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Berlin, but nicer

Lisbon calling: Why are Berliners moving to Portugal?

Tired of rising rents and grey weather, more and more Berliners are escaping to Portugal. But is life actually better there? We found out.

Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: João Reguengos

Picture this: a clear blue sky, white sand, the sea gently rippled by the wind and waves. You walk up cobbled streets past whitewashed houses with ornately patterned tiles and blooming bougainvilleas; the locals greet you warmly. Tonight you’ll eat sardinhas assadas and drink vinho verde just a few kilometres from the Atlantic. And this isn’t just a holiday – you live and work here, paying a comparative pittance in rent while following your creative or entrepreneurial dreams remotely.

If this sounds like a fantasy to winter-worn Berliners, it’s one that Aaron Holms – a 38-year-old developer from Brighton – has been living since 2020, when he moved permanently from Berlin to a Portuguese country town between Lisbon and the surf resort of Ericeira. “For me it started out as surfing trips,” he says, “and now there is no return.”

Holms is not alone. Over the last few years, as Berlin has lost some of the affordability and DIY creative energy that had once made it so attractive to expats, both Lisbon and the Portuguese countryside have increasingly come up in conversations about where people might go when the Hauptstadt lifestyle no longer makes sense.

Somewhat cheaper and blessed with beautiful weather, Portugal offers a certain quality of life that continues to draw creatives and digital nomads, who are eager to take advantage of remote working conditions and supportive measures from the Portuguese government – and who might have been looking for a change of pace anyway.

Weather and waves

Ericeira, Portugal. Photo: Christian Holzinger

Berliners like Holms are drawn to Portugal for a mixture of romantic and pragmatic reasons. Holms had moved to Berlin back in 2009 for a job. When he started working freelance a couple of years later, he began travelling more and discovered a love of surfing. “I would spend a month or two surfing in Ericeira each winter since 2015, and I’d also surf in Cabo San Lucas in Mexico,” he explains. “The rest of the time, I lived in Berlin. But the more I understood that my life as a digital nomad had no geographical limitations, the less comfortable I felt in Berlin.”

The more I understood that my life as a digital nomad had no geographical limitations, the less comfortable I felt in Berlin.

Holms was spending less and less time in Germany, but just couldn’t quite imagine himself leaving for greener pastures. “I come from awful weather, and then I moved to a country with awful weather. For a bloody long time it just did not occur to me that I could live a different lifestyle.”

It was Holms’s fiancée, Edith Weide, who pushed him towards a different path. She had been working as a wedding photographer for destination weddings in the Caribbean, but was still based in her hometown of Berlin. In 2020, they decided together to move to Portugal permanently – “just for the weather and waves”. The decision appears to have paid off. “It is seriously one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to,” Holms says.

He finds the people more friendly, the language easier to learn than German, the fruit tastier and the produce cheaper. Both groceries and dining out are more affordable in Portugal – even in the capital Lisbon, a meal in a hip restaurant costs around €10 and, on a hot summer day, an iced latte will set you back just €3. And there are hundreds of like-minded entrepreneur-nomads in and around Lisbon to meet up and brainstorm with.

The move to Portugal has also made economic sense for Holms: he has many cryptocurrency investments, and crypto profits are tax-free in Portugal. With Brexit fast approaching, Holms wanted to make investments outside of the UK to make sure he would secure a residency permit and eventually citizenship within the EU: “I didn’t have enough money to buy a nice apartment in Berlin,” he says. “But I did have enough to get a place in a village just outside Lisbon, 30 kilometres away from the waves of Ericeira.”

This village’s location means that Holms qualifies for Portugal’s so-called ‘Work in the Interior’ programme, a measure introduced to promote internal migration from major cities to low-density regions by offering direct financial government support; the programme was extended in 2020 to apply to foreigners moving to Portugal from abroad. He is also eligible for the Golden Visa, an initiative allowing Brits, Americans and other non-EU citizens to gain residency and citizenship in Schengen countries by investing in properties or businesses without having to live in that country full-time.

In certain parts of Portugal, investing just €280,000 in property is enough, although to qualify for that low-price option, the property must be located in low-density regions rather than popular investor destinations like Lisbon and the Algarve. Weide is not interested in applying for the Golden Visa, but she also benefits from government policies by participating in international arts programmes that Portugal offers to attract more creatives. Particularly popular in visual and performing arts circles, the Ministry of Culture’s DGArtes initiative is designed to support independent cultural initiatives and to promote the internationalisation of Portuguese arts and artists.

I’ll never forget the lines of people waiting outside of a building for an apartment viewing.

Compared to Berlin back in the day, Aaron and Edith’s new home may offer a similar sense of opportunity – and a similarly exciting affordability – but it does represent a major change of lifestyle. They are no longer really party people, they say, although they do regularly go to Lisbon to see concerts, have dinner and meet friends. “We partied a lot when we lived in Berlin,” Holms says, “but by now we’ve calmed down, and we are not looking for that same lifestyle anymore. I think you have to make a mental change when you’re moving countries. I am not looking for Berlin in Lisbon. That would be stupid.”

Go West

Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Diego Garcia

For some, moving to Portugal is not tied to government incentives but simply a way to reset one’s life far from the long grey winters, rising rents and difficult freelance job prospects in Berlin. New Zealand-born Genista Jurgens lived in Berlin for seven years but increasingly felt that as a freelancer, she could never land the kind of apartment she wanted. Eventually she decided to move on.

“I used to work in the film industry, in the costume department of Babelsberg, but I was nannying and writing for art publications on the side,” she says from her countryside home an hour and a half south of Lisbon. “I still had no chance of getting a permanent rent contract. I’ll never forget the lines of people waiting outside of a building for an apartment viewing – I stood in those lines knowing there was no chance.”

Her Portuguese partner João was working remotely for a Portuguese company, so his paperwork didn’t count at the viewings. But then an opportunity arrived. “João wasn’t keen on coming back to Portugal at all, but his family owned this run-down house, and they said we could have it if we renovated it. It meant we could live rent free and wouldn’t have to work 24/7. I moved to Berlin for the exact same reason in 2011, and then to Portugal in 2018.”

Now Jurgens designs patterns to print on fabric, has launched a line of period pads and panties, and works as the communication director for an art platform in New Zealand. “My life is quieter,” she says. “I had a baby, then came the pandemic and now I’m pregnant with our second. I often miss big city life. I moved to Berlin for the galleries, bars, social life. Nightlife in Lisbon is great – lots of squares with cafes and informal hanging out, a bit like Späti culture, along with apartment parties and cheap beers at punk spaces. But of course nothing compares to the infamous Berlin nightlife!”

Smaller towns like hers have enjoyed an influx of people, both Portuguese and newcomers, from increasingly expensive Lisbon. She finds the language harder to learn than German, but the locals are more willing to practise their English. “I would say they are more welcoming to foreigners than Germans,” she says. Lisbon, meanwhile, is not too far away – and with it a taste of Berlin.

We can have a family while working as freelancers and not making too much money. I’m a neo-rural now!

One of the founders of Neukölln’s Loophole bar is now living in Lisbon and opened a bar called In Bloom, and the restaurateur behind Michelberger hotel’s wine bar also runs a restaurant in Lisbon named Dahlia. “Every place has advantages and disadvantages. I miss city life, but I like how easy it is to live here. We can have a family while working as freelancers and not making too much money. I’m a neo-rural now!” she laughs, referencing a term often used to describe young people who want to try out a new way of living: more sustainably, more independently, with more space around them. Jurgens sums the idea up in a phrase that brings to mind Berlin in the 2000s: “People creating their own utopia.”

A double-edged sword

Porto. Photo: Simon Pallard

Jurgens also sees the downsides of this changing Portugal. She says apartment prices in Lisbon have more than doubled over the last decade, causing many locals and newcomers to move out to smaller towns. The expat scene in Lisbon is very welcoming for digital nomads and entrepreneurs, but it is also difficult if one does not work for an international company that pays higher wages; many young expats end up working for call centres, as there are limited local work opportunities. “The government is not thinking long-term for the locals, but putting effort into attracting new people, new money,” Jurgens says. “On the other hand, public services are good. The socialist government just made day care free for all kids.”

Clearly, the Portuguese government has noticed the country’s growing attractiveness to international creatives and digital nomads and decided to actively encourage it. There are two types of visas for non-Europeans that are easy to get, allow holders to stay for certain periods of time and work independently. Yet these initiatives risk coming at the cost of affordability – first for locals and then for those foreigners who came in part because of quality of life.

Portuguese choreographer and producer Ana Rocha, who lived in Berlin for seven years before moving back to her hometown of Porto, appreciates the new funding opportunities in Portugal but is wary of internationalisation’s potentially negative consequences. “For the local economy, it’s good to have all the new people,” she says. “Tourism also means restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and employment opportunities – but where is the line between maintaining what is Portuguese and local, and refreshing it, and gearing things entirely toward tourism and tourists?”

Rocha argues that more resources should be given to other industries, such as agriculture and the clothing industry. “How does the money invested in attracting new people nourish the country? If you don’t offer good living conditions to those already living in your house and instead focus only on inviting new people all the time, then what is left after they leave?”

It was one of Portugal’s new art funds that eventually drew Rocha back to her home country after her time in Berlin. She had originally moved to the Hauptstadt for an internship working with Barbara Friedrich at Uferstudios; she then worked with Isabelle Schad at Tanzfabrik and created the show Built to Last together with Meg Stuart. “It was a good idea to move out of Portugal back then,” she says. “Porto was changing for the worse: there was a right-wing mayor and absolutely no support for artists.”

At the same time, Berlin was flourishing with opportunities for collaborations and partnerships. Many international dancers and visual artists were newly relocating to the German capital. “It was affordable. I lived all over the city, stayed on people’s couches or at their places while they were away – people in the dance scene travel a lot. But already I was hearing that some people were getting bored of Berlin; they said life was getting harder, it wasn’t the same vibe anymore.” Rocha remembers gentrification coming dramatically to the city. “There were suddenly these proper people, dressed in black, eating proper cakes in nice coffee shops. So people started looking for the next new thing. It was in 2012 that I started hearing, ‘The future is in the South.’”

Rocha then started spending more time in Porto and noticed the city, too, changing and the globalising. “There were people biking around, and there were coffee-to-go places—these things were not present before.

People started looking for the next new thing. It was in 2012 that I started hearing, ‘The future is in the South.’

You can smell when things are not so local anymore, and that transition was happening.” In 2016, she decided to move her base back to Porto having received government funding for a non-profit project. “I had less work in Berlin, and felt like life wasn’t that bright there anymore – not a lot of sunny hours either,” Rocha laughs from Porto. “Here rent is cheaper, and the weather is better, but of course, gentrification happened here, too. There are a lot of newcomers, more and more Airbnbs popping up. All the elements of Portugal became very attractive to foreigners.”

Only a stop-off?

Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Paulo Evangelista

Portugal remains eager to continue attracting both creatives and higher-income digital nomads, who are leaving cities like Berlin in search of new opportunities and a higher quality of life. Several states in Portugal have built entire campaigns inviting remote workers. The regional government on the island Madeira even built a Digital Nomad village developed by the Brussels-based business network Startup Madeira.

The project had a trial period last year and was so successful that they are planning to keep going for another three years. Between February 2021 and today, they have received over 12,500 applications – about 1100 from Germany – and had over 6000 digital nomads working in the Village. As existing trends towards remote digital work have been amplified by the pandemic, Portugal has quickly seized the opportunity in the market by meeting the needs of mobile people – and showcasing all the beauty the country has to offer.

The government’s strategies seem to have been working: according to data from the World Bank, in 2020, Portugal had the highest number of registered self-employed freelancers in the EU (some 17 percent), and the expat population has grown by 40 percent in 10 years, making 1.18 million people of the 10.3-million-strong population non-Portuguese.

Most immigrants come from Brazil – almost 184,000 people, followed by more than 45,000 UK citizens – many Brits retire to Portugal – and 36,000 Cape Verdians, with Germans making up the 14th largest foreign population of the country with the 16,000 native Germans who officially made Portugal their residence. Even celebrities are increasingly drawn to Portugal: stars like Ai Weiwei, Madonna, Monica Belucci and Michael Fassbender own properties in the country.

Portugal is certainly having a hot moment right now, but will it last – or will gentrification and the natural drift of hype mean it gets left behind for the next hot thing? “Ten years from now, I don’t see myself living here. I don’t know if I’d want to live in New Zealand again though,” says Jurgens. Rocha is more inclined to go with the flow: “I’m adaptable, and if I have to move for any reason, I will. But for now, I imagine myself in Portugal.”

Holms, meanwhile, believes moving to the Portuguese countryside is the best decision he’s ever made. “I have a lot of friends and we’re brainstorming new ideas. We want to get married, have kids and eventually grow old here. I want to be one of those grey-haired surf kings you see around here sometimes.”