Europe’s Low-Cost Capital

If you love that lost-in-time feeling, then you will love Lisbon. The city’s wistful air preserves crumbling balconies and buildings that grasp at their cracked-tile exteriors. Royal palaces remain untouched by renovation, as if a marquis could come down the marble steps at any moment. Toy-like yellow trams sway over tracks, the creaky wooden interiors from the 1930s still intact. It’s inescapable, the Old-World elegance that permeates this city.

This is part of what lured me back to Lisbon. When I first lived here two years ago, I rented a one-bedroom apartment for $550 in the old Moorish quarter, the Alfama—a labyrinthine, medieval neighborhood of steep, cobbled lanes and white-washed buildings with red-tiled roofs.

Later, I moved to Oeiras, a peaceful residential area of flower-draped villas beside the beach. There I paid $500 a month to live in the shade of fig and kumquat trees in an apartment with two balconies, a fireplace, and gleaming wooden floors.

Bitten by the travel bug, I explored more of Europe…the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus, Spain…but I’m back now in Portugal, and this time I’m living in the Alcantara district, surrounded by embassies and close to the 19th-century Pestana Palace (now a lavish hotel, rooms $250 a night).

Out the window of my one-bedroom apartment, I can see the broad expanse of the Tagus River, which merges with the Atlantic 10 miles downstream. My rent is just $600 a month, utilities cost me $100, and my monthly grocery bill is around $250.

This is Western Europe’s cheapest capital city. At the most popular cafe on the block, my morning cafe pingado (espresso with a splash of milk) and a miniature pastel de nata (egg-custard tart in a flaky crust) cost just $1.35. Farther down this lively, tree-lined street, a small, family-run Portuguese restaurant features a different homemade, three-course menu each day (starter, main course, dessert with coffee, and wine/beer) for $8.50.

At the covered farmers’ market just three blocks away (open daily except Sunday), stalls overflow with luscious fruits, leafy greens, and shapely gourds. For $5 I can stuff my bags with red potatoes, kumquats, broccolini, turnips, and a healthy bunch of nabica (turnip tops), which is used in the traditional caldo verde soup.

The back section is devoted to fish and seafood stalls. Arranged temptingly over a bed of ice are enormous prawns, glimmering salmon, tuna steaks, pale squid, fat sardines (a local favorite), and several dozen other fish I could never name. And the prices are better than anywhere I’ve seen back in the U.S. Such access to fresh and inexpensive seafood is just one of the many reasons I love living here…

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