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Regions and Cities for Expats in Portugal

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2015

Physical Features

Portugal is mountainous in the east, especially in the north-east. Much of this area is sparsely inhabited and forested. The mountains slope downwards towards the west, near the coast, where the population is concentrated. The mountains are divided by rivers, chiefly the Douro, Tagus (Tejo) and Guadiana. The north is considerably rainier than south.

The area north of the Tagus is the most mountainous, though with most of the land less than 700m above sea level, Portugal is more low-lying than neighbouring Spain. There are substantial plains in the west and south-west. To the west and south is the Atlantic Ocean.

Political Divisions

Portugal is unusual in that has only one neighbouring country: Spain, which is to its north and east. The country is politically divided into 18 districts, which, together with the two island autonomous regions (Madeira and the Azores), form the seven official EU (NUT II) geographical regions detailed below:

Region Area (km2) Population
(2014 est.)
(per (km2)
Largest City
Norte 21,284 3,621,000 170 Porto
Centro 28,200 2,264,000 80 Coimbra
Lisbon (Lisboa) 3,001 2,809,000 936 Lisbon
Alentejo 31,603 733,000 23 Évora
Algarve 4,996 441,000 88 Faro
Azores (Açores) 2,322 246,000 106 Ponta Delgada
Madeira 801 259,000 323 Funchal


The capital of the Norte region, Porto, is Portugal’s second largest city and the only sizeable one other than the capital. In Portuguese it is known as Oporto ‘the port’, from which the country gets its name. The city has also given its name to port, the celebrated fortified wine. Porto is a major industrial and commercial centre, and, naturally, a port. The central business district is next to the river.

The sense of regionalism is markedly less strong in Portugal than in Spain. The north of Portugal, however, is the most culturally diverse area. The north has strong cultural links with Galicia in north-west Spain, whose inhabitants speak a dialect of Portuguese. It was from this area that the Reconquista against Moorish rule began, and Portugal became an independent country. The hinterland of the north is the most famous area in Portugal for wine, containing the wine regions of Vinho Verde and Douro. The Douro Valley is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. All these wines are distributed from Porto.

Centro, which contains the Dão wine region, is known for its old monasteries, castles and historic villages (including ones built chiefly of schist that just blend in to the landscape.) The largest city, Coimbra, has been a seat of learning for centuries. Coimbra University, situated in the Upper City, is one of the oldest in Europe. About a third of the population attends a college or university.

Lisbon is pre-eminent in Portugal, as it is both the capital and the largest city by some distance. Including its environs, Lisbon has a total population of nearly 3 million, making it the sole metropolis in the country. Naturally, Lisbon dominates Portugal in most spheres, including the economy, industry and culture. The city centre was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, and contains mostly straight, ordered streets.

To the south of the Tagus, the Alentejo is largely rural and sparsely populated. It is also the most agriculturally important region and is known as the country’s bread basket. In addition to producing half of Portugal’s wine, the Alentejo this region of Portugal produces more than half of the world’s cork from the cork oaks that abound in the countryside.

The Algarve is the best-known region internationally. There is farming and fishing, but by far the most important industry is tourism. Europeans come in their hundreds of thousands in the summer for a week or fortnight of pretty much guaranteed sunshine. The most important city is Faro, which also has an international airport.

Portugal also contains two island group provinces. Madeira is off the coast of north-east Africa and 100 miles north of the Canary Islands (which belong to Spain), while the Azores are further out in the Atlantic, some 900 miles west of Lisbon. Both island groups are formed from volcanoes (now dormant). Their excellent beaches and fine climate make them attractive to tourists and some expats too.




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