There is a magical undercurrent that pervades Portugal, a sense of a carefully preserved past. Golden beaches with sparkling clean waters line the western and southern coastlines. Flower-filled meadows stretch toward sloping hills, then rise to mountain bluffs crowned by a 12th-century castle. You can picnic amid a ghostly city abandoned by the Romans, or explore the old palaces and summer retreats of royalty and hike through forests famed for poets.
And it’s the most affordable country in Western Europe — a couple can live well on less than $30,000 per year, immersed in history, culture, and eating out often.
Read on to discover seven idyllic spots in Portugal where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is high:
The former Roman city of Guimarães was chosen by the first king of Portugal in 1128 as his administrative base. Today it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is one of the most popular day trips from Lisbon and draws tourists from around the world to visit sites like its 10th-century castle. Despite its historical attractions, the population of this very Portuguese city of 52,000 goes on about its workaday business, creating an interesting blend in the general tone of the city.
Guimarães is a walkable city, if a bit hilly. Descending the slopes of the castle area are narrow, twisting passageways between stately granite buildings and pleasant squares like Largo da Oliveira, named for the majestic olive tree growing in its center. Every historic district in Portugal has its share of impressive convents and churches, and Guimarães is no exception. These, together with grand homes trimmed with wrought iron balconies, Gothic arches, and treasures like the Alberto Sampaio Museum offer a feast for the senses.
Summers here are short, warm, dry, and mostly sunny, while winters are chilly, wet, and partly cloudy. Over the course of the year, the average daytime temperatures typically vary from 41 F to 82 F, although extremes can make the mercury dip below 32 F or rise above 92 F.
Even renting a three-bedroom apartment, a couple can live well in Guimarães for $2,250 per month — $27,000 a year.
Like so many cities in Portugal, Braga’s history was influenced by Roman occupation, and the city’s architecture and landscape vividly recall those ancient days. Considered the oldest city in Portugal, it’s located in the north, about 20 miles east of the wind-surfing destination of Esposende.
The population of almost 200,000 is primarily Portuguese, but there’s a sprinkling of residents from Brazil, Africa, China, and Eastern European countries. The University of Minho adds diversity to the populace as well, with Erasmus students coming from all over Europe and the Far East.
That youthful influence gives a lift to an otherwise very traditional city, and many of the younger locals speak passable English. This, and the fact that many shopkeepers and restaurant owners cater to tourists, makes Braga an easy spot for some expats to adopt as their own.
Braga’s climate is moderate. In summer, temperatures average around 69 F, while in winter that falls to around 47 F. December is the wettest month, with rainfall of about seven inches — similar to nearby Porto’s.
For all its richness, life in Braga is consummately affordable. Including rent for a three-bedroom apartment, a couple can live quite well in Braga for about $2,050 per month, $24,600 a year.
A coastal town in Portugal’s Algarve region, Lagos is one of the country’s sunny playgrounds. It’s blessed with a year-round moderate climate, with average temperatures ranging from 52 F in winter to 75 F in the summertime, when the normal average population of 22,000 swells with visitors from Europe and elsewhere. While landlubbers enjoy golfing, tennis, horseback riding, and hiking, the ocean offers the best of conditions for kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing, kite surfing, windsurfing and more in the area’s tourist-based economy.
Lagos’ status as a tourist destination means not only that excellent services are available, but also that English is widely spoken, making it an easy place for retirees to settle in to.
Despite the tourist-oriented nature of Lagos, particularly during the peak season of July and August, prices are not prohibitively high. Renting a two-bedroom apartment, a couple can expect to live a high-quality lifestyle on about $2,080 per month — $24,960 a year.
Mafra lies just 30 minutes northwest of Lisbon International Airport. A population of about 76,000 spread over 112 square miles translates to the feel of a thriving yet pleasantly-paced small city. Most of the tree-lined streets, including the main boulevard of Avenida da Liberdade, are covered with calçada Portuguesa, the traditional black-and-white Portuguese pavement. Lots of green areas dot the community, bursting with blossoms year-round.
Mafra is home to Portugal’s National Palace, built in 1717 and a royal domicile until 1910. The Palace lends its Baroque and Neo-classical charm to the city.
Summers are warm, dry, and mostly sunny in Mafra. Winter is the rainy season, and average annual temperatures range from 46 F to 80 F, with extremes being 39 F and 91 F. A couple can live well in Mafra on about $2,400 a month including rent, which comes to $28,800 a year.
Two hours north of Lisbon lies Portugal’s former capital, Coimbra, home to one of the oldest continually operating universities in Europe. With a population of 144,000 spread over 123 square miles, Coimbra is a busy metropolis, yet it retains the mellow undertone that Portugal is famous for.
August is the hottest month in Coimbra, with an average of 73 F, and January the coldest, averaging 51 F. January is also the wettest month, delivering about six inches of rain. For beach time in the summer months, just head west to Figueira da Foz, which has an active expat community.
Fado is the traditional music form of Portugal, and other than Lisbon, there’s no place better to hear it than Coimbra, where it is sung only by men, and where it plays a big part in University life.
Between tourism and the youthful student population, English is widely spoken in Coimbra, so being able to speak Portuguese is not a requisite to enjoying all Coimbra has to offer.
A couple can live comfortably in Coimbra for $2,430 per month including rent, which comes to $29,160 a year.
Porto, the second largest metropolitan area in Portugal after Lisbon, is located on the Douro River where it flows into the Atlantic. The city is home less than 240,000 people in the city center (about 2.4 million in the greater metropolitan area) and has a small city’s feel and friendliness. But it’s also a thriving international business city, with many expats finding all the amenities they need, including an international airport.
The richness of culture available makes the city an ideal place for retirement surrounded by elegant parks with fountains, statues, and exotic plants, leafy boulevards, and cobbled streets lined with historic buildings. Porto’s cool, mild, climate means temperature averages around 65 F in the dry summer season, and 50 F in winter, which lasts from December through March and can be wet.
For all Porto’s natural and architectural beauty, fine food and wine, and pleasurable pastimes, it’s surprisingly affordable to live here. A couple can live well in Porto, including rent for a one-bedroom apartment, for about $1,550 per month, or $18,600 a year.
Just 32 square miles in area, Nazaré is a livable coastal city, especially with available bus and taxi service, although it’s delightful to explore on foot. There’s a local market in town as well as supermarkets, more than 100 restaurants and cafés, and other amenities. There’s already an established expat presence here, although the city is not overrun, as some popular places are, like the southern region of the Algarve, for example.
Be prepared, however: summer is high tourist season, when crowds flock to watch fisherman dry their catch on the beach, and to purchase souvenirs from women dressed in their traditional seven-layered, flannel-skirted garb. Surfers arrive during what’s known as the Big Waves Season, generally from October through March and sometimes April, hoping to ride a giant crest and break a world record.
Nazaré’s climate is temperate, with highs reaching toward 85 F in summer, dipping to averages around 50 F in January, the coldest month. It might not suit those who are looking for year-round sun, but even in November, for example, rainfall averages only three-and-a-half inches compared to the five inches the capital, Lisbon, receives.
Nazaré is surprisingly affordable despite its tourism appeal. A couple renting a two-bedroom apartment can live well in Nazaré on just $1,845 per month, or $22,140 a year.
This story originally appeared in International Living.