Test-Driving Our Dream Retirement in Portugal — Part One

I held onto the metal bar in front of me, straddling my seat, as our 28-passenger raft crashed down into the Atlantic Ocean, deftly riding the ocean swells as we sped along the coast of the Algarve in Portugal. We were on a tour headed into the Benagil Cave, the most famous sight in the Algarve, and I marveled at the towering sun-dappled limestone cliffs lining the coast. Benagil Cave lived up to its hype, a spectacular soaring natural formation with sun streaming in through a large hole in the ceiling.

As spectacular as our boat trip was, it was just one of the many stunning vistas my husband, Chris, and I have seen since arriving in Portugal a few weeks prior.

The Benagil cave is the most famous sea cave in Portugal. ©Jan Schroder
The Benagil cave is the most famous sea cave in Portugal. ©Jan Schroder

We were the lucky winners of International Living magazine's Win Your Dream Retirement Overseas competition last year, to spend a month in Portugal as a trial retirement, and report on what it would be like to retire in the Algarve area along the southern coast. Our home base for the month of October is in Lagos, a city of around 22,000 people about 187 miles from Lisbon.

Lagos offers some of the most stunning beaches in the Algarve. ©Jan Schroder
Lagos offers some of the most stunning beaches in the Algarve. ©Jan Schroder

To contemplate retirement in a foreign country is a concept, well, rather foreign to me. I have lived in the city of Atlanta in the U.S. my whole life. Most of my closest friendships were formed prior to the Carter administration. I don’t really do change.

Yes, I love to travel and have been able to jet to places from Bora Bora to Belize to Berlin. But within a matter of days, I always returned home, the place where I feel grounded.

But after hearing of the many advantages of retiring overseas, we’re here to consider spending our later years far from home, 4,149 miles to be exact. We traveled around Portugal before settling into our apartment in Lagos, spending time in Faro, Lisbon, Cascais, and Porto. Along the way, we asked people in Portugal why it is such a fabulous country.

People talked about the low cost of living, the healthcare system, and the prevalence of people who speak English. We also heard about the beauty and safety of the country, the climate, and the recreational opportunities in the Algarve. The more than 2,200 photos we took in just two weeks are a testament to how beautiful we have found Portugal.

I love the stark white buildings with red-tiled roofs, the art and craftsmanship of the swirling patterns of the pavers on the sidewalks and pedestrian streets. The towering cliffs we spotted from our boat reminded us of the emerald-hued cliffs of Kauai in Hawaii. The Douro Valley boasts miles of terraced gardens where the grapes for the famous Portugal port are grown.

From the windows of the trains we took I spotted groves of olive trees, miles of green farmland, and charming white farmhouses.

After getting hopelessly lost in Lisbon one afternoon leaving Castelo de S. Jorge, we settled down on a terrace with a beer and a glass of wine overlooking the red-tiled buildings and the waters of the Tagus river as the sun set, feeling like we were in the midst of a watercolor come to life.

There are dozens more stunning scenes, the beaches of Cascais, the view of Porto from across the Dom Luís Bridge, the striped fisherman’s homes in Costa Nova, the marble expanses of the Alcobaça Monastery, and the blue-and-white tiles on the exterior of homes.

Another thing of beauty is a delicious glass of white wine that costs less than €3, but I’ll write more about the delightful affordability of Portugal later.

In addition to its beauty, the climate of the Algarve is a big draw. With about 3,000 hours of sun a year, it draws sun-lovers from all over Europe. Even in October, visitors are lounging on the beach in bathing suits and strolling through town in flip-flops, shorts, and sundresses.

Aleksandar Arsenic, 40, is semi-retired and moved to Lagos with his wife and two young children from Canada. “We come from central Canada where it’s winter six months of the year,” he said. “We had enough. It’s hard to get used to winters where the temperature dips to -30 Celsius and constant snowstorms pile on a foot of snow during any given month.

With such fantastic weather, the Algarve is perfect for recreational activities just about year-round. Golfing is big here and there is hiking, kayaking, swimming, fishing, sailing, paddleboarding, and surfing. With its variety of habitats, it’s one of the best places for birdwatching.

“The Algarve was a great choice due to the climate,” Aleksandar said. “We are water people, our kids love being in the water, we paddle board, snorkel, swim, and whatever else we can do just to be at the beach.”

Safety is a big factor and is mentioned by just about everyone as a reason they moved to Portugal. The crime rate is very low in Portugal and in 2022 it was ranked the 6th safest country by the Global Peace Index. “It took me a few months to realize I don’t need to look over my shoulder,” said one expat. “I feel perfectly safe walking around by myself at night.”

In future updates, we’ll share several other reasons that make this country such an attractive place to retire, including some stories about the cost of healthcare, apartments, and houses that will shock you and perhaps have you scheduling a trip here.

Watch their first video update below:

- Follow Jan on Instagram for more photos and tips for traveling in Portugal.

How to Retire in Portugal

An Overview of Traditions and Culture in Portugal

Portugal Itinerary: How to Spend 7 Days in Portugal