The oldest nation-state in Europe—it became the Kingdom of Portugal in 1139—Portugal is as steeped in history as it is in its own unique culture. This small southwestern European country shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain and is historically known for its once-great world empire and early maritime explorers. Today, every Portuguese travel guide boasts of its great wines, surf and award-winning golf courses. The diverse landscape, including vineyard-coated mountains, desert-like terrain, wide-open countryside and glamorous beaches, leaves plenty for the traveler to experience, to enjoy and to fall madly in love with.
Though humans have been living in present-day Portugal since the ice age, the true history of the country begins in the Middle Ages. After several centuries of Moorish rule, King Alfonso I established his reign over what is today northern Portugal in 1143, ruling through the Portuguese counts. These powerful nobles served as his vassals throughout the northern Portugal territory.
It wasn’t until the mid-12th century that northern Portugal had its own king in Alfonso Henrique, the son of the count of Portugal. Alfonso rallied the Portuguese nobles to fight against the encroaching Galicians. After successfully keeping them at bay, Alfonso took the throne in 1140 as the king of Portugal. The pope, however, didn’t actually recognize his authority until 1179.
Several rebellions took place over the next few centuries, resulting in a turbulent time for the Portuguese throne. In this time, however, Portugal did manage to finally oust the Moors from Portugal’s southernmost region, the Algarve.
The 15th and 16th centuries were marked by Portugal’s infamous overseas explorations and conquests across Africa, South America and India. These explorations—and the colonies and trading posts they secured—made Portugal a very rich and powerful world empire.
In 1580, things took a turn for the worse. King Philip II of Spain capitalized on the confusion that befell the Portuguese throne after King Sebastian died heirless in battle, ultimately gaining control of the country and uniting the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. This era is known as the “Spanish Captivity,” and it lasted until several noblemen organized a successful rebellion in 1640.
Portugal’s true decline from global power, however, began with the 1755 earthquake that rocked Lisbon. An occupation by the Napoleonic forces and the subsequent loss of their biggest colony, Brazil, followed.
Civil war filled the 19th century for Portugal, ultimately leading to the declaration of a republic in 1910. The republic lasted little more than a decade, however, before the military coup of 1926, in which the new military dictatorship invited António Salazar to serve as finance minister. António Salazar quickly rose through the ranks to the position of prime minister in 1933. He ruled as a repressive antiparliamentary authoritarian for the next 36 years.
After Salazar’s illness-induced retirement, there was yet another coup, the Carnation Revolution. This resulted in the declaration of the Third Republic and independence for Portugal’s African colonies in 1975.
Since 1975, Portugal has shown dedication to becoming a democratic republic. They operate under a semi-presidential system, wherein a president and a prime minister both share executive power. In this era of democracy and peace, Portugal has established itself as a tourism hub noted for its beautiful beaches, history and wine.
Portuguese culture revolves around art, folklore, sport and festivals. Nearly every city and village has its own museum, art venue, theater or other place to appreciate the arts or to celebrate Portugal’s historic folk traditions. When Portugal’s favorite sport, football (soccer), isn’t on, locals also love to pass the time at one of the many sidewalk cafes. Like in much of the rest of Europe, cafe culture is alive and well here. Cultural festivities are also a popular pastime. Carnaval is celebrated much like Mardi Gras, and it includes good food, music, dancing and costumes; Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) and the Fatima Pilgrimage are also two culturally significant events in Portugal.
Good to Know
When traveling in Portugal, keep some of the following in mind:
Like the rest of the European Union, Portugal uses the Euro. ATMs are readily available throughout the country, while currency exchange counters are more abundant in the touristy areas. Except for in some of the smaller establishments, your international credit card will work almost everywhere you wish to use it.
In Portugal, tipping is generally not expected in most situations. At restaurants, if you wish to tip, tip no more than 5 to 10 percent of your bill. A respectable tip for hotel staff is typically one or two Euros and one Euro a day for the maid.
In general, Portuguese society is traditional and conservative, and much of life revolves around the family. When greeting new acquaintances, it’s typical to shake hands while making direct eye contact. For acquaintances, men pat each other on the back, and women kiss both cheeks, starting with the right.
Portugal uses a standard voltage of 220 to 240 volts at 50 hertz. The wall outlets are two pin, or type C and F. Unless your US appliances are dual voltage, you’ll need to bring a converter or transformer.
Public restrooms are readily available throughout Portugal and are often kept remarkably clean. In some places, you might have to pay a small fee to use the restroom or purchase something from the shop or restaurant.
It’s safe to drink the tap water in Portugal.
Portugal, with its Mediterranean climate, boasts one of the warmest climates in Europe. Average annual temperatures sit around 55°F in the north and 64°F in the south, making Portugal travel moderate and pleasant. Similar to the United States, the warmest days of the year are in July and August, with daily highs around 86°F to 95°F. During the winter months, temperatures rarely drop below 41°F. Colder temperatures and snow, however, do sometimes occur in the inland areas and in the north. Rain and wind tend to occur during autumn and winter, while spring and summer days are usually sunny.
When to Visit Portugal
Portugal, particularly central Portugal, experiences all four seasons. Determining the best time to visit depends on what you wish to accomplish. October is an ideal time for a coastal visit because the waters are still warm, the days are endlessly sunny, and the summer and holiday crowds have largely thinned out. In the springtime (starting around February), temperatures tend to be milder across the nation, and the you can catch the initial blooming of the flowers and almond trees. If you’re after Portuguese port wine, autumn is another great time to visit. During this time, the vineyards are being harvested in the north.
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- Portugal is Europe’s oldest country, and it has had virtually the same borders since 1297. (That was when the Portuguese and Spanish signed a treaty that handed over the Algarve to Portugal.)
- Portugal is the world’s largest cork producer. It produces an astounding 70 percent of the world’s cork exports.
- Portugal is one of the world’s top surf spots and Europe’s surfing capital.
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Regions and Cities
Stretching north to south and boasting two offshore island chains, Portugal can be divided into five regions: Northern Portugal, North-Central Portugal, South-Central Portugal, Southern Portugal and its offshore islands, the Azores and Madeira Islands.
Home to golden sands, terraced vineyards, UNESCO sites and national parks, Northern Portugal is a feast for the eyes and senses.
Porto: This World Heritage city contains splendid architecture and a rich tradition of port wine production.
Amarante: Fall in love with this dreamy town named for its fabled history of being a romantic getaway. (The Portuguese word for “love” is “amor.”)
This historic region of Portugal boasts medieval castles, towns carved by countless canals, and plenty of popular surf points.
Aveiro: Set along the Ria de Aveiro, the town is commonly referred to as the “Venice of Portugal” due to its various canals and brightly colored boats.
Coimbre: The former capital of Portugal, Coimbre is home to a preserved medieval town and the ninth-oldest university in the world.
Though home to Portugal’s capital city, this region is known for its idyllic towns wedged between mountains or on hilltops and offers visitors a true taste of traditional Portuguese culture.
Lisbon: The capital of Portugal, Lisbon is a place where old-world charm meets bustling, cosmopolitan culture.
Sintra: Located just outside Lisbon, this fairy-tale resort town is dotted with forested hillsides and pastel-colored villas and palaces.
Monsaraz: This hilltop village is considered one of Portugal’s most beautiful.
Corval: Art lovers will rejoice in Corval, Portugal’s pottery capital.
Évora: The capital of Portugal’s south-central Alentejo region, this World Heritage site is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network.
This is the region for sun, sand, and quality beach time set to a laid-back pace.
Faro: The capital of Portugal’s Algarve region, this old town set by the sea is full of history and archaeological treasures from medieval times.
Situated hundreds of miles from the mainland, Portugal’s island territories are full of adventure-filled opportunities for those who venture to them.
Azores Islands: Within this collection of nine islands, you’ll find Portugal’s tallest mountain, countless crater lakes and thousands of tea and pineapple plantations.
Madeira Islands: Known as the “islands of eternal spring,” this archipelago is famous for its year-round mild climate, abundant flowers and mountainous hiking trails.
Worth a Visit
Douro River Valley
Beyond the vineyards and tasting rooms of Portugal’s wine-producing region, trails rich in flora and fauna await exploration in the Parque Natural do Duoro Internacional.
Cabo da Roca
Mainland Europe’s most westerly point, this beautifully scenic cape is full of challenging hiking trails that hug the dramatic coastal cliffs.
Make time for this valley, which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Paleolithic rock art.
Visit Europe’s largest man-made lake, which is located near the village of Monsaraz. It’s a great spot to practice all varieties of water sports—from sailing and wakeboarding to canoeing and kayaking. There are also plenty of well-marked hiking and biking trails nearby.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Portugal
No visa is required for a US citizen staying less than 90 days.
For a US citizen, the passport has to be valid for at least three months after the intended departure date, and it must have at least two blank pages available.
Portugal has three international airports on the mainland and three on the Madeira and Azores Islands. Most international flights from the United States and connecting flights via Europe fly into Lisbon, Porto or Faro.
Getting Around - Transportation
Portugal is well connected by train and by bus, and stations are in all the major cities. Tickets for both trains and buses are some of the cheapest you’ll find in Europe. Safe and reliable taxis are also an option throughout most of the country, especially in the bigger cities of Lisbon, Porto and Faro. Ferries are frequently used in the Azores and on Madeira Island for interisland transport. The public ferry along the Tagus River in Lisbon is a great way to see the city and to get from one point to another.
The road infrastructure in Portugal is well maintained, making it easy for a traveler to rent a car and to get around safely and easily. Rental cars are available at most major airports in Portugal, but as in the rest of Europe, they’re not always the most economical option.
Portuguese is Portugal’s official language. In many touristy areas, English is readily spoken, but here are few useful Portuguese phrases to know:
- Yes: Sim
- No: Não
- Thank you: Obrigado (for men); obrigada (for women)
- Please: Por favor
- Hello: Olá
- Good-bye: Adeus or tchau
- Nice to meet you: Encantado (for men); encantada (for women)
Food and Drink
After a bowl of soup to whet the palate, a traditional Portuguese meal consists of hearty ingredients sourced straight from the land and sea. On the coast, it’s all about the fresh seafood, whereas in the countryside, beef, pork and goat will surely be on the menu.
Caldo verde: a soup of kale, potatoes and smoked sausage
Bacalhau: this dried and salted cod is one of Portugal’s most loved foods.
Alheira: originating from the Portuguese Jewish population, alheira is a sausage of fowl or game, garlic and bread.
Peixe (fish): Sole and sardines are the most popular fish varieties in Portugal. However, salmon, trout, mackerel, whiting, rock bass, frog fish and turbot are usually available as well. Order it grilled and seasoned with lemon and rosemary.
Porco preto: a national dish of black pig, a native species to the Iberian Peninsula
Pastéis de nata: a flaky pastry with custard filling topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon
Broa: a type of corn bread often served before meals at restaurants
Francesinha: Considered a snack food, this signature dish of Porto consists of steak, ham, sausage and chorizo between two slices of bread. This is then melted over with Edam and drizzled with a spicy tomato-based sauce.
Rissóis: this breaded pocket of ground beef, shredded suckling pork, chicken or seafood is a cheap and delicious snack.
Bifana: a sandwich of pork marinated in garlic and spices and served on a fresh bread roll
Vinho verde: This popular summer drink is similar to sparkling wine. It’s called “green” because it’s served very young.
Port wine: Portugal’s most famous drink, port wine is a wine mixed with stronger liquors, usually brandy.
Read Our Full Article: Food in Portugal - What to Know and Eat
Portugal is an extremely safe country, and they enjoy some of the lowest crime rates in Europe. When traveling in the larger cities, such as Lisbon and Porto, however, be aware of areas to avoid at night or when traveling alone. Know that touristy areas are common targets for petty thievery. Mind your valuables, and keep them tucked away as best you can. Nonviolent pickpocketing is the most common crime to be aware of.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Portugal adventure!