The author of this article moved to Lisbon in 2015, and now lives there full time.
I never dreamed that I would move to Portugal. When I had to select international programs to spend semesters at during my MA studies, I didn’t even include Portugal on the list. Even when my program insisted that I go to Lisbon, I wasn’t excited.
But during my time there, something funny happened – I fell in love with living in Lisbon.
I now very happily live in Lisbon full time. But there were some mistakes I made when moving here that made the transition harder than it had to be.
Here’s how I ended up in Lisbon, why I decided I just had to move there permanently, and some of the things I could have done differently when relocating.
Why I Moved to Portugal
When I received an MA scholarship from the European Commission back in 2013, the scholarship mandated that I study in three different universities in three different countries over the course of two years. I had initially chosen France, Britain, and Spain, but I was later informed that Spain would only work if I would be willing to do some classes in Galician. I spoke no Spanish, so attending lectures in Galician sounded more than intimidating to me.
The program coordinator suggested that I go to Lisbon, Portugal instead as some lectures were offered in English. I wasn’t very excited about that option as I knew nothing about Lisbon. But it made sense to opt for it out of convenience. I decided to defer Lisbon to the last semester of my MA degree in order to buy time to learn some Portuguese before I go.
What it Like Moving to Portugal for the First Time
When I Realized I Just Had to Move Back to Portugal
This bubble of mine came to an end as I returned home for a job offer which I was also excited about. A few months into my new job, I realized that I was not happy.
I needed to be in Lisbon.
I printed out a picture of the city’s famous yellow tram and hung it on the wall of my office to remind myself everyday that this is where I should be. By 2017, the Lisbon siren was calling out to me more persistently than ever. Hence, I moved back to Lisbon early 2018 for my PhD. It was the best decision I have ever made.
The Reasons Why I Chose to Live in Lisbon
Many people, especially those who have never been to Lisbon, keep asking me: why Lisbon?
I have always found it hard to fully capture how lovely it is in Lisbon in words.
The answer I manage to give though is that Lisbon is the perfect balance between a city life and a more simple, small town life. It is a European capital, so it definitely offers a wide range of activities and leisure options. It is well-connected to the beach (30 minutes by train or less than an hour by bus). It has a vibrant cultural and artistic scene.
However, it is neither Paris nor London i.e., it isn’t as overwhelming as those mega cities in which one may feel invisible. Many things are only a walking distance away. It isn’t uncommon to be acquainted with one’s neighbors or to enjoy quiet evenings on weekdays. Scenic landscapes are less than an hour away from the city. It has a small town feel to it.
Some of the Challenges I Faced When Moving to Lisbon
Feeling the way I did, and still do, about Lisbon didn’t mean that I was already prepared for the move. Obtaining a visa was one of the challenges, partly because I submitted insufficient documents and partly because bureaucracy is Portugal’s bread and butter.
Finding out about the situation of real estate in Lisbon was also something I researched well as I didn’t want to overpay for an apartment or have unrealistic expectations of the housing market.
However, the most challenging preparation was actually psychological. As much as I loved Lisbon, it wasn’t easy to leave home, say goodbye to friends and family, and embark on a new life.
The Mistakes I Wish I Would Have Avoided When Moving to Lisbon, Portugal
Now that I have been in Lisbon for four and a half years, I feel grateful for the decision I made back in 2018. Nevertheless, if I went back in time, I would do a few things differently. I often say to myself things like: “I should have done this differently” or “I wish I had known about that one earlier”.
So, I want to share the mistakes I made when I first moved to Lisbon, in the hope that others won’t repeat the same mistakes.
Here are some of the things I would have done differently:
Mistake 1: Thinking that I could flat hunt before arriving in Lisbon
I was scammed. Luckily, and after a lot of negotiations with the bank, I got my money back. It was a nerve-wracking experience, though. Those who scammed me acted hesitant about giving me their precious apartment as they hadn’t met me in person. It was me who tried convincing them of how reliable I am.
They suggested that I pay a down payment via Airbnb so we all feel safe. They sent me the Airbnb link and everything looked legitimate. I discovered later that one letter in the fake URL was missing (I don’t exactly remember what it was now, but imagine something like “Airbn” instead of Airbnb as part of a long URL).
It turned out that they created an entire website which looks exactly like the real Airbnb website to scam people.
It might not always be scammers. A friend found a good, “real” apartment online. When she arrived in Lisbon, she found herself in a very noisy street, something she wouldn’t have been able to find out online. It is important to wait till one is in Lisbon. Alternatively, there are trusted agencies, like StartAbroad, who arrange housing for expats moving to Portugal. Whatever you do, don’t go for a deal virtually on your own.
Mistake 2: Underestimating Portuguese bureaucracy
Bureaucracy is such a pain everywhere in the world. However, it is slightly more complicated in Portugal.
Sometimes there are no clear instructions online about different processes. It is also not always easy to seek clarification via email or phone, and many people keep on waiting without a reply. For example, I didn’t know that I was entitled to some money (a VAT refund on everything from groceries to rent to transportation, etc) provided that I added my fiscal number to all the financial transactions I carry out. During my first year in Lisbon, I didn’t provide my fiscal number anywhere which made me lose my rebate.
I also had doubts about which residency permit to apply for when it was time to renew my permit in Portugal. I waited for ages on the phone and received no replies for my emails till I found out that unless I send a brief email in Portuguese to SEF, I won’t be receiving any replies.
Finding out about taxes, residency permits, and other bureaucratic operations requires proactiveness, asking around, and a lot of research. Most importantly, it requires patience and preparing mentally for that patience in order to avoid frustration. It would have saved me so much time and energy if I had worked with an agency who could have managed all of that for me.
Mistake 3: Allowing myself to be overwhelmed
Who wouldn’t get overwhelmed when moving to a new country? All the fitting in, the logistics involved, the paperwork, the language barrier, etc. This is all, objectively, very stressful.
But, I wish I didn’t allow all of this to consume me the way that it did. I wasn’t exercising at all the first few months of the move even though I usually resort to exercise to deal with stress. I ignored my usual hobbies such as trying out new recipes, going dancing, and exploring new places. This all led to more stress and aggravated my sense of loneliness.
Things, eventually, sorted themselves out. Sustaining certain habits is very important to cope better with all the changes and to feel more grounded.
Mistake 4: Having misconceptions about creating a social life
I had this rigid idea that I have to immerse myself in all-local experiences in order to get a real feel of the city and live the “real” Lisbon. I was focused on trying to make friends with locals and discovering more about Lisbon only through Portuguese websites.
But this was ultimately limiting because the “real” Lisbon is also a diverse place. I didn’t know that I needed other expats to learn from their experience of moving to Lisbon. Moreover, I needed to meet newcomers, like myself back then, to do some activities and go for outings especially during the initial period of loneliness. I discovered expat groups on Facebook in my second year. Online expat groups are great for getting advice about visas, housing, taxes, as well as making new friends. I even met people who made real friendships which started in one of those groups.
I think I so was obsessed with not living a “typical expat” life that I ended up forgetting that expat communities are part and parcel of experiencing Lisbon and they do, indeed, provide newcomers with a much needed support system.
Mistake 5: Experiencing Lisbon’s gastronomy entirely based on online ratings
Now, this piece of advice kind of contradicts the one in number 4. I am recommending relying less on online ratings of restaurants particularly with Lisbon. To be honest, I only did this for a very brief period in the beginning. I realized that I wasn’t trying out anything impressive. I met many expats who have carried on doing this for years. They would only rely on Google to decide on where to eat. They ended up going to places which are good with marketing but don’t necessarily provide an authentic experience. The real gems of the city aren’t only found through the internet. For example, one of my favorite typical Portuguese restaurants is a family-run business called “O Mondego” in the central area of Rossio. There is little information about the restaurant online, but it has amazing food and great service. A main course of fresh fish along with a drink or two cost a bit less than 10 euros, which is crazy for a restaurant right in the heart of the city. There are many restaurants in the same area which are more expensive and quite present in the virtual world, but that aren’t as good.
For some reason, there is something beautifully old-school about dining out in Lisbon. There are still a few family-run restaurants and cafes which don’t feature at all on social media and have a minimal presence online, but they make up the real hidden gems of Lisbon’s locals. The best way to discover them is by taking a few risks here and there as well as asking around.
Still in Lisbon, and Still Loving It
Having shared some of the mistakes I initially made when I moved to Lisbon, I have to say that I am also grateful for each one of them as they were part of an eye-opening journey. They opened up my eyes to a new world and to myself. What also makes it all even better is that Lisbon is a place that is worth all the mistakes made and all the lessons learnt.
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