Internationally famed for its beaches, golf courses and tennis centres, Portugal also has an ideal climate for a variety of other outdoor pursuits including surfing, windsurfing, walking and adventure sports. Spectators can enjoy top-class football throughout the country, or seek out Portugal’s own brand of bullfighting.
The outdoor activity scene is rapidly expanding, with many regions now offering paragliding, abseiling, rap jumping, rafting, canyoning, caving, mountain biking and 4WD expeditions. There’s most scope in the mountain areas – notably the Serra da Estrela and Peneda-Gerês parks – and on the major rivers (Douro, Mondego and Zêzere), but many of the smaller natural parks and reserves also have local adventure outfits. It’s always worth contacting operators in advance, since activities are sometimes only for groups and are always heavily subscribed at weekends and during summer holidays. Prices vary considerably, but you can expect to pay from €50 for a day’s guided mountain walking, or €50–80 for whitewater rafting or canyoning.
Portugal is on the Atlantic, which tends to be cooler than the Mediterranean in summer, but warmer in the winter. The Algarve has the country’s most popular sandy beaches, many of them sheltered in coves – the sea is warmest on the eastern Algarve, and remains swimmable year-round if you’re hardy. The western coast has some stupendous stretches of beach, but they face the full brunt of the ocean, so you need to beware the heavy undertow and don’t swim if you see a red or yellow flag. The EU blue flag indicates that the water is clean enough to swim in – Portugal has an impressive 275 – and that the beach has lifeguards. For a full rundown of the country’s blue flag beaches, see wblueflag.org.
An unsung glory of central and northern Portugal is its river beaches – you’ll see signs (praia fluvial) everywhere directing you to quiet bends in the local river or to weirs or dramatic gorges. Often, the local municipality erects a summer bar (usually open June to September), and there are usually picnic and barbecue areas, and public toilets. Many towns also have a summer outdoor swimming pool (piscina), also only open from June to September. At indoor municipal pools (open all year) you may have to show your passport, and you’ll have to wear a swimming cap.
Although a traditional Portuguese sport, bullfighting (tourada) is nowhere near as popular as it used to be – though you can still watch it, if you really want. Afficionados claim that it is less cruel than in Spain as the bulls are not killed in public, though critics say that it is more cruel as the bull is injured and taunted in the ring, then killed later anyway. Whatever your views, the sport is still legal in Portugal and there are regular fights during the bullfighting season (April to October) at bullrings around the country, including Lisbon and Albufeira.
Ribatejo, east of Lisbon, is where many of the bulls (and horses) are bred, and local festivals around here involve bullfights and bull-running through the streets, such as at Vila Franca de Xira and Santarém.
Football is Portugal’s favourite sport bar none and it is no surprise to the natives that one of the world’s greatest players (Cristiano Ronaldo) and top managers (José Mourinho) hail from the country. The national team came closest to glory in the 2004 European Championships, held in Portugal – they were beaten in the final by surprise winners Greece, though the real legacy was the construction of several excellent stadiums, including the Estádio do Dragão in Porto and Benfica’s Estádio da Luz.
The leading clubs, inevitably, hail from the country’s big cities, Porto and Lisbon. Over the last two decades FC Porto has swept up every title available, including the national league on many occasions (the win of 1999 made it a unique five times in a row), the European UEFA Cup/Europa League in 2003 and 2011 (when they went the entire league season undefeated under manager Villas-Boas), and – its crowning glory – the European Champions League title in 2004. Lisbon-based Benfica experienced a similar golden age in the 1960s, when Mozambique-born striker Eusébio was at his masterful height. The other big team is Sporting, also from Lisbon. Just about every Portuguese citizen supports one of these three teams and, in the provinces, usually one of the lesser, local outfits as well. Of these, Sporting Braga (who reached an all-Portuguese Europa League final in 2011) is the most consistent.
Ticket prices for a clash between two big names average €30–80, depending on the seat, while tickets for other games cost about half that. The Liga Portuguesa (wligaportugal.pt) season runs from the end of August to mid-May, most matches being played on Saturdays and Sundays. Live televised matches are regular fixtures in bars and restaurants, usually on Friday or Sunday evenings, often other days too.
Football Teams and towns
Some of Portugal’s tourist spots are also home to top league football teams with regular visits from the likes of Porto, Sporting and Benfica – though if you look at the fixtures list you may be totally unaware where the match is being played. This is because team names don’t always match the names of the town they represent. Taking off the ending of –ense or –enses (which roughly means from the town of) will often help. Here is a list of some top football towns followed by their very different club names:
Barcelos Gil Vicente (wgilvicentefc.pt)
Belém (Lisbon) Belenenses (wosbelenenses.com)
Coimbra Académica (wacademica-oaf.pt)
Figuera da Foz Naval (wnaval1demaio.net)
Funchal (Madeira) Marítimo (wcsmaritimo.pt)
Olhão Olhanense (wscolhanense.com)
Vila do Conde Rio Ave (wrioave-fc.pt)
Portugal is a year-round golf destination, though exclusivity is often the key word. Some of the country’s finest hotels and villa complexes have golf courses attached, or have connections with a golf club, and the best deals are usually on special golf-holiday packages. Otherwise, green fees on 18-hole courses start at around €40, though multi-play packages and discounts are nearly always available. The Greater Lisbon area and the Algarve have the bulk of the courses: for more information consult a specialist tour operator or check out the websites wportugalgolf.pt and walgarvegolf.net.
Many larger Algarve hotels also have year-round tennis courts. If you want to improve your game, the best intensive coaching is at the Vale do Lobo Tennis Academy (packages organized by Light Blue Travel; wlightbluetravel.co.uk) or the Praia da Luz Ocean Club near Lagos (Jonathan Markson Tennis; wmarksontennis.com).
Horseriding stables around the country offer one-hour or full-day rides, often on Lusitano thoroughbred horses. The main areas for tourist rides are Estoril and Sintra, the Algarve and the Alentejo, while the province of Ribatejo lies at the heart of Portugal’s equestrian traditions. Prices start from around €25 for an hour’s trek, rising to around €100–120 for a full day, which usually includes a picnic lunch. For details of centros hípicos (riding schools) in a particular area, contact the local tourist office.
The only skiing is in the Serra da Estrela (usually possible from December to February, sometimes March), though you wouldn’t specifically travel to Portugal for it. The slopes lie just below the serra’s highest point, Torre, with access easiest from Covilhã via Penhas da Saude. The four lifts, ski school, and ski and snowboard rental are operated by Turistrela at the Estância Vodafone (wskiserradaestrela.com); a day’s gear rental starts at €25, one-hour lessons from €30, and you can also book reasonably-priced ski packages. The year-round artificial run at Ski Parque, near Manteigas, is another option, and this also doubles as an outdoor activity and adventure centre.
Surfing and windsurfing
Surfing in Portugal is renowned throughout Europe, though the currents and the raw power of the swell here require a high level of expertise. Indeed in January 2013, American surfer Garrett McNamara rode what is thought to be the largest wave ever (30 metres high) off the coast of Nazaré in Estremadura. Supertubos on the south side of Peniche (Estremadura) is the original surf destination in Portugal – it’s one of the few breaks to work in northerly winds – while Ericeira and, of course, Nazaré on the Estremadura coast, both attract highly talented local surfers and travelling pros. There are international competitions held at all these places, as well as at Espinho south of Porto (popular with bodyboarders) and Figueira da Foz near Coimbra, while the more protected west coast of the Algarve, around Sagres, is excellent for beginners and experienced surfers alike.
The biggest windsurfing destinations are Guincho and Praia Grande, north of Lisbon, and round Sines on the Alentejo coast. We’ve highlighted rental outfits and surf camps in nearly all these places, while good websites include wwannasurf.com and wbeachcam.pt (in Portuguese) for breaks, photos, reports, surf-savvy weather and wave height forecasts, and wsurfingportugal.com, home to the Federação Portuguesa de Surf, which organizes competitions.
Some adventure outfits can organize river kayaking, with the Rio Mondego offering an excellent gentle introduction that starts from near Penacova, and is basically a relaxing half-day float downriver towards Coimbra. In addition, sea-kayaking is increasing in popularity, particularly along the more sheltered southern Algarve coast. Many Algarve resorts now hire out kayaks, if you want to go independently, or offer guided kayak trips that explore the local coves and beaches.
Scuba diving for beginners is best off Praia do Carvoeiro near Lagoa in the Algarve, where Tivoli Diving (wtivoli-diving.com) and Divers Cove (wdiverscove.de) offer standard dives with equipment rental for around €45, plus night and wreck dives for experienced divers, and full four-day PADI-accredited Open Water courses from €450. On the west coast, conditions can be more trying, with a strong undertow, though there are more sheltered waters between Lisbon and Cascais.
Portugal only has one national park – the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, in the Minho – but there are over thirty other protected areas, designated as parques naturais (natural parks), reservas naturais (natural reserves) or other specifications. You’ll find them all listed and profiled on the website of the government’s Instituto da Conservação da Natureza (wicnf.pt – some information in English available). All the main parks, and many of the minor ones, are covered in the guide and between them account for some of Portugal’s most dramatic landscapes – from the high-mountain scenery of the Serra da Estrela to the limestone caves of the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, or the island hideaway of the Ilha Berlenga to the lagoons, dunes and marshes of the Ria Formosa.
Throughout the guide we’ve recommended walks and hiking trails wherever possible. All the parks have information centres, and most promote trails and tours within their area. Marked walking routes are becoming more popular, but signage and trail maintenance are extremely patchy. English is rarely spoken, even at major information centres, making it difficult to find out about the status of routes, while there is a real paucity of proper walking maps.