Reflections on 7 Weeks in Portugal as a Digital Nomad

I started writing this in The Marriott Hotel near Edinburgh Airport. Right now I’m finishing it off on my mum’s sofa while she takes a nap. This is my new normal: working from random places. I don’t have my own desk or home office or, er, home, for that matter, any more. After nearly six years of living in Edinburgh, four of which were spent growing my business, I finally packed my bags and hit the road at the end of October.

I landed back in Edinburgh just over a week ago – and I spent the seven weeks before that living and working in Portugal. I’ll be here in the UK for a few more weeks catching up with friends and family before I jet off again at the end of January.

An Overview of My Time in Portugal

I spent six weeks in Lisbon, followed by a week in Porto, a smaller city further north. I spent my first couple of weeks in Lisbon getting to know the place and working intermittently, the second couple of weeks exploring with a friend who visited and doing barely any work at all, and the final couple of weeks working and writing and wearing my pyjamas. After that, I took the train to Porto, where I stayed for almost a week.

I stayed in the same apartment for my whole time in Lisbon. It was tiny, but big enough for me and my laptop. And just about big enough for my friend, who kipped on the sofa in a borrowed sleeping bag. I still haven’t told him that after he left I found a foldout bed and a duvet under my own bed. Aaaand I probably won’t, so shh. The apartment was in Bairro Alto, a central area with vibrant nightlife – think dingy basement bars where the drinks are strong, the floors sticky, the music loud, and the customers spill onto the streets. The area’s quiet in the morning and thumping at night. Even in the off-season, I felt incredibly safe walking around late at night because there were always people everywhere.

(Side story: I once drunkenly texted my Airbnb host about the ‘amazing bar beneath my apartment which we should totally go to’. I THOUGHT about making sure I was sending the message to the right person, but then I decided against it because ‘obviously I have already checked and forgotten’. Turns out not.)

In Porto I stayed in a slightly less central area, which was good because central areas are BUSY and LOUD and SOMEWHAT ANNOYING. Tripping over tourists every time I wanted to go to the supermarket was, hmm, to be expected but still infuriating (being a tourist myself in a touristy area, I can’t really complain, but I’m doing it anyway because, ugh, crowds). I definitely enjoyed the slower pace in Porto after six weeks in central Lisbon.

What It’s Like Living and Working in Portugal

Portugal is a ridiculously easy place for digital nomads to base themselves. Pretty much everyone speaks English. I didn’t learn much beyond hello, thank you, please, sorry and, er, ‘a bag’ (for my shopping). Actually, tell a lie: Duolingo taught me how to say a bunch of useless shit too, all of which I have already forgotten. I made a very poor effort to learn before I realised I really didn’t need to.

As I talked about in my newsletter, my time in Portugal felt very much like ‘real life’ – I mostly spent my days writing, working and going for walks, with occasional meals out and even more occasional tourist activities (which I largely saved for my friend’s visit). This felt a bit strange, since all my previous travel has been either backpacking on savings (in my pre-business days) or shorter trips where I could scale back on my work till I returned home. I found it interesting trying to balance work and life, and I’m not sure I did a particularly good job. When I work, I tend to do it all damn day, so saying I’ll work in the morning and go out in the afternoon doesn’t really work for me. The answer may lie in ‘batching’, and dedicating certain days to work and certain days to play. It’s something I’ll have to experiment more with as I travel.

I had one co-working session with friends in a cafe with good coffee and wifi, but apart from that I always worked from home. So long as I’ve got a little table or desk to sit at, I’m good. The main reason I use co-working offices is to get some social interaction in my life, but I didn’t really need that during my time in Portugal. I had friends I met with regularly in Lisbon, and a friend from back home visited me for a couple of weeks too. Having a strong online community and regular Facetime sessions with my darling mother helped, too. Maybe in other places I visit I’ll make more of an effort to find co-working offices to work from, but I didn’t feel the need here.

Some Highlights from My Time in Portugal

I’m going to do this as a bulletpoint list because wow, this post is going to be insanely long otherwise.

  • Cheap, delicious coffee. Costs around 65 cents for an espresso in Portugal. The mediocre Marriott-Hotel Americano I had when I started writing this blog post cost £3. I loved grabbing an espresso and a custard tart (pasteis de nata) for €1.70
  • Quinta da Regaleira, a historic estate in Sintra. Basically a playground for adults: labyrinthine tunnels, waterfalls, stepping stones, towers, wells, that sort of thing.
  • Florestas Submersas (Forests Underwater), a temporary exhibition at Lisbon aquarium by Japanese aquarist Takashi Amano. I particularly loved the soundtack by Rodrigo Leão. SO PEACEFUL.
  • WARMTH. My first week in Lisbon was 20+ degrees, and that was in November. Sexy.
  • Getting to know Lauren and Dave better, who I met at WDS in 2013 and who are currently basing themselves in Lisbon. It’s Lauren who convinced me Lisbon should be my first stop!
  • The food in Lisbon. I ate a lot of octopus and I ate in a lot of awesome restaurants recommended by Lauren and Dave. In particular I loved Taberna da Rua das Flores, Pistola y Corazon, Koppu, Atalho Real, and Chimera.
  • The Time Out Market. Another great food place, but gets a special mention because it’s full of incredible stalls to choose from.
  • Foxtrot, a chilled-out speakeasy jazzy cocktail bar. (It’s not really a speakeasy, but you do have to ring a doorbell to get in, which is exciting.)
  • Awesome sunsets.
  • Attack on Titan is called Ataque dos Titas in Portuguese. This pleases me.
  • Livraria Lello, a beautiful bookshop in Porto, which allegedly inspired J.K. Rowling.
  • THE COLOURS! The colourful tiled and painted walls are what makes Portugal so beautiful and vibrant.
  • Getting mistaken for a local because of my dark features and lack of backpack. This is always nice, isn’t it?

Some Lowlights from My Time in Portugal

  • Voltron: Legendary Defender isn’t on Portuguese Netflix.
  • Couldn’t watch anime on Netflix. No English options whatsoever. Sigh.
  • Yes, most of my complaints are Netflix related.
  • Loud, inconsiderate neighbours. The apartments above and below me in Lisbon were also Airbnbs, which meant lots of new inconsiderate assholes passing through, getting drunk and making noise. TAKE YOUR GODDAMN SHOES OFF, STOMPY. I may or may not have got the broom out to smack on the ceiling.
  • Ill-equipped kitchens. I don’t need much to make a healthy meal, but the kitchens in both my apartments were pretty dire. The first one literally had no work surfaces and the second one had no oven.
  • Slippery, narrow streets and insane hills, particularly in Lisbon. A deathtrap when it rains. Can’t imagine being old, frail or disabled here. Or going for a run. Christ.
  • Getting mistaken for a local because of my dark features and lack of backpack. Oh no wait, it’s only nice until you realise you’re going to look like an idiot when you can’t respond coherently in Portuguese.

What I’ve Learned and What I’ll Do Next

I’m planning to stay in the UK for about a month or so, visiting friends and family. After that, I’ll probably head to Spain, although I’m yet to book anything. Based on what I learned in Lisbon, I’m thinking I’ll perhaps aim to stay in smaller cities for longer periods of time, because they’re cheaper and quieter, which means they’ll be good places to work from. Then maybe I’ll visit bigger cities for shorter stays where I can tourist myself out inside a week and then move on.

In the long-term, I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing. My vague plan is to see as much of Europe as I can before Brexit hits. I suspect I’ll eventually move back to Edinburgh when I tire of being on the road constantly. There are of course other parts of the world I want to explore, but whether I’ll end up digital nomading them or going on trips from a base in Edinburgh remains to be seen. Either way, travel will always be an important part of my life.

Right now, I’m thinking I’ll do this for at least a year. Well, let’s be honest, at least just over a year, since I’m not moving back to fucking Scotland in WINTER. I’m not insane. But maybe I’ll end up doing this for even longer. Or shorter. I haven’t thought very far ahead because, really, how can you possibly know what you will want to do a year or two down the line? Life unfolds as it will. We make decisions based on how we feel and whatever circumstances we happen to be in. And that’s all there is to it, really. As ever, my mantra is to do what feels right at the time.