Lifestyle & Culture

Sarah Nagaty: How Lisbon combines both a big city life and a small town vibe

In Lisbon, there's always something happening

A big part of Lisbon’s allure lies in how it is the perfect mix of big city and village – a busy European capital that somehow remains a cozy small town. Lisbon is not as overwhelming as cities such as London, Paris, or Madrid where one may feel invisible as life passes by.

In Lisbon, it is easy to run into friends or acquaintances in the street or recognize faces even if we do not know their names.

Human Relations

Human relations in Lisbon combine the privacy and individualism often found in big cities with the warmth and closeness typical of a small town.

My friends who live in other European capitals often tell me they won’t be able to recognize some of their neighbors who live in the same building if they run into them in the street.

For me, in Lisbon, this was the opposite: I often made friends with my neighbors.

One time, my neighbor and I started talking through our balconies. (She lived upstairs.) The next day we were already tired of sticking our heads out of the balcony, so I asked her to come down for coffee. Then we started going to self-defense classes together as, coincidentally, we were both interested in trying that out. Now that she moved to another part of town, we are still in touch and I have dinner plans with her next week.

There was also an elderly lady living next door who created a strange looking apparatus to fish clothes which accidentally fell while putting them on the line. The laundry lines in the building overlook the roof of another house and the owners of that house are almost never there. She used a fishing string, tied it to a hook, wrapped it around a small wheel made of iron (no clue where she found something like that) and that was how our friendship started.

One day, she saw that I dropped a pillow case and came with her little device. We worked on saving the pillowcase together. Later on, whenever something fell (and for some reason that happened a lot to me), I would borrow that little invention from her. This developed into conversations about her children who live in the Alentejo, her grandchildren, groceries, and the best way to cook codfish.

Expat friends

Since Lisbon has a big expat community and people of all age groups live there, relationships also become rich, diverse, and varied. I, and everyone I know, have friends from all over the world.

Moreover, it is easy to find people with whom you share similar interests. For example, my Mexican friend who practices the Japanese martial arts Jiu Jitsu found a big community of Jiu Jitsu students when he first moved to Lisbon. He is doing a degree in literature but ended up making friends with a Portuguese army officer, an American tattoo artist and an Angolan banker.

This is the kind of world Lisbon and its people, both locals and foreigners, open up to newcomers.


Lisbon offers the entertainment options of a big city. It is a city where there is always something happening. For example, Lisbon is home to some of the biggest music festivals in Europe. Top international bands and musicians perform in Lisbon all year round.

On a weeknight, there is always something happening somewhere: live music, social dancing, or discounts on cocktails in some bar. People do not save hanging out on the weekends only. You might walk into a restaurant on Wednesday night and find nowhere to sit or go to a social dance event and find more than 30 people there who all have to wake up for work the following day but are happy to enjoy their evening nevertheless.

Lisbon is also a super well-connected city. It is easy to fly in and out of Lisbon to anywhere in Europe and the whole world as the airport is less than 20 minutes from the city center, which allows for short trips whether for business or for leisure. Moreover, big tech companies and startups are either re-locating, expanding, or starting from scratch in Lisbon. The Portuguese capital is becoming a hot destination – not only for Europe, but also worldwide – for the tech industry.

Therefore, more jobs and investment opportunities present themselves with this tech boom especially in the areas of finance, marketing, and hospitality. On the other hand, you can escape the crowd in no time. A 45-minute drive is all it takes to find yourself in some of the most scenic landscapes such as the Park of Arrabida and the beautiful beaches of Sesimbra. The long coast of Costa de Caparica is also less than an hour away by bus.

Right outside Lisbon, one can live in the peace and serenity of the beautiful Portuguese beaches and enjoy the option of being able to reach the heart of the busy city in 30 minutes whenever needed. As a matter of fact, many of Lisbon’s residents now live right outside Lisbon in order to enjoy the quietness and the magnificent nature while being able to get to the city in no time.

Takeaway note

When I see many prospective expats asking for advice on social media about the best places in Portugal to move to, I always think: Lisbon. Even though I am a city person born and bred, I found in Lisbon the perfect balance between the lively, multicultural city life, and the warmth of human interactions –as well as proximity to nature – characteristic of a small town.

Why have one when we can have both!


Read more about Lisbon here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more of Sarah’s work here.

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Sarah Nagaty has a PhD in cultural studies, She’s lived in Portugal for six years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

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