Portugal is one of Europe’s oldest extant nations, an ancient kingdom defended by hilltop castles and dramatic walled towns. With 1793 kilometres of coastline (including the perimeter of its islands) you are rarely far from a stunning beach, friendly people make family vacations a breeze, there are plenty of ways to explore the unspoilt countryside, and tasty local cuisine (piri piri chicken anyone?) makes Portugal, unsurprisingly, one of Europe's most popular travel destinations.
To help you find the most authentic parts of the country, escape the crowds and get even more for your euros, this Portugal guide of 20 tips has got you covered - and if not, check out these not-to-miss travel experiences in Portugal.
When you travel to Portugal, while it’s true that parts of Portugal – Lisbon and the Algarve beaches in particular – can be overcrowded and busy in high summer, they are surprisingly quiet out of season.
Autumn is a lovely time to visit – the sea is at its warmest (the Algarve average water temperature in October is 21˚C) while the sun still shines for an average of seven hours a day. Find out more what makes the Algarve a great all-year destination.
Most Portuguese assert that the sea is far too cold outside the self-imposed “swimming season” (usually just July and August), leaving the beaches more or less empty in the shoulder seasons.
When travelling in Portugal it pays to get off the tourist trail. Head inland to the border region, where fortified castle towns such as Marvão and Estremoz loom over the surrounding plains, and storks nest in spring above the olive and orange groves.
In autumn, go north to the Douro vineyards, where the vines are bursting with grapes – you can even join in with the harvest and grape-stomping at some wine estates.
If you just want some sun and swimming, head to the coasts of the Alentejo, the Centro district or the west coast of the Algarve, where the long sandy beaches are still relatively undeveloped.
Planning a trip can be overwhelming and stressful - our tailor-made trips service can help to take you off-the-beaten track with your own local expert. Trips like Cultural Portugal or Coastal Portugal can serve as great inspiration and give you tips for Portugal so you can spend less time planning and more time relaxing.
Portuguese food and drinks are usually excellent quality and very good value, so stick to ordering what is grown, caught or made locally- one of the great tips for Portugal when eating. You’ll find a fine array of fresh fish and seafood everywhere, while Portuguese pork and local cheeses are hugely underrated.
The local house wine will almost certainly be excellent. Local beers and spirits will cost around half the price (and taste pretty much the same) as the branded international equivalents.
The Portuguese can be very reluctant to venture far from their vehicles, which is why you’ll see often a roadside lay-by full of families picnicking next to their cars. One of the best refreshing tips for Portugal is that you don’t have to walk very far up a track or away from the car park to have the beach, woodland or beauty spot completely to yourself.
Most Portuguese restaurants will bring you a selection of starters to enjoy while you peruse the menu. These can be as simple as a bowl of olives, a basket of bread with butter, local cheeses, tuna or sardine paste, though smarter restaurants may serve prawns, crab paté, a variety of sausages, or even a selection of seafood. Don’t assume that these are free – anything you eat will be added to your bill.
Some menus show a cover charge per person which usually includes bread and butter, others will charge for everything individually, even the bread rolls. But don’t get too hung up on this – usually the simple starters are pretty cheap, so if you fancy some bread and cheese to start, go for it. Just be aware that anything fishy is usually expensive so only tuck in if you really want it. And don’t be afraid to check the price of anything, and say “no thanks” to the waiter if they bring you dishes you don’t want.
Though much improved in recent years, Portugal still has one of Europe’s worst road safety records and many of its roads are in poor condition. Conversely, the toll-paying autoroutes are fast, well-maintained and virtually empty. Just be aware that some of the toll roads use numberplate recognition systems: check with your car hire company on the best way to pay for these.
Inter-city trains aside, Portugal’s rail routes are generally cheap, charming and slow: if speed is of the essence, take one of the fast and efficient coaches which serve all the main towns.
Caldo verde is a very tasty, traditional vegetable soup that you’ll find on the menu in most Portuguese restaurants, but don’t believe the waiters when they tell you it’s vegetarian: it almost always has small chunks of sausage in it. Vegetarian options in restaurants are relatively limited: expect to eat a lot of salads and omelettes.
One of the best Portugal travel tips to save money is that it’s usually much cheaper to eat your main meal at lunchtime – join the local office workers for a three-course midday meal with wine and coffee for around €12. You can also save money in bars by drinking your coffee or beer standing at the counter, rather than sitting outside on the terrace. Though not expensive to enter, museums are usually free on one day a week or month – check their websites for details.
Live football is fun and family friendly, and ticket prices for matches are relatively cheap and easy to obtain. Stars such as Ronaldo, Eric Dier and James Rodriguez started their careers at the big clubs such as Porto, Benfica or Sporting Lisbon, who frequently unearth the next budding megastar. Expect to see live football on TV in even the smartest restaurants, too.
And if you're in town and no match is on, take a tour of the FC Porto stadium and museum.
If you've got children, you're in for a rewarding experience. The best way to connect with the Portuguese is to travel with kids – you will get into instant conversation with pretty much everyone you meet. In restaurants, the waiters may well whisk your young ones off to look round the kitchen allowing you to enjoy a peaceful drink.
But, don’t be surprised if old ladies stop you in the street and tell you to put more clothes on your offspring – even on the warmest days, they will be aghast if your kids aren’t wearing a coat and hat.
Although Portugal is known for its fortified Port wine, this country’s reputation for producing wine has been growing remarkably. When dining, you may notice the word verde (“green”) on Portuguese wine lists- don’t be alarmed, it's not green coloured wine. Verde wine means young, acidic and slightly sparkling. To order the wine you’re probably more accustomed to, stick to those described as maduro (“mature”). This Porto wine tour with our partner Get Your Guide will show you the perfect food pairing to go with your green wine.
Shops, cafés, restaurants, museums and tourist offices (especially outside the main towns and resorts) tend to have irregular business hours. Many open late or close early (or don’t open at all) if the weather’s bad or if not many people are around. Take this into consideration when you are planning your days.
Effortlessly drive the N379-1 through Parque Natural de Arrábida, grab a window seat on a train that takes you along the Douro – from Porto to Pocinho near the Spanish border, mountain bike along the rugged Algarve coast, or hike the Rota Vicentina through the unspoilt southwest of the country. Regardless of your mode of transport, Portugal boasts stunning landscapes accessible to all.
The highest-profile souvenirs are probably ceramics of all kinds, from traditional azulejo tiles to elaborate figurines, cookware to sculpture. Caldas da Rainha in the historic region of Estremadura is probably the best-known ceramics town to purchase your wares.
Hand-stitched Arraiolos carpets (from the town of the same name in Alentejo) have a worldwide reputation, with a high price tag to match its fame, but there’s nothing to stop you from looking.
Portugal’s textiles industry has traditionally been one of the most important in Europe, and though this has suffered badly from cheap rivals from the Far East, you can still pick up brand-name seconds from many of Portugal’s weekly markets. For quality designer clothes, however, you have to head to the upmarket malls or larger city centres.
The first and only national park Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês was established in 1971, and its 700 square kilometres help protect a natural world and a way of life. A total of eighteen plant species – including the Serra do Gerês iris – are found nowhere else on earth. Although possible to reach by bus, services are few and far between. A car or day tour from Porto is your best bet to enjoy the hikes and all the wonders of the national park.
Foodies will find the local fish and seafood at Olhão market unbeatable, while Estremoz market sells some of the best Alentejan crafts and local produce, and Barcelos in the Minho is the country’s most traditional market.
Coimbra is famed for its historic hilltop university- Velha Universidade-, dating from 1290, with its awe-inspiring Baroque library (Biblioteca Joanina). The library is lined with 250,000 books dating back to the 12th century. Although you can wander around the main university- mostly built in the 1940s and 50s- and into the nearby university botanical garden for free, entrance inside the buildings requires a ticket- particularly for the Joanina Library, you will be given a time slot to enter.
One of Coimbra’s best accommodations for the price is the modern business Hotel Botanico de Coimbra near the botanical gardens- allowing you to sleep for a few extra minutes in the morning before the short walk to the university to buy your tickets.
With direct flights to Lisbon from all over Europe and some US cities- how to travel to Portugal has never been easier- even if you are short on time. Walk the district of Alfama, with its streets so narrow and precipitous that few cars can enter. Dance until dawn at the chic LuxFrágil or other clubs in the Barrio Alto to experience Lisbon’s legendary nightlife. Indulge in a melt-in the- mouth, flaky, warm Pastéis de Belém custard tart, best eaten in the tiled surroundings of Belém’s most traditional café.
The accommodation scene in Lisbon has exploded in recent years but we’ve narrowed down our best budget stay to the Lisbon Lounge Hostel. Take a day (or two!) trip from Lisbon to Sintra
The hilltop retreat of Sintra near Lisbon is one of the most scenic in the country, surrounded by opulent palaces and country estates. Easiest to reach (there is a bus that runs a circular route through the town) are the Castelo dos Mouros and the extraordinary Palácio da Pena, though you’ll need a car to see the Convento dos Capuchos. To avoid the hassles of figuring out transport, consider a Sintra and surrounding area tour with pick up from Lisbon city center.
Portugal is renowned throughout Europe for its rolling Atlantic waves that are excellent for surfing. Some of the largest swell ever to have been surfed crashed ashore at Nazaré on the central Portuguese coast- though the currents and the raw power of the waves here require a high level of expertise. The more protected west coast of the Algarve, north of Sagres, is excellent for beginners and experienced surfers alike.
Our expert advice covers what to know before travelling to Portugal. Whether it’s avoiding typical travel blunders- like thinking the bread you never ordered is free at a restaurant or making note of budget-savvy tips- like attending a live football match relatively cheap. For further details and more check out The Rough Guide to Portugal.
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