Lisbon Calling: The Truth About Starting Over In Portugal

The Reality Check: What You Need to Know Before Moving to Lisbon

Lively neighborhood of Bica in Lisbon, Portugal - Iconic stairs, hanging clothes, and gritty charm

My family and I have always been attracted to the notion of adventure, the idea of diving headfirst into a world unknown. Some might call us masochists; others might call us foolish. But when the idea of moving to Lisbon from the United States with my wife, Melissa, and our daughter, Samantha, first fluttered into my consciousness, I couldn’t resist the siren’s call. Perhaps, it was the romantic allure of a city steeped in history, the promise of warm sun on cobblestone streets, or the fabled allure of Portuguese culture that tugged at my heartstrings. But, as with most adventures, the reality is never quite as simple as the dream.

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I never do things by halves. I had decided to transplant myself from the comfortable, familiar environs of Las Vegas to the ancient, enigmatic Lisbon — and I wanted to do it properly. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Upon arriving in Lisbon, the city greeted us with open arms, like an old friend with whom I had shared many memories, despite never having met before. The narrow streets wound like a labyrinth through the city’s neighborhoods, each one holding secrets of its own. The seductive charm of Lisbon was instant, and my initial feeling was one of belonging, as though my soul had been searching for this place my entire life.

But let’s take a step back, shall we? While the glamour of moving to a new city, especially one as enticing as Lisbon, may blind you to the challenges that await, the truth is that there are numerous obstacles to overcome. I won’t sugarcoat it: these hurdles will test your resolve, your patience, and your sanity.

First and foremost, the language barrier. As an American, I grew up with English as my native tongue and my exposure to foreign languages was, regrettably, minimal. Although many locals speak English fluently or at least well enough to carry a conversation, the fact remains that Portuguese is the language of choice here. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning the language if you’re planning to make a life in Lisbon. Don’t be like me, the arrogant monolingual who thought that a smattering of phrases would suffice. My failure to grasp the language early on proved to be a significant stumbling block, both practically and emotionally.

Finding housing was the next big challenge, and my naiveté was a considerable disadvantage. However, as fate would have it, we secured our first apartment in Lisbon while still back in the USA. It was an Airbnb that was searching for long-term renters, so we signed a lease, feeling relieved and excited. During the tail end of the pandemic, competition was not fierce, and we were grateful to have found a place so easily.

Construction site in Lisbon with heavy machinery and workers causing noise pollution
Living near a construction site can be a challenging reality of life in Lisbon - Photo by author.

Little did we know, our new home was literally next to a construction site where senior living housing was being built. The noise was truly astounding — a cacophony of jackhammers, drills, and heavy machinery that shook our apartment walls day in and day out. So, after nine long months, we decided to move somewhere less bustling.

But, as it turns out, escaping the noise in a city like Lisbon is easier said than done. This time, it’s the roar of motorcycles, the persistent echo of barking dogs, and the sound of life passing through the thin walls that surround us. The noise is everywhere, and the reality is that you have to adapt.

In a city as vibrant and alive as Lisbon, noise becomes an inescapable part of the experience. You’ll soon learn to embrace it, let it wash over you, and realize that it’s simply the soundtrack to your new life. The key is to adapt and accept that living in a city means embracing its unique rhythms and challenges, as well as its beauty and charm.

Lisbon’s housing market is both competitive and labyrinthine, with rental prices rising steadily over the past few years. Do your research and be prepared to adapt your expectations or face the crushing disappointment of chasing an unattainable dream.

Once I had finally found my own little piece of Lisbon to call home, it was time to tackle the bureaucracy. Portugal is notorious for its complex web of paperwork and seemingly endless loops of bureaucratic red tape. If you think you’ve filled out your last form or provided your final photocopy of your passport, you’re sorely mistaken. I advise setting aside ample time for multiple trips to government offices and a healthy dose of patience. This process will either make or break you, and it certainly tested my limits.

But this is the harsh reality I want you to understand: the struggles you’ll face are, in many ways, a necessary part of the experience. The challenges of moving to Lisbon forced me to reevaluate my understanding of life, what it means to belong somewhere, and how far I was willing to go to chase a dream.

And let me tell you, through those challenges, I found a resilience I never knew I possessed. The late nights spent studying Portuguese, the countless conversations with locals in broken English, the perseverance in the face of bureaucratic nightmares — these were the experiences that taught me the most.

But what of the other side of the coin? The parts of life in Lisbon that make the harsh realities of moving here all worthwhile? It’s the small things — the beauty of the azulejo tiles adorning the façades of Lisbon’s buildings, the sense of community in the local mercado, and the overwhelming kindness of the Portuguese people. Lisbon has a way of etching itself onto your soul, much like the chiseled cobblestones that pave its streets.

I learned that Lisbon is a city of contrasts, where old-world charm coexists with a burgeoning modernity. The juxtaposition of ancient architecture and modern art installations serves as a constant reminder of the city’s ability to reinvent itself. And, in a way, it pushes you to do the same.

Panoramic view of Belém Tower and walking bridge in Lisbon, Portugal.
A Monumental Arrival: The walking bridge leading up to Belém Tower offers visitors a stunning approach to this historical masterpiece of Portuguese architecture, with breathtaking views of the tower and surrounding area.

There is something undeniably magical about Lisbon, and despite the hurdles I faced along the way, I found my place here. I discovered my own little corner of the city, a sun-drenched terrace where I could sit with my thoughts and watch the world go by. I found friends who became family, people who understood the challenges of uprooting one’s life and starting anew.

Yes, moving to Lisbon was a journey riddled with hardships, but the lessons I learned along the way are invaluable. And in the end, the sense of belonging, the exhilaration of overcoming obstacles, and the chance to become part of this enchanting city’s tapestry far outweighed the difficulties.

So, as you consider making the leap and moving to Lisbon, be prepared for the harsh realities that await. But also know that with determination, patience, and an open heart, you may just find a new home and a new life that surpasses your wildest dreams.

So there you have it. Thank you so very much for reading.

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Hi! We’re Melissa, Michael, and Samantha. We’re a nomadic family from the United States, currently living and building our new lives in Lisbon, Portugal. Follow us on our adventures as we explore this beautiful city and all it has to offer.