find it hard to deal with.
A lot of people who move to Portugal bring their own money in the sense that they either come here as retirees with a pension, as freelancers or remote workers with clients outside of Portugal, or they start their own business here.
While there are jobs in Portugal, salaries are low – especially when compared to what most non-Portuguese people are used to.
The “who you know” attitude to business
To get ahead in a lot of industries in Portugal, it’s all about who you know. This maxim is true in a lot of countries, of course, but it’s especially true in Portugal.
In a lot of English-speaking countries, like the UK and US, who you know opens doors but it doesn’t make it impossible to break into certain industries. In Portugal, not knowing the right people can make it impossible to do business in a lot of industries that you could break into in other countries.
Rising cost of living
The cost of living in Portugal is on the rise, particularly when it comes to property prices. This is obviously more of a downside for the Portuguese living in Portugal who typically have less buying power on average, but it’s still a downside for expats as well.
House prices are rising throughout Portugal, but particularly in Lisbon and Porto and the Algarve.
A lot of people move to Portugal for the beaches and are surprised by just how cold the water is. Yes, it can be very cold: it’s not the Mediterranean Sea, it’s the Atlantic Ocean.
It isn’t a big deal for a lot of people, as most only go to the beach in summer, but it can make a difference if you were expecting to spend a lot of time in the water.
In the past few years, tourism has boomed in Portugal. Lisbon, in particular, has become one of the hottest destinations to visit and it has attracted millions of tourists from all over the world. Porto, and the Algarve, likewise, have seen a huge increase in tourism as well.
Unfortunately, Lisbon and Porto are much too small to handle the sheer volume of tourists that are visiting. The streets are narrow, and the cities themselves are quite compact and small. Historical attractions like the Torre de Belém in Lisbon or the Clérigos Tower just weren’t designed to cope with queues of hundreds of tourists.
It’s also led to other problems in the local housing market, and put a strain on public transport and other services. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like over tourism is going to decrease anytime soon and, with no real solutions to the problem, it may just become something that people have to accept. There’s that Portuguese “can’t do” attitude creeping in!