Healthcare services for expats in Portugal

Portugal’s health insurance system covers most costs. You may have to pay a small charge for the consultation and tests. But services are free for those over 65 years old.

medicine bottle with pillsPortugal has a good quality healthcare system.  In fact, the World Health Organization has ranked the publicly funded national health system, Serviço Nacional de Saude, as 12th best in the world. 

Expats moving to Portugal from another EU country can use the healthcare issued in their own country until they obtain a residency permit. For expats coming from the US it is a little more complicated. US citizens must obtain a D7 visa if they plan to move to Portugal. Having private health insurance coverage is one of the visa requirements. Among the companies that offer the necessary coverage are: Cigna Global Health and Allianz Care.

Services easily accessible to expatriates

There is a network of health clinics in towns and villages throughout the country where you can see a doctor or nurse. In small villages, clinics are usually only open a couple days a week. Hospitals are located in the larger towns. There are also numerous private doctors, clinics and hospitals.

Once you have a residency permit you can register with your local health center (Centro de Saude.) You can then book appointments (Marcação para consulta) by phone, in person or online. Many doctors speak excellent English, so you don’t have to worry about communicating.

Costs are low

Portugal’s health insurance system covers most costs. But you may have to pay a small charge for the consultation and tests. Services are free for those over 65 years old. It’s worth knowing that costs at private clinics are very affordable compared to the US. For example, a visit to a dermatologist to remove sun damage skin spots cost just 60 Euros, without insurance.

Doctor writing prescription

You typically need a doctor’s referral to visit a specialist. There are specialists at local hospitals and certain clinics. However, there can be long waiting times for some services. 

It’s usually easy to get appointments at labs for medical tests. Staff are quick, efficient and polite.

Private health insurance widely available 

Allianz and Cigna are some of the largest  health insurance companies operating in Portugal. Be aware that some health insurance companies do not insure people over 55. For other companies, the limit may be 65 years or 70 years old. In that case, an international health insurance plan is probably the best option. Banks in Portugal also offer health insurance.  

Some useful numbers

For an ambulance in case of a medical emergency, call 112. 

SNS (Serviço Nacional de Saude) hotline: 808 242 424 available 24/7 also in English

How to heat a stone house in Portugal

Although Portugal is hot and dry for many months, the winters are chilly and damp. The typical stone Portuguese house can feel glacial and heating is a must. Wood burning stoves, butane gas heaters are the handiest and most economical methods of heating.

wood burning stove heating home in Portugal
A cast iron wood burning stove is an excellent way to heat a stone house in Portugal.

Portugal has a reputation for being a warm sunny place, but heating is still a must during the damp winter months.

Most homes are made of stone in the Portuguese countryside. Stone does a great job keeping the house cool in summer. But a stone house can feel glacial from November through February.

So, what is the best way to heat this stone house? Seasoned expats will probably agree that the wood burning stove, called a recuperador de lenha or salamandra, in Portugal, is your best bet. Having learned from experience, I recommend getting one made of cast iron rather than steel. Stores like Leroy Merlin, Bricomarche and Agriloja usually carry a selection. 

Cast iron stoves are more expensive than steel they radiate the heat more efficiently and hold the warmth hours longer. The heat rating of these stoves is rated in Kw. You can check the size of stove needed based on the area you need to heat. 

A good iron stove will typically cost 700 to 1,000 Euros. plus the cost of chimney piping.

Ordering Wood

I moved into a newly renovated stone cottage in Central Portugal in July 2019. Come September, my expat neighbors gave me the phone number of their wood supplier. The term for wood used for stoves is lenhas in Portugal. You typically order it by the ton and the supplier delivers a truckload. The first heating you get is the effort to stack it. Goes without saying you need a good, dry, woodshed.

stacked logs for wood burning stove
Oak logs stacked in a wood shed ready for winter. A plastic curtain is good to keep off the rain.
Kindling

My supplier delivers hard, dry oak which burns well and gives off good heat. But you need a large supply of kindling to get a fire going. I bought a log splitter from my neighbors, and regularly pick up pine cones and dry sticks in the nearby forest during the summer months. I use them as kindling. 

Log splitter used to split wood for stove
Electric powered splitter used to split logs into smaller pieces as shown, to help get fire going.
Other heating methods

A wood burning stove will usually burn out overnight leaving your house cold by dawn. A gas heater that uses bottled butane is the quickest and most cost effective heat source for those chilly mornings. Delba is a common brand sold in Portugal. It is available at the Agriloja stores for around 70 Euros. The first bottle of gas costs around 40 Euros. When you return the empty bottle a refill costs about 25 Euros.

Oil-filled electric radiators and electric space heaters which may or may not use a fan can also be used. But they take a longer time to heat and are only useful for small rooms. They are also expensive to run.

10 things to love about life in Portugal

Portuguese spring flowers
Abundant rains brought a dazzling display of spring flowers.

I first visited this wonderful country in 2011, exploring in and around Lisbon, with a short excursion to the Algarve village of Salema. I was so struck by the welcoming attitude of the Portuguese people I met, the charm of Lisbon and the laid-back atmosphere, that I began dreaming of retiring here. After a lot of hard work and planning, that dream became a reality for me in 2019. It hasn’t disappointed. Here are some of the things I love that have, and continue, to brighten my daily life.

1. Portuguese People

 I have found so much kindness and such helpful attitudes. Like the MEO internet technician who spent an hour helping me set up my computer and re-wiring my power strip even though he knew that the MEO service the sales people proposed wouldn’t work for me and I wasn’t going to buy it. Another time, a Millennium bank manager phoned me in the US, before I moved, to tell me how I could set up a savings account to AVOID paying bank fees. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.

2. Coffee

I have become accustomed to the rich bitter taste of a “Bica” – what they call an espresso in Lisbon. A tiny thimbleful of dark high-octane coffee is just right mid-morning.

3. Natas

Of course you can’t have a coffee without a pastel de nata (plural pasteis de nata), the flaky pastry custard cream cakes that are synonymous in my mind with a Portuguese cafe.

4. Living in the country

 I love walking out the door of my home in Portugal each morning with my dog. I have so many choices.  So many places I can go without having to drive somewhere or pay for parking. I can walk past olive groves and vineyards and happily hail those I see with a “Bom Dia.”

5. Harvests

I’ve been so delighted to help neighbors with their grape harvest “Vendima” and to assist in picking “Azeitonas” (olives.) This is such a key part of rural life.  I am glad to join in and learn new skills.

6. Festas

Before the Corona virus changed all our lives, there were so many fun country festivals. Every weekend during the summer a different village would hold a festival with food, music and general jolliness.

7. Markets

I love going to the weekly markets in my area of Central Portugal. Whether it’s the small Sunday market in the local village or the larger Monday or Friday markets in the towns of Tomar, Ferreira de Zezere or Freixanda. You wander around, shopping bag in hand, browsing the vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, olives, meat, fish, baked goods, clothing, tools, household goods and gardening supplies. I love listening to the shouts of the vendors and breathing in the scent of grilling chicken at the “Frango” stand.

8. Country stores

I love shopping at the little shops 3 kilometers from my house. The Amenhecer grocery has all the daily supplies I need. The hardware shop and gas/diesel station next door completes the list. And even though the stores are out in the country, the prices they charge are the same as the bigger supermarkets.

9. Poppies

Although I am not a big fan of rainy days, the old saying about April showers is true. The wet spring we had this year brought an explosion of wild flowers in myriad colors. Every morning was a visual feast.

10. Stars

Living out in the country there is little light pollution. On the many clear nights, I can look out my bedroom window and see a sky filled with stars infinitely brighter than I ever saw when I lived in the city.

magenta colored flowers
Flowers brighten each day for me in Portugal.

Check out Portugal’s most famous surf beach

shows Nazare's massive waves
A photo of a photograph on a wall in the Sitio. It shows one of the gigantic waves crashing beyond the lighthouse on Nazaré’s North Beach. An underground canyon affects the size of the waves causing massive rollers between October and March. They can often reach a height of 80 feet or about 24 meters. This phenomenon has attracted big wave surfers to Nazaré who use jet skis to ride these huge waves.

Nazaré, Portugal’s most famous surf beach got that title because of its really big waves. But until a few years ago, this small coastal city was just a fishing center.

Although Nazaré’s beaches have been popular with surfers since the 1960s, it was in 2010 that professional big wave surfer, American Garrett McNamara really put the place on the map riding a 78-foot (23.77 meter) wave. 

The massive waves are due to the presence of an underwater canyon that increases the height of the waves. The season for these really big waves is between October and March.

Other surf centers in Portugal

Nazaré may be Portugal’s most famous surf beach but the country has several other well-known surf centers. South of Nazaré Peniche, and Eiriceira both offer ample opportunities to enjoy the beaches, watch surfers and try to learn this tricky but exhilarating sport.

surfers at Peniche
Surfers trying their luck at one of the beaches around Peniche, south of Nazaré.

 

Though Nazaré is now known worldwide for its big waves, the town is much more than just colossal surf. It’s history as a fishing village is still very much on display. In fact, you can see an array of local catch drying on racks along the seafront. Old ladies dressed in black will happily sell you a fish or two from their stands near the beach cafés.

A town on two levels

The town itself is on two levels. On the lower level, a warren of narrow streets clusters beside the main town beach. And these days, it’s very much a tourist scene. Shops along the street closest to the main beach sell all kinds of Portuguese souvenirs.

If you tire of shopping, you can stop and have a coffee at any one of the many local cafés. Or if you have a hankering for Indian food, you will find a superb menu at the Little Indian restaurant down one of the side streets. It’s near to the funicular railway that takes visitors up to the upper level, O Sitio.

The funicular railway that takes you up the steep cliffside to the Sitio costs 2.90 Euros round trip.

The Sitio is mostly ranged around a large market square that’s dominated by the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré (Nossa Senhora da Nazaré). You’ll find plenty of stalls selling souvenirs around the square plus a variety of restaurants specializing in excellent seafood.

But it’s what is beyond the Sitio market square that really draws the crowds to Nazaré. The Praia do Norte, or North Beach is where surfers from all over the world come to ride the massive waves that occur between October and March. To one side,  you walk down toward the lighthouse that overlooks the North Beach, you can see the lower town spread out below the imposing cliffs.

If surfing really isn’t your thing, Portugal has many other beach areas worth exploring. Try the Alentejo region south of Lisbon or the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost province.

Fun places to see in Coimbra

The elegant Patio das Escolas at the University of Coimbra.

Wander through the narrow streets of Coimbra and you will come upon all kinds of fun places to see and explore. This small city in central Portugal is city rich in history, tradition and natural beauty. Add to that, quaint cafés, restaurants, places to hear the uniquely Portuguese fado music and even a museum for sardines!

But be prepared to do some walking. Coimbra, like Lisbon and Porto, is a city of hills. It will mean lot of climbing and a lot of steps. You might opt to take a ride in one of the city’s small electric buses on the Linha Azul. It’s quite a sight to see how the little buses squeak through the narrowest of streets with just inches to spare on either side. Skilled drivers no less!

University of Coimbra

Coimbra is best known for its ancient university. This famous institution is renowned as one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world.

Founded in Lisbon in 1290 by King Dinis, the university moved back and forth between Lisbon and Coimbra several times over the next 300 years. In 1537, during the reign of King João (John) III, the university moved into the former Alcora Palace high above Coimbra. A statue of the king – looking remarkably like his contemporary, Henry VIII of England – stands in the Paço das Escolas or University Patio. This immense plaza looks out over the Rio Mondego, the broad river that bisects the city.

The entrance to the Biblioteca Joanina, or Joanine Library.

On one side of the Paço das Escolas stands the  magnificent library, the Biblioteca Joanina or Joanine Library. Founded in 1717, it has more than 40,000 rare books. Also in the square is the São Miguel Chapel whose massive organ has more nearly 2,000 pipes!

This massive organ in the São Miguel chapel has nearly 2,000 pipes.

Tours of the university, including access to the Joanine Library cost 12.50 euros. A tour without the library is available for 7 euros.

Since the university is at the top of the hill dominating Coimbra it’s a good place to start a tour. On the hillside beside the university are the beautiful botanical gardens, the Jardim Botanica da Universidade. 

 Cathedrals, churches and monasteries

Other Coimbra attractions include the “old” and “new” cathedrals

The massive and somewhat foreboding Sé Velha (old cathedral) looks more like a military stronghold than a church. It even has narrow windows and battlements more proper to a fortress. The explanation for its martial appearance stems from its construction date during the late 12th Century. This was a time when Portugal was battling the Moors and when Coimbra was the country’s capital.

The Sé Nova (“new” cathedral) is a much more elegant structure. This beautiful building , with its curvaceous facade, started life as a Jesuit church in 1543 and officially became the cathedral a couple of hundred years later. 

Coimbra is also home to two famous monasteries, the Igreja e Mosteiro da Santa Cruz and the Mosteiro de Santa Clara Velha. 

And while exploring Coimbra’s historic places, don’t forget to visit the Machado de Castro National Museum. This architecturally superb museum houses a wide collection of jewelry, sculpture, paintings and ceramics, mostly from convents and monasteries around the diocese of Coimbra.

Parque Verde do Mondego

Coimbra has a lot of fun places to see. But at some point it’s worth taking a break from the history. That’s when it’s time to take a stroll to the Parque Verde do Mondego by the river. If you’re lucky, and the sun is shining you will see a blaze of rainbow colors in the water feature on the city side of the park. In the middle of the park you might do a double-take when you see a giant green statue of a bear. It looks as if it were made of grass but on close examination you can see it’s astroturf.

Sunlight creates rainbows in the water feature at the Parque Verde do Mondego in Coimbra.

At the end of the park, a path leads to a modern footbridge dedicated to Pedro and Inês. These 14th Century star-crossed lovers are often called the Portuguese Romeo and Juliet. Pedro, an heir to the Portuguese throne, fell in love with a lady-in-waiting, Inês de Castro. It’s a dark and tragic story of political intrigue. In short, Pedro’s enemies captured and killed Inês, leaving Pedro heartbroken.

Sardines and your birthday

Sardines are close to every Portuguese heart. So it’s no wonder there is a virtual shrine to the little fish in Coimbra. On the list of the fun places to see is the Mundo Fantastico Das Conservas Portugues. Here you will find every flavor of sardine imaginable. You can pick a can of sardines from the year of your birth. Or maybe sardines packed in a gold tin. Kind of like a fishy version of gold bricks.

Fun place to see - Sardine museum
Sardines of every flavor and even packed in gold cans.
How to get to Coimbra

By Car: Coimbra is appoximately 200 km from Lisbon. Driving from Lisbon using the A1 toll highway takes about 2 hours. 

Train: from Lisbon Santa Apolonia station to Coimbra takes between 1 hr. 40 mins. to about 2 hours. depending on which service you choose. Tickets are between about 20 euros to 35 euros depending on the service and class of ticket. All train seats are assigned. Travelers aged 65 and over can ride half price with ID. (Information at Comboios de Portugal.)

Bus: from Sete Rios bus station in Lisbon takes about 2 hours to Coimbra. Tickets cost about 13 euros. Information at Rede Expressos.)