Portugal is one of Europe’s oldest extant nations, an ancient kingdom defended by hilltop castles and dramatic walled towns. First-time visitors are usually struck by the friendliness of the people, the affordable food and wine, and the diversity of a country that is relatively easy to traverse; you can travel Portugal in just a few days.
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Mountains make up the bulk of the frontier with Spain, with the large rivers of the Minho in the north and the Guadiana in the south adding to this natural divide. Beaches and high mountains aside, the rest of Portugal is a diverse and verdant country of deep valleys and rolling hills dotted with stone-built villages. For generations, families have eked out a living from the steeply terraced vineyards of the mountainous north, and from the cork oak plantations roamed by wild boar that dominate the vast agricultural plains of the south.
Facts about Portugal
- Including the perimeter of its islands, Portugal boasts 1793 kilometres of coastline. Its only neighbour is Spain, and it shares the same time zone as the UK.
- There are ten times more Portuguese living overseas than the ten million-strong population that lives in Portugal itself – the bulk of these live in Brazil, though the USA and France both also have over a million inhabitants of Portuguese descent.
- Portugal’s national dish is bacalhau, dried and salted cod, and there are reputed to be 365 different ways of cooking it – one for each day of the year.
- Portugal is the earth’s eighth largest producer of wine and supplies fifty percent of the world’s cork.
- There are twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites in mainland Portugal, including towns like Évora and Guimarães, the palaces of Sintra, rock art in the Côa valley, and national monuments at Batalha and Alcobaça.
Places to visit in Portugal
Portugal's cities – notably Lisbon and Porto – amply showcase Portugal’s former role as a maritime superpower that ruled the waves from Brazil to East Asia, though it’s not all about history: the cities boast some of Europe’s best clubs and most adventurous modern architecture. Head inland and there are endless possibilities, from touring wine estates to walking, cycling or kayaking down inland rivers. It is the coast, however, that is the biggest draw. From cliff-backed coves to endless stretches of sandy dunes, you are rarely far from a stunning beach. While its western Atlantic dunes are still relatively unknown to those outside the surfing community, the calmer waters of the Algarve offer the quintessential laidback beach experience.
Best time to travel to Portugal
One of the many perks of Portugal is its year-round sunshine. Although the winter months can be a little chilly - average daytime temperatures are still around 16 degrees - the sun is often shining and skies are blue. The best time to travel to Portugal is during late spring (March to May) and early autumn (September to October) when the weather is warm. In the summer months, beaches become crowded, hotels rates are higher and the temperature can be unbearably hot.
Itinerary for when you travel to Portugal
Portugal's relatively small size allows for much of the country to be seen within a small time frame whilst also allowing for it to be explored in depth over a longer period. The must-see places involve a perfect concoction of history, culture and beaches. You can create your own tailor-made itinerary with Rough Guides if you are looking for something especially catered to you, or for more inspiration check out our range of itineraries to suit your every travelling wish!
Days 1 - 2: Lisbon
Lisbon, Portugal's capital, is the best starting point for your trip. The city is rich in authenticity and charm and offers a perfect example of Portugal's culture, making it an ideal introduction to the country. Wander the pretty streets of Alfama where you will find the National Pantheon and Sao Jorge Castle. Head to Rossio Square and take in the beauty of the historical buildings and fountains while sipping on coffee from a local cafe, and check out Praca do Commercio. Other sites include Santa Catarina and the tower of Belem.
Days 2 - 4: Nazare, Estremadura
Nazare, a former fishing village, is located in Estremadura, about a two-hour drive from Lisbon. This seaside town boasts the world's largest wave ever surfed so it is no surprise that this Atlantic resort is a surfer's paradise. Packed with delicious seafood restaurants, a stunning beach with soft sands and blue waters, and charm like no other, Nazare is a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the sunshine.
Days 4 - 6: Porto
On the northern coast lies Porto; a small city in size, but full of flavour. Check out the Livraria Lello Bookstore whose interior looks like it is straight out of a movie, climb the stairs at the Igreja dos Clerigos for a beautiful view, stroll along the Ponte Luis Bridge and explore the colourful streets of this gorgeous city.
Days 6 - 7: Dao Valley
What would your trip to wine land be without visiting a vineyard? Portugal boasts some delicious wines thanks to its ideal climate, so head to the Dao Valley! Framed by scenic mountains and rolling countryside, and with remnants of Roman civilisation, this wine region is a perfect place to unwind and enjoy the views whilst sipping some of the best wines made in the country.
Culture in Portugal
Portugal's prestige and economy have never regained the heights they attained during the golden ages of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Yet although it remains one of the EU's weakest economies, Portugal is a remarkably unified country - there are no minorities agitating for independence, while rivalry between the north and south consists of little more than gentle mockery. Indeed Portugal is generally a very tolerant nation and has integrated a substantial population from its former colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil with relative ease.
Contemporary Portuguese tastes are influenced by the flavours, sounds and styles of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique in particular.
It’s a Catholic country – there are ancient churches in every community – and while support for the institutions of the Church may have waned, a belief in traditional values remains. The Portuguese have embraced contemporary life without ever quite getting rid of the more appealing aspects of previous centuries. Fully wired town centres have wi-fi hotspots and cell-phone shops by the score, but they also have a butcher, a baker and (quite literally) a candle-stick maker. Children will be both seen and heard at any time of the day or night, as the family remains at the centre of most things.
Cuisine in Portugal
The food in Portugal is something to be celebrated. Caldo Verde is a simple yet traditional soup dish made up of potatoes, greens, olive oil, salt and garlic, and sometimes meat. Seafood is popular along the coasts, for obvious reasons. A tasty treat is pastel de nata, a custard tart dusted with cinnamon; you can find them in bakeries all over the world but of course, the original is always better. If you really want to dive into the food world of Portugal, read about the food and drink that will make you eager to travel to Portugal right away!
Drink-wise, Portugal produces some of the best wines in Europe and is the birthplace of Port, a fortified wine. Much like France with its Champagne, true Port comes only from Porto so be sure to try some whilst on your travels!
Outdoor activities in Portugal
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 €80 for a day’s guided mountain walking, or €90–100 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 blueflag.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 often 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. Aficionados 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.
The Tejo valley, east of Lisbon, is where many of the country's 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. Portugal hosted the 2004 European Championships, which saw the construction of several excellent stadiums, including the Estádio do Dragão in Porto and Benfica’s Estádio da Luz. The national team have always punched above their weight and, after being runners-up to Greece in 2004, surprised most people by beating France on their home patch in the final of the Euro 2016 tournament. Possibly the last international hurrah for Ronaldo, the tournament also saw the emergence of a new wonder-kid, Renato Sanchez.
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, under José Mourinho. The club is famed for its South American scouting policy, which has brought to Europe previously unknown stars including Deco, Radamel Falcão, Hulk and James Rodrigues.
Lisbon-based Benfica experienced a similar golden age in the 1960s, when Mozambique-born striker Eusébio was at his masterful height, and have been the more successful team in recent years, being national league winners in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The other big team is Sporting, also from Lisbon, who are frequently league runners-up. They are known for their excellent youth academy, which has nurtured the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo (who they signed from his native Madeira when he was barely a teenager), as well as Luís Nani and England’s Eric Dier. 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, though Vitória Guimarães, Estoril Praia and Rio Ave have all played European football in recent years.
Ticket prices for a clash between two big names average €25–50, depending on the seat, though tickets for other games cost a lot less. The Liga Portuguesa 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
Belém (Lisbon) Belenenses
Funchal (Madeira) Marítimo
Gimarães Vitória SC
Setúbal Vitória FC
Vila do Conde Rio Ave
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; see greenfeesportugal.info. The Greater Lisbon area and the Algarve have the bulk of the courses: for more information consult a specialist tour operator or check online at portugalgolf.pt and algarvegolf.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) or the Praia da Luz Ocean Club near Lagos (packages via Jonathan Markson Tennis).
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 historic province of Ribatejo lies at the heart of Portugal’s equestrian traditions. Prices start from around €30 for an hour’s trek, rising to €100–150 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; 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 Skiparque, 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, some of the largest waves ever to have been surfed crash ashore at Nazaré on the central Portuguese coast. Supertubos on the south side of Peniche is the original surf destination in Portugal – it’s one of the few breaks to work in northerly winds – while Nazaré and Ericeira (a World Surfing Reserve) 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, north of Sagres, is excellent for beginners and experienced surfers alike. See Portugal's top five surfing beaches for our pick of the best surfing destinations.
The biggest windsurfing destinations are Guincho and Praia Grande, north of Lisbon, and round Sines on the Alentejo coast. Good websites include wannasurf.com and beachcam.pt (in Portuguese) for breaks, photos, reports, surf-savvy weather and wave height forecasts, and surfingportugal.com, home to the Federação Portuguesa de Surf, which organizes competitions.
Many 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 in the Algarve, where Algarve Dive Experience and Divers Cove offer standard dives with equipment rental for around €45, plus night and wreck dives for experienced divers, and four-day PADI-accredited Open Water courses from €450. On the west coast, conditions can be more trying, with a strong undertow.
Portugal only has one national park – the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, in the Minho – but there are forty 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 (icnf.pt – some information in English available). Between them, Portugal's national park and protected areas account for some of the country'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.
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.
Watching the football
If you’re going to see a football match in Portugal, or watching one on TV, you need to know the basics if you want to join in. Arriving after kick-off, ask resultado? (what’s the score?) and settle down in time to watch the guarda-redes (goalkeeper) make a complete frango (cock-up) of a save. The meio-campo (midfield) looks decidedly dodgy and your ponte de lance (centre forward) keeps getting caught fora-de-jogo (offside) – that’s when he’s not being clattered from behind. That’s a falta! (foul!) and a grande penalidade! (penalty!), surely? If he scores, the TV commentators will invariably celebrate Brazilian-style – golo! (try goooooaaaaalllll!) – before referring to the festa nas bancadas (party on the terraces) that’s now underway. If, on the other hand, you’re losing, heaven forbid your team resorts to punting it aimlessly up the field, route-one style – sad to say, the long-ball game is known disparagingly as o jogo Inglês (the English game).
Portugal's top five surfing beaches
- Praia do Amado Algarve
The best surf of the Algarve’s west-coast beaches.
- Praia do Coxos Ericeira
Challenging surf at Europe’s first World Surfing Reserve.
- Supertubos Peniche
Offers some of the most consistent surfing in the country.
- Baleal Peniche
Great for surfers of all abilities.
- Praia do Norte Nazaré
World-record waves for serious surfers.
Top image: Porto riverfront on Duero River, Porto © Shutterstock