Portuguese wines and spirits on display

3 ways Portugal is better than the UK, and vice versa

During a recent, unanticipated trip to the UK, I couldn’t help making several comparisons between life in Portugal and in Britain. As a Brit who’s lived abroad for more than 10 years, there are things I notice when I’m back to see family and friends in my native country that are comforting, like a little treat for the spirit or the taste buds. Other aspects of life in the UK serve as sharp reminders of why I choose to live in Portugal.

Three ways in which the UK trumps Portugal

1.  The sheer variety of food

Portuguese people are bred to be proud of their food, and in some instances, for example Polvo à Lagareiro (baked octopus with potatoes), their pride is understandable and justified. Unfortunately, this love of national food results in an almost identical menu in most restaurants. I can pretty much guess what’s going to be available without looking and when I find a café that serves something other than cheese / ham / ham and cheese sandwiches I get quite excited.

Britain, however, has a bad international reputation for bland food. This may have been true years ago but we Brits have firmly embraced foreign cuisines and this is reflected in almost every café, bistro, restaurant and sandwich shop across the land. I’m often overwhelmed by the options available but it’s a real treat to have such a choice. The last sandwich I had in the UK was crayfish and avocado on ciabatta. Delicious!

sandwich bar photo by su-lin on flickr.com

2. Supermarkets

I’ve been reminded how limited the range of food in supermarkets can be in Portugal. Unless you’re in a major city, or the Algarve, it’s almost impossible to track down anything that isn’t bog standard Portuguese fare. If, by some stroke of luck, you find something exotic, you should buy it immediately as it probably won’t be there next time you visit the same shop. In Britain, there are herbs, spices, sauces and ready-meals from around the world, even in small town supermarkets.

Food shopping also seems a lot cheaper in the UK than in Portugal these days. Except for wine, which is outrageously expensive in Britain. The cheapest drinkable red costs £4 whereas in Portugal, you can pick up a decent bottle for 2€.

3. Opportunities and activities

Even in a backwater, fairly deprived area in the Midlands, there are interesting courses on offer at the local library and other community organizations. Drumming, languages, and photography to name but a few.

I admit that my language limitations, rural location and unsocial working hours in Portugal make it more difficult to attend courses but there just doesn’t seem to be a comparable offer either in my local town or the city where I work. Or perhaps I’m just not looking in the right places.

Three ways in which Portugal beats the pants off the UK

1. The weather

An obvious one, I know, but the warmer weather is one of the main reasons why I love living in Portugal. It’s not perfect; the summers can be overpowering and winters chilly but the sun shines most days. There are times when I’m sunbathing in the garden and my friends and family back in the UK are having to put the central heating on.

The difference that blue skies and sunshine make to my mood and motivation are incredible and I couldn’t bear to return to the UK where almost every day is a grey day. Sometimes we have what feels like a month of solid rain in Portugal but it’s a small price to pay for great weather we get for the rest of the year.

2. Free things

The UK is a rip-off country. Everything costs a small fortune and if you want to go out for the day, you’ll be hard-pushed to manage it without putting your hands in your pocket.

Portugal, on the other hand, can still be refreshingly cheap. Parking at river beaches, and off-season at the seaside, is usually free. Most attractions haven’t been excessively commercialised and set up to extort as much money as possible from people. Long may they stay that way.

3. Coffee

café cheio / expresso topped up with hot water

For anyone who likes coffee and has been to Portugal, this is no surprise. I will never understand the Brits’ obsession with drinking bucket-sized mugs of watery, tasteless stuff that costs £3 a cup. Once you’ve had ‘proper coffee’ in Portugal, it’s best to avoid the muck they serve in the UK. I stick to tea these days.

Portuguese coffee, whether it’s a quick shot of expresso to keep you awake after a meal, or just to keep you going during the day, or a meia de leite (coffee with milk), is strong, freshly made and full of flavour. And cheap!

If you’re thinking of moving to Portugal, or any other country for that matter, you’ll need to do your homework. This book, A Better Life for Half the Price (affiliate link), with various extra support components is a useful read to help you decide if becoming an expat is right for you. 

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36 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Enjoyed reading a few of your posts today. Is nice to have people sharing their experience of Portugal in such positive ways.
    Just moved back to Portugal after spending nearly 15 years abroad, mostly in London.
    I agree with you. In big supermarkets in cities you can find a decent selection of international food, but in country side it remains very traditional. Is also true that most restaurants do pretty much the same even though slowly people are getting more adventurous to try different cuisines, again you will find more restaurant diversity in cities, but can’t compare it with the diversity of London that’s for sure, and even in British small towns you have more choice of international cuisine than in a Portuguese small town.
    Brits have embraced different cuisines in a much broader way than Portuguese. This may be one of the reasons why British supermarkets have now so much choices (there was less diversity 15 years ago). Another reason may be because over there you find a greater number of foreigners from all over the world, so is a wider market to sell.
    If you want to cook with international produce/food, it will probably end up being quite expensive comparing with the uk. I’m still adjusting my meal plans to keep to my budget, had to change some cupboards staples lately.
    Wine is great value, don’t think it can get any better value elsewhere. I find bread over here amazing as well, and you can easily find freshly baked bread all day long in any pastelaria.
    Coffee is what I missed the most when I lived abroad, after the good weather of course.
    The courses and activities! Was commenting the same with my husband a few days ago! Is way less over here. We’ve been researching a lot and is very hard to find anything even in e-learning! My husband is not Portuguese so we looking into getting some lessons for him and luckily where we live there’s some language schools, but is so expensive! Again, in country side you don’t even have language schools or Portuguese lessons for foreigners. I’m used to be on continuous trainings work related or for personal purposes, and U.K. is great for that. You may have notice the way people see education and academic learning here is different from the uk. Is much harder here to get on a part-time uni degree than in the U.K., so is harder for someone who has finantial commitments like family with kids and a mortgage/own business to carry on studying. Also in the UK you can quite easily change careers with all the flexible courses and trainings available. Over here, if you have a degree, and after change your mind about the career and decide to do something else that doesn’t requires a degree, even if you opening your own business, you sort of looked down at, now that in the U.K. is very common nowadays to change your carreer, even for people who had a City job, and run their own online small business, often in crafts, or a organic food cafe etc. Sorry, got a bit carried away on this one…

    1. Funny you should mention the thing about changing career. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been accepted onto a local business development programme (thank you, EU!) and had my first meeting with a consultant this afternoon. He asked me lots of questions about my background and was visibly taken aback by how varied my career to date has been 🙂

  2. Hi Julie! interesting blog! i lived one year in the UK. And now i am back to Portugal. There are many things in favour to Portugal, however where UK can´t be overtaken is job opportunities and health system. In the UK i did a surgery to my hip that cost me 0, in Portugal even with insurance could cost me a lot!…but as you said, priorities should be assessed, and then make a decision, not a easy call though…we can´t have the best of both worlds, can we?…

  3. I lived in Portugal 18 years and 13 in England and I have to disagree with some things that you wrote . First the food : Portuguese cook almost everything that moves 🙂 . They have a huge variety of fresh seefood, fish and veg and if you visit a supermarket on most cities in Portugal the fish counter its huge . The fruits ? cherries oranges peaches .. what about those delicious bananas from Madeira or those Pineapples from Azores ? In Portugal they can plant almost every fruit and vegetable they want and they are delicious .Good wine and olive oil . Its true that for example if you visit a restaurant on the seafront you will have more selection of fish and seafood that on other areas . The menus will vary depending on the area you are visiting . For example in Azores ( volcanic island ) they cook a special meal inside the ground for about 10 hours . Portuguese usually dont like to eat pre made food / processed food .
    About activities it will depend where you are and what you like to do or learn . But on average there is more to do than in england , essensualy because the weather that makes go outside more often . Beach , surf , cycling , whale/dolphins/sharks/sea turtles watching, barbecues , camping , play football run or just walking its more enjoyable on a good weather .
    Well at least that’s my opinion ..

    1. I agree with many things you said but I guess everyone of us are different , I like England but it’s not because of the food available on supermarkets . Clothes , gadgets and cars and definitely more easy to buy in England which give us satisfaction for a short period of time until we get use to it or until they release a new version of a mobile phone . I think Portugal or Spain will probably give us more moments that will stay with us forever and the satisfaction from those memories will last longer than when someone buy a new mobile phone.

    2. Hi Miguel, I think my issue with the range of food is that it’s hard to find international food. Some of the larger supermarkets in cities may have a shelf or two of foreign goods but in more rural areas, the options are limited and get a bit samey and you won’t be able to buy a Madeiran banana for love nor money.
      I do love the fresh fruits in season here and look forward to cherry time every year. I’m not suggesting that Portuguese food is inferior just that I miss more varied options in restaurants and supermarkets.

  4. Hi Julie,
    Great blog!

    well, the Portuguese cuisine is rich. Truly! 🙂 But it seems there is little variety because the restaurants always have the same menu. But the family food is phenomenal. In large cities we find different types of food, or rather, the cuisine of various countries. But this is not the cultural identity of a country! The culture of a country is also identified through our food, so the Portuguese love their food, their culture and their country (unless politics ^ _ ^) As someone wrote, we use few spices or condiments (?!) but we must not forget that we practice Mediterranean cuisine. Most Portuguese like to enjoy the real taste of food. It’s very strange to eat something that makes you think “What the hell, what am I eating?” The foods are so camouflaged that lose their essence…

    1. Author

      Hi Clara, Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your views on Portuguese food. It’s always good to hear the other side of the story!

  5. Hi Julie,

    I’m Portuguese living in the England right now, and I agree with most things you wrote. The only thing I don’t agree with is the food thing. I feel exactly the opposite! I think it’s because people get used to the food of their own country. I live in Yorkshire, and I only see restaurants that serve carvery (which is great), fish (that I really don’t appreciate) and different foods too spicy or with too much curry.
    But I’m thinking about going back. I love living here, but I really miss Portugal. I could live here and have a better lifestyle (more job opportunities, more money, etc) or live in Portugal with less money and no professional growth. I really don’t know what to do.

    1. Author

      Hi Mafalda, I think you’re right about people being used to the food from their own country. There are so many things that Portuguese people get very excited about which baffle me – even after nearly 7 years, there are lots of foods and snacks that are a mystery to me – and I expect it’s the same for anyone who is in a country they didn’t grow up in.

      I understand your dilemma and don’t envy the decision you are faced with. For me, I feel I have a better lifestyle (less stress, more freedom, lower living costs) in Portugal than I would have in the UK so although the question of returning to the UK has come up several times over the last few years for family reasons, I really don’t think I would be happy living there.

      Where you choose to live will depend on your priorities at the time but remember you can always move again later if you need to. A few years ago, I chose to take a promotion and go and work in Venezuela. The contract was for two years but I hated living there so much that I left within a year. I didn’t really enjoy the job, either. Money and work status is no use if you’re miserable.

  6. My husband and I are now retired to northern Portugal, and where we are it’s mainly ‘family restaurants’ and yes, the menus are fairly ‘standard’ with few differences. However what REALLY drives us nuts, is the fact that in the markets and even the supermarkets we can buy all manner of vegetables [ except our beloved swedes, parsnips and cranberries *sigh*] but – when you eat out in a restaurant about the only thing you get veg wise alongside the potatoes [chips or roast] are those stringy, dark green ‘nabo’ type turnip tops. Pleasant enough once you are used to them .. but NOT very exciting when that is all you can get ! And the desserts too I can count on one hand.

    If one goes into Porto though, there are all sorts of restaurants, from Moroccan, Chinese etc to the more unusual types of Portuguese!!

    But, we love it here, and couldn’t contemplate going back to the UK !!!

    1. Author

      I know exactly what you mean about the veg, and the desserts! Like you, however, it’s something I’m prepared to ‘lump’ in order to benefit from the more appealing aspects of life in Portugal 🙂

  7. Hi Julie, what a great blog you have here, congrats! I hope you enjoy living in Portugal 🙂

    I just have to disagree with you about the food. Maybe you need to visit a little more of the country to check out what more can be offered.

    Just as pastery is concerned, we have a massive variety: the ovos moles, bolo rei, pao de lo, pastel de nata, bolo de arroz, requeijao, fios de ovos do algarve, tortas de azeitao, omg, there are so many I could go on and on and on..

    Then, when it comes to food, almost every region has it’s own tradition. Matosinhos for instance is very well known for the dozens of fish plates that they do;
    In Mealhada you have the famous pork sandwich;
    In Mirandela you have the famous “posta à Mirandesa”, a great beef steak;
    In Oporto you have the “Francesinha”, and the Cozido à Portuguesa (a mixture of the finest chicken, sausages, beefs, vegetables and whatnot).
    Seriously I here could also go on and on and on..

    Anyway I agree about the rest! And once more congratulations on your blog 🙂

  8. I enjoyed reading your blog ..
    As a big fan of Fado music and the language ( and the Portuguese people ), I try to visit Portugal every chance I get ..as much as I like the seafood that I had there, it is hard for me to understand the Portuguese affection with the ‘bacalao’ ..tried so many variations until finally decided never again ..the taste, the smell is sooo bad !
    and about that famous licor beirao .. is there any coctail recipe to make it ‘drinkable’ ? happened to buy 2 bottles without trying ..

    1. Author

      Hi Sibel, I happen to love licor Beirão, as it comes but it’s very refreshing over ice. There are some cocktail and food recipes on the licor beirão website: http://www.licorbeirao.com/. Just click through until you find something that appeals. I just tried the ‘morangão’ which is crushed strawberries, ice and Licor Beirão and it was delicious.

      I’ve also used it to make kiwi sorbet https://juliedawnfox.com/2012/02/20/k-is-for-kiwi-fruit/ and kiwi crumble but you could just as easily use it with apples.

      Good luck!

  9. I am half Portuguese, half English and have lived in both countries for a long time. I too am constantly making comparisons. I do agree with your observations, especially about attitude to food. It amazes me sometimes that a country that pioneered the import of spices from the East uses so little in its diet. There really is no imagination or variety in their/our dishes. But the raw ingredients are great. Fresh fish, potatoes and onions, not to be matched. Answer is to cook fresh ingredients as simply as possible, and drizzle with olive oil. Which is also probably the best in the world.

    1. Author

      Hi Joana, thanks for taking the time to comment. I can’t understand why there’s so little variation either but you’re right about the fresh food and olive oil. Fruit and vegetables actually have flavour and I’m a huge fan of olive oil.

  10. I agree with the coffee. When I go back to Canada I see cars lined up at the local coffee take-out window, paying $2-$3 for a large cup of the watery mess. Since drinking a good coffee in Italy, I will never go back to the old ways.

  11. The reason for less variety in Portugal is it’s mainly local and organic which is a good thing with no air miles and petro chemicals. That was one of the many reasons I prefer Portugal over the UK. Local and organic are the preserve of the switch on middle class in the UK. Food plays much more of a part of culture and the family in Portugal, hopefully this will remain and Monsanto and McDonalds can stay away.

  12. Hi Julie! Great blog! I hope you enjoy the country. I can´t agree with you about the food.
    Portugal has one of the best and most varied cuisines in the world. Fish, meat, pastries, etc..´
    Congratulations!

    1. Author

      Thanks for your comment, André. Are you Portuguese, by any chance? Most Portuguese people I’ve spoken to about food are very loyal to their cuisine ;).
      I still think that although Portugal has lots of tasty dishes, there isn’t enough variety on menus or supermarkets, especially where I live.

  13. Hello,I’m Portuguese born i live in England married to English man , and i agree with everything you said about the two countries. We’re thinking move to Portugal maybe within 2 years i miss so much the weather there and the food as well the people.Hope you be happy in Portugal always, and crisis and economic problems exists everywhere in world not just in Portugal .

  14. Funny, isn’t it, how some coutnries adopt all the foods available and others do not? Australia is like the UK in that respect – you can eat just about any food available on the planet, except for some things we just can’t grow or don’t import. Yams, for instance, we have to substitute with the white flesh sweet potatoes and we are having trouble finding the sort of rice they use in Nigeria – but of course there is plenty of varieties of rice, just not that one.

    We can eat Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Italian, African (various), Turkish, French, German and a host of others I can’t remember of the top of my head!

  15. Don’t forget to tell how nice and warm hearted the Portuguese people are.
    Where ever you go you feel more than welcome and even while the country is poor the people will share the products of their gardens such as fruit and vegetables with you.
    It is a peaceful country with relaxed people I feel privileged to live in such a fine country.

    1. Author

      I agree, Iris. My neighbours often bring us eggs and vegetables, knowing that we don’t produce our own. We don’t need or rely on the things they give us, but appreciate their generosity and thoughtfulness.

  16. Inclined to agree with you in the main Julie. Certainly about the coffee. I always find plenty of things to do in the Algarve, but of course they’re mostly outdoors, and the weather certainly helps in that respect. Aside from our recent Jubilee celebrations (and you may have seen what the weather did to that!) we don’t have half so many festivals.
    I usually shop at the Minipreco and I do find them cheaper than our UK equivalent. The content probably has novelty value for me though, being a UK resident.

    1. Author

      Hi Jo, when I did a quick price comparison between Lidl in Portugal and in the UK, I was surprised at how much cheaper certain things, such as nuts, were in Britain. I haven’t done a full analysis though so may be proved wrong on that point. The choice is still far better in the UK and the novelty of Portuguese food staples soon wears off, for me at least 🙂

  17. Comparing to Australia, Portuguese food is great, here the only variety is Asian and more Asian! As for the coffee, not many countries have good coffee or know how to make it well. In Australia an average “bica” costs from 3dlrs upwards, which is enough to put you off coffee!

    1. Author

      I don’t understand why coffee is so overpriced in some countries, like the UK and Australia, like you say, it puts you off even before you taste it and find out you paid over the odds for crap coffee.

  18. Enjoyed this post Julie. I’d add port on the side of Portugal. I’m not much of a fan but a few days in Oporto made my husband a very happy man 🙂 As for the UK, I’d add theater (not just London but that in itself would win out).

    1. Author

      Thanks for commenting, I agree with both your points. I drink a lot more port now that I live here and have discovered tawny port – yum! And my husband pines for British theatre…

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